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Racism in Malta

jana tsoneva

Economic turbulence is an especially fruitful ground for racist sentiments; the rapid growth and electoral success of far-right parties and movements across Europe since 2008 testifies to this. With this article I want to address the problem from the perspective of the situation in a peripheral EU member: the island state of Malta. Its small geographic size should not blind us to the enormity of the issue of racism there which is all the more interesting in that the local politics still obeys the old two-party model and is spared the shockwaves of new xenophobic players that jolt the world of traditional party politics in other parts of Europe (i.e. Greece). Yet, the two major parties have managed to completely accommodate themselves to the growing racist sentiment on the island, leaving no need for other formations to monopolize this niche. I hope I will manage to convey at least part of the near-total consensus that exists on the island with regards to the “problematic” nature of “illegal immigration” by delineating the contours of the major antagonistic sides of the public debate, wish particular stress on the dead-ends of liberal anti-racists.

A quick look at the major Maltese newspapers aims to convince everyone that Malta is in a permanent refugee crisis. The moral panic is especially acute with the latest developments over the government’s refusing to grant the tanker carrying migrants permission to enter Malta[1]. However, I want to revisit two recent events that rattled Maltese public life recently and exposed the limits of the island’s self-stereotyping as “a bridge between civilizations”.

Firstly, the government attempt to pushback a group of Somali migrants last June, and secondly, the racist attack on private operator Arriva bus drivers. While there is hardly anything new in the mainstream anti-African racism, the second case points to an evolution of the anti-immigration sentiment. A reader’s comment in The Times of Malta’s forum exemplifies the extension of this sentiment from “illegal migrants” by dropping the qualifier “illegal” and speaking about “migrants” in general. This makes it possible that an Italian bus driver can be subjected to a xenophobic assault, which was unthinkable before: “I do not condone racism, but I certainly don’t approve of a wholesale invasion of the country by waves of migrants.”[2]

Let us now recapitulate the dominant ideological positions on Malta with regards to immigration (legal and illegal).

1. We start from the simplest ideological position, that of the “cultured racist” who discounts any racist sentiments by appealing to “objective facts”. The infamous construction “I am not a racist, but…” manifests itself in some of the following modalities:

1.1. “…Malta is a small country.”

This construction, which operates as a suppression of the racist sentiment under the weight of the supposedly objective facts about Malta’s geography, actually reveals that size is not a neutral property of an object but an ideological category of a very flexible nature. It expands and contracts relative to who is being spoken about. For example, Malta is not small as visible from the congratulatory reports about the millions of white-skinned visitors yearly. In actual fact, there is enough space on Malta when it comes to legitimizing constant development and expansion of the tourist resorts. However, Malta becomes a very small country when a few hundred dark-skinned people arrive from Africa. “Size” is thus less a representation of objective geography than a function of the phantasmatic geography of racism. We have to see if the Arriva driver incident points to a possible hardening of Malta’s geographic plasticity, fixing more strongly Malta’s size towards the “small” end of the continuum, irrespective of skin colour (now even Italians are not wanted).

1.2. There is a curious variation of this position, reveling the plasticity not of space but of the notion of “invasion”. We need look no further than the Times’ comments section again for an example:

The Maltese are resisting the ‘massive foreign invasion’ which is taking place now. That’s what all other nations did as well until they finally managed to accept it. By no means I’m trying to justify or picture such horrible acts as anything but barbaric. However, it is important to keep in mind that this is the typical reaction of a people unused to such large influx of foreigns.[3] (sic)

 This surprising opinion is only possible at the cost of suppression of history itself. Otherwise I have to assume that there are people on Malta who do not know even an iota of Malta’s long history of foreign conquest and colonial subjugation, but this is unlikely since the vast majority of Maltese have attended primary school. In either case, the logic is the same: Knights/French/British rulers are not an “invasion”, only (poor) workers from abroad are. The chief determinant that supports the ideological coordinates of “invasion” is class and “race”[4], and in the case of the African migrants, these tend to overlap.

2) The second ideological position belongs to the well-meaning liberal multi-culturalist anti-racists. It often presents the case for migrants in economic terms. It goes like this: “We should be tolerant not only because human rights demand it but also because instead of rotting in detention, all these young, able-bodied people can contribute to our economic growth, pay taxes” etc. Unfortunately, if one’s stance on migration submits to the imperatives of the market, then liberals will have to be prepared to accept that the market could well demand closure and even extermination, as happened many times in history to “excess” populations (paupers, Jews, colonized). And why not? Labour markets all over debt-crisis stricken Europe are indeed stagnant. Pro-market liberals also forget that few of the people on the move actually do it as a recreational tourism and most of the migrants have to run away from one faltering market economy to the next. By basing their argument on the market, tolerant liberals end up excusing and naturalizing the very (economic) disasters that force people away from their homes. By upholding the self-regulating market, tolerant liberals contribute directly to the rise of racism. Racism today is nothing but the expression of the competitive struggle between vulnerable to market volatility and EU-sanctioned “budget discipline” social groups over the debris of the welfare state.

3) The ideological deadlock between the outright racists and well-meaning liberals is often triangulated by the position of the Church which at least tries to articulate a universalistic stance independent of the trivialities of the market and the vulgar “objectivism” of geographic size. Unfortunately, the Church often ends up in charity campaigns which, while immediately helpful to the hungry and needy, are incapable of resolving their problems (inequality, exclusion, marginalization) in the long-term. Nor it is able to articulate a position that is different from the victimization logic of underlings in need of parental help.

Needless to say, choosing between either of the three positions is a fake choice. Their obsessive repetition from all corners creates an illusion of pluralism at the cost of suppressing real alternatives. A real alternative to racism refuses the utility of the migrants’ bodies to the economy, refuses to treat migrants as victims and is capable of something more than moralizing appeals to universal human rights. A migrant does not want a “right to mobility” as an end in itself but a minimum of existential security which does not necessitate embarking on a risky journey across seas and deserts. This minimum of security, however, cannot be guaranteed by the regime of human rights unless it includes also social rights, backed by an active interventionist state (which would be a contradiction to the liberal ideology of freedom from the state and “right to mobility” to move from one failed market economy to the next).

We must refuse the temptation to accept the market position of utility even when the urgency of the refugee crisis demands we take an immediate stance. Another temptation which must be rejected is to deal with the racists in the multi-culturalist way of awareness-raising education campaigns. Racism does not arise out of lack of education, racism expresses the antagonistic deadlock of unequal power relations, characteristic of every market economy. To speak of bad education, as liberals often do, is to displace the real issue. And this makes us accomplices in the crisis. We must reject the cultural tolerance campaigns not only because racism is an economic issue, but also because to confront racism with arguments such as “actually, Somalis are very hard-working and honest; if you only knew them you’d speak differently” means that we accept the racist problematic: that somehow the bad feelings towards the Other have their objective, if distorted, reference point in the ways the Other organizes their life. Simply put, if we engage in campaigns aiming at changing the image of the Other, it means that we indirectly blame the victims for the violence inflicted upon them. It is like asking a woman who has been raped what kind of clothes she wore in the night of the assault or subject her to other humiliating examinations of her behaviour and trying to build a positive image of it. No-one in their right mind will ask this; they will problematize instead the pathological projections towards women of the only person responsible: the rapist himself. The same applies to cases of racism: instead of trying to build a more positive image of migrants to counter the negative one, we must direct critical attention to the racists themselves and study their attitudes always in relation to the structural forces that give rise to the banal pathologies of racism. Because these pathologies are not psychological states that form in isolation from external factors.

Until then we risk losing ourselves in a vicious circle of trying to “heal” racist outbursts by administering the wrong medicine (tolerance, charity, appeals to geography and market, etc) which will only lead to more racist excesses.



[3]    Ibid.

[4]    I normally put the word “race” in inverted commas because it is not a category registering the supposedly objective biological ‘traits’ in humans. Rather, it is a politico-ideological one, that emerged in the precise historical moment of colonial conquest and exploitation, which it served to legitimize by lending social inequalities a natural inevitability and unalterability.

By Jana Tsoneva

Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of Social Center Xaspel, Sofia and of the New Left Perspectives collective. She also co-authors Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).

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