Populism and the left - a reaffirmation - Michael Briguglio



Josie Muscat, leader of Azzjoni Nazzjonali (The Sunday Times, August 26), replied to my two articles in The Sunday Times entitled 'Populism and the Left' (July 22) and 'For a Budget based on social justice' (August 20).

To begin with, may I make it clear that I did not write my articles on behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika. I have no role - neither formal nor informal - in AD, save for that of local councillor due to my re-election to this post in 2006.

Dr Muscat says that "the welfare state is a contraceptive to the generation of wealth" and tells people that they have "thrown" millions of liri to help the "needy".

May I remind Dr Muscat that the millions of liri spent by the welfare state include money for pensions, education, healthcare and so many other social services, which have helped improved the quality of life of thousands of citizens, thus positioning Malta in high places in tables that measure development and quality of life, such as those of the United Nations Development Programme.

It is thanks to the construction of the welfare state by Malta's Labour movement, and the consequent development of various welfare schemes by subsequent governments, that Malta enjoys such a high status in this regard, even though recent neo-liberal reforms, such as privatisation, do not augur well in terms of equality.

The alternative to such a situation would be having privatised welfare, which, rather than being accessible to everyone, is accessible only to those who afford it and to certain selected social groups that qualify for such benefits.

I invite Dr Muscat to consult various sociological studies on social policy, which clearly show that societies that are characterised by high state investment in social welfare are characterised by higher rates of equality and quality of life than societies that rely to a very high extent on the private sector for the provision of welfare.

Gosta Esping Andersen's studies on the 'three-worlds' of welfare are a case in point - suffice to compare the levels of inequality in the United States (characterised by a weak welfare state) with those in Sweden (characterised by a strong welfare state).

Both these societies are wealthy, yet their orientation on social policy differs. Of course, a comparative analysis of inequality in different societies takes into consideration various economic, political, cultural and ideological factors, among others, but this would go beyond the scope of this article.

Dr Muscat proceeds to speak about the underclass, repeating New Right mantras which dump all poor people in one category, assuming that they have a "breakdown of values". The term "underclass" is very elastic, providing simplistic ways to explain social problems while stigmatising certain social groups, such as single parents and unemployed youth in the process.

It is inequality and poverty that result in problems for such groups of people, and not the other way round. And a reduced welfare state is likely to increase poverty.

Having said this, I want to make it clear that welfare dependency can be a problem but, as I said previously, welfare needn't always take the form of cash benefits, even though this is a vital form of assistance through which people can be compensated for inequalities resulting from the capitalist system, such as unemployment.

Indeed, social investment, which emphasises equality and social inclusion to cover new forms of risk, can also include guidance, investment in human resources and life-long education, family-friendly work practices, and encouragement of initiative. These can result in reduced, rather than additional dependency.

Dr Muscat also tries to depict me as someone who considers the nation as some form of historical monstrosity, yet I can assure him that this can't be further from the truth. To the contrary, I believe that the nation state is a site of struggle (political, economic, ideological, etc.), which in turn exerts power.

I happen to believe that the political left offers the most democratic form of power and which results in the highest levels of equality and social justice. Yet to assume that the nation state is disconnected from the global context is akin to living on another planet. Power is exerted at local, regional, national and supranational levels. Hence the role of politics at such levels.

The nation state plays a key role in negotiating within international fora. For example, if Malta manages to convince the EU on proper burden sharing in the case of immigrants, this would be an example of global politics to the advantage of a nation. The nation state and globalisation cannot be seen in isolation from each other.

As regards Dr Muscat's attacks on the political Left, may I remind him that leftist movements, such as working class movements during the 19th and 20th centuries, have helped bring about various improvements in the living conditions of millions of people.

Of course, this historical fact is to be coupled with other factors that led to stronger welfare states, including the structural needs of the capitalist system (e.g., improved educational levels among workers) and the need for capitalism to obtain legitimacy, thus saving itself from its worst excesses.

Yet, how sustainable is this? As the welfare state expands, the contradictions of capitalism become more evident. Increased costs (such as those on pensions, due to aging populations) and growing social needs can result in a fiscal crisis of the state, which in turn can result in welfare cuts of the neo-liberal type, which apparently include Azzjoni Nazzjonali as its supporters.

This can have social and political consequences, resulting in increased social conflict and antagonism. It is precisely here that the political Left has a role to play, pushing for a more equal society. Indeed, the Left should articulate universalist policies and discourse that meet the particular aspirations of the masses.

Michael Briguglio is public relations officer of Zminijietna - Voice of the Left, web: www.michaelbriguglio.com