Of all the lessons that history teaches us about successful popular movements, arguably this is the most important: people join the movement for one reason, but they stick with it for another.
If a movement is pushing back against the power of politicians and commercial interests, then its project has to be long-term. Otherwise, the movement’s victories are merely temporary setbacks for the powers that be, which can afford to run out the clock and exhaust, co-opt, buy off or scare away various members of the coalition.
Some movements fail even when initially they seem to be unstoppable, so broad is their popular support, so extensive the coalition bringing together people of diverse views, and so just the cause.
For success, people need to see the big picture. They may have joined the movement spurred by an injustice in their private lives. But they stay because they recognise that their private troubles have their roots in public policy and political culture.
There is a Maltese public policy dimension to the deaths of 105 people from asthma in the first four months of this year. Air pollution is the result not merely of private choices but also of political priorities.
There is a culture of misogyny behind the insults hurled at the activists seeking to save the trees threatened for the chop in Attard and Santa Lucia. It turns out that standing up for the trees involves also standing up for young women’s rights to free speech.
Moreover, the insults are not the result merely of the personal failings of those doing the bullying. Behind them lies institutionalised partisan incitement and one-sided government propaganda.
There is a narrow definition of the national interest behind the Environment and Resources Authority’s decision to roll over before the Central Link decision. It discounts quality of life and cultural heritage.
Indeed, the Central Link conceives of the national interest primarily as a sum of individual private interests. There is no whole greater than the sum of its parts. The project is premised on promoting individual car-use. Instead of promoting public transport, the number of bus lanes has been halved, nationally, over the period of a year.
It should be, at best, a highly contentious view of the national interest. Such a view was also behind the refusal to countenance even checking whether roadworks in Paola could be damaging sites of valuable archaelogical interest. Who decided this ranking of national priorities? By what mandate?
It’s a decision that goes beyond this or that road. It effectively states there are no such things as public goods – property we share in common, that is neither private property nor property used or occupied solely by the State and its functionaries.
The entire idea, in fact, of having authorities designed to protect the environment, say, or cultural heritage, is to have an understanding of the national interest that is as broad as possible. Instead, these authorities are – in critical cases – reinforcing the narrowest conception.
The protestors — ordinary people, academics, NGOs — are right to insist their resistance is not partisan. They are claiming something far more fundamental than political parties.
They are exercising their right to speak not just on their own behalf, but in the name of a common good – a collective interest that transcends political parties. Without this, the network would be vulnerable to accusations of NIMBY-ism – of an egotistical refusal to comprehend the greater good.
Here’s the thing, though. Once you stand up for the public interest, then what you’re doing is political – not partisan but political. You’re insisting on civic rights, on solidarity, on public goods being respected and not plundered.
You’re arguing for a different vision of what society should be. You’re rejecting a country where the State is a half-imaginary creature. You’re saying the public sphere is not merely the sum of private interests. Might is not right. You reject the lack of planning, which makes short-termism inevitable.
You’re instead proposing a society in which care for future generations means that governments are obliged to undertake long term planning. You’re saying the State should truly stand for public service. You’re standing up for the idea that society is a community of destiny.
Once you recognise the political dimension, you can see what’s at stake: a project to change our public culture. It gives more people a reason to join and everyone a good reason for sticking with it in the long run.
We can’t change the culture without all of us changing the way we’re organised – as citizens committed to work for long term progress, given that so many of our leaders have abdicated their responsibilities.