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It’s my turn to eat

If you watched it, you’ll remember how you felt seeing the recording of the top men of Chetcuti Cauchi Advocates boast, to undercover French journalists, about how their political connections made them so good at obtaining golden passports for their clients. But have you spared a thought about how the partners of other firms, also milking the system, must have felt?

Chetcuti Cauchi deny all suggestions of wrongdoing (of course) but that’s beside the point here, which is that they were boasting that, even within the patronage-client system, there is a pecking order. Other firms have high success rates, but theirs was second to none.

Patronage thrives on a rhetoric of ”friendship” – of friends of friends and reciprocal favours. But when some friends are more equal than others, others will feel betrayed.

Some accept the inequality. They recognise that they never did enough to deserve a seat at the head table, and are gratified to have been invited to the dinner in the first place. But others, already at the head table, will feel outraged.

They might then demand some special favours as a demonstration that they, too, are treated as special friends. They have to be kept on board, lest they decide the time has come to support other potential patrons. On it goes, the never-ending cycle of patronage.

You can find the mechanism operating at every political level. There are, say, the minor planning permits, with residents arguing furiously with their local MP as to why they can’t build just a little higher as their neighbour across the street has done.

You can find it in organisations that have experienced mass promotions in recent years. One person is given several promotions to compensate for “injustices” endured in previous years… but those promotions themselves create a grievance with someone who once was his superior, on the basis of a professional exam, and now finds himself a subordinate. So the subordinate now has to be given a promotion to correct for the injustice created by the promotion which was itself an act of justice, and so on.

The patronage system, taken to extremes, ends up sawing off the branch on which it rests. There comes a time when patronage ends up creating more discontent than happy “clients”. To transfer one person to a post he or she wants ends up infuriating at least two people: the person who needs to be shifted out of that job, and the person (there’s usually at least one) who believed he deserved the plum post but didn’t get it.

I remember the relief expressed to me by a senior Nationalist politician, around 15 years ago, that the privatisation of State entities was going to take off the supporters’ pressure for better postings. For a political party fresh in office, patronage looks like it works because the victims of the system are people who would never have voted for you anyway. Stay long enough in government, however, and you end up discriminating between supporters. The losers will not forgive you.

There are political methods of staving off the inevitable. One is to forget that an organisation needs to have a rational structure, and promote or favour as many people as possible – like, say, having half the army receive a promotion on the eve of a general election.

Another is to radicalise and extend the patronage system to every sphere of life so that what you don’t get at work, you might get in a permit, or in access to some other act of charity. But this requires cannibalising terrain that previously was not so extensively part of the system – like ODZ land or air space; or even the field of charity, which in recent years has come increasingly dominated by organisations under the control of Presidents and the Prime Minister’s wife.

Then, of course, there’s fear: the use of online groups – trolls and cyber troops – to teach everyone not to do or mutter anything that could be interpreted as dissent.

All these techniques, however, simply borrow time. For you can warp people’s logic, and get them to adapt their behaviour to a patronage system. But you cannot warp the logic of economics and planning.

How long can the morale and discipline of an organisation survive mass promotions? Which economy can escape the business cycle of boom and bust? The overhead costs of economically irrational patronage become unbearable during an economic downturn.

As for planning, there comes a time when ad hoc decisions go beyond a point of no return. The suspension of all planning creates a permanent crisis, which can only be dealt with using short term tactics, which themselves immediately require remedies. At least one planner believes we may have reached that stage already.

If it doesn’t stop, the music will. We will realise that we were not participating in some kind of political Maltese Idol, voting for our gratifying favourites. We’ll discover that we, after all, were the participants and that oh, the programme, by the way, is Survivor Island.

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