Archive for ‘May, 2020’

Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

datePosted on 15:33, May 19th, 2020 by Pablo

Arguments by religious folk that they are being discriminated against under the Level 2 pandemic restrictions in NZ, which limit church services to ten people or less when schools, restaurants, malls and other service outlets are allowed to host many more people under voluntary self-distancing protocols, got me to think about whether people understand the rationale behind the government approach as well as the role of religion in society and particularly in a liberal democracy such as NZ. I wrote a tweet outlining my general view and it elicited some contrary responses from people who are either religious and/or dislike the current government. I will not dwell on their responses but I will below string together in fuller scope my side of the discussion.

I began with the first tweet:

“Liberal democracies are secular regimes where church and state are separate and the state treats all religions neutrally and equally while having superordinate authority over material (as opposed to spiritual) issues, including public health. Churches need to respect that.” That began a back and forth with the contrary minded readers, which elicited the following responses from me:

“Stage (sic) 2 is based on opening up commerce, with some social restrictions still in place. Education is critical for commerce in several ways. Services are critical to economic well-being. Religion is a social construct based on belief that is not economically essential. Big diff.

In medicine, the environment, engineering, economics, threat assessment, even political forecasting, among so many other material things, science must and will trump belief. With CV-19 science must prevail over belief. There is nothing “illiberal” about the govt response.”

The last sentence came in response to a commentator’s remark that NZ is an illiberal democracy because of the restriction on religious gatherings, among other things. The author went on to speak of a difference in values between the government and people like him when it comes to family and society. I replied:

“A secular democratic regime can, should and most often does value families and society, and its social policies demonstrate this. The level 2 re-opening is business driven because NZ is a capitalist country, and everyone’s welfare depends on capitalist survival, not churches.

So long as the economic imperatives of a capitalist society remain a paramount concern of govt, then commercial concerns will supersede (much variegated) spiritual ones. Hence the pro-business incrementalism of the govt approach. They respond to structural necessity, not values.”

And that is the bottom line. NZ is a capitalist society. It is a capitalist society because the means of production are mostly in private hands and subject to market-oriented logics, because the relations in and of production reproduce the material hierarchy on which the economic system rests, because it is inserted in a global capitalist system of production, consumption and exchange, and because the social division of labour that emerges out of it reinforces the hierarchical relations between the ultimate producers of wealth and the owners of productive assets in NZ and elsewhere. Most of all, NZ is a capitalist society because the welfare of everyone directly or indirectly depends on the welfare and investment of capitalists–if they do not prosper, no one does.

Regular readers know the I am not a fan of laissez fare capitalism or the various market-driven experiments of the last forty years. Nor am I entirely pleased with how the current government defers to capitalist logics rather than fully embrace the entire policy spectrum involved in well-being budgeting. I am just saying: when it comes to the economic motor of NZ society, it is what it is.

NZ has just faced and continues to be threatened by a deadly global pandemic. The initial government response was a public health campaign marshalled on scientific grounds that was mitigated by an unprecedented economic relief package designed to help people weather the financial storm caused by the disruption of economic activity. Capitalists and workers were included in the relief measures. This response was vetted by a pandemic emergency response committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and communicated in daily press conferences by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, along with other officials. That is far from being the makings of a totalitarian police state that a fair few believe it to be.

Once the lockdown/quarantine phase of the restrictions was lifted (after six weeks), the government announced that its level 3 and 2 approaches were designed to get businesses back to work. This employed a type of pragmatic incrementalism where restrictions on commercial activity were slowly lifted in piecemeal, sectorial and graduated fashion over what is now going on 3 weeks. The government explicitly stated that this was not a social opening and that pre-pandemic social activities that do not have a commercial orientation were very consciously excluded from the stage 3 and 2 re-opening measures.

That is why churches are not allowed to resume pre-pandemic activities, indulging religious services, in the measure that they did before March 23. Note that they can still host church services and other activities but that they must adhere to the “fewer than 10” rule when doing so. No one has restricted their freedom of worship. Only group size when worshipping has been limited, and that is because churches are not considered to be businesses.

If churches want to claim that they are a type of commercial enterprise, then they have reason to feel discriminated against and by all means should air their grievances along those lines. But that might open questions about their tax-free status, real estate holdings, tithing practices and other non-spiritual aspects of their mission. So it is unlikely that we will hear this argument aired in public or as a defence of a church’s right to host large gatherings for religious purposes.

In any case, the “blame” for not including churches in the Level 3 and 2 re-openings is not the fault of government values when it comes to family and society. If anything, blame comes simply from the fact that NZ is a capitalist nation and the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Spirituality is fine but it does not pay the bills, unless of course it is of the “prosperity doctrine” persuasion where the Lord commands that we should enrich ourselves before all others.

Speaking of which: why the heck was that charlatan fraudster Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church minions allowed to defy the level 2 restrictions without punitive sanction? Were the police worried about a confrontation with a large crowd? Even if that was the case, if the letter of the public health order cannot be enforced even with enabling legislation conferring extraordinary enforcement powers on the police, what is the point of having them? Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?

We might call that a type of reverse discrimination.

A matter of definition.

datePosted on 12:43, May 16th, 2020 by Pablo

Recent reports have surfaced that hospital officials in some US localities are inflating the CV-19 death count by classifying anyone who dies in their care who is not the victim of an accident or other obvious non-viral cause as a CV-19 victim. Apparently this is because the US public health scheme, Medicaid, pays hospitals USD$5000 per non CV-19 death versus USD$13,000 for CV-19 related deaths. Most hospitals in the US are private, for profit entities so the hospital administrators (not doctors) who do the paperwork submissions to the federal government for Medicaid death reimbursements have financial incentive to falsify the real causes of death.

There is no independent body above hospital administrations regularly overseeing how cause of death in hospitals is classified unless some gross error comes to the attention of local and state authorities, and there is no way for the federal government to unilaterally challenge the legitimacy of CV-19 death claims. Moreover, since local coroners are swamped by an influx of CV-19 dead and Medicaid is stretched to the breaking point by the upsurge in (legitimate) CV-19 claims, there is little way to hold the dishonest hospital administrators to account unless a whistleblower from within a hospital provides concrete proof of institutional malfeasance.

In contrast, official Russian statistics show that there are over 263,000 cases in the country, with nearly 2.500 deaths and new cases exceeding 10,000 per day. That death count has raised eyebrows outside of Russia, as it is remarkably low when compared to other countries given the number of cases and rate of infection.

Russian officials counter the skeptics by claiming that their definition of a CV-19 death refers only to those that can be directly attributed to the pathogen. They deliberately exclude other causes that are exacerbated by CV-19 contagion, such as heart failures and smoking-related pulmonary embolisms, liver failures etc. Because of this the Russian CV-19 mortality rate is not only very low but also does not disproportionately affect the elderly, whose deaths are most often attributed to the underlying condition rather than to CV-19.

These differences in reporting remind me of an incident that happened to me when conducting research in Brazil in 1987. I had an interest in national health administration because I had worked on that subject when conducting Ph.D. dissertation research in Argentina earlier in the decade, I lived in Rio at the time and had experienced Carnaval in February, when thousands of sex tourists of every persuasion descended on the city in the middle of what was clearly an AIDS epidemic (in a cultural context where men refused to use condoms because that was considered “unmanly” and in which many (usually) straight men used Carnaval as an excuse to enjoy gay sex). Around that time I had to donate blood for my then-wife to use in a blood transfusion after she picked up a water-carried blood infection while cleaning vegetables and because we were told that most of the blood supplies in Rio were infected with both AIDS and syphilis, so I was acutely interested in how health authorities dealt with the convergence of viral calamities.

I managed to arrange an interview with a senior official in the Health Ministry in Brasilia, one who just happened to be involved in infectious disease mitigation. As part of our conversation I asked him how many AIDS cases there were in Brazil. He said “100.” I laughed and said “no, seriously, how many cases are there because I just came from Rio during Carnaval and it was a 24/7 bacchanal of unprotected sex, drug use, drinking, dancing and other assorted debauchery, plus I am told than the blood banks are unreliable because the supplies are infected with AIDS and syphilis.”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair for a moment, and then said “you see, that is where my country and your country are different. In this country a person gets the AIDS virus, loses immune system efficiency, and eventually succumbs to an infectious tropical disease such as malaria or dengue fever. We put the cause of death as the tropical disease, not AIDS. In your country a person gets AIDS and eventually dies of a degenerative disease such as a rare thyroid or other soft tissue cancer. Since they otherwise would not have likely had that cancer, your health authorities list the cause of death as AIDS. For us, the methodology for defining cause of death is not only a means of keeping the official AIDS count low. It also keeps the foreign tourist numbers up because visitors are not fearful of contracting AIDS and have much less fear of malaria or dengue because those are preventable.” I asked him what he thought about those tourists who did contract AIDS while in Brazil on holiday. He replied “that is a problem for their home authorities and how those authorities define their cause of death.”

I recount this story because it seems that we have entered a phase in the CV-19 pandemic where definition of what is and what is not has become a bit of a hair-splitting exercise that has increasing levels of political spin attached to it. It opens a Pandora’s box of questions: Is the lockdown approach overkill? Is the re-opening too soon? Are the overall US CV-19 death figures inflated because of the structural imperatives layered into their health system? Are the Russian figures underestimated because of their politics or because of their accounting methods? Has the PRC lied all along about the extent of the disease before and after it left its borders (in part by assigning different causes of death than CV-19)? At what point do honest medical professionals assign primary cause of death to CV-19 rather than an underlying condition?

There is one thing that I am fairly certain about. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, I have little doubt that the rationale I heard in 1987 is still the rationale being used today, except that now it is CV-19 rather than AIDS that is the scourge that cannot be named.

Between push and shove.

datePosted on 14:32, May 6th, 2020 by Pablo

The NZ government’s handling of the CV-19 pandemic has won international praise for its decisiveness and effectiveness. It is hard to argue with a response that has reduced the number of daily reported transmissions to near zero and the death toll to less than two dozen out of 1500 total cases. Not bad.

But as could have been expected, there are those who are not happy with how the government has comported itself on the matter. There has been much whinging about restrictions on movement during the stage 4 lockdown, and now there is much moaning about ambiguous rules governing shopping, “bubble” expansion and easing of travel restrictions. It seems that some people will simply never be satisfied even if the international community stands in awe of what NZ has accomplished.

There appear to be three types of complainants. The first are the serial whiners. These sorry folk just like to bitch and moan about anything. They do so more as trolls rather than out of partisan spite or informed concern and are best seen as losers. They shall be ignored in this discussion.

The second group are the public health advocates. These include medical professionals, educators, some service sector providers and others who feel the government is moving a little too quickly when lifting the quarantine restrictions on commerce. They believe that the disease must be eradicated or at least its transmission reduced completely before the lockdown is lifted. For them, the current Level 3 restrictions are an invitation to transgression and indeed, that is what has happened in many instances. Some people simply ignore the fact that Level 3 is not about social movement but about gradually getting businesses going again in a limited way. Hence beaches and parks, trails etc. swelled in the days after the move to Level 3 with mindless or selfish opportunists who either ignored or did not understand that Level 3 was not supposed to be an invitation to resume the party.

Public health advocates push for the continuation of restrictions and hence are dissatisfied with the government’s liberal easing of the lockdown after just a month. They want a longer and more complete quarantine as per Levels 3-4, with no imminent move to Level 2. For them, the matter is a public health issue first and foremost, with all economic considerations secondary to that fact.

On the other side are what can be called the profit over people crowd. They are those who demand that the restrictions be lifted yesterday and that the country get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Level 2 cannot come too fast for them and the sooner that NZ gets back to Level 1 normality the better as far as they are concerned, no matter how many get sick or die. They whine about jack-booted government intrusion on their liberties and rights and, while happy to take emergency funds from the government when it suits them, also decry its meddling and interference in their economic affairs. These type of complainants include most of the political opposition and assorted commentators who have been provided media platforms well above their intellectual station. Among this crowd utilitarian logics and lifeboat ethics 101 abound, but the selfish is also strong, as is the self-servingly stupid.

Whatever the specific reason, here economic security comes before public health concerns.

It is understandable that small businesses fear that a prolonged suspension of trade will destroy their livelihoods, and I do not include them in this dichotomy. But the hypocrisy of big corporate players and their political and media acolytes is shameful. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but the overall attitude of many NZ capitalists appears borne of self-interest rather than solidarity. And unlike the public health advocates, who span a range of political persuasions, the profit over people folk are clearly of the rightwing persuasion. That is not surprising.

I admit that these are very crude categorisations and that I have painted things in broad strokes. That was done as a preface to my larger point, which is to note that, because it is unable to satisfy either the public health advocates or the profit over people crowd in the measure that each wants, the government is actually doing the right thing. It is striking a pretty fine balance between the two sides, and its pragmatic incrementalism demonstrates a good understanding of the scientific, economic and political realities in which it operates.

In the end, NZ’s response has been quintessentially democratic. Not because the pandemic emergency response committee is chaired, at the government’s behest, by the Leader of the Opposition. Not because it has allowed for full throated criticism of its actions and used its emergency (coercive) powers very selectively and discretely. Not because it put science above partisanship and politics when addressing the threat. Not because the Prime Minister and Director General of Health fronted daily press briefings for over a month and answered in clear, honest and humane fashion everything that was pitched their way, including inane questions with little relevance to the NZ situation (such as whether it was advisable to ingest disinfectant as a cure). Mostly, because its balancing approach encapsulates the essence of democracy as a social contract: it is not about everyone getting everything they want all of the time, but about everyone getting some of what they want some of the time. In other words, it is about settling for mutual second-best options.

That may not be always the case in NZ and democracies elsewhere. But it is what has been done in this instance. Beyond the positive statistics of the policy response itself, that is the most significant and enduring achievement to come out of this crisis: a reaffirmation of democracy as a contingent sectorial compromise on a grand scale.

Thinking of a post-pandemic future.

datePosted on 15:55, May 2nd, 2020 by Pablo

I was recently invited to participate in an international teleconference on post-pandemic futures. It has a NZ-centric focus but involved distinguished participants from overseas, including former high level government and private sector officials. Discussions were held under Chatham House rules so I cannot get into particulars, but I am writing here as a reflection on what I heard.

Above all, I took away two troubling thoughts. The first is that the discussion was entirely elite-focused, with much talk about trade regimes, supply chain dynamics, attracting foreign direct investment, scientific diplomacy, political leadership characteristics and competition, plus other things of that sort. The second take-away was the nearsightedness of many of the discussants, particularly those representing the private sector. In a nutshell, they just want to get back to business as usual.

I made some remarks that attempted to amplify the context in which we are operating. I will elaborate on them here.

The CV-19 pandemic is an inflection point in a longer trend involving the intertwined crises of national and international governance and models of accumulation. It has exposed the dark contradictions in both. These must be addressed if the world is to emerge a better place. But there is a broader backdrop to this trend that needs to be understood before we get into unpacking its component parts.

The international system is in the midst of a long transition. It has moved from a tight bipolar configuration during the Cold War to a unipolar construct in the 1990s and an emerging multipolar system after 2001. The emerging system is characterised by the interplay between ascendent and descendent great powers, the emergence of non-state actors as key international actors (both irregular and corporate), an erosion of international norms and rules, and the resultant presence of conflict as a systems regulator. The underlying ideological consensus that dominated international relations from the end of World War two until the last decade, that being the notion of a liberal order where the combination of democratic government and market-driven economies was seen as the preferred political-economic construct, has eroded to the point of marginality.

In its wake has re-emerged the concept of realpolitik or power politics, whereby nation-states and other international actors pursue their interests above all things and do so with the resources at their disposal relative to the countervailing powers of others. This does not always mean that might makes right because not all resources are coercive. Some are persuasive, which helps distinguish between so-called “hard” power (coercive, be it economic, military or diplomatic), “soft” power (persuasive), “smart” power (a mixture of both) and “sharp” power (coating coercive intent in a persuasive argument or approach).

Over the last two decades several great powers have emerged or re-emerged, while the lone 1990s superpower, the US, has declined. This is seen in the fact that while superpowers intervene in the international order for systemic reasons, great powers do so for national reasons. One only needs to view the US inability to prevail in regional wars and then turn towards economic nationalism, populist politics and away from support for alliances and international organizations to see its descent. Meanwhile, pretenders to the throne and others have emerged: China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany in the forefront, but other regional contenders also in the mix (Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, France and the UK, perhaps Iran and Turkey as part of lesser constellations).

The issue is not so much who these specific emerging powers are but the fact that they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening). And yet, the contours of the future system will not conform to the specific interests or designs of the emergent powers within it. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economics, it is the aggregate of power dynamics during the transitional moment that will give precise shape to the global future. A new balance of power will emerge, but it remains unclear as to its exact configuration or stability.

That is the broader backdrop to the global crises of governance and models of accumulation. As macro and micro-cosmic reflections of this larger reality, national, regional and international governmental organisations have been sidelined and/or undermined by a combination of forces. Some are internal, such as the ossification of agencies due to corruption and self-interest. Others are external, such as rapid and sudden migration trends resulting in ideological and racial backlash in recipient countries. Whatever the combination of factors, the crisis of governance is seen throughout liberal democracies as well as many authoritarian regimes (even Singapore!) and international organisations like the EU, WHO, WTO, SEATO, OAU, OAS and UN. Many of these agencies are seen as toothless at best and bastions of patronage, nepotism and corruption at worst. Above all they are mostly seen as (and many are) ineffectual and inefficient in discharging their mandates.

The decline in quality of political governance is paralleled and matched by the increasingly obvious contradictions of the global model of accumulation. Commodity supply chain concentration, hyper-specialisation, just-in-time production, “race-to-the-bottom” wage competition, and other features of the globalisation of production, consumption, supply and exchange have produced increased inequalities and fractures in the world social division of labour. Hyper-concentration of wealth in the so-called “one percenters” has happened on the backs of the global poor, who now extend well into what used to be the middle classes of advanced liberal democracies. Again, the US provides an example with its charity food lines and millions of unemployed (rising to 20 percent of the work force and over 30 million unemployment claims lodged in just three months) as a result of the pandemic. The US situation is particular dire because most private health insurance is tied to employment, so the loss of jobs is measured in both declines in income as well as health coverage.

This is what the pandemic has done. It has exposed in dark relief the ugly side of the global market. It has also glaringly revealed government incompetence and indifference on a global scale. These two pathologies have now combined, and the results are being felt by common people, not elites. This could well be the moment when the Liberal Order dies, killed by a disease whose spread was, in a bitter ironic twist, facilitated by its success.

That is why getting back to “normal” and business as usual by returning to the status quo ante will not work, and where short-term solutions will not suffice. That only staves off the inevitable, which is that the dual crises will continue to compound and deepen as they head towards a circuit-breaking outcome. Phrased differently, it appears that what students of social revolutions call the tension-release model is now well in play: there is a slow build up of accumulated tensions punctuated by episodic outbreaks of disorder or discontent, culminating in a cathartic moment in which the old system is destroyed and a new one–however unclear in its precise contours–begins.

If the root causes are not addressed, the next explosion of mass discontent will be precipitated by any number of calamities, man-made or natural: resource conflicts caused by draught, flooding, famine or competition over access to increasingly precious natural resources like fresh water; mass migrations tied to the above; great power war; civil war; sectarian and irredentist violence; pollution- or climate-caused environmental catastrophes; wide spread urban destruction caused by earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, thrones, cyclones or tornados; energy provision failures; and more pandemics. This list is not exhaustive.

It is not as if there has been no warning that things cannot hold. From the 2000 “Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations later that decade, to the Arab Spring of the early teens to the protests in places like Chile, France and Lebanon last year, there has been a slowly rising tide of resistance to politics and economics as given. The protests are not just about one or the other but are in fact about both: systems of governance and systems of profit and their influence on each other.

The malaise is wide-spread. The US and UK are polarised, India is riven by sectarian tensions, Arab oligarchies remain closed but under increased popular pressure, despotic politics have taken hold in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Philippines and Turkey under electoral guise, sub-national actors challenge sovereignty in a host of Sub-Saharan states and even the seemingly monolithic regimes in China and Russia are riven by internal tensions and political intrigue. The world stands at the brink of a valley of transition where the costs of change are real but the outcome is uncertain.

Returning to normal, at least if it is defined as the way things were before the pandemic hit, is a guarantee that the socioeconomic and political contradictions now laid bare will fester, accumulate and eventually explode. That is an outcome few would want. This is why the post-pandemic moment must be seen as a window of opportunity for comprehensive change rather than a resumption of what once was.

In order to avoid an explosive break with the past, the key to post-pandemic recovery lies in addressing the dual crises of governance and accumulation as the most important priorities even if short term economic and political remedies are offered (say, by removing Trump from office, turning to regional supply chains and re-committing international agencies to a rules-based international order). I cannot offer any specifics, but it seems to me that a move towards sustainable development based on restrained rates of profit and renewable resource extraction is a beginning. Given the resurgence of wildlife in urban and suburban areas and air and water cleansing during the lockdown, climate change mitigation efforts need to be wrapped into larger projects of environmental restoration in which a return to natural balance is given urgent attention.

These involve political reforms in which those who advocate for a return to the previous economic status quo are blocked from doing so. After all, there are many interests vested in the current global market framework and they will do everything in their power to resist and thwart meaningful change that undermines their positions and diminishes their bottom lines. The key is to find a consensus about reforming, if not an alternative to, the system as given, including the reconfiguration of incentive structures in order to promote broad adherence to the shift in the global model of accumulation.

The future will be multipolar. The question is whether it will be stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good. The overall process of transition to multipolarity is immutable, but the specific features of the future system will be defined for better or worse by human agency. It remains to be seen if the opportunity to recast the world in a better image will be seized.

Given what I heard at the online meeting, I am not sanguine about the prospects of this happening. It is easier to go back to what is known than venture into the unknown. The forces pushing for a return to the status quo are many and powerful. But the pandemic has pulled away the layers of mystification and false consciousness that heretofore obscured the intense exploitation, class cleavages and unrepresentative politics that lie at the root of the modern global edifice/artifice.

It is time for economic and political architectural re-design on a world scale.