Populism and the Left - Michael Briguglio

The Sunday Times 22/07/07


The launching of the rightist Azzjoni Nazzjonali (AN) comes at a time when Malta is undergoing various changes within an increasingly globalised context. Yet the birth of this political party also comes at a time when certain political discourse is being articulated in a populist way. By "populist" I am referring to political ideology, discourse and strategy, which gains leadership and authority through consent of the masses.

I want to make it clear that I absolutely do not support AN. Yet a sober analysis of the birth of this political party shows that it is attempting to appropriate certain issues, which in my view should be better tackled by the political left.

The Maltese left - in its various forms, colours and currents (political parties, trade unions, NGOs, media, etc.) - is, in certain instances, either failing to articulate popular leftist discourse on such issues, or is moving towards the right, or, alternatively, is simply dismissing the possible effectiveness of AN.

I remain flabbergasted by the fact that some naively believe that by labelling AN as fascists, extreme rightists, propagators of 'stupid' and 'false' nonsense and so on will ultimately lead to the demise of this political party.
What such persons seem to downplay is that AN happens to speak a language that strikes a chord with many people. In recent years, various European countries have witnessed similar political trends with rightist parties, especially when the similarity between larger parties fuels scepticism and disillusion among certain categories of voters. Coming back to Malta, AN's effectiveness will probably not mean it would elect an MP, but it can push other parties to the right through defensive strategies due to fear of loss of votes.

As leftists who aspire for a society based on equality, social justice and diversity, we cannot simply close our eyes and pretend that the issues raised by AN do not exist. On the contrary, we should articulate a leftist discourse, which meets the aspirations of the masses. There are various issues that should be tackled, but I shall just mention four: work, welfare, housing and immigration.

The issue of work does not seem fashionable for various commentators, and, surprisingly even for some on the left. Is the left making enough emphasis on the problem of stress on families caused by long working hours for low pay?

Is enough emphasis being made on new forms of exploitation on non-unionised workers, part-timers, contract workers, casual workers and foreign workers? Are policies being articulated to safeguard workers from problems caused by exploitation?

As regards welfare, the 'blame the victim' approach is gaining influence, for example against genuine single parents, who have to juggle between raising young children and work; against partners who do not have the right to marry (e.g., if one of them would be separated) and against certain social groups. Inequalities are carried over to pensionable age, affecting thousands of persons who are not as visible in the public sphere as some other social groups. The abuse carried out by some welfare recipients is being blown out of proportion, fuelling the same 'blame the victim' approach referred to above.

In this regard, the left should not join the chorus of the right, but on the contrary should make it clear that a smaller welfare state will probably result in more inequality and poverty, as has happened in societies that adopted neo-liberal models. Is the left able to offer a more equitable yet popular alternative?
As regards housing, it is more than clear that appropriate state intervention is required to stop the unsustainable rise in housing prices, which is currently badly affecting groups such as low-income earners, young couples and persons moving towards pensionable age with no property.

Who is benefiting from this situation, if not speculators, the building industry and the banks? In addition to proposing the need of social housing for genuine cases, the left should be in the forefront in proposing state subsidies of interest on home loans for social groups, such as those mentioned above.
Immigration is another case in point. The xenophobic and racist slogans being produced by some are definitely objectionable, yet one must analyse their social roots and their political effectiveness and implications. Here it must be said that some on the left seem to be riding the xenophobic bandwagon, which is deplorable. Yet others seem to be cut off from the reality faced by certain categories of workers, showing little solidarity towards them.

In this regard, while the left should defend the rights of immigrants without any reservation, more sensibility should be shown to workers who are experiencing new harsh realities.

The immigration issue is multifaceted and is related to various areas of social life. An analysis of the immigration issue strictly in relation to work should be critical of the global capitalist system of which Malta forms part and of certain neo-liberal policies being adopted by the Nationalist government. These are causing hardship to certain workers and increasing competition between workers themselves, in a race to the bottom. Hence, policies which recognise the demands of workers within a globalised context should be developed and articulated.

The left should also be more vocal in its criticism of EU governments, which are not ready to share Malta's immigration burden. Such governments are not showing solidarity towards both immigrants and Malta.
The left, in its various forms, colours and currents, can and should be a force for social justice and equality through politics. Yet, in certain instances, the wood is being missed for the trees. Space is being created for the populist right. Should we be surprised at the birth of Azzjoni Nazzjonali? The left can fall behind itself if it ever believes it has arrived.