Labour in labour

Re-inventing the Malta Labour Party (and Maltese politics): an unauthorised tazebao.

Ranier’s Thesis.

Posted by fcb on July 9, 2008

The well known columnist Ranier Fsadni teaches social anthropology at the University of Malta. A CV we found on internet informs us that he is also chairperson of the PN front organisation AZAD and is or was an advisor at the Office of the Prime Minister. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he is related to Rev. Peter Serracino Inglott, Rector Emeritus and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Malta, himself a well known advisor to the Nationalist Party and two Nationalist Prime Ministers. Former MLP president Mario Vella, in his 1989 book on the relationship between Serracino Inglott’ philosophical output and his political role, Reflections in a Canvas Bag: Beginning Philosophy between Politics and History,  writes that “had he (PSI) not existed, the Nationalist Party would have had to invent him”.

The Serracino Inglott that emerges from Vella’s book is that of the grey eminence of the Nationalist party’s transformation, in the period between the mid-70s and the mid-80s, from a network of conservative local notables with a somewhat restricted social base and heavily dependent on the Church for electoral mass mobilisation, into a modern popular party loosely modelled on the Italian Democrazia Cristiana and also – but more remotely –  inspired by the CDU, Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, the bigger of the two German centre-right Christian parties. More anecdotal evidence indicates that the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung), an organisation set up in 1956 as the “Society for Christian Democratic Education Work” and closely associated with the CDU, assisted the Nationalist Party to set up and develop AZAD.

But back to Ranier Fsadni. In a piece entitled The Liberal Turn, published in The Times of Malta of June 19, ( http://archive.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20080619/opinion/the-liberal-turn/) Fsadni articulates a very interesting thesis, one that we will henceforth refer to as Ranier’s Thesis. In a manner heavily reminescent of his uncle Peter, Fsadni begins by referring us to the distinction in classical rhetoric between “pathos (impact on audience), logos (what a thoughtful judge would make of an argument) and ethos (the spirit incarnated by an argument)” with a view to “help us notice certain moves and slides in Dr Muscat’s rhetoric and its likely future force”.

Then he moves swiftly to the point. These are the key passages: “While in the name of openness Dr Muscat is proposing to dissolve political polarisation in Malta, what he in fact wants to do is replace one polarisation with another: the PN-MLP divide will be substituted by a ‘conservative-liberal’ divide. He has already accused Lawrence Gonzi of being a conservative. It is a label that might stick. If so, the MLP will make inroads among some of the demographic groups where the Nationalist Party has in recent elections registered significant strength: youth and the middle-aged professional class. In fact, so far anyway, the PN is neither conservative nor progressive. Like the MLP it embraces a practical, if more fragile, synthesis of both”.

In other words, this is Ranier’s Thesis: In a bid to broaden the Labour Party’s support base, Joseph Muscat intends to reconstruct it as a party that appeals to all those who recognise themselves as progressives, regardless of their ideological roots. To do so he will have to convert the conservative elements within Labour to the progressive side. If he succedes to do so, Ranier argues, Joseph Muscat will shatter the Nationalist Party’s leading edge amongst certain socio-economic groups, especially in particular age strata. Not bad, the guy’s smart.

The calculation he makes (but does not show us the workings) is probably correct. This is the sub-text: If we line up progressive and conservative Labourites vs progressive and conservative Nationalists, the Nationalist Party gets the majority. If, on the other hand, we line up all progressives vs all conservatives, then the party of the progressives gets the majority. Ranier warns the Nationalist Party that Joseph Muscat has worked this out and plans to win the majority by bringing to Labour as many progressives as possible, even if this means making significant compromises.

So far Ranier’s Thesis is clear and unequivocal – even if it stands or falls on the assumption that in Malta fior del mondo there are more progressive voters than conservative ones – but he goes further. Beyond this point, however, his thesis becomes somewhat fuzzier and we think we know why. He fears, and warns the Nationalists accordingly, that if Joseph succeeds to a sufficient extent in labelling Gonzi as a conservative, then (quote) “the MLP will make inroads among some of the demographic groups where the Nationalist Party has in recent elections registered significant strength: youth and the middle-aged professional class”.

Ranier, tellingly, focuses on Lawrence Gonzi (“He [JM] has already accused Lawrence Gonzi of being a conservative. It is a label that might stick.”). Although he cannot spell it out without helping Joseph Muscat advance closer to his alleged goal, what Rainer is saying is that Gonzi may well become the Nationalist party’s ultimate problem. As a matter of fact, Ranier is quick to reassure the readers of The Times of Malta that, per se, the Nationalist Party “so far anyway, […] is neither conservative nor progressive”. Driven by the need not to be too clear, Ranier’s Thesis is condemned to fuzziness.

Hence Ranier concedes that the Nationalist Party “like the MLP […] embraces a practical, if more fragile, synthesis of both ” progressive and conservative elements. Hmmm…more fragile? Did he say “more fragile”? If we look hard enough, through the inevitable fuzziness, Raniers’ Thesis is sufficiently clear: If Joseph continues along this path and unless the Nationalist Party does something about it, a critical mass of progressives will rally around him. The fragile synthesis (his words) between progressives and conservatives that gives the Nationalist Party its political competitive edge will snap under the strain. Within this scenario, Lawrence Gonzi (on whom the conservative label “might stick”) is a liability.

Ranier’s clarion call is not aimed at the general public, let alone at Labour. It is aimed at the relatively restricted caucuses that determine the future of the Nationalist Party (for a taste of how this works, see our post of June 5 It-tbatija tat-tiġdid: ‘Peppinu’ Cassar dwar kif intgħażel Eddie Fenech Adami fl-1977). Like Peter Serracino Inglott in the 70s and 80s, Ranier Fsadni is desperately struggling to convince those that matter in and around the Nationalist Party that they cannot hide their head in the sand. Their party must become less conservative or lose power. 

Whereas former PN general secretary Joe Saliba – has he learnt anything from his self-proclaimed mentor, Joe Friggieri, Peter Serracino Inglott’s successor as the Professor of Philosophy, except for evasive distinguos ? – has reassured his party that Joseph Muscat may be an alternative to his predecessor but is not an alternative to Lawrence Gonzi, Ranier –  who has evidently had the benefit of a profounder teacher – is not so certain. No doubt he and his fellow Nationalist progressives (certainly a minority but a significant one) will be fighting tooth and nail to prevent the majority of Nationalist conservatives from taking over the party completely. If they do, they will simplify Joseph’s job.

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7 Responses to “Ranier’s Thesis.”

  1. danny attard said

    Ranier’s Thesis teases philosophical taste buds but misses the wood for the trees.

    One can stress-test it by defining ‘progressive’.

    As one embarks on this intricate task, Rainer’s thesis quickly crumbles.

    Stress ‘progressive’ at a limit…abortion…

    Progressive immediately retreats to present boarders…pragmatism

    Gonzi is indeed conservative. And it is not just a matter of divorce. It includes transport, alternative energy sources, education…But remember that an important section of the core labour vote is also conservative in nature. It has to be a real revolution. To what extent should we go down this road? And as Labour becomes more and more progressive, expect Dalli and Gatt to jump on our momentum.

    Labour can show itself to be the progressive party. But its priority is more organisational in nature. Labour needs to enhance its credibility credentials.

    Just imagine how a proposal to have a second university will flounder on current lack of credibility (tipo reception class.

    Note how the gay community continues to be NP leaning despite hostile NP philosophy in their respect. The NP is willing to zoom sectorial even if in the final few weeks before elections. Labour somehow remains too macro.

    The major task, therefore, is not only policy but a need to convince the public that Labour is Government material. This is not achieved by policy (30%) as by organisation (50%).

    This is where Labour ultimately failed. And this is where Labour has to win.

    Take the last electoral campaign. Labour and NP antics convinced the public that Government was well past its sell-by date.

    That was easy, people were and remain convinced.

    Yet this was only Half-time stage. Labour had to do the hard bit in the second half: convince the public that Labour is Government material.

    Obviously, the Nationalist Party had only one strategy left. Gonzipn plus Labour ma tistax tafdah. People knew this months before election time.

    The Nationalist Party opened their Gonzipn plus Labour ma tistax tafdah guns.

    Then came Labour’s retort – amazingly, instead of the ‘Labour is Government material’ we fired our ammunition on ‘NP hopeless’ target, a target that had been demolished years before.

    What is tragic in all this is that the written plan got it right.

    Gvern tal-laburisti or something to this effect was the first self-inflicted hole of significance. That our case that ‘we are Government material’ was kept tucked away in some drawer, beggars belief.

    Our news product kept screaming in the face of the viewer ‘Opposition’ (as it still does).

    A critical mass of sensible community leaders was absent despite many excellent individuals. It beggars belief that in the wake of all this, our SG hangs on. I must say it is so demoralising.

    Yes, the Ranier’s Thesis is after all a limb. But on its own it can take us nowhere.

    When one reads a Labour newspaper, hears a labour spoksperson, follows the news, that person has to see ‘Government material’ printed all over. So much to be done. So exciting.

    Danny

  2. Andrew Abela said

    Danny is right but misses the point. It is not important whether Ranier’s Thesis is right or wrong. The point is that the more far-seeing of Nationalists are unsatisfied with their Party’s self-satisfied reaction to Joseph Muscat. You will recall (seems ages ago) that their line before he was elected leader was that Joseph would succeed because the Party machine wanted him to succeed Alfred Sant whose puppet ‘poodle’ he was meant to be, the rationale behind this being that the Party machine did not want anything to change and it believed that Joseph was a guarantee of continuity. Well, now that Joseph has shown beyond the remotest shadow of doubt that he is nobody’s man and that he will be pushing through an unprecedented programme of reforms (a veritable “terremot”, as he calls it), the Nationalists have dropped the ‘poodle’ or puppet theme. They have replaced it with a grudging admission that Joseph is indeed innovative but – end of the concession – although he is an alternative to Alfred Sant, he is not an alternative to Lawrence Gonzi (let’s call this second line of defence the ‘limited alternative’ line). Ranier Fsadni’s article – almost certainly inspired by Peter Serracino Inglott, the man who was behind the Nationalist Party’s modernisation in the 70s and 80s, shows that the PN’s the ‘limited alternative’ option is not good enough either. Joseph could become an alternative to Gonzi, he warns the PN, unless the PN’s Kap manages to transform himself into an even more progressive leader than Joseph. Although he does not press the point, he also suggests that if Gonzi fails to do so, there are progressives with the PN who could be a credible alternative to Gonzi and, therefore, to Joseph. It is as if the PN has come full-circle. Peter Serracino Inglott advised those who in the mid-70s realised that with the conservative Borg Olivier the PN could not stand up to Mintoff. His nephew Ranier today could become the advisor of thos who may be beginning to realise that with the conservative Gonzi the PN cannot resist the ascent of the progressive Joseph Muscat.

    Andrew Abela

  3. fabrizioellul said

    @ Andrew

    ‘…Gonzi, he warns the PN, unless the PN’s Kap manages to transform himself into an even more progressive leader than Joseph.’

    He can’t; he already admitted that he is against ‘divorce’. Beside, he has too much of a baggage to become a progressive leader.Indeed, why do you think the PN speak of a referendum on divorce?

    Fabrizio

  4. Andrew Sciberras said

    In my honest opinion I very much doubt whether how strong the progressive movement in Malta really is. Progressive groups have in the past and up to this very day and age have been denigrated and maligned by the populist factions that make up the majority on these islands. Take a look at AD, which up to March 2008 was Malta’s leading progressive party (and probably still is) and see how it fared in general elections. True – AD’s insistence on putting environmental issues always at the forefront, as noble as it may be, is not the only solution to the country’s problems and their policies have to be broadened, a fact which the party itself has admitted. Also take a look at the independent media, which is probably even more conservative than the major parties themselves (save, and I say this with the utmost responsibility, MediaToday i.e. Malta Today and Illum).

    Under 20 years of Nationalist dominion, Malta has suffered a subtle slide into what Antonio Gramsci calls in his Prison Notebooks a ‘cultural hegemony’. I quote from a Wikipedia article (found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_hegemony):

    “In advanced capitalist societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture had indoctrinated workers to a false consciousness. Instead of working towards a revolution that would truly serve their collective needs, workers in “advanced” societies were listening to the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, seeking consumer opportunities and middle-class status, embracing an individualist ethos of success through competition, and/or accepting the guidance of bourgeois religious leaders.”

    It is for this reason, I believe, that Malta is probably one of, if not, the most conservative nation(s) in the Western World. Of course, Gramsci’s rhetoric was of inducing the working-classes to a Communist revolution which is hardly relevant today, but his thesis on cultural hegemony still make a lot of sense. Take a look at the Church-State “divide” in Malta where there is more unity rather than divide. Just yesterday I read a front-page article on Malta Today which revealed how the word ‘condom’ still seems to be a taboo. I wonder whether every Maltese citizen is aware that Malta is one of only two countries on earth where divorce is outlawed, the other being The Philippines. I also wonder whether it is this ultra-conservative status-quo that drives political leaders, such as Joseph Muscat, to distance himself from promoting the concept of gay marriage.

    But on the bright side, and I truly feel this, what where mere sparks of a progressive movement are slowly turning into a small flame on a matchstick. It will take a lot of time, and one wonders if it will be possible to transform this little flame into a gargantuan burning bonfire. But the transition from spark to flame is already a step forward and it is a threat to the conservative cultural hegemony that the NP has been successfully creating with little opposition to trouble it. If Joseph Muscat has played a role in transforming this spark into a flickering flame than there is no doubt that Ranier Fsadni is doing his utmost to make the NP political machinery aware of this because if the status-quo cannot be restored than use an old trick in the book (which the NP has always cunningly used): make the new status-quo your very own.

    Andrew Sciberras

  5. danny attard said

    Andrew’s points are completely valid. My argumentation seeks to cascade onto a next level, less philosophical, more pragmatic perhaps:

    1. Did Labour lose 2008 because it was not sufficiently liberal/progressive? I think not

    2. Did Labour lose because it failed to inspire hope for better living standards? Possibly. Labour also had the advantage that the general population is bored stiff and is crying out for something that is different, yet unthreatening.

    3. Did the NP win because they inspired such hope? I do not think so. (possibly they inspired confidence in the youth vote).

    4. So why did the NP win? Because the NP was seen as a safer bet at general admin than labour who did not come across as a ‘safe’ option. The NP ditched unwanted cargo, presented a Gonzipn formula as a single pill solution, at the very tail-end of the electoral process, so as to keep the fragile formula away from intense scrutiny.

    5. Can Joseph inspire hope for a better living experience through his progressive agenda? Yes he can

    6. Will that be enough to win a next election? probably not

    7. What else is needed? MLP must convince that it can provide reasonable ‘safe’ Government

    9. So why should the far-seeing Nationalists worry at the present state of affairs?

    a. Because Joseph’s vision can significantly outshine Gonzi’s star

    b. Because Joseph’s vision is desperately needed at ground zero (ie it is not just a marketing ploy)

    c. Because the thin layer of gloss, that made the Gonzipn formula shine, peals off and the naked truth is there to behold (armier, income tax promises, spring hunting, shipyards, pfp, mepa, hikes in energy bills, etc etc etc etc)

    d. Licking together a fresh gonzipn model by 2013 will be even harder to achieve despite a few random projects. Malta carries significant limp elements (first among which is our horrible environment record) resulting from a ten-year dose of acute Gonzi conservatism.

    e, If Labour earns back its credibility, the NP may only have a chance if they ditch Gonzi half-way through and replace him with a progressive fox around whom they will be able to build a new hope based on a progressive vision that domestic circumstances cry our for.

    f. I can not see the NP ditching Gonzi.

    Danny

    Labour’s main challenge, therefore, is that of earning its Governability spurs-50% (to compliment a progressive agenda 30%)

  6. We should beware of anyone putting his candidature not precisely to serve but as a springboard for his future. We want people who work disinteresting, looking ahead but not in one direction. It is useless to be an administrator just for the name of it. Those who have given proof of their worth in the past are surely known whether young or old. They ought to be trusted to fill a pertinent post.
    Joseph has never shown that his aim was to become leader but to be of service. This was recognised and he got what he deserved, responsibility to continue to serve. That is what he is doing. He is open to conviction but not to be lead.
    Ranier and Peter show panic. Their plans to mould a P.N. is in danger. They have to think of some other cast solid enough to pour material that resist foreseen cracks.

    Michael

  7. So many words to explain the glaringly obvious.

    I’ll bet you that this is how Your Leader did it. I would’ve made exactly the same calculation.

    Laburisti (jibqghu jivvutawlek taghmel x’taghmel): 150,000, suq.
    Nazzjonalisti li xebghu bil-Knisja tindahal f’kollox u ‘saru moderni’: 20,000, suq.
    Gewwa x-xileb Jason.

    Easy, free of waffle and effective. Pathos, logos and ethos mon cul! Labour in Labour? More like labouring your point!

    Sigmund Bonello

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