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Archive for ‘October, 2011’

Is a Blue-Green Foreign Policy Possible?

datePosted on 10:00, October 30th, 2011 by Pablo

Discussion of potential coalitions stemming from the upcoming general election has largely avoided the question of foreign policy. Although the differences between Labour and National are more around the edges than at the core of New Zealand’s approach to international relations, there are some areas of significant difference, to which can be added the perspectives of the minor parties that might serve as coalition partners in a future government.

New Zealand First, Mana and the Maori Party have very little by way of foreign policy platforms, with the former adopting a mix of economic nationalism, anti-immigrant and neo-isolationist perspectives on New Zealand’s position in the world. Mana and the Maori Party’s focus on the defense of indigenous rights, with Mana  adopting a broad anti-imperialist agenda while the Maori Party seeks preferential benefits from foreign trade and investment. As a junior partner in the current National government, the Maori Party secured New Zealand ratification of the 2010 United Nations Defense of Indigenous Rights Convention (which had been opposed by the 5th Labour government), but has been silent on pretty much every other foreign policy issue.   For their part, personality-driven minor parties like United Future have no discernible foreign policy agenda.

Since the mid 1990s there has been a broad consensus on the part of the foreign policy elite with regard to New Zealand’s international relations. Labour and National agree on the trade-oriented and market nature of the New Zealand economy, as well as its general direction. They also agree on its non-nuclear position and support for multilateral resolution of international disputes. On security matters National has, as of the Wellington Declaration of November 2010, made New Zealand a first-tier security partner of the US, in both its military as well as intelligence-sharing dimensions.  Labour started the process of rapprochement with the US on security matters after  9/11, taking advantage of the fact that the US was desperate to enlist international support for its “War on Terror.” Sometimes beggars can be choosy, and the 5th Labour government took advantage of the window of opportunity presented by 9/11 to cultivate a security relationship with the US that had been dormant, apart from core intelligence sharing, since the 1980s. National has followed up by codifying the restored US-NZ security relationship in the Wellington Declaration. This includes closer Australian-New Zealand security cooperation under a US-centric  strategic perspective.

The trouble for Labour and National is that both also want to expand into non-traditional, non-Western markets, particularly in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The minor contradiction is that all of these regions have current and potential trading partners that are authoritarian and habitual human rights violators, thereby giving lie to the stated New Zealand foreign policy goal of being a staunch defender of universal human rights. The bigger contradiction is that the major party approach to international security matters places Aotearoa on the horns of a diplomatic dilemma: its economic fortunes are increasingly tied to regions in which the US strategic perspective sees more rivals than partners. Again, China-US relations are instructive in that regard. By explicitly uncoupling security from trade with the Wellington Declaration, National seeks to split the diplomatic difference between larger strategic rivals, although this may result in a Melian dilemma rather than a bridge between new and traditional overseas partners.

Labour still exercises some discretion around the margins of the pro-US strategic alignment, such as stating that it will withdraw the SAS from Afghanistan rather than renew its deployment in March 2012 even if requested to do so by the US.  It also prefers a more flexible and UN-focused approach to international issues, whereas National is obsequious in its cultivation of US patronage. But on most core matters of foreign policy, National and Labour are reading off the same page.

This is where the potential coalition mix gets interesting. The most interesting possibility is that of a Blue-Green coalition between National and the Green Party. The Greens are poised to receive their largest vote ever. Although they would seem to be more natural allies of Labour when it comes to coalition politics, the Greens were burned by the Clark government on several policy matters such as the Zaoui Case, the Free Trade Agreement with China (and the content of trade agreements in general), deployment of NZDF troops abroad, security and intelligence legislation, human rights and environmental defense, animal rights and a host of other foreign policy issues. However, things may change now that Keith Locke is no longer the foreign policy and defense spokesperson for the Greens, and as I have said before, there is room for neo-realism in the Green foreign policy agenda.

Even so, National’s signing of the Wellington Declaration and extension of state powers of surveillance, detection, detention and control under the banner of countering terrorism is anathema to core Green principles.  To be part of a government that openly overlaps its security with those of the US (to include the possibility of entering wars of choice instigated by the US rather than limiting engagement in war to essential national defense or international peace-keeping), and which curtails basic civil rights in a liberal democratic setting where no serious security threat exists, cannot sit well with the Green rank and file. Selling out these principles to be part of a National-led government may well be a step too far even for the more pragmatic, second-generation leadership that controls the party (which has seen most of the original “red” cadre of which Keith Locke was part leave politics).

But it may not be. If the Greens can extract concessions around the margins of the the foreign policy agenda, say by pushing National to take a firmer stance on whaling or foreign fishery vessel operations or reaffirming New Zealand’s commitment to multilateralism, non-proliferation and peacekeeping, then perhaps its membership and the public at large will be mollified so that the coalition can be sustained. The Greens offer the perfect place to recruit a Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control. The Greens might be able to temper some of National’s trade discussions with environmental and labour-related concerns. Pigs can fly.

A Blue-Green coalition will require the Greens to compromise their foreign policy principles as the price for access to decision-making authority. A confidence and supply agreement might finesse the conundrum, but it could remain as a point of division that could well weaken the government down the road. In fact, Green access to, much less influence in, the foreign policy apparatus (to include MFAT, MOD and the various intelligence agencies involved), could well be a step too far for National and the bureaucracies involved, so the Blue-Green coalition possibility is limited on both sides.

For these reasons a Blue-Green coalition seems unlikely unless the Greens undergo a pro-market, realpolitik transformation or divorce their domestic policy agenda from their foreign policy concerns in order to focus exclusively on the former. As for the rest of the small parties, they will have little or no influence on foreign policy regardless of their electoral fortunes.

 

Gaddafi is Gone.

datePosted on 14:13, October 24th, 2011 by Pablo

The brutal end of Muammar Gaddafi’s life marks a political new beginning for Libya. The circumstances of his demise speak volumes about the road ahead.

Gaddafi was summarily executed after being captured by rebel fighters (the term “rebel” rather than revolutionary is correct in that it properly places the armed opposition in a civil rather than revolutionary war whose outcome was largely determined by external interference).  His non-military convoy was attempting to flee the rebel’s final advance on Surt, his hometown, when it was struck by a NATO airstrike (in violation of the rules of engagement NATO publicly announced when it declared a no-fly zone that included attacks on land-based military targets that posed an imminent threat to civilians). Concussed and wounded by shrapnel, Gaddafi and a few loyalists took shelter in a culvert. They were discovered and some were killed then, while Gaddafi was dragged out and manhandled by a growing mob. Disarmed, confused, pleading for mercy and bleeding, at some point soon thereafter he was head shot at point blank range (images of his wounds show powder bruns at the entry point). He was not caught in cross-fire, as there was none.

Killing a captive after surrender or capture is a war crime, including in civil wars. The rage and thirst for revenge of Gaddafi’s killers is understandable, but it shows a lack of discipline and foresight. Gaddafi and his inner circle could have provided valuable intelligence on a broad range of subjects, be it the terms of the exchange that led to the release of the Lockerbie bomber, the grey arms networks in which Libya operated, or the extent of Gaddafi’s funding of influential Western agencies such as the London School of Economics or Harvard’s private political and strategic consulting firm. Similarly, although the outcome would have been pre-determined, his trial would have provided the Libyan people with a facimilie of representative justice in which his crimes could be publicly aired, and which could serve as a foundation for a new justice system once the new regime was installed. Even Saddam Hussein was allowed that much.

The barbarism of putting Gaddafi’s decomposing corpse on display in Misurata for public viewing speaks to the levels of distrust and base nature of the sectarian divisions within Libya. These will not go away simply because Gaddafi and his clan have been removed from power. The tactical alliance against his regime will not hold now that it is gone, and given that all of the main factions are armed, this raises serious questions about the political future of the country. The cross-cutting divisions are multiple and overlapped: Eastern versus Western, Islamicist versus non-Islamicist, Berber versus Arab, Benghazian versus Tripolian, urban versus rural, coastal versus land-locked, elite versus commoner, old royalist versus new upper class. Although the role of foreign military advisors and logistical support was crucial to victory, many rebel military commanders have carved out power centres of their own, and not all of the rebel political and military leadership are democratic in inclination.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) headquartered in Tripoli has announced the formation of an interim government within a month and presidential elections in 18 months. Both goals are very ambitious and the latter is inherently flawed. Imposing a presidential system in a multi-tribal society with no history of democracy and a long history of conflict  is a recipie for authoritarianism, as political contenders will vie for and hold presidential power in pursuit of sectarian rather than national objectives. A parliamentary system with multiparty proportional representation would be a better fit given the realities on the ground, as it would force power contenders to negotiate and compromise in pursuit of coalition objectives, which in turn would put constraints on executive authority.

To put the issue in comparison, the Libyan polity is more fragmented than that of Iraq and does not have an occupying force that imposes transitional order and around which national opposition can coalesce. Iraq has a parliamentary system that recognises sectarian control of parts of the country as well as grant participation to key clans, and yet has yet to be free of violence or have fully cemented the institutional base of the post-Baathist regime. This portends darkly for the immediate prospects of a post-Gaddafi Libya.

The issue of disarmament and creation of a national military, to say nothing of disposition of Gaddafi’s purported chemical weapons stores and other sophisticated armaments, is bound up in the negotiations over the interim government and rules of the game for the political transition. Given that NATO allies are not the only foreign actors involved in Libya, and given that some of these actors are non-state or state-sponsired in nature and have conflicting agendas with NATO, this means that the post-Gaddafi situation may descend back into conflict sooner rather than later. To this can be added the purge and reconstitution of the Libyan state as a functioning sovereign entity, a process that will also be driven by mindsets as much focused on the division of spoils as it is by notions of the common good. That overlaps with the issue of oil resource control and distribution, as well as the status of contracts signed during the Gaddafi regime, both of which involve tribal politics as well as the interests on non-NATO foreign actors such as China.

All of which is to say that the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death tells us much about what the future holds in store for Libya, at least over the near term: chaos, violence and imposition rather than consensus, forgiveness, reconciliation and compromise.

 

Public Goods and Private Bads.

datePosted on 11:14, October 20th, 2011 by Pablo

Much has been written about the difference between public goods and private goods, including issues of fungibility versus liquidity in the allocation of each (public goods are fungible rather than liquid, private goods can be both. Fungible means that something of worth can only be replaced in-kind, in a largely 1:1 transaction. Non- fungible or liquid means that the item can be exchanged for something else of different worth/value)). Less attention has been devoted to the issue of public and private bads, including the responsibility of the state in addressing each. In light of the disasters that have befallen NZ in the last year, it is worth pondering the latter.

The Pike River mine disaster is an example of a private bad. It was human caused, being the result of bad management decisions and poor safety standards within the mine, and affected its employees and profits. However, its impact on the public good was minimal. Even so, lax mine inspection regulations contributed to the explosion and loss of life, which is a public bad because state inaction facilitated the collective tragedy, and the adverse economic impact of the mine’s closure on the local community is also a public bad because it negatively impacts on the community through no fault of their own. The question is, what role does the state have, other than the policing in the aftermath of the event, in addressing the public bad aspects of the disaster?

The Christchurch earthquakes are clearly a public bad. The combined into a prolonged natural disaster, largely unforeseen. The government mobilised resources to address the aftermath, efforts that are still ongoing. But is there a private bad element to the quake? Did shoddy construction contribute to the loss of life and property? Were regulatory loopholes exploited that exacerbated the impact of the quakes, and if so, what is the state’s role in rectifying those areas in which standards and procedures were skirted. Is it a matter for the industries involved to resolve privately? What happens when private insurers renege on coverage or attempt to minimise payouts? Does the state have a responsibility to cover the difference in the public interest? Or is that purely a private matter?

The Rena shipwreck is most interesting because it clearly combines the two forms of bad. It started out as a private bad caused, apparently, by gross human error. National’s response was predictable: it waited for the parties to the contract of the vessel to negotiate a response. And waited. After four days of calm weather and no private response, a storm blew through and began to break the ship apart, spilling part of its load and fuel from ruptured fuel lines. When leaked oil and containers began to hit Bay of Plenty beaches, the disaster became a public bad, at which time the government belatedly intervened, mostly in a support rather than in a leadership role. This is due to its continued preference for the contracting parties to assume the responsibilities incumbent upon them for having caused a private bad with public ramifications. Meanwhile the environmental impact of the wreck continues to grow, with the costs of the clean up rising and the negative economic impact on local businesses likely to be significant in the measure that the spill is not contained promptly and the clean up process stretches into months. 

In other words, a private bad caused a public bad with private bad implications. Since the National government believes in the primacy of the market and private sector, it has left the bulk of the response to the parties involved, and called for volunteerism (another private act) in its approach to cleaning the beaches.

All of this is quite predictable. The quest for privatisation of the public sphere over the last two decades has reduced the concept of public goods and bads while expanding that of private goods and bads. Left to their own devices in a deregulated public space, private actors will minimize costs and increase risks in the pursuit of profitability. Should an accident such as Pike River or Rena occur, the payouts involved are considered to be acceptable given that they will be less than the costs of compliance in a tightly regulated commercial environment. The calculation is that the costs of occasional “one-offs” (which are not) will be less than the costs of ongoing regulatory compliance. In coal mining and shipping, accidents are not occasional happenstances but regular occurrences so the industries involved are have prepared accordingly (by establishing contingency funds for such events). The difference is that when a private bad becomes a public bad, they have limited contractual responsibility in addressing the latter. It is up to the state to recoup the costs of the public side of the bad incurred, which means taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the legal expenses involved in the court cases taken against the private parties responsible. In some cases–Pike River looks to be one–the state will do nothing of the sort because the public bad aspects are considered to be small, incidental, and not worth prosecution.

It appears that in the rush to privatise sight was lost on the potential public bad caused by private bads. Commercial de-regulation in the pursuit of competitiveness and trade ignores the fact that the private parties in contractual relationships with each other are not, by definition, responsible for the public good. As such, the public bad potential of a private bad event is discounted, in part because private parties know that governments will be loathe to charge them the full costs of a public bad response less they  be seen as anti-business. In an age when the private sector rules over the public interest, few governments will be courageous enough to incur the wrath of major commercial actors regardless of the latter’s responsibility in causing a public bad.

The problem is compounded by the hollowing out of state regulatory agencies, particularly in their operational capabilities as well as their policy scope. Insufficient regulatory enforcement (such as it is) due to reductions in state regulatory agency workforces, combined with reductions in quick response assets in agencies responsible for disaster relief and mitigation, force the state to contract out the latter in an environment made riskier by de-regulation. Since the skill sets required for disaster relief are often very specialised and limited, given the geographic and logistical difficulties presented by specific scenarios in the time-sensitive context in which the public bad occurs, this places private actors with such skills in a de facto monopoly position over the response in their areas of expertise. This allows them to extract monopoly rather than market rents from the state when contracting such assignments.

The private bad-focused approach can be seen as short-sighted in the measure that de-regulation facilitates private actor irresponsibility, which in turn leads to higher costs for the state in the event that a private bad becomes a public bad. Seen another way, robust state regulation of private industries with potentially injurious public consequences may in fact be more of a cost-savings over the long-run given the inevitability of private sector accidents that negatively impact on the public good.

This is the crux of the matter, and it is the one that should be reflected upon when issues of off-shore drilling, mining, nuclear energy and other private industrial ventures with potentially public bad implications are discussed.

 

Question of the Day.

datePosted on 12:45, October 18th, 2011 by Pablo

Is the global “Occupy” movement a genuine grassroots mobilisation with revolutionary potential or is it bound to fizzle out, be coopted, voluntarily moderate its demands or splinter into myriad fringe groups without promoting substantive change in the socio-economic status quo?

Interested readers are invited to share their views.

Throughout the globalised system of capitalist production, grassroots discontent with the economic and political status quo has produced a number of national counter-hegemonic mass mobilizations. All are born of alienation, but their social origins, goals, modalities and outcomes differ.

Alienation is a product of environment, natural and human. Even if conforming in the main to universal standards of conduct, individual (and later collective) social subjects become emotionally detached from the realities of everyday existence.  The causes are many–disaffection with a job or lack of employment prospects, racial difference, inter-personal difficulties, environmentally-caused psychological disorders, etc. This promotes a social outlook that grows increasingly hostile in the measure that adverse life conditions are interpreted to be the result of circumstances created or exacerbated by the socio-economic and political elite. That leads to various types of “anti-social” behaviour, individual and collective, which constitute expressions of the resentment that alienation breeds. Some of this behaviour is little more than petty acts of rebellion. Others pose a more serious threat. Individual and small-group alienation can often be treated as a psychological and criminal problem. Mass alienation resulting in grassroots mobilization is another thing because it involves horizontal solidarity and networking between self-perceived disenfranchised groups rallying in opposition to a common (elite) enemy. However, this does not mean that there is ideological coherence in the oppositional claims of the alienated.

The reason is simple. One product of alienation is false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition where the individual and collective social subject thinks about the causes of alienation in ways that run contrary to material self-interest under the assumption that the reasons for deteriorating or negative life circumstances are rooted in cultural or ideological factors rather than structural realities. Rather than confront the macroeconomic presumptions and biases inherent in a market-driven system of private (and increasingly corporate) ownership, consumption and exchange, false consciousness focuses on behavioral differences rooted in primordial beliefs, identities, ideological differences or contrary collective action.

Under conditions of collective false consciousness there is often a yearning for a return to tradition or a retrenchment of in-group identification along national, ethnic, religious or racial lines, sometimes with overtly nostalgic class content. This mainly occurs with descendent class fractions (for example, the industrial working class in the US) whose position in the social division of labour has been eroded by structural changes wrought by the globalization project. Confronted by this slippage in class status, descendent class fractions such as the white Christian middle classes in a host of liberal democracies blame their condition of so-called “others:” immigrants, religious minorities, non-traditional or opposition ideological movements, etc. In an effort to reclaim their past status, declining social groups are willing to condone anti-establishment, non-institutionalised forms of political competition because for them the threat is existential. When these forms of collective action take on a restorative or revanchist tone, they are considered to be passive revolutions.*

Passive revolutions are not genuine social revolutions. Although they can be violent, they do not destroy and transform the socio-economic and political parameters of society. Instead, they seek to use non-institutional means to reclaim a previous status quo in which they prospered. Because contemporary and future structural conditions preclude a return to a previous form of production and its attendant social division of labour, these groups are prone to extremism in the measure that they are denied their self-perceived just rewards. The starkest examples of passive revolutionary movements were European fascism and Latin American national populism. Although each had a different socio-economic core (Southern European fascism was a mixture of working class and small property owners’ movements, whereas Northern European fascism was urban middle class based, with national populism being a combination of urban working class and peasant movements depending on the specific country in which it manifested itself), they all had the commonality of being a reaction against something rather than a source of substantive forward-looking change to the basic parameters of society.

Not that all progressive counter-hegemonic grassroots movements are necessarily revolutionary. Many progressives seek to improve upon rather than transform the status quo. They do not seek to question its basic foundations but to make it more humane (hence the refrain “people before profits”). Coupled with an aversion to violence on the part of most progressive groups in liberal democratic societies, this leads to counter-hegemonic strategies that are not wars of position or of maneuver. Instead, they are collectively reformist rather than revolutionary in nature.

Given the above, from an elite perspective counter-hegemonic grassroots mobilization is best handled via state reformism and reform mongering. State reformism is the adoption of a conciliatory and concession-based policy approach by which elites give up certain prerogatives and agree to modify certain institutional frameworks in order to allow for more popular voice and benefit. Although the distribution of benefits between dominant and subordinate groups may be altered by such arrangements, overall control of material conditions, ideological context and political office remain in the hands of the elite. Reform mongering is the piecemeal allocation of concessions to social groups based upon the persistence of their demands and their strategic importance in the social division of labor (which can also be part of a divide-and-conquer strategy). Things such as civil rights and labor legislation represent examples of reform mongering in capitalist regimes, with broader programs such as the US New Deal and Great Society are examples of reformism at work.

This brings up the issue of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements in the US, the England riots and the mass mobilizations that have occurred in France, Greece and Spain among other places. While some of the mobilizations have been progressive, there has been plenty of passive revolutionary sentiment embodied in them as well. The Tea Party movement is a glaring example of the phenomena, but the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe is also emblematic in that regard. Even the ethereal “Waitakere Man” has, if only latently, as much passive revolutionary as it does reformist traits, with very little progressive revolutionary consciousness evident in the collective “him.”

The dominant ideological tendency towards reactionary or reformist rather than revolutionary perspectives poses problems for progressives because the three ideological strands that are the most difficult to overcome in any parametric struggle are cultural tradition, nationalism and religion. When these are combined in a reactionary groundswell against the usurping “others,” they make for a formidable obstacle to substantive change, especially when elites tacitly support their emergence as a hedge against mass collective action that is focused on structural transformation.

The so-called Arab Spring is a variant on the theme. Although some believe the uprisings to be revolutionary, they are in fact reformist at best and passive revolutionary at worst. There is no doubt that post-Gaddafi Libya will remain capitalist, sectarian and tribal, albeit under different (most likely authoritarian) leadership. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab states, to say nothing of Iran should popular discontent magnify to the point of unstoppable mass uprising. Revolts are not revolutions because of their reformist and passive revolutionary character.

The lesson in all of this is to recognize that alienation may be at the root of the thirst for socio-economic and political change, but false consciousness often intrudes on perceptions of the proper “solution set” to the point that the passive revolutionary option remains as viable if not more so than reformist alternatives, with the chances of genuine social revolution lessened to the extent that false consciousness, be it spontaneous or manicured, prevails in society.

In sum: passive revolutionary sentiment in the body politic in modern capitalist society constitutes the biggest obstacle to progressive change. With corporate elites dominating the media discourse and actively encouraging such beliefs, the task of the grassroots mobilizer becomes all the more difficult because the first step required is to promote an ideological conversion amongst non-believers who are indoctrinated to believe that the status quo is worth defending, even if in modified form.

Couple that with the limited revolutionary consciousness of the organized labour movement in most advanced capitalist democracies, the reformist nature of the likes of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the apathy and narcissism that is another manifestation of alienation, this augers poorly for the prospects of parametric grassroots change in the near future.

* Left for another time is discussion of ascendant class fractions in the contemporary capitalist context, not all of who (such as finance elites) embody the spirit of progressive change.