Europe’s illiberal insurgencies
By Victor Paul Borg
A synthesis of the analysis done by the liberal-minded commentariat of last week’s disruptive electoral result in Italy – which saw the irreverent M5S supersede the centre-left and the anti-immigrant La Lega – is that in times of economic misery the appeal of the populists is irresistible. This analysis, only superficially valid, reveals more about the delusions of the liberals than the laments of ordinary people (the analysis glosses over the fact that the wealthy north of Italy voted predominantly for La Lega, the most strident anti-immigration and anti-EU party).
More impressive is the emergence of M5S (the Five Star Movement) as the largest party in Italy despite ridicule and hostility in the media. It achieved its surge as a movement that constructed its image as a ‘non-party’ that breaks through ideological lines – anti-immigrant rhetoric sits alongside environmental radicalism as well as pledges to introduce a universal minimum wage and cleanse the political system from bureaucracy and sleaze. It’s this eclecticism that has made M5S an online phenomenon and captured the imagination of young voters particularly.
It’s the most unpredictable, maverick political formation to emerge from the voting insurgencies that have been sweeping the West in recent years. Swathes of people have been turning against the so-called establishment – staid and self-serving politicians and bureaucrats, as well as the cultural and liberal elite in media and academia – finding resonance for their angst in the sophistries of political rabble-rousers or maverick non-politicians.
The estrangement from the establishment manifests itself most strongly in anti-immigrant sentiment (foreigners are always the obvious target for blame). Ordinary people’s distress at mass irregular immigration, coupled with disdain at the media’s and NGOs’ apologetics of immigration, have delivered voters into the laps of political forces that adopt strident anti-immigrant and wider cynical rhetoric. We have seen these convulsions in Brexit, in Donald Trump, in Viktor Orban, in Austria’s Freedom Party, and now in Italy.
Of course, voting these political forces into power is not constructive, it’s disruptive – it’s the stuff of political revolutions, a fomentation of chaos. It’s a backlash against the establishment, a repudiation of the kind of dogmatic and rigid liberalism, and bureaucratic burdens, championed by the EU. This can be seen in the way M5S have even come out against mandatory vaccination, depicting a public health matter as a form of oppression.
Yet nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the contentiousness of immigration. The liberal consensus that immigration is enriching, culturally and economically, and that rich countries have a humane and historical responsibility to help those fleeing wretchedness and war makes for lofty reasoning, but reality is messy.
Immigrants have to be absorbed by societies, and every community has an absorption rate and a saturation point, especially in the case of immigrants who come from countries of lower standards of living and different sensibilities, as well as irregular immigrants who arrive on our shores in large numbers and whose ability to integrate is limited. When that saturation point is exceeded, communities feel overwhelmed. This then gives vent to hitherto-dormant fear of the others, to racist sentiment, to xenophobia and intolerance. People talk of invasion, and immigrants are unjustifiably blamed for economic woes and laggard public services.
This in turn prompts the liberal ranks to fret about people’s racism and bigotry. Instead of accepting people’s legitimate fears, even if those fears are covertly racist, liberals have been seeking to stifle people’s grievances on a host of identity issues through strident domination of the discourse in the media and laws that narrow down people’s ability to express their indignation.
The tone of liberalism has become too militant, liberals have positioned themselves as the moral arbiters of our time
Although laws on hate speech and discrimination are well-intentioned, the sense of proportion has been lost. Crosses in classrooms, for example, are a cultural symbol, not an affront to non-Christians. And if a religious school doesn’t want to employ people who do not share the same creed, then the State has no business interfering.
The tone of liberalism has become too militant, and liberals have positioned themselves as the moral arbiters of our time. Men have become fearful of uttering something irreverently or flippantly that might be construed as sexual harassment, and find themselves dragged to court or ridiculed on the media (including social media).
Education Commissioner Charles Caruana Carabez suffered such an attack for his article ‘The foibles of women’ in the Times of Malta several weeks ago. The article was in bad taste, a grotesque misrepresentation of modern womanhood, the article itself a foible, but subjecting the author to a public flogging turned him into a victim of the tetchiness of feminists.
If that article was a misrepresentation of womanhood, isn’t all the talk of ‘toxic masculinity’ a misrepresentation of manhood? Yet I don’t hear anyone in the media braying against the sexism of feminists; we only hear about the sexism of men. Manhood is being portrayed as virulent, as if men have to be rescued from themselves. It’s gotten to the point where if you are gay you are celebrated, but if you are a straight man you are looked upon as if something is inherently faulty with your nature or nurture.
Even I have been accused of being racist for my scepticism about immigration. It’s a grotesque epithet for someone who has lived in the hinterlands of countries ethnically very different from my own, someone who in London’s Brixton used to frequent clubs in which he would be the only non-black person in crowds hundreds-strong. I am no more racist than a fishermen is averse to seawater. (Yet living in underdeveloped countries in Asia has taught me that many people in those countries look upon our countries as an opportunity to live well without much work. Their mindset for coming here is not to become part of us, but to live off our naiveté and benefits.)
The EU is blamed in all of this because many of these laws or standards are concocted by the EU. The EU is a liberal project in every sense – social, political, economic – and a liberal, centrist consensus spins in and out of the EU’s political core. The mainstream media has also been drawn into this political orbit, exacerbating the incestuousness of the political class.
The political class largely blames economic paltriness and globalisation for the disenfranchisement, and there is some truth in that. But the other story is that ordinary people feel neglected in wider ways.
The widespread feeling is that the elites in politics and media have lost sight of the struggles of ordinary people. Growing economic inequalities only add to this sense of neglect, and a general sense of insecurity that makes people fearful of loss of traditional identity. So people are now expressing their discontent by voting for disruptive political insurgencies.
For now, Malta remains at the periphery of these voter insurgencies. That’s down to various factors: the absence of a charismatic party to lure the disenchanted, the reprieve from irregular migration (thanks to Italy, which has been taking all immigrants on the central Mediterranean route), and the Labour Party’s self-depiction as the party of ordinary voters hounded down by the establishment (the bureaucrats, the independent media houses).
Malta is also having a serendipitous moment. The troubles of neighbouring countries and tight household finances in Europe have given us boom tourism, and our other economic sectors also yielding handsomely.
Many are also under the spell of the strategic dazzlement of Joseph Muscat, who straddles ideological lines. Leftwing on civil rights, rightwing on privatisations and economic liberalism, and serving interest groups at both ends of the spectrum (hunters and trappers at one end, gays and cannabis-smokers at the other). Perhaps Muscat’s brilliance is in understanding that politics is the art of what is possible.
But the political insurgencies in Europe, particularly in Italy, will blow over to us sooner than we might think. Our serendipity is unlikely to last long.