I wonder what Jeremy Boissevain would have made out of the latest examples of deficit in governance in Malta. What would he have said of politicians populating their assets in tax havens, of defending what cannot be defended, of the way political parties situate themselves amid the mess?
Boissevain was mostly famous for his writings on ‘saints and fireworks’ and ‘friends of friends’ networks in Malta, but his writings had also delved elsewhere.
For example, he borrowed the idea of “amoral familism” from Edward C Banfield, who, in turn, had written about “the inability of the villagers to act together for their common good or, indeed, for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family”.
Perhaps Boissevain would have said that friends of friends were doing their utmost to keep their power in Malta, whilst amoral familism contradicts the idea of a common good among many. Or perhaps he might have gone a step further and spoken of ‘amoral individualism’ – something a colleague of mine dubbed a few days ago as we were discussing the social situation in Malta today.
In my view, the biggest danger of the current political situation in Malta is not the simply political survival of new oligarchs in a system which already had its fair share of oligarchs.
It is the cultural malaise that wants to normalise corruption, where if you can’t beat it you join it. And by corruption I am not referring to legalistic interpretations of the term – important as they are - but to a way of life that moves away from meritocracy, transparency and other basic norms of liberal democracies.
Trust in politicians is already going down, and things will only get worse if this phenomenon spreads across society in general
Unless things change, Malta’s style of governance can dangerously head towards a direction whereby the common good and responsibilities are increasingly moved out of the conversation. If oligarchs can put their money in tax havens, then what legitimacy do they have to tell common citizens to be responsible, for example in the payment of tax?
The same Labour government that is progressive in the introduction of civil liberties is not equating this step forward with the need to promote the common good and responsibilities.
Yet, it should be clear that people’swell-being is very much interdependent to both rights and responsibilities and that the state has a vital role in this process. Politicians should therefore not avoid their responsibility to act for the common good.
Let us not forget that one important message of the general election in 2013 was that many voters wanted change towards an increasingly modernised society. If the same party that won theelection retains the deficit in governance, a net effect could be increased scepticism, lower civic commitment and lack of responsibility.
Trust in politicians is already going down, and things will only get worse if this phenomenon spreads across society in general.
This erosion of the social can therefore have implications which Malta should be avoiding. Such as becoming increasingly dependent on political oligarchs for favours. Or looking at nature as a commodity to be exploited.
Or associating public services with rent-seeking interest. Or becoming increasingly inward looking in terms of political tribes, even in basic needs such as law and order. Such insularity and dependence do not fit well with equal opportunities and level playing fields.
In such a context, I strongly appeal to Labourites who hold dear the values of social democracy to keep doing their utmost so that the government, which is in power through legitimate democratic means, earns a legitimacy of authority through self-restraint, through true deliberation, and by putting the common good before the interest of the few.
Governance should therefore not simply be justified through legalisms and parliamentary majorities. Government should also be about character, respect and responsibility.
As things stand, the oligarchy is only showing respect towards itself, at the expense of the common good.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.