Land grabs for the sake of luxury developments are the very opposite of progress. They erode the democratic achievements and threaten to drag us back to the past where the lion share of all resources was owned by a class of feudal lords.
Collage by the IotL Magazine
Much has been said and written about the outrageous (now suspended) Corinthia land deal and the way it was justified by both Corinthia Group’s chairman Alfred Pisani and the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. The vociferous criticism of the deal from the civil society organisations and the business world alike surprised many since it turned former adversaries into allies. A consensus between the MDA spokesperson Sandro Chetchuti and the Moviment Graffitti activist Andre Callus—which could not have been devised in the wildest fantasies—revealed that the opposition to the proposed development is firm and cuts across all strata of Maltese society.
Given that legitimacy and success of public officials and a company registered on the Malta Stock Exchange are subject to public opinion, their defense of a highly unpopular deal is truly perplexing and obscure.
Progress, Economic Growth and Social Contract
As in numerous other cases in the past years, the major argument in defense of this deal was the necessity to embrace Progress, with a capital ‘P’. Sold in this manner, any dubious deal appears as an inevitable natural phenomena and indisputably a positive change. Thus, the logic of progress is a brush that paints all critics of megalomaniac luxury developments as outdated irrelevant pricks.
Both Pisani and Muscat reiterated that the Corinthia land grab … sorry, deal … is vital for Malta’s future. In a nutshell, the argument boils down to the following: only by maintaining and expanding its current rates of economic growth can Malta ensure prosperity for all its citizens. Questioning this narrative would equate to calling for an economic downturn and reverting history with all the repercussions that come with it. In other words, public approval of such deals is sought through offers they can’t refuse.
Advertised as progress, any dubious deal appears as an inevitable natural phenomena and indisputably a positive change. Thus, the logic of progress is a brush that paints all critics of megalomaniac luxury developments as outdated irrelevant pricks.
A question to ask is what makes the arguments of a shared prosperity delivered by economic growth so compelling? Why is the public expected to buy into them? Why is the flawed nature of such discourse not self-evident?
The myth of trickle-down economics certainly has a role to play here. But there is still more than meets the eye.
Modern statehood, political theory, jurisprudence and economic relations are all premised on the concept of contract.
In a contemporary bureaucratic society, every one of us enters a series of mutual contractual agreements in which both parties agree to deliver on their obligations and fulfil their part of the deal. Examples of such relations include employment contracts, sales contracts, business agreements and so forth, whose promise is to advance interests of both parties by exchanging goods and services for payment. A contract is a legal document that determines the duties and obligations of the signatories to each other; it is a binding relationship that identifies the rights and safeguards the interests of those who sign this bind.
Elections of democratic representatives function in a similar way. Once elected, politicians are entrusted to represent the interests of their electorate, or, in other worlds, they enter a contractual relation with citizens. In this case, the contract is defined by the constitution, the laws of the state and, partially, by the political platform upon which they were elected. The contractual obligation of the liberal democratic state is to act as a guarantor of rights and justice for all its members.
The gravest flaw of this contract is the imbalance of power embedded in it: while the public is held accountable through legislation and enforcement, elected officials—who are also subject to these same regulations—frequently do not abide by them. Policies and legal frameworks are modified and manipulated to open up escape routes for politicians and their associates in the business elite which effectively makes the public the only party subjected to strict law enforcement.
Policies and legal frameworks are modified and manipulated to open up escape routes for politicians and their associates in the business elite which effectively makes the public the only party subjected to strict law enforcement.
Since the obligation of Prime Minister, as defined by the terms of social contract, is to ensure that economic and social policies benefit the society at large, the approval by Malta’s Prime Minister himself legitimised the dubious Corinthia deal as a promise of prosperity and advancement for all (that is, progress).
Land Grabs Breach the Terms of Social Contract
Corinthia deal exposes a grave disregard of social contractualism in Maltese affairs. While the contract is predicated on a promise of mutual advantage, the conditions of the contract—adherence to laws and regulations—are blatantly bypassed. The Maltese government is offering the public resources to a private entity, thus drawing up a contract between the public and Corinthia, yet the necessary conditions to sanction this contract are breached by two factors.
Firstly one of the parties—the public—has no say on the conditions of this contract. The government is sealing a deal with a third party on behalf of the public, despite the fact that the deal was never part of the original contract between the electorate and the elected. Second, the social contract—and the trust necessary to maintain it—is undermined by the breach of laws that rule against opaque transfers of public land to private entities and stipulate public accessibility to the shore.
Hence, from a perspective of social contract, not only transfers of public assets for private luxury developments cannot be advertised as socially beneficial, but should be annulled since they advance interests of one party at the expense of the other. Moreover, such deals call for a juridical action, as has been done already.
In the current scenario, the narrative of progress as improved prosperity does not hold any water since neither the state nor private actors abide by the terms of social contract. Disproportional financial might of business elites distorts a level playing field. In other words, the benefits are not mutual since large projects, both economic and infrastructural, are prioritised to the detriment of residents.
Not only is this realpolitik unsustainable in terms of the use of public assets and resources, but it also supports further accumulation of wealth in the hands of few. Economic inequality produces a highly stratified, hierarchical society that is more akin to a feudal than a democratic system.
Moreover, by creating conditions for the unfair advantage of one group over another, the state reinforces social injustice. Not only is this realpolitik unsustainable in terms of the use of public assets and resources, but it also supports further accumulation of wealth in the hands of few. Economic inequality produces a highly stratified, hierarchical society that is more akin to a feudal than a democratic system. Thus, land grabs for the sake of luxury developments are the very opposite of progress. They erode the democratic achievements and threaten to drag us back to the past where the lion share of all resources was owned by a class of feudal lords.
Ways Forward? Mass Participation and Public Debates
The concept of progress as improved wellbeing of society is unthinkable without commitment to social justice and policies aiming for a fair distribution of wealth and benefits among all its members. In the current set-up, the promise of progress serves to advance the interests of elites. We urgently need to redefine and reclaim this terminology—progress must again be linked to social justice and equality.
A democratic state goes beyond free elections every five years. Ultimately, the state is an institution that represents the people, meaning that people must have a say on all projects and deals administered by the government on their behalf. The conditions of transparency and mutual trust, necessary for the implementation of social contract, are the guiding principles of a democratic society.
Malta urgently needs a mature, non-partisan re-evaluation of its political values and the economic policies they churn.
Concerned citizens of this country should be given a chance to assess the principles guiding its legal and administrative institutions. Although the partisan climate stiffles sound debate and makes a broad public involvement in overseeing democratic principles effectively impossible, such a debate must induce. It should seek every possible platform to ensure that a constitutional reform takes place. It is only through mass participation that the politicians and private entities can be held back from co-opting democratic principles for their sole advancement.