Health warning. This is a long one. You don’t have to tell me it is. I know. I wrote it.
If you have some time, here goes.
The insidious character of the power that has taken hold of Malta is extremely easy to underestimate. Comparisons have been made with pre-war fascism and these are not baseless. But compared with the tools available to Joseph Muscat’s regime, the tools fascists had were rudimentary and crass.
Technology and contemporary group psychology applied to herding thoughts allow today’s brown shirts to avoid dirtying their hands.
The lesson the Nazis learnt from the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 was that seizing power from democracy was not likely to succeed. Instead they would have to enter the democratic fray and use any means necessary to subvert democracy to their will, to pervert it from the inside and convincing the great masses which the party considered with outright disdain that their will and their leader’s will were one and the same.
The point reached by Joseph Muscat required years of building, from far before his own entry on to the scene.
Culturally he found the right landscape. Unlike other stable and sophisticated democracies, Malta’s democratic tradition is colonial and haphazard. The most important significance of that was not democracy’s youth as much as the manner with which it was granted from up top and withdrawn each time the powerful did not find it convenient to them.
Malta did not build its own democracy. The British ‘granted it’ as a form of appeasement for demands of separation from the Empire. And what they gave, they took away, again and again as it pleased them.
In our collective unconscious, rights and democracy are not inherent to our being as citizens. They are a gift from above like the boon granted by gods, which must be repaid by some form of obeisance and will be taken away if the gods wish it.
In the cultural landscape, Joseph Muscat also found a readiness for hero worship. Our party system focuses the presentation of alternate party politics on the personality of leaders. Of course the demagogue to win them all is Dom Mintoff. But when it suited the Nationalist Party to invest in the advantage of the attraction of its leader in comparison with the competition, the PN had no qualms in personifying its politics. That is how Eddie Fenech Adami won majorities defeating Dom Mintoff in 1981, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in 1987 and 1992 and Alfred Sant in 1998 and 2004. It is also how Lawrence Gonzi beat Alfred Sant in 2008.
No doubt therefore the huge investment in the personality of the leader is a broadly accepted method across the political divide.
Though it is impossible to avoid distinguishing this bog standard quasi-presidentialism from the cultism that surrounded Dom Mintoff. The outrageous behaviour of the thug in jodhpurs could only work in the context of an unreserved adulation, a garigue Beatle mania represented in the pictures of the perit alongside the Madonna as a votive figure of prayer.
Dom Mintoff could speak about arming his supporters to crush his adversaries to loud applause. He could force school children out of their classrooms, exile a generation of medical doctors, mobilise thugs to burn down a newspaper building and ransack the Leader of the Opposition’s home while his school age children cower inside.
He could isolate Malta from the West and lodge it as an outpost of Ghaddafi’s Libya. He could ban all forms of communication more sophisticated than tom-toms and force dissident broadcasters into exile.
He could cover for rampant corruption, political violence, the brutal disposal of witnesses, and the murder of innocent people in police custody.
It’s not that this behaviour would be excused and forgiven as the unsavoury side of some working class hero. The outrage becomes the man and the man becomes the new morality.
In him is the personification of party, of government and of state. Indeed ein Volk, eine Partei, ein Führer.
In that full assimilation of all means of authority lies the moral exclusivity of power. Any disagreement with leader, or with party, or with government is in and of itself a betrayal of the state and of the wider community.
Dissent is not merely an inconvenient noise from a democratic opposition. It is treason, the necessary end of which is its complete and utter elimination.
That is a philosophical terrain that is the realm of the heirs of Mintoff. Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici tried and failed to fly on its residual radiation. Alfred Sant tried to steer away from it and introduced a more cerebral approach. Not that he had any ambition to be fair but he was disgusted by physical violence and steered clear of it.
Instead he developed what would eventually become a fine art: the use of party media to go beyond spin and twisting and resort instead to systematic misinformation and outright lies.
Not everything Alfred Sant said was a lie. Some of the accusations he levelled at the PN on corruption were supported by facts and the PN was not always quick to act upon his legitimate criticism.
But Alfred Sant after 1998 was unrecognisable from Alfred Sant before 1996. The physical violence remained under a tight lid. But his role in undermining institutions as they dealt with Malta’s first ever attempted targeted assassination crossed a line he claimed he wanted to stay behind when he took over his party.
Like his two predecessors at the helm of Labour, he demonstrated utter contempt for constitutional institutions and considered the entire public space as a battleground for his own political reputation and survival.
As it happened he enjoyed neither.
But in that all or nothing, no holds barred, all’s fair in war environment, Joseph Muscat grew as a diligent apprentice. This is not to mean that he did not add his own value to the scheme. His understanding of on line communications, his media savviness and his wily ease with charm were skills of his own.
And his force of personality, all the more fascinating since his appearance is not particularly appealing to start with, quickly created a bridge in people’s memories over the heads of Karmenu and Sant straight to the mourned greatness of il-Perit.
What he definitely understood in a glacially uncompromising virulence was that his approach to politics would be unburdened by morality; a single-minded pursuit of power for its own sake accumulated without restraint.
Because power for its own sake has no concept of its own limitations. It is universalistic and seeks to conquer all. It is viral, less in the technological sense of that word and more in a biological sense. It describes growing as the only state of being, acquiring as the only state of moving, conquering as the only sense of engaging, crushing as the only sense of defeating.
To achieve this, Joseph Muscat had to generate once again that seamless oneness between his persona, his office, the government he runs, the party he leads, the country he represents and the state he serves. All those official verbs and all those multiple identities are collapsed into each other; into Joseph.
Why then is this not a political methodology that others seek to adopt? Some perhaps do think about doing so. It is impossible to accuse Adrian Delia to be aspiring to follow this route. The following of his party is hardly fertile ground for this macho übermensch crap. PN supporters are reticent with their support and Eddie Fenech Adami was nearing retirement having pulled off a 30 year career replete with successes only slightly less impressive than the tasks of Hercules before he became the universally accepted hero he is remembered as.
People my age or a bit younger who remember more vividly Eddie Fenech Adami’s second half of his career, rather than the first, assume that party discipline and unquestioning support of the leader are some natural state of affairs for a PN leader. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only Eddie Fenech Adami’s person record of success and his undoubted wisdom and experience that earned him that sort of status after much blood, sweat and tears.
Therefore, though it is all of Malta that experienced the colonial inheritance of the powerful teasing and withdrawing rights at will, it is really the support of the Labour Party that on top of that embraces the quasi-religious adulation of the strong leader.
Though both political parties own and control TV stations that they seek to use to varying extents of dishonesty as propaganda vehicles, it is really the TV station of the Labour Party that meets troves of unquestioning consumers willing to exchange the facts that stare at them in the face with the almost absurd lies they are presented with.
Both political parties have embraced the use and mobilisation of trolls to frustrate discourse online and to ridicule argument with mockery that is not intended to satirise but to trivialise, not to be ironic but moronic, not merely to hurt but to silence and kill. But the cultist Labour Party and its vile media tradition are the steely backbone that have ensured its own trolls are to the PN’s what the Blitzkrieg Wehrmacht was to Czechoslovakia.
And now therefore the personification of all that is powerful, and by extension all that is good, into the single person of Joseph Muscat again carves into the soul of the community a universe made of unequal concentric circles.
An inner, larger circle of followers faithful to the leader that maybe in greater number but are no less deserving of a heady status of exclusivity for having remained loyal and survived the ordeal of the lies thrown at them by everyone outside.
And a thinner, outer circle of people who choose the cold of hell by not submitting to the greatness of the leader but who as outsiders stand at the feet of Joseph’s New Jerusalem and besiege it and attack it with periodic incursions of lies and accusations.
This is the reverse of your conventional siege mentality. People who feel under siege are normally a marked minority cut off from the rest of the world by the onslaught of a majority around them. In here it is the reverse and again one finds it in the cultural frame of mind of Malta’s collective unconscious.
For supporters of Joseph, those who stay outside the Pax Iosephiana, are the worshippers of Satan often described in centuries of ceremonies from pulpits aimed at no one in particular. Generations of church-goers were warned the evil one never rests. And he lives in the people who are not at church though at the time everyone was likely to be there in any case.
In that frame of mind an all but hegemonous majority can still be moved to febrile paranoia and to prejudicial hatred of others. We are warned the devil charms us with wily words, with dissembling argument, with the charm of plurality and tolerance.
That trains people to shut out argument even before it is spoken, to refute honest explanation not because of the implausibility of what it says but because it comes from outside the inward oracle of the altar, and in post-Dom Mintoff times, from the Leader and his tools.
Almost no one contradicts articles or points of view coming from outside the Labour sphere with cogent objections, with rational thought or with argument. They are refuted a priori with bouncing non sequiturs, or when the wit escapes them, with raw and crude insults.
Insults are fine. You can live with those. And they can be thrown reciprocally almost with humour like Pythonesque exchanges across walls. “Your mother smells of elderberries” and so on. You get the drift.
Like the weekly fights of a loving couple, the exchange of insults in political discourse is a fact of life. But anyone who has been in a breakdown knows that there are fights which are entirely different. That though there may be no physical violence and the voices may not rise more than usual, some things are said in way that is meant to break not to repair, to separate not to unite, to hurt not to explain.
This is where the harmless taunting of who has the largest crowd on campaign Sundays, the moderately nasty jibes about politicians across the divide, and the healthy irreverence one expects in a democracy are not what we experience here.
Except for those who treat the problem with indifference and a pro-Labour neutrality of shrugs and rationalisation, politics in Malta is hurtful and painful, certainly to those who indulge in the discourse out of a sense of community or even of service.
Though physical violence is rare, the taunts, the heckling in the street, the damage to personal property, the threats and the bizarrely extreme violence in the language that is used, are intended to punish the treason of distance from the faith in the one true leader.
The chasm of dialogue would seem unlikely in a small community of people who live in a classless society at least in the cultural meaning of that word. Unlike Indian castes people here eat pretty much the same food. Unlike lower Englanders our accents are not bound to our family lineages. Unlike Nigerians we are not split in opposing religious fronts. Unlike Belgians we share the same languages. Of course there are tendencies of differences but they are stereotypes that are unhelpful even in describing life in our community. ‘Sliema types’ live everywhere and ‘ħamallu’ hardly means anything if it does not describe me as well.
The political fault line used to be PL-PN but that is hardly an adequate analysis anymore. It is more PL v the rest of the world; or even better Iosephiles v Iosephobes. It’s all about loyalty to Joseph Muscat or treason to the country.
The greedy gestures grasping the totems of nationhood when Labour responds to protests are manifest. No one ever lost sleep over the Great Siege Memorial before it started to host flowers and candles and pictures of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Many never even considered it was anything more than a memorial to the Broadcasting Authority pre-electoral televised debates. (If that quip is too obscure, forgive me, I was trying something there).
But Joseph’s supporters found sensibilities, they never knew they had, horribly insulted by the apparent intrusion on the national symbol of the Great Siege Memorial. No one shed tears for the memory of the many anonymous dead who fell under the command of Jean de Valette. But they did see it as an affront to Joseph’s supreme order as any symbol of national pride is ipso facto a symbol of pride in Joseph.
The same with protests and manifestations of the anti-corruption movement that offended people by appropriating the use of the national anthem, the national flag and that ultimate monopoly of state power: the authority to speak about Malta to outsiders.
When Nas Daily came to Malta and coined ‘oh my Malta’ (a vague and meaningless slogan if ever there was one) he never expected that those three words would have a very intuitive meaning for Labour supporters. He never understood why Owen Bonnici’s Janice at the tourism authority manipulated him into mass events that were nothing short of mobilisation exercises for young people who needed harvesting for the next cull of souls for the bag of the great Leader.
“Oh my Malta” is the youtuber’s equivalent to “Malta Tagħna Lkoll”, a declaration of possessiveness that is exclusive to supporters of Joseph and excludes those who are not. It is natural for Joseph’s supporters to perceive “Oh my Malta” as designed for them to be acquired to mean “it is not your Malta if you’re not at Joseph’s feet”.
His comment that he found Malta’s politics as dominating the basic humanity of the Maltese, Nas was more correct than he ever knew.
For the worshipping followers of this cult politics, their politics is all that is worthwhile in humanity. The ‘others’, outside the comforting walls that Joseph has built around them, are not merely non-citizens, un-endowed with the basic rights that would require those within the walls to share the proceeds of l-aqwa żmien equally and fairly with them. They are non-humans.
I’m not suggesting that in the ordinary course of life a Laburist will kick a non-Laburist in the street for sport. On the face of it things are too decent for that.
But they will pick out representatives of that exiled neighbourhood community and then yes, taunt them, demonise them, mock them, deride them, and if they do not go as far as to kill them, celebrate when somebody does.
The irony is that due to its relative tolerance of government corruption the new PN is not categorically excluded from the comforting inclusiveness of Joseph’s universe. Adrian Delia’s PN is in a sort of limbo of acceptance, its poor souls defended by seraphims like Robert Musumeci and others like him.
The real brunt of the pressures of hostility is suffered by the uncompromising critics of Joseph Muscat’s corruption. Those who would indict him for his own crimes including harbouring other criminals are blasphemers and, of course, traitors. Those who do so to an audience outside the country have placed themselves beyond the reach of even the flimsiest orbit, the thinnest atmosphere of human solidarity and compassion.
To be out in this distant space, this unbearable cold, this gaunt quiet and to look with distant sad eyes upon the pillage of our home in which we live as exiles is hardly the obvious spur for resistance.
But movements have sprouted out of less.
The powerful know this. Their power depends on the complicity of popular support and the oppression of the few who would dissent. The legitimisation of perverted democracy opens the way for all sorts of tactics to delegitimise objections.
The Leader was chosen democratically. On that premise the democratic right to disagree becomes an anti-democratic act.
The majority decides. On that premise the democratic obligation to have the rights of minorities protected becomes an outrage against democracy itself.
The Leader is chosen directly by the people so he gets to choose everyone else. On that premise the democratic power assigned to functionaries of the state to restrict government power becomes a coup d’état in slow motion.
In that environment how can resistance survive and thrive? How can people who refuse to genuflect on Joseph’s altar retain their dignity as citizens in full effect? How is democracy revived and the rotten spirit that has possessed it exorcised?
How do we get back our country to share it again with those who have taken it away from us?
If not now, when shall we live?