Archive for ‘Authoritarianism’ Category

Hearing no evil

datePosted on 22:25, January 17th, 2012 by Lew

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.

There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.

I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.

L

Talking tough on the way out.

datePosted on 13:55, January 12th, 2012 by Pablo

Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.

I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.

The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).

It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.

The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.

It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.

All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.

On Dynastic Regimes.

datePosted on 16:48, January 4th, 2012 by Pablo

The death of Kim Jung-il and the ascent of his youngest son Kim Jung-un to the Supreme Commander’s role in North Korea highlights the problems of succession in dynastic regimes, particularly those of a non-monarchical stripe. Monarchies have history and tradition to bank on when perpetuating their bloodlines in power. In authoritarian monarchical variants such as absolute monarchies and kingdoms the exercise of political authority is complete and direct, if not by Divine Right. In democratic variants such as constitutional monarchies royal power is circumscribed and symbolic. There are also hybrid systems where royal privilege and power coexist and overlap with mass-based electoral politics, making for what might be called “royalist” democracies (such as in Thailand or the sultanates in Malaysia). In all versions royals are integral members of the national elite.

There are also differences between authoritarian and democratic non-monarchical dynastic regimes, and they have to justify themselves in other ways.  Democratic political dynasties such as the Gandhi’s in India, Bhutto’s in Pakistan, Kennedy’s in the US or Papandreou’s in Greece reproduce the family lineage within the context of political parties inserted in competitive multi-party systems. Their power is exercised via party control and influence reinforced along ideological lines and buttressed by inter-marriage with economic elites. They can come to dominate national politics when in government and their access to national authority is preferential in any event, but they do not have direct control of the state bureaucracy, courts or security apparatus. In a way, dynastic political families in democratic regimes are akin to organized crime: their influence on power is mostly discrete, dispersed and diffused rather than immediate and direct.

Non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic regimes have more direct control of the state apparatus, including the judiciary and security agencies. They tend to reproduce themselves politically via mass mobilisational parties, and tend to divide into religious and secular variants. Religious variants fuse family bloodlines with clerical authority (say, in the ordained status of fathers, uncles and sons) in pursuit of theological constructions of the proper society. Secular variants mix nationalist and developmentalist rhetoric with charismatic leadership or cults of personality, often with military trappings. In both types the dynastic leadership leads the security apparatus, which is often expanded in size and scope of authority (particularly with regard to internal security). In both sub-types personal ambitions are blurred with political objectives, often to the detriment of the latter.

There can be hybrids of the non-monarchical type that are religious or secular-dominant, where a controlling dynastic family accommodates the interests of smaller dynasties (this happens in clan-based societies).

The issue of succession is problematic for all authoritarian regimes but particularly those of non-monarchical dynastic bent. The more institutionalized the authoritarian regime, the less dynastic it tends to be. Institutionalisation of the regime provides mechanisms for political reproduction beyond bloodlines. This most often happens through the offices of a political party and a strong central state bureaucracy. The more personal dynasties fuse family fortunes with institutionalized political reproduction, the better chances they have of holding on to power. Even then, relatively institutionalized non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic rule such as the Assad regime in Syria, Qaddafi regime in Libya, Hussein regime in Iraq, Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Duvalier regime in Haiti or Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic have proven susceptible to overthrow when their rule proves too pernicious for both national and international constituencies.

Monarchies can also be overthrown (such as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran), although that type of regime change was more prevalent in the 19th century than it is in the 21st. Some monarchs have seen the writing on the wall and willingly accepted a constitutional status stripped of political power, such as in Spain (after the aborted coup of 1981 known as the “Tejerazo”) and more recently in Bhutan (where the last Dragon King voluntarily relinquished absolute status as part of the 2008 Constitutional reform). Other monarchies are under pressure to liberalize, such as in Tonga or (much less so) Brunei.

Add to these scenarios the problems inherent in the universal law of genetic decline and the prospects for long-term dynastic succession have markedly decreased in modern times. Many non-monarchical authoritarian dynasties span two generations but few go further than that. The transition to the grandchildren is the big demarcation point between non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic wannabes and the real thing.

The key to non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic succession is for the family bloc to embed itself within a technocratic yet compliant non-family political, military and economic circle of influence peddlers, who together form a symbiotic relationship based on patronage networks in order to govern for mutual benefit. The more that they can justify their rule on ideological grounds or in the efficient provision of pubic goods, the more they will succeed in securing mass consent to their rule. Although the bloodline becomes increasingly dependent on the entourage, the overall effect is a stable status quo. The Singaporean PAP regime exhibits such traits, although the passage of the Lee dynasty from its founding father to its third generation is increasingly problematic. The Kim regime in North Korea is in reality a military-bureacratic regime with a dynastic core that has now moved into its third generation leadership (the next six months should tell whether Jung-un will consolidate his position). Its vulnerability is its inability to deliver basic necessities to a large portion of its people, which requires ideologically-justified repression and isolation in order to maintain mass acquiescence to its rule.

Dynastic authoritarian regimes also suffer the same divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners that are common to non-dynastic authoritarians such as the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s or the South Korean and Taiwanese regimes of the 1970s through the 1990s. These divisions on issues of policy and governance are exacerbated when played out within family circles. For example, intrigues of succession and future policy direction within the House of Saud are legendary, but the same can be said to be true about the current North Korean transition or palace politics in Morocco or Kuwait.

The bottom line is that non-monarchical dynastic successions are hard to maintain over time, and increasingly rare. The need for regime continuity is no longer as tied to family fortunes as it once was (even during the Cold War), and the pressures on family-run polities are more myriad and complex than before.  With the ongoing fall of dynastic regimes in the Middle East amid the general decline of bloodline influence on political power in most of the integrated world (“integrated world” defined as politically independent and economically inter-dependent countries), what we may be seeing in North Korea is the last of a political sub-species: the non-monarchical dynastic authoritarian regime. No matter what happens to Kim Jung-un, at least we can be thankful for that.

 

Bainimarama channels Pinochet.

datePosted on 12:57, December 13th, 2011 by Pablo

The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.

The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.

On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy.  Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.

Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).

The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with  military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.

Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.

The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).

The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.

Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”

All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.

All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.

I quote one of our friendly neighbourhood sociopaths from the gloriously-named SOLOPassion, in full:

NZ Politics: I Have a Cunning Plan – Tax Childbirth
I know! I’m suggesting a tax. Bear with me …
On TV3 Firstline this morning, after picking myself up from the floor when political reporter Patrick Gower dropped it so casually into his ‘reportage’ that the Green’s idea of Government setting up its own Kiwisaver scheme to distort the free market even further was a fabulous one, and he couldn’t understand why Labour and National hadn’t thought of it, it was then reported that pursuant to some overseas agency of or other that one in every four New Zealand children was living in poverty.
I don’t think it is then spurious to draw the logic line to the social welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell statistic that 23% of all babies born over 2010 (for the State educated, that’s almost one in four) were in ‘homes’ reliant on a hard benefit to live by the end of the first year of life.
Mmmm.
That has set me to pondering. Rather than the Save the Children lady’s solution, when she was then interviewed, of spending yet more money on welfare, and creating yet new layers of bureaucracy, and working on the theory that you can’t fix the problems of welfare by more welfare, I think a radical rethink is necessary.
Hence my proposal to fix this problem in just one generation: rather than taking from all taxpayers as we do currently, and subsidising childbirth, which I pose has led to these two related statistics, I think we should be doing the reverse – taxing childbirth.
This would force parents to assess their financial ability to have children, and only start families when they could afford to. This will mean within one generation, we will have virtually wiped out the horrendous 23% statistic, and with it, child poverty, in the one blow. Further, the childbirth tax could be put toward the State functions that those children will be using: education and health.
There will be a hue and cry, obviously: babies for the rich only, Occupiers in maternity wards, all founded on the protest that governments should not decide such important lifestyle choices as who has babies and who doesn’t. The last of which I entirely agree with, whether it be via a subsidy or a tax, for therein lies my cunning plan ;)

This is a perfect example of Poe’s Law, which states:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

It’s a perfect example because literally the only thing about it that’s vaguely implausible is that it’s a Randroid proposing a tax.

Swift’s A Modest Proposal was far enough removed from the prevailing norms of his intellectual circle to be distinguishable from them. This isn’t. It’s in the uncanny valley of political discourse.

L

PS: Check the comments, if you think you can stomach them.

Gaddafi is Gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Justice Gnomes

datePosted on 19:05, September 5th, 2011 by Lew

The New Zealand Police [and Crown Law] appear to be adopting the Underpants Gnome strategy to deal with minor breaches of public order and transgressions against the general authority of the state:

1. Brutally arrest and lay spurious charges for general idiocy or mostly harmless defiance.
2. Weather firestorm of public and civil society outrage.
3. Drop or substantially downgrade charges after months (or years) of tedious ‘review’.
4. Insist that, despite expert opinions to the contrary, their original decision to lay charges — and the excessive means by which the arrests were effected — are perfectly justified.
5. ????
6. Profit!

This pattern holds in three high-profile cases that spring easily to mind: most clearly the “Urewera Terra” raids and subsequent fiasco, about which Pablo has written previously; more recently the case of Arie Smith, documented best by Russell Brown; and the pattern has today been completed by the decision to drop charges against Tiki Taane.

There are certainly other examples, which readers can discuss in comments. An exception to the pattern has been the Crown’s treatment of the Waihopai Three, who are being vexatiously pursued for damages they can’t pay, having been found not guilty by a jury of their peers. Pablo has written about this, also. In stark contrast to the high standard of conduct expected of random individuals stands the lax attitude towards police discipline, with egregious conduct documented or alleged in two out of three of those cases, and in others.

This coming weekend (weather & workload permitting) I’ll be visiting a block of land in Taranaki that the police had also pegged as housing “terrorist training camps” back in 2007. They failed to reach even the lax evidentiary requirements to gain the proper warrants to conduct raids there, but according to contemporaneous news reports they weren’t far off, and had dedicated considerable time, effort and money towards that end. Based on what I know about these particular circumstances, they would have roused a few kaumātua at Parihaka and its surrounds; some possum trappers, and depending on the day, perhaps a hunter or two (most likely Pākehā), since the most dangerous people in there are the folks who go in of a weekend with quad bikes and boxes of ammo and bottles of spirits to blaze mobs of goats, and leave them on the flats to rot as pig bait. Policing of this sort is a fool’s errand, and after nearly four years we have no reason to believe that those cases that had accrued slightly more evidence than the one of which I’m aware will have meaningfully more merit.

Watching and listening coverage of the 1981 Springbok tour riots this past week or so I’ve been struck by how his preoccupation with symbolic insults to law and order, rather than more substantive breaches, is reminiscent of police and government conduct under Muldoon, during that era — a short, sharp, shock doctrine of fiercely punishing trivial breaches in order to send a signal to those who would commit more serious actions. I don’t have time at present to go into a deep discussion of the implications of this activism among the police, and indeed Pablo has already covered much of that ground better than I could. But the apparent detachment between police command and both the ordinary citizens of the state and the country’s expert civil society agencies would be hilarious if it wasn’t so concerning.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this trend is that it serves to undermine the credibility of and public confidence in the police, which civil society needs to function. Especially at society’s margins — including Māori, the disabled, and activists — with whom police should be especially assiduous about building relationships.

Update: And would you look at that — right on cue, the remaining trumped-up firearms charges against the Urewera 18 have been dropped, on the grounds that continuing proceedings would not be in the public interest. Indeed. So, authoritarian apologists for the police state and anti-Māori revenge fantasists, how you like THEM apples?

L

By their works ye shall know them

datePosted on 20:27, July 27th, 2011 by Lew

We are presently being treated to the rather undignified and unedifying spectacle of the political right — particularly the authoritarians and liberthoritarians — crying foul because people are drawing cautious, well-documented linkages between their own rantings and those of the Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik. We had a dry-run of this following the Tucson massacre. Russell Brown has NZ’s most thorough treatment of this argument, and Peter Cresswell has NZ’s most succinct whine about it, with links to more examples.

One such piece bears particular mention: by Merv Bendle, it was published in Quadrant, and questioned whether Breivik’s attacks were “a covert, ‘false-flag’ operation, carried out to give just this impression that it was conducted by anti-Muslim, right-wing extremists, but actually conceived and directed by other forces?” Quadrant is edited by Keith Windschuttle, whose statements at a seminar given in New Zealand in 2006 (and chaired by Matthew Hooton) were quoted by Breivik in way that Windschuttle states is “not inaccurate or misleading. I made every one of these statements and I still stand by them.” The argument is essentially that “civilisation” is under threat from “the perverse anti-Westernism of the cultural elite”. There are many, many more such cases in overseas forums and I trust readers will have no difficulty finding them.

But Pascal’s Bookie, in comments at the Dim-Post, has found the nub:

They either need to disown the claim of existential threat, or explain why an existential threat does not justify violence.

This is exactly it. The right-wing commonplace that “Western civilisation is under threat” is at the heart of all the rhetoric being compared to Breivik’s nominal casus belli, and in many cases the similarities are more than merely cosmetic. This general line of argument has been popularised in its modern form by Samuel Huntington, but is much older in its essence (and I must note that Huntington’s theory is considerably more robust than the arguments I’m talking about here.) The problem for the wingnuts presently whining about these comparisons is that their bluff has been called. They’ve been squawking about the existential threat posed by “others”, much as Breivik has, but he has gone one better and actually done something about it. And so they must pick a side: either “Muslims” (or “Māori”, “socialists”, “teacher unions” or the “cultural elite” or whoever “Western civilisation” is at war with this week) actually are the existential threat the wingnuts claim they are, or they are not. If the former case is true, by their own logic the wingnuts would not only be justified in taking up arms in defence of their civilisation, they would be practically required to do so, as Breivik did. If the existential threat is real, they must hail Breivik as a hero. If they don’t, we can assume there is no existential threat, and that they’ve merely been spouting melodramatic masturbatory fantasy this whole time.

By their works ye shall know them. If there really is an existential threat, as they claim, then surely we can expect the rallying cry “wingnuts of the world, unite!” to go up from the towers where they reside, and their legions pour forth with tacticool assault rifles, iPods full of Wagner and Muse and Mario Lanza, and neoprene bodysuits with faux unit patches on them. And if they do not, then surely by their own admission, there is no threat, and there never was.

I know which I’m picking.

L

Update: ‘Nemesis’ at Crusader Rabbit has answered the clarion call to action with …. yet more words. But they are fighting words:

Read the rest of this entry »

Competing electoral insurgencies, in Epsom and beyond

datePosted on 10:48, July 21st, 2011 by Lew

In this post I argue that ACT’s apparent willingness to undermine the MMP system that has kept them alive isn’t so much a death wish as a wish to be welcomed back into the National party as a faction, rather than a stand-alone party; to ensure influence from within rather than relying on influence without. I wrote most of this late at night and cobbled it together from several pieces I’ve had banging around a while with some more recent stuff appended, so you have my apologies if it’s a bit disjointed.

Fairfax political journalists Andrea Vance & John Hartevelt have a pretty sharp piece up, calling the ACT-National deal in Epsom a shameless power grab. I wrote about this topic a few days ago. Their analysis is pretty good, particularly the argument that National may have difficulty compartmentalising future ACT scandals away from National, having taken such direct responsibility for shielding ACT from the rigours of electoral democracy. They also make the point that I and many others have made about the dual exploitation-illustration of MMP’s flaws:

Double dealing and horse-trading are nothing new in the battle for political survival. Perversely, as we head towards a referendum, this naked and shameless power grab undermines the very system ACT relies on for survival. The ultimate irony is that Brash wants it replaced with the supplementary member system that would probably vanquish his party.

MMP, and particularly exploitation of the free-rider rule, is what has kept ACT alive since the 2005 election, when the party’s support dipped to its record low of 1.5%. Supplementary Member is the system that Brash personally supports, and although there is no official preference, this is widely regarded as being the system most preferable to most National party members and the wider ACT party also. SM, as proposed with a 90-30 electorate-list split, would indeed be worse for ACT as an independent party, requiring it to get something like 3% 2% of the party vote to gain a list seat, even if it continued to win an electorate. Leaving aside for a moment whether this is likely or not (ACT did, in its heyday, poll well), that’s a considerable disadvantage because National would no longer have such a good reason to throw ACT an electorate seat lifeline. National’s doing so is apparently only tolerated by Epsom voters on the basis of the overall positive-sum value proposition made by John Banks: “vote for me, and I’ll bring five MPs with me on current polling”. You’d be a fool to turn that offer down. Reduce the premium to one MP and it suddenly becomes rather less appealing.

So on paper ACT supporting a non-MMP system looks like a turkey voting for an early Christmas. But I think the game goes deeper than that. ACT has in recent years abandoned its claims to being a classical liberal party, and is now basically a more hardline version of National’s dry petit-authoritarian conservatism, with a few casual nods to “freedom”, such as in alcohol policy. In recent months it has been colonised by the former right of the National party (Brash and Banks, most notably; also “National in Gumboots” Federated Farmers former president Don Nicolson). Both the former were until very recently long-standing National members whose tribal loyalty undoubtedly lies with that party. They see it as having strayed from its roots, and while they undoubtedly appreciate its newfound popularity with voters, they have repeatedly expressed strong concerns that the party has lost its way, and an intention to bring it back around by putting “reinforcing steel” into its governments (in the words of John Banks). Both, I think, would join National again in a heartbeat if National would have them, and would permit them any influence. An electoral system switch to SM makes that a more viable possibility, and brazenly exploiting both the two major flaws to which most people object in MMP — the threshold free-rider rule and the “back door” rule that lets a rejected candidate such as Don Brash back in on the list — sets up a reasonably strong case against MMP.

Supplementary Member has the worst features of both FPP and MMP. It has high noise (the variance between the makeup of the electorate’s votes and the makeup of the resultant parliament), delivers huge incumbency advantages to parties that hold many electorate seats (because there are more of them), severely marginalises smaller parties by reducing proportionality, and despite all this does not meaningfully solve the symbolic split between “legitimate” electorate-based MPs and those who ‘only’ come in on the list, nor the threshold, “back door” or “horse-trading” objections that most critics name as MMP’s worst flaws. (BK Drinkwater modeled FPP, MMP and SM against each other using election data since 1996, although bear in mind that for SM, these figures assume a 70-50 electorate-list split, which is considerably more proportionate than the 90-30 proposed).

National holds many more electorate seats than Labour, and has nearly always done so, even when its popular vote has been lower because its base of support is less concentrated in inner-city and suburban electorates. Any system of reapportioning electorates on the basis of population will continue to entrench this advantage. Under MMP, it is not a very significant advantage; under FPP and SM, however, it is. ACT’s electoral support, both in electorates and nationally, is very weak, largely because their policies are purposefully divisive, with the intent of galvanising a small proportion of “right thinking” voters against the mainstream. National’s strategy since 2006 has been to occupy the centre-ground and cannibalise Labour’s votes in a zero-sum fashion. This has been a strategy of necessity — the 2005 election demonstrated pretty categorically that divisive politics, no matter how much money you could throw at it, no matter how favourable the cultural terrain, or how good the propaganda, was not a winner for National in an MMP environment. The incumbency and electorate edvantage delivered by SM, however, would cushion them against voter discontent and permit a more hardline approach: one that included ACT as a faction within the National party, as it previously was. So under SM, ACT doesn’t need National to throw it a bone, and National doesn’t need to rort the system to extract electoral advantage: National under SM will enjoy sufficient advantage to simply absorb ACT and its policy programme, and its governments will be emboldened to enact divisive or unpopular aspects of that programme without the same fear of electoral blowback that now constrains it. ACT’s strategy is therefore an insurgency against National; one that may be permitted by National, contingent upon the adoption of a more beneficial electoral system.

A further comment on Labour’s response in Epsom is also warranted. Arthur (in comments to my post linked above) suggested that the best way to nix ACT in the 2011 election is for all Labour and Green voters to cast electorate votes for the National candidate, Paul Goldsmith, in the hope that this will send a signal to National voters who are unhappy with the horse-trading between ACT and National that it might be worth defecting. This is, in principle, a strong strategy, and it has been picked up by some Green supporters as well. But I think it’s the wrong strategy in this case, for five reasons. First, it’s a complex and counterintuitive strategy, and it’s extremely hard to get so many people (on both sides) to act against their own instincts like that. Second, the value proposition made by ACT (six for the price of one) is simply too good for a meaningful number of National voters to pass up. Third, it would require Labour to publicly endorse a National candidate, which would permit John Key to proclaim that “even the opposition supports the National party”. Fourth, the electorate demographics for Epsom don’t stack up: this electorate bleeds blue and even if a fair proportion of disgruntled Nat voters defected, I don’t think there would be enough Green and Labour voters to prevail. Fifth, it would require Labour to buy into the electoral-system rorting, making them no better than the National and ACT parties.

Labour looks like it will mount an ‘economic dry’ insurgency by standing David Parker in Epsom. This is a better strategy because it is vulnerable only to the objections two and four above (the positive-sum value proposition, and demographics). These will probably still mean that it is unsuccessful in terms of winning Labour the electorate and denying ACT parliamentary representation, but it also has the advantages of fighting the national and ACT parties on their own turf — economic responsibility — and in demonstrating that even when they’re down, Labour fights fair and respects the integrity of the electoral system. Most crucially, however, whatever strategy is adopted by the left in Epsom must be coordinated. The two proposed strategies (vote Goldsmith and vote Parker) are contradictory: one must be abandoned, and soon, in favour of the other. Because if the Green faction goes into Epsom with one strategy and the Labour faction goes in with another, there’s only one winner: ACT.

L

Master-race baiting

datePosted on 22:57, July 9th, 2011 by Lew

[Updated 10 July 2011 to account for Don Brash’s statements in response to John Ansell, and Ansell’s resignation from ACT.]

Many have remarked on the appropriateness of the website of the ACT Party Parliamentary leader’s press-secretary, SOLOpassion, and many have made jokes about the sound of one hand clapping, or fapping, as it were. It is therefore entirely appropriate that ACT should become the butt of these same jokes, since they appear to have swallowed (implication most definitely intended) Lindsay Perigo’s paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies whole. His hand-work is evident in the party’s ever more deranged press releases, speeches, and most recently in this morning’s advertisement in the New Zealand Herald, titled “Fed up with pandering to Maori radicals?” and strategically timed for the end of Te Wiki O Te Reo Māori. The advertisement is worth reading; the image below is stolen from The Dim-Post. Read the comment thread over there; it’s magnificent.

There’s an awful lot wrong with this, but aside from the warlike verbiage, none of it is much different from ACT’s or Brash’s prior form, and since I’ve been over most of the arguments before I will spare you the full repetition. You can trawl through the Take Māori section of this blog if you want the detail. But just a couple of obvious things: the reasoning privileges Article III of the Treaty; that is, the article which gives the Crown a colonial payday, while neglecting Articles I and II, upon which the consideration of Article III rests. In terms of a contract, which is a way of thinking about the Treaty that ACToids might be expected to understand, Brash’s reasoning emphasises the payment for services rendered, while materially ignoring the requirement to actually render those services. (More on this theme here). Secondly, it’s more of the same selective history we’ve come to expect: our history as Pākehā matters and has value; theirs, as Māori, doesn’t — except for the bits Pākehā can turn to their advantage, like the decontextualised appeal to Ngāta.

But there is a broader point that this development illuminates. Race relations in Aotearoa has changed enormously in the past seven years. In the winter of 2004, the country was in the throes of Orewa madness. The māori party had just been formed, promising to deliver “an independent voice for Māori” in parliament. Eight years ago tomorrow Tariana Turia won her by-election, seeking to deliver on that promise. Don Brash was the leader of a resurgent National party who held a strong lead in the polls, and whose race-relations platform dominated the policy agenda. Now, Turia leads a hollowed-out party whose mandate and credibility are under severe threat from one of their own. Don Brash, having been ejected from the National leadership disgrace, now leads a party with less than one-twentieth of the electoral support he once commanded; a party he was only able to colonise after it was fatally weakened by a series of appalling political scandals, and then only by the narrowest of margins.

Under Brash National’s popularity stemmed from the fear of a brown nation that emerged from the foreshore and seabed debate and the māori party’s formation. As far as the general electorate of Aotearoa is concerned, those fears were not realised. As far as Māori are concerned, the māori party’s results have been disappointing to say the least. As far as the established political power blocs are concerned, the māori party has proven a very dependable agent their political agendas; even while disagreeing with many of their positions, both National and Labour recognise that the māori party are invested in constructive collaboration with the Pākehā mainstream, not in its destruction. I’ve long argued that the initial purpose of the māori party wasn’t to effect sweeping policy change, but to create cultural and political space for kaupapa Māori politics, and to establish the credibility of same. For all their policy failures, they have succeeded at this task in spades; perhaps they could have afforded to succeed at this task a little less. But largely as a consequence of the sky not falling after the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the emergence of the māori party as a credible political force, neither National nor Labour have any truck with ACT’s vitriol. Don Brash, his “one law for all” rhetoric, and his scaremongering are firmly on the outer.

Even further out on that slender but flexible branch is the architect of Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi campaign, probably the best campaign of its type in our recent political history and certainly one of the most memorable: John Ansell. Ansell’s rhetoric had become distasteful enough by the time of the last election that even the ACT party — then under the leadership of Rodney Hide — refused to use much of his best work. Thereafter he was picked up by the Coastal Coalition. A less credible gang of fringe loonies it’s hard to imagine; one of its principals, Muriel Newman (who, shamefully, was invited by Radio New Zealand to speak as an authoritative expert on the WAI262 Treaty claim) believes that pre-Tasman Aotearoa was settled not only by Polynesians but by “people of Celtic and Chinese ancestry as well as Greek, French, Portuguese, Spanish and others“. Ansell’s own views on race are similarly bizarre; Māori, he reckons, are “not a race, but a religion“.

Ansell is now reduced to ranting in Kiwiblog comments, and is as critical of ACT as he is of everyone else. Even there, though, his views hardly find great favour, with more people objecting that his campaign is distracting from the “real issues” than supporting him. His contribution to the thread about the Brash advertisement — it’s not clear whether he was involved in the ad’s production or not — is a magisterial display of racist, misogynist essentialism, and I think it really gets to the heart of the paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies to which I referred earlier. I quote his initial comment in full:

The problem with New Zealand is it’s full of white cowards who are too frightened of being called names to stand up for the truth.

(And that’s just the ACT Party.)

And the truth (if we are honest enough to admit it) is: for the last quarter-century, our country has been brownwashed by a bunch of scammers (aided and abetted by legions of white ‘useful idiots’) into feeling guilty for the supposed sins of our British great-great-grandparents.

A sober reading of the facts reveals that some of these sins were actual (though far less sinful than the crimes perpetrated by Maori on Maori). Many others were highly exaggerated and delivered with lashings of emotional blackmail, for the purposes of extorting compensation.

But of course we are New Zealanders and we are not allowed to tell our truth (as Alasdair Thompson recently found out to his cost).

We are not allowed to speak out about state suffocation, Maorification, feminazism, National socialism, teacher unionism or any of the other evils that are dragging our country into the third world.

Those who do have the guts to tell the truth are called nasty names like racists in the hope that, like snails, one light contact with politically-correct criticism will be enough to make them shrink back into their shells.

And of course it works a treat.

There are plenty of parties for pessimists, backward-looking Maori and white bedwetters. But there’s only one for optimists, achievement-oriented people and forward-looking Maori.

ACT will not succeed until it champions the latter and tells the dishonest others to go to Hell.

In short, their catchment is men and women who think like men. Not men and women who think like women. ACT is the party of the strong father, not the soft mother.

(By strong father I include strong women like Rand, Richardson and Thatcher, and by soft mother I include weak men like Key.)

I hope you people will think about that.

[Update: A NZ Herald article titled Act ad man blasts ‘apartheid’ contains more such statements from John Ansell, who is ACT’s creative director; and in it Don Brash distances himself from them, saying “I don’t want to associate myself with those kind of views at all”. He may not want to, but he is. His own press release issued in conjunction with the advertisement above calls any form of “preferential treatment” — such as concessions granted under Article II of the Treaty, which ACT apparently does not recognise — “a form of apartheid”. Perigo is fond of the term, and also of referring to Māori, Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t quack like an Aryan duck as “savages”. Moreover the prospective MP for Epsom, John Banks — who represents the kinder, gentler face of the ACT party — also has form on this issue, having previously referred to Māori TV as “Apartheid Television”, and holding views generally very comparable with those of Ansell and, in some cases, with Perigo. So Brash’s will to not be associated with such views really raises a question: will he, in order to dissociate ACT from these views, fire his creative director, the press secretary for his Parliamentary leader, and the only MP likely to win an electorate? I rather doubt it, but I believe Aotearoa deserves answers.]

[Update 2: Ansell is gone. One down; how many to go?]

As Russell Brown said, Ansell’s comment is “essentially an incitement to race war“, and I don’t believe Ansell himself would deny that. But it’s more than that; it’s also an incitement to sex war. It’s easy enough to dismiss as the usual sort of dark mutterings, but hang on a minute: this fool is claiming to speak for me, and if you’re a man (or a woman who thinks like a man, whatever that is), he’s claiming to speak for you too. But he doesn’t speak for me. To head off the inevitable speculation, I’m hardly what you’d call a feminised liberal pantywaist; I have a beard, I hunt, I fish, I provide for a family; I like whisky and brew my own beer; I like rugby and rock’n’roll and Rachmaninov, and breaking things to see how they work; I’ve spent years studying martial arts and I’m trained to do or have done most of the things on Heinlein’s list. I wear a Swanndri to work in an office on Victoria Street, for crying out loud.

But in my world, masculinity isn’t measured by warrior prowess or the vulgar ability to force one’s will upon others, whether by physical, social or legislative means. Those things, as anyone who’s studied totalitarianism will tell you, only garner a mean and hollow sort of respect; the sort which dissipates as soon as the heel is lifted from the throat of the oppressed. No, in my world, masculinity is judged by honest work, truth and wise counsel, respect and tolerance, forbearance and understanding, accommodation and partnership; from love and support, and strength of a kind which intersects with but is not eclipsed by that to which Ansell appeals. As I have argued before, that sort of view — the dictator’s view that power comes from the barrel of a gun, that only the whims of the mighty matter — is a bare and miserly sort of humanity. And if that’s how Aotearoa actually is, then I say: come the feminised, Māorified revolution, because we desperately need it.

Of course, it’s not. Ansell no more represents Aotearoa’s men than Muriel Newman does its women, Lindsay Perigo its homosexuals or Don Brash does Pākehā. Their methods have become unsound. As Conor Roberts put it, “if you gaze for long into the sub-5 percent abyss, the sub-5 percent abyss gazes also into you.” Let’s see how long they can keep gazing.

L

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