Inequality is the biggest obstacle to national unity | Aleks Farrugia

Author and journalist ALEKS FARRUGIA argues that true ‘national unity’ cannot be achieved at the expense of minority voices in the country; and that if we are to find common ground as a nation, we have to first tackle the issue of inequality

Aleks Farrugia (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Aleks Farrugia (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

In a recent speech at the President’s conference on national unity, you argued that there are different narratives about what it means to be ‘Maltese’… and that no one narrative can be imposed on all the others. First of all, is that a correct interpretation of your argument? And if so: how much of an obstacle is inequality, to the quest for national unity?

Let me start off by saying that… yes, I think that inequality is the basis of everything; it is, in fact, the biggest obstacle to national unity. Like it or not, we live in a society in which there is a multiplicity of different narratives; and the more dominant of these narratives do, very often, exclude other narratives.

For instance: there are Maltese people, who are ‘Maltese’ because they were born in Malta; and there are others who were not born in Malta; but they are here, and they want to be Maltese. But they are excluded. And there are other categories that tend to be left out of the discussion, too.

So whichever combination you choose: the fact that there is a dominant discourse – or discourses; because there is more than one – means that the point of departure, in a discussion about ‘national unity’, is already distorted. For some, Malta means ‘a land of milk of honey’. But for others… it is a disaster. It is ‘arid land’.

I cannot accept that. As a point of departure, the first thing we have to tackle is precisely this uneven platform. That was the first point I wanted to make [in that speech]. One thing I didn’t want, however, is that we embark on a discussion about ‘national unity’… pretending that ‘we are all equal’.

We are not ‘all equal’. We are not even all equal even as citizens… let alone as human beings. If we were to look around ourselves with open eyes, it would be very clear that there are people out there who are neglected… voiceless… who live in deprivation. And that is something I wanted to bring to the table.

Having said this: I am not a ‘nationalist’ – in the broader (non-partisan) sense of the word. I don’t consider myself to be particularly ‘patriotic’, either. But I do believe in social justice. That, to me, should be the underlying principle, in any discussion about national unity.

You also argued that ‘culture’, in its widest sense, is a means of bridging that gap between conflicting narratives. The example you gave was of Sibelius: the national composer of Finland, whose music was instrumental (if you’ll excuse the pun) in the forging of that country’s national identity. Am I correct in interpreting that – in your view – the same cultural process has yet to seriously take place in Malta?

I would say that it has yet to even begin. If you look at our historical development, starting from the Colonialist period: you will see that our national identity was always moulded, not by ourselves, but by the colonizer. But this is an inevitable consequence of colonialism; and Malta is not the only country to have been affected by it.

The problem, however, is that when Malta became an independent nation, there was never really any concerted effort to try to understand ‘who we are’. So if I mentioned Sibelius, it was because – despite the fact that Malta and Finland are, in many ways, geographically the opposite of one another – there are nonetheless many, many parallelisms.

Both countries were governed by colonial powers for long periods; both had to struggle to forge an identity of their own; and both countries are bilingual. The difference, however, is that Finland also did some soul-searching. We, on the other hand, haven’t even started the soul-searching process yet.

But there is another reason I mentioned culture. Culture does not do away with the different narratives that exist; what it does is bring all these narratives onto a civilized platform. It creates something new out of the chaos of power-struggles between different narratives; it creates an identity.

And ‘identity’ does not consist of ‘pastizzi’, or ‘fenkati’, or the ‘festa’, or ‘il-banda’. Those things are not, in themselves, an ‘identity’; and some of them are, in any case, just myths. True identity arises out of the creative struggle between different narratives; and culture provides us with a civilized platform, from which something creative can emerge.

It is not the only platform, naturally; but the other platforms that exist are not really ‘civilised’. Go on social media, for instance, and you will see that there is no real ‘civilization’ there. There is no creativity; no construction… there is just the wildest instincts of opposing narratives, all trying to simply annihilate each other.

Culture, however, can be a platform for the emergence of an identity: but not in the sense of creating a monolithic discourse. I don’t like monolithic discourses, myself; I would feel very uncomfortable with that. And identity doesn’t have to be monolithic: people are, by their very nature, different; and I myself tend to appreciate others, not for the ways in which they are similar to me… but rather, for the ways in which they differ.

What is important, however, is that something new – something creative; something that can help the country to grow together, with all its internal differences – does eventually emerge, out of all this creative tension. That, ultimately, was the point I was trying to make about culture.

But I also acknowledge that not everyone will agree. In fact, I was criticized for being ‘too idealistic’…

That pre-empts a question I was going to ask anyway: do you consider yourself to be an idealist? And – given that the opposite of idealism is ultimately cynicism (much more than pessimism, or nihilism) – do you feel that Malta has, in fact, become very cynical in its approach to such matters?

First of all: I do believe in idealism, yes. I think that if we were to discard all our idealism, we would be very… ‘empty’. Because human beings need to somehow believe in something. It could be God; it could be ‘the party’; but whatever it is, there is an underlying need to believe in something that is ‘too perfect to be true’.

But I also think that there is an element of cynicism that is, in itself, also part of ‘being Maltese’. And this comes partly from our history. Throughout our history, we were always servants; and servants, by definition, do not have the luxuries that the masters have. So they have to make ends meet, somehow; they have to ‘make do’. This is where that very Maltese notion of ‘tirranga’ ultimately comes from: it was our way of coping – or surviving – the old servant/master relationship.

And yes: this gives rise to cynicism, at the end of the day. To be fair, however: I do think that there were moments, after Independence, when we tried to get rid of that cynicism.  But each time we tried to climb out of that hole… for some reason, we always ended up falling back into it.

At this particular moment in time, however – when all the structural deficiencies that have existed for decades, all seem to have suddenly imploded around us – I think that cynicism has taken over completely. From my own point of view, for example: I find that I am struggling against myself, not to be a cynic. There is a sense of betrayal, all around us, that makes disillusionment – and, ultimately, cynicism – more or less inevitable.

And it is for this reason that I think that the antidote has to be a healthy dose of idealism. Because if we were to let go of all sense of idealism completely…

… let me put it another way. Some of the criticism I received ran along the lines that: corruption has always been there… and it’s everywhere, not just Malta… there is always going to be social conflict… there will never be a ‘classless society’… and so on.

There may even be some truth to all that: even though I personally do not believe in any form of absolute truth… not even in what I myself am saying right now. But if we use all that as an excuse to abandon all sense of idealism completely, then… we’re dead. We’re not moving. There could be no progress; nothing would ever change.

And right now, there is an urgency for things to change. Right now, we find ourselves at a critical historical conjuncture: where the political class has been, I think, de-legitimised. The same could be said for parts of civil society… as well as parts of the media. So when we look around ourselves: what else remains? If there is no idealism left, anywhere to be seen… how can we ever extricate ourselves from this predicament?

Some, however, would argue that we’ve already reached that state of complete cynicism. When it comes to the environment, for instance: there seems to be a growing sense of hopelessness, in the face of rampant environmental destruction for pecuniary gain. Some might even argue that it is simply not worth fighting to safeguard the environment any more… because here is too little of it left to even bother saving. Would you consider that perception, too, to be one of the ‘minority narratives’ that got ‘excluded’ from national discourse?

It is debatable whether we have ‘already reached that stage’… but yes, we are certainly on the verge. And the environment is a good example of this: I think we have already done an excellent job of dismantling any sense of the natural environment that there ever was.

Even our ideas of what the environment actually is: our notions of ‘wildlife’… or of nature flourishing in an untouched, unspoilt way… that is all already gone. And this is reflected even in initiatives that claim, in themselves, to be ‘environmental’. When, for instance, we say that ‘we have done something for the environment’… what would we really have done? We would have built a park, that is mostly just concrete…

And when it comes to the national drive to ‘plant more trees’, for instance: yes, we are ‘planting more trees’… but on roundabouts, on centre-strips, and by the sides of roads. That doesn’t ‘protect the environment’. It does nothing to preserve the natural landscape. Where are the truly unspoilt areas, where people can go and appreciate garigue, for instance? There is, let’s face it, hardly anywhere left.

But again: the antidote to this cannot be cynicism, or resignation. That sense of ‘hopelessness’ you mentioned… that is something we have to really fight against. Because there is more at stake here than the environment, in itself. People tend to justify the loss of the environment in terms of money – because it keeps the economic wheel turning, and all that – but let’s be honest: not everyone is making money out of it. It is – as Bernie Sanders puts it – only the ‘1%’.

Now: I don’t know if, in Malta, it really does boil down to just ‘1%’ or not… but whatever the exact percentage is: it remains the few, not the many. And if we all just resign ourselves to that – If there is no citizen action; if the rest of us ‘common mortals’ don’t get together, and somehow do something about it – then everything will remain in the hands of those few… at the expense of the many.

This, too, is part of the inequality that holds us back. So ultimately, I think that any serious discussion about national unity, or national identity, would have to start by confronting that unequal, uneven platform.