Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Humanities and University - Michael Briguglio

Graduand’s Speech – Faculty of Arts – University of Malta
                                   Wednesday 27 November 2013
                                    Jesuits’ Church – Valletta
                                   Michael Briguglio PhD graduate in Sociology

It is a pleasure to speak on behalf of graduates on such an important day. I feel especially privileged as in these past years I was a PhD student and a member of academic staff at the same time. Not to mention the various other commitments and responsibilities in my life. In a day and age of postmodern plural and fragmented identities, probably most graduates have had to juggle with many aspects of their identity.

My speech will focus on the Faculty of Arts, located in the Old Humanities Building at Tal-Qroqq, an intellectual and architectural landmark of the University of Malta.

As a kid, I remember running around near this building when my father, who was and still is a University lecturer, used to take me there, little thinking that one day I will end up working in that building.

As an undergraduate student, I was busy involving myself in student activism on campus, much of it near the Old Humanities building. And now I am here, praising the Faculty of Arts for being what it is, namely the soul of the University of Malta.

I think that the Humanities - which are the focus of our Faculty – encourage students to be reflexive, to think critically, to ask questions, to think outside the box, rather than to simply follow pre-established and strictly utilitarian criteria.

In a global society characterised by rapid change - a runaway world, as sociologist Anthony Giddens puts it - these skills are necessary not only for economic advancement but also for a better quality of life and for care of the self in the construction of our identities.

If one looks at the Humanities from a purely pragmatic and functional perspective, the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta is a success story. In this regard, I will refer to a tracer study covering graduates between 2003 and 2012 by Manwel Debono, Director of the University’s Centre for Labour Studies.

Debono found that that there is a high employment rate for Faculty of Arts graduates. When the survey was carried out, less than 6 per cent of graduates were unemployed and seeking employment, and most of these had just graduated.

As regards the rest, almost 77 per cent were in full-time employment and almost 11 per cent were in part time employment. The study found very few significant differences as regards gender outcomes, and also showed that almost 63 per cent of graduates from the Faculty of Arts felt that their jobs matched their expectations. Debono’s study also found that fresh graduates were likely to improve their job conditions later on.

The most common career paths were in teaching and the public service, though others were employed in other areas including tourism, heritage, transport, communication, social and health care, environment, diplomacy and finance. Postgraduates are more likely to work as professionals.

But I wish to return to the argument that the value of the humanities does not start and end with employment potential.

Literary critic Terry Eagleton has much to say in this regard. In his view academic disciplines such as history and philosophy distinguish universities from technical training facilities or corporate research institutes. At the same time, he insists, humanities should not be isolated from other disciplines. Lawyers and engineers, amongst others, should study humanities, as these enable a critical reflection on human values and principles.

In this regard, there are different views and antagonisms, which, in an Althusserian sense, are reflected in the humanities. The basic reflexive condition of disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, history and literary criticism conveys their status as being entangled in the social antagonisms of our times. There is no such thing as neutral analysis, and the same event or text may be read and interpreted differently by different analysts. If industrialisation was seen as a beacon of progress by modernists, it was also seen as having a dehumanizing effect by those within the romantic movement. Postmodernists celebrate diversity and pluralism, traditionalists see decadence and doom.

This does not mean that every person who has an opinion is an academic within the humanities. Academic analysis in the humanities must be systematic, analytical, investigative and must be based on clear evidence. In an academic context, ‘the ultimate tribunal of truth’, to borrow a term from discourse theorist David Howarth, is the academic community.

Indeed, Michel Foucault argues that in any social formation one finds regimes of truth, or the discourses which are in a more powerful situation than others. Be it the dominant religious discourse in the middle ages, the dominance of science in modernity, or the consumerist treadmill of our times, there are always some truths which are more equal than others.

Yet, different truths are represented in the antagonisms of our times. For example religious values are held in high esteem by many today despite the assumedly evolutionary and scientific predictions put forward by various thinkers a century ago when they presumed that religion would disappear in the modern world. But religion itself becomes individualized and interpreted differently by different social actors. For example in Malta, many Catholics voted in favour of the introduction of divorce legislation.

Science may have its own internal rules and factual methods of proof, yet scientific truths can also be subject to different interpretations. When questions are raised on supposedly monolithic scientific discoveries and predictions, the adversaries of the technocrats of truth are sometimes labelled as being ‘alarmist’, ‘irrational’ or ‘emotional’.

Yet science itself becomes human when we realise that side-by-side with magnificent and functional discoveries, there are also questions of ethics, interpretation and mistakes. For example, is animal testing ethical? Are genetically modified organisms acceptable forms of food? Was the Fukoshima nuclear disaster an eye-opener on over-reliance on technocracy?

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ remains an inspirational critique on the supposedly infallible status of science. This product of literary genius is reflected in social theory such as that of Ulrich Beck, famous for his ‘Risk Society’ thesis. In a world of supposedly rock-solid certainty, we constantly manufacture risks.

Problems which we ourselves create, are problems which we cannot always solve, and science no longer holds the key to all solutions. Yet, reflexivity equips us with the critical consciousness required to question things. Hence the importance of the humanities. Science discovers, the humanities reflect and hope.

I therefore hold that there is a future for the humanities, for thought itself. In this regard, Jean Baudrillard tells us that just as no-one has invented the architectural project that would put an end to all others, just as no-one has invented the city that would end all cities, no-one has invented the body of thought which would end all thought. Consequently, the Sisyphus of Camus, the eternal beacon of hope, has his existence guaranteed.

In relation to what I have just spoken about, and from a pragmatic perspective, I believe that science and the humanities can co-exist, and actually need to co-exist. While science presents us with discoveries and proofs, the humanities offer open-mindedness and the need to steer-away from the imposition of a single intellectual infrastructure. Both are essential for University.

The Faculty of Arts is already embarking of this. One example in this regard is the HUMS Programme, where academics from the humanities and medical science have formed a multi-disciplinary community. This augurs well for other like-minded endeavours.

I conclude by appealing that, rather than being dull functional factories, Universities should increasingly act like a melting pot of knowledge, empowering students with skills and a sense of critique which are essential to meet the risks and opportunities of our times, ranging from employment to everyday encounters and situations. I believe that our University is a positive example in this regard.

On behalf of all graduates, I would like to thank academic and administrative staff at the University of Malta, fellow students, and our loved ones.


This speech can also features in the website of the University of Malta:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The march of the environmentalist

This Saturday's demonstration by 10 Environmental NGOs (ENGOs) is the first of its kind since the protests against the previous government's so-called 'rationalization' of development zones before the 2008 general election.

The latter protests had eventually given way to sectarian splinters within Malta's environmental movement, especially between moderate and radical wings. One hopes that this Saturday's alliance would be more long-lived and organic, possibly resulting in substantive successes such as that of the victorious Front Against the (Rabat) Golf Course in 2004, which comprised a wide range of radicals, moderates and others. This alliance did not depend on EU institutions for its victory, but was resilient in broad alliance-building and in its discourse for sustainability. Indeed, land development is an area which has more to do with national and local politics, than with EU directives.

It is not surprising that environmentalists are once again resorting to protest. The new Labour government seems to be banking on mega-projects as part of its economic policy. In the past months we have read about bridges, land reclamation and weakened environmental legislation, and we have also witnessed approval of development at Mistra and Portomaso among others.

The ideology towards overdevelopment and the political influence of big developers clearly show us that the environment is a political issue. Decision-making of technocrats is always subject to a condensation of different interests, views, pressures and grieviances, which in the current scenario are structured towards overdevelopment. The other side of this story comprises activism which articulates discourse against the way of things.

Sensitization of the general public is one achievement in this regard. A good example of this is the call for a referendum against Spring hunting, which is heading towards the collection of 35,000-36,000 signatures required for an abrogative referendum, which, depending on a number of factors, can coincide with the European elections.

On hunting, the EU does have clear directives, but the decision of the European Court of Justice on the Maltese case ultimately resulted in plural interpretations, effectively returning the issue back to Maltese politics.

Indeed, the most important message of the referendum is that history can be made through resilience and broad alliance-building. I salute the ENGOs and voices within the media - such as Malta Today - which are active in this regard, but one also must acknowledge that Alternattiva Demokratika was and is an important player in the push for the referendum. I am also inclined to think that the Nationalist Party is consciously not being antagonistic towards the campaign, and I won't be surprised if some big party voices would also emerge as openly supporting the latter, if a referendum is announced.

The overdevelopment and hunting issues indicate that populist politics without adversaries, as articulated by Labour in the run-up to the 2013 general elections, cannot conceal political and social antagonisms. Along similar lines, the environmental movement has much to gain through broader alliances which, however, are not diluted into pragmatic nothingness or into futile attempts to exorcise politics from the environment.

This blog appeared in Malta Today, 26th November 2013 - link

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Deconstructing Citizenship

The Labour Government had parliamentary legitimacy to introduce its cash-for-citizenship law. But through this policy, Labour has unintentionally opened a Pandora's box and manufactured a risk scenario, on various aspects.

First, by saying that the funds generated from the IIP will be used for social development can raise questions about Malta's state of public finances and about the general state of the economy. Looking at the reaction, globally and nationally towards this policy, will Malta be effectively associated with Southern European near-bankrupt welfare states and with Caribbean tax havens? Perception is very important in economics.

Second, by guaranteeing anonymity to those who purchase citizenship, inevitable questions are asked. Why should such persons remain anonymous? Is there a link with party financing, given Malta's lack of legislation in this area? What argument can be used to justify a person's expensive purchase of full access to the EU whilst remaining anonymous?

Third, the fact that cash-for-citizenship was not in Labour's electoral manifesto raises questions as to why it was left out from pre-electoral debate, both within the party and also within society in general.

In an otherwise strong showing in his budgetary reply earlier this week, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat did not convince me when he justified cash-for-citizenship by saying that 7,000 foreigners were granted Maltese citizenship in the past years. What Muscat did not say was that everyone could have applied for this, that it was transparent, and that there was no €650,000 price tag. Hence, the new law is discriminatory in favour of those who can afford to buy citizenship.

So my concern on the issue does not regard 'nationalism'. Citizenship itself is not a monolithic term, and it can be deconstructed and interpreted in various ways. My concern is that anonymous millionaires are now entitled to purchases rights in Malta and the EU, something which, because of class inequality is denied to others.

This policy legitimizes class inequality and discrimination, rendering 'citizenship' to another commodity in the endless capitalist quest for the commodification of everything, and in the State's attempts to avoid fiscal crisis. Malta has already had enough of this through the privatization of public land.

If I were the President of Malta, I would prefer resigning than signing such unannounced, significant and divisive legislation, unless it is approved by referendum. It is now up to civil society to stand up to be counted and call for one.

This blog also appears in Malta Today 15th November 2013:

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Making work pay

One main thrust of Labour's budget for 2014 is the attempt to make work pay by incentivizing unemployed workers to enter the labour market. This line of reasoning can help empower unemployed persons to escape welfare dependency, but it has to be ensured that decent jobs are available.Policies also have to be sensitive to the needs of persons who have various responsibilities.

Policies in this regard include free childcare for working parents and educational grants for unemployed single parents. Those who are employed after registering for more than two years, will face gradual benefit cuts from 35 per cent in first year to 55 per cent in second year and 75 per cent in third. This is a shift from the immediate cut in benefits that was previously in place, which acted as a disincentive to work.

On the other hand, unemployment benefits for those unemployed for over five years are now conditional to attending a full-time course.

It seems that Malta will be retain its hybrid welfare state which cannot be categorized neatly into one welfare model. Indeed, it seems to be the case that on the one hand various welfare benefits remain universally accessible, but on the other hand others are becoming increasingly conditional. Though this seems to be along the same lines of work-fare models such as the one found in Britain, the conditions imposed by the Maltese state are less demanding, and, therefore, have a stronger sense of social conscience.

An immediate question which comes to mind is whether one will find a decent job after attending a full-time course: sure, such training can lead to greater employability of unemployed persons, who will also have the prospect of retaining benefits as explained above, should they manage to find a job; so theoretically, it would be more worth it to be in employment than to be dependent on benefits.

In itself, the gradual tapering of benefits is welcome, as it rewards those who seek employment, but I hope that this policy is discussed further before being implemented. For example, what will happen to affected persons following the third year of employment, if their job is low-paid? Would it still be worth it to work? And if one does manage to find a job, which, however, is unstable, how would this related to the gradual reduction of benefits?

So policies which intend to make work pay should be coupled with an increased drive to combat precarious employment and guarantee that commitments of unemployed persons (such as caring responsibilities) are not made impossible to carry out due to the conditionality of welfare schemes.

If the Labour government is subscribing to the policy framework that work should pay, an increase in the minimum wage would have actually acted as a strong incentive for unemployed persons to enter the labour market.

Edward Scicluna has also spoken about the need to incentivize third-pillar pensions. A main dilemma of this policy is that those who can invest in such pensions will be rewarded, whilst those who cannot - the majority of workers - remain with an uncertain future as regards their own pension. One should also keep in mind that the third-pillar pension is voluntary, giving us the freedom not to save for our future. Is this freedom a leap in the dark?

If we are to have a sustainable pension system which moves away from great inequalities amongst the elderly, the plain truth is that state investment should increase. It is also evident that such investment needs funding. Whether this is to be achieved through taxation or through compulsory second-pillar pensions - with the State making up for those who cannot afford to pay - has to be seen.

On taxation itself, Malta is moving from progressive income tax to regressive indirect tax coupled with a cash-for-citizenship scheme. Here one has to keep in mind that Malta's 35 per cent maximum income tax rate was one of the lowest in Europe and generated essential revenue for public finance. Besides, progressive income tax is guided by the philosophy of redistribution of wealth, whilst indirect tax tends to hit hardest those on low incomes. Financial, economic and social trends in the coming months will make things clearer on the impact of such fiscal policy.

As regards other sectors, the budget has various measures which will probably pay off economically and politically, even though I still fail to see why, for example, the disability pension remains so low. As regards the environment, the budget does refer to renewable energy and water, but not enough is being proposed.

The more we postpone prioritization of such environmental issues, the more we will have to pay in the future to make up for energy dependency and water shortage. Perhaps it is time to extend MCESD membership so as to include Environmental NGOs. Not that their participation in MEPA is making so much of a difference, though.

This blog also appeared in Malta Today, 5th November 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Some budgetary priorities for 2014

The upcoming budget will show us the direction that the Labour Government wants to take in the coming years. For example, we will see whether Labour wants a continuation of Nationalist budgets which offered economic stability, yet which increased social inequalities and gave scant importance to various environmental priorities, in a hybrid welfare model.

I think that Labour should propose a budget which gives priority to social and environmental policies whilst ensuring Malta's relative economic stability.

For example, as regards income tax, the reduction of tax for high-income earners is going to deprive Government of a source of revenue which is essential to finance public services. Even though both Labour and Nationalist Parties agree on this populist measure, I urge Labour read the writing on the wall and admit that this proposal is unsustainable in view of the state of public finances. The 35% maximum tax rate represented a historic compromise between employers and unions, was on the low-end of tax rates in Europe and could not really have been seen as a major disincentive for investment.

Sure, Labour can say that to make up for income tax losses, it will generate revenue from its cash-for-citizenship initiative. But the latter does not qualify the social justice test, as it opens doors for millionaires whilst slamming them to those escaping oppression.

On the other hand, an increase in the minimum wage would pass the social justice test. It is clear that around €700 per month is not enough to enjoy a decent quality of life. A reasonable minimum wage increase can improve matters for such low-income earners whilst generating economic growth given the multiplier effect of subsequent consumption. Besides, it can act as an incentive for persons to seek formal employment, given that this would be more attractive. Hence, productivity can increase too.

Similarly, it would also make sense to reform welfare in a way which not only guarantees decent benefits for the unemployed and those who do not form part of the labour force, but also rewards those who are seeking employment but are disincentivised from doing so given the subsequent loss of benefits. The latter can result in perverse situations where employment results in a lower standard of living. For this reason, benefits should be retained for low-income earners and be gradually reduced only once one enjoys employment stability and once one's income from employment is sufficient without respective benefits. Such policies should also be coupled by more family-friendly measures such as universally accessible childcare centres.

I hope that the pensions issue is prioritized in the upcoming budget. Retaining the status quo is not an option, as this will basically result in a bankrupt pensions system. I also am very wary of simply introducing incentives for third-pillar pensions. As UHM puts it, only one forth of workers can afford such voluntary private pensions. What will happen to the remaining three forths?

I think that the immediate way forward is for the State to ensure that pensions are sustainable, universal and egalitarian. In the current scenario, one has to see whether this can be obtained through compulsory payments for second-pillar pensions or through generation of other sustainable revenue flows, or through both. In the final instance, the plain truth is that sustainable universal pensions require more injection of state funds. This elephant in the room simply cannot be avoided any longer.

I also hope that clean renewable energy is given the importance it deserves. The current debates on gas, pipelines and all the rest seem to be alienating us from the fact that Malta is Europe's laggard on renewables, to the detrminent of climate change and strategic challenges in the field.

Schemes which encourage investment in photovoltaic cells and solar water heaters should be strengthened, but Government should also keep in view that many households cannot invest in such energy due to occupation of penthouses or adjacent building heights. Hence, Government could compensate by increasing investment in renewable energy on public property.

Government should also ensure that eco tax really serves its purpose by punishing practices which are harmful to the environment and health and rewarding green methods. Vacant properties and usage of water are two areas which immediately come to mind. Malta is the most built up country in Europe, yet 75,000 properties are vacant. Water is being drilled for through boreholes in a free-for-all situation which is increasing infiltration of sea water in the water table and increased dependency on costly reverse osmosis plants.

Time is also ripe for Government to take tough action against cars and trucks which, ideally, should not even be allowed on our roads given their polluting qualities. A cursory look at some buses which are temporarily replacing bendy-buses is a clear example of this.

This blog also appeared in Malta Today 30th October 2013:

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The LGBT historic leap forward

The proposed legislation on civil unions is a historic leap forward in Maltese society. Following the introduction of divorce some years ago, it was becoming clearer that the introduction of other civil rights would be on the political agenda for the years to come.

I am sure that activists in the LGBT movement, including MGRM and Green activists and some who since then joined the Labour Party, are proud of their contribution to the current debate. Likewise, on a personal note, I am proud that when I chaired the Green Party, I was both a co-founder of Malta's 'yes' movement in the divorce referendum campaign, and also to be the first party leader in Malta who spoke for the introduction of full equality on LGBT rights including marriage.

I congratulate the Labour government for having the courage to propose legislation which practically introduces same-sex marriage in all but name. Sure, the symbolic importance of marriage for same-sex couples who want to celebrate their companionship in the same way as others will not be there. But otherwise, full equality is being proposed.

I can imagine that within Labour, progressives such as Helena Dalli, Evarist Bartolo and Owen Bonnici have to negotiate with more conservative factions in the party, some of whom actually opposed divorce in the recent past.

Even in the more progressive Green Party, which is for same-sex marriage (and divorce, for the matter) - there were different opinions on LGBT issues such as marriage - at least that was the case when I chaired the party. Such diversity of opinions only strengthens the debate in a democratic context.

As regards the Nationalist Party. I welcome Simon Busuttil's declaration that the party will vote in favour of the bill, despite putting forward some amendments (which we still have to see). One has to remember that in the Nationalist Party, for every Mario Demarco there is an Edwin Vassallo, though the message sent by the latter's failure to be elected in parliament is not to be underestimated by the party.

The proposed 'Helena Dalli' legislation clearly recognizes the signs of the times, particularly that families can take various forms. Despite the socio-biological rhetoric of the so-called 'natural' family, the truth is that families have been taking different forms across time and space.

It is for this reason that contemporary sociologists such as Janet Finch refer to the term 'display' to understand what families do, in their diverse forms - rather than focusing on monolithic definitions which basically consider certain groups, such as same-sex couples, as not constituting families. The new sociological emphasis is on family practices and how people interpret and reflect on what family means to their particular situations.

In this regard, sociologists such as Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and Anthony Giddens explore the way how people actively create their own understanding of intimacy and love and what they consider to be their ideal form of relationship. Here one can note that the call for same-sex marriage or civil unions indicates that, rather than families in crisis, we should speak of the success of belief in marriage and companionship across different identities.

One issue which will probably raise controversy in the civil unions parliamentary debate is the adoption question. I fully agree that prime emphasis should be given to the rights of the child, indeed, this issue is likely to dominate all debates on family life with respect to social policy, irrespective of the identity of parents. And it is precisely for this reason that policy-makers should not exclude same-sex couples or others such as singletons, for that matter, from applying for the facility to adopt. Once the emphasis is on the rights of the child, proper evaluation can be made as to whether applicants are fit to adopt the child in question. Prejudice on sexual identity should not cloud other considerations.

Here it is interesting to note that according to research by sociologist Tor Folgero, in LGBT families, same-sex parents both transgress as well as reproduce traditional patterns and values of family life. But one can argue that this is the case even in other families which exist in society, for example when traditional roles of male breadwinner and female housewife are deconstructed to give way to more overlapping roles. Indeed, we should celebrate those men who take increasingly caring roles, and those women who liberate themselves from oppressive patriarchal situations, in line with the concept of 'universal caregivers' - as dubbed by Nancy Fraser. In the final instance, love is the great signifier for children brought up in different family forms.

The historic leap forward in the LGBT debate should not make us forget other challenges ahead in family policy. For example class inequality, precariousness, gender inequalities and other minority issues remain key policy challenges of our times.

This blog appeared on Malta Today, 26th October 2013 - link:


Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002): Reinventing the Family. In Search of New Lifestyles. Oxford: Polity

Cheal, D. (2002): Sociology of Family Life Hampshire: Palgrave.

Folgero, T. (2008). Queer Nuclear Families? Reproducing and Transgressing Hetronormativity. Journal of Homosexuality 54 (1).

Fraser, N. (1997): Justice Interruptus. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1991): Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Steel, L., Kidd, W., Brown, A (2012): The Family. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Finch, J. (2007): Displaying Families. Sociology 41(1)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Paper by Briguglio and Pace on PL in "The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union"‏

Michael Briguglio’s and Roderick Pace's paper on Labour Party features in the “The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union”.

“The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy”, edited by Edited by Jean-Michel de Waele, Fabien Escalona and Mathieu Vieira, includes a chapter on Malta co-authored by Roderick Pace (Director, Institute of European Studies) and Michael Briguglio (Department of Sociology) from the University of Malta.

More information on the book may be found at

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Julian Manduca - A Maltese hero for our times

In a feature by Jurgen Balzan, Malta Today newspaper asked me to write something in dedication of a Maltese personality who I consider to be a hero. This is what I wrote.

Julian Manduca (1958-2005)

Julian was one of the persons who I looked up to in my youth, back in the 1990s when I co-founded Moviment Graffitti with others including James Debono. I actually got to know him some years before, during a party at my parents' place, which usually were attented by bohemian intellectuals and artists. Before Julian joined Malta Today to become one of the prominent critical journalists in Malta, I remember him as a charismatic left-wing environmentalist, a liberal on civil rights, and a committed activist who formed part of the alternative cultural scene. Julian spoke on many issues, especially environmental ones, ahead of his time, and we worked together in campaigns such as the Front Kontra l-Hilton and the victorious Front Kontra l-Golf Kors. It is no understatement to consider Julian as a main influence on the 1980s and 1990s young generation in left-wing and environmental groups, beyond partisan dogma and careerism, and strongly believing that another world is possible

Sunday, September 08, 2013

6 months of Labour

The most striking thing is that the Labour Government is coming to terms with the fact that it has promised everything to everyone. In politics such an approach is not sustainable in the long-term.

So far, the new administration has not scored high on immigration, the environment – where I fear that developers will have a field day – and the fiscal policy since it is still forging ahead with plans inherited from the previous government to lower taxes for high earners.

In addition, the concept of meritocracy is not being practised as the top posts are not going to those better qualified.

On the other hand, I rate Education Minister Evarist Bartolo as better than his predecessor as he is more committed to consult, even on small issues such as school uniforms.

I also have a high opinion of the manner in which Helena Dalli is conducting consultation with the social partners.

Regarding foreign policy, I was satisfied by the Government’s stance against military intervention in Syria.

(these were my comments to the Sunday Times, 8th September 2013. Full Sunday Times article, by Keith Micallef, can be read at

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Royal Theatre for the Elite

Brikkuni, one of Malta’s main exponents of music that is free from the spectacle of clap-trap commercialism and karaoke kitsch, has been given impossible conditions by the State apparatus to make use of the Royal Theatre.

If anything, this confirms that the 'taghna lkoll' talk of ‘inclusive’ cultural policy before the last general elections was nothing but half-hearted plagiarism of progressive proposals for a truly egalitarian and emancipatory cultural policy.

When one day before March 9 I heard Joseph Muscat replicate some points that I previously addressed regarding the alternative and underground music scenes, it felt like a theatre of the absurd, a sort of discursive appropriation in reverse. When, some weeks later, the Government banalized music policy by resorting to a real-estate exercise for garages to rehearse in, I thought that it couldn’t get worse. But it actually did. Alternative and underground music bands are now treated as commercial entities for the usage of public space.

The basic issue at stake on the Royal Theatre issue is that culture is political. Hegemonic cultural discourses reflect various antagonistic relations of our times, which could be related to class, ideology, tradition, and other factors.

Reclaiming space is a major challenge for alternative and underground artists.

Consequently, should artists conform to the requisites of the state apparatus and the consumerist spectacle, or should they increasingly engage in DIY-mode? Are the former and latter necessarily and always exclusive of each other? Should alternative and underground artists form collectives, free from narcissism and subservience, but hands on to create space, in the wide sense of term? Do we need a cultural movement?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Academics, artists condemn threat of push-backs

A group of academic members of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta has “strongly condemned” last week’s Government threat to send back Somali immigrants to Libya.

A similar statement was issued by a group of artists and designers.

The 37 academics said they believed policies and negotiations ought to uphold human life and well-being at all times, irrespective of the cost in terms of resources and political commitment.

“We also think that there is no room whatsoever for heavy-handedness where weak and vulnerable people – irrespective of their nationality or colour – are concerned,” a statement by the academics said.

The statement added: “We find ourselves very concerned indeed about the popular feelings of bad blood and xenophobia stirred by the political rhetoric of crisis and invasion.”

The statement was signed by: Maria Attard (Geography); Rev. John Avellino (Philosophy); Prof. Albert Borg (Maltese); Prof. Charles Briffa (Translation and Interpreting Studies); Michael Briguglio (Sociology) Prof. Mario Buhagiar (History of Art); Prof. Ivan Callus (English); Valentina Cassar (International Relations); Prof. Arnold Cassola (Maltese) James Corby (English); Prof. Mark-Anthony Falzon (Sociology) Giuliana Fenech (English);

Prof. Anthony Frendo (Oriental Studies); Maria Frendo (English); Prof. Joe Friggieri (Philosophy and Pro-Rector); Anna Khakee (International Relations); Arndt Kremer (German); Gillian Martin (Sociology); Simon Mercieca (History); Bernard Micallef (Maltese); Prof. Joe Pace Asciak (Italian); Vincent Riolo (Philosophy); Prof. Paul Sant Cassia (Anthropology); Kathrin Schödel (German); Rev. Mark Sultana (Philosophy)

Prof. Joseph Troisi (Sociology and Social Gerontology); Prof. Carmel Vassallo (Hispanic Studies); Clare Vassallo (Translation and Interpreting Studies); Nicholas Vella (Archaeology); Olvin Vella (Maltese); Michael Zammit (Philosophy) Ranier Fsadni (Anthropology); Katrin Dautel (German); Gabrielle Torpiano (Translation and Interpreting Studies); Prof. Gloria Lauri-Lucente (Italian); Prof. Manwel Mifsud (Maltese); Prof. Anthony Aquilina (Translation and Interpreting Studies).


a group of artists and design practitioners also said they were seriously concerned about advocating a pushback policy to deal with the influx of irregular migrants in Malta.

"In line with the reservations expressed by the NCPE, Aditus and Integra Foundations and a number of other Maltese NGOs, authors and academics, we firmly believe that any decisions taken to tackle the issue of irregular migration should not include any push back measures. We join in expressing our firm disapproval of considering similar policies that would place the migrants’ life at risk."

They said that sensitive action must ensure that asylum seekers are granted the international right to present their cases.

"Malta should stand strong with unwavering commitment to respect and uphold fundamental rights and intrinsic human dignity of every individual, irrespective of national origin, creed or ethnicity. Just as the Maltese government has been a promoter of positive changes in matters relating to other grounds of discrimination, such as sexual orientation and gender identity, its policies in relation to migration should be equally sensitive. Human rights are universal and indivisible."

They however backed government efforts to get EU involvement in the issue.

The statement was signed by

Adrian Abela Aldo Gatt a.k.a. Gattaldo, Alexandra Aquilina, Allen Venables, Andrea Pullicino. Anthony Galea. Austin Camilleri. Ben Borg Cardona, Brian Grech, Carlo Muscat, Celia Borg Cardon.a Christian de Souza

Jensen Christine Xuereb, Conrad Dimech, Daniel Borg, Daniel Cilia, Darrin Zammit Lupi, Debbie Caruana Dingli, Derek Fenech, Ed Dingli, Ewelina Lason, Francesca Balzan, James Vella Clark,

Juniper Francalanza, Kamy Aquilina, Kris Micallef, Malcolm Bonello, Malcolm Sammut, Marco Brown, Mark Casha, Martin Buhagiar, Michael Azzopardi, Nadine Noko, Nel Pace. Nigel Anastasi, Pawlu Mizzi, Priscilla Griscti, Richard Saliba, Ritianne Muscat, Sef Farrugia, Sergio Miscat, Shaun Grech, Therese Debono, Tonio Lombardi, Tonio Mallia, Vince Briffa and Zvezdan Reljic.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Immigration: Muscat should abandon far right fantasy

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was reported by Malta Today as saying that the anti-migrants protest planned by neo-nazis and neo-fascists should not take place.

I'm sorry to say that it was the Prime Minister himself who acted as an incentive for such a protest through his populist pushback discourse which is reminiscent of far right ideology.

In my blog on the subject last week, I had warned that the Prime Minister's statements can have this effect.

In my blog I also invited MEP candidates to refuse to participate in such populist electioneering, now that we are approaching the European elections. In this respect it seems that Maltese civil society is standing up to be counted, with an increasing number of NGOs, academics, official state bodies and others who are opposing the Government's position.

I salute those within the Labour Party who are standing up to be counted in opposing the pushback policy, and I urge Muscat to abandon the fantasies he is articulating. Courage and humility can save the day, in the name of social justice.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Academics for migrants' rights

I hereby am adding my name to the list of University of Malta academics who are standing up to be counted on the immigration issue. I had already written about the subject in my blog and in Malta Today last Friday.

The academics' statement reads as follows:

“As academics we try to impart to the future professionals of this country a minimum of basic dignity and respect, both towards others and towards self. We could not stand by and watch whilst our country sent Somali migrants who braved possible death in a hazardous journey, to seek safety, to seek a life, back to Libya. We therefore support the NGOs who campaigned for these migrants not to be sent back.”

Academics supporting this statement are: Marceline Naudi, Anna Borg, Claudia Psaila, Ruth Baldacchinio, Robert Micallef, Edward Warrington, Isabelle Calleja Ragonesi, Sandra Vella, Dione Mifsud, Paul Clough, Brenda Murphy, Prof. Angela Abela, Mary-Ann Borg Cunen, Prof. Ronald Sultana, Prof. Peter Mayo, Prof. Carmel Vassallo, Josann Cutajar, Maria Psiani, Anna Khakee, Carmen Sammut, Adrian Grima, Nathalie Kenely, Joanne Cassar and Michael Briguglio.

In short, the anti-deportation and anti-pushback side is the side for social justice. I am proud to be on this side.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

PN goes LGBT?

The Nationalist Party's parliamentary proposal to include a clause in the Constitution to protect people against discrimination based on sexual orientation is most welcome. So is its apology towards to Joanne Cassar and transgendered persons. Symbolically, the latter is a far cry from its confessionalism of the previous years.

It would be even better if this Saturday, at the Pride March, leaders of all 3 political parties pronounce themselves clearly and unequivically against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in all aspects of social policy. Basically, this would represent clear policy consistency for Arnold Cassola, it would represent a great leap forward for Simon Busuttil and it would represent the logical path for Joseph Muscat.

In my reading, an anti-discrimination position should mean that discrimination in all walks of life, including not only employment and education, but also other areas such as marriage and adoption, would be done away with.

This would also mean that political parties distance themselves from the patronizing evolutionist approach of the ‘Today Public Policy Institute’, which recently said that Malta ‘is not ready’ for same-sex marriage, as if Maltese people are some inferior ‘species’. Luckily, such a statement only strengthened the resolve of the LGBT activists.

As I had the opportunity to say previously, recognition of same-sex marriages can lead to the strengthening and democratization of the concept of the family, through a process of social inclusion and recognition of different family forms. It is indeed ironic that in a day and age of increased separations and divorce, couples who wish to marry are denied this right solely because of their sexual orientation.

It is becoming clearer than ever that social policy does not simply fall from above (like some present from some ‘super-saint Minister’), but is also subject to various factors, including the influence of activism and movements. In itself, this gives hope to those activists, green, blue, red, individuals, progressive organisations and extra-parliamentary forces, to articulate more progressive demands in the future.

Note: This blog also appeared in Malta Today

Monday, June 17, 2013

100 jum tal-Gvern Laburista

Michael Briguglio

Hemm hafna x’wiehed jista’ jghid dwar l-ewwel mitt jum ta’ Gvern Laburista.

Kien hemm decizzjonijiet pozittivi, bhal hidma favur minoranzi u persuni zvantaggjati u favur edukazzjoni mhalta, u, bhall-kontinwita’ f’affarijiet pozittivi li kienu jezistu.

Hemm affarijiet ohrajn li ghad irridu naraw x’ser isarfu fil-konkret, bhal kliem kontra x-xoghol prekarju u l-process lejn energija iktar nadifa. B’mod negattiv, jidher li l-Gvern huwa lest jaghti rwol sproporzjonat lil zviluppaturi kbar. Din iggib maghha mistoqsijiet dwar sostenbitilita’ ambjentali.

Izda hemm zewg kwistjonijiet li f’dawn l-ewwel mitt gurnata, qed jispikkaw iktar minn ohrajn.

L-ewwel: Il-hatriet. Nifhem li Gvern ghandu jahtar persuni f’rwoli krucjali li jkollhom twemmin li jkun vicin dak tal-Partit fil-Gvern, jew li jistghu jahdmu fi spirtu pluralista minghajr ma’ jaghmlu sabutaggji. Persuna f’pozizzjoni pubblika qatt m’hu ideologikament newtrali. Nifhem ukoll li kien hemm numru ta’ postijiet li ntlew minn persuni professjonali, kompetenti u kapaci. Izda f’hatriet ohrajn li saru ma’ narax meritokrazija jew kompetenza.

It-tieni: Il-politika fiskali. Bhal ma argumentajt qabel l-elezzjoni generali, l-ahhar bagit tal-Gvern Nazzjonalista kien wiehed irresponsabbli li wieghed tnaqqis ta’ taxxa ghal dawk li ghandhom dhul gholi, b’detriminet ghall-fondi pubblici, liema fondi huma essenzjali ghas-servizzi pubblici bhas-sahha, l-edukazzjoni u l-penzjonijiet. Il-Gvern Laburista gdid zamm dan it-tnaqqis rigressiv. Issa kif ser jaghmel tajjeb ghaz-zieda kbira fid-deficit? Pajjizna ser jiehu triq neo-liberali lejn l-awsterita’ ghad-detriment tal-gustizzja socjali? Nittama li le. Il-Gvern Laburista ghadu fiz-zmien li jbiddel ir-rotta favur politika fiskali progressiva li tredni dhul pubbliku minghajr ma xxekkel l-investiment. Dan jista’ jiggarantixxi servizzi pubblici sostenibbli u socjalment gusti. Nappella lill-Gvern biex jiehu din it-triq qabel ma jkun tard wisq.

F’kontradizzjonijiet bhal dawn, jidher li l-islogan “Malta Taghna Lkoll” huwa problematiku, u li politika minghajr avversarji hija fantazija. Gvern dejjem jiehu naha, irid jew ma jridx.

(Nota: Din l-opinjoni dehret fuq il-gazzetti It-Torca u Illum, li, flimkien mas-Sunday Times talbuni nikkummenta fuq l-ewwel 100 jum tal-Gvern Laburista)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bridge to Gozo?

The idea of a bridge connecting Malta and Gozo will hopefully serve as a rallying point to protect Malta's environment from corporate greed.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The death of fiscal populism

Fiscal populism is facing the inevitable dead-end.

As Malta enters the European Excessive Deficit Procedure, we can wave goodbye to the supermarket policies of Malta's 2 major political parties, representing a banalization of fiscal policy, and which can lead to the slashing down of Malta's welfare state.

Both Labour and Nationalist Parties promised a post-Christmas bonanza in the run up to the general elections, even though alarm bells were already ringing as regards Malta's deficit and public debt.

The most irresponsible proposal was to slash income tax rates for high income earners. When this was announced by the then Nationalist Government in its last budget, the same Government planned an €83 million revenue increase, from €840 million in 2012 to €923 million in 2013, when the same Government proposing an income tax cut for those earning between €19,500 and €60,000, down from 35 per cent to 32 per cent in 2013 and to 25 per cent in 2015.

Labour, which has since then embraced various neo-liberal orthodoxies, took on this policy, even though in opposition it rightly spoke about Malta's fiscal unsustainability. It conveniently refused to acknowledge that countries with strong social models and relatively sustainable welfare systems require progressive fiscal policy. It also conveniently acknowledged that Malta's 35 per cent tax rate for high income earners, was lower than that of many other EU member states. Instead it opted to believe the Thatcherite dictum that lower taxes will lead to economic growth, whilst ignoring the fact that relatively strong social models can complement competitiveness. A cursory look at countries with strong social models in the UNDP Human Development Index and the World Economic Forum competitiveness index confirms this, with, for example, Nordic countries occupying top rankings.

In the past months, Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party, progressive NGOs like Zminijietna - Voice of the Left and economists like Alfred Mifsud spoke up on the fiscal perils of such a policy.

Indeed, reducing income tax for high earners was not only socially regressive, but also meant that Malta would be losing out on an important source of revenue, and thus increase its deficit. In turn, this will result in greater pressure on Malta's welfare state, the same welfare state which has helped Malta avoid massive poverty, unlike many other countries which have long gone neo-liberal and which are currently implementing austerity measures.

Austerity measures?

Economist Gordon Cordina has been quoted on as saying that there should be more emphasis on efficient Government spending, 'including social expenditure'. Maybe this will now lead to a chorus of economists, opinionists, party loyalists and others who attempt to legitimize a cutdown in state expenditure on social programmes. Some will welcome this as a move towards neo-liberal economics, which ultimately leads to more inequalities. Others will notice that their silence on fiscal populism during the electoral campaign has come at a cost.

The Labour Government can reverse the fiscal policies it inherited and embraced from the electoral version of the Nationalist Party. Or it can keep moving Malta towards fiscal crisis, austerity measures and the slashing of social welfare.

Ultimately sides must be taken.

This blog appeared on Malta Today, 29th May 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Turning Music into Real Estate

The Labour Government's decision to appoint William Mangion to find rehearsal rooms for music groups is a bad mixture of partisan favours, rash decisions and ignorance on the music scene. It also smacks of a patronizing top-down attitude of 'charity' rather than 'rights'.

During the 2013 electoral campaign, Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party put forward various proposals with the aim to help develop Maltese music and culture. These proposals had organic roots. For example, having been in Malta's music scene since my teenage years, and having been in the performing and recording sphere with metal and rock bands since 1992, I, for one felt that this area was one which deserved articulation and support in the political arena. Hence the belief in giving this issue the importance it deserves.

Indeed, AD proposed that the Ministry for Culture should have a division that focuses on the development of musical talent and culture. This division should provide facilities and space for musicians, the creation of a system of soft loans to help them develop and the promotion of Malta as an international music venue.

AD also proposed that the definition of music should not only include traditional music, classical music, jazz, rock music and pop music but also, others like metal. To this one can add a myriad of genres and sub-divisions.

Just as AD's proposal was unveiled, it was warmly received by many people in the various music scenes. Shortly after, Joseph Muscat, in one of his tent-events, announced that Labour would help bands but the way he spoke clearly showed that he did not know what he was speaking about. Basically, for Labour, music development meant finding a garage to rehearse in. Now this has been confirmed, and music has been turned into real estate. While it is true that some bands have problems in finding rehearsal space, this problem is secondary compared with other problems such as double-standards from above as regards live performance facilities, and Malta's geographical insularity which, at times, hinders certain aspects of music development.

Maltese musicians in scenes such as metal and alternative do not need charity, but simply rights, recognition and a level-playing field with other art forms.

And forming part of the singing team of the 'Taghna Lkoll' song does not make one qualified in the field of music development. Just when countries like UK are developing specialized academic degrees in music - such as the degree in Heavy Metal at New College Nottingham , Malta banalizes music development.

This blog appeared in Malta Today, 23/5/13