The government is falling over itself to raise a memorial to Oliver Friggieri. There’s something deeply perverse in that. Oliver Friggieri was not a vociferous critic of the Joseph Muscat/Robert Abela regime. Likely, that is because he had largely withdrawn from public life in his later years. But someone recently handed me this image from the headlines of a speech he delivered in 1981 as a guest of the Nationalist Party.
- Do not fear power – power fears you
- Be only afraid of fear
- Break unjust laws
- Anyone who hurts your comrade is hurting you
- Always use your mind to think, not your ears
- The commandment for education: Do not be gullible!
- Refuse a cheating career
- Malta needs idealists, not opportunists
- The government is not above you – it is your servant
- Never adopt the Nazi defence: “I followed superior orders”.
I was intrigued. The themes are so fresh and topical and speak with a fire that this government would seek to put out, not erect a monument to. I looked up the speech, published 40 years ago by the PN branch whose job at the time was to reach out to the working classes. The “worker of the year” award set up by the PN was part of this reach-out initiative. But nowhere is that mission to dispel the myth that the PN was some elitist party better articulated than in this speech by Oliver Friggieri. In some respects, the discourse has not aged well. The term “Worker” is less political now then it was then. “Classes” as a way of explaining social dysfunction are rather less adequate now. And the speech belongs to its time as parties of the centre-left (like the PN) sought to persuade the masses that they were much better qualified to represent them than the iron curtain regimes who called themselves ‘socialist’. The speech is cast in the fires of the Gdansk metalworks, it denounces formal socialism like Orwell’s pigs sleeping in beds without sheets, it reveres Catholicism, it calls for protest, civil disobedience, even conscientious objection to immoral laws.
But this speech is not a historical artefact. Replace the word “Worker” with “Citizen”, and rebrand the greedy motivation of the ruling gangs to update it to today’s corrupt lot, and the argument resonates with urgent immediacy. Oliver Friggieri’s warnings to the “worker” of 1981, speak clearly to us: blocked out of broadcasting, divided between those of us who think and those of us who listen, worshippers of false gods, loyal to politicians who take from us to have something to give back to us for which we feel we must thank them.
If you can, read the original in Maltese. Scroll up and click on the little Malta flag for the original. What follows is my attempt at an English translation.
While Robert Abela’s government appropriates the memory of Oliver Friggieri, adopts him as some form of a bland, compliant, symbol of national unity that accommodates their perpetual rule, this is how I would rather remember him: standing toe to toe with the tyrant Dom Mintoff, an electrifying confrontation between on the one side a violent, self-declared saviour, contemptuous of the people he leads, hypocritical, inconsistent and dishonest and on the other a soft-spoken intellectual, armed only with his lightning thoughts and skill with words that talks down with clarity across time to all tyrants. Oliver Friggieri does not fear power. The powerful fear him. He does not quiver when faced by power. The powerful squirm in front of him. “Power is another disease, it is a spot of rain that blows over, a cloud that sails past.”
I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
THE WORKER UNDER SIEGE
(Speech delivered by Oliver Friggieri, 30 April 1981)
What is it that the Worker is not? The Worker is no rug, no toy, no puppet that stays where you put it, no poster for propaganda. But the Worker can very well be a rug, or a toy, or a puppet, or a poster, or all those things at once – if that’s their choice; if they do not refuse. This has happened in Malta. It is happening. It will continue to happen if the Worker does not realise, do not look into the mirror and tell themselves ‘I am no child. I am as much an adult as those who are in power. I am better than them because I am still clean. I am stronger than them because I am indispensable to this nation. Without them, the nation is better off.’
Some hobbyists speak about the Worker. It is a hobby like cultivating cactus plants or collecting stamps. The Worker, like a cactus plant or a used stamp, becomes an item in a collection of capricious tastes. The Worker alone ought to speak about the Worker. The Worker have a mind, have a tongue – let them use their mind, let them use their tongue! Those who are not workers or do not live like the Worker need not speak of the Worker. It is all right for the lord to speak in support of the Worker, in support of the smallfolk and the poor, but when the lord do that they must understand they are speaking in direct opposition to themselves. If it is the lord who causes poverty, it is the same lord that speak in support of the Worker that is causing the suffering. Doctor, cure yourself!
The bulk of the people has traditionally been led by a financially rich, likely intellectually impoverished, upper class. That was the way in the past. It is the way now. Whether foreign or Maltese, the class that can rule over those who have no money because it is itself moneyed is no different to the Grand Masters, the Inquisitors and the Governors. The nationality changed, the name has changed, but they are all cut from the same cloth. They dictate, and weak, obedient workers bow low and clap loud because that is what is expected of them. Worker, do not cower, fear nobody. Others should cower in front of you and fear you! You are nothing less than the powerful, you are greater than the powerful!
People that for centuries have kowtowed, still do so today. The frame of mind of those who are grateful for the crumbs thrown at them by those who eat entire loaves has not changed. This “upper” class, the class of power, think of the Worker as dogs, wagging their tail by the dinner table, begging for crumbs! Do not accept crumbs from anyone who is not eating crumbs as well! You are worth no less than the powerful! You have built up the power and you should wield it. When the Worker understand they are not a toy sold on a popularity market when they consider themselves as the highest authority on their condition, the arrogance of those who are not Workers will be exposed for what it is, and the Worker will respect themselves as they properly deserve: as a free agent, a patron, not a servant of the country, not an instrument in the hands of an experimenter, not a toy in the hands of adults stuck in childhood.
ALL WORKERS TOGETHER
Except in the minds of those who betray them, there are no such things as Nationalist Workers and Labourite Workers. There are only Workers whose condition is clear: employees contracted to work, comrades, people with shared interests. When the powerful lose any sense of guilt, they are better off sowing divisions. Divided Workers are exploited Workers, their price branded on their chests, sold at the market. When the state is also an employer, its interests cannot always be the same as Workers’ interests. An employer state cannot rank Workers’ interests above all others. Workers must speak and command, not listen and obey. The first step in the awakening of Workers is yet to be taken. It will happen the day labels systematically designed to divide brothers on the shop floor are discarded. The labels seek to confuse them, weaken them, isolate them, condition them and lead them to the easy but cowardly choice: “you either obey or you come undone.” Who wants to come undone? But who must obey? Red or blue, yellow or grey, the Worker is but a Worker in the colour of their skin. Any other colour is racism. Any division is capricious like Nero burning Rome for the pleasure of the transient glory of the powerful preening from their clay balconies. It would be inflicted to sow discord between a man and a woman, between a groom and his bride, between siblings. It would be inflicted to crush solidarity, to allow the upper class to win, to lord over and dictate. Power does not belong to Workers because Workers have thus far obeyed, kowtowed, cowered in fear. Be afraid of fear itself, friend! Before the powerful obey, and the Worker commands, let us not delude ourselves that the Worker has stopped serving, that they are no longer bound like a plodding donkey to a millstone, going in circles until it collapses, happy to be fed to start turning in circles again. You are no donkey, take no charity, you are nobody else’s property. You are your lord, top to bottom!
This is why Workers should be politically interested in ideas, in structures of living, and not in colours designed to transform them into fighting cats and dogs. Those who want different must divide to conquer: when two quarrel, the third one emerges victorious. If this sounds like an accusation against those who divide, yes, I mean to serve them with a clear accusation! It is only in unity that we find strength, and workers are to be united amongst themselves, not with those in power. Division is the field in which those who play emperor roam, the dictator who expects his tame crowd to be afraid, to forget, to submit, to obey. They are no shepherds who divide the flock.
WHEN YOU SHOULD BREAK THE LAW
Worker, the law is one thing, justice another. They are not always married to each other. When you genuinely feel you should not obey, don’t; obedience can be sinful. Silence can be sinful. When a law is unjust, break it. You too can break the law, when the law does not agree with justice. The unjust law is there to be broken by those who do not want to be sullied by it. There is just justice – your ticket is your conscience, not the law that contradicts conscience, and can change like the weather.
If it is true that the pain is felt by the afflicted not by their doctor, then it is also true that Workers best understand their needs. Only they feel and perceive them. Then those who represent Workers must be as much as possible like them. Whatever your profession, being like Workers means you do not earn much more than they do, you do not live like an emperor while they suffer, you do not dictate while they obey. You cannot be a chain-smoker and persuade me not to smoke. You cannot be a glutton and convince me to diet. Only the wizard can give what they do not have. Example leads and falsehood withers. Facts. Not mere words. Sincerity, not hypocrisy. Honesty, not new colonialism. Mr Workers’ Leader, live like me, as a Worker, and I shall believe you; if you’re unwilling to be like me, don’t bother. You know nothing of the bitter wheat I eat and yet you expect to feed me. Have you ever cried with the people? Ever obeyed? If you have not, go ahead and represent your wealthy class and don’t go out of your way at my behest.
Those who think the Worker are some gullible idiot may or may not be right. They would be right if the Worker go mute, clam up when they should be speaking up. When they do that, the Worker turns themselves into a platform on which others can step. They would be like the racehorse expecting nothing but fodder while its master picks up all the honours. On the other hand, those who think the Worker is a fool would be proven wrong if the Worker appreciates themselves, think with their mind, not somebody else’s, and raise their voice when, how and where they like, with all their might, honestly and with the determination of one who knows they are on the right path. Tongues are meant to sing – not just to taste the food.
COHESION BETWEEN HAND AND MIND
If the Worker does not figure things out according to what they think but according to what they hear, this maturity would be lost. The best tool is reading, studying. Education is light and has but one commandment: “Do not be gullible!” Malta needs Workers with a book in their hands, a book in their pocket, a book in their mind. The book shows the way for a child to become a woman or a man, for somebody’s tool to become a person, your own master. And then, no one will fool a Worker holding a book, no one will tell them it’s summer in the middle of winter. Indeed the Worker is not a ballot sheet, they are not a step stool on which someone else can raise a statue. No one can sell their ignorance to such a Worker, no one can fake knowing it all, pretend they are omnipotent, no one will be able to colonise the Maltese in Malta. Malta needs clean politicians, honest, smart, leaders, that do not bind Workers to ignorance, that do not think the people are as ignorant as they are, that do not exalt mediocrity as popular culture, that do not merge Maltese identity with banality. Malta needs a Parliament which is distinct from a Persian market, it needs a Parliament that is not merely an old-style small-village theatre, mediocre and obvious. Malta needs adulthood because it has had enough of people stuffing pacifiers in its mouth and leaving it in its cradle. Malta is parched, thirsty for a new, modern, youthful politics that is sincere, to begin with, and is then sincere and after that it sincere some more. Malta needs idealists, not opportunists. Workers alone hold the key, a crowd of minds, not ears that consume with interminable indigestion. Thinking distinguishes people from animals. A happy person without thinking enjoys the happiness of animals. Happy animal. There is greater happiness, there is something better than prostitution.
To books add newspapers. Workers must listen to all sides, read all they can, sieve through all newspapers, with some mirth, and with an utterly open mind. The best newspaper is thought. I decide such because I think such, and not because you wish me to. Why do you wish me to? Who birthed you better than I? Where did you get this archaic classicism from? I think as it pleases me because I want to. I think all day and when I wake up at night. Always. Everyone, even a dictator, will have to come to terms with an intelligent Worker. No, friend, you are not for sale, your price is high, you are no less than anybody. Don’t sell yourself cheap lest you’re stepped on.
This is why manual Workers and knowledge Workers must mix. If a politician disseminates ignorance, let us work harder to disseminate learning, let us clean up the filth left behind. Those who developed their mind more than others have a grave moral obligation to teach, to throw light for those who have not learnt or have not been allowed to learn. You need to learn to think properly. Manual workers, experts in other matters, help knowledge Workers in matters which they do not know. Hand in hand, the mind and the hand work together. They are different Workers because their jobs are different but they share the same interests. Only the rich differ from the poor, the dictators from the obedient. Those who separate Workers according to the nature of their work, or according to their party, do so for their interests, not the Workers’. They are traitors of the Workers’ class. This is the great sacrilege, committed in the name of redemption but as egoistic exploitation. Those who cause brothers to quarrel are not their brothers. Thinking is the tool for both categories of Workers – manual and knowledge – whatever their job. Every good step is undertaken by the mind, thinking drives all. Every deceit happens when the mind is sleeping. The thief steals in darkness, ignorance is darkness. Fear ideas!
Apart from God Himself, Workers’ “gods” are Workers. Their suffering and the sacrifices to keep together their own lives are their “gods”. Looking for “gods” among those who do not live as Workers, down here with Workers, is like looking for “gods” in storm clouds and the smoke of pollution.
Christ did not sow hatred before teaching us to love. He was no exploiter preaching justice. He did not change his story for convenience and taught us consistency. He was no rich man telling us to be poor. Except to avoid promotion to kingship, Christ never avoided anyone or anything. Down with careers fiddled with, to stretch conscience like chewing gum, like malleable rubber. Friend, do not suck up because you are no stray dog; fear not punishment because punishment can be honourable; fear not being a victim because you’ll be bitten by false teeth. Fear only the lie; shudder at the thought of living in a country where the lie is institutional. Shrink at false success that pits you against yourself. Do not battle yourself. Think as one: do not think one way in public and another way alone. This is your country, as much as it belongs to those who rule.
The Worker will not be free when they say they are, because freedom is not a word. The Worker is free when they feel they truly are. Only they can freely say when they are free without the need of slogans taught them for the purpose. Only they can design their clothing, only they can try it on for size. The tailor must fulfil the wishes of the wearer. Otherwise, this would be but a baby’s swaddle, done by others to be worn by someone without any control over themselves. Those who want to speak for Workers without obeying them and constantly consulting them would be merely representing themselves. They should set up a new Parliament for themselves, alone. We only treat babies like that. If the Worker is not a baby, every missing consultation is a dictatorship, a breach of a contract that is no longer binding. Either both sides play the game, or nobody does. Consultation is no privilege. Where it is deemed a privilege, there stands dictatorship. And the worst form of dictatorship wears the mask of democracy. Better a sickness you can see than a hidden one.
And the Worker will only be free when they, not the leading upper class, control Broadcasting. They will be free when they can Broadcast straight to a camera, without mincing words and without fear. The Worker is still not free. That is not because anyone is afraid of them. Democracy does not pass examination when individuals make their way by sucking up. It passes examination when people do not fall behind when they criticise with sincerity. And the Workers’ criticism can no longer be secretly whispered to chosen friends, in closed houses, on letters to newspapers. Criticism must be openly made, before dark, loudly, bearing name, surname and address. Only that is democracy. The rest is a dictatorship, a blurred copy of a blurred image of a blurred democracy.
WHOEVER HURTS MY COMRADE HURTS ME
If only one Worker know that if they speak their mind or behave the way they think they ought to, they will be transferred, punished, or skipped for promotion, democracy would be a convenient word for betrayal, a bubble pumped by the powerful for their ends. The powerful like their bubbles. It is a drug to numb Workers, an anaesthetic for a people that has almost always kowtowed and complied, to a Grand Master, to an Inquisitor, to a Governor and to a prime minister. The adult has the right to speak without feeling they need to worship to kneel and genuflect to please. They need to please no one but their conscience. They need to stretch out no hand to beg for charity. Every social entitlement is paid to the worker as a right. No benefactor is paying from their pockets. They are being paid by the tax-paying Worker themselves. No government gives because no government makes its members poor taking their money to put it in a bag from which to pay the crowd. All other talk amounts to the prostitution of the Workers’ mind, colonialism erected on the conviction that Workers are stupid and will thank you for hurting them. No. The Worker should not be the tamed dog that walks at the pace set by the capricious chain put around its neck by its master. When the Worker sucks up they do nothing but widen the distance from the dictating upper classes. They should not do that. Some work hard and earn little; dictators are lounging on the soft armchair of power earning plenty. Let’s not have too many doubts on whose side we should be on.
A state that obeys and is in constant dialogue is a standing service. The state that imposes and talks only to itself is a dangerous class in conflict with the Workers’ class. That state would be a classist monster, formed on the tribal belief that we are not equal. Which zoo has raised this state? Which meat fattened it? What blood does this vampire feast on?
It is a state that can cause fear, but it is also a state that is afraid. And that should cause no fear. Be afraid of fear itself. A dictator is weak. We should cast into the sea, therefore, the kowtowing and the genuflecting. Until that happens, let us not be under any illusion that the Maltese Worker are free. Let us not remain children in this alien world of adults. Let us stop amusing foreigners, let us stop deceiving ourselves and our comrade Workers, red or blue, yellow or purple… Let us grow up a bit because this is still a playschool country, led by children for children. There is such a thing as Maltese colonialism, Maltese over Maltese.
Friend, when you make a mistake fear no one but God. Let nothing shame you except your conscience when you lie. Never lie, even when you’re ordered to do so. Learn how to disobey. Answer nobody’s call, except for the call of your conscience. No mask should cover your face. It is not an ugly face. Do not go silent because your voice is in tune. Do not be embarrassed by your past; do not speak badly of your ancestors – those who do are not Maltese. Learn History so that no one sells you fables. If you are Catholic, feel no shame. Let those who betrayed the Catholic values of Catholic Workers they were supposed to represent feel the shame instead. Do not sell your mind in exchange for your rights. Do not throw yourself prostrate on the floor to beg for your pay. Do not whisper but shout in the streets. The streets belong to you. Do not fear power, because the powerful fear you; do not quiver when faced by power, the powerful squirm in front of you. Power is another disease, it is a spot of rain that blows over, a cloud that sails past.
This is democracy’s examination: in the practicality of facts, not in the unimpressive precision of the Constitution. The Constitution too can be stretched like rubber in the hands of those who manipulate it, chewing gum for those who want to masticate it. When you do that, look what happens. If things improve, you can say ‘here indeed is a democracy, and I am recognised as a Worker’. If things do not improve, understand you are not yet free. Freedom is not a desire. It is an experience. Look at your hands. Feel their binds. Try to walk and see you are not able to. Touch your lips and find they are sewn shut. The worst slavery is indeed the slavery that you mistake for freedom.
When you learn you are still a rug, a toy, a puppet, and a poster, do not shut yourself at home, do not cry with your wife and your children, do not hide, do not lock yourself in, thinking no one will hear your wailing. That is not how you win freedom. Birds do not fly in cages. Horses do not race in stables. You will become a woman, you will become a man because you will have felt your pain and understood it. A day will come and you will say ‘enough’. There will be a sunrise when you will say ‘no more’. You will throw away caution and discard patience. There is another dose for those who do not get it, arguments are not meant for those who quote them; there is a language they will speak to you with which you must reply. You may yet say ‘enough’. And your children will bless your memory and say of you: my mother was a woman indeed; my father was a man. So help you, God.