The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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Non-voters, nomads and heretics

Michael Briguglio Friday, 1 November 2019, 11:13 Last update: about 5 years ago

Around 100,000 registered voters did not vote in this year’s European parliamentary elections.  They represent 27.3 per cent of the vote, or the highest ever abstention rate since the introduction of European elections in Malta in 2004.

It would be presumptuous to homogenize these 100,000 individuals into one identity. Social-scientific research through quantitative and qualitative methods would be required to investigate the backgrounds, perceptions, aspirations and other identity characteristics of these people. Practical and ethical factors make the identification of such persons quite difficult, even though political parties and various politicians keep electoral databases.

A qualified guess on main reasons why 100,000 persons did not vote in these elections would include the following: A feeling that the European Parliament is useless in terms of people’s everyday lives; A form of protest against current situations or policies of one or more major political party; a belief that choosing small parties would be wasting one’s vote; and a sense of disconnection from party politics in general.

Given that political parties have the right to access the names of non-voters (an obscene right, in my opinion, even more so when we are a small-island state which is already suffocated with partisanship, tribalism and indirect surveillance), some non-voters ‘invest’ in non-voting with the hope that politicians reach out for them to see what their individual grievance is all about.

At the same time, Malta has a vibrant civil society. Whether through environmental protest, calls for justice on specific issues, or old-school lobbying, which is not necessarily visible in the media sphere, people are ready to speak up or show support for certain issues. As I have argued elsewhere, party politics is very present in such spheres, and political entrepreneurs who support civil society issues may be investing in their own electoral status whilst helping give political legitimacy to the civil society issue at stake.

Which takes me to the point of my article. Despite the dominance of the two-party system in Malta, we are witnessing some cracks and fissures: Tribes and factions, even within political parties; civil society voices who raise awareness on a myriad of issues, including some which were invisible in the public sphere just a few years ago; political activists who change political party affiliation, and above all, voters who change allegiance.

It would be very easy to homogenize the latter as opportunists. True, there are those who switch allegiance because of political patronage and what anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain once referred to as ‘amoral familism’. But I also believe that there is a section of the population which does not have special feelings for party emblems, colours or rituals: Such persons may be loyal to their beliefs in concepts such as social justice. Or they may simply do what they deem is the right thing in specific moments such as voting (or non-voting) during elections.

This takes me to the concept of political heretics and nomads.

Heresy, according to sociologist George V. Zito, is a discourse that occurs within orthodoxies: they upset an institutionalized way of speaking, or at least threaten to do so. Referring to Max Weber and Michel Foucault, Zito adds that “it is in heresy that power is obliged to contend in its efforts to conceal its raw nature”.

Nomadism, on the other hand, is, according to philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a way of life outside the organizational ‘state’: Its movement across space contrasts with rigid and static boundaries.

Both these terms can be used to understand an unquantified tendency of those persons in Malta who refuse to be straitjacketed into dogmatic discourse or rigid boundaries. Tribalists may label such persons as traitors, witches, wind vanes and so forth. In my reading, however such persons can add vitality to the public sphere, articulating discourses which go beyond rigid partisanship and thus possibly being agents of change in their own ways.

In this regard, we can broaden our analytical horizons and observe historical examples of heretics and nomads who paid high prices for their behaviour: Jesus Christ, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Malta’s own Manuel Dimech and Daphne Caruana Galizia are some names that immediately come to mind.

Another nomad/heretic was George Orwell. Through lived experiences such as the Spanish Civil War and writings such as Animal Farm and 1984, he expressed his contempt for tyranny, wherever it comes from. His anti-Stalinist views did not owe him much favour at the time, and he did not shy away from being critical of the Labour Party, despite being a democratic socialist who believed in a united Europe.

Situated between Algeria and France and frequently referring to the Mediterranean in his imaginary, Albert Camus denounced ‘all or nothing’ approaches as they leave no space for other views. In ‘The Rebel’ he presents a strong critique of absolutism, and his critique of Stalinism and the Soviet Union earned him contempt by philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and others who were immersed in revolutionary dogma.

On the Marxist front, philosopher Louis Althusser was deemed heretical by the Marxist elite in France and elsewhere. Althusser believed that social analysis should go beyond rigid economic determinism: It should open up to other overdetermining factors such as the role of ideology and the specific ‘encounters’ which cannot be pre-determined. Althusser (and others like Antonio Gramsci before him) opened frontiers for other political theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Deemed heretics by high theoretical priests for daring to analyse beyond orthodoxy and dogma, their writings on the impacts of social movements in areas such as gender, ecology and other identities are particularly relevant today.

And whereas the analytical elite does not dare engage with the term ‘populism’, Mouffe and Laclau have provided an indispensable analysis of the term, showing its influence on the mechanisms of politics. As classical sociologist Max Weber once suggested, ‘to understand’ is the basic starting point of social analysis. You understand populism by engaging with it analytically, not snubbing it.

Michael Kimmel, whose book ‘Angry White Men’ tried to understand the sociological characteristics of this group, knows something about this. Today we have chauvinistic and marginalizing politicians like Donald Trump even because established political and intellectual elites refuse(d) to acknowledge the alienation felt by significant electoral constituencies.

Finally, Althusser’s student Michel Foucault was as nomadic as it gets in his writings, which, in turn witnessed various transformations between the 1960s and the 1980s. He abandoned the once-big French Communist Party and articulated earth-shattering social theory that deconstructed the existence of power/knowledge in all aspects of life. He also advocated the ‘care of the self’ as a narrative of personal liberation.

Sociology shows us that every institution and group has its rituals of conformity and formal or informal mechanisms against heretics and nomads. Here I am not only speaking about the State and political parties, but even smaller groups, from the most conservative to the most revolutionary. But history always shows us that for every power there is resistance: Heretics and nomads form part of the tradition of the latter.

Which takes me to a famous quote by Albert Camus, one that can sensitize us to embrace diversity of views, opinions and affiliations: “Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead; Walk beside me… just be my friend”. 

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