Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Greek Life Worth Living

The Times of Malta 27 July 2015

A book I recently read about Albert Camus, A life worth living, by Robert Zaretsky, reminded me very much about the current Greek political and economic situation.

Zaretsky does not write about contemporary Greece but he writes about key concepts in Camus’s quest for meaning. The Mediterranean, Europe and Greece, the latter through its ancient mythology, feature prominently in this regard. In Camus’s words, “the world of myth wherein I feel most at home is the world of Greek myth”.

In one of his most famous writings, The myth of Sisyphus, Camus appeals to us to imagine Sisyphus happy. The latter is a hero of the absurd, being condemned to push a boulder up a mountain only to find it roll down again. Yet, he finds hope once he chooses to push the boulder up again.

In a later work, The rebel, Camus says that authentic rebellion is moderation as it respects its adversaries.

In this regard, he makes an appeal for refusal to submit to one’s condition but also to avoid absolutist approaches such as those that are found in authoritarian and totalitarian politics.

Camus, thus, introduces the concept of ‘measure’, which is characterised in Greek mythology by the manner in which Ulysses preferred faithfulness to the land of his birth over immortality.

Similarly, through Prometheus, Camus explored questions of freedom and responsibility. Prometheus is tragically right and wrong, giving fire to mankind but at the same time violating the cosmic balance ruled by Zeus. Therefore, Camus argues, “limit must not be transgressed”.

In my reading, Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic brash intellectual who was Greek finance minister up to the Greek referendum some weeks ago, fits in Camus’s notion of the absurd.

His tactics hindered Greek negotiations, yet, he was free enough to quit after the referendum result.

The Greek referendum itself was rather absurd because it did not offer an alternative to voters, yet everyone was free to vote No, just as Varoufakis is now a free academic.

Hope is therefore limited to specific constraints, as is the case with Sisyphus.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras can be seen to exemplify Camus’s concept of measure.

The Greek Prime Minister’s relative moderation and resilience kept Greece in the eurozone and kept Syriza government possible, to the dismay of hawks, sectarians and Eurosceptics.

Despite a number of tactical mistakes, which revealed certain economic and negotiating limits of populism, despite its electoral effectiveness, Tsipras’s strategy has so far been successful.

In the post-referendum eurozone negotiations, Tsipras proved to be a statesman rather than an ideologue.

Now he has the task of leading Greece towards sustainability and stability, which is ultimately what many citizens aspire for. In the circumstances, this is the best legitimate alternative to eventually move away from austerity.

In his attempts to maintain parliamentary support for Greece’s eurozone requirements, Tsipras could not have addressed his adversaries in a better way. As he put it: “I’ve seen reactions, I’ve read heroic statements but I haven’t heard any alternative proposal… Syriza as a party must reflect society, must welcome the worries and expectations of tens of thousands of ordinary people who have pinned their hopes on it.”

Indeed, many Greek citizens seem to vindicate Tsipras’s measure. Just a few days ago, a Greek poll showed that Syriza remains the biggest party with 42.5 per cent compared to the 21.5 per cent of its nearest rivals, New Democracy, which also supports eurozone membership. The poll also showed that 73 per cent of Greeks want to remain in the eurozone.

Going back to Camus, he once famously said that a writer’s duty is twofold, namely “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression”. This very much characterises the task that Tsipras now faces.

His government’s mandate to fight austerity and to remain in the eurozone present a formidable challenge to seek social justice but also to be realistic about it, knowing that the alternative to eurozone membership would likely be worse.

If rebellion is an eternal human condition against injustice that makes life worth living, and if this is bounded by measure and self-constraint, then we can say the same of Greece.

Greek hope is worth supporting but so is Greek realism against worse alternatives.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Il-Fenomenu tal-Front

(English version of this article is available at: )

Il-protesta #savezonqor tal-Front Harsien ODZ, nhar is-Sibt 20 ta’ Gunju, kitbet l-istorja ghal bosta ragunijiet.

Din kienet l-ikbar protesta awtonoma li qatt organizzat is-socjeta’ civili Maltija, minghajr indhil ta’ partiti politici. Kien hemm madwar 3,000 u 4,000 persuna li honqu triq ir-Repubblika, fil-Belt Valletta.

Is-soltu, huma biss il-partiti jew unjins kbar li jirnexxilhom jigbu folol daqshekk kbar, specjalment minhabba l-ammont ta’ membri li ghandhom. Izda anke hawnhekk, dan l-ahhar kien hemm tnaqqis ta’ attendenza ghal bosta attivitajiet , u ghalhekk l-attendenza massiva ghall-protesta tal-Front kienet iktar sinjifikanti.

Apparti minn hekk, protesti ambjentali kbar li saru taht l-amministrazzjoni precedenti taht Gvern Nazzjonalista gibdu madwar 500 ruh – u kienu meqjusin success.

Il-Front Harsien ODZ jipprezenta fenomenu gdid fil-politika Maltija, u fl-istess hin jiccelebra t-tajjeb ta’ attivizmu ambjentali li kien hemm fis-snin ta’ qabel.

Il-Front jibni fuq ambjentalizmu tas-sittinijiet , ambjentalizmu iktar militanti mit-tmeninijiet il-quddiem, u l-istrategija inklussiva ta’ kampanji li kisbu success bhal tal-Front Kontra l-Golf Kors fir-Rabat.

Il-Front ghandu appogg ta’ iktar minn 30 organizazzjoni, u m’ghandu l-ebda intenzjoni li jiehu posthom, izda, li jahdem b’mod inklussiv, lil’hinn mis-settarjanizmu jew partiggjanizmu, fejn kulhadd jista’ jahdem flimkien.

Dawk attivi fil-Front Harsien ODZ jirrispondu lill-istess Front u mhux lill-ghaqda li maghhom huma msiehba. Decizjonijiet fil-Front isiru b’mod orizzontali u demokratiku, u attivisti m’ghandhomx bzonn approvazzjoni ta’ xi ghaqda biex jippartecipaw fit-tehid tad-decizzjonijiet.

Hemm attivisti fil-front li ilhom attivi iktar minn 20 sena. Ohrajn ilhom attivi ghal dawn l-ahhar snin, u ohrajn huma godda fil-mewga gdida ta’ attivzimu fis-socjeta’ civili.

Hemm attivisti li huma kunsilliera, ohrajn gurnalisti, ohrajn akkademici minn dixxiplini varji, u ohrajn li huma studenti, attivisti u cittadini b’interess ambjentali u fil-gid komuni. Il-Front issa jrid jizgura li jibqa’ awtonomu u li ma jaqax ghat-tentazzjoni ta’ ko-opzjoni.

Il-Front m’huwiex mahkum minn glied intern, partiggjanizmu jew primadonnizmu politiku. Ghall-kuntrarju, kull attivist ghandu rwol importanti, u l-Front juza pjattaformi differenti ghall-attivizmu. Dan jinkludi l-media socjali, protesti, dibattiti pubblici, memes, networking u attivizmu ‘grassroots’.

Il-Front jirraprezenta l-mument ta’ attivizmu mhux partiggjan, f’kuntest ta’ kuxjenza ambjentali li dejjem qed tikber, u taht Gvern Laburista li qed isir inqas trasparenti, iktar arroganti u iktar merkantili f’politika li qed tbiegh il-gid komuni.

Apologisti ultra-partiggjani qed jaghmlu dak kollu li jistghu biex izebilhu lill-Front Harsien ODZ. Izda b’mod politkament xejn analitiku, qed jinjoraw il-mewga li qed tikber fis-socjeta’ civili Maltija. Dan jaghti iktar incentiv lill-Front biex jitkellem kontra s-serq tal-wirt ambjentali Malti.

Nota: Dan l-artiklu deher fil-harga tas-Sajf 2015 tar-rivista Zminijietna

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Jurassic Debate

The Times of Malta, 21st July 2015

I loved watching the recently-released film Jurassic World. It is being acclaimed as a summer sensation, a popcorn thriller and a dinosaur dream for all those who are thrilled by T-Rex and Triceratops.

Though it has its critics, it broke numerous records in terms of sales in its opening days. Before you proceed reading this article, I hereby declare a spoiler alert, as I discuss the plot and some key scenes.

Jurassic World has a simple plot. Basically, the dinosaur theme park found on the fictional island of Isla Nublar needed to find innovative methods to ensure business viability. For this purpose, the scientists employed in the park created a genetically-modified dinosaur, Indominus Rex, a nastier and more intelligent version of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Indominus is raised as a solitary being. Apparently, this deprives it of social skills but not of craftiness, so much so that it manages to break loose, subsequently creating chaos on the island.

The island is evacuated, but not before many people die or are injured, courtesy of all sorts of dinosaurs who run riot through newly-found freedom.

Thus, Indominus Rex was meant to be a profit-making super smash hit but it turned out to be the cause of ruin of Jurassic World. An unintended consequence of Risk Society, as Ulrich Beck would put it.

At the end of the day, however, Indominus meets its match when a Tyrannosaurus Rex is freed by the film’s protagonist humans, eventually resulting in defeat for the genetically-modified dinosaur.

The film ends with the victorious T-Rex in a triumphant pose, overlooking the Jurassic World panorama. This scene seems to synthesise the two-hour spectacle.

From an entertainment point of view, the film is definitely worth the watch. I, for one, would surely enjoy viewing it again while guzzling nachos or popcorn. Yet, it also raises questions which are very much relevant to our brave new world. One possible reading of Jurassic World can consider it to be a postmodern spectacle characterised by the contradiction between the real and the hyperreal.

Jurassic World is a fictional theme park which stimulates its consumers, the thousands of people who are entertained by dinosaurs that have been created to live in the park and generate profit for its investors.

The theme park imagery can be seen to represent postmodern society in itself. This is depicted by a world of logos, symbols, images, corporate campaigns and media messages which stimulate us to keep the social fabric going.

Yet, this social fabric is increasingly individualised and precarious, just as the thousands of people at Jurassic World find out when Indominus Rex breaks loose.

The theme park imagery also represents an interplay between opportunity and risk. On the one hand, it creates endless scientific opportunities to create dinosaurs to stimulate people but, on the other, it manufactures risk as things can go wrong – as they do.

The genetically-modified Indominus Rex does not follow nature’s patterns and opens a pandora’s box of unknowns. Indeed, the operators of Jurassic World soon find out that it has the ability to camouflage, to deceive its prey and to kill ‘for fun’, courtesy of its DNA make-up from all sorts of species.

The film’s human protagonists soon find out that it had to be a comparatively ‘real’ dinosaur, namely T-Rex, which could destroy Indominus Rex, as it does, though it eventually takes another ‘real’ marine monster to gobble Indominus up.

T-Rex’s triumph can be seen as the ultimate revenge of nature just when humans think they are in control. This theme has been recurring in literature, philosophy and sociology for quite some time. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and James Lovelock’s The revenge of Gaia are two notable readings in this regard, though they were written centuries apart from each other.

Along the lines of such controversies, one can mention various ‘real’ examples from everyday life.

For example, is it ethical to dabble with people’s genetics in terms of child birth and sickness? Should genetically-modified crops be allowed?

Various religious and philosophical perspectives believe that biotechnology is meddling with nature without taking account of possible ethical, ecological and health consequences.

Others argue that human intervention is actually part of evolution, given that we are highly intelligent species capable of improving things, as has been the case through agricultural, industrial and information revolutions.

Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, human intervention in nature has enabled progress, such as increased longevity, but it has also brought about risks, such as climate change and endless appetite for war.

Such contradictions show that science should never be seen as an end-in-itself, as an unquestionable technocratic authority. The democratisation of science, for example, through increased accountability, transparency and dialogue, is essential in a society of risks, opportunities, unintended consequences and lack of rock-solid certainties.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A stronger pension system?

Times of Malta July 13, 2015

The government-appointed Pensions Strategy Group has published a document entitled ‘Strengthening the pension system’, which aims to provide a strategy for adequate and sustainable pensions in Malta.

Most members of the group are civil servants and social scientists who are knowledgeable in this field.

They have obviously done their homework and have also come up with some forward-looking proposals.

I agree with a number of the recommendations made, though I feel there are some omissions that need to be included in the strategy. Some other proposals are likely to face political toing and froing and at least one calls for the postponement of what might be the elephant in the room of pensions.

I discuss these by referring to some specific recommendations in the document.

Recommendation 1 suggests that contributions are credited for child rearing, a positive acknowledgement of those who take care of children. What is unclear is why the age limit of children is six years and whether guardians and EU residents living in Malta feature in this.

The second recommendation proposes that contributions are credited for those hold recognised tertiary qualifications. Again, this is a positive proposal but it would be more inclusive and equitable to include other qualifications, such as Level 4, which, for example, includes diplomas for childcarers who study to work in low-paying jobs with huge responsibilities.

Recommendations 12 and 13 aim to ensure a fair balance is struck between contributions and benefits across generations, emphasising that the contributory period to have a full pension for persons born in 1965 or later should increase from 40 to 41 years.

Notwithstanding other proposals, which deal with credits and retirement at an age earlier than 65, it is unclear as to what happens to those who fail to meet the established contributory period, especially when one considers that precarious, flexible, part-time and definite employment is on the increase.

It is also positive that proposals such as recommendation 14 discuss the incentivisation for deferral of a retirement pension for those who opt to keep working beyond retirement age.

At the same time, recommendations 15 and 16 refer to gradual increases in the national minimum pension and the old age pension, which, I assume will be subject to negotiation by the social partners as regards the actual amounts.

The same can be said on the proposal regarding payment to former service pensioners. In recommendations 18 and 19, the introduction of incentives for a voluntary third pillar pension are discussed. However, with regard to a mandatory second pension, this measure is postponed for discussion during the 2020 strategic review.

I believe this will not help in terms of intergenerational justice and sustainability. Indeed, in my view, this is the greatest omission of the proposed strategy.

It would have been better to emphasise the need to introduce a mandatory second pillar pension that takes account of different employment realities and which obliges the government to make up for those who at any point in time do not have enough means to enrol.

The pensions strategy itself says that many people do not tend to think long term and it also says that, eventually, Malta’s pension system will become unsustainable if no changes take place. Hence, an unavoidable challenge is being postponed for future administrations.

Recommendations 25 and 26 focus on gender equality, especially with respect to widows. Though this is positive to ensure a better quality of life for such individuals, I would recommend that the wording also refers to those in civil unions and in cohabitation in order for them to be covered when legislation on the latter is introduced.

It is positive that the Pensions Strategy Group is also proposing increased education and the introduction of a regulatory framework for equity release schemes is being proposed to formalise the option of elderly people who wish to release or exchange property once they retire.

As things stand, there is not enough knowledge of pensions matters, even among highly-educated people. An important role of modern welfare states is to invest in people’s education to ensure everyone is equipped as much as possible to seize the opportunities and spot the risks of an increasingly liquid society.

A glaring shortcoming of the proposed strategy is that it does not refer to EU citizens living in Malta.

Even though EU social policy is increasingly introducing the portability of pensions schemes to ensure that people who move from one EU country to another have their pension rights safeguarded, it is strange that this social reality is ignored in the Pensions Strategy Group report.

Such individuals are contributing to Maltese society and to the economy and the least that can be done is to ensure their obligations, such as national insurance contributions, and caring roles are matched up by rights, such as adequate pensions.

Read also:
Postponing Pension Reform

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tsipras' leap of faith

Tsipras's resilience kept Greece in Eurozone and kept Syriza government possible, to the dismay of hawks, sectarians & eurosceptics. Despite a number of tactical mistakes which revealed certain economic and negotiating limits of populism (despite its electoral effectiveness), his strategy of keeping Greece in Eurozone was ultimately successful. Last weekend he proved to be a statesman rather than an ideologue. Now he has the task of leading Greece towards sustainability and stability, which is ultimately what many workers and other citizens aspire for. In the circumstances this is the best legitimate alternative to eventually move away from austerity.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Final Farewell to Jeremy Boissevain

The Times of Malta, 6 July 2015

Jeremy Boissevain’s passing away is a loss to his many friends and colleagues in Maltese society and academia. He was one of the most renowned scholars worldwide on Maltese society and was held in great esteem by anthropologists, sociologists, politicians and environmental activists, among others.

Terms he popularised, such as “friends of friends”, “saints and fireworks” and “super saints”, the latter referring to Maltese ministers, remain as vibrant as ever.

Jeremy, the Dutch anthropologist who spent many years in Malta, had his own social networks and friends. I was lucky enough to be conversant with his name since I was a kid, thanks to my parents’ own networks of bohemian academics and other colourful personalities.

Later on, my sociological studies, environmental activism and green politics enabled me to get to know Jeremy first hand. I remember him as a kind, charismatic gentle giant, with an inquisitive and wise look.

My scholarly encounters with Jeremy had more to do with his writings on environmental conflict than with feasts and village life, though he is much more popular for his writings on the latter.

When I graduated at Bachelor’s level in sociology, back in 1998, Jeremy had taken keen interest in my dissertation entitled ‘State/power: Hiltonopoly’, which analysed the relations of power in the Portomaso development project. I myself had been fresh from activism in the field and this was of particular interest to Jeremy.

Subsequently, through my Master’s degree on Alfred Sant’s Labour Party, I quoted Jeremy’s anthropological writings for the first time. My parents’ bookshelves had a copy of Saints and fireworks (the 1993 updated edition) and his writings on political networks, patronage and so forth proved to be very useful, as did other writings of his on Dom Mintoff and Malta’s landscape.

Jeremy had kindly written a preface to this dissertation in case I wanted to publish it. This publication never took place – even though the thesis is now available online – but I kept his preface saved with pride.

My PhD thesis, entitled ‘EU accession and civil society empowerment: the case of Maltese ENGOs’ (2013), used Jeremy’s scholarly writings as one main source of reference on environmental politics in Malta.

Here, I referred to six scholarly works that Jeremy authored or co-authored. His writings on environmental activism, political patronage, on the vested interests between politics, administration and construction and on the growing environmental consciousness proved most useful.

In his works, one reads about the first environmental campaign in Malta, when Din l-Art Ħelwa campaigned for limiting the height of Hotel Excelsior (which is now ironically being complemented by an architectural monstrosity a few metres away) and about the way Labourite thugs beat up young environmentalists in a protest in 1985.

When Malta joined the EU, Jeremy believed such accession provided a new context for environmentalists to air their grievances, as was the case in other southern European countries.

Yet, he also argued that Malta kept treating public space as “a no-man’s land on which it is permissible to throw rubbish” and that a “generally weak sense of heritage... furthers the destruction of national patrimony”.

Patronage, nepotism, short-term planning and greed for quick profit were seen as major causes for the destruction of the landscape. At the same time, the tourist industry increased pressure on Malta’s landscape, infrastructure and waste management.

In 2004, Jeremy wrote that Mepa “approves projects and condones infringements that are backed by important political/economic interests”. I am sure he had to say something similar on the ‘Tagħna lkoll’ version of Mepa in 2015.

At the same time, Jeremy also noted that environmentalists were increasing their activism in a convincing way. Indeed, he referred to the successful campaign of the Front Kontra l-Golf Kors as well as other victories, such those against a leisure complex in Munxar, a cement plant in Siġġiewi and a landfill at Mnajdra.

In this regard, environmentalists were also capable of forming their own social networks through a politics from below.

Just a few months ago, Jeremy was awarded an honoris causa by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta and I am proud to have been present at the ceremony that was held in Valletta.

He passed away just a few days after Malta’s largest ever environmental protest, the one organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ against development at Żonqor Point.

In hindsight, as one of the organisers of the protest, I would like to dedicate this protest to him.

Without his writings and sharp analysis, Maltese environmentalism would have been poorer in the reading of symbols of power, networks and methods, which are robbing Malta of its common heritage.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Varoufakis' freedom

Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic brash intellectual who was Greek Finance Minister until this morning, resigned from power. This is something many need to learn: Freedom in a liquid world.

His style may have hindered Greek negotiations, yet he was free enough to take a decision after an impressive referendum celebration.

The Greek people have clearly spoken. I hope this leads to less austere terms, and not to unintended consequences of worse economic options.

As existential philosophy puts it, freedom gives hope though paradoxically being a leap in the dark. I hope that compromise and light emerge.

"The struggle towards the heights is enough to fills a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy" (Albert Camus)