Most of us see the litmus test of a progressive society as a reduced need for top-down ‘government’. In this part of the world, that would translate into reduced bureaucracy, the removal of patronage in its various forms, and more citizen-empowerment. This country has taken much pride in, for instance, the progress made in e-government and technology take-up as key indicators of such empowerment. However, being able to download a tax form rather than queue up for one may be missing the point.
In unravelling his theory of hegemony, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian socialist, political theorist and activist, discusses how governments rule through a measure of coercion and consent – a subtle strategy of the ‘carrot and the stick’. In what we deem to be ‘developed’ societies, we rarely encounter coercion in our daily lives. We consent to the state’s central management of key legislative, executive, economic and judicial functions for the ‘common good’, and accept the state’s exclusive control of the coercive forces (the police, the army, the judiciary) as our insurance policy for ‘peace of mind.’ Once every five years, we exercise our democratic right to vote in a bunch of people who hopefully represent our best interests as citizens, which are hopefully also aligned with those of the majority of the nation. And in the meantime, we try and get on with what matters most: family, study, work, love, play… whatever makes our life meaningful for the short time we make some heat on this planet. We’re all too busy governing ourselves within the boundaries that have been set for us without bothering too much that by doing so, we are also consenting to the subliminal wishes of those who rule over us.
Peter Mayo, a Maltese scholar and an expert on Gramsci, recently published a paper revisiting the role of the state in modern society. This sentence from his paper has a certain resonance: “The State organizes, regulates, ‘educates’, creates and sustains markets, provides surveillance, evaluates, legitimates, forges networks, and represses.”
The State is making a remarkable comeback in contemporary Maltese society, particularly in terms of its desire to ‘educate’, ‘surveil’ and ‘repress’ – albeit for reasons which appear, at face value, to be unrelated to Peter’s erudite work. Here are three instances where the state or its coercive forces have been making the news:
This is the old story which refuses to go away. First, a play called ‘Stitching’, directed by my old friend Chris Gatt got banned. Then the University rector reported the writer and student publisher of a short story to the police, on the grounds of obscenity, paving the way for a court case. Although the case was eventually thrown out, the Attorney General has appealed against the court verdict acquitting Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri from obscenity charges. The reason behind the appeal? The chief law officer of the state believes that God’s ego is ‘bigger than the biggest of egos of even more famous writers.’ While we wait for another appeal to go through the motions, at the tax-payers’ expense, Al Jazeera picked up on the censorship story. Although the fly on the wall ‘documentary’ has a certain cringe / sensationalist bent to it – as the end credits roll up, you realise that what the producers thought was a ‘done and dusted case’ is going to rumble on for a while longer. There is more where this came from, including a short film aptly called ‘Censorship Fortress‘.
For us, the debate on divorce in Malta is a non-issue. Things got so convoluted when the two political parties started bickering about terminology and procedure that we just decided to ‘switch off’ until the voting is over and we find out if Maltese citizens can exercise what is a fundamental right in the majority world. Except that we now have a situation where 2,800 young people cannot vote in the referendum because of another failure to respect ‘procedure’. Something just doesn’t stack up – even while politicians chat about alternative systems to ensure this scenario is not repeated in the future. By which time, it’s all too late for some.
The police are starting to enforce a regulation that bans the sale of alcohol in public, open air events where minors may be present. Unless Government makes some urgent amendments to the legislation, soon you won’t be able to have a cool beer and: listen to jazz by the water, attend one of the events organised during the Malta Arts Festival; cheer your village band club at the festa; dance on the beach; or wait for Lady Gaga or her protege to ruffle some feathers at the Isle of MTV.
If you try and contextualise this within our 21st century ‘sense of being’, all of the above seems odd, farcical, childish – even trivial.
While our neighbours in Africa are putting their lives on the line to fight brutal regimes, in Malta, people in a position of power appear to be indulging in a spot of social engineering. You could even think that the above ‘crises’ are simply a reflection of public incompetence, mistakes made by misguided people in a position of power.
But the questions still rankle:
1. In a country where lawyers are two a penny, how is it possible that laws are ‘misinterpreted’ or drafted with such flaws?
2. Who are these power-brokers trying to protect, in their various ‘morality’ campaigns?
3. Are the people making these decisions operating on their own, or is it at the behest of other powerful social groups within civil society?
4. Are the police misinterpreting the law or abusing of their power?
5. Are our parliamentarians increasingly disconnected from our daily lives?
6. Is there more of this to come?
We live in strange, interesting, worrying times.
Photo: Claude Attard Bezzina