Archive for ‘Authoritarianism’ Category
Browse:
Authoritarianism »
Subcategories:

This week Mitch Harris and I talked about Trump’s  attacks on the so-called “take a knee movement,” his lack of compassion for the Puerto Rican victims of two hurricans and the increasingly risky rhetoric he uses vis a vis North Korea. It can be found here.

Bowing to petty tyrants.

datePosted on 15:16, May 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I just got back from a trip to my hometown, Buenos Aires. During the time that I was there, the center-right president, Mauricio Macri, made a state visit to the White House. Like Donald Trump, Macri is the son of a millionaire who continued the family business and branched out into sports, entertainment and then politics. Unlike Trump, Macri was a two-time mayor of Buenos Aires who was widely recognized as having cleaned up the city and instituted a number of important public works and modernisation projects. He is not universally popular but he is generally acknowledged as competent. Oh, and he is reported to have business ties with the Trump Organization.

I write this in order to provide background to Macri’s visit to the White House. Not so much because of what was said during his meetings with Donald Trump but because of what did not happen. It turns out that in March the Argentine official government gazette, the Boletin Oficial, published an announcement that after the state visit President Macri would be awarding Argentina’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of San Martin, to Jimmy Carter for his focus on human rights in general and the efforts he led–channeled through his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the late Patricia Derrian–to uncover the fate of the “disappeared” under the Argentine military bureaucratic dictatorship of 1976-82.

I was involved in human rights work in the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina and can personally attest to the fact that Carter and Derrian saved hundreds if not thousands of Argentine lives simply by asking the junta about the whereabouts of political prisoners. Carter was also the first US president who made the provision of foreign aid, both military and economic, contingent on a country’s human rights certification by the State Department (where the State Department investigates and evaluates a country’s human rights record before recommending for or against channelling aid to it). Although Republican presidents have tried to weaken the human rights certification provisions in US aid programs, Democratic presidents have largely adhered to the parameters first enunciated by the Carter administration.

Before Macri traveled to Washington, the Trump administration asked the Argentine government to cancel the award ceremony for Carter. This, in spite of the fact that the ceremony was not part of Macri’s state visit and was to be done outside of the official schedule of events. So, to repeat, let’s get this straight: at the insistence of the Trump administration, the US government formally asked the head of a sovereign state to not award a former US president a rare honor for that president’s championing of human rights world-wide and his specific role in opposing the murderous actions carried out by the Argentine military and its accomplices during the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

That is reprehensible. It is not only an insult to President Carter but to the Argentine government, the Argentine people and the history that they commonly share. Sadly, against the advice of his Foreign Ministry, President Macri bowed to the US request and cancelled the award ceremony.

Speculation about why he did so ranges from not wanting to get off-side with the White House, diplomatic necessity and/or Macri not wanting to jeopardize any future business ties with the Trump Organization. Whatever the reasons, Macri has justifiably been condemned for acquiescing to the request. His best option now is to invite Jimmy Cater to Argentina in order to receive the award, something that in retrospect is probably the more rightful place where to do so.

But why would Trump and his minions make such an outrageous demand? Is it because Trump hates Democrats or Jimmy Carter specifically? Perhaps. Could it be that he has no regard for supporting human rights as a matter of principle or practice? Possibly. Or is it because the Trump administration is currently in the process of cozying up to tyrants such as Dutarte, Erdogan and Putin as well as a number of lesser despots and has even spoken of being “honoured” to meet with that “smart cookie,” Kim Jun-un? If so, could it be that Trump did not want a reminder of when the US actually acted as a moral champion interfering with his value-free power politics approach to international relations? Again, whatever the reasons–and most of them reduce at best to needing any and all partners in the fight against common enemies and threats, even though the commonality of those enemies and threats is in dispute–Trump has shown himself to be a bullying coward lacking in any decency, while Macri has been revealed to be a quisling in the face of the bully’s demands.

There is a lesson here for NZ. Trump will interfere with sovereign decisions of other states under the implicit threat of retaliation. He has no moral compass and no ethical compulsion to respect another country’s decision to uphold international standards (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should he find it inconvenient to do so. Given that NZ still clings to the fiction that it maintains an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy, it likely will not be long before that claim is put to the test by the sociopath in the Oval Office. And with the defense agreements signed between the US and NZ over the last eight years, it will likely be NZ support for Trump-instigated conflicts where that test will be.

The National government has two choices in that event: like Macri, forsake national interest and bow to the bully; or prepare contingency plans for the repercussions of saying “no.” The question is whether National has the spine to even consider the second option.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

Peddling False Hope.

datePosted on 11:19, October 1st, 2016 by Pablo

By way of a short thought, I venture again into the waters of US election year politics.

Today’s subject is Donald Trump, or more precisely, the promises he passes off as solutions to the US malaise (as he and his supporters see it).  The key denominator in everything he says is that he offers the promise that he and he alone can solve the nation’s problems, foreign and domestic, and that he can do so in a clear, simple and direct fashion without much cost or sacrifice to the nation. Much like PT Barnum a century or so ago, he clearly believes that there is a sucker born every minute in the US. And what he is peddling to them is no more than that snake oil known as false hope.

Let me outline what he has promised to do but which he cannot do. Trump cannot build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He cannot deport 11 million people including US citizens born of undocumented residents. He cannot place a ban on “all Muslims” immigrating to the US, he cannot institute blanket profiling of Muslims and surveillance of mosques, and he cannot stop refugees from Muslim-dominant countries from seeking asylum in it. He cannot leave NATO to its own devices. He cannot leave South Korea and Japan to defend themselves against Chinese aggression, and he cannot influence Chinese monetary policy in a way that would “level the playing field” with the US. He cannot force US based companies to return all of their operations to the US while paying US workers higher wages. He cannot reinstitute water boarding and other “worse” forms of torture. He cannot order the US military to commit war crimes such s killing the relatives of terrorists, and he cannot “take the oil” from Iraq. He cannot preemptively launch nuclear attacks based on whim. He cannot renege on trade deals without consequence. He cannot “rip up” NAFTA (the North American trade bloc involving Mexico, Canada and the US). He cannot fire generals because they disagree with his views, and he cannot form a partnership with Russia just because he admires Putin.

Trump cannot mandate that women be “punished” for having legal abortions. Trump cannot “wipe out” Daesh.

Trump cannot make “America Great Again” because his vision of greatness–white male christian nativist and insular–has been overcome by the structural, demographic, cultural, social and technological changes of the last quarter century. In fact, his vision of “greatness’ was great only for a socio-economic few, and that few will be a distinct minority within twenty years.

Trump cannot drill, drill, drill or frack, frack, frack. Trump cannot make the US safer by ensuring that more people have guns.  He cannot re-institute “stop and frisk” as the solution to African-American demonstrations against police brutality or even urban crime without re-hashing the case of its (un)constitutionality. Trump cannot run his administration like a family owned business lacking shareholders or a Board of Directors and he certainly cannot use bankruptcy as a means of avoiding liability for poor financial decisions. He cannot renegotiate the US debt using default as leverage.

The reasons he cannot do anything of what he has promised is not only that his words are meaningless and empty, in typical national populist demagogic tradition. It is due to the fact that the US political system does, in fact, rest on institutional checks and balances grounded in law. Any and everything that he proposes, were he to try to execute it via Executive Order, would be challenged in courts as unconstitutional and take years to litigate. He needs Congress to pass laws that will allow him to do some of the things that he promises to do, and other promises require congressional approval in any event. Even if it remains in Republican control, Congress has been the subject of his often personal attacks and understands its role as a check on the Executive (witness the obstructionism of the past eight years). So no matter who controls Congress, but especially if the Democrats win the Senate, the legislative branch will not just play along with Trump’s demands and initiatives and will in fact spend much time blocking most of what he has proposed on the campaign trail. He is on a hiding to nothing.

Trump cannot use his personal wealth while president, which includes paying lobbyists to advance his political projects. Although he can fund partisan and personal trips and events out of his own bank account, he cannot use his taxpayer-funded salary or the resources of his office for personal reasons. That means that he will have to place his assets in the hands of others, be it via trusts or family delegation for the duration of his incumbency. The Donald may have some problems adjusting to that situation and could try to circumvent the rules governing presidential finances. Beyond the ethics of the matter, that poses a practical challenge for him because even if he fills the entire upper echelon of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees (whose credentials will have more to do with shoe licking than competence), he still will have to deal with a career civil service with institutional knowledge and depth of expertise (if not vested interests) when it comes to policy implementation paid for by the taxes Trump thinks it is “smart” to dodge.

Nor can he reconcile his financial plan, which involves lowering corporate taxes while renegotiating trade agreements and increasing spending on the military and elected infrastructure projects. In an age of budgetary cost-cutting that has resulted in several government shut-downs, he simply will find it impossible to fund his projects with public money even if he offers sweetheart deals to private parties in order to offset public expenditures–again, because it is not for him alone to do so and he will find his purse strings not only constrained by but attached to the demands of other interests regardless of who controls Congress.

The truly sad aspect of this is that neither Trump or his supporters understand the very basic concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. They believe that he can just order people around and “get things done.” They think that he can bully foreign leaders the way he bullies out of favour beauty pagent contestants. They think that he can resort to personal insults, to include fat, slut and disability-shaming, to deter his adversaries and critics. They would be mistaken in those beliefs and it is a shame that the US educational system has produced so many people without even an elementary grasp of how government works or why civility is a value. That one such ignorant person is the nominee of a major political party is a clear sign of its demise.

It will interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks of the campaign. It looks like Trump is starting (?) to come unglued as the pressure mounts and his blustery facade begins to crumble under the light of scrutiny. Clinton pounded him into the ropes in the first debate (I scored it a TKO), and if he decides to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs in future conversation he will be eviscerated on the hypocrisy rack. From my perspective, the election campaign is just getting better.

One thing is certain: ignorance is not bliss and Drumpf is about to find that out in spades.

 

Autumn of the Patriarch.

datePosted on 14:00, August 21st, 2016 by Pablo

Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago. During the public celebration of his milestone he sat in a specialised wheel chair between his brother Raul and Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela. He is physically frail but his mind is still sharp, as evidenced in a (rather self-serving) editorial he wrote in which he praised his revolution and denounced US president Obama and the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba (which his brother, now president of Cuba after Fidel’s abdication due to illness, helped engineer). As part of the month long celebrations of his birth, he is being gifted a 90 meter long cigar, a world record for “puros” of any type. Bill Clinton should be so lucky.

Yet, I felt sadness and some pity at watching Fidel in his autumn years. Like Garcia Marquez’s Colonel, he is a man of the past wrapped in memories of what could have been. A man who once was an icon of the Latin American Left, worthy successor to Jose Marti, comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, patron of the Angolan and Mozambiquian revolutions, inspiration to insurrectionists world-wide, cunning adversary of the US for over five decades and arguably the best poker player the world after he bluffed the US into thinking that he would rather be incinerated rather than relent to US demands during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the USSR eventually agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba over Castro’s objections in exchange for a US withdrawal of surface to surface missile batteries in Turkey).

But rather than the imposing physical specimen that towered over so many of his emulators both in height and intellect and who attracted the attention of the rich, famous and powerful during his heyday, here sat a stooped, gaunt, hollow faced elder with visible hand tremors and a certifiable fool sitting on his left side. In fact, if Fidel represented the best hopes and aspirations of a previous generation of revolutionaries, Nicolas Maduro represents the terminal decline of the contemporary “Pink Tide” of elected neo-socialists that emerged during the 2000s and who, with few exceptions like the Frente Amplio governments of Uruguay, have been proven to be no less authoritarian, no less corrupt, and equally if not more incompetent than their capitalist predecessors. In some cases, these Pink Tide regimes were not so much socialist as they were kleptocratic, populist-corporatist or sold-out to the corporate interests they ostensibly opposed. And like Fidel, they have fallen on hard times.

Other than Maduro, no foreign leaders of note attended Fidel’s birthday party (even the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a country in which many Cubans spilled blood in the overthrow of Somoza and defense of the Sandinista Revolution, did not send a high level delegation). The rich and powerful were absent. In a sense, Fidel’s decline mirrors the struggles of the Cuban Revolution after the USSR withdrew its economic support for it. More tellingly, it symbolises the squandered opportunity of the Pink Tide.

The emergence of elected Left regimes in Latin America during the 2000s was a moment of great hope for progressives in the hemisphere. It followed a wave of so-called neoliberal, market-friendly economic reforms undertaken by a variety of right and populist regimes such as those of Menem in Argentina and Fujimori in Peru during the previous decades. As the negative consequences of neoliberalism began to impact on basic social indicators such as income inequality and child poverty, and could no longer be hidden by creative accounting and statistical manipulation, a window of ideological opportunity opened for the Latin American Left. They were the earliest and fiercest critics of the so-called “Washington Consensus” behind the adoption of neo-liberal reforms.  They were the academics, activists, organisers and politicians who marshalled protests, demonstrations and other forms of passive and active resistance to the implementation of market-driven edicts. They were the outlets through which the dislocating effects and social impact of the “more market” approaches were highlighted. And they had one more thing: structural opportunity in the form of a global commodities boom.

With the rise of China as an economic powerhouse in competition and/or concert with other established and new powers (e.g. the US, India), the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the demand for commodities–primary goods, raw materials and especially minerals, metals and fossil fuels–skyrocket. As prices soared on the back of increased demand previously unexploited regions became the subjects of concerted interest by Chinese and other investors. What already existed in terms of commodities–oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, natural gas and oil in Brazil, copper in Chile, even soy, maize and beef in Argentina and Uruguay–saw redoubled investment in extractive export industries. A boom time ensued.

At the turn of the century Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela elected or re-elected neo-socialist governments (El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru did as well but their tenures were short-lived). Every one of these countries benefited from the commodities boom. The question was not so much how to generate public money surpluses but in what measure and how to make use of them. But, just like Soviet subsidies gave Fidel’s Cuba an unnatural sense of comfort and inflated standard of living, the commodities boom was a temporary boost rather than a long term panacea for the region’s problems, depending on what was done with the surpluses generated by the golden moment.

With the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, pretty much everywhere else the preferred combination was public spending on popular projects mixed with epic corruption, graft and theft. To be sure, health, education, welfare and housing services improved in the early years of these regimes and social indicators improved relative to the neo-liberal baselines. Income redistribution downwards was accomplished via generous benefits packages provided to the lower classes. Public services such as transport, electricity and gas were heavily subsidised by the State. So were basic food staples. Public works schemes generated employment. But after a while the money provided for such projects began to run out as the demand for commodities stabilised and prices began to drop.

Worse yet, what most of these regimes did not do was invest constructively in long-term productive capacity and infrastructure. Instead, they threw money at popular short term projects and grandiose schemes such as building sports arenas and stadiums. They pushed increased export commodity dependency rather than diversification of the productive apparatus. In parallel, they siphoned off millions in public funds to friends, cronies and family of government officials, when not to themselves. The combination was one of immediate gain (for them and their supporters) at the expense of long-term sustainability, and now those chickens have come home to roost.

In places like Argentina under Cristina Fernandez de Kichner, corruption was elevated to an art form (in a country where it was already a highly developed practice). In places like Brazil and Ecuador corruption was an integral part of the public-private nexus in construction and fossil fuel exploration. But it is in Venezuela where the full depths of the decline are seen. Even before Hugo Chavez died, his “revolution” had turned into a feeding trough for the Boliviarian elites. Billions of dollars were provided to creating anti-imperialist alliances such as ALBA, the anti-capitalist trading bloc that was supposed  to counter MERCOSUR and which never got off the ground. Billions in subsidised oil was sent to Cuba to prop up the Castro regime as a form of anti-US solidarity. After Chavez died, under Maduro, Venezuela has become an economic basket case where shortages of basic staples and power outages are the norm and where both government services and private industry have nearly ground to a halt (in a country with one of the world’s largest oil reserves). In Venezuela and elsewhere there was a conspicuous lack of foresight or public planning. Few sovereign wealth funds were created to save during times of plenty for the inevitable lean times that come with the boom and bust cycles of the commodities trade. Once the lean times came, the response of the neo-socialist Left was to blame anyone but themselves and to grab as much of the dwindling public reserves for their own benefit.

In some cases, the actions of disloyal oppositions and foreign powers hastened the authoritarian response and increased self-enrichment of Leftist leaders. This was very much true in Venezuela. In other cases the sheer weight of historical patterns of political patronage and private nepotism wore down the resolve of Left politicians to resist the temptation to do things “as usual.” That was and is the case of Brazil. In Chile the strength of the military-business network has impeded anything but incremental reform by the most determined Left governments. In some cases (Bolivia and Ecuador) long tenures in power slowly insulated Left governments from the masses and allowed for the development of cultures of impunity in which public officials were no longer responsive to the commonweal and instead focused on maintaining themselves in power. In virtually all cases, again with the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, public officials treated national treasuries as individual and collective ATMs.

In some countries Left governments have been electorally replaced by Right ones (Argentina and Peru). In Brazil the Left PT government has crumbled under the weight of corruption scandals and succumbed to what amounted to a constitutional coup carried out by no less corrupt right-wingers. In several others such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Left continues to rule, however sclerotically and increasingly autocratically. In Chile the Concertacion government of Michelle Bachelet that preceded and replaced the one-term Right government of Sebastian Pinera is more establishment-friendly centrist than anything else (because it has to be in order to keep the coup plotters at bay). Only in Uruguay has the Left, in the form of the Frente Amplio governments of Tabare Vazquez and Jose Mujica, been true to its socialist and democratic principles.

This is just an broad overview. The extent of mismanagement, incompetence, ineptitude and outright criminality undertaken by the neo-socialist Left when governing in Latin American during the last decade and a half has been astounding. The hard truth is that the Latin American Left had its golden windows of opportunity in the 2000s and with some notable exceptions squandered it all.

In a sense, that is a fate they share with Fidel. Had he passed from the scene in the 80s or even 90s he would still be revered in many progressive circles. But he has lingered too long, well after the contradictions and frailty of his revolution have been exposed. In fact, an entire generation of Cubans have been raised in the “special times” of austerity and deprivation that have marked the last 25 years of Communist rule in Cuba and which has forced his brother to open the national economy and seek rapprochement with the US. This has made that generation much less committed to revolutionary ideals and much more committed to materially improving themselves. As an old friend said to me upon returning from Cuba: “Ideology goes out the window when you are hungry.”

Worse yet, it now appears true that Fidel was less a committed revolutionary as he was a Cuban nationalist who used the context of the Cold War to bolster his rule and burnish his credentials as a committed internationalist. Mutatis mutandis, that is a trait shared by many neo-socialists of the Pink Tide: they were and are socialists more in name than in deed, and are more interested in enshrining their rule than in truly re-making their countries into viable socialist (or social democratic) societies in which political power is exercised by the people for the people. Revolutionary rhetoric is no substitute for revolutionary praxis and is a poor cover for political and economic mismanagement.

I say this with much regret. One never expects the Latin American Right (or pretty much any Right) to do anything other than enrich themselves and their cronies. But one certainly expects that self-professed socialists will behave differently, especially more fairly and less venally, when in power. Many people, myself included, wanted to believe in the promise of the Pink Tide just as we previously wanted to believe in the transformational impact of the Cuban Revolution. And yet, like the neo-liberals before them, the majority of Pink Tide neo-socialists have been exposed as charlatans, thieves and frauds.

On those grounds Fidel has one thing over them. He may not have accomplished all of the things that he promised that he would, and his “revolution” may have been much less than he promised and more dependent than he admits, but at least he has remained true to himself in his declining years. That cannot be said for the likes of the Boliviarians and their erstwhile regional comrades.

That is why I felt sadness when I watched his birthday celebrations. In the autumn of his life, el Comandante is condemned to the unique solitude that goes with being the last of his kind.

PS: Looks like I am not the only one who thinks that the Pink Tide failed to deliver on its promise (although this author puts a more positive and hopeful spin on things).

The Language of Violence

datePosted on 10:37, July 18th, 2016 by E.A.

There was an attempted coup in Turkey on the weekend. So far there are no real details on why and militaries can end up intervening in politics for a variety of reasons. Jets were scrambled, an attack helicopter was shot down and people massed in the streets and suddenly as it started it was over.

What is known is that while Erdogan is back in power I don’t think this is really a victory for democracy as he has become increasingly authoritarian over time and been connected to more than one scandal while in government.

Already the media has been talking about “purges” of both bad military personnel and anyone else who happens to oppose him so don’t expect the underlying issues which sparked the coup to go away anytime soon.

Add to this an ongoing bombing campaign in Turkey, often directed at military personnel and the “fun fun fun” next door in Syria and it’s not too difficult to see what may have been going through the minds of the plotters when they decided to have a coup.

The death toll from all of this is around 300 and it appears that those in the coup maker’s side decided to fire on civilians at least once, which while not the turning point, would not have been a recommended means to gather support when overthrowing a government.

Meanwhile in the US more police officers are dead in what is starting to appear to be tit for tat style killings in response to police killing various black American males.

While tragic I can’t help but feel somewhat concerned that in a nation full of guns and racial tensions (among other things) this is not going to be the last time this happens. An example has been set and if the police continue to use guns as a means to enforce the law then expect others to do so as well in response to issues of police behaving lawlessly.

And while somewhat peripheral to the situation, killings those tasked to enforce the law is a text book indicator of a brewing insurgency. Usually these acts happen to not only send a message and destabilize the current authority (allowing the insurgent to substitute its own authority) but to also acquire weapons to which further the struggle but in gun crazy USA there is no need to worry about getting your hands on high power weaponry (thanks NRA!) so consider this just a message sent.

Politicians and pundits wring their hands, the president says something reassuring but I can’t see any political means for the US to step away from this. The US looks more and more like an apartheid state every day and nothing I hear from friends and family living there gives me any indication that the horrible momentum of a dying super power will be arrested before the inevitable fall happens (for those who would like to get an indicator of how this goes I strongly recomend Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a text book read for how Empires fail).

And over in Asia the sabers are being rattled after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decided to enforce the UNCLOS (United Nations Law of the Sea) against Chinese actions in the South China Sea, deeming them illegal.

Will that actually stop China from building islands and military bases on coral reefs and atolls and behaving belligerently? Probably not as the immediate response out of Beijing was to declare it “rigged” in favor of the West which I would normally consider an appropriate response from China but in this instance just smacks of sour grapes.

In fact I expect immediate action form China in the wake of this as its already verbally blasted Australia for commenting unfavorably on this and I wonder if our current trade spat with China might be related to our not kowtowing to China on this issue.

What is clear that this one has been slow brewing for the past half-decade and even longer once you get into the history of it (one of my specialist areas of Masters study) and with natural resources like fishing, possible oil, and territorial sovereignty on the line among China, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan (as something similar is brewing between Japan and China over disputed islands between them) no body is likely to be able, or willing to back down.

Add to this increased naval and related weapons sales to all parties and the US firmly opposed to China on this issue and you have all the makings of a cold war style thriller (which, if I remember correctly, was actually predicted by some Cold War style Tom Clancy type novelist in the 1980’s, whose names escapes me at this time).

And finally in NZ we have two individuals shot dead by the Police in one week. Both may have been in self-defense and both may have been justified (as details, while sketchy, seem to indicate that it was a means of last resort or in the face of imminent threat) but again the message is clear and unlike the US not (at least yet) a common occurrence in our society.

There is no common thread among these events except one which is, as the song* says, that “death is the silence” in the language of violence.

*-The Language of Violence by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

 

 

 

History will not Absolve You!*

datePosted on 09:51, July 8th, 2016 by E.A.

“You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times, but the Goddess who presides over the Eternal Court of History will, with a smile, tear in pieces the charge of the Public Prosecutor and the verdict of this court. For she acquits us.” 

In the wake of the Chilcot Report, which made it clear that the decision to go to war in Iraq was made on the basis of “faulty” (which is a polite way of saying manufactured) information and that war was not the last option but pretty much the first from the get go comes as a damning indictment of Tony Blair and the then government’s decision to go to war.

Blair himself has been unrepentant but I have never expected Poodle Blair to ever admit fault but I was surprised by the harsh tones of the report as I had expected it to be a whitewash of history. So once in a while I am pleasantly surprised and I don’t think the issue is going to go away in the UK any time soon, if anything the report’s findings will be fuel for the fire of not just the relatives of the dead but the soldiers who came back scarred both mentally and physically.

Blair of course has stuck with the tired and spineless line that issues with the intel or otherwise removing Saddam (and all the other blunders that Iraq turned into) was the right course of action, history will judge him.

Even at the time the intel was saying the case was bad, even before the war it was turning into a snow job of biblical proportions as the war drums were being beat. I clearly remember the Christchurch Press screaming headlines about Saddam and the need for his removal while my co-workers at the time regurgitated the same blather the media was feeding them right on cue. If I had ever needed a functional example of manufactured consent here it was alive and in my face (telling me Saddam had nukes and it could happen in NZ). It was the same gibberish as the first Gulf War but now with 50% more neo-con BS.

Forgetting that Saddam had previously had been a friend of the West, had been given arms and intel by them when he was fighting Iran (who could possibly forget the photo of Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands at a meeting some time in the mid 1980’s) it was still a dud argument but when ever has the truth ever gotten in the way of a good war.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, John Key comes out in support of Blair and the war (here) and has refused to accept that he is on the “wrong side of history” under the similar argument of “well we made the decision on the basis of the information we had at the time so hindsight is a wonderful thing but you gotta make omelets”.

Really? O’rilly? Exsqueeze me? Baking soda? What is this BS? Aheenaheenaheena!*

John Key, the son of an Austrian Jewish refugee mother and an English father who fought in the Spanish Civil War (I can only assume on the republican side given his nationality) and World War II. If anyone should have been raised with a sound and emphatic understanding of the horrors of fascism and war it should have been him.

So I can only assume that this hollow man has forgotten his background and where he has come from and what his parents went through in making such a shameful statement. In fact the more I think about it the more the hideous levels of irony shines through like vomit on a stained glass window.

It’s very easy for a man, a leader of a nation, to send men off to war when it’s done from the comfort of his office, thousands of miles away from the fighting. It’s even easier for a man sitting in an office a thousand miles away, to support such a grotesque decision when there is no consequence for him in slavish obedience to foolish rhetoric and evil lies.

My Great Grandfather fought in the First World War, my Grandfather in the Second, my father in middle east in the 60s, I have friends from my military days who did time in Iraq as contractors and I have attended more Anzac day parades and the functions after at RSAs than I can remember (possibly due to the hefty quantities of Navy Rum on offer at the time) and at no point can I recall hearing any of those individuals expressing support for any decision to go to war.

War may have been necessary as a final action (as many in the case of WW2 have made), but it was the final resort of those who would fight if they had to but wished to avoid it if at all possible; not the first choice of greedy little men who will never actually face the guns or have to worry about a loved one dying in some bloody conflict.

To be fair I have heard many stories about the adventures had during war time (especially my Grandfathers escapades in Egypt and Libya as a dispatch rider in WW2 and my fathers time dodging bullets as a UN Peacekeeper) but these were always in context that the war itself was a monstrous affair from which the horrors of the conflict was never far away from the Boys Own adventure moments which they recalled.

More pertinently of those I know who went and made some “easy money” in Iraq (as one of my mates describes his $100,000 plus a year, US, tax free contract doing security on convoys from Basra to Baghdad) one refused to re-up for a second tour, despite the increased pay and bonuses on offer and the second bailed less than six months into the second citing scenes that made my hair stand on end (he decided to get out after he got covered in the brains of the driver on the truck he was riding on due to some high caliber round punching though the trucks windshield, and the drivers head). None of them described Iraq in less than horrific terms.***

So I have issues when John Key boldly asserts that he will be on the right side of history in regards to the Iraq War, big issues.

It does explain why things like the housing crisis, homelessness and the general misery that successive National Governments have inflicted on New Zealand do not even register on his compassionate radar. If sending people off to die for no real purpose is not going to faze him then being the man responsible for maintaining the current and ongoing misery of the neo-liberal market state probably has absolutely no emotional or emphatic resonance in the cold depth of his reptilian brain.

Perhaps he would feel different if his wannabe DJ, playboy son, decided to enlist and get sent off on some dodgy neo-colonial war for no real reason but $$$ or his faux artist daughter was the victim of some terrorist attack in a European capital as a flow on effect of the disruption caused by that war, I hope he would feel different but I cannot say for sure.

And while I was never a fan of Helen Clark I respected her decision to keep NZ out of the conflict, I even understood her decision to scrap the combat air arm of the Air Force. As someone with a strong military background (and a lifelong interest in all things military) I can still be pragmatic enough to see the logic for her decisions and the reasons for staying out of what has been fairly labelled an unjust war.

No Iraq War, probably no ISIS/Daesh, possibly no Syrian War, possibly a lot less bloodshed in the Middle East, definitely no Imperial AmeriKa running amok, possibly even no Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton monster on our political horizon. The possibilities are endless.

Oh and for those wondering about the quote at the start of this post. Its from Hitlers trial in 1924 after he tried to take over Bavaria in the Beer Hall Putsch.

*-title courtesy of Fidel castro

**- Statements of disbelief courtesy of The Internet,Waynes World , Generation Ecch and De La Soul

***- For those interested try googling for videos of US convoys doing the run from Basra to Baghdad and back and see how much you would like that job despite the salary

Sorry no budget commentary (what would I write about anyway) but something a little different.

I have been thinking about Labours great betrayal in 1984 and trying to figure out what actually happened, or more to the point why they did what they did?

This post is for all those who have been burnt by that betrayal, all those who got screwed over by it, who lost their jobs, who had their farms or land taken away, who went into the 90’s unprepared for the savagery of nine years of National government continuing to twist the knife and cut one bloody piece off after another and for those who are now part of the that great kiwi diaspora still euphemistically called “the big OE”. This is for those people. The rest of you might as well stop reading now.

What follows is not a discussion of history, nor is it a well-researched jaunt through a serious of loosely assembled facts. None of this will offer any comfort, solace or even cathartic release for what this country has become; because if you are like me, nothing can heal those wounds short of the various people responsible hanging from the lamp posts along Lambton Quay (of course in effigy only). None the less I feel compelled to describe it as it now appears, as unbelievable as it seems even to me.

And what I am getting at and where I am going is because by living through those times I was deeply affected by them and due to these experiences I have been shaped by them. If the 80s and 90s did’nt politicise you then you left NZ (I was also one of those) for better jobs and better lives overseas or you simply decided (in true Kiwi fashion) to say nothing, do nothing and (with great apathy) give up the ghost to become the middle class voter mass which has helped perpetuate this sorry state of affairs.

And the burning question is how did a party which was effectively Socialist and Keynesian in focus and Roger Douglas, a man trained as an accountant, with no radical bones in his body and with an impeccable left wing pedigree, embark on such a radically Laissez faire fare course of action that in the end has done far more damage to this country than good.

The answers may surprise you.

NZ spent a lot of the 70s under National after a brief flirtation with Labour between 1972 and 1975**. Before 1972 it had been 12 years of National government, Vietnam, the 60s, counter culture and the scent of revolution in the air. Governments across the world were freaked out at the prospect of their quiet little Hobbesian playground being disturbed by the massive social shifts taking place.

National in the 1970s and early 1980s was Rob Muldoon and Think Big with Muldoon often acting more like a left winger than a right with his highly socialised/big government/authoritarian approach to running New Zealand.

It was’nt quite Smiths Dream but there was no reason not to believe that such a dystopia was not just around the corner and this was view shared by both those in the public and in government (although with very different outlooks and expectations).

At this time two events stand out as amazing examples of what Kiwis can do when motivated to do so, when not afraid or apathetic and when the still but deep running idealist streak in this country combines with issues which are perceived as worth the effort. They were the Maori Land Marches/Bastion Point and the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Both of these events changed the face of NZ, both of these were the first major upheavals since the land wars where a mass of people were fighting back and the established powers had no real response. The 1951 Waterfront Strikes also stand out but they were eventually crushed.

To those used to ruling NZ (and I will not name names as I can’t afford the legal fees to fight of defamation charges) these changes portended the end of their hold on this country, the ruin of their plans for Godzone and termination of the colonial status quo.

To these people, just reparation for land stolen or upholding ethical principles over business practice was just not on and like so many scared elites they began to formulate plans for the inevitable counter revolution.

But what to do and how to do it? It was clear that the National Government was on the out and that an energized Labour Party was going to take power come the next election and possibly sweep away all their privilege.

National, the traditional party of the status quo, was now ruled by Muldoon and suffering from the economic fallout of Think Big which had drained the country of funds and left it economically crippled while Labour still had some of the Magic or Norman Kirk about them, despite being driven from government in 1975 with the same vigor that had seen them enter in 1972 (this sudden reversal was in part to the sudden death of the highly popular Kirk and his replacement by the less charismatic Bill Rowling but also due to the internecine power struggle that immediately erupted in the Labour Party after Kirks passing).

So with National not able to fulfill its traditional role as the vehicle for vested interests a plan was hatched to enact a social and economic blitzkrieg on the nation which would not only stifle dissent but use the damage inflicted by Think Big to drive though sweeping deregulation by the soon to be government, the Labour party.

But for this to happen Labour would need to completely abandon its ideological base and core principles. Could the powers that be make this happen, could they turn water in wine? It seems they could.

Many of the details will remain obscured and like Philby and Blunt those involved will probably take the truth to their graves but the fact of the matter is that after the 1984 election things were never the same again.

If you don’t believe in counter revolutions then think again, history is full of political and social elites enacting all manner of schemes to protect their wealth, privilege and lifestyles when threatened and betrayers and double crossers also abound, playing more than one side for their own personal gain.

Since 1984 those elites have strengthened their hold on our nation and society and seen a would be technocrat-tyrant become PM to ensure their ongoing control (think of Key as less than Quadaffi in Libya and more like Salazar in Portugal).

Also keep in mind that less than five years ago many people scoffed at the idea of things that are known to be true today thanks to people like Wiki-leaks, Edward Snowden or the Panama papers.

Is it too far to believe that Rodger Douglas, and others, were moles infiltrating the Labour party so as to drive through a series of reforms that would create such shock and dislocation that, like all good counter revolutions, the opposition would be thrown off balance, fractured and unable to mount a coherent response? Is that such an unrealistic thing to believe? If it is I have one word for you: COINTELPRO.

And when you realize the damage that has been done to Labour since those times is it such a step to understanding that by infiltrating the opposition party and then compromising it at the highest levels that it would effectively taint the party for life and ensure that it would have little or no credibility for years to come, thus neutering it politically.

And can anyone who ever witnessed (or watched on TV) the land marches or the tour protests forget the feeling that the nation was on the brink, that decades of tension and repression were spilling forth in the act of pitting one Kiwi against another.

I believe that right now, today, we are on the cusp of similar changes, the de-regulated state and its grim servants cannot contain the effects or damage of their actions over the last 30 years. We now have at least two generations that have grown up under this and another, much poorer one, on its way.

This is not about Labour being the magic bullet to the depravity of National or having an ideal solution to the problems of the day. This is about us understanding our history, even if it is completely untrue, to enable us to get past it. This is about enacting the Utopian ideals that make Kiwis the world beating iconoclasts that we can be when we put our minds to it and when we are not servants of the power.

Just as then events today are politicizing us and the issues are once again rising up to demand a change the establishment is once again (this time with National in power) going to do everything it can to stop us.

This is why I believe the Greens will be the next to be co-opted if they allow it or that Labour lacks the heart to dismantle the dark satanic mills that John Key manages on behalf of the absentee owners who look down from their high towers and wonder fearfully at the crowds massing below.

*-Thanks to Robot Chicken Season 6 for the title

**- Labour lost in 1975 by almost the same margin it got in on in 72

After previously examining the big four of NZ politics we now turn our eye to the first of the lesser denizens of the swamp called parliament and look at one species of creature soon to be extinct. Also apologies for the length, I swear I try and keep them short.

If there was a time when ACT was a genuine political party, those days are past. In the late 90s and early 2000s ACT could indeed claim to be a such a thing as it polled respectably and had yet to be tainted by the scandals, squabbling and power struggles which have now left it dead in the polls and relevant only because the Auckland electorate of Epsom has developed a rather strange fetish for it.

The fact that the party has visibly withered in the last decade is almost entirely down to its own deceitful actions and the fact that it’s championing of the neo-liberal agenda and as a mouthpiece for the ultra-rich and corporate entities has gone from distasteful to downright loathsome.

The question that always interested me was in trying to figure out if ACT really believed the gibberish it was spouting or if they were just happy being mouthpieces for one of the most vile ideologies of our time; that of a happy return to feudalism under corporate masters rather than blue bloods.

In the 90s the party happily spouted Business Roundtable platitudes while supporting the National government but it also could claim some degree of moral ground under “perk buster” Rodney Hide (who was later busted for abusing the very same system of parliamentary perks and privilege that he had hypocritically been railing against) and having some theoretical pedigree by claiming it was championing individual rights and freedoms.

Today it polls about as popular as a party of pedophiles and its theoretical and political base is worm ridden and compromised (in fact given it currently polls around the 1% mark I see no irony in recognizing the fact that it is has always represented the interests of the 1%). But between 1996 and 2002 it rode high in the polls as part of those heady days of early MMP with a respectable 7%.

The fact that that most of that 7% could be ascribed to the more right wing elements of the National party fleeing in the wake of Nationals dismal results in 1999 and 2002 may have escaped ACT’s attention but despite these high poll results it was never a part of the Labour Government under Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008 (I wonder why?).

But at its simplest ACT was built and commissioned as a vehicle for those who wanted to continue to advance the free market ideology of the 80s into the 90s and beyond.

If my previous analysis of the big four political parties had looked at the failures of each party under the headings of: the party itself (Labour); its individual members (National); personal political advancement (NZ First) and selling out its core values (the Greens: no they haven’t done this yet but that’s what my post about them was warning against) then my analysis of ACT is a combination of all of the above.

The grim state of the party is a warning to all others in the NZ political sandbox of what happens to those who abandon all morality for greed by peddling themselves to clearly self-serving ideologies that reject even the basic tenants of community and commons.

More technically ACT is clear evidence of what happens when a political party is clearly serving a vested interest and staffed with a rouges gallery of goons and goombahs in the best traditions of the SA.

Yes that’s right (no pun intended), ACT were to be the brown shirts of right-wing NZ revolution (an odious tradition continued today by bloggers like Cameron Slater over on the Whale Oil), a vanguard of the free market and like the SA are self-destructing in a queasy orgy of criminal and corrupt behavior (although no night of the long knives for ACT, yet).

It’s worth examining some of the histories of the specters that have made up the party to get a better picture of what exactly went wrong and why the party is no longer a viable entity.

First things first there was Rodger Douglas. In being a key figure in forming a political party the message was crystal clear of what ACT stood for. If you liked the regulatory and free market revolution that his reforms had created for NZ then this was the party for you. Most of the electorate was not a fan but a sizable minority (6%) did vote for the party in 1996 and in part that was on the perceived value of the firm economic policy that ACT seemed to be advocating and the supposed benefits it brought.

In 1996 Douglas was no longer in charge of the economy but with his disciple Ruth Richardson (a known member of the Mont Perlin Society: The John Birch society for accountants) still keeping the ovens going (under a continuation of Rogernomics now termed “Ruthanasia”) his reforms continued and helped to make 1990s NZ a grim and bleak place to live.

With Labour back in government in 1999 it was clear that ACT was not going to be getting a seat at the table and Douglas, never keen on Hides leadership stepped away from the party in 2004 as ACT languished in opposition for most of the decade.

Then in 2008 Douglas, along with Heather Roy, staged a failed coup attempt on Rodney Hide, who survived due to the timely intervention of John Key. Douglas started to fade after this time as several bills he tried to introduce into parliament failed in the house and in 2011 he called it quits.

His legacy as the architect of so much pain and misery is reflected in things like the growing wealth and inequality gaps, the scandal of poor and hungry children in NZ and a merchant banker (John Key) as PM.

Douglas is the reason why the argument that ACT sold its soul to sing for the devil is false. ACT (and Douglas) never had any soul to begin with; they were catamites from the start and an open vehicle for the free-market agenda that has been exploited by a grubby few to almost everyone’s disadvantage.

But Douglas is the just the first of many who would make the party look like the criminal rabble it was rapidly turning into and leave it as the soulless husk it is today.

Stalwart party members like John Banks (accused of submitting false electoral returns, shilling for Kim Dotcom and a dangerous level of religious zealotry among his numerous misdeeds); Donna Awatere Huata (tried, sentenced and jailed for fraud); David Garret (stealing the identity of a dead child in an attempt to get a false passport); Rodney Hide (caught abusing the very perks he had built his reputation on); Heather Roy and Ken Shirley (shilling for big pharma); Deborah Coddington (anti-Asian Immigration) and Hillary Calvert (who makes the list for her delightful quote “we care about people ahead of silly little chickens”) have been the storm troopers of right wing ideology and policy, who have helped turn ACT into the ship of fools that it is but also a refuge for misfits, rejects and political mercenaries of all stripes (Don Brash).

If it was just its cast of ugly criminal characters alone then ACT would be no worse than National with its similar scum pool of human misdemeanors but ACT also fails on the Policy front, ala Labour, but much much worse.

On casual perusal, ACT’s policy portfolio seems to have some merit with its claims of freedom and lower taxes for all but as with all policy the devil is in the details and with further reading, as well as knowing ACT’s pedigree and track record, it’s easy to locate the keywords and decipher their actual meaning.

ACT adheres to the political equivalent of creationism, that of small government; low taxes and private provision of public services (charter schools, Serco run prisons, asset sales and letting the kind and benevolent market take care of things).

ACT’s definition of “core functions” of government ignores the reality that is the highly complex society that we live in and imagines that market functions would be able to contain the anarchy that the market itself has been shown to create (booms, busts, bubbles, cartels, tax havens, corruption, nepotism, market manipulation, offshore trusts and growing wealth and inequality).

At its center ACT’s intellectual pedigree, albeit diluted and watered down, is no worse than the intellectual foundations on which other parties sit, but unlike National and Labour, which have simply let their policy bases fade away in favor of craven appeals to the policy melting pot of “the middle ground”, ACT’s is, and has always been, in the service of those who seek appealing theoretical foundations on which to base their dubious actions.

ACT’s foundations lie in Friedrich Hayek and the Mont Perlin society and more directly the NZ Business Roundtable (now dubbed the New Zealand Initiative). Hayek’s arguments against collectivization were an intense part of my undergrad study in political theory and his was, like many other thinkers, a clear and conscious reaction to the tumult of the first half of the 20th century by attempting to provide solutions to those times problems.

As a political theory this is fine (although I tended to favor the position taken by Polanyi) but its use as a smokescreen for actions by others with agendas which do not really align with the theory they are trumpeting is nothing more than intellectual window dressing for the traveling snake oil show that has been neo-liberalism and its use by global elites to dismantle any organisation or structure which hampers their pursuit of profit and power.

Reading through chunks of policy statements give the impression that ACT is obsessed with saving “the children”, really hates big government and that lower taxes are the answer to many issues but one also can find references to “ACTs advisers”; a distaste for beneficiaries, the treaty of Waitangi, the RMA; and a host of neo-liberal buzzwords like “signalling”, “choice” and “potential”.

The sum of all of this is that the parties’ policy prescriptions sound wonderfully empowering and harmless until you realize that these prescriptions have already been enacted around the world and we have been living in the “utopia” promised to us by the smooth talking acolytes of small government and less taxes.

I could go on forever here in pointing out the flaws in these overly elaborate theories which have never been, and never will, be honestly enacted but the point is clear. The message being preached has failed, it’s been tried and it failed, the desperate cries of “more of the same”, by ACT and National, to solve the problems previously created by “more of the same” now sound like doom cultists chanting.

But what about the current leadership, what about ACT’s philosopher-king David Seymour and his role as free-market mouthpiece?

At first Seymour seems to be a new face for the party but once you dig into his background his links to conservative think tanks, including one which helped shape Stephen Harper’s right wing paradise in Canada (before the inevitable backlash kicked in), it becomes clear and you figure out that someone (read what painfully passes for ACTs brain trust) has been seeking to emulate the safe, white, suit and tie, clean shaven, middle aged male look (ala Key, Cameron, Bush Jnr, Blair et al) but not quite managed to get the facial features right on the identikit robot they ordered from conservatives’R’us.

And with the ACT party webpage now resembling a personal blog (with what appear to be self-written press releases by Seymour about Seymour all over the main page) and his face repeatedly staring back at you with each new post I find myself wondering. His opinions, while few and far between in the press, have given no indication that he has deviated from the party line but perhaps, just perhaps, he realizes its a dead ship he is now captaining and has plans to try and steer it into a safe port for rest and refit.

The odds of that happening rest entirely on Epsom deciding to retain any party candidate as their representative in parliament. Personally If I was Labours campaign manager I would be marshaling forces to get Seymour and Act out of Epsom at all costs even (this could also apply to Peter Dunne in Ohariu) to the point of getting voters to vote National (something that happened in the last election anyway when tactical voting chopped ACTs lead to 6% over National).

Seymour has none of the appeal of Key, personality of Winston or moral integrity of the Greens. It’s almost like he has no soul (a double possibility given his intellectual and political backgrounds) and I will be watching Epsom 2017 with great interest as if ACT loose their seat then its dead and buried and all the grubby refuse that is the party will be swept away.

ACT, unlike Labour and National, does not have a historical background to fall back on when its actions in the present taint it; nor does it have the charisma and appeal of someone like Winston to work their mojo for the crowds; also it does not have any moral stance to support its positions and arguments (ala the Greens) and protect it from criticism.

ACT has been around just over 20 years and its life is almost over. Truly the flame that burnt as half as long was twice as dull.

 

12345678Next