There are moments when I start doubting whether people really consider themselves to be free individuals before they are Nationalists or Labourites. Have we forgotten the 1960s and 1980s when Malta looked and felt like a tribal battlefield?

Many have the habit to answer this question by blaming the PN for the 1960s and Labour for the 1980s. But what does that kind of reply tell us? It tells me that rather than aiming to share democracy as an agonistic space where we freely engage with each other, there are many who still regard democracy as an antagonistic event where Parliament becomes a gladiatorial arena, and where one side seeks to kill off the other.   

But before I continue to share my thoughts about Maltese democracy, let me introduce myself and say that I am both glad and honoured to share my thoughts with the readers of Times of Malta online on a regular basis. This blog is meant to create a dialogic space where opinions are expressed without hurting or violating each other, and where the beauty of our conversation is often characterised by the contrasts that are expressed through our sense and respect for diversity — of ideas, lifestyles, ambitions, beliefs, origin and circumstance.

Being an academic by trade, my work mainly focuses on the arts, philosophy and education. This triangular positioning is inherently political in that it belongs to the polis — that is, the community that creates these spaces of dialogue.

I hate to say this, but I don’t think the majority of the Maltese realise that unless there is this fundamental understanding of democracy, we are never going to succeed as a republic and less so would we succeed in sustaining its democratic structure

Like democracy, academia has its origin among the people. It is inspired by the figure of Socrates, who unlike the Sophists, wanted to share with everyone the possibility of learning from each other. He did not charge any money and wanted people to learn how to argue their case logically and generously, while trying to reach to the truth by respecting everyone on an equal footing.  

In contrast, the Sophists charged money to teach their students how to beat their opponents in argument and deed by using any trick they could learn, even tricks which were dishonest.

Socrates followed the model of the agora, a public space where people traded goods, engaged in everyday life, and had dialogues by which they often settled issues. This facilitated the human ability to engage agonistically with each other. Contrary to an antagonistic relationship, where one side seeks to totally beat the other side, an agonistic relationship is meant as a contest where one side might win but where the contest never stops because, like a dialogue, it is necessary for all sides to remain valued as equal participants.

I regard the agonistic approach as the foundation of democracy. The great American philosopher John Dewey describes democracy as a form of associated living. Democracy is not given to us by Parliament, but by how we can live as a society. Parliament, politicians, and political parties are some of the many instruments of democracy. But the core of democracy remains society and how people sustain it by the agonistic spaces that their dialogues create.

Some would say this is utopia, an ou topos, a non-place. As long as this is a non-place I would continue to fight for its realisation. To me, Parliament, MPs and political parties are no guarantee that I am living democratically with others. An associated form of living must come from us the people who elect MPs and mandate political parties to go to Parliament, not the other way round. Unless we view Parliament as a higher expression of that understanding of democracy, democracy is never realised. My democratic loyalty stands with society and not with a political party.  

I hate to say this, but I don’t think the majority of the Maltese realise that unless there is this fundamental understanding of democracy, we are never going to succeed as a republic and less so would we succeed in sustaining its democratic structure.

What is stopping us from being fully democratic—especially when we have so many tiers of representation, starting from local councils, a national parliament and a European Parliament?

The main obstacle for Malta (and this is more sensitive in a small population of barely 400,000) is the ingrained attitude by which many individuals still see themselves as belonging to a political tribe — Labour or Nationalist. Many seem to fail to understand that political parties are not there to beat each other, but to present diverse cases and facilitate dialogue and democratic decision-making.

This is where Malta’s tribal malady transforms Dewey’s notion of democracy from the making of a society to a deadly fight to the end, where frankly everyone becomes a loser.


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