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In defence of public ostracism.

datePosted on 14:40, June 26th, 2018 by Pablo

Public confrontations between Trump officials and activists, ordinary citizens and at least one restaurant owner have reignited the debate about “civility” in political disagreement. The editorial boards of leading US newspapers and Democratic leaders have called for restraint and asked those with anti-Trump opinions to refrain from harassing or confronting Trump officials in the public space when the latter are in a private capacity (such as eating in a restaurant). They claim doing so will play into Trump’s hands by reinforcing the narrative that the “Left” is an unruly mob uninterested in the right to privacy and free speech.

That is nonsense.

This is no longer a situation where taking the moral-ethical “high road” when the opponent goes low is practically effective. The “high road” strategy has not worked in the US since the Reagan days, when Republicans adopted a “stop at nothing” approach to politics that eventually produced the Trump presidency. Time and time again Democrats and progressives have been trumped by a disloyal Rightwing armed with unsavoury and unethical tactics such as Swiftboating and race-baiting. The situation at present is an ethical nadir that calls for what game theorists define as a “tit for tat” strategy: open with a cooperative (read: civil) move, then repeat the opponent’s move (with a turn to cooperation by the opponent rewarded for it). When Trump was elected the Democrats and public at large waited to give him the benefit of the doubt and some political space to prove his opponents wrong. He responded by proving them right and turning the White House into a cesspit of incivility, aided and abetted by a coterie of surrogates, advisors and sycophants who all share his sociopathic tendencies. Thus the proper retort is to respond in like kind, albeit with a twist.

Let’s begin with the fact that the US “Left” or what passes for it is of the soft (non-violent) persuasion. For all the talk about Antifa and Trotskyites smashing things, the bulk of Left violence is the garden variety protest march-turned-small riot where either a few provocateurs try to incite a bigger riot by breaking windows, looting and/or assaulting police or opponents (because most of the “militant” Left rallies are in fact counter-protests against white supremacists and neo-Nazis); or the Left protestors engage with Rightists in physical confrontations using sticks, bottles, Mace, edged and other improvised weapons (the Right does in fact bring firearms to many protests and its adherents of course have used them on more than one occasion, but the majority of the Right-on-Left fights involve variants of basic hand weapons). There have been no assaults on Trump officials and no attempts on the lives of anyone in his administration.

The US Left is mostly about shouting slogans and making witty placards against the status quo; the US Right is mostly about threatening or carrying out violence in defence of racial and ethno-religious supremacy. So when it comes to civility or the lack thereof, it is not the Left that is the problem.

Then take the Trump administration itself, which is anything but “civil.” There are two dimensions to its incivility: its policies and its tone. Trump and minions like Sarah Huckabee Sanders regularly use insults, character assassination, dog whistles, stereotypes and slander to belittle and undermine opponents and critics (and allies!) at home and abroad. The list of such is far too long and readers will be all to familiar with them for me to recount here. This is an administration that thrives on the politics of personal attack and which regularly sets new lows when it comes to Executive discourse. In fact, the immediate response of both Sarah Sanders and Trump to her denial of service at a restaurant (where her presence was opposed by the majority of staff) was to use their official Twitter accounts to disparage the establishment and its owner. In effect, Trumpsters whining about being confronted in their private time is just a case of crocodile tears on the part of bullies unaccustomed to being personally called out on their behaviour.

Add to that its callous disregard for fundamental ethics on a number of fronts (conflicts of interest, disclosure of confidential material, use of taxpayer money for private pursuits), and what we have today is the most uncivil US administration ever. Heck, Trump makes George W. Bush look dignified and smart and Richard Nixon look honest and statesmanlike, so there never again can be an argument as to who is the worst US president of all time. If nothing else his record when it comes to incivility will be hard to beat.

Then there are the policies of the Trump administration and the ways in which they are implemented or attempted. The Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, the opening up of wild lands to fossil fuel exploration, the withdrawal from international treaties and agreements, the removal of protections for disabled people, the cutbacks in funding for special education, denial of climate change and removal of scientists from White House offices, the edict to engage in forced separation of undocumented immigrant families–these and many more policies are underpinned by overtly racist, classist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian attitudes that reek of contempt for the institutional process, the meaning of public service and the basic democratic principle of public accountability.

More importantly, Trump administration policies are mean in intent and consequence. They are designed to hurt rather than help people. They are designed to use the power of the federal government to punish and oppress outlier groups and reward and advantage insiders. They are blunt instruments of malevolence aimed at pounding the body politic into complying with a vision of society based on hierarchy, hate, privilege, stratification and self-interest/greed. In word and deed, Trump and his cabal hurt tens of thousands of people on a daily basis and make no apologies for it.

So what is so civil about that? And why should we be civil to them in return? Is not staying silent in the face of official incivility submission or acquiescence to it? I believe that it is.

Instead of silence, I think that we should make things very personal to every single Trump minion, surrogate, spin doctor, media acolyte, political donor and corporate toady. The message, delivered up close and personal, should be that the policies of hate and greed have no place in a secular cosmopolitan society and the politics of personal attack can work two ways. In this case the attack is not physical even if confrontational: the Trump entourage need to understand and feel in their personal lives the discomfort of threat and opprobrium. The repudiation of Trump policy needs to be made personal to them because both the administration lackeys as well as the foot soldiers implementing their policies believe that they are personally immune from liability or accountability.

Those at the top believe that the office of the presidency protects them from personal reproach, and those at the bottom believe that anonymity protects them from individual retribution. If we cannot confront the originators of bad policy in the public space and their personal lives and if we do not equally confront the enablers and implementors of uncivil policies, where is dissent and opposition heard? The courts, which are increasingly stacked with Trump appointees? Congress, where both chambers are controlled by the entity formally known as the Republican Party but which is now a Trump coat-tail and rubber-stamp machine?

No, the time for civility ended a while ago. The truth is that “civility” in political discourse has been eroding since the Reagan era, mostly thanks to the antics of the media and Political Right. So the calls for Left civility are both hypocritical and self-defeating because they work to silence those who wish to stand up to political bullying while ignoring the bullies themselves.

Mind you, I am not talking about physically attacking people or confronting their dependent children in any way. I am not advocating people go out and deliberately harass  Trump administration officials. What I am defending is the practice of calling out those responsible for despicable policies regardless of place. If we are going to ostracise or “name and shame” sexual offenders, local fraudsters, animal abusers and assorted other low-lifes and miscreants who are not in the public eye, why should we defer from doing so to those that are?

The best way to drive home to Trumpsters the fact that their actions have negative consequences is to make things personal understanding that timing and place need to be factored into the equation in order to be effective (e.g. yelling at people outside of church or at kid’s sporting events may be counter-productive while a quiet or polite rebuke in a parking lot may make the point better. There are plenty of ways to be direct and personal without seeming creepy or unhinged). It is not as if these agents of misery are constantly exposed to public wrath. They have enough time to enjoy the bubble and echo chamber that is their political support base in and outside of the institutions of office. They have the option to defend themselves via argument or escape, and many have bodyguards to buffer them from physical aggression. So let’s stop this nonsense about civility and lets make things real: in order to gain respect one has to give respect. In order to be treated with civility one must be civil as well. And if one disrespects entire groups of people and ruins the lives of thousands while catering to the baser instincts of the minority that are one’s political adherents, then better be prepared to hear about it in person.

Because civility is not about silence or submission. It is about consent. And when consent is lost, then civility includes the right to make personal to those who rule the reasons why.

A return to the banality of evil.

datePosted on 13:17, June 20th, 2018 by Pablo

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, she was referring not to the leaders but to the thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, civil servants, cops, tax collectors and everyday citizens who went along with the Nazi project or simply said that they were “following orders,” “doing their jobs” or being “good citizens.” The Nuremberg trails put paid to those excuses.

Today in the US we have a variant on the theme. It may not quite be holocaust in size, but the forced separation of children from undocumented parents in order to use them as pawns in Drumpf/GOP attempts to extract Democrat concessions on immigration reform (pay for the wall, etc.) is abhorrent nevertheless. And while attention rightfully is focused on Drumpf and his minions, my question is this: who are the people who are enforcing this wretched policy? These are the people who take the evil abstract of forced family separation and turn it into executable action via bureaucratic procedures and regulations (e.g. wearing of surgical gloves when handling detainees, using female agents to process women, providing water and x amount of calories via solid food at regular intervals, etc.). Who are the border patrol, local law enforcement and homeland security agents and private contractors who are doing the actual separation and detention of children in cages? Are they doing this because they agree with Drumpf, are racists themselves or are just plain psychopathic? Or are they going to tell us that they are only following orders and doing their jobs?

Until we make those carrying out this atrocity as personally responsible as Drumpf, Sessions, et.al, we will continue to see the steady undermining of the moral foundations of the Republic. Make no mistake about it: these enforcers of the morally reprehensible are neighbours, friends, family members and church goers who go about their lives as if all was normal. And that is exactly what Arendt was describing. It is the banality of such evil that eventually makes it normal.

Less NZ readers think that it cannot happen here, just hark back to the Police invasion of Nicky Hager’s privacy in search for the elusive “Rawshark” source. You may recall that I wrote a post about how the cops used Customs, Immigration and airline companies to obtain the personal data of thousands of passengers who flew on certain dates between Auckland and a foreign country where the Police suspected Rawshark was vacationing. None of this was done under warrant, but instead, just as in the case the banks that gave up Hager’s financial records so readily, they did so willingly upon request. All of those involved will defend their actions as cooperating with the Police but in fact they were under no obligation to do so without a warrant. But they did.

We now learn that a private security firm has a hand in glove relationship with NZ public agencies in spying on people who pose no threat to national security, and that in fact the private security firm may have business steered to it by a NZ intelligence agency in spite of the obvious–or at least appearance of–conflict of interest. Here as well we have a case of people just doing as they are told without consideration of the ethics or morality about what they are being told to do, some in pursuit of profit and some for reasons known only to them. They are following orders, doing their jobs, chasing leads and tip-offs without consideration of the fact that what may be legally permissible (or at least not outlawed) may not be morally or ethically proper.

These, in sum, are Kiwi examples of evil gone banal. And there are bound to be others, so perhaps the abomination that it is the Drumpf policy of separating undocumented asylum-seeking families at the southern US border should serve as a reminder to New Zealanders as to the depths to which a nation can plunge if it allows that evil banality to become the new normal.

Cherry picking on Chinese influence.

datePosted on 11:32, May 29th, 2018 by Pablo

Concern about Chinese influence operations in Western democracies has increased over the last few years, including here in NZ. The concern stems from the fact that, although not espionage or intelligence gathering per se, such operations–which involve money spent on individuals and organisations, establishment of pro-China fronts and media outlets, and placement of individuals linked to or controlled by the Chinese Communist Party in positions of corporate and political importance–corrupt Western democratic systems and undermine the political, social and economic values that underpin them.

The impact of Chinese influence operations has been the subject of considerable discussion in Australia, to the point that politicians have been forced to resign because of undisclosed ties to Chinese interests and intelligence agencies have advised against doing business with certain Chinese-backed agencies. As usual, the NZ political class and corporate media were slow to react to pointed warnings that similar activities were happening here (people may remember my essay on a Chinese fifth column from a few years ago). It was not until Canterbury University academic Anne Marie Brady published an essay last year on so-called Chinese “magic weapons” that the extent of Chinese influence in the local political and corporate worlds was revealed and became a matter of public interest.

It is significant that Brady’s work was first published in the US for a think tank focused on Chinese international affairs, and her first public exposure happened in Australia at a parliamentary committee hearing. That is because, unlike the US and Australia, NZ politicians are not particularly interested in digging into the nature and extent of Chinese influence on the party system and government policy. This, in spite of the “outing” of a former Chinese military intelligence instructor and academic as a National MP and the presence of well-heeled Chinese amongst the donor ranks of both National and Labour, the close association of operatives from both parties with Chinese interests, and the placement of well-known and influential NZers such as Don Brash and Jenny Shipley in comfortable sinecures on Chinese linked boards, trusts and companies.

As I have written before, there is enough to this pattern of behaviour to warrant scrutiny from NZ intelligence agencies and the police. But we also need to put Chinese influence operations in perspective. How are the Chinese any different than the Indians or Polynesian groups when it comes to infiltrating political parties, other than the amount of money available to them? How are these influence operations substantially different than those of other governments such as the US, which funds an array of scholarships, visitor programs, parliamentary delegation junkets and the like? How are Chinese backing of friendship and solidarity groups different than those backed by other foreign governments? How is Chinese corporate fund raising, “fact-finding” and conference travel and other ear-bending efforts any different than the lobbying of corporations, business associations, advocacy groups, etc.?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese are authoritarian, have lots of money to spend on making friends and influencing people and do so in a clearly transactional fashion, much as they do via their chequebook policy in the South Pacific. The implication is that they engage in corrupt practices when necessary and will not adhere to the strictures of democratic governance other than as lip service when it comes to pursuing their interests. Since NZ is, in essence, just another Pacific Island nation, why should this come as a surprise? In fact, the more interesting issue is why, fully knowing that the Chinese are using influence operations for purposes of State that go beyond international friendship or business ties, do so many prominent New Zealanders accept their money and/or positions on front organisations? Is the problem not so much what the Chinese do as as a rising great power trying to enlarge its sphere of influence as it is the willingness of so-called honourable Kiwis to prostitute themselves for the Chinese cause?

Last week the beat up on Chinese influence in NZ took a strange twist. At a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCESRC) hearing, an ex-CIA analyst said that the Chinese had penetrated the “political core” of the country and that in light of that the US should reconsider keeping NZ in the Five Eyes signals intelligence sharing network.

The absurdity of these remarks needs to be deconstructed, not only for what was said but for what was not said. Let it also be noted that although nominally a bipartisan agency of the US Congress, the USCESRC has increasingly become a China-bashing forum, something that has been accentuated under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who oversees Commission appointments) and President Trump. This also matters because the witnesses called to testify before USCESRC are often cherry picked for their views on matters of US-China relations.

In his case the ex-CIA analyst rightly pointed out that, in contrast to the US and Australia, the NZ political elite were blasé about the extent of Chinese influence in local politics. But he took a step too far, downplaying the record of the previous National government and criticising the new Labour government for casting a blind eye on pernicious Chinese influence within its ranks (the only mention of National was a reference to the Jian Yang case). He then jumped the shark by recommending that the US and other 5 Eyes partners reconsider NZ’s membership in the signals intelligence sharing partnership.

Let’s be very clear: for the previous nine years National was in power, the deepening of Chinese influence was abided, if not encouraged by a Key government obsessed with trade ties and filling the coffers of its agrarian export voting base. It was National that ignored the early warnings of Chinese machinations in the political system and corporate networks, and it was Chinese money that flowed most copiously to National and its candidates. It is not an exaggeration to say that Chinese interests prefer National over Labour and have and continue to reward National for its obsequiousness when it comes to promoting policies friendly to Chinese economic interests. In fact, it is National that had a Minister, in the person of Judith Collins, attempt to use her position and manipulate the NZ ambassador to China into pushing her husband’s dodgy Chinese-backed business.

All political parties protest that they strictly adhere to campaign finance law and on paper they clearly do. But the whiff of dark money, dirty politics and other forms of unacknowledged influence trading has long clung to National in a measure not shared with its opponents. Put succinctly, contrary to what the the ex CIA analyst intimated, the influence of Chinese interests has been strongest when National is in government. And it is not just the Chinese who have availed themselves of the favourable climate operative during National’s tenure.

Not that National is solely to blame when it comes to trading favours. Labour clearly has consorted with some unsavoury Chinese donors and it remains to be seen if it will be any different than National now that it is out of the wilderness and back into government. But if foreign penetration of the “political core” is such a concern, it is surprising that no serious mention has made either at home or abroad of Winston Peters’ ties to Russia via the horse industry and beyond. In fact, when one looks at Peters’s links to an assortment of industries and interests, it is not just foreigners who appear to have an inside track on his thinking. Even so, the notion of a “political core” being compromised assumes that a whole array of constituent groups, from unions to manufacturers to iwi, are in the pockets of the Chinese no matter who is in government. Perhaps they are, but if so, I have not heard about it.

Labour may have the likes of Raymond Ho in its ranks and some dubious Chinese businessmen among its supporters, but it comes nowhere close to National when it comes to sucking up to the Chinese. That is why Jian Yang is still an MP, and that is why we will never hear a peep from the Tories about the dark side of Chinese influence operations. For its part, Labour would be well-advised to see the writing on the wall now that the issue of Chinese “soft” subversion has become a focal point for Western democracies. After all, Chinese influence operations that work to subvert basic value structures do so against a backdrop of aggressive Chinese cyber attacks and intelligence gathering in the countries in which influence operations are most prominent, NZ included.

But that is also why the recommendation that NZ be excluded from 5 Eyes is ridiculous. First, because for all of the talk about counter-terrorism, the bulk of counter-intelligence efforts by NZ (through the SIS and GCSB) and its 5 Eyes partners are directed at state actors, China in particular. Even if the NZ political elite were totally compromised by the Chinese, the security bureaucracies would insulate their operations from political interference and would likely work with the Police to demonstrate when and where politicians were acting on behalf of Chinese rather than NZ interests. It is the NZ intelligence community (NZIC), more than anyone else, who know the full extent of Chinese activities in the country, and the NZ intelligence community is fully ensconced in Anglo-centric democratic intelligence networks. It is therefore not likely that the NZIC would overlook the type of Chinese influence operations that result in capture of NZ’s “political core.”

Secondly, getting thrown out of 5 Eyes is not simply a matter of being told to take one’s toys and go home. The equipment at the listening posts at Waihopai and Tangimoana and at GCSB headquarters in Wellington is acutely sensitive and there are numerous citizens of partner countries working at those installations. Dismantling and removing equipment, files, archives and other sensitive material from such facilities will be time consuming, diplomatically fraught and operationally vulnerable, especially when it is well known that the Chinese, foremost amongst others, are extremely interested in them.  Institutional history, to include linkages with 5 Eyes partners and broader security networks, would have to be purged in order to avoid it falling into adversary hands. So getting kicked out of 5 Eyes involves much more than a rebuke, and, given NZ’s taskings within the 5 Eyes network, it is precisely the Chinese who will benefit the most from the expulsion.

If the US and other 5 Eyes partners are as worried about NZ being compromised by the Chinese as the ex-CIA analyst suggests that they are, a message of concern would have been sent to the NZ government in at least three ways: via diplomatic communications from the US embassy (which undoubtably has sent reports back to the State Department about the prevalence and impact of Chinese influence operations and intelligence gathering in NZ); by a diminishing of intelligence feeds from those partners in an obvious fashion; and by direct communication between the intelligence chiefs involved. This could well have been the purpose of the visit by the US Director of Intelligence to NZ a few weeks ago and if so, the gravity of the concerns have now been made clear to the Ardern government. However, the PM as well as the Opposition leader have both said that nothing has been brought to their attention that causes them to believe that NZ’s political system has been compromised by Chinese agents.

Given my antipathy towards authoritarians, I hold no particular affection for the PRC. But I do recognise that it does so as a maturing great power and accept that its behaviour is not going to change any time soon unless action is taken to circumscribe its activities in the West–a problem for societies founded on notions of freedom of association, movement and speech (including of opinion and the press). Because these rights are seen as Achilles Heels to be exploited by authoritarian rivals such as China and Russia, it should be expected that they will continue to be used as avenues of exploitation by them (as has been well demonstrated in the US).

What I deplore the most, though, is attacks on left-leaning governments (such as they are) like the current Labour government in NZ for supposedly going soft on Chinese influence pandering when in fact it has been right-leaning governments, not only in NZ but elsewhere, that have most assiduously courted Chinese investment and better diplomatic ties in spite of the PRC’s authoritarian character and dubious record when it comes to human rights and adherence to international conventions. For the NZ media to pick up and bang this hammer when it is part of an orchestrated attack on the Chinese by the US doing so for geopolitical reasons of its own demonstrates how shallow and uncritical reporting has become in Aotearoa. The issue is serious, which is precisely why it should not be subject to partisan manipulation or, ironically, pressure from allied states.

So yes, NZ has a problem with Chinese influence operations on its soil, particularly the willingness of NZers to serve Chinese interests for a handful of coin. But no, it is not just the fault of Labour and no, it is not as bad as has been alleged by the ex-CIA analyst. Nor is what the Chinese do in terms of influence mongering that dissimilar to what many other entities do when pushing their message in the NZ political system.  So let us take better notice of the phenomenon and address it for what it is without succumbing to the apocalyptic diatribes of people whose concern about Chinese influence operations has  less to do with the particularities of NZ and more to do with the broader strategic competition that sees China on the rise and the US in decline.

BONUS LISTEN: Here is an interview done on RNZ by the ex CIA analyst in question. Readers can form their own opinions as to whether he sounds like an authoritative and credible source for the claims he has made: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018646774/ex-cia-analyst-admits-trump-irony-in-china-influence-warning

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

 

 

 

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