Grasping the Progressive Ideal

This article appeared on IDEAT Journal Vol. 1The Road To Progress, published by Fondazzjoni IdeatApril 2010, authored by Andrew Sciberras.

There is no doubt that Joseph Muscat’s nation-wide call for a united progressive and moderate movement to affect change in the country’s direction has come at the right moment. Indeed, since the Nationalist Party’s close-shave victory in 2008 things only seem to be going downhill. The onset of the global financial downturn has certainly stalled growth, stability and peace of mind yet the political disaster currently facing government is for the most part its own doing. The Honourable Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and his closest aides have a penchant for consolidatingtheir power-base, leaving his own MP’s, let alone the rest of the country, feeling completely neglected and useless. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the prime minster must first mend the crisis plaguing his fragile one-seat majority before assuming proper leadership of the country. This has left the country ravaged by ubiquitous maladministration across the board ranging from growing unemployment and an intolerable cost of living to the deterioration of the welfare state and a stifling conservative hegemony.
Yet the Labour leader faces a tall order as those on the left demand less talk and more action whereas conservative forces dismiss such talk on movements as hogwash in a clear attempt to preserve and maintain the status-quo. On top of that Muscat must reconcile the differences amongst factions within his own party some of which promote ideological caution whilst others push him to adopt bolder and more ambitious stances. It seems to be an impossible feat especially in a country with a long history of blind partisan loyalty and a bitter political divide. However, movements are no novel concept to Maltese politics. Just five years ago the “Yes” movement successfully campaigned in favour of EU accession and time has shown that civil society can provoke discussion on topical issues, if not prod government to bow its head and heed their call. Such has been the case when civil society pressured the public administration to change course (albeit on individual cases) on environmentally harmful undertakings and, more recently, to kick-start a nation-wide debate on the country’s archaic censorship regime.

But what does the ‘progressive and moderate’ movement actually stand for? This is the one question that merits a swift response if any movement wants to achieve credibility. Surely all movements or coalitions establish their identity by rooting for a similar cause or causes. This does not mean that the individual components of a political movement abandon their loyalties and their allegiances as a qualification for unity but, rather, to work together on points of commonality whilst respecting each other’s differences. It is time to inject a good dose of pluralism in Maltese politics, especially if, as a progressive movement should, we want to address the so-called “democratic deficit” fostered by an inane tribalism and the growing indifference of the common voter. In such climate people’s resentment and apathy becomes all the more understandable and it is absolutely crucial that they do not remain neglected.

Labour does well to recognise this predicament and more so, to listen, understand and give a voice to the disenchanted masses. For no political party, no matter how powerful and distinguished has a monopoly over wisdom. Progress neither begins nor ends with Labour but with the input of each and every individual in society. And what is progress after all? Some want to make believe that it is an imperceptible term used by politicians to make them appear hip and modern. Others may fear that it is a threat to tradition and devoid of values. Sometimes the simplest answer holds the greatest truth. In unsophisticated terms progress is the act of moving forward. Not such an intimidating enterprise for those several thousand who are sick and tired of all the hidden, or indeed barefaced, agendas to keep Malta firmly anchored in the past. And the same goes for those on the left as well.

Progress can only be accomplished by abandoning traditional dogmas still reminiscent of the old left and by becoming more pragmatic, flexible and forward-looking for one cannot possibly solve today’s problems solely by the means of the past. There is absolutely no wrong in building bridges and welcoming new partners, because after all, fruitful debate and viable solutions don’t emerge from close-mindedness but from a broad spectrum of people holding different ideas. Having said that, it would be sheer folly and wholly counter-productive to the movement’s call for change if it purports to be a haven for one and all, that is for the environmentalist and the unscrupulous speculator, the civil libertarian and the moral traditionalist, and so on. This is, in fact, a perception that the Labour Party must address as of now and for the future. As the prime mover in an umbrella movement for change Labour must show that it truly means business and dismantle once and for all the idea that its current existence hinges primarily on politics of convenience.

This is why progressivism, flexible and pragmatic though it may be, must be firmly grounded in democratic values. Progress cannot be achieved if human rights, civil liberties and egalitarianism are placed on the backburner. Progress will stall if social justice and dialogue are substituted by obstinacy and arrogance. Consumers will continue to suffer if they find no solace in a bungled and weak regulatory system. Students will resort to apathy and hopelessness if those who are supposed to represent their interests linger in passivity and indifference. A nation’s precious environmental heritage will be long-forgotten if the authorities tasked with protecting it unquestionably side with speculators. These misfortunes must be tackled head on not just by Labour, which must be ever-present in positing workable alternatives, but by civil society as well including the unions and NGO’s for it is easy to criticise and prolong mediocrity than to work together and achieve concrete results.

The movement must also be ready to embrace modernity and rid itself from the cultural mentality that some things are better left unsaid and unquestioned. Taboos also have an expiry date. Not less than two years ago for instance, the local Curia officially declared war on secularism in its Victory Day homily (September 8, 2008) comparing the threatening idea of secularism to the Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s. Unrelated or otherwise, what came after was a slew of shameful indictments, fines and the potential imprisonment of persons who, knowingly or not, dared to challenge moral norms. Equally damning is the fact that to this very day Maltese society continues to be denied basic liberties such as divorce and finds itself deeply mired in social inequality and a general lack of broadmindedness perpetrated by the powers that be. It truly is a bitter irony for all those who genuinely believed that accession in the European Union would usher a new Renaissance to realise that after six years of EU membership we still do not enjoy comparable rights to those of our European counterparts.

On Church-State relations Muscat hit the nail on the head when he claimed that whilst a steadfast friendship should be maintained both entities are wholly separate in that they do not share any political or moral allegiance to one another. Incidentally, however, Joseph Muscat’s reluctance to go the whole hog on divorce and offer instead a free-vote on the contentious issue has sparked further debate, particularly on a future Labour government’s willingness to adopt this civil right. Whilst one can understand that on moral issues one should not be forced to vote against his or her own personal ethic, it is our firm belief that the current position should be reconsidered, especially in light of the commendable declaration by the Labour leader that the majority must never decide for the minority (although it is highly doubtful whether those in favour of divorce are actually in the minority). After all, Labour did not shy away from decriminalising homosexuality and giving women voting rights even though these measures were highly controversial in their day and age.

Progressivism however should not merely be construed as being analogous to social liberalism. This is a common misconception. More than just an ideology, progressivism encompasses an attitude towards the world of politics that is far less bleak than the divisive dichotomy of liberal versus conservative which tends to dominate popular politics. Progressives must also look to mending today’s decaying economic structures and reversing environmental degradation. In a blatant case of ‘strong with the weak and weak with the strong’, government’s short-term answers to shoring up the spiralling deficit have primarily been based on transferring State monopolies into private hands and ushering a punishing regime of indirect taxation and hidden tariffs. Backtracking on its promise to make sustainable development the core of its five-year program, it has created a monster out of MEPA and shows no shame or regret in defending the use of polluting technology. As a result, citizens feel dejected and have legitimately forgotten that government can be used as a force for good. Good governance cannot possibly be conceived when people are removed from the equation, leaving the ruling party widely exposed to special interests and powerful lobbies. Such a system is devoid of the checks and balances necessary for a democratic society to function properly and transparently.

Change is a difficult endeavour for any one party to achieve on its own. It requires ambition and an unfaltering conviction in the face of dogged opposition by those who fear it. This is why working together in a spirit of pluralist democracy becomes all the more essential. Any movement driven by the idea of change must not neglect reality, however. Whilst it is good to dream, for ideas are born from dreams, one must learn to walk before one can begin to run. In this sense, a movement of progressives and moderates (an unlikely pair for some) can provide harmonious equilibrium between temperance and radical action. This is not to say that both ends of the spectrum should cancel each other out but that there is likelier chance of success in achieving the common aims that they both share by working together. After all by squabbling amongst ourselves we can only nurture the arrogance and mismanagement that has taken Castille by storm. It is time to forge a better future for our country and its people. That time is now.

This article appeared on IDEAT Journal Vol. 1, The Road To Progress, published by Fondazzjoni Ideat April 2010, authored by Andrew Sciberras.

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