If you’ve been following my work for some time, chances are you’ll probably be familiar with one of my biggest analytical pet peeves: the notion that the Labour Party created a veritable surge in wealth in the country and that, even if a significant portion of that wealth is questionable in its origins and has been generated at the cost of certain aspects of our quality of life, it must be considered as a net positive for the development of the nation.
This wealth, or so the argument goes, has ultimately placed Malta on the map as a centre of financial activity, bolstered the economic fabric of the country by generating more avenues for productivity, and created more access to more opportunities for personal advancement for more people across the various strata of society.
Hearing this argument from Labour trolls on social media is, of course, hardly surprising. It is difficult to think otherwise when you stood in the queue at the trough, begging bowl in hand, and the minister fed you with a cushy phantom job and a direct order for your cousin’s company to boot. This column isn’t really written for that audience, although they’d be more than welcome to partake at any point in time if they ever feel like engaging with something like this instead of some scripted breakfast show on TVM that invites pro-government lawyers to explain away their employers’ crimes live on air.
I am writing for the segment of the audience that acknowledges the country’s agonising, slow downward spiral for what it is but somehow manages to still carve out a mental caveat for this flood of money that drowned the country, a population that suddenly found itself with euro signs for eyes and hardly any time for anything else.
I understand where the logic comes from: we live in a hyper-capitalist fantasy that demands a constant commodification of everything, one that is always driven by the desire to extract profit. In this world, money is what dictates whether you get to survive or not. If you have it, you eat. If you don’t have it, maybe someone will find you a spot at the food bank if you’re lucky and they’re not too flooded with intakes. It dictates whether you are the one starring in a testimonial that is raising awareness for a notable cause or whether you are the one watching the advert.
Having said that, I nonetheless feel compelled to point out the glaring flaw in that line of thought – the failure to understand that, while it is technically true that everything one could ever need requires money to procure, the same money that the Labour Party opened this country’s floodgates to, money in and of itself is worthless. It is only worthy of note because of its functional power as a tool. The tool itself does not have any other useful property except the one function it was created for.
I’m sure there must be at least a segment of the readership that may find itself rolling its eyes at the hippie-sounding rhetoric of this column. Just because we’ve been conditioned to smirk at ‘impractical’, non-materialistic approaches to living doesn’t mean we should do so without questioning it, though. And if we really must approach this conversation from a purely materialistic perspective, the argument still packs a punch.
Think about it. It is something that cannot be unseen once it is understood, and therefore bears repeating to anyone who is yet to stumble upon this important observation. Every society that makes the accumulation of money its prime objective is destined to fail, because the real sources of social wealth and overall wellness – physical, mental, and emotional health being the key domains – are all subject to policies which generate profit at their expense.
You don’t need me to tell you what you need to thrive as a human being. You feel it instinctively when one of the more obvious things you need to thrive, like open space and an adequate amount of natural scenery, or your paycheck’s ability to fit in more groceries in your shopping trolley, are visibly eroded in real time. You feel that really uneasy quivering in your gut that prepares you for the hard times that lie ahead.
With less immediately obvious problems like corruption and the collapse of the rule of law, it is easier to turn a blind eye as long as money is rolling in. It is easier to short circuit the logical conduits of the brain and cling to blanket statements like “there will always be corruption everywhere” and “at least here most people are doing well so it’s fine”. The fact that it’s easier to fall for the trap does not make it any more acceptable than it is to say that the Labour Party ought to be commended for what it’s done.
The reality of it is that no amount of money could ever possibly justify the way our country has been parceled out to the highest bidder, because what is left behind at the end of a process in which a select few people make ungodly amounts of money is about as valuable as the byproducts of processed sewage.
Even if it were indeed the case that most working adults in the country make more money than they used to before, that same working population is the same population that is stuck in traffic, in long queues at the hospital, in never-ending rounds of pass the buck with authorities brushing off responsibility for state failure, in a constant battle with chronic stress and anxiety, and so on.
In other words – there is no point to making more money if the process which led to its acquisition is detrimental to your immediate surroundings. If that is how you are making money, then you are entirely failing to grasp the significance of something very fundamental about the way the world works. Again, while this may sound like it is entirely obvious, it is something that still deserves endless repetition because of how many times I see so many people succumb to the easy, seductive narrative of ‘making more money = more social progress’.
There is a cynical dimension to this argument, too. Whenever we tell ourselves that people are inherently greedy and selfish and will always seek out their own profit over the well-being of others, all we’re doing is repeating dogma that we’ve been conditioned to accept: the idea that we must build our society around these selfish instincts because that’s just the way we are. If human beings always resisted change in that manner, we’d have never evolved past the hunter-gatherer stage.
Prosperous societies and happy societies are not necessarily one and the same. The secret formula involves a mixture of both – generating enough economic activity to sustain a robust social framework that prioritises people even if it comes at a significantly higher monetary cost, doing so while putting stock in the notion that investing more directly in people’s well-being in turn provides people with more opportunities to contribute to even more economic activity.
Being the eternal doom fetishists that we are, Maltese people often tend to bring up another counter-argument: the idea that such a balance between prosperity and well-being can only be achieved by the countries who were more fortunate in terms of natural resources, land mass, and sheer manpower. Malta, being the tiny Mediterranean rock that it is, cannot possibly hope to achieve such a lifestyle, and must therefore make compromises that insulate it against a world that is dominated by far bigger beavyweights.
To those who believe that this counter-argument is a reasonable one, I say that I hope you are not in politics. If you are someone who holds that opinion, isn’t yet in politics, but may be considering the possibility, please spare us the annoying trouble of having to deal with yet another clueless political representative who claims to speak for the people but lacks the vision to see past the bridge of their own nose.
While it is obviously true that gold standard countries like Norway, Denmark, and Finland have always had plenty of natural resources at their disposal, these countries aren’t at the apex of social well-being simply because they’ve always had coal and land to spare. It is their policies and their massive investments in robust, person-focused societies that are the key drivers behind their success, governance models which, with some tweaking and adaptation for the local context, can eventually be replicated here.
The only obstacle are the same individuals who profit the most from convincing you that things will remain as they are because that is the way that things have always been. Just like you didn’t need me to tell you what you need to thrive, you don’t need me to tell you who is responsible for the fact that you don’t have the right conditions to do so, either.
Those who are responsible for these failures usually identify themselves when they promise you what you need one day and then turn on you after you elect them.