A socio-political satire by Wayne Flask, Sibna ż-Żejt, was recently performed at the Manoel Theatre. The audience was entertained by the situations in a concrete-laden dystopia in Malta, in the year 2036. Oil is found under the Addolorata cemetery, fuelling a series of tragi-comic events.
Till the end of the play, Joseph Muscat is politically invincible and attempts to adopt increasingly monarchical attitudes, resting on the support of mega-land developers. The Nationalist Party splits, AD is long gone and critical intellectuals are seen as dangerous individuals. This democratic suffocation eventually provides for Muscat’s political implosion, giving rise to an authoritarian reaction.
Whether Muscat will be Prime Minister in 2036 is subject to debate (!), though I think that serious shortcomings in governance, transparency and environmental consciousness are being underestimated by today’s over-confident Labour government.
This might provide for political implosion earlier than one thinks. Labour should keep in mind that when the Nationalist Party lost the 1996 and 2013 elections the country’s economic performance was not the main reason why voters changed the government.
Some recent statements by Muscat are clear examples of such over-confidence. For example, some days ago, he told the press that he could not understand all the fuss being made about a proposed cruise terminal project in an ecologically-sensitive part of Gozo, after the ‘erroneous divulging’ of internal information by a company interested in developing the site.
Only some days before, Muscat joked that the farmers at Żonqor can be transferred to St Luke’s Hospital, in Guardamangia. Apart from being in bad taste, this statement showed little empathy with the social attachment farmers have to their agricultural way of life.
The Żonqor issue is, however, symptomatic of a trend that is even more worrying than Labour’s overconfidence.
I am referring to the ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to land development. For example, the government is showing no concern for the ODZ concept, rendering land to a bargaining chip in a casino-like context of development.
Beyond the legalities of ODZ status, in my view there is a stronger meaning to ODZ and here I share similar views to my colleague and fellow columnist Mark-Anthony Falzon.
There could be a political implosion earlier than one thinks
ODZ has a socially-constructed symbolic meaning of a cross-generational social bond. ODZ represents a pact between current and future generations, between the agonistic camps in the politics of the environment.
By agonistic camps I am referring to adversaries who play the political game but respect the rules and each other through vibrant, civil, civic engagement. This concept was proposed by political theorist Chantal Mouffe.
From an agonistic perspective, therefore, ODZ represents a degree of social cohesion, as an out-of-bounds zone for development.
If Maltese society agrees that ODZ is out of bounds, this social pact gives even more legitimacy to the legal status of ODZ. The concept of the common good prevails over short-term partisan interests. A strong sense of reciprocity will be in place, where rights and responsibilities are intertwined.
Social pacts provide the foundations of relatively stable social settings and for the democratic development of societies which move out of political violence, zero-sum conflict and ghettoised social enclaves.
In such a context, when the government speaks about ODZ land as if it is an item for auction, the ODZ project breaks down.
Therefore, I ask if it is acceptable that the government seems to give priority to free-riding developers who seem to give little consideration to social bonds.
Is it acceptable that the government sets false parameters by promoting the idea of a reduced footprint of development on ODZ land?
This is not a compromise. A true, sensible compromise would be to carry out a proper scientific exercise in search of alternative non-ODZ land that can host sustainable development.
Indeed, by resorting to the logic of ‘anything goes’, Muscat’s government risks rendering the agonism of adversaries to the antagonism of enemies. The ODZ social pact would have been broken and Pandora’s Box would be opened.
Social anxiety due to a deteriorating quality of life could increase, where the public is kept guessing which part of Malta is next on the auction list. Free-riders would be more equal than others, making it more difficult to uphold the concept of community in Maltese society.
If the Prime Minister thinks that people simply ‘adapt’ to overdevelopment, I think that this is a gross miscalculation of social reality. People do not breathe money, children do not play in concrete mixers and families do not relax in building sites.
Going back to Sibna ż-Żejt, I believe that Flask’s dystopia will not take place, though the play provides a parable-like warning. The optimistic side of me says that we are in time to stop Malta being rendered to a permanent building site. The founding of Front Ħarsien ODZ is an example of such optimism.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.