Sunday, December 21, 2014

Some reflections on turning 40

Joining the ranks of the over forties, a category associated with increased precariousness and risk, is a good occasion to reflect on how I seek to define myself as far as possible according to the values I cherish most. For the greatest freedom we have is that of shaping own ourselves and one of the arts which we should all aspire to master is  "the care of of the self".  Here are some of the things I aspire to as I get older.

1.      Intellectual honesty which means always speaking truth (which is always subjective) to power and to keep a healthy distance from the dominant economic and political powers while always be ready to engage intellectually with anyone decent and never to look down on anyone.  It is only detachment which gives the necessary perspective for lucid analysis but one should be wary of being self righteous.  The dissident intellectual denounces what he tries to understand not what he simply dismisses or shuns. 

2.      Ageing gracefully i.e. embracing the prospect of becoming more sober and tranquil as one gets older and to value silence and just listen to it without attempting to hear anything in particular. The opposite of ageing gracefully is to resist the flow of time and to seek to lose oneself in the noise. Ageing gracefully is also about continuing to grow up with the people close to you and nurturing friendships.

3.      Upholding a dignified punk ethic   i.e. to be politely and intelligently irreverent, never rude or dismissive towards anyone but to practice the art of  refusal when confronted by demands from those who wield economic or political power.  Its not a question of contempt but a choice one makes in order to be free and happy within. While compromises are unavoidable to achieve pragmatic goals these should be out in the open.

4.      Upholding a Christian humanist perspective, reconciling with what essentially remains a revolutionary theology whose ultimate logical consequence is the withering away of the God of Power so that the "meek (represented by the humble son) shall inherit the earth" (the incarnation).  A religion which gives value to apostolic poverty is in itself revolutionary especially in the context capitalist globalism where even citizenship is sold while migrants are viewed as a disposable source of cheap labour.  While fundamentally secular in my beliefs, I have grown to give greater value to religion as an ethical system which can make the world a happier and fairer place to live. I therefore have no qualms defining myself as Christian albeit an agnostic one.  Living a good life is an end in itself even if the definition of good has been corrupted by an obsession on sex by most religions.  The more time passes the more I am convinced that an eco-socialist alternative needs to be upheld by an ethical system of values which can be partly found in radical Christian thinking and liberation theologies as well as in other religious/spiritual traditions.
5.      To reclaim time and to challenge discourse which glorifies hard work  and which commodifies what is left after paid work.  The greatest violence committed against the working classes  is that of robbing them  from time and the ability to control their limited time on earth in ways they can enjoy.   Instead of celebrating 'hard work' we should be encouraging people to reclaim more time for their own well being and that of others.  In short idleness is to be praised, work  enjoyed and toil avoided like the plague.  I would also like to propose the idea that the more people enjoy their life the more lucid and dignified they are during their hours of work. Ultimately the desirability of endless economic growth for its own sake  is to be questioned (especially in view of the ecological crisis) but even from a growth  perspective i contend that the less people work the more productive they are.

6.      To be able to see the bigger picture  and to defend the forts of a system one dislikes when it is attacked by the hordes (racists, bigots, fascists, crony capitalists, prophets of profit, speculators, regimes in the making, aspiring Bonapartes and Berlusconis etc etc).  That is why  in the face of the risks posed by authoritarian democrats and right wing populists political and social alliances have to be variable even if counter hegemonic blocks have to be build on shared values.

7.  The more time passes the more I attach importance to the aesthetics of power.  It is in the way power manifests itself and animates its supporters that one can smell the first signs of a  regime whose main aim is not hegemony for social reform but hegemony aimed for its own perpetuation.  The greater the personalisation of power the greater the risks of political regression from old boring but precious democratic wrangling to the authoritarian democracy which ultimately could lead to kleptocracy. Being sensitive to these questions distinguishes liberals from sheer secularists, a distinction which is not made in the local context.

8. Not to mind being dubbed a conservative when defending public ownership of strategic areas like energy and in defending the post war european social model  against neo liberal detractors.  Public ownership and the  welfare state may be sometimes inefficient and may be badly in need of reform but like democracy are worth defending in principle.

9.      To stop trying to control things which are beyond control.  Sometimes one has to recognize that you can only change things up to a certain extent while other things remain outside our control.  Changing that part which is in our control is the first step. The second is to join others in seeking to bring more areas in life under democratic control.  Here comes the value of solidarity and struggle.  But there will always be things which are beyond our control both on a personal and collective level.  In fact expecting miracles outside the realms of the possible often leads to the worse perversions.

10.      To seek happiness as an end in itself and feel it by living those moments of joy with those you love most for the longest time possible. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

after briguglio

The Greens are once again facing an enormous challenge after Michael Briguglio called it a day as party leader.

Briguglio's  contribution to the Greens was to make the party more presentable, more radical but less eccentric, serious but not stuffy,  progressive but not dogmatic or holier than thou.  He also did the simple things expected of a party leader look smart, behave politely and respect the audience in front of him. 

This translated in to the best ever result for the greens and a reversal of a negative trend in general elections going back to 1996. 

AD's 1.8% must be seen in a context where AD lost a large segment of its 2008 vote to Labour simply because a change in government became an over-riding factor for a number of its voters.   The fact that AD compensated for this by attracting new voters through a progressive platform is significant. Probably it could have even be a bit higher had the 2008 vote issue not cropped up in the last days of the campaign.

Honestly as a green voter am a bit disappointed at the situation and the vacuum created, and hope that a process of regeneration will ensure that this largely positive legacy is not wasted.  I would have wished for Michael to stay on for a longer period to ease the transition  but at this stage there is no turning back.

If the Greens want to continue growing, they need to open up in a very radical way, a process which is facilitated by social networks which are the are the natural habitat for a modern forward looking party.   
In fact it was AD's bold decision in 2000 to open up to wave of new activists from Moviment Graffitti which gave the party a new lease of life after Harry Vassallo was elected leader in 1999.  
After two successive bad results in 2008 and 2009 the party faced an existential crisis and most commentators had already written it off.  Even the divorce victory served to rob the party of a major electoral card. Thanks to Michael Briguglio's persistent efforts, and a team composed of dedicated party stalwarts  and a new generation of younger activists, the party not only survived but managed to get its best result despite logistical difficulties like the lack of a headquarters.  

The worse mistake would be to be to continue behaving like an inward looking traditional party. If the party fails to open up in the next weeks, it risks a slow and painful extinction. In this process everything should be questioned be it leadership structures or the way the party perceives itself, more of a voice of social liberalism as understood by most green parties on the continent and less as an environmentalist NGO operating as a party, more of a coalition of different shades of the modern progressive ideas and less of a refuge for ideological purity. 

AD also has to be more approachable and engage in dialogue with those people who do not necessarily agree with all its platform.  It has to reach out to all free thinking social liberals and be less abrasive when faced with criticism.  

While am very critical of the way the major parties have been reduced to presidential movements with little regard to ideology or values, ad's strength is to create variable coalitions around its ideas and proposals.  Its only strength comes from ideas and the integrity of its people.  

Strong and professional campaigns on themes like gay marriage, the decriminalisation of soft drugs and raising the minimum wage to a decent level could ensure that AD continues to inspire not just on the eve of elections but through the intermediary years where the party tends to disappear and lose visibility.  

Campaigning means creating new alliances, meeting people and recruiting new activists some of which will only come half way in their support.

Parallel to this should be an emphasis on malta becoming a modern liberal democracy, where winners do not take all, where minorities have a voice and where lobbies like hunters and squatters learn their place.  

Land use campaigns are also bound to feature in the next years where the temptation to kick-start economy through building development will be great. 

My hunch is that under a Labour government AD can distinguish itself as the progressive, forward looking and constructive opposition able to build bridges on any instance where its progressive agenda coincides with that of any other party.

Obviously ad's survival   depends on the people willing to carry the burden. I sincerely hope that a new leadership team will emerge to ensure that this vital component of our democracy is not lost. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

too old too young

I am on the threshold of 2 years I will join the over 40s (those who are too young to slow down but too old to keep the pace)...I should feel lucky having lived in an epoch were history changes by the hour, where technology is changing our biology and mental processing, where stasis can only be found within.  Still it is also a time marked by great risks; environmental, economic and personal.  Over the past half decade we have lived through the worst economic depression since the great depression in a country where people are so inward looking that they still have not grasped the fact that this is permanent and the only way forward is sustainability in all spheres: environmentally, economically and even within our little lives.  It is time to rediscover the revolutionary potentials of austerity rather than delude ourselves with promises of plenty and growth which can only deplete further what is left of our physical and spiritual environment.  We live in a brave new world were demogogues with effective soundbites can defy the physical reality promising things which can only exist in discourcive spheres.  And we all remain our fragile selves amidst all this change, vulnerable to mental illness and depression and fear of not coping in a changing landscape.  Even worse could be the reaction of those who are not able to understand, the gullible who consume illusions, many of which were excluded from what remains an unequal society.  Governing the fast process of change to make it sustainable and ensure that its benefits are shared in an inclusive way is the basic political issue of this century.  Ultimately we must realise that the whole aim of growth is happinness and that the way of austerity can get us there faster than the way of wasteful consumption.  In these times of Christmas-a Christian feast rooted in pagan rituals, which still fills a secularist like me with inward joy, my thoughts go for all those passing through mental illness or depressions, those feeling that unhappiness cannot be overcome, those whose life dreams have been foiled by whatever circumstance, whether legal, healthwise, economic or personal...Surely unhappiness will always be part of life but even at a personal level there can be ways of taking care of ourselves (sometimes with the help of others and even professionals) which unfortunately are not thought in schools.  Providing mental health services at community level while equipping people with the skills to cope with change and risks, inevitable in liquid modernity where even our intimate worlds are changing, should be one of the priorities of progressive social policy. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

faith in fakes

I am not so bothered by people who would opt for the PL simply because they want a change in the power networks especially when they do this without harbouring any illusions.  Neither am so bothered by right wing populists or neo-liberals who feel that the PL is closer to them than the PN on issues like immigration, the minimum wage and land use issues (Polidano's change of allegiance says it all).  Surely Labour is making much more effort to gain their vote than mine even if these voters should be wary of the consequences of a politics tailor made to appease everyone at a time when hard choices have to be made due to the Eurozone crisis.  What is sure is the fact that Labour has done everything in the past months to turn off  voters like me. What i find baffling is how some left wingers live under the illusion that Muscat's labour has some mysterous left wing DNA.  The only mildly progressive stances taken by Muscat (and only half heartedly as demonstrated by his refusal to commit his party on divorce or lately gay marriage) are those on some civil libertiesbut even on these issues it is vague and pregnant with contradictions. For if gays and straigts are equal why should we not include them in the institution of marriage as greens and LBGT organisations propose?  But ultimately when it comes to making fundamental choices which have a bearing on business, Muscat is on the other side.  One of the most absurdities of the labour congress was naming temporary and disposable and ephemeral "halls" after socialist, US democrat and euro communist leaders.  Ironically it was from one of these halls that Muscat announced that his party will not increase the minimum wage...What is most striking is MuscatPL's lack of authenticity which explains the pains it has to go to underline its progressive identity...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

a new habitat?

Technology has changed human relations perhaps beyond our current understanding. It has made us more open to chance and risk amplifying the feeling that life is a complex web of random coincidences. Just as it offers the prospect of opportunities which can bring personal happiness, it can also be a minefield of surprises, loneliness and delusions. The existence of a parallel communication space where reality and fantasy blur is in itself a radical notion, one may go as far as describing it as a new habitat for an anthropologically changed species.
This makes the task of understanding the human situation a more urgent endeavour. Making sense of the fact that we live in a very random place where anything can literally happen from one day to the next is constant threat to the yearning for stability and tranquillity. Yet the fact that experience changes humans constantly has been recognised by philosophers since the time of Heractlitus who professed the words which inspire this blog: No one can step on the same river twice, for its neither the same river nor the same man. Still it does not help to simply recognise the state of fact of our existence. Building meaningful human relations in this chaos where everything is open to chance is important. Resisting the dangers posed by a rejectionism of the losers asserted either by romantic notions of the past or even worse by those taking refuge in patriarchy, race or nation, is another task for the critical thinker. Recognising new human bonds which are already forming, but do not necessarily replace but can compliment more treasured traditional roles, is another way of understanding. But ultimately the focus of critical thought should also be the question of happiness; how to create a new art of the self which makes us strong, happy and considerate towards others in a risky environment.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Greece: Neo Weimar,revolutionary wet dream or part of europe?

I start from the premise that I cannot imagine Europe without Greece. At a time when everything is redused to economics, it is useful to remember that Europe is also about values, culture and history.

Secondly history should caution us against fuelling myths of national humiliation by ignoring the suffering of ordinary people. The warning signs are all there, including the presence of a contingent of neo nazis in the new greek parliament. If this is not a wake up call for the European Commission, what is?

Thirdly any solution must be rooted in the realm of the possible and within Europe. Those on the left who wet themselves dreaming of a Greek revolution should rather worry about the outcome of a return to the drachma or unilateral default.  If this chaotic process of impoverishment is undertaken by a left-wing government Greece will inch closer to the fate of a latter day Weimar Republic.

That said if this happens the blame will also fall on the European Commission which refuses to listen to the democratic will of the Greeks; which is that of renegotiating the bailout.

So far the majority of Greeks want to remain in the euro. They also accept the need for radical reforms. Part of the problem was caused by the patronage system perpetuated by PASOK and New Democracy. So why punish them in a way which only serves to weaken the cause of reform?

Surely many Greeks (similar to the Maltese) benefited from patronage and some would like to hold on to privileges but i trust that the majority realise that this system has weakened their country. Some Greeks are succumbing to the myth of national humiliation and the seduction of the prophets of hatred. But most are aware that part of the problem was brought on by their politicians and international banks, and surely not by poor immigrants. What many Greeks do not seem to accept destitution and the collapse of public services and social protection. This is only fair. No nation can be expected to destroy its social fabric.

If a second election does get place, I hope that the eurocommunist sensibility in Syriza will prevail over populist slogans which lead to nowhere. Syriza should not be dismissed as far left. Its core element (Synopsis) belongs to a very rich intellectual anti stalinist tradition which shaped the left and democracy in the southern Mediterranean (particularly Spain, Italy and Greece).  Italian democracy owes a lot to that gentleman called Enrico Berlinguer.

The Greeks can only be taken seriously if they present a serious bid at reconstruction and reform which addresses corruption, tax evasion and unproductive public sector jobs dished by patrons.

The EU must reciprocate and give Greece breathing space for growth and reform. If that means writing off a substantial part of the loan so be it.  In this sense a second election which makes Syriza the first party, is welcome especially if it serves to wake up Europe to its senses. 

It is true that economically the Greeks need the EU more than the EU needs them. But haven't we been told that Europe is greater than that?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reaping Sarko's harvest

In 2007 Nicholas Sarkozy neutralised the National Front by talking tough on immigration. 
In government he expelled Rom people and took the unprecedented steps of closing borders to stop the influx of migrants from Italy.
Still yesterday the National Front managed to win its best ever result.
This is a veritable lesson for those who think that they can neutralise the far right by aping it. 
Still that does mean that one should not try to understand the angry constituency, which votes Marine Le Pen and why it rejects cosmopolitan modernity. 
But there is an enormous difference between understanding this phenomenon and addressing its’ social roots and accommodating its prejudices.   
In the end of the day by combining economic populism with an anti immigrant sentiment, Marine Le Pen won the support of one in every five French voters.
Through his emphasis on a fossilised national identity Sarkozy simply legitimised its prejudices while aggravating the economic conditions through austerity driven policies, which make the land fertile for the ideas of the far right.
On a more positive note, the election has shown that an ordinary looking man running on a definable centre left platform which proposes higher taxes on the richest part of the population (raising tax to 75% for those earning more than EUR 1 million and to 45% for those earning more than EUR 150000).
It exposes the limits of the politics of hyper seduction and a return to a more tranquil and ordinary way of doing politics.
Hollande does not dispute the need for sustainable finances and does not question France’s place in Europe, but he puts the emphasis on revenue and not just on government expenditure.
Obviously some of his proposals raise questions.  He surely goes against the grain when proposing reversing Sarkozy’s timid pension reform, which rose retirement age to 62 when most European countries have raised retirement age to 65 or 67.
On a less positive note the election has been dominated by the appeal of French exceptionalism and a weakening of the modernising and pro European forces on both left (the Green Eva Joly) and centre (the Christian democratic Francois Bayrou).  Populists on both sides of the spectrum have overtaken both.
That said Melenchon did strike a chord by his ability to rally the disenfranchised and mobilising them against the far right by directing their anger against economic injustice.
He should also be credited for providing an alternative for angry voters inclined to vote for Le Pen, while confronting racist prejudice. 
But his solutions smacked of populism and his newly discovered euro scepticism sharply contrasts with his past as a stanch European federalist.  He is also known to be fond of centralism in public administration.
Comparisons with Malta are tempting but could be misleading.
Like Gonzi Sarkozy played the safe pair of hands card insisting that in difficult times the electorate cannot afford to take risks. 
But the French election seems to show that it is nearly impossible to recover the trust of the electorate when this is lost.   It stands as a warning to the PN that it is next to impossible to win a presidential contest and its best bet  would be to turn the contest in to one between policies and parties. 
Importing French presidentialism in to Maltese parliamentary democracy as GonziPN did in 2008 and MuscatPL is doing now, risks distorting our democratic system.
One cannot but note the differences between the style and character of the two centre-right politicians. 
One also has to note that Gonzi has never pandered to anti immigrant sentiment. In fact it was Joseph Muscat who to some extent pandered to anti immigrant sentiments. But unlike Sarkozy's, his discourse is devoid of any hint of islamophobia or cultural racism.
Still like Sarkozy Muscat could well have legitimised sentiments, which may well go out of hand when he will have to contend with the realities of government.
Both Sarkozy and Gonzi concur on addressing the deficit through austerity measures which have curtailed rather than foster growth. 
On the other hand both Hollande and Muscat talk about reviving growth by reversing austerity.  But it remains a bit of a mystery how this will be achieved while still balancing budgets and increasing social expenditure.
While Hollande plans to balance the budget by 2017 by raising tax rates for higher income earners, Muscat is extremely careful in not scaring away affluent voters but seems to firmly believe in the role of business as an engine for growth.  
Interestingly both major parties in Malta, unlike their French counterparts, oppose a tax on financial transactions, partly because of Malta’s role as a financial centre.
On its part AD seems to have a dual identity- similar to Bayrou in its firm Europeanism and appeal for fiscal responsibility while taking a bit of Melenchon’s role in its call for a higher minimum wage and higher taxes albeit on land and financial speculation.  But this reflects the fact that AD is Malta's sole third party while in France one finds a multitude of parties.
But these comparisons must be seen in the light of the profound difference between the French and Maltese electorates. 
Although both electorates seem to cherish social services and free public services, the Maltese are less inclined to pay for welfare through taxation.  
While the French cherish leisure time and quality of life the Maltese are more inclined to work long hours of overtime.  Moreover while the French exceptionalism is based on an imperial past, Maltese exceptionalism is based on Malta’ s past as a colony. 
What applies to both France and Malta are the laws of economics and the electorate has every right to ask; how exactly a future government plans to balance the deficit without increasing revenue or decreasing expenditure.