GUEST POST: You are all responsible for Joseph Muscat

Published: April 29, 2017 at 12:26am

This guest post is by Ryan Murdock, a Canadian travel writer who lived in Malta for around six years before leaving for Berlin some months ago.

The crisis facing Malta today didn’t just happen, and you are not a victim of it. Joseph Muscat and his Merry Band of Thieves are the direct outcome of Maltese society. You could even say they’re its finest expression.

It probably pissed you off to read that. It should. But let’s leave aside whether or not I’m an asshole for saying it. That’s irrelevant to the argument I’m presenting. I present that argument as someone who lived in Malta for six years, and someone who has made a living writing about travel and culture. I also present it as someone fully aware of the typical response of “fuck off and leave”.

I’m sure you have entire communities of expats on the island who are horrified by the current situation, and who sincerely want to help change it. But, as outsiders, we can’t say anything remotely critical without being told off, or being slagged as “colonialist” or elitist or something. And so you’re robbed of that chance to see things from a different unpartisan angle, one that is completely uninvolved in the passionate and seemingly endless narrative of Red vs. Blue.

But an outside perspective may be helpful here. I believe that the corrupt government of Joseph Muscat is a direct outcome of the very same amoral familism that anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain wrote about in his 1962 study of Malta, Saints and Fireworks. Boissevain discovered that the Maltese family-centred worldview holds that any action undertaken to benefit one’s family or oneself is justifiable. And everyone expects everyone else to do whatever benefits their family or themselves, regardless of whether it’s legal or ethical.

If you’ve read Boissevain’s study, you’ll know that amoral familism leads to a complete disregard for the effects of one’s actions on others — neighbours, strangers, future generations — and a complete lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions.

You see it in the way people dump rubbish in the no-man’s-land of public spaces. You see it in illegal building construction, done with total disregard for the laws and regulations that protect the quality of life of others, or the environment. You see it in the pervasive system of patronage and nepotism, and the belief that a network of influential friends or relatives in government or a political party should give you favours, cash, permits, etc in return for your vote.

Everyone does it. But don’t you dare point it out or you will be in the wrong, and someone will burn down your front door, set fire to your car, vandalise your house or kick you out of your job.

Well, this very same culture of amoral familism has produced a government that is pillaging your country like an elderly aunt at a wedding buffet with her purse lined in plastic. Crooked politicians split hairs, play with words, and cloud the waters to distract from their completely obvious wrongdoing. And they’re successful at this because the audience they’re speaking to really can’t see the difference between right and wrong.

That’s why whataboutism is such a successful defence in Maltese discussions. A political party mirrors a family, because it reflects your self identity. You’re Labour, or you’re Nationalist. Red or Blue. You do what benefits the Labour or Nationalist party, and you expect everyone in the other party to be doing the same.

“Well, Charlie did X” is the inevitable response to criticism, or to someone who points out wrongdoing. It always sounded crazy to me. But I realized that, though it’s a logical fallacy, in the Maltese setting, whataboutism actually is an admissible argument. That person is saying, “You acted to benefit your own party, and to hell with everyone else, so what’s wrong with what we did?”

Whataboutism conforms to the amoral familism worldview, rather than to moral right or wrong. And politics in Malta will always be about that sort of opportunism, because it reflects the culture. This is why prosecuting Muscat & Company (or “companies”, rather) for their crimes and cleaning up the mess isn’t enough. The same pattern will repeat itself again and again, because the culture allows it.

Amoral familism may have been a practical solution when it developed in those medieval villages of Malta long ago. And it probably helped Maltese families to survive by exploiting the scant resources available to them, including the ‘resource’ represented by groups like the Knights of St John who conquered the islands. Wealth was not created; it came from outside, and you had to grasp whatever you could before someone else took it first.

Amoral familism made life miserable for many, but it worked in a closed island setting composed of isolated villages, each playing by those same grasping rules. But I think amoral familism is a cultural dead end, just as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were biological dead ends in our physical evolution as humans.

You can polish your house to a shine and fling the dirt out the front door, into the street and the common areas, along with your litter. But you can’t do that when you’re part of a community of nations, or those other countries — your neighbours — will shun you.

You can’t join a community of nations and sell their passports to shady Eurasians and Middle Eastern people, and then pocket the money and send those people to live in someone else’s country. That really pisses off the other members of the group. You can’t launder money for Azerbaijan because the kickbacks are good, and then expect legitimate business to invest in Malta.

All of this stuff is going on. There’s been a new scandal every week in Malta for the past three years, any one of which would have been enough to bring down the government in a normal country. But nothing happened.

The Maltese people have finally been stirred to anger and they’re standing up, but only after their own livelihoods and that of their families have been directly threatened. Unfortunately, I believe the damage is already done. The bubble will burst, and you’re all going to suffer. The longer this goes on, the deeper the hole gets, and the more years it will take to fill it back in. I’m not a futurist, but I see it playing out like this.

The passport scheme will be shut down by Europe, because it is thoroughly corrupt. The remote gaming companies, and the offshore companies, will slink off to a different jurisdiction. No one wants to be tainted by association, or to have to explain why they’re based in a place that’s embroiled in so many criminal scandals.

The massive real estate bubble will go pop. There are just too many empty properties, too many loans, and there’s too much ridiculous gouging when it comes to high rent. That, in turn, will collapse the construction boom. The Maltese banks will be isolated — suspected of massive money-laundering by the international community — and banks could even fail. Everyday Maltese people will lose their savings.

There’s always cheap tourism, I guess. It will be possible to rebuild. And if you take action and clean it up, business and investment will probably come back in a decade or so. But you are always going to suffer the Joseph Muscats of the island unless you break the cycle.

The entire government of a country becomes corrupt to that shocking level — laundering money, selling national resources to shady countries, peddling passports, pocketing kickbacks — because the rest of society allows it. It happens because of all those landlords who only take rent payments in cash so they can avoid paying tax. It happens when you slip some cash to Uncle Charlie’s Garage for a fake VRT certificate rather than just maintaining your car.

It happens when doctors help you out by making up symptoms for an insurance form so you won’t have to pay. Why not? Everyone else is doing it. The government’s just doing it on a larger scale.

It takes change on an individual level to go in a different direction. It starts by making the decision not to cut corners. Not to participate in that low-level day-to-day corruption, even if it seems easier. The opposite of amoral familism is to work for the good of the entire society, rather than just for the good of your family, or your faction.

The alternative is an endless succession of Joseph Muscats, each one worse than the next. The honest people I met during my Malta years deserve so much better than this. Those of us whose lives have been touched by your island are watching from afar, and wishing for your success.