Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Precarious Identities

Michael Briguglio


What happened to the Left in Europe? Electoral results across the continent confirm that the Left is once again in crisis. And when the Left wins, it would have experienced a metamorphosis.. Not like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, but more like Franz Kafka’s anti-hero who wakes up in the morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect. I am referring to the ‘Third Way’ type of social democrats, who either became supporters of neo-liberalism (albeit in a more humane form), or have transformed themselves to unsophisticated populists, lacking substance and a clear direction… like Malta’s Labour, which is increasingly looking like a parody of the successful Labour Party in 1996… Successful, that is, until its electoral defeat 22 months later.

In last June’s European Parliamentary elections, social democrats and communists generally disappointed. On the other hand the Greens generally increased their share of the vote, with superb results in France, Germany and Belgium amongst others. In my reading, one reason for this was that the Greens are perhaps the most forward looking party on the Left. Greens are not afraid to go beyond standard Left dogma, and have instead proposed investment in new sectors of the economy (such as ‘green jobs’); have spoken about issues we encounter in our everyday life (ranging from the food we eat, to internet usage, to sexuality); and have been close to civil society organisations.


This brings to mind the importance of identity politics. In contemporary late modern capitalist societies, people are not simply workers or capitalists. Social class is definitely not dead (and neither is Karl Marx) - class remains a key divisive form of stratification, highly influencing people’s outcomes in areas such as employment, education and health.

However, there are other aspects which overdetermine one’s identity, such as one’s gender and sexuality, one’s beliefs, affiliations, ethnicity, family membership, consumption patterns, taste, and so forth. We are influenced by our background, but we are also more capable of constructing our biography than previous generations. We are not simply cogs in the productive process of capitalism – we are also consumers and reflexive beings.

This is precisely where much of the Left remains caught somewhere in time. Much as employment and social class remain key factors in our life, the fact is that we have multiple identities, which at times might be contradictory.. Hence one might be a factory worker whose political affiliation is with a party whose neo-liberal policies are resulting in harsher work conditions. One might seek a more independent life, yet the same person might be constrained by religious beliefs which promote otherwise. From my own experience as Local Councillor, I have also witnessed people whose quality of life is dismembered due to endless construction, yet are religiously loyal to the political party which is financed by the same construction industry!

This might be disappointing reading for the Left. Indeed some believe that the Left has no scope in contemporary politics. ‘The dream is over’, John Lennon once said. How can the Left be successful if not even the downtrodden are supporting it?

Well, I don’t have a solution. But I think that the Left should look into the concept of ‘precarious identities’.

We have more freedom than previous generations, yet paradoxically, this can limit our freedom. If for example, employers are freer to hire and fire workers through contractual employment, a worker has less freedom. If we are free to do whatever we like, we might end up unfree if our neighbourhood loses its security and quality of life due to increased criminality, unsustainable development and commercialisation. If we are freer to form new love relationships, we are also freer to break up in search for more fruitful ones. But as Zygmunt Bauman observes on Anthony Giddens’ writings in this regard, unless the break-up is consensual, one of the partners would be less free.

The Left can perhaps attempt to unify the various forms of precariousness which we are witnessing in everyday life. Nothing is sacred, everything can be disposed of. We may be all different, yet we all face risks. We may be free, yet we cannot eat money, in a world of ecological limits.

In this context, a rallying cry for the Left might be the need to have a politics of responsibility. In a speech in Malta some years ago, Alain Lipietz noted that this is the unique contribution of the Greens to politics – the sense of responsibility, for example for future generations through sustainable practices.

The Left should not be anti-freedom, but it should raise awareness on the limits of freedom. Responsibility – as a keyword – can appeal to the various precarious identities whose voice is muted. And if their voice is muted, then, as Chantal Mouffe shows us, there are ‘adversaries’.

To come back to Malta, whilst Nationalist Governments have intensified the creation of precarious identities, Labour’s ‘politics without adversaries’ is not a consolation. At best it is sterile and devoid of identity, at worst it is politically bankrupt from the start. Try to please everyone and you end up pleasing none at all.


This article was published in Zminijietna, October-December 2009 edition

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