Malta’s significant drop in the Corruption Perceptions Index has been scrutinised for its long term impact on our democracy and economic development. But the growing, widespread perception of corruption has a more immediate impact. It renders meaningful national unity impossible.
There can be no meaningful unity without solidarity or rule of law. Systemic uninvestigated corruption, going right up to the top, undermines both social cohesion and the State’s legal coherence.
Corruption gives rise to a State where people are divided between cheats and cheated, bandits and the helpless, gods and animals. If the forces of law and order do not do their job, what order is there?
Corruption widens the gap between how the Constitution says things ought to be and how they actually are. The gap between appearance and reality, what we say we are and what we actually do, becomes so wide that the only sane response is irony and cynicism about the law of the land.
Corruption hollows out democracy from within. It erodes the State’s integrity, both the integrity of its values and the wholeness of its rule. There is, to coin a phrase, one law for the gods and another for the animals.
The argument is simple. Yet many persist in looking for other causes of the lack of unity.
Corruption gives rise to a State where people are divided between cheats and cheated
Partisan polarisation or disagreements are often blamed. The Opposition leader, Adrian Delia, has said that the next President should come from a Nationalist background as this will contribute to unity. The Democratic Party insists the next President should be elected by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
In blaming partisan division, these politicians are hardly alone. But the last two incumbents, George Abela and Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, were both elected with the virtual unanimity of Parliament. Where did that get us?
It certainly didn’t get Lawrence Gonzi, the only Prime Minister to nominate someone from the opposing party, any gratitude. Nor any unity, which has also remained elusive during the Coleiro Preca years.
Blaming partisanship also misunderstands the nature of unity. In liberal democracies, unity is multilayered. There are two broad kinds, which are not to be confounded.
One kind has to do with social cohesion. It’s the unity of a choir, of many divergent voices, whose ensemble creates a whole. Harmony arises out of difference whether the unity in question is political, economic, social or cultural.
Political unity arises out of the variety of political parties. Government and Opposition retain their sharp give and take. Unity arises because, between them, the various political forces represent the full range of democratic opinion.
Economic unity is given not by gliding over the unavoidable conflict of interests between employers and workers, public and private sectors, manufacturing and services, etc. It’s given by the very recognition of the differences and the commitment to social and economic dialogue.
The State does not unify us by its official impartiality; it divides us by its undisguised predilections.
Social unity is given by solidarity, which would not be possible without recognising actual inequalities and differences between rich and poor, men and women, young and old, and other forms of stratification in a society committed to egalitarianism.
And cultural unity is given by commitment to fundamental rights and duties, not by denying cultural diversity.
In each of these forms of unity, it is possible to see that diversity may actually be a source of strength and resilience for the whole. It’s a mistake to see diversity per se, or even argument and divergence, as fomenting division.
It’s a misreading of society. Debate and an honest recognition of difference can strengthen cohesion – if debate leads to honest resolutions.
But social cohesion and honest resolutions are underpinned by the coherence of fundamental values. About such values a different kind of unity is necessary. It’s one where we do have to speak with one voice.
First, there is legal unity. Its most visible manifestation is the Constitution. We are all equal under the same law. The rule of law applies to all.
Then there is national unity. We are a community that shares a long term fate. We have a common good that transcends differences, a common heritage and common concerns. We also have common wealth, public goods, that cannot be privatised without cheating the many for the sake of a few.
Such an understanding of multilayered unity indicates why who the next President is, and how he or she is elected, cannot in themselves address the current divisions.
For these arise out of other causes. Cronyism is undermining democracy. Plunder is undermining the market. Private interests are destabilising social cohesion and eroding the very idea of a common good.
We are not equal before the law. The State does not unify us by its official impartiality; it divides us by its undisguised predilections.
Systemic corruption erodes the integrity of our republic. No figurehead can bring about national unity when State practice does not cohere with the State’s own values. Only we can do that – by speaking and, importantly, acting as though we really are a community of destiny.