The PN in transition: how to manage change | Alan Xuereb

Change is inevitable for the PN: the challenge is how the party can become ‘antifragile’, or ritualise the phases of change and move forward | Alan Xuereb

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

How can the Nationalist Party emerge from what seems to be an eight-year period of transitioning out of its former self, as the one-time party of government, into a party that can be trusted to assume the reins of power?

It seems like this period of transition is taking longer than expected for a party that has since 2013 seen three leaders, internecine battles, and even an ideological rift on certain issues of political debates and social issues.

A very quick scan of Maltese newspaper headlines in the past decade reveals a constant reference to PN’s efforts to change. However, these changes are being concretised on more than one level. Still... the PN may be the first political party in Malta to fully embrace “continual liminality”.

Liminality, a “state of transition”, was advanced as a concept by the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, who in his book Les Rites de Passage argued that the energy of any system eventually dissipates, and must be renewed at crucial intervals.

Socially, this renewal can be seen in various rites of passage such as baptisms, graduations, or weddings.

In these rites of passage we have three stages: separation from the old role, a liminal period between roles, and then the assumption of the new role. And every process needs its liturgy: their rituals are activities that signal an important threshold, and they should not be underestimated.

For the PN, this dissipation of energy culminated in the 2013-2017 elections. From then onwards it has been an ongoing liminal phase for the party. One could argue that the PN may embrace this liminality, incorporating it in its organisational philosophy. But permanent liminality could unexpectedly erupt in crisis as well (Johnsen and Sorensen).

Researchers have employed liminality as a way of addressing “collective-level processes” (Söderlund and Borg) such as processes of organisational change, or the creation of a new organisation, and the way organisational members forge a collective identity during such formative processes. Consider the idea of the creation of the PN’s Team Start and the new QattAktar group, but also the idea put forward by Dr Bernard Grech to have a female deputy leader when the leader is male and vice-versa. The new roles of Research President and Social Dialogue President are also an examples of organisational change. Indeed, the PN should go digital and coordinate its efforts on all social and media platforms before the next election. Also, a proper think-tank should be set up dealing with ideology, not with other issues as well, climaxing the ongoing work of the clusters and eventually the work of a broader dialogue exercise (regular but not ongoing) such as ‘Convention PN’.

When transitioning from a stable phase through to an obscure liminal phase and then finally, consolidating into a more stable phase, the temporal factor here is crucial. Because the liminal phase provides the persons involved, with an understanding of who they were, why they behaved like they did as a collective, and in what direction they are currently moving.

So where can we find liminality? Usually, we can see it in organisations facing quandaries when internal groups are trying to reconcile their diverse, and even conflicting norms and values. In others words: ideology.

And here again, ritualisation is important: research shows that this liminal process often depends on the role of the ‘masters of ceremonies’. So consultants are often employed to help organisations pass through their liminal state (Czarniawska and Mazza) by offering rigorous rites of passage that must be accepted, before the new phase starts. Consultants operate as these very masters of ceremonies to organise “the rites of passage” with their external expertise. And it is more pragmatic that the more external these agents are, the better. They help collectives rethink their history and make sense of what is emerging, for example during away-day activities. This has to be a continuing and followed-up process.

Conceptually, this was the idea behind ‘Convention PN’ – an organisation like the PN can encourage a collective, liminal experience by allowing members to take part in “undefined projects” that induce them to question the party structures and identities they take for granted. This should require them to envision new structures, collective identities and alternative realities. Not one, but many: the plural is intentional.

At the end of the day, liminal thinking is the skill of creating change by understanding, shaping, and reframing beliefs. It is the ability to exploit that thin membrane between phases, shifting from one paradigm to another.

So the question that arises is indeed: would the PN still be PN if most of its structures and identities were changed?

One can invoke Plutarch’s ship of Theseus as a thought experiment. It raises the question of whether an object is still fundamentally the same object when it has had all of its components replaced. Thomas Hobbes added another dimension to this paradox: what if the discarded parts of the original ship were collected by someone and used to create a second ship – that is a split in the PN? (I have already argued that starting from scratch and returning as a political force after five years is another illusory assumption, given that the PN has been struggling with interpersonal, ideological and financial issues at least since 2008. Splitting the opposition would result in bigger issues of coordination, duplication of tasks and expenditure, contradictions to the benefit of Labour, and dilution of talent.)

In reality, it is not realistic to have all parts of the PN replaced, but there are addressable corresponding issues. The PN has had distinct, temporal parts throughout its existence. Since its inception it has changed, but its phases are also connected through time, the same way we are connected to our past versions of ourselves.

So the PN does have perpetual continuity as an organisation: it is not simply ‘a thing’, nor a collection of objectively existing parts. Just as in Noam Chomsky’s idea, that as long as there is a space-time continuity between this set of relationships, then there is still “the PN”.

So yes, change is inevitable indeed for the PN. The challenge is how the party will informally assimilate this liminality and become ‘antifragile’, or else, how to ritualise the phases of change and move forward. Choose sagaciously!

Dr. Alan Xuereb is a lawyer-linguist at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. He is the author of Riflessjonijiet dwar il-Ġid Komuni