A truly democratic civil society is our only hope | Kurt Borg

Our politicians have made a joke of institutions, procedures, décor, political debate and partisan politics. This is what will continue to dominate the political landscape if it is not for a strong democratic civil society

Is there no such thing as society? No there isn’t, Margaret Thatcher had famously said in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine in 1987. This statement marked a culmination of neoliberal politics, where competitive individualism and market logics permeated all spheres of society, privileging business interests and harming community ties.

A key question to be asked is how speaking of ‘society’ can be politically and progressively mobilised in such a way that it is rooted in neither an exclusionary discourse of national identity, nor in a neoliberal capitalist realism.

In the current political climate, both locally and globally, to speak of ‘community’, ‘collectivity’ or ‘social group’ has become ridden with the danger of this discourse being used to justify xenophobic sentiments, or to be seen as promoting potentially divisive identity politics. Any focus on mutually exclusive identity groups, indeed, serves to hinder democratic debate and contestation.

This is why it is important to protect and defend the idea of civil society, or at least clarify its meaning, which is an often-misunderstood notion.

Civil society is that crowded space between government, the business sphere, and the domestic sphere. It is a space composed of various democratic organisations beyond the realm of the state itself. Civil society is an important basis for democratic politics since it secures the possibility to contest practices of power, lobby, holding politicians and public officials to account, and to stand for freedom of expression in the public sphere.

Philosophers and social theorists, ranging from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas, have all defended a notion of the public sphere. They regard this social space as an important realm where the individual can voice their concerns feel part of a community, and ultimately flourish in society. While some theorists speak of a nation-bound civil society, others call for a pan-European and global public sphere.

It is very important that the discourse and practices of civil society have been at the centre stage of local politics, particularly since the Panama Papers saga started. The so-called Civil Society Network and other organisations have been instrumental in mobilising people to protest due to the various outrageous and scandalous revelations that have haunted Maltese politics in the last few years.

While the efforts and political activities of such organisations are to be applauded, it is also important to recognise the dangers of styling oneself as the representative of civil society. These organisations face criticism when they appear to hijack ‘civil society’ and to present themselves as its ‘face’.

While this criticism is often made by those who want to discredit any civil society effort that attacks their favourite party, some of this criticism is valid and justified. Many people still feel uncomfortable with having someone like Manuel Delia being perceived as a leader of such efforts, who many simply regard as an Austin Gatt protégé.

I am not saying that a person with a partisan background should be automatically excluded from civil society efforts. However, such efforts suffer when the public perception of them is that these protests are organised by the ‘usual suspects’ (disgruntled sympathisers of a particular faction of the PN), who behave and speak in an elitist and classist manner, and who propound an image of Daphne Caruana Galizia which several disagreed with for a variety of reasons.

Therefore, it is unfortunate that so many of the civil society protests have been solely spearheaded by the same organisations.

A better strategy to mobilise people is to diversify the speakers and include other civil society organisations not as mere supporters of the protest but as full organisers. For civil society to be true to its name, it needs to capture the variety of voices and the different reasons why people would protest, and not seek to augment a homogeneous understanding of civil society. Indeed, civil society constantly needs to reflect on its own mechanisms of exclusion in order to become fully democratic.

Now, I am not presenting this criticism to undermine past and present civil society efforts. To the contrary, I strongly believe that, as the Ombudsman summed it up, it was an organised civil society that brought down a very powerful administration. Malta lacks a lively  culture of protesting: some people are still afraid to show up at protests lest they face personal repercussions, while politicians (including the current Prime Minister) described protests as provocations, and Tony Zarb (a supposedly left-leaning unionist-turned-consultant to the OPM) called women protesters prostitutes.

As scandal after scandal has been revealed, a dangerous aura of normalisation has been created, as if it is normal that people in office create highly suspicious off-shore financial structures; as if it is normal that politicians can be dangerously friendly with dodgy businessmen; as if it is normal that a politician does not resign unless they have to leave office to be dragged to prison; as if anything goes.

Besides the financial and political price of corruption, the post-2013 administrations have dangerously used the “tagħna lkoll” discourse to discredit any critical opposition.

A rhetoric of loyal servants and traitors was continually bandied about, and even in the lowest political moments, few if any government MPs would muster enough courage to condemn their colleagues beyond cryptic Facebook posts. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public, they’d say, while they come up with the next excuse. They have tricked people who put them in power with inclusive (or, rather, ideologically fluid) rhetoric. What their attitude actually amounted to was an unprincipled economics on steroids. It is true that the economy bloomed, but some would say that the price paid for this was way too high.

The arrogant overconfidence that resulted from large electoral victories continued to sustain the government’s bullish attitude. Moreover, it served to protect Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona and Joseph Muscat from obvious resignations. Not to mention people like Keith Schembri, an unelected figure who, for these last years, has engaged in incredibly questionable behaviour and called the shots from the backroom.

Or people like Kenneth Camilleri and Neville Gafà, the henchman who proudly admitted to coordinating missions to Libya that practically amount to the pushback of migrants. Reacting to the Prime Minister calling on Konrad Mizzi to suspend himself from the Labour Party parliamentary group, Gafà reacted with machismo by calling on the disgraced former Minister not to be “bla bajd” and stay on.

All this has transformed politics into a circus. Our politicians have made a joke of institutions, procedures, décor, political debate and partisan politics. This is what will continue to dominate the political landscape if it is not for a strong democratic civil society. In a time where the Opposition leaves much to be desired, civil society can serve as a critical opposition that ensures that the people are at the heart of politics. This includes a constant questioning of whose voices are in danger of being left out, a democratic consideration of differences rather than divisive exclusions.

This is why civil society needs to be protected. It is not easy to combat dirty politics and complex institutional corruption. However, the power of civil society should not be under-estimated. As emerged in Melvin Theuma’s testimony, he and Yorgen Fenech were scared and bothered by the civil society protests. If these actions worry those who, to put it mildly, engage in wrongdoing, then they are on the right track.

Now more than ever, believing in such a thing as a truly democratic civil society is our only hope.