Moviment Graffitti has a great slogan – Iż-żejjed kollu żejjed (too much is too much) – for Saturday’s national protest against reckless development. It’s not just the idiomatic flavour. In Maltese, so many Żs in a short space come packed with furious, defiant exclamation. In American English, Zs are associated with snooze and pizzazz. In Maltese, Żs resonate with peppery invective.
But the slogan’s catchiness comes with a risk of misunderstanding. Its big, loud “No!” must not drown out the protest’s positive message: national development must be based on justice, solidarity and responsibility.
For the most striking aspect of Saturday’s protest is how it pits ordinary people and activists against several civil authorities. The latter have abdicated before commercial and short term interests. To the injury they add the insult that they act in the name of the national interest. The activists and residents are retorting that it’s a self-destructive “national interest” that does not include the notion of a good living environment.
Everyone knows society is not just a sum of private individuals. Still, many struggle to put into convincing words a sense of public and civic life that is independent of the State or political parties.
Too many politicians like to speak of civil society as “the people”, an indistinguished mass, often portrayed as a victim. It’s as though the sieges of 1565 and 1942, the incidents of Sette Giugno and tal-Barrani – with their images of being resilient under attack – have crowded out the strength that comes from self-confident democracy and justice.
Other countries are helped by having statements in their respective Constitutions that articulate a sense of “people power”. Contrast how our Constitution begins with Italy’s:
“Malta is a democratic Republic founded on work and on respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.”
Italy’s states: “Italy is a democratic Republic founded on work. Sovereignty belongs to the people, which exercises it in the forms and within the limits of the Constitution.”
Despite the similarities, there’s a difference. Our Constitution emphasises the individual. Italy’s underlines the collective dimension: “sovereignty belongs to the people”. It spells out what “democratic republic” means.
Democracy is a project, not a set of rules to be manipulated. You cannot have progress for individuals without deepening democracy.
Portugal’s Constitution states that commitment to the person and society go together: “Portugal is a sovereign Republic, based on the dignity of the human person and the will of the people and committed to building a free, just and solidary society.”
It goes on to say that its rights and freedoms are there “with a view to achieving economic, social and cultural democracy and deepening participatory democracy.”
Some countries introduce the idea of social obligations to underpin rights and freedom. Poland mentions an obligation to future generations. Estonia says that natural resources belong to all and – note this – shall therefore be used sparingly.
It is a Scandinavian state, Sweden, that articulates a vision of how our individuality and freedoms are inseparable from a healthy public responsibility for each other:
“All public power in Sweden proceeds from the people. […] The personal, economic and cultural welfare of the private person shall be the fundamental aims of public activity. In particular, it shall be incumbent upon the public institutions to secure the right to work, housing and education, and to promote social care, social security and a good living environment.”
You read that right. “It shall be incumbent upon the public institutions to promote a good living environment.” For the power of those same institutions proceeds from the people.
That is a reminder of why the cause is worth fighting for. The removal of trees, the building of this or that road, and upheaval of neighbourhoods are all important, but there’s still more at stake.
It has everything to do with reminding our public officials that they serve us. We the people are the masters. They, right up to the highest officials of the State, are our servants.
It’s also a reminder to ourselves. The fate of the environment is our fate, too. We are a community sharing a destiny. It’s not the destiny that’s the stuff of bombastic fantasies that everyone envies us because we’re the best in Europe. It’s the destiny we share because we’re collectively responsible for each other’s personal, economic and cultural welfare.
Is Saturday’s meeting in Valletta “against development”? It’s closer to the truth to say it’s in favour of development – our collective self-development.