Archive for ‘January, 2011’

Recent discussions here at KP have revealed some misunderstandings of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be some confusion in the minds of some readers as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’etat and other forms of regime change. Most worrisome, there appears to be a belief, apparently shared by many in the Western Press, that revolutions are intrinsically good things and lead to democracy. Although I have tried to dispel some of these notions in the commentary about other posts, let me address the issue directly and explain some dynamics of regime change that impact on the direction of said change and the prospects of democracy after the collapse or withdrawal of an authoritarian regime.

First of all, let it be clear: Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence mobilized against a political regime and its repressive apparatus that results in the overthrow of that regime and  its replacement with a new political, social and economic order. Second, no revolution in the 20th century led to democracy as a direct result. Ever. What revolutions do is replace one authoritarian regime with another. This is due in part to the fact that what it takes to be a successful revolutionary leader is ruthless determination, ideological zealotry, supreme organizational, strategic and tactical skills in both the armed and propaganda fields, and an unwillingness to compromise in pursuit of victory. That is not the stuff that genuine democrats are made of. In fact, the very traits that make for good democratic leadership are anathema to revolutionary leaders. Hence, if one has a preferential bias in favour of democracy, then revolutions are not the best way to achieve it. If one is less interested in democratic outcomes and more interested in imposing a preferred social construct, then revolutions are the best way to achieve that end.

The other major reason why revolutions lead to authoritarian outcomes is because the defeated authoritarian regime has allies and supporters inside and outside the country that will continue to attempt to block revolutionary reforms after the change in power. These counter-revolutionary forces include former opposition factions that do not share the militant revolutionary goals even though they participated in a tactical alliance with hard-liners against the ancien regime. Confronted by a more radical agenda for change than they anticipated or are prepared to accept, such moderate opposition factions tend to switch sides and propose a moderate counter-revolutionary platform that only serves to strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary hard-liners.

Needless to say, for a revolution to be successful the opposition must be organised and have mass support, while the old regime must suffer decisive internal fractures, especially within its security forces and in the relationship between the repressive apparatuses and the regime elite. So long as there is ideological unity and corporate discipline within the armed forces and other security agencies and the regime elite retain the loyalty of those specialised in the management of organised violence, then no amount of external pressure will topple it. This is true even if some regime leaders are sacrificed to appease public discontent and cooptive reforms or concessions are offered to mollify specific grievances and induce opposition acceptance of the “new” regime (which itself is a divide-and-conquer tactic used on the opposition that allows to the regime to more clearly target intransigent factions within the former). As part of this, a leadership coup or putsch may occur in which despised individuals are replaced by more nondescript or less tainted people who are nevertheless committed members of the ruling elite.

Thus, revolutions are neither always progressive or democratic, as the Iranian Revolution demonstrates. For those interested in seeing a democratic outcome to situations of authoritarian regime crisis amid popular unrest, there is actually a baseline formula that needs to obtain, and it falls far short of revolution. Let me explain.

Authoritarian regimes and their oppositions can be broadly divided into hard-line and soft-line (militant  and moderate) factions. Hard-liners in the regime are usually the political leadership and those directly engaged in acts of repression during its tenure (which can extend down to street level police, paramilitary thugs, intelligence agents and, if complicit, elements of the military itself). Soft-line elements of the authoritarian regime are those who benefited from it but who did not have visible decision-making roles and those uninvolved in repression, as well as the minority few who genuinely worked from the inside to promote reform.

Hard-liners in the opposition are ideological militants and those who suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regime. Their suffering can be physical or economic and their numbers depend on how repressive and criminal the regime was in its dealings with political opponents and non-allied economic and social agents. For the hard-line opposition, the thirst is for revenge, not reconciliation. On the other hand, soft-liners in the opposition are all those who, while having a dislike for the authoritarian elite, did not suffer directly at its hands. For them, the issue is not so much revenge as it is change.

The formula for a democratic transition stemming from authoritarian collapse or withdrawal is simple. If hard-liners dominate both the authoritarian elite and the opposition, the prospects for a democratic outcome are negligible and civil war is probable. If hard-liners dominate the regime and soft-liners dominate the opposition, then regime continuity with minor reforms is the likely outcome. If soft-liners dominate the regime and hard-liners dominate the opposition, the reforms will be more significant but regime continuity will most likely occur simply because of the fear of retribution amongst the regime elite and its supporters when confronted with a hard-line opposition victory.

The only situation is which a transition to democracy is a potential outcome is one where soft-liners dominate in both the regime and opposition. The trouble for these actors is that they must fend off and eventually subordinate their hard-line counterparts while at the same time negotiating the terms and conditions for a transfer of power to openly elected authority. That is a very delicate matter that involves, among other things, an “ethical compromise” whereby both sides agree not to prosecute most of those responsible for state atrocities or insurrectionary violence (in other words, although some notorious figures may be offered up as sacrificial lambs by both sides, the bulk of those involved in human rights abuses and non-state terrorism will walk free). The examples of the Southern Cone of Latin America, Central America and South Africa are illustrative in this regard. If anything, prosecution of human rights violators must wait until the new regime is more or less consolidated in its institutional structure and in the transparent application of universal law. That can take decades.

Hard-liners on both sides will see the soft-liner negotiations for what they are and move to denounce them as sell-outs and lackeys. The more secret the negotiations between the soft-liners on each side the more the minority hard-liners will resort to obstructionist and provocative tactics to thwart any agreement. This can involve internecine as well as partisan bloodshed. The more the hard-liners can thwart soft-liner agreement, the less likely it will be that a peaceful transition of power to a democratically-elected authority will occur.

The strategic position of the country in question will impact on the influence of external actors. In strategically inconsequential countries, external actors will be less inclined to involve themselves in domestic crises and will prefer to observe an internal resolution so long as it does not impact on their national or material interests. Conversely, in countries that have strategic import or geopolitical significance, the more likely it is that external actors, acting individually or in consort, will involve themselves in efforts to shape the outcome. For them, expending diplomatic capital is necessary because of the stakes involved, especially when a transition outcome could have deleterious repercussive effects on regional or international stability.

And that, in sum, is why democratic outcomes of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes are less probable than many hope for. Besides the non-democratic outcome of genuine revolutions involving the overthrow of an authoritarian elite, the dynamics of regime extrication and replacement are such that the more likely outcome of a transition short of revolutionary overthrow is authoritarian regime restoration under different guise, limited democratisation with ongoing authoritarian elite veto power, authoritarian reaffirmation or high-or low-level civil war.

Best to keep that in mind when observing recent events in the Middle East.

Two year review.

datePosted on 17:31, January 29th, 2011 by Pablo

A little over two years ago KP was launched. It started as the brainchild of Anita and Jafapete, who then invited me to join. The idea was to have a non-partisan, avowedly “intellectual” moderate Left outlet (I use the word “intellectual” carefully these days in light of recent debates about that term). Jafa subsequently had to leave due to other concerns, but we got lucky and Lew came on board. There have been others briefly attached to the blog and Anita has had to take a long hiatus, but KP keeps rolling along in its small niche in the blogosphere. Lew and I do the posting these days, and we are always on the lookout for someone to join us in the event that Anita cannot return (or even if she does).  We remain committed to civilised debate, which is why swear words are censored and trolling and personal attacks largely deleted. Only one person has been blacklisted, and that was because I accidentally hit the “blacklist” rather than “delete” button when dealing with a personal attack comment from an otherwise passionate but sane regular reader (his comments now go directly to the spam filter where we fish them out).  And no, the individual in question is not that rabid anti-communist ranter Russell. In general, other than some quarrels with commentators and my occasional bouts of grumpiness or frustration, I think that we have kept the discourse pretty civil.

The stats show a decent progression. We have made 568 posts and received 8,676 comments. We have had over 336,500 unique page views. Most of our linkages come from other New Zealand political blogs, although Facebook and Twitter referrals are increasing. We have elicited some interesting responses, both in public and in private, from members of the NZ policy community.

I do not have access to our demographic profile but judging from regular commentator’s profiles reckon that the readers are largely NZ resident male Pakeha with university degrees and Left inclinations. I hope that there is a significant number of women and Maori readers, but am concerned that with Anita absent the female readership may have dropped (hence our interest in soliciting the participation of someone whose primary interests involve gender, environmental, health and welfare politics). There seems to be fair bit of RSS feeds to the KP site, and our overseas readership shows signs of growth. All in all, we are small but comfortable given what we are in terms of content and where we are in terms of the ideological spectrum represented in the blogosphere.

I cannot speak for Anita or Lew by I find that blogging offers me an outlet that complements my editorial and scholarly writing. In particular it allows me to address current events as they happen, and provides a daily dose of mental exercise in the form of the commentary and debate. Although I have been told in this forum that I am a conservative security and international affairs commentator, a check of my posts will reveal that there is more to my interests than guns, war and power politics. Among other things I have posted, with a Left focus, on comparative labour politics, done a 5 part series on democracy (focusing on NZ), covered regime characteristic and cultural dynamics in a variety of places, thrown in some game-theoretic and rational choice-inspired essays, and even made a few attempts at humor or NZ focused social commentary. That range is much harder to cover in scholarly publications, and editorial writing tends to be more episodic and medium- to long-term in its focus. Thus I am thankful for the opportunity to use KP as an outlet for expressing views on a number of issues of contemporary import (at least to me).

I look forward to more writing and more readership growth in 2011, as well as to my return to NZ after a few years abroad. It will be interesting to see if that shift effects my choice of subjects, but whatever the case it will be good to be physically closer to my KP colleagues (who I know personally and have high regard for) as well as any new contributor(s) who may volunteer for the project of keeping another informed NZ-based non-partisan Left perspective alive and well on the internet. And, of course, much thanks to you readers for coming back and sharing your thoughts with us. We may not agree on most things but it is comforting and invigorating to have you as interlocutors with whom to hash out ideas and opinions.

A voces, muito obrigado.

Who are the non-geriatric NZ Right thinkers?

datePosted on 15:01, January 27th, 2011 by Pablo

OK, you knew this was coming. In the interest of ideological balance, or better yet, just because I am curious, I would like to ask readers who the under-60 Right thinkers are. Given that the Left thinker thread spun off into tangents about age limits, outlets and who and what constitutes the “proper “Left (thereby confirming the view that Lefties would rather argue about ideological purity and how many Marxists can balance on the head of the pin than simply answer a straight-forward question), here the label “Right” includes anything that is not skinhead neo-Nazi holocaust denier (which means Ann Rand enthusiasts and those of religious inclinations are eligible). In order to avoid nomination of the fossilised architects of the neo-liberal destruction of NZ’s welfare state, I have placed an age limit of 60 so that we can see if there is new blood in the Right waters.

Please be nice. I was gratified to see that only one commentator on the Left Thinker thread engaged in trolling, and just once at that. Thus I ask that Lefties not engage in bad behaviour and either refrain from making nasty or derisive comments or be sincere in their choices. Of course the same applies for any Right-oriented readers. That means, among other things, that due to reason of probity Rick “I think that my argument is so powerful that it’s not necessary to talk about it” Giles is ineligible for nomination. Beyond that and within the guidelines mentioned above, the field is open.

Although the Left Thinker post elicited a spike in page reads and much commentary (still going), it only elicited a couple of consensus names and a few others, thereby falling short of the short list I had asked for (perhaps that was my mistake, as I figured that a short list would be somewhere between 5-10). Thus I wonder what the Right list will look like (should there be one) even if I have added 20 years to the upper age limit and made no negative editorial remarks about various Right factions in the post (except about skinheads, neo-Nazis and their ilk).

I yield the floor to you.

Who are the next generation of NZ Left Thinkers?

datePosted on 17:18, January 24th, 2011 by Pablo

I almost choked on my chardonnay when I read over the weekend a quote from Chris Trotter stating that Bomber Bradbury represented the future of NZ Left thinking. Martin is a genial enough, alternative-minded, progressive niche market entertainer with strong opinions, generally good intentions and a decent grasp of current affairs. But Chris must have dropped an E to be that generous in his assessment of Bomber’s contributions to NZ’s Left intelligentsia. He also mentioned Jordan Carter as an up-and-coming Labour strategist, which seems to be less a product of party drug induced rapture and more of a wide-spread consensus amongst Lefty consignieri (and Labour Party consiglieri) about Jordan’s talents as a party strategist.

That got me to thinking about who are the next generation of NZ’s Left thinkers. I have had a fair share of young progressives pass through my classes while engaged in university teaching in Aotearoa (including, I believe, both Jordan and Bomber), which makes me wonder who in the under 40-generation will inherit the mantle that Chris, Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and very few others currently represent (not that I think that the over 40′s are finished in terms of their contributions to activism and Left political thought–it is the future of the ideological school that has been piqued in my mind by Chris’s comment). Note that I am not thinking exclusively of activists, academicians or politicians, and am trying to get an idea of the wide swathe of young Left thinkers that may be out there.

I of course am biased in favour of my colleagues here on KP Anita and Lew, who I think represent the sharper edge of Left-leaning bloggers. Idiot Savant is another blogger who seems to fit the bill, as do some of the authors at The Hand Mirror, and some of the folk over at the Standard exhibit intellectual depth beyond their obvious partisan ties. Bryce Edwards might be one who straddles the gap between blogging and academia (although truth be told, I know little of Bryce’s scholarly writing and am quite aware that there are very few quality Left academicians in NZ social science departments–most are po-mo or derivationist navel-gazing PC knee jerkers with little to offer by the way of contribution to modern Marxist, neo-Marxist or post-Marxist debates). There are bound to be young Maori who can contribute to future Left debates from more than a reflexive, grievance-based perspective. Of the neo-Gramscians, Kate Nicholls is a personal favorite of mine, but I am too close to her to be fully objective. For their part, I do not think that Stalinist or Trotskyites represent the future of NZ Left praxis, much less thought.

The issue is important because unless the NZ Left can rejuvenate itself intellectually and separate its scholarly tradition from the base practice of partisan politics and street-level activism, then it will cede the field of reasoned debate to the intellectual Right, something that in turn will have negative consequences for the overall prospects of progressive change in the country. In other words, the Left needs to reproduce itself intellectually as well as politically if it is to compete in the market of ideas that in turn influences the way in which the very concepts of politics, citizenship, rights, entitlements and obligations are addressed.

I therefore pose the question to KP readers: who would be on your short list of young NZ Left intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in Aotearoa?

Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

datePosted on 16:43, January 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists have said such inanities as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple effect spreading from Tunis to other North African states. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunesia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically-driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred was sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the “ripple effect” of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis. Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrygyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature,  do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, the intelligence failures, particularly by the French and the US, to even remotely predict the unrest in Tunisia speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. I mean, how hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve or have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

In my view, one of the more shameful episodes in the Canterbury earthquake was the call by some for retailers to implement so-called ‘efficient’ pricing of crucial goods such as water. Among these was University of Canterbury economist Eric Crampton, whose article on the topic was even printed in the papers. Read his blog post In defense of price gouging. I often agree with Eric, but on this topic I just don’t.

I’m no big-city economist, and I seem to have misplaced the argument I wrote on the topic at the time, but essentially the problem is: if nothing is done, the resource just runs out and people who need it can’t get it. Absent some mechanism (rationing, gouging, &c) the criterion for access to the resource is speed and/or ruthlessness — the person who goes down to the supermarket & fills their ute with bottled water wins; everyone else has to rely on other means, such as asking their neighbours or others for help. I see efficient pricing as simply a means to shift the the criterion for access from ‘speed+ruthlessness’ to ‘accessible wealth+ruthlessness’. Those neither speedy nor wealthy (that is, almost everyone) will have to fall back on those same social structures of cooperation and goodwill to get their water in either case, and I don’t accept that privileging those with cash on hand is much of an improvement over privileging those who can get through the gate quickest.

However there is a non-economic factor to consider: in times of disaster, social cohesion is crucial. To large extent it operates on the notion that both the mighty and the humble are brought low; that we’re all in this together, and when the chips are down, Jack’s as good as his master. A resource allocation mechanism which punctures these illusions so as to damage social cohesion, such as by turning the poor against the rich, must deliver an enormous efficiency benefit in order to offset the harm it causes by sapping the goodwill upon which disaster recovery thrives. At a time when the foremost objective should be to promote social cohesion, ‘efficient’ pricing is an ugly imposition of individualism on the collective spirit.

Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t to relitigate that, or to criticise Eric, so much as to say that — by contrast — reports of price-gouging in post-flood Queensland have drawn a firm response from officials. Fair Trading Minister Peter Lawlor warned retailers of the possible strategic consequences of gouging:

“I think traders who attempt to profit from the misery of others during the floods should keep in mind that people have long memories. Even if there’s no official complaint, any quick returns they seek to make will be of little value to the business in the longer term.” [he said]. Mr Lawlor says if there is evidence they are breaking the law, they will be prosecuted.

More robust still was the statement from Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale, the same who warned looters that they would be used as flood markers if caught:

Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale says the city will remember businesses that try to take advantage of the disaster. “I know I’m not supposed to say [this] – but the health inspectors are on their way and the building inspectors are on their way after we finish this to see if we can help those businesses – [but] like hell,” he said.

This suggests a vigilante streak and willingness to bring the coercive force of the state to bear for social, rather than strictly regulatory reasons, and this is not usually a beneficial trait in a civic leader. However I think in cases like this there is some justification for such a stance. Pisasale’s position is a manifestation of the ‘Queensland culture’ called upon by Premier Anna Bligh in her speeches, and which may now be her political legacy. If it all came to pass, perhaps a disgruntled gouger might take legal action against Pisasale or his agencies for harrassment; but this would be an uphill battle, because Pisasale enjoys the protection of being right in the eyes of his society. After all; the only thing most Aussie battlers hate more than a government bureaucrat is a disaster profiteer. He is on firm ground as a representative of his people, because his representation rings true. His commitment is to the cohesion of his society. He is doing what crisis leaders do; efficiency be damned.

L

A PRC Fifth Column in NZ? (With Updated Links)

datePosted on 15:26, January 17th, 2011 by Pablo

In early December the New Citizen Party registered with the Electoral Commission and declared its intention to contest this year’s elections, starting with the Botany by-election caused by Pansy Wong’s resignation in disgrace from Parliament. Taking a page from the Maori Party, the NCP declared that it would be a vehicle for the representation of new, mostly Asian, migrant’s interests in the NZ political system, interests that are not fully given voice within extant political parties. With an emphasis on economic policy and law and order issues, the NCP proposes to represent not only mainland Chinese migrants, but also Koreans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Singaporeans, Indians, non-native Whites and even Maori and Pakeha (i.e. the Botany demographic). That will be a tall order.

The announced leaders of the NCP include Jack Chen, who was involved in the Chinese takeover bid for Crafar Farms (as a representative of Natural Dairy NZ, a subsidiary of the Chinese government controlled Jin Hui Mining Corporation); disgraced Labour Party candidate Stephen Ching (who solicited bribes for political favours in 2005); the pro-PRC Chinese-language newspaper editor Jerry Wen Yang; and Paul Young, who is also of Chinese descent and a principle of Asia Marketing and Advertising Consultants (Mr. Young handled the registration process and has said that his role as NCP Secretary is a temporary formality in order to meet legal requirements, and that he will stand down once the party leadership is finalised. As it turns out, he is NCP candidate for Botany). Although unconfirmed, there are reports that Sammy Wong, Pansy Wong’s husband and the cause of her demise by involving her in a commercial transaction during a taxpayer trip to the PRC, is part of the NCP leadership or at least involved in its strategic decision-making and financing.

In early January the NCP leadership, minus Mr. Young, met in Beijing to discuss a strategy for winning the by-election and to chart a course for its campaign this year. Holding a major party meeting in a foreign capital is interesting enough, because it shows an overt connection with the PRC that is bound to raise eyebrows in some circles (which is a tame reaction by comparison–some democracies forbid the funding, meeting  and sponsorship of political parties in and by foreign powers). What is more interesting is the question of whether the connection to Beijing is more intimate than the NCP has revealed to date, and extends beyond the usual business links that all political parties cultivate in order to peddle influence and financially support their activities (although the direct connection to a foreign government and/or corporations would be a a step beyond what is the usual course of affairs in NZ business-political party relations).

Under MMP, people have a right to organise a political party as they see fit, and as far as I can tell there are no prohibitions on such parties being organised and funded by foreign agents. But there remains the question as to whether the NCP is not so much a vehicle for the representation of new migrant’s interests in the NZ political system as it is a front for PRC economic interests and a means of political influence-mongering and intelligence gathering. In other words, is the NCP a PRC fifth column?

The reason this question must be asked is that, given its disadvantages in Signals (SIGINT) and Technical Intelligence (TECHINT)-gathering capabilities,  the PRC invests heavily in the ethnic Chinese diaspora for human intelligence gathering work. Using business, student and permanent resident visa schemes in targeted countries, the PRC places intelligence-gatherers in places where they can collect tactical as well as strategic intelligence using a variety of means. It also uses monetary incentives to curry favourable attitudes amongst local elites, all in the interest of furthering PRC strategic objectives in the country in question. Such activities have been amply evident in places such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the Cook Islands, as well as regional organisations such as the Pacific Island Forum.

All of this is well known to Western security agencies and measures have been implemented to monitor, if not counter PRC initiatives in that field. But what if the PRC were to secure political representation in a foreign government via open electoral contestation within the limits of the law? NZ has already seen a case where a cabinet minister (Wong) was influenced by an individual (her husband) with direct and close connections to the PRC regime. Although her portfolio was not strategically sensitive, she did attend cabinet and caucus meetings where more sensitive issues of national and party policy were bound to have been discussed, and it is not improbable to think that her pillow and dinner table talk with Sammy Wong might involve some of those issues (note that I am not saying that Mrs. Wong would necessarily have any idea that Sammy Wong was a PRC agent if he were one. What I am saying is that the appearance of a conflict of interest extends beyond the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for her travel when on private business on her husband’s behalf, and that may be the more serious reason why she was forced to resign).

If the PRC has direct involvement with the NCP, an electoral victory by the latter would raise the possibility of its entering into coalition with one of the major parties, most likely the party in power. That would give it direct access to NZ government policy deliberations, privileged information about business and security matters as well as offer a means of extending its influence directly into the NZ cabinet. This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on one’s perspective. But the question has to be asked whether Kiwis would accept similar direct US, Iranian, British, Afghan or Australian influence in government decision-making even if it did not involve adversarial intelligence-gathering. Judging from the reaction to revelations in wikileaks cables that some NZ citizens in positions of power provided “insider” information to the US embassy in Wellington, one would suspect that the answer is “no.”

The (hypothetical) situation of the NCP being used as a PRC front with intelligence-gathering duties within parliament is made all the more interesting by recent changes ordered by the National government with regards to the SIS spying on MPs. The result of the scandal caused by revelations that the SIS spied on Green MPs for decades, John Key ordered that the SIS no longer spy on MPs. That means that a NCP MP working for the PRC could conduct his or her intelligence-gathering activities with relative impunity unless there are provisions in the revamped domestic espionage and counter-espionage charter that specifically provides for exceptions to the no-spying-on MPs rule. But if the exception is invoked that could undermine broader counter-intelligence efforts with regards to the PRC. The conundrum produced by this hypothetical but potential scenario, in other words, is quite exquisite.

Less people feel that these questions are occasioned by racial or ethnic bias, let it be clear that it is not. The questions refer to the PRC, an authoritarian regime, and not to the Chinese or any other ethnic group. As mentioned in a previous paragraph, the same questions could be asked of local political parties directly controlled or overtly influenced by any other foreign power regardless of regime type. So the issue is about who controls the NCP as opposed to who ultimately will represent it.

Bringing the issue up may seem provocative and perhaps un-PC, but given the Beijing meeting, the people currently in NCP leadership positions and given the PRC’s modus operandi when it comes to deploying intelligence assets and extending its influence into foreign governments, it needs to be raised.

In light of the above, for its own sake and in the interest of democratic transparency it behooves the NCP to open its books and reveal its links (should they exist) to the PRC, directly or indirectly. It behooves the NCP to make clear where its loyalties lie and to disprove apriori the suspicion that it may be working as a foreign-backed front in the NZ political system. And given that the Botany by-election will be held in less than two months, that process of proactive accountability needs to begin now.

UPDATE: Since there is some debate as to how I came to my speculation in this post, here are a couple of links that detail PRC intelligence-gathering characteristics: http://www.stratfor.com/node/156898/analysis/20100314_intelligence_services_part_1_spying_chinese_characteristics

and : http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110119-chinese-espionage-and-french-trade-secrets

Upon reading the links, does my conjecture still seem crazy (or bigoted)?

Playing the denial and diversion game (with updated link).

datePosted on 15:04, January 13th, 2011 by Pablo

In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, it has been unsurprising but nevertheless amazing at how the US media Right and other conservatives have rushed to deny any linkage between the shooting and the political climate of the moment. Even some of the usually smart contrarian commentators here at KP have been quick to join the chorus claiming that this attack was just the work of a lone nutter. But let it be clear: even if the killer has clear psychological issues, he chose a political target rather–as in the case of other mass killings by mentally disturbed individuals in the US in recent times–random strangers or family members. For that reason alone, the Tucson massacre is a politically-motivated crime regardless of the Right trying to deny it, and the proof of that is the federal indictments against Mr. Loughner.

Confronted with the obvious–that the vicious political discourse of recent times, a discourse rabidly promoted by conservative media outlets, internet commentators and political demagogues, has set the stage for an inevitable act of armed violence on the part of someone who shares, however partially and incoherently, the world view of the reactionary Right–the media Right and its political acolytes have turned to the tried and true tactic of deny and divert.

First, they deny that the shooting was a political act but instead was just an act of lunacy. These are the same media types who immediately saw world Jihadism behind the rampage conducted by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood. They are the same people who describe murderous anti-abortionists as people of conviction led astray by the strength of  their beliefs, and who claim that the Oklahoma City bombing was conducted by some loser social misfits. The flatly refuse to acknowledge the context in which these attacks occurred, and they flatly refuse to accept their share of responsibility for fomenting an atmosphere of partisan hate and violence. In a country that has seen its popular culture debased and vulgarised to the point that gratuitous violence is a mainstay of popular entertainment and an attitude of insolent disrespect has become a norm in inter-personal exchange, such incendiary posturing does nothing more than provide an accelerant for those who are already disposed to act out in violent ways. And yet, the cowards in the media Right claim they had nothing to do with the events in Tucson.

Instead, they and their political allies have adopted the tactic of diverting and deflecting criticism towards the “liberal” press and politicians who they claim have attempted to make political capital out of the tragedy. They have attempted to equate Left liberal acts of civil disobedience, peaceful resistance and direct action with the shooting and previous Right wing threats of armed violence and actual acts of such (in the infamous list of purported Left wing acts of violence posted by a notorious Right wing blogger there is not a single image of anyone with a firearm, much less of anyone shooting or killing in pursuit of their beliefs. In fact, among the supposed comparable acts listed by that blogger are recordings of people laying down in the front of weapons trains in protest of war. Can that really be considered morally equivalent to a mass shooting? Only in the fevered mind of a Right wing apologist).

Reactionary attention has centred on the comments of Pima Country Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who has held the job for 30 years based upon regular re-election as a Democrat (in a county that is majority Democratic in an otherwise Republican state). In his first press conference after the shootings Sheriff Dupnik denounced the climate of hate and atmosphere of bigotry that has descended on Arizona and the country in general. The Right went ballistic at his  mention of this patent fact, accusing him of partisanship, jeopardizing the case and failing in his duties to prevent the shooting because Laughner was known to the police prior to the event (ignoring the fact that his department is hamstrung by mental health and civil rights laws that prevent it from arresting individuals in cases short of domestic violence where reported threat behaviour is not materially imminent). In other words, in spite of the Right’s attempts to smear him, Sheriff Dupnik well knows of what he speaks, because it is his office that has to confront the daily consequences of loose gun laws an anti-immigrant sentiment in a county that extends down to the Mexican border. Put succinctly, Sheriff Dupnik stated the truth. For that public service, he has been pilloried by the Right wing media frothers.

Regardless of whether Mr. Loughner was indirectly or directly inspired by hate speech and the venom directed at the federal government and “liberals” by Right wing political-media networks, the simple point is the obvious point that Sheriff Dupnik was making: the increasingly public language of hate and divisiveness was the backdrop against which he carried out his rampage. He chose a political target. His intent was political assassination. His was, in sum, a political act, however deranged he may be. And that act was carried out against a “liberal” Democrat in the US federal government who has repeatedly been, along with others of her ideological persuasion, the direct recipients of the hyper partisan vitriol emanating from the mouths of the fear and hate-mongering Right.

No amount of denial, diversion and obfuscation can detract from that fact.

UPDATE: Frank Rich does a good job of summarising the situation.

Stay classy, Atlases

datePosted on 08:11, January 13th, 2011 by Lew

VEXNEWS‘ headline, while verbose, really does nail it: GREEDY GERRY: Heartless Harvey fiddles at lavish Gold Coast party while Queensland drowns.

That’s Gerry Harvey, of Harvey Norman; and John Singleton, who (with Harvey) owns a thoroughbred brokerage aptly named ‘Magic Millions’. This photo and others were taken at its launch while much of the rest of the state of Queensland was underwater. From the article, with my emphasis:

When asked by a reasonably friendly Gold Coast Bulletin scribe about whether continuing the event in light of the hardship endured by the rest of Queensland, Harvey’s partner John Singleton’s response showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity even by the vulgar standards of the average Sydney spiv: “You feel a bit guilty having a good time when you see what is happening in other parts of Queensland and northern NSW, but on the other hand the Aussie way is life goes on.” Charming.

Context, however, is everything. There’s a good reference to the fall of Rome in there, but here’s the real bit of background which brings it home:

Gerry Harvey is closely associated with the brand of his many outlets where so many Australians buy the goods that furnish their homes. Many (fortunate enough to be insured) Queenslanders will come to file into these outlets in the days and months ahead when they want to replace all the things they lost. He stands to make (yet another) fortune. You’d think the man would show a little more decency during this sobering time for our country.

Well, you would — but in fact, it’s worse than that. Many of those worst affected by flooding actually aren’t insured for it — because insurers expressly exclude flood damage from their policies. Most cover storms (falling water in the local area) but not flooding (rising water, or that which originated elsewhere). The Queensland Department of Primary Industry has a summary:

A major obstacle that delays insurance claims is the different definitions for flood and inundation in insurance policies. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) defines ‘flood’ as:
“In general terms, flood damage refers to the inundation of a property by water which overflows from a natural watercourse, while storm and tempest damage refers to the inundation of a property by water as the result of a storm.”
Therefore, some inundation risks are covered by the term ‘flood’.
According to ASIC’s Consumer Understanding of Flood Insurance Report, both types of damage are usually linked to a storm, and a property may be inundated by both water from the storm and water overflowing from a natural watercourse. However, most insurance policies don’t cover damage to a property if caused by:
* inundation of water flowing from a natural watercourse
* inundation of water from both the storm and overflow of a natural watercourse (unless most of the damage is caused by stormwater)
* other phenomena, such as earth movement, even though this may itself have been caused by water from a storm.
The Insurance Council of Australia advises consumers to review the terms and conditions of their cover in their Policy Disclosure Statement.
If in doubt, contact your insurer.

It makes sense, as an insurer, to decline to offer cover for anything which might actually cost money; and there abides a regulatory environment which permits insurers to do just this. The topic, and related problems resulting from poor government policy, are covered in some detail in a column by La Trobe University disaster researcher Rachel Carter in today’s Australian. Consequently, despite the present floods being declared the most severe disaster in Queensland’s history and with some discussion today that it may be the worst in the history of the Commonwealth, insurers were, a few days ago, saying that the losses to their industry would be modest.

(Sidebar: if you’ve not connected the dots, this is the same insurance industry to which the Key government intends to deliver ACC early in their second term. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

And so it is as it ever was: even in an affluent, modern first-world democracy with strong disaster-response agencies, which likes to regard itself as an egalitarian nation where the “little guy” gets a fair suck of the sav — when push comes to shove the big guys make out like bandits, and the little guy goes under.

In both cases, literally.

L

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