Monday, November 14, 2016

Dissecting Trump's Victory

Michael Briguglio
Times of Malta 14 November 2016
Most social-scientific polls were predicting a victory for Hillary Clinton. Yet Donald Trump won and will now be the 45th president of the United States.
This is not the first time that such polls went wrong or that historic moments were not predicted. It was not a survey that explained the collapse of the Soviet Union, and few would have predicted that Libya and Tunisia would witness dramatic changes in the recent past.
Along the lines of the rising narrative of the insular populist right, the Brexit referendum was another case in point.
This is not to say that surveys or predictions should be confined to the dustbin of analysis. The subject matter of social science comprises the complexities of possibilities of human behaviour which can be analysed through various research methods, yet which are very difficult to reduce to simple predictions. Rationality, reflexivity, social influence and emotions are all entangled in the web of society. And various analyses are wiser ‘after the event’.
Society also comprises patterns. In the case of Donald Trump’s victory, it was clear that he was the preferred choice of white working-class voters, especially if they formed part of the older age cohorts. On the other hand, Clinton underperformed among respective middle-class, black and Hispanic voters especially in key battleground states. Clinton was favoured among voters under 40 years of age, but a considerable amount of such voters (around eight/nine per cent) chose small parties.
Various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself
Trump’s victory seems to follow the wave of populist successes around the world. Social theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have written volumes about this type of strategy. It comprises a charismatic form of leadership which speaks an accessible language that has broad appeal across the social spectrum.  This discourse attempts to unite a broad ‘us’ against a ‘them’, thus constructing a strong sense of identity. A diverse spectrum of politicians including Chavez, Tsipras, Orban and Farage exemplified such strategies in different electoral campaigns.
In the case of Trump, the ‘them’ comprised of his views on Mexicans, Muslims, the ‘establishment’, the climate change ‘Chinese conspiracy’, the ‘rigged’ media, and others who were depicted as a ‘threat’ to the ‘American’ way of life. His language and behaviour were politically incorrect, yet he was seen by many as being more authentic than his challenger in tackling issues dividing the nation such as economic inequality and migration. Within this strategy, Clinton’s depiction as ‘the establishment’ was more appealing than her own narrative of experience, safe hands and liberal values.
Yet, electoral victories represent just one dimension of successful statesmanship. It has to be seen whether Trump will actually carry out what he promised. This includes the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, the vetting or temporary banning of Muslims from entering the country, the deporting of undocumented migrants, and the removal of the Obamacare reforms. He has also promised a range of other changes as from his first days in office.
I would suggest that the real world of policymaking cannot be reduced to one person’s rhetoric, even if he happens to be President of the United States. Proposals interact with a complex web of networks, interests, influence, personalities, ideas, resources, force majeures and unpredicted consequences. And the United States happens to have one of the most established systems of checks and balances in the world, thus often resulting in a long process of negotiations before policies are implemented.
Will fellow Republicans simply rubberstamp all his proposals within his cabinet, senate and congress? I am not so sure. Indeed, various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Democrats are likely to their best to defend the Obama legacy. They might even move to the left by exploiting a window of opportunity for left populism à la Bernie Sanders.
As the US is entering unchartered territory, the world is watching. From a European cosmopolitan perspective, I feel that the EU has a massive responsibility to defend and promote the values of pluralism, tolerance, solidarity and sustainability.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Birdlife Malta: A case of one-way institutionalization?

Michael Briguglio's latest research on environmental NGO Birdlife Malta has been published in the peer-reviewed series 'Movements and Institutions' of Bretterblog (Germany).

This article disputes the conceptualization of institutionalization as a one-way process. Instead, it argues that social movement organizations can make use of contentious tactics while being institutionalized. Birdlife Malta provides an example to illustrate this argument.

The article may be read by clicking on this link

Dr Michael Briguglio lectures at the Sociology Department, University of Malta. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown

Published by Miller Distributors

Date of publication: October 2016 [ ]

ISBN: 9789995752590 

News feature (in Maltese, on TVM) about the book launch - click here

Book review by Edward Zammit in Sunday Times of Malta - click here

Book review by Angele Deguara in Malta Independent on Sunday - click here

Sociology of the Maltese Islands, edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown and published by Miller, was officially launched at the University of Malta in the past days. 

During the launch Minister Evarist Bartolo referred to the text as a breakthrough for evidence-based study of Maltese society. Journalist James Debono, who chaired the debate, said that the book is an accessible reader which shows the intersection between continuity and change in Maltese society. Sociologist Angele Deguara explained the important role of sociology to help inform policy making in a context of progressive change and recurrent inequalities and contradictions.

In reply to questions from the floor, Michael Briguglio explained diverse methods used by sociologists in their evidence-based research, and spoke about the commonalities and differences in the Maltese identity. Maria Brown highlighted the need for multidisciplinary approaches in the study of Maltese society and explained that all sociological methods have their strengths and weaknesses. 

Sociology of the Maltese Islands provides a broad sociological introduction to various areas of Maltese society currently featuring in public and scholarly debate and research. 

The book may be of interest to a wide range of students, including undergraduates, students at post-secondary level, as well those carrying out research at post-graduate level.

Researchers, policy makers, politicians, journalists, activists and the general public may find this book useful for the provision and scholarly review of data and debates on key issues, areas and concepts relevant to contemporary Maltese society.

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown. Includes contributions by Godfrey Baldacchino. Angela Abela, Katya DeGiovanni, Joanne Cassar, Marvin Formosa, Maja Miljanic Brinkworth, Nathalie Grima, Maria Brown, Ruth Baldacchino, JosAnn Cutajar, Brenda Murphy, Marceline Naudi, Peter Mayo, Manwel Debono, Saviour Rizzo, George Cassar, Valerie Visanich, Noel Agius, Michael Briguglio, Mary Grace Vella, Silvan Agius, Helena Dalli, Ian Bugeja, Jacqueline Azzopardi, Mario Vassallo, Carmen Sammut.

Chapters: Prologue, Introduction, Family Life, Childhood, Youth, Ageing, Demography, Race & Ethnicity, Class, Gender & Sexuality, Education, Work, Tourism, The Arts, Consumption & Leisure, Development, Environment, Political Parties & Social Movements, Elections, Governance & Leadership, Social Policy Poverty & Social Exclusion, Social Control Crime & Deviance, Religion, Media

(L-R Maria Brown, Evarist Bartolo, James Debono, Angele Deguara, Michael Briguglio)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fighting for long defeat: Chris Mizzi

Environmentalists have long warned about the dangers of over-development, with little visible effect but although Moviment Graffitti activist admits the present is bleak he argues that there is still hope for the future

Raphael Vassallo - Malta Today 20 September 2016

I’ve always wanted to open an interview with a quote from Tolkien, and I must say the opportunity was altogether too apt to resist. ‘Fighting the long defeat’ is how Galadriel describes the epochal struggle against the Dark Lord Sauron in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. And while the stakes may have been higher in that struggle, a comparison can easily be made with the fight to safeguard Malta’s increasingly beleaguered environment. 

Certainly, it has come to resemble a ‘long defeat’. The environment may have been a pivotal battleground at the last election; but it has become painstakingly clear that a change of government has not ushered in the promised change in approach to the issue.

Then as now, the most a Maltese environmentalist can do is watch in helpless frustration, while one planning decision after another is taken with almost no regard whatsoever for the long-term environmental effects. The most recent example – in which two gargantuan development projects were approved by the Planning Authority, without even any input from the newly formed ‘Environment and Resources Authority’ – seems to take this pattern one step further. Not only were environmental objections not even raised during the PA meeting… but infrastructural and economic counter-arguments were likewise side-lined or ignored. 

Elsewhere, the Opposition party that had fought tooth and nail against the 2006 ODZ extension, was itself only too keen to extend the development zones further once in power. Apart from offering up virgin land for the construction of a private university at Zonqor Point, Muscat’s Labour administration has also redesigned the country’s entire planning rulebook to permit more ODZ development in future.

And yet, throughout all this time, environmentalist NGOs have been busy fighting their corner… with little or no visible success. When I met Chris Mizzi – an award-winning youth worker, and also active member of Moviment Graffitti – in Santa Venera to discuss this very issue, he had only just returned from an umpteenth environmentalist protest: this time, a blockade of the ERA offices.

Doesn’t it all feel pointless at this stage, however? Much larger protests had failed to halt the ODZ extension 10 years ago… this latest protest likewise seems doomed to failure. Doesn’t a point come when even a committed activist like Mizzi feels the war is lost?

“I understand what you mean. When you look at the experience of the past years, you might easily conclude that activism did not bring about change at all. But when you consider the full experience, you will realise that there were certain victories here and there. I wouldn’t say it was all pointless… There were projects that would definitely have been steamrolled through, were it not for popular resistance. The Ta’ Cenc golf course was a case in point…”

True, and one can also add Manikata and Xaghra l-Hamra to the list. All three concerned proposals for golf courses over large tracts of (partly arable) land. As such, opposition to those projects united a much broader coalition than the one that protested that morning… including farmers, residents and (speaking of unlikely allies) hunters and trappers.

On most other environmental issues, however, popular resistance never seems to get anywhere. Anyone who’s been following planning issues over the past 20 years will surely have felt a sensation of ‘déjà-vu’…   

“Yes, there is a sense of déjà vu. But I think that over the years, activism in Malta has succeeded in bringing about a certain mentality change. You can’t look only at whether an individual project was stopped or not. The sustained pressure – successful or otherwise – has up to a point forced political parties to sit up and pay attention to the environment. If it wasn’t for that pressure, I am convinced that neither the PN nor the PL would bother even mentioning the environment in their pre-electoral manifestos.”

Perhaps, but the fact that both parties now pander to environmentalists before every election does not, in itself, mean very much. It’s what happens after an election that counts… and once the campaign is over, we have time and again seen those promises fizzle out into nothing…

“To be honest, I personally see governments almost as being ‘nothing’, too. To all intents and purposes they are non-existent. They don’t wield real power. The real power is in the hands of others: that includes big business interests, but it also includes the people. Basically, any government will look to see where power lies, and act accordingly…”

On that appraisal alone, it can already be seen that the balance of power lies firmly with the commercial lobby. Doesn’t this call into question Mizzi’s earlier observation that ordinary people also wield power? There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of this in practical terms…

“Yes, that’s how it seems today. There is a reason for it, too. If you go out into the streets and ask people directly, they will all say that they are in favour of change. But if you ask them to what extent they themselves would be willing to change their own lifestyle, you will get a different answer…”

And yet, the objections to the Sliema and Mriehel projects were rooted in the same principle. Whether people like it or not, their lifestyle will be drastically affected. Sliema residents have already been told (by the PA) to ‘shut their windows’ to keep out noise and dust. And after years of inconvenience brought about by construction, they will have to face an exponential increase in daily traffic (over 3,000 cars a day), on top of considerable pressure on an already insufficient town infrastructure.

At this point, the people’s reluctance to change their own lifestyles becomes irrelevant. Those lifestyles are going to have to change anyway… 

Mizzi agrees, but quickly points out that this, too, is part of the reason for the status quo. “One of the issues we encounter as activists is that, although concerns do exist at the level of the local community, they are not extended onto a national level. People are only interested in what happens in their own backyard. Let me give you an example: when we protested against the Manikata golf course, we were overwhelmed by support from the local community. And yet, when we organised a similar protest at Ta’ Cenc, the people who supported us on Manikata were nowhere to be seen. And vice versa, too. That’s where I start asking myself certain questions. It is good that there is a sense of civic ownership at the local community level. But why doesn’t it translate into a sense of ownership at national level? Why do people not care as much for the country as a whole, as they do about their backyard? It’s all connected, after all…”

This brings us to the question of how (if at all) the prevailing mentality can be changed. Graffitti and other NGOs have been tireless in their campaigns over the past two decades, but as recent developments – including, but not limited to, the Sliema and Mriehel permits – indicate, not much has in fact changed at all.

What more can therefore be done in practical terms? Is there any long-term strategy directing environmentalist NGOs at the moment? 

“Ultimately, the idea behind activism is to raise awareness; and through raising awareness – by attracting more people to voice their concerns – the message keeps growing until it becomes too loud to ignore. And I know what you’re going to ask next… because I ask it to myself all the time. I’ve been active in this scene for around 20 years now, and all that time I’ve asked myself when that moment is actually going to come…”

That is, admittedly, the question I was about to ask. But it has another dimension: with so much damage now being done in such a small (and therefore vulnerable) environment, there is a chance that when this great moment of awareness finally arrives – if it ever does – there may be nothing left to actually safeguard…

Mizzi does not, however, share my pessimism on this point. “Things are changing, albeit slowly. Perhaps too slowly, for people who expect change to come about from one day to the next… but one thing that gives me hope is the input we are getting from young people and children. I think that is where the mentality is changing most…”

This change, he adds, does not necessarily arise from any difference in educational or institutional approach. “When you look at our educational system, it is still lacking in leadership and character-building. Children must follow a syllabus which is very academic in nature. Lessons themselves tend to be instructional, in the sense that children are taught to pass exams. Critical thinking is still lacking in the curriculum. There needs to be an overhaul of the system… but even within this system, with all its faults, we have still seen a culture change…”

As an example he refers to hunting and trapping. “It wasn’t so long ago that children would go out trapping for robins, for instance. It was a widespread culture only a few years ago, but it doesn’t really happen anymore…”

Similarly, the hunting situation as a whole has clearly improved, from the days when there weren’t even any hunting laws to enforce (i.e., before 1980). This is indeed hopeful, but when it comes to other areas of environmental sensitivity, it is debatable whether we can expect the same level of improvement. To return to the construction and development sector – and one could extend the argument also to the fisheries sector, which is once again causing an environmental stink (literally, this time) – there are economic considerations that simply do not apply to hunting or trapping.

There is (let’s face it) a deep-seated tendency to value construction on the basis of its contribution to the economy. And to be fair, it doesn’t come only from business or political interests: the population at large also traditionally perceives property as a reliable investment. Even tourism – another stable of the local economy – relies heavily on the construction of new hotels, new facilities, and so on. 

It seems that Malta, as a nation, has never hit on any real alternative to building as a means of generating wealth. Doesn’t that also mean that we are permanently condemned to lose more and more land to unbridled development in future?

“I think we need a new vision, definitely. To come out of a situation, you have to create another situation as an alternative. There’s no point in telling someone not to play football, unless you give him a basketball court instead. Ultimately, I think it goes back to the core issue of our identity as a nation. We have been independent for just over 50 years now, but in all that time we have never really sat down and held a discussion about what direction we actually want to go.

“In fact our economic ideas haven’t really changed at all since then. After independence from Britain, there was a mad scramble to industrialise – to attract foreign investment from here and from there – and all these years later we are still doing the same thing. If you look at the projects that have been approved, they are mostly aimed at foreign buyers. The type of development may have changed, but we’re still stuck in the same economic rut…”

Meanwhile, all efforts to lift ourselves out of this vicious circle have so far failed… as is perhaps evidenced by the suggestion of a ‘new’ tactic (‘new’ in relative terms… it had been used, to some effect, in the distant 1980s): a boycott of companies involved in the aforementioned projects.

This proposal has divided public opinion... lending weight to Mizzi’s earlier point that people may want to achieve change in theory, but may be less willing to inconvenience themselves in the process. But what is Mizzi’s own opinion in the matter? Does he consider a boycott to be an appropriate response? 

“On principle, I agree 100% with the idea of a boycott. And when we discussed it at Graffitti, there was general agreement there also. But one must tread with caution. A boycott is a powerful tool if used properly… but there has to be a clear and consistent campaign, a functional strategy, if it is to succeed. The last thing we would want is to organise a boycott that would be ineffective. That would not only defeat the purpose, but might also rob us of another tool at our disposal…”

I suppose this brings us back to the original question. The fact that we are talking about a boycott at all, only confirms that all other strategies have so far failed. People have time and again proved powerless against the vested interests of Malta’s political-industrial complex. Wouldn’t they be justified in considering the environment to be a lost cause?

“No, I think it’s the other way around. People are not giving up; and they’re not powerless either. I think they are only just beginning to realise how much power they wield. It goes back to the efforts at Ta’ Cence, Tal-Virtu and elsewhere. I have been to consultation meetings where hardly anyone showed up. But in those cases, hundreds of people came to the meetings, to the extent that they needed police at the door. That’s when you realise how much power the people wield. Are we winning the fight? At present, no. But can it be won? I think that’s a different question.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Greek gifts in Gzira

The non-violent direct action carried out by Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent (KEA) at Manoel Island was a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of environmental politics in this country.
The KEA activists basically enabled access to the foreshore of Manoel Island. The foreshore is public, yet access to it has been sealed by the developers, MIDI.
Apart from access to the lovely beach at Manoel Island in this specific case, this type of activism has two major impacts.
First of all, through colourful and spectacular action, it can raise public awareness on certain issues.
This does not mean that direct action will always enjoy such public support. But in the case of Manoel Island, the support was widespread. The island has been rendered to a glorified junk yard, with MIDI’s property sealed off amid a lack of social responsibility. One needn’t be a radical environmentalist to have rage against such parcelling out of Malta’s heritage and public domain.
The second major impact of such activism is internal. Even if a specific campaign is not won, a sense of belonging can be created among activists. If this proves to be resilient to internal and external challenges, it can help create a stronger environmentalist community.
Another interesting dimension of environmental activism is the way in which it is portrayed by the media in Malta’s present political context.
The independent media generally has favourable coverage of different types of environmental activism, whether it comes from KEA or from more moderate ENGOs such as Din l-Art Ħelwa. Independent media also plays an instrumental role in raising awareness and reporting on various environmental issues. Malta’s largest ever environmental protest – the one organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ in 2015 –benefitted from favourable coverage from such media. This included constant coverage in the run up to the actual protest.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media
Then there is the media owned by the Nationalist Party. Whether out of conviction or out of political opportunism, this media is also giving much coverage to environmental activism. A similar stance was adopted by the Labour Party media when the reds were in opposition. In both cases, media coverage did not always tally with what the respective political masters were promising to different interest groups.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media (including the media of the GWU).  The activists were portrayed positively and as being in the good company of the Labour mayor of Gżira.
Maybe one can argue that the appointment of John Bundy as CEO at PBS represents a culture change in the reporting of such activism. Or that the inews portal is realising that the environment matters to many voters, including those who thought that Labour would improve green governance.
Will such positive coverage by Labour-friendly media persist in other environmental issues? If yes, we would suddenly be experiencing a move away from the recent negative portrayal of environmentalists by Labour spin-doctors. We all know the untruthful tune of this tactic: environmental activism was inexistent under previous administrations, environmentalists are blue secret agents, and so forth.
This takes us to a more critical – and cynical – reading of the sudden interest in Manoel Island by the Labour-friendly media. And here one should really keep in mind that Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party is a master of media strategy.
What if the Manoel Island activism was used by such media as a decoy to steer away attention from other issues which are subject to imminent decisions? These may include the Mrieħel and Townsquare controversies. Both will very soon be subject to appeals by ENGOs, and in the case of the latter, also by Sliema local council and the Environment Resources Authority.
Which reminds me of Trojan horses. As the saying goes, beware gifts from the Greeks.
If the government supports the demands of such activism, and if it really wants to give a genuine gift to the public, it has the opportunity to do so. How about actually guaranteeing public access to the foreshore all around Malta, as enshrined in Malta’s law?
The analysis of this issue can also be complemented by some other remarks made on the social media. I will refer to 2 specific comments made on Facebook. 
1. James Vella Clark (15 September): "In politics, timing is key. Strangely enough, there's hardly any talk about Sliema and Mrieħel towers now that we have this Manoel Island saga.....courtesy of PL mayor of Gżira.."
2. James Debono (19 September): "There could also be an interest in labour quarters to push MIDI to sell to someone else"
To which I add, 
1. Yes indeed, I too argued along the same lines on 11 September, as it was interesting to note how certain media outlets in the Labour orbit were suddenly enthusiastic about environmental activism. And this itself raises further questions. For example, what do Johnny-come-latelys have to say about other issues related to access to foreshore, to the MIDI project and to similar development projects in general? I am still awaiting a reply from the Mayor of Gzira as to whether he agrees with the 2012 proposal by the Green Party on the Manoel Island development. I asked him this specifically on Facebook on 15 September 2016.   .   
2. What if there is interest by certain competitors to have less competition in the property market?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Launch: Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Official Book Launch

Sociology of the Maltese Islands, Edited by Michael Briguglio & Maria Brown
Published by Miller

Hon Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education and Employment will be launching the book. The panel will also consist of sociologist Angele Deguara, and journalist James Debono who will chair. 

The book will be available for sale during the launch. The panel discussion will be followed by a reception. 

Sociology of the Maltese Islands provides a broad sociological introduction to various areas of Maltese society currently featuring in public and scholarly debate and research. 

This book may be of interest to a wide range of students, including undergraduates, students at post-secondary level, as well those carrying out research at post-graduate level.

Researchers, policy makers, politicians, journalists, activists and the general public may find this book useful for the provision and scholarly review of data and debates on key issues, areas and concepts relevant to contemporary Maltese society.

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown. Includes contributions by Godfrey Baldacchino. Angela Abela, Katya DeGiovanni, Joanne Cassar, Marvin Formosa, Maja Miljanic Brinkworth, Nathalie Grima, Maria Brown, Ruth Baldacchino, JosAnn Cutajar, Brenda Murphy, Marceline Naudi, Peter Mayo, Manwel Debono, Saviour Rizzo, George Cassar, Valerie Visanich, Noel Agius, Michael Briguglio, Mary Grace Vella, Silvan Agius, Helena Dalli, Ian Bugeja, Jacqueline Azzopardi, Mario Vassallo, Carmen Sammut.

Date: Thursday 6 October
Time: 7pm-9pm
Gateway Hall E, University of Malta

Friday, August 26, 2016

New Blog Series on Social Movements and Institutions

Social movements and institutions are central actors in national and transnational politics as well as core categories of social inquiry. Despite their importance, both terms are still haunted by a lack of thorough definitions. We introduce a blog series with ten weekly contributions on their interrelation, outlining several innovative approaches and suggesting some vantage points for rethinking ‘Movements’ and ‘Institutions’ in a productive manner.

Join the debate
Since this blog series revolves around interaction, one may interact and participate in the conversation
The blog series may be followed by clicking here