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