The parkers are our modern working class entrepreneurs. The parkers, like the developers, landlords and ministers understand the market too well. The parkers managed to carve out their own jobs just at the right time in a neo-patronage system.
Image: a still from a YouTube video, redesigned by Isles of the Left
Historical and anthropological analysis have pondered for centuries on what ties Mediterranean societies together—is it landscape, food, the honour and shame syndrome or hospitality? I dare say that besides morphological and historical commonalities, what escaped many historians and anthropologists, is that ‘we’—the Mediterraneans—are a culture based on concealment and non-declaration. Such understanding might have gone unnoticed because the authors doing the analysis come from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic worlds. In what follows, I use the role of the car park attendant in order to analyse first, the birth of a new entrepreneur in a post-industrial society. Second, I use the car park attendant as a lens to think about Maltese society at large. But also, to look for those meaningful and hidden connections that might link us to other Mediterranean societies.
Importantly, I see the first indicators of people and thinkers re-claiming the concept of the Mediterranean and moving away from that of Europe. Could this be resurfacing because we are passing through political and socio-economic struggles? Are political borders shifting? Is this a collective regression to an identity that gives us some form of ontological security? Or is it a conscious mental shift that is reconsidering the social experiment of ‘Europe’ and a different way of doing politics?
The Car Park Attendant
How can we think through such a big political and existential concept by using the role of the car park attendant (‘parker’ hereafter) who is often thought of a unilaterally pejorative nature? Many think that this role is unnecessary. It is largely assumed that on the one hand the parker makes a lot of money and on the other, they do not declare their income, despite the fact that the Malta Transport Authority states that they are still subject to inspections by the Tax Compliance Unit. Additionally, there is an aura of fear where it is often assumed that if you do not have the ‘optional tip’ your vehicle may be in danger.
Don’t our ministers too do that and worse?
But, aren’t we a culture of concealment and non-declaration? Don’t our ministers too do that and worse? Isn’t the case of the Don’t Bury Us Alive! a reflection of a culture that does not comply to officialdom and laws. This is not the sole case. Additionally, don’t big landlords invest the deposit money taken from the tenant in order to get bank interests and construct more shoeboxes-for-homes? Therefore, the cunning practices and the worldview of the parkers can be thought of as a microcosm of our nation, not an exception.
Despite that such stories of non-declaration (and abuse) by the parkers may hold some truth if not envy, this article is a playful curiosity in seeking to understand how this role emerged in our society. It is not about whether the role of the parker is good or bad. Instead, I want to analyse this role from an entrepreneurial perspective in relation to a changing society. Can this role make us think further about the way our society is adapting to new economic and political shifts? Let’s stop to think for a moment about the emergent role of the parker.
Changing Society, Changing Market
How can the role of the parker be sustained in our contemporary society? In order to understand this role, we must first understand the local social structure. Lately, I have been reflecting on the impact that the shift from industrial capitalism to neoliberalism had in Malta. In a country where alliances based on friendship and family networks were always key, one cannot think of ‘pure neoliberalism’. It is best to think of our society as a cross between neoliberal and patron-client kinds, based on a strong kinship system—that is, a neo-patronage society (my term).
Not only did industrial capitalism change seasonal time to chronological time, but it also created ‘empty homogeneous spaces’ that could be filled up by any employer. All one needed is to be trained and disciplined. These industrial jobs, of course, should not be totally demonised as they brought prosperity to some and freedom to others. With the pull of industrial capitalism, the penetration of the free market and globalisation, new white collar jobs were created—such as, the receptionist and the IT officer. Others, like the clock-maker, shoemaker or the oven-builder, have become anachronistic. However, such transformations are neither good nor bad. Societies are not static but always shifting and changing across time. Thus, roles and duties change according to time and space; and so does morality.
The role of the parker is a creative and ingenious engagement within the strictures and structures of late capitalist modes of production.
What is of utmost interest for this analysis is the way certain jobs are created outside of the economic normative pull. Here, I come back to the parker. There was no business plan that designed and implemented such a role. It was a direct reaction to a changing society which was thriving economically. To me, the role of the parker is a creative and ingenious engagement within the strictures and structures of late capitalist modes of production. Inasmuch as late capitalism has brought about social and economic changes which had an impact on the household, family formation, gender roles and ultimately in the sphere of employment, Maltese society did not embrace capitalism in its totality. Instead, the capitalist mode of production and now neoliberalism were moulded to fit our friendship and family networks. These networks shape the very core of our existence and especially our perception of money, business and all practices related to it are understood and practiced.
The role of the parker was carved out precisely in that ‘in-betweeness’, that economic and social shift which resulted in a neo-patronage society. Unlike the baby-boomers, the X-generation and the millennials are faced with precarious and short-term employment contracts. This brings out our survival skills where such precarity and uncertainty is countered for by making ‘a quick buck’ when one can. The parker is a direct reflection and engagement with such social, economic and political transformations.
The Parker as a Creative Entrepreneur
Cars are undoubtedly a symbol of industrial capitalism. Objects and machines are not banal. They are fraught with social and political meaning. Cars fall straight in this symbolic and functional category. Nowadays, cars are social capital and a ‘coming-of-age symbol’. Cars and car parks have taken over the island and are embedded in our daily rhythms. Nowadays, even a house loses credit if a car park is not included into its design. It is this existential and philosophical shift that the parker so ingeniously understood. Thus, the parker was cunning enough to create a job, a service and a need which did not exist previously .
This type of creative engagement is inherent in our social skills as Maltese. And the parker is only a reflection of such an endeavour. This perhaps relates to the succession of different colonisers, where the majority of the Maltese have had to creatively deal with such continuous domination. The master-slave syndrome among the Maltese people is a learnt introject coming from our historical background of always being colonised. However, beneath this façade, we are a nation of survivors. Colonisation brings hardship. And hardship and struggles often push certain groups, like the working-classes and the just-coping classes to the fringes of society. Living at the periphery gives one the opportunity to look at the world with different eyes. It is what brings about creative endeavours.
The parkers are our modern working class entrepreneurs.
Additionally, this ties in with our cunning skills as industrious entrepreneurs (bieżlin). This is then justified and neutralised through its moralising principle—we make a quick buck when we can because we are doing it for the greater good of our families. In fact, I befriended the three parkers who work on different shifts where I leave my car key on a daily basis, and soon found out that they are two brothers and a son. The family network is strong and solidarity amongst them is real and evident.
In general, the Maltese feel that they must gain as much as possible from this national and ‘one-off economic bliss’ because tomorrow lies in the unknown. The parkers are our modern working class entrepreneurs. They are also our existential-economic-experts. The parkers, like the developers, landlords and ministers understand the market too well. The parkers managed to carve out their own jobs just at the right time in a neo-patronage system.
This does not mean that parkers are using ledgers, but follow their intuition, street-wise experience and sentiments in order to achieve what they did. We really are not a society of numbers. Numbers are a myth—purposely left as such! This suits our culture of non-declaration. I believe that such cultural practices are not unique to Malta, but are similar to other Mediterranean societies. Is it practices of non-declaration and concealment that links the Mediterranean together? Maybe.