Snobbery is wrong. But the real issue is inequality

Class is invoked with gusto when denouncing snobbery, but remains taboo when it comes to challenge unequal access to power and wealth

Talking about class and prejudice without questioning inequality is not an exhortation for political change. It is an exercise in useless banter.
Talking about class and prejudice without questioning inequality is not an exhortation for political change. It is an exercise in useless banter.

The declarations by the spouses of Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia decrying bullying episodes against their children has rekindled a debate on the class division between parties.

Everyone has a personal biography. Mine makes me particularly angry at the caricature often presented of the ‘working class’ as a segment of society misrepresented as being more tolerant of political impropriety than others, and for being solely concerned with material gain.

It is a caricature that cuts across the political spectrum: the outcome of the 2017 election is often blamed on working-class and other voters who put bread and butter issues before corruption. But it is also the flipside to an argument made by Labour supporters who rail against ‘holier-than-thou’ anti-corruption activists, which suggests that propriety is only an expectation of a restricted elite.

In reality, what is fundamentally wrong with the self-righteousness of some – but definitely not all – good governance crusaders is not their concern for propriety, but their partisan blinkers.

And the conclusions of the Egrant inquiry may have not exorcised political impropriety but exposed the one-sided narratives that depict one side as the source of all evil.

The ‘enlightened’ children of the working class

I always wondered what my social class background says about me, especially in view of my inclination towards left-wing politics and my failure to fit squarely into the two-party system.

I lived my childhood in Fgura and Gzira. Like many others my family lived through sheer hard work, experienced periods of hardships, but always found the monies for my education. I also attended a church school which attracted a mixed middle-class cohort.

Surely it is also our duty as parents to educate children to grow up as citizens who are not easily exploited by demagogues

I was exposed to politics during the turbulent 1980s. It was a period that helped me to grow up questioning authority. My aversion to favouritism stems from a distant memory of the long queues of people waiting in front of Labour minister Lorry Sant’s villa in Fgura. I was always imbued with a sense of propriety, to never expect favours from anyone. At home my right for private judgement was always respected, even when I started reading Marxist literature in my teens and attending protests and frequenting environmental and Alternattiva Demokratika actions when I was 15 years of age.

I also happen to be acquainted with several friends who grew up in similar environments, brought up in working--class families which valued education and who now also base political choices on both material and ethical considerations. In the past election some voted AD, others PN and others Labour.

But all gave due weight to ethical issues. Including Panamagate.

The Caruana Galizia legacy

The recent reflection on class and politics was triggered by the reactions to declarations made by Michelle Muscat and Nickie Vella de Fremeaux on their children’s experience at being excluded by other kids – both parents send their children to expensive, private schools.

Obviously they do raise a valid point: being nasty to other kids is wrong, irrespective of whether the mechanisms of social exclusion are triggered by political allegiance or class prejudice.

Both women attributed the exclusion not to social class, but to political hatred. However, since social class remains a factor in the political divide between and also within political parties, the discussion triggered on social media was weaponized by class sentiments (one wonders how possible it will be to expect students to remain politically aloof when they will be called to vote at 16; maybe encouraging rational debate in schools could become the best antidote to politics based on prejudice).

Surely enough, class prejudice remains a key element in the way a particular segment of society – which De Fremeaux inelegantly characterised as ‘those who put flowers of Caruana Galizia’s monument’ – demonizes its political adversaries. Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death shocked people from a wide spectrum of Maltese society, including those with no class pretensions as well as activists who attended protests after the assassination.

 Top, Joseph Muscat takes out EU leaders for a traditional Maltese pastizz, declared ‘crude and common’ by the PN’s former president Ann Fenech
Top, Joseph Muscat takes out EU leaders for a traditional Maltese pastizz, declared ‘crude and common’ by the PN’s former president Ann Fenech

But in her writings Caruana Galizia never shied away from contributing to class prejudice. It was wrong. She could have still cut down powerful people to size without resorting to raw class prejudice. But Caruana Galizia also enjoyed ridiculing bad taste, which is where the fine line between taste and class hated was sometimes crossed. And while this has nothing to with the call for justice after her assassination, her legacy has unfortunately split Malta between hagiographers and denigrators with little room for nuance – the same lack of nuance that pervades arguments about class prejudice in Malta.

New Labour and class politics

One cannot deny the lingering class prejudice against Labour supporters.

But this too has become anachronistic when considering that Muscat’s Labour represents little threat to the class structure except perhaps by widening the ranks of the ruling class to new upstarts and so far exempting everyone else from painful austerity.

Labour can be credited with greater social inclusion for people of different sexual orientation, but it has shown very little political will to address class division. And while Joseph Muscat’s leadership on LGBTI issues did result in a change of attitudes in working class mores, his lack of leadership on good governance sends the message that corruption is not so bad after all. It explains why Labour voters deemed it fit to re-elect Konrad Mizzi to parliament.

And this has left the Maltese left bereft of a prudish sense of propriety which in other countries feeds that expectation of left-wing leaders to lead sober lives, and to send strong, ethical messages against the impropriety of opening offshore companies in tax havens like Panama.

Nickie Vella De Fremeaux with her five kids, quite a hefty private school bill...
Nickie Vella De Fremeaux with her five kids, quite a hefty private school bill...
Michelle Muscat dolls up for the Malta Fashion Awards.
Michelle Muscat dolls up for the Malta Fashion Awards.

It remains shocking that this has not been the case with Malta. Indeed, the pain felt by the PM and his wife at being falsely accused of owning a secret Panama company should make them empathetic of the anger of those shocked that a cabinet minister and the PM’s chief of staff owned such a structure. But it is this particular category of voters who are often dismissed as self-righteous and ‘holier than thou’ by those in Labour camp who are completely disconnected from socialist values.

The angst of the ‘holier than thou’

In as highly a partisan set-up as Malta’s, there is always the risk that people tend to be ‘holier than thou’ only when it comes to the stink coming from the other side of the divide.

And it is also very possible to be disconcerted and profoundly uneasy when confronted with crass racism, episodes of conspicuous consumption, and the defence of corrupt or inappropriate behaviour. When lack of education is coupled with social media dependence, such voters are easy targets for politicians like Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini or Nigel Farage, who can exploit ignorance while demolishing democratic rules.

In such a topsy-turvy world these characters are depicted as working-class heroes. But surely it is also our duty as parents to educate children to grow up as citizens who are not easily exploited by demagogues.

As I try to expose my son to sound political values and steer him clear of partisan prejudice, I realise how difficult this is becoming in a consumeristic world that values material wealth over spiritual development. Does this make me and others like me holier than thou?

In some ways yes. One has to recognize that displays of self-righteousness, even when motivated by sound values, tend to be counter-productive – not just in the art of political persuasion but even in the upbringing of children. Too much zeal in promoting certain values may well create a “forbidden fruit” effect.

But still in the post-Brexit and Trump world, many sensible socialists are being immediately shot down as snobs who hold the masses in contempt even when they question the very structures of oppression that keep the class system intact. Like when the Milibands were shot down by the UK tabloid press over their Marxist father Ralph, or when Jeremy Corbyn is ridiculed for his sobriety and reluctance to indulge in the grotesque spectacle of popular culture. And this is so wrong.

The greatest ‘taboo’ facing our society is the reluctance to talk about widening class inequalities

Class conflict in private schools

So why am I taken aback by the sudden interest in ‘class prejudice’ when class is frankly ignored in most other aspects of Maltese social life?

My hunch is that class only matters when the ‘entitled’ upper classes are forced to interact with the aspirational ‘nouveau riche’ – or whenever the latter claim what they feel is their rightful place on the social ladder, but are still shunned by those who feel ‘entitled’ to a superior rung.

So naturally private, independent schools may become a locus of class conflict.

And while this conflict may have real casualties whose plight should be highlighted, it certainly does not translate into calls for a more equal and fairer society. For if one is so concerned about class prejudice one should start questioning whether it even makes sense to have exclusive schools for those who can afford to pay more than others. Everyone deserves the same opportunities in education. It does not make sense in a democratic society to have enclaves for students whose parents can afford to pay more than others.

If the only reason for sending children to a private school is the school “ethos” we should have no problem to integrate them in the public education system in the same way as Church schools already are. So why not introduce ‘lots’ for entrance in to independent schools, just in the same way as Church schools do?

And why is it still of a taboo to talk about social class when it comes to fundamental issues like access to healthcare? Why are we so willing to accept the inequality between those who can afford a GP and those who have to queue in polyclinics? Before 1987 I recall the Nationalist Party proposing ‘a family doctor of your choice scheme’ but this was never implemented probably due to opposition from doctors themselves.

But the greatest ‘taboo’ facing our society is the reluctance to talk about widening class inequalities.

It may well be the case that many working-class people are better off in this time of economic growth. But that does not justify widening gaps in wealth. Inequality is something undesirable, irrespective of how much wealth is created.

Even if some wealth does trickle down to the masses, the concentration of wealth at the top is toxic for social wellbeing. The creation of gated communities which often comes with exclusive access to health and educational services simply results in a more fractured society.

So is the distinction between ‘talented’ foreigners who can buy Maltese citizenship and those who remain disenfranchised despite contributing through taxes and their daily work for up to 20 years on end.

Societies with widening gaps of wealth tend to be less democratic and more oligarchic, simply because influence and wealth are interconnected, irrespective of whether this wealth takes the form of old or new money.

This is why talking about class and prejudice without questioning inequality is not an exhortation for political change. It is an exercise in useless banter.

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