The Jekyll and Hyde of equality

Several times in the early part of his premiership, Joseph Muscat declared that it was his government’s ambition to create a new middle class.

In some quarters he was suspected as meaning that he wanted to destroy the current middle class and replace it with another. However, his policies and messaging show that all he meant was that he wanted to widen the middle class and increase general affluence.

A “new middle class” was meant to signify upward mobility. An affluence for the many would also mean greater egalitarianism. That, at any rate, was the promise.

Muscat continues to harp on equality as the key official value of his government. He is quick to assert that the risk of poverty is diminishing. When criticised abroad for cronyism, he flashes his progressive credentials on LGBTIQ rights as well as his agenda for gender equality.

And his supporters are quick to emphasise that they’ve never had it so good. They are able to afford going out for a meal, or take advantage of a cheap weekend break at a resort, far more frequently than they remember. It’s not just spin or trolls, either. I know several such Labour supporters myself.

Against this picture must be set another. Many members of the middle class feel oppressed by the nosediving quality of life – cranes and dust everywhere; a sense of increasing risk to oneself, one’s house and one’s children’s future; a sense of growing deterioration in the level of free healthcare and schools.

It’s perceived as a slipping control over one’s life and public policy. Governing politicians no longer even pretend to be our servants. They openly behave as though they’re our masters, not deigning to pretend to be open to scrutiny.

It’s a deterioration charted by this website and other news organisations.

Ministers declare their assets according to relaxed rules and, even then, in a misleading if not suspicious manner.

Public assets – like three hospitals – are sold off in secretive deals to even more secretive and suspicious characters.

Public contracts to clean up beaches are given to snake-oil merchants who, in the end, do not even deliver any snake oil. All without even a flutter of reassuring anger from the government.

And, not content to effectively deregulate the environment, the Planning Authority is allowed to obscure permit applications, while the relevant parliamentary committee is prevented from discussing the new secrecy.

Do we need to choose between the positive and negative perceptions of equality? No. I believe the co-existence of both can be explained.

Equality means many things. Muscat’s record shows an improvement in equality understood as personal status. But equality understood as public power – the equality of civic voices in the public realm – has deteriorated.

So, living your life as an LGBTIQ person is no longer something that’s informally tolerated. It is legitimate.

If you think of yourself primarily as a consumer, then the chances are that you have access to more consumer goods than before.

But being a citizen is about more than personal status and consumption. It’s not just about access to private pleasures. It’s also about enjoyment of public spaces. It’s about social justice, including for future generations. It’s about security from exposure to needless risks – to health, environment, the educational system, and the economy.

Equality is not just about the equal status of customers in a queue. It’s not just about the equality of a crowd or ‘the people’. It’s about being able to challenge the crowd.

Oh, and even if we did think of ourselves as primarily consumers, not citizens, we’d still want the ability to insist on consumer protection. We’d want to have say in what we should be protected from – in rules that are equal for all and enforced.

And we’d still want to debate ethical consumption – rules about how we should consume national resources.

But we’re not doing even that. Even what passes for public debate is staged and fixed. The most important broadcasting outlets are under government control. Debate does not take place under equal conditions.

Which country do we most resemble? We’re not there yet but Muscat’s Malta is increasingly beginning to resemble pre-Arab Spring Tunisia.

The latter was hailed as a Mediterranean tiger, economically, with 2010 growth rates similar to Malta’s. Tunisia was seen as progressive in terms of personal status and gender equality. There was a plurality of political parties, although all were dominated by the large ruling party, which co-opted business, feminist and trade union organisations.

But woe betide anyone who pointed out how the ruling families were helping themselves to bank loans in which government was a majority shareholder. It was an open secret that the same people who were supposed to look after the best interests of publicly owned companies were also operating private enterprises in direct competition with them.

It turned out that the Tunisian formula was built on a rot that eventually brought the whole edifice down.

We don’t have to go down that path. But to avoid it we need to assert a rich understanding of equality, not a dessicated one.

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