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MT 18 September 2016

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maltatoday, SUNDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER 2016 38 This Week When you think "clever animal" you think chimp or dolphin, certainly not snail or slug. Yet these lowly molluscs too have their Mensa champion: the octopus. Unfortunately most people only see this marvel of nature as chopped up chunks in a stew, but to meet an octopus in its home is a magical experience, and you needn't go scuba diving or anything. The common octopus (M: qarnita) lives quite happily in very shallow waters around our shore, as long as there are snails and crabs about for it to catch, and rocks under which to retreat and digest its meal. Octopuses are equipped with some serious tech: highly developed eyes, impossible flexibility, matchless camouflage, an in-built smoke- screen device, eight all-purpose tentacles and a clever brain to coordinate it all. These animals have been tested with mazes and things and found to be good at learning and solving problems. It's such a waste that this wise and charismatic creature so often meets its end impaled by a speargun. GREEN IDEA OF THE WEEK 427: FIND OUT MORE – WWW.FOEMALTA.ORG/BEE Visit Friends of the Earth's website for more information about our work, as well as for information about how to join us. You can also support us by sending us a donation - Text and photo Victor Falzon 524. COMMON OCTOPUS A materialist understanding of Maltese backwardness HOW did the downtrodden Maltese masses experience reality through the ages, and how was this experience affected by their mate- rial conditions of life? Could they have con- ceived of escaping their state of subjugation for most of their history? Or were the mate- rial conditions unsuitable for them to become conscious of the real causes of their plight, making such an escape impossible? These are some of the questions which Mark Camilleri's new book, A Materialist Revision of Maltese History 870-1919 attempts to address. Camilleri proposes a new reading of Maltese history from the perspective of the Maltese masses based mainly on already known facts. The author does uncover some new histori- cal information in the form of the Police log books kept during British rule. But while this sheds some light on the day to day life of the lower classes, it seems to me to be secondary to his expressed intent of revising our under- standing of the period ranging from 870 to 1919. Why 870 – 1919? The dates mentioned in the book's title are simply convenient markers for the start and end of Camilleri's narrative. In the year 870, Malta was depopulated by Arab invaders, and the islands were only repopulated about hun- dred years after this event, as proved by the evidence recently uncovered by the late God- frey Wettinger. The present Maltese commu- nity thus cannot be traced back any further than this date into the past. On the other hand, 1919 is the year of the Sette Giugno ri- ots, when for the first time the Maltese masses spontaneously rose up and started to make demands for the improvement of their lot. Of course neither is the starting date nor end date completely innocent. In selecting 870 as his starting date, Camilleri is taking aim at those who wrongly affirm the continu- ity of today's society with the Christian com- munity which they claim was founded by St Paul. In doing this, Camilleri is building on his previously published book, Il-Mit Pawlin u l-Abbuż tal-Istorja Maltija (St. Paul's Myth and the Abuse of Maltese History). On the other hand, by having his historical account reach its climax in 1919, I believe that Camill- eri is polemicising with those who from time to time write in the press to devalue the sig- nificance of this event's rapture with the past. A methodological innovation The Hegelian influence is most visible in the fact that Camilleri has chosen to focus his at- tention on the process of the gradual acquisi- tion of consciousness by the Maltese masses. According to the view point adopted by Camilleri, this process finds its climax in the Sette Giugno riots, when the Maltese people finally become self-conscious of their predica- ment. For the first time, the people correctly intuit the nature of the forces which are keep- ing them in a state of subjugation and spon- taneously rise against them, thus opening the possibility of transforming their present situ- ation, rather than perceiving it as natural and unchangeable. On the other hand, in attempting to under- stand how this self-consciousness is able to mature, Camilleri abandons Hegel for Marx, and takes a rigorous materialist stance. What the author seems to borrow from Historical Materialism is a particular attention for the mode of production employed on the island during different epochs, sensitivity for the ef- fect which the economic situation must have had on the consciousness of the people at dif- ferent times, and a watchful eye for the ide- ologies which kept them passive and subdued. The treacherous road to self-consciousness Armed with an enriched historical method which carefully avoids those teleological com- mitments which can be implicit in Hegelian historicism or economicist readings of Marx, Camilleri proceeds to interpret the Late Medi- eval, Early Modern and Late Modern periods. Particularly enlightening is his analysis of the class structure of the various forms of society, the ideology espoused by each class and how the balance of power changed in response to changes in the economy, class struggle and war. What emerges most clearly from Camilleri's materialist reading is that the Maltese masses repeatedly failed to conceive of themselves as agents who could forge their own history, be- ing trapped for most of the time in a state of economic dependency, want and intellectual stagnation propagated by religious obscurant- ism. When they did take centre stage, such as during the fateful insurrection against the French, they were not acting in their own in- terest, but in the interest of other classes. Similarly, when changes in the international circumstances led to local economic booms, the advantages were mostly enjoyed by a few select merchants. Despite the availability of capital, this conservative and risk-averse class failed to invest, demanded unfair advantages such as monopolies, and opposed measures such as reducing the grain tax, even when this was leading to widespread misery amongst the toiling masses. Given all this it is of no surprise that Camill- eri should identify the 7 June 1919 as the event when the Maltese masses, under the pressure of a complex situation did finally manage to achieve some measure of self-consciousness, and in throwing off their mental shackles, ri- oted and demanded the improvement of their material situation. Although they did not have a vision of the future as yet, they did intuit that the problem lay in British Imperialism and the local profiteering elites who grew fat at their expense. A couple of criticisms This book is a very in- formative and rewarding one, with a wealth of judiciously chosen infor- mation on the material con- ditions of the Maltese population, and a thoughtful reading of it will reveal it to be laden with lessons for our present circumstances. One of its defects is that the thread which is running through it, that of the development of the consciousness of the Maltese masses, is not always apparent. The methodological in- troduction, which sets the tone and informs the reading of the rest of the book is writ- ten in a way which may prove to be obscure for readers who are not familiar with Marx- ism and German Idealism. The rest of the book makes for straightforward reading, but at times one does get the impression that it could have been organised somewhat better. One other odd thing with the book is its epilogue, which seems to have been added as an afterthought. In this short chapter, Camilleri jumps from 1919 to 1970, indi- cating that the country's recurrent state of economic dependency was only overcome thanks to the industrialisation policies un- dertaken by Dom Mintoff. A series of in- teresting digressions follow, concerning matters such as the nationalisation of the National Bank, and how Neoliberalism is today threatening to bring the country in a state of economic dependency once again. Still, the 50 or so year gap between 1919 and the 1970s jars and leaves one somewhat dis- oriented. One hopes that Camillleri, while elaborating on his political insights in some separate future publication, will consider re- visiting this epilogue in a second edition of his book. INGRAM BONDIN finds a lot to chew on in Mark Camilleri's latest book, A Materialist Revision of Maltese History 870-1919

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