Towards a fairer and more just society

As 2018 comes to a close with yet another year dominated by Malta's politically-charged news cycle, as journalists we are often staggered at how little certain news events and political misdemeanours seem to bother the general public

The stock response is that economic growth under Labour has anaesthetised the impulse for outrage – but this is a political truth evident in any country where the going is good. 

Joseph Muscat is credited with having managed capitalism into a better deal for the Maltese citizenry: but his success comes at considerable expense for the Maltese environment, for the way we organise our lives around labour and the ability to consume more, and for the way we live in urban centres dominated by noise pollution, construction, increased traffic, and the shortcomings of cosmopolitan life.

Muscat also presides over a society which has a close connection to political forces; and, as recent EU surveys show, enjoys higher trust ratings than institutions such as the media: which are often treated as harbingers of doom, eager as we are to focus on the cracks of society and its emarginated, rather than what is enthusiastically dubbed 'positive' news or 'successes'. That might even be true, but the need to look at hidden stories is also a necessary part of the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely nothing wrong with basking in economic growth. To date, all administrations – both Labour and Nationalist – have focused on material ends, with some administrations doing a better job of redistributing income and wealth. Jobs have been a constant focus for all major political parties: employment gives people dignity and the power to consume, and that dignity is vital for a certain identity, to solidify the bonds of social solidarity upon which we can contribute towards the common good.

But today, we also complain about unbridled individualism, perhaps mostly illustrated by rampant construction development – benefiting a powerful class of ‘producers’ in particular – which upsets the balance between the rights of people to open space rights, and of those who are eyeing Malta's precious coastlines and countryside to make millions.

In response to such complaints, Muscat’s administration always asks us to accommodate this new reality. Under the present government, the supposedly independent planning regulator is a pawn in the hands of the government, and the public has no proper recourse to fight the corporate interests that have laid siege to, not just land, but also our clean air, our peace and quiet, our public views, our swimming areas, our rambling green areas, and so on.

At what point will the Maltese realise that, beyond the economic benefits trickling down to them – chief among them, the sale of old properties for apartment blocks – they too will face the remorse of having lost control over their communities? Will they end up seeing their village and town cores as ghosts of their past: being transformed into ‘mini-airports’ for the constant influx of foreign labour (servicing companies seeking a Maltese base for tax benefits)? Will all that is left of the physical spaces they once inhabited, be just a faint childhood memory? Or will the Maltese see beyond the stupor of material wealth to address meaningful questions about their identity, about the democratic control of independent institutions, and about what it means to live in a better society?

As we constantly ask ourselves what meaningful opposition should exist to the neoliberal drive that Labour represents today, it only seems ever more clear that the answer lies in rediscovering what a fair society is all about. Challenges that must be addressed now include pressing questions as to whether local councils and communities should be involved deeper in planning decisions; whether to hold referenda on local plans and townscape design, to wrest away the influence from compromised parties and MPs; whether Malta is actively going to safeguard the environment with clear controls on poaching, noise pollution, abusive construction, and countryside destruction; whether we are to allow Malta's mercantilist economy to proceed without a strong financial crime unit, that can clamp down on illicit financial deals and organised crime outfits using the gaming and fintech industries to launder their money.

More importantly – as the fourth industrial revolution turns more of us redundant by delegating human labour to technology – are we ready to discuss the values that underpin our welfare system and its survival, our strong tradition of solidarity in the face of the refugee crisis; and if businesses’ influence will continue to displace our democratic control over the governments we elect?

Relinquishing the urgency to answer these questions would be relegating ourselves to collaborators of a political system that is guided only by the values of mercantilists and piratical profiteers. We need to be at the forefront of the fight against the privatisation of our public spaces; against those who manage to overcome democratic hurdles with the use of hefty party donations, and who blame the poor and dispossessed as parasites. In a word, those who would benefit in a society where authoritarian tendencies, rendered sweeter by a mix of trickle-down economics, overcome the democratic brakes that makes a just, sustainable and more equal society possible.

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