Apparatchiks and the problems of Maltese democracy | Kurt Borg

As a country, we need to destroy this political idolatry, to stop opportunistically defending the indefensible, or be too late in condemning it.

Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

Last Saturday, we witnessed some of the most high-profile arraignments that this country has seen in recent years.

Schadenfreude, that is, the German expression for “relishing in someone else’s suffering” is not exactly a healthy or plausible emotion, but I think it’s undeniable that on Saturday, a great deal of citizens felt something close to that. A victory of sorts, though a very bittersweet one. Because it confirms some of the horrific stories and accusations that have been going on these last couple of years.

It is also noteworthy to say that this is relatively one of the ‘less serious’ of accusations (and we’re talking of graft and a €650,000 kickback!). Which just goes to show the great depth of cases of corruption and financial crime that we have been dealing with. Of course, this case – as Joseph Muscat was quick to remind us, as if that absolves him of all that went on under his tenure – dates back to the pre-2013 Labour electoral victory. What is even the point of such a statement? Does it mean to imply that, since then, all has been rosy? Slowly but (hopefully) surely, we’ll get to unravel what’s in store in those cases that happened under his nose.

I want to reflect on the reactions of what the party apparatchiks, in this case, the Labour-leaning ones. The essence of the point I will make can undoubtedly be stretched to the PN (that is the tragedy of it all), yet in this historical moment, since we’re focusing on what happened last Saturday, it’s the Labour apparatchiks that need reflecting on. Since 2013, Joseph Muscat and his ‘army’ have created an almost unstoppable powerful media. They’ve outsmarted the PN in their use of media, television, social media, branding exercises, presentation, political aesthetic, discourse, etc… creating essentially a political monster.

We see one manifestation of such apparatchiks in the use of internet trolls where it’s difficult not to suspect that, in this case, the Labour party employs – literally or otherwise – a set of trolls whose sole purpose is to deviate political discussions from the truth. Their role is the opposite of clarification: to confuse, dismiss, and propound half-truths. This results in basically putting us one step farther from achieving a truth. All this for the sake of defending their favourite party and toeing the party line. I am honestly intrigued by the psychology of such apparatchiks, not because these people do this because they’re evil, but to the contrary they’re uninterestingly ordinary. It seems that such apparatchiks internalize the narratives being put forward by their party.

A classic example of this is the so-called ‘empty file boxes’ of Simon Busuttil – the same ‘empty files’ that stimulated this whole inquiry, and ultimately led to Keith Schembri, Brian Tonna et al. being refused bail. The level of absurdity that these party narratives sometimes took in these last couple of years is hilarious, were it not so sad and consequential on democratic debate and politics. We see this absurdity every time we encounter these short, quick-fire stock phrases and replies that are bandied about in response to any sort of political critique, in an attempt to undermine or throw dirt either on the speaker or the spoken critique.

We see this happening, until this day, on allegations surrounding Caruana Galizia’s murder – ‘why wasn’t the car parked?’, ‘why wasn’t the dog barking?’, ‘where is her laptop?’ – these absurd counter-accusations that pretend that they are as worthy as the original accusation, or as somehow diluting the seriousness of the crimes being interrogated. This is a failure of political debate and, at some level, of ethics.

We saw this happening too in response to any sort of inquiry or investigation undertaken. The apparatchiks say things like: ‘Ah, these accusations are nonsense – why don’t you look at what your party has done?’; then, once an inquiry is announced, ‘Ah, we have to wait until the inquiry is over – we can’t jump to conclusions, nor attempt any critical analysis’; then, once the inquiry conclusions are out, ‘Ah, the inquiry is nonsense anyway; the inquiry does not prove any crime’; then, once bail is refused, ‘Ah, the courts are abusing of their power in dealing with bail’; or, even, ‘No matter what, Keith we are behind you.’ I mean… Not to mention the infamous ‘fejn kontu meta…?’ (‘where were you when…’) which, although may feel good as a Facebook tirade, hardly holds any water.

Another such apparatchik counter-narrative was the dismissal or discrediting of ‘civil society’ as a concept. I’ve written in the past on the unfortunate consequences that can follow when one ideological camp, with clear past and/or present partisan associations, speak in such a way that they present themselves as the ultimate spokespersons of civil society, revealing in the process their lack of understanding of what a heterogeneous civil society is. But, on the other hand, time and time again, we’ve seen people – including people who should know better, academics, members of the intelligentsia, artists and so on – who would say that any civil society activity (because there was a plurality of them) somehow, by association, gets tarnished, arguing that there’s no reason to attend protests or voice your opinion, lest you be associated with the ‘other side’. A harmful mentality of ‘ma npaxxuhomx’ – a kind of ‘let’s not give some advantage to the other side by, you know, attempting to speak the truth and be critical’.

The funny (though predictable) thing is that, slowly, we are starting to see – and we have seen it happening especially since late 2019 – some of these ‘agents’ distancing themselves in some way, not by admitting that they were mistaken (that is one of the things that is absolutely not done in the current political landscape, a kind of machismo of never revealing any vulnerability that might hint to your having been mistake or fallible). But, for example, by saying that they had always expressed some reservation on that ‘gang’ within the Labour party. Or ‘ah, but the entire Labour party is not equivalent to these gang, and it would be a pity to attack the party because of these people’. And, in so doing, effectively reinforcing and leaving in place the current hegemony and problematic politicians. This is what ultimately enabled Kasco et al to become so strong and seemingly untouchable.

It is also no wonder that so many people – including, again, people who should know better – have been so awkward in dealing with these accusations of corruption. Or, pathetically, going to the extreme of saying things like ‘it’s a pity that these things have happened under Muscat’. A pity not because they reveal the systemic failings of the Labour administration, but because these actions ‘tarnish the many good things that Leader Muscat has done’. A cringe-worthy servilism and a castration of one’s critical mind.

One thing that might explain this psychic identification with Muscat is perhaps the fact that, in his Opposition days, Muscat famously used to meet a huge number of people and stakeholders, charming them with his vacuous all-inclusive rhetoric, perhaps even befriending them, and giving them formal or informal advisory positions. It is no wonder, then, that when the façade was dropping, these same people – apparatchiks, ultimately – literally could not account for it, and were not willing to be consistent in their thinking, at least not publicly. These same apparatchiks take up many people’s time on Facebook engaging in tiring and twisted discussions, and presenting apologies (in the sense of ‘defence’, not in the sense of saying sorry) for their favourite party. Being a member, formally or informally, of a party is absolutely not a problem. The problem arises when the party propaganda serves as your moral and political conscience, instead of one’s thinking.

Another group of apparatchiks are those people who in the past or currently would be benefiting in some way from the current ruling class, either by having advisory positions or would be benefiting informally behind the scenes through some job or favour. When faced with accusations of docility, they would say, ‘ah, but we have done our bit internally. You don’t see us do anything publicly – but we raise hell inside the party headquarters. We don’t wash our dirty laundry in public.’ Something close to this is said to have been going on inside Castille on that infamous November 2019 Cabinet meeting – you know, the same occasion when journalists were locked inside by the ‘muscle apparatchiks’ – that culminated in that 4am press conference by Muscat. Presumably, some Cabinet members, and it’s not clear who they are, are said to have created some trouble ‘internally’ by asking the PM to resign. But none of them effectively condemns in a straight and unambiguous way what was going on beyond cryptic statements.

So this excuse of ‘internal scheming’ is really part of the problem. It dismisses any serious attempt at democracy and cultural critique. Mind you, I have absolutely no doubt that should the situation have been the other way round, and these atrocious actions were to happen under a PN government, these same people – because these people are obviously not stupid: a few of them are even academics or academically-minded – would surely change the discourse and say, ‘ah, but we need courageous people who speak truth to power.’

And then they would start quoting the Hannah Arendts and the Zygmunt Baumans on the dangers of totalitarianism, the importance of critical thinking, the problems of complacency and the relevance of the public sphere and civil society. Arguably, the same quotations and critiques that are being put forward now, dismissed by the party apparatchiks as naïve idealistic ramblings – ‘that’s not how the real world works, you know’. This just goes to show how deep and insidious the grip of the political party is.

This is something that we need to face if we want to a stronger democracy. One way of doing so, surely not the only way, is by solidifying even further political education, both formally in schools and informally as a society. We need to be educating on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable criticism, justification and defence. Celebrating someone’s death – or making up excuses for it – is simply not on. Nor is gleeful relishing in someone else’s going to prison, if this is not coupled with a proper politicisation (to politicise does not mean to add a partisan layer on something, but rather to connect an action with the broader socio-political factors at play) of the issues at stake.

I’m not necessarily a fan of the carceral society we live in – although there is great importance of jailing these people who, until a few days ago were going up and down the stairs of the OPM with fancy suits and a disgusting aura of prepotence, hijacking the democratic instruments of our society. There is something crucial in the images of Keith Schembri absolutely exhausted, with eyes shut, being driven to prison at night. There is something of a democratic victory in this. But we must recognize that this is not just a matter of sticking it to Keith Schembri et al, but a broader issue of political corruption and the state of democracy in this country.

We also need to emphasize ethics education. I say this not only because those in power have been abusing from their position. But also because of those agents who find themselves working in top positions, or end up caught up in all sort of seemingly bureaucratic or ‘pragmatic’ twisting of facts (if they’re, say, an account, financial advisor or lawyer) that ultimately amounts to crime. Apart from the ‘big shots’ (Kasco, Tonna…), we saw less-known financial controllers, perhaps ordinary Joes and Janes, who finish their academic degree and find themselves – perhaps also through ties of family and friends – in a slick position. No doubt that they relished from the luxury and the privileges that come with these positions.

Just look at the photos of Joseph Cuschieri, former MGA Chairman and MFSA CEO, enjoying himself like a fool on Yorgen Fenech’s yacht. Or think of the all expenses paid trip to Las Vegas by Cuschieri and his colleague Edwina Licari, former legal counsel to the MGA and later to the MFSA (note the pattern in job mobility), now accused of drafting – while holding the MGA post – letters responding to the authorities on behalf of Yorgen and his casino. No doubt they enjoyed their moment of such proximity with power and money.

But we saw a few of them last Saturday, weeping and sobbing in court as they were denied bail. They weep because their world came crashing down, as the hand of justice was more far-reaching than their hidden schemes. I have to admit that, on some human level, I feel some sort of sympathy for them. But, on the other hand, these would be the same people who would laugh off any talk of ethics, propriety and civility in public office, civil service and business when they were rolling on a high.

So I would emphasise that we need to boost even further ethics education as a formal component of professionals’ education. We need to spend more time in education speaking about virtues of responsibility, accountability, trustworthiness, truthfulness. And the dangers of thoughtlessness, the dangers of having people who are so willing to lie, deceive, steal, corrupt, fraud. And the virtue of having the courage to stand up to such wrong-doing, to say ‘no’ when it matters – because I do not doubt that some of these people were coerced, sometimes informally through pressure, or wanting to suck up to the Brian Tonnas of this world. But then that’s what you get (and should get) for making such decisions – they’re now in prison. ‘I was just doing my job’ is no excuse, as the trial of Adolf Eichmann taught us.

That’s why, as a country, we need to destroy this political idolatry, to stop opportunistically defending the indefensible, or be too late in condemning it. We must learn to more efficiently stand up to these people, not from a moral high ground of purity, but for the sake of political seriousness, respect for democracy and the belief in a politics that serves the people.

Dr Kurt Borg is a lecturer in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Malta