The phenomenology of Joseph Muscat

Joseph Muscat’s government likes to be liked. The €200,000 giveaway defines its modus operandi as a populist government.

Muscat's mind at work: paying the price of a power cut is worthwhile but paying the cost of elections is not.
Muscat's mind at work: paying the price of a power cut is worthwhile but paying the cost of elections is not.

My gut reaction to Nationalists grumbling on Facebook about a return to the 1980s during last week's nationwide power cut verged on the offensive: the Marsa power station is way past its expiry date, and increased electricity demand weighs heavily on our antiquated infrastructure. Surely one cannot blame Muscat's government for that.

Neither can one blame any government for accidents in power infrastructure which are bound to happen, irrespective of whether Tonio Fenech or Konrad Mizzi is in power. The problem can only be partly solved through the interconnector and investment in a more modern infrastructure. 

Moreover, incidents during hours of annual peak demand are bound to happen to any government, especially if energy demand continues to increase in proportion to the building frenzy.

While I am critical of the long-term cost of the privatisation of energy and dependence on Azeri gas for the next 18 years, one cannot accuse the present government of sitting on the fence on energy.

Underlying Muscat’s style of government is his desire to be liked by all and sundry

But our PR-sensitive government reacted by dishing out €200,000 in compensation to households which experienced 12-hour power cuts as a “good will gesture”.

This is the same government that justifies postponing local elections as a way to save the country €2.5 million. One may say that awarding €25 to 8,000 families is a symbolic gesture by a government which is not detached from people’s pain. Muscat is fully aware that Lawrence Gonzi’s descent in the polls was a result of his snobbish detachment from everyday hardship.

But I cannot not note the discrepancy between the government’s liberalism in spending to buy consent, and using money as an excuse not to hold local elections in the next four years. Surely saving money is probably only an excuse as the government simply wants to help the hunting lobby subvert the spring hunting referendum, but the message sent out is loud and clear: paying the price of a power cut is worthwhile but paying the cost of elections is not.

Muscat’s audaciousness in thinking out of the box can be seen as anti-establishment, even though another, less exclusive "establishment", is in the making

Underlying Muscat’s style of government is his desire to be liked by all and sundry. Yes this government has taken courageous decisions which alienated moral conservatives, but when it comes to pounds, shillings and pence this government has so far found a way to keep everyone on board: reducing income tax for higher income groups while introducing new universal benefits like child care.  The key to this may well be the ingenious citizenship scheme which is said to have brought €200 million to the country’s coffers, which while morally reprehensible, produces a blatant discrimination between poor and rich migrants.

Muscat is the kind of politician who recognises the importance of reacting to any sign of collective anguish, irrespective of whether it is justified or not. In fact he shows less sensitivity to dissent expressed by environmentalists and social movements, except when entire neighbourhoods rebel.

For now Muscat may continue devising policies which facilitate development and hunting, even if his sensitivity to public opinion may weigh on him at a later stage. There may be a silver lining in Muscat’s sensitivity to criticism, especially when this comes from the left-wing. His turnaround on migration from last year's pushback threat to more sensible talk is one of these rare instances.

Ultimately Muscat resonates with the popular common sense of the aspiring lower middle class. His creed is mildly social democratic and reformist on various aspects of social policy. He is keen on creating a strong safety net through higher stipends and universal child-care for this class, but at the same time he plays on their antipathy against welfare scroungers.

Moreover his message glorifies material wealth and consumption, to which many members of this class aspire to, while shunning any discourse associated with class conflict which he associates with envy.

Even in foreign policy Muscat has cleansed his party of its traditional “Third World-ist” positions and association with the Palestinian struggle. 

In some ways Muscat carries on the Nationalist legacy of Eddie Fenech Adami, while adding both a populist and liberal touch to it.

Yet there is also something qualitatively different in the way Muscat resonates with the popular aspirations in a society which may be becoming more liberal in social mores but probably less sensitive to democratic checks and balances.

In some ways Muscat’s constructed “modern” and popular image is also similar to the more stylish Matteo Renzi’s, but the latter is definitely more conditioned by the reality of a party which still brews dissent and conflict. Muscat has already changed the country for the betterm especially in civil liberties, but when it comes to the exercise of power, he is increasingly becoming like a ‘liberal’ and secularist version of politicians like Turkey’s Erdogan, whose message resonated with the aspiring lower middle class (albeit unlike Malta still influenced by religion) which was out of touch with the political elite. 

For Muscat’s audaciousness in thinking out of the box and to depart from protocol may well be seen as anti-establishment, even when it is clear that another, less exclusive "establishment", is in the making.