When one takes stock of the social and political challenges which Malta is currently facing, three important categories should be given the importance they deserve: social justice, sustainability and democracy.
It has become clear that civil rights and liberties are being mainstreamed in social policy. Social changes and effective political campaigning helped articulate the discourse.
As welcome as this progressive step forward is, it should not result in a wrong impression that now everyone is equal. Though Malta is one of the least unequal societies in the EU, inequalities keep persisting in various fields, including social class, poverty and social exclusion. Precarious employment is the latest manifestation in this regard.
This shows us that individualization has many faces – from opportunities, such as those being enjoyed by LGBT persons given Malta’s policy changes, to constraints, such as those faced by precarious workers.
In an individualised society we have no choice but to make choices, but policy making can help us be more autonomous in the construction of our biographies.
Maltese social policy is moving towards more active measures, but at the same time it is articulating a discourse against welfare dependency. On the one hand, people are being encouraged to be better equipped to face the risks and opportunities of our times, yet on the other hand it seems that the poor are being blamed for their situation.
In such a context one should keep in mind that universal welfare – such as health and education, as well as the recent expansion of childcare services – often protect many families from poverty and social exclusion.
Let us not feed ourselves the illusion that ‘new’ welfare schemes, such as third pillar pensions, are going to give us more social justice. If anything, such voluntary pension schemes can only further increase inequality, this time between those who can afford such a scheme and those who can’t.
A more socially just system would have introduced a compulsory second pillar with the State making up for those who cannot afford to participate
A welfare state which moves towards conditional welfare can weaken such institutionalized solidarity and thus increase inequality.
Indeed, Malta’s hybrid social model has so far served well in the avoidance of social and economic difficulties which are being experienced elsewhere in southern Europe.
Social justice requires sustainable finance, which, in turn can help fuel a more sustainable economy. Regressive fiscal measures and unsustainable expenditure can put this in danger.
At the same time, a sustainable economy requires ecological sustainability.
Malta is currently experiencing global ecological challenges such as climate change which can have devastating impacts unless policies are implemented to manage such risks in a sustainable way.
At a local level, Malta has its fair share of ecological challenges. For example, transport policies which favour cars over pedestrians, bicycles and public transport vehicles, result in gridlock and increased pollution. Besides, Malta keeps permitting troglodyte vehicles, especially in the construction sector, which emit unacceptable levels of fumes.
Public land keeps being treated as an unlimited resource ripe for commodification, whilst water consumption and waste management are being sidelined from the prioritisation they require.
Malta’s current energy debate is sideling key considerations. For example, are cheaper utility bills necessarily sustainable in terms of public finance and consumption?
A general lack of transparency, and vague talk on related issues such as energy hubs and renewables are not helping matters.
Paradoxically, such ecological issues can serve as opportunities in the transition towards a green economy, creating job opportunities and enhancing sustainability.
A major challenge for policy makers in this regard is whether we are consumers or citizens, as highlighted by social policy theorist Michael Cahill.
Consumers require instant gratification in an unlimited quest for more, whilst citizens have both rights and responsibilities. Policy-making which appeals to the former might win votes, yet how sustainable is it?
I do not believe that politics should necessarily be based on a hyper-real quest for endless consumption. Not only because this could ultimately implode, but also because there is no such thing as one monolithic ideology. A politics without adversaries means that we are all absorbed within a monologue.
On the contrary, in a democracy, there is always the possibility of different political discourses.
Diversity and antagonism strengthen the democratic imagery. Here, one may borrow the term ‘agonism’ from political theorist Chantal Mouffe – where the adversary is seen as an opponent with whom one shares a common allegiance to democratic principles, in a spirit of mutual respect.
Political parties are essential actors in such a context, but they are not the only players. NGOs and the media have a key role in sensitising society on various issues and in bringing about social change.
Parties and other civil society actors can work in a spirit of dialogue, forming alliances and coalitions, and respecting adversaries who have different views.
Such alliances proved successful in Malta’s EU and divorce referenda campaigns. Likewise, they can prove successful in other areas.
In such a context, I think that Maltese society should reflect on the possibility of politics which gives primacy to the citizen rather than the consumer.
This article appears in The Times, 18th November 2014: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20141118/opinion/Citizen-or-the-consumer-.544572