The wealthy classes all over the Western World generally stand out for their flair for the arts; be it due to large private art collections, constant patronage as well as considerable investment by large corporations in the arts and research. Both in Europe and the US, the practice is commonplace and moreover, expected.
But in the cultural milieu of the tiny state that is Malta, the presence of the wealthy is rather more inconspicuous, with the rich asleep in blissful ignorance of their cultural and economic responsibility.
One of the reasons why Malta remained relatively underdeveloped under British rule was the lack of a strong local class of industrialists with enough capital to provide jobs to all Maltese able-bodied men and women. Since the cotton industry started dwindling at a rapid pace during the British blockade of French-occupied Malta, the only major economic factor providing jobs in its absence was British defence spending.
Throughout the period of British rule, a local bourgeois class did not feature prominently in the events that were to mark and essentially make history; whereas in the history of the working-class struggle against British rule and the popular narratives of nationalist history marked by Independence in 1964, there existed in the background, a very strong class of merchants and land-owners among whom the wealth of the Maltese was distributed.
This minority of the Maltese populace played no important role in the events of Maltese history other than accumulating more wealth and lying low enough to make even more personally profitable decisions. It is indeed remarkable how, in contrast to bigger countries in Europe, Malta’s political and economic history gravitated around the vicissitudes of the masses in relation to the strong muscle of British rule while simultaneously being at its mercy.
There was only one solution for this malaise: underdeveloped Malta, with a stagnant and conservative rich-ruling elite, could only be developed thanks to Foreign Direct Investment, an economic policy which was pursued both by the Nationalists and Labour.
Until this very day, the elite are still as conservative and stagnant as ever and the latest controversy over casino licensing is a perfect example which shows the dire predicament the same elite (and the rest of Malta, by implication) are in. While at first glance, having Ian Decesare and Michael Bianchi ripping each other to shreds over who should have the right to be allowed to make profits on gambling appears as a realistic scenario; having the same people investing in research and development which does not bring easy and immediate profits would be something totally alien, if not surreal.
Surely, philanthropy does not count as a positive contributory agent to the intellectual, cultural and economic development of a nation. The Maltese had grown accustomed to living off charity during British rule and it was only when they became conscious of the indignity bred of such charity that they felt the need to confront their British rulers about it and secure better conditions for themselves.
Nowadays, charity still fills gaps the welfare state doesn’t reach, and Malta’s 1% are still largely invisible to salient history-making scenarios. The presence of the 1% limits itself to mobster-like scenarios of sorts and ludicrous tragi-comical issues such as casino licensing. Strong and rich as they are, Malta’s 1% are still stagnant, uncultured and short-sighted.
Tigné Point in Sliema, the multi-million euro complex of shops, offices, restaurants and super-mega apartments, is a testament to the power of the local ruling elite, but it is also a testament to their deeply-rooted stagnant conservative perception.
Even after 50 years of Independence, the ways in which local capital is used, haven’t changed dramatically and the notions remain essentially the same: short-sighted with the goal of obtaining easy and immediate profits. After the Second World War, Britain provided Malta with the War Damage Fund which enabled owners of bombed property to rebuild it at Britain’s expense, but as soon as the War Damage Fund ran out in the late 1960s, the construction industry started shrinking until it became half the size, leading the National Bank to the verge of collapse. Since then, the economic lessons of the sixties haven’t yet been absorbed by the 1%.
Fast-forward to today, the budget for 2015 was indeed very positive for education and culture. The Government seems determined to keep increasing its funds for cultural and educational initiatives, however, large local companies are hardly following suit. Concepts such as social responsibility and research and development are totally alien to Malta’s major entrepreneurs. How many of the large companies which are fighting for the right to make profits out of gambling, are contemporaneously investing in the arts? How many of them are using profits to actually invest in building self-sustaining initiatives which can leave positive, long-yielding benefits to a constantly developing society?
Realistically speaking, how do casinos, big hotels and mega apartments contribute to the intellectual and cultural development of a society? Is Malta only about cheap holidays, beaches and sunny weather? According to a magazine distributed on Air Malta flights, yes: Malta is all about tax-evasion, mega apartments in Sliema and St Julian’s and an idle Mediterranean setting in which the rich can relax and enjoy their wealth.
On the other hand, working people know this scenario all too well, but only as an economy run on a dearth of low paid jobs in catering, tourism and retail. With low-paid jobs rampant in (generally speaking) highly profitable sectors such as the financial services, one can only imagine what other less-profitable economic sectors have in store for their employees.
Sadly, today, just as 50 years ago, research and innovation are still being pushed to the back burner and Malta’s economy suffers the absence because local capital hasn’t followed in that direction. One of the reasons why artists, writers and researchers have it more difficult than their counterparts in Europe is also because local capital refuses to step up to the plate and support them. Sadder still, the only support artists and researchers have come to expect from local capital, is through the multiplier effect of the millions of euros spent in mega-apartments which trickles down to lousy, one-off and quick profit-driven commission work and/or variations on the waitering-job-at-a-pizzeria theme.