Archive for ‘comparative politics’ Category
Browse:
comparative politics »
Subcategories:

For US civil-military relations, a slippery slope.

datePosted on 14:05, June 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

For a good part of my adult life I have studied civil-military relations. I have studied authoritarian and democratic variants, and I have studied them across countries and regions. I have also worked in and with several US security agencies and have lectured on the theme at a number of military institutions in the US and abroad. It is with that background that I say this:

Trump’s deputising of the military for domestic law enforcement is a slippery slope in US civil-military relations. It is partisan manipulation that risks creating serious institutional rifts within the armed forces as well as between the military and society. The president certainly has the legal authority to do so but he also has the constitutional obligation to do so only as a last recourse when the country is under existential threat. Previous instances of deploying the US military in domestic law enforcement roles may or may not have been in the spirit of the constitution, and the precedent is mixed. Sending the national guard to defend civil rights in the face of state opposition is one thing; sending in them to stop looting and rioting is another. What is happening today is similar but different, and worse.

Using federal troops to disrupt peaceful demonstrations is a violation of the constitutional spirit. Using federal troops employing tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to do so is an abuse of authority. Doing all of that in order to stage a presidential photo opportunity featuring Him flashing a bible outside a damaged church–as the head of what is supposed to be secular democracy–is beyond the constitutional pale.

That is the terrain of personalist, party and bureaucratic authoritarians that use the military as a praetorian guard. In the US the military swears an oath to the constitution, not the president, even if he is the nominal commander-in-chief. It swears to defend the US nation against all enemies “foreign and domestic,’ but not in a selective or partisan way. The military is subordinate to civilian political control but in exchange receives considerable institutional autonomy with regard to operational decision-making. It therefore could and should refuse to deploy force as part of a clearly unnecessary politically charged event and in pursuit of ends that are not commonweal in orientation. 

States can already call up their respective National Guards. As a federal district, the District of Colombia covers patches of federal land interspersed with city and private property. Guardsman from DC can certainly be called up by the president for law enforcement duties. Trump has ordered the mobilisation of these troops but also active duty and ready reserve military police units outside of the DC National Guard. That includes combat units such as the 10th Mountain Division, 1st Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne Division’s Immediate Response Force. From early in the fray, military intelligence has been providing counter-protest contingency planning information to at least seven National Guard units.

Note that my immediate concern is not about a descent into civil war or the military having to choose sides in such an event. That is something for another day. Here my focus is on the concept and practice of US civil-military relations as an institutional foundation of the nation. If left unchecked or encouraged, Trump’s actions will tear at the institutional and ideological fabric of the armed forces and thereby undermine the implicit contract that lies at the heart of civil-military relations in the US.

That Secretary Esper and JCS Chairman Milley participated in the photo op charade and a subsequent walk-around with the DC Guard, thereby symbolically legitimising its partisan use, demands that they step down. So too should the unit commanders who refused to question the orders coming out of the White House or chain of command, especially those authorising the use of helicopters as crowd control platforms and blunt force against unarmed civilians exercising their First Amendment right. It is one thing for political appointees in civilian departments to bow to the preferences of the president. It is quite another when top military officials do so.

That is why the military risks institutional fracture if it continues to obey Trump’s orders about its deployment in the current context. The rifts could be between “constitutionalists” and “pragmatists” or “partisans.” It could cleave across service branches and/or between officer and enlisted ranks (known as horizontal and vertical cleavages). Ideological cohesion and corporate autonomy could be lost. All of this because there remains a strong virtuous streak in the military that rejects its politicisation for domestic partisan purposes, and yet it coexists with a hyper-partisan leadership and pro-Trump sentiment in the ranks. The constitutionalists need to prevail in any inter-service dispute about their collective future.

To reinforce this message, the time has come for the armed forces command and Congress to prevent an expansion of the US military role in domestic crowd control roles. The institutional integrity at the core of democratic governance depends on it.

In the US, an organic crisis?

datePosted on 15:48, June 1st, 2020 by Pablo

The US appears to be headed towards what Antonio Gramsci and other Italian political theorists call an “organic crisis of the State.” It involves the simultaneous and compounded fractures of economy, society and politics, which together constitute a tipping point in a nation’s history. Social contradictions are exacerbated, class and identity divisions are exposed and governments prove incapable or incompetent in offering peaceful relief or resolution to what is a very “delicate and dangerous” situation.

The moment of crisis is brought on by a catalyst or precipitant that cannot be resolved by “ordinary” institutional means. The turn then is towards “extraordinary” means, which often involve, under the guise of re-establishing “law and order,” the imposition of authoritarian controls on the body politic in order to “cleanse” the nation-State of the “impurities” that elites–often led by so-called “charismatic men of destiny” who are most often self-serving if not malign in intent–see as the root source of the national malaise. The classic examples of this phenomenon come from interwar Europe but there are plenty of others, including the military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes of Central America and the Southern Cone of the 1960s-1980s.

This is the danger. Although the sources of American discontent are many and lie deep, the Trump administration and its Republican allies seek only to address the immediate “problem” of public unrest while working to reinforce their partisan interests. Already, the language used by the Trump administration with regards to political opponents, immigrants and others seen as obstacles echoes the language used by authoritarians of the past, something that is now accompanied by open calls for increased repression of protesters. The administration and its media acolytes have shifted their attention from the police murder of an unarmed black man to blaming “radical leftists” for the looting and vandalism that has swept the nation in response. Media coverage feeds into that narrative, as its focus fixates on scenes of destruction and violence. Less attention is paid to the underlying causes of mass collective violence in the US and the history of unsuccessful peaceful resistance that gave way to it, or to the fact that looting and attacks on symbols of authority and power is a major venting mechanism for oppressed populations the world over. The media coverage is on the symptoms, not the cause, and the government response is an example of the problem, not the solution.

The government response was predictable but has been worsened by Trump. He blames movements like Antifa and threatens to unleash “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on demonstrators, not too subtlety evoking images of police violence against peaceful protestors in the US South in the 1960s. He says that “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” echoing the words of a Southern police chief from that era. He speaks of “thugs,” infiltrators, agitators and even “Radical Democrats” opportunistically exploiting the moment for selfish gain.

Media pundits have likened the current moment to the situation in 1967-68, when a wave of race riots swept the country in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy amidst the ongoing protests against the Vietnam War and the cultural wars between hippies and hardhats. However, this situation is worse. In 1968 the economy was robust and the political establishment, for all of its old pale male characteristics, was stable and united on ideological fundamentals. The crisis of the day was social, not existential or organic.

Today the US is a bitterly divided country in decline with a dysfunctional political system, an economy in recession and a society swept by social, ideological, racial and class divisions–all blanketed in a pandemic and backdropped by a slow moving climate disaster.

There are other points of difference. Technological advances have widened the coverage of as well as the communication between protests, thereby amplifying their impact and the linkage between them. Rather than radical leftists (such as those who challenged the status quo in the 1960s and 1970s), now well-organised rightwing extremists have infiltrated the protests in pursuit of what is known as “acceleration theory,” whereby acts of violence in the context of otherwise peaceful protest are used as accelerants that bring social contradictions to a head and quicken the path towards open race war. Along with so-called “replacement theory,” where it is claimed that unless it stands and fights now, the white race will be replaced by non-white races in the near future due to demographic trends, acceleration theory was the ideological underpinning of the Christchurch terrorist and many other perpetrators of mass murder in recent years. It is what lay at the heart of the neo-Nazi March on Charlottesville and it is not only deeply rooted in the the US but is, however obliquely, encouraged from the highest levels of the Trump administration (see: Stephen Miller).

Where there are parallels with 1968 is in the mobilisation of the National Guard in several states, the imposition of curfews in cities and states, and the declaration of states of emergency in many areas. Trump has ordered mobilisation of active duty military police units as reinforcements for local police and Guard units. Yet even here the situation is now more acute. After years of militarisation, local law enforcement agencies deploy sworn officers in storm trooper outfits and wielding military-grade weapons along with an assortment of “non-lethal” crowd control instruments. Many police are veterans of recent wars given special admission to law enforcement, and many of the equipment they use is surplus inventory from those wars. Not all of these officers have eliminated the combat ethos from their personal ideas about law enforcement. In any event, the approach of US repressive apparatuses as a whole addresses the immediate expressions of community rage but does nothing, and in fact often is counter-productive to, resolve the underlying problems in US society.

There is another source of concern beyond the fact that the Trump administration’s response is an example of the political dimension of the organic crisis. Increasingly under siege because of his incompetence and imbecility, Trump’s behaviour is getting more reckless and unpredictable. There is growing apprehension that he may do something drastic (read: stupid) to divert attention away from his domestic failures. This could be starting a war with Iran, increasing the tensions with China, provoking a cross-border dispute with Mexico or pursuing a number of other foreign misadventures. It could also include postponing national elections under the rise of a national emergency declaration, with the argument being that the combination of public health and public order threats require extraordinary counter-measures, including a delay in voting. Regrettably, it is within Trump’s powers to do so.

All of this must be seen against the backdrop of an international system in transition, where ascendant and descendent powers jockey for position in the move from a unipolar to a multipolar world. It is possible that what we are seeing in the US today is the domestic manifestation of its decline, a former superpower now cracking under the stresses of attempting to hang on to lost empire while at the same time seeing long-simmering (yet obvious) internal contradictions come to the surface. Adversarial powers see this evolution and will no doubt attempt to take advantage of it, to include exploiting US internal divisions via disinformation campaigns as well as presenting direct challenges in areas of contestation abroad. That may well accentuate the erratic actions of an unhinged president enabled by a coterie of grifters and opportunists and unburdened by a political opposition or national bureaucracy that can or is willing to intervene in defence of the nation (if nothing else, by ignoring his orders).

Whatever happens over the next few months, the stage is set for an ugly outcome.

While we were locked down…

datePosted on 12:25, May 29th, 2020 by Pablo

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

Media Link: Standing Places interview.

datePosted on 10:20, April 22nd, 2020 by Pablo

I did an interview with former student Ivor Wells for his Standing Places podcast out of London. The chat is a bit of rambling meander across several topics, with pauses and background interruptions, but we manage to cover a fair bit of detail, starting with the issue of self-isolating during the pandemic. Think of it as two old friends having a yarn about life in these times.

A tipping point for the dotard?

datePosted on 12:04, March 16th, 2020 by Pablo

I guess that we should see the silver lining in the CV-19 pandemic. It has finally done what no political opponent could do. It has fundamentally undermined Trump’s credibility and that of the science-denying elements within the GOP and rightwing media. The important aspect of this is that the loss of credibility is evident in a private sector that otherwise was willing to cast a blind eye on the Trump/GOP corruption and buffoonery so long as the latter advanced business interests via deregulation, tax cuts etc.

Now that Trump’s incompetence has been fully exposed, as has that of his immediate advisors and sycophants in and around the White House, private businesses, state and local governments are taking action in defiance of his original bluster and denials. Led by their owners, elected officials and high level managers, entire sports have cancelled or postponed seasons, universities and school districts have closed, cities and states have ordered mandatory quarantines and numerous mass events have been abandoned. Even the military has acted against his original commands, instead opting to listen to military doctors and other experts about the effects of CV-19 on troop concentrations (such as cancelling military exercises and forbidding all domestic travel for service personnel). This, in response to what Trump initially called a politically inspired hoax and to which the GOP/media science deniers decried as the product of partisan hysteria and media manipulation. The fact that private businesses have led the defiant response is especially telling. No lefties among them.

The ineptitude and incompetence of the Trump administration is not only shown in its delayed response and original denials and deflections. The order to institute a ban on all travellers from Europe–done by the same people who crafted the Muslim ban attempted shortly after Trump was inaugurated–was done without forewarning to airlines, airport authorities and local law enforcement, much less the traveling public, American as well as foreign. No contingency plan was crafted, much less enacted, leaving federal border control agencies such as Customs, Immigration, Border Patrol and TSA short-staffed and undermanned in the face of a surge of last minute mass arrivals before the ban commencement date. Additional CV-19 health screenings deployed at the same time has resulted in chaos at airports of entry, with thousands of passengers stuck for hours in baggage returns and lined outside passport control stations (again, manned by federal employees). The result has been a clusterf**k of epic proportions.

Although he has been tested and cleared after being exposed to the virus, Trump may still fall ill because the test only measures one’s status on the test date. If that happens, he becomes a candidate for Article 25 removal from office since he is physically unable to perform the functions of president (which was the original intent of the framers. I shall leave aside jokes about his mental competence but let’s just say that his addled blathering about the pandemic does not inspire confidence). I have a feeling that if he gets sick, those in the GOP who secretly loathe him will have their knives out, because his gross negligence and inaction in handling the response will have election consequences for the party as a whole later this year. Seriously, if the predicted thousands of deaths and job losses and billions in productivity losses resultant from the botched initial response and the chaotic catch-ups since then actually happen, given the now open news that the Trump administration eliminated key public health agencies and replaced public servant scientists with lackeys, then the makings of an election disaster are looming large over the GOP’s political future.

Until now, the GOP’s 2020 election strategy was to ride Trump’s coattails as hard as possible. In the wake of CV-19 that seems politically suicidal. And if GOP politicians start to distance themselves from Trump in their campaigns, the possibility of intra-GOP fratricide becomes more likely. In fact, it is likely that factions are sharpening their knives as I write, with the pro-Trump crowd developing plans to delay the elections or smear anti-Trump politicians as traitorous during a national emergency. For their part, the anti-Trump faction will attempt to convince the public that they did all that they could to prevent him from doing more harm to the Union. That will be a tough sell, but so to will be any argument in support of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

The real trouble for the GOP starts if the pandemic lasts in the US for months, well into the post-convention campaign season (which starts in July). If the death and sick toll mounts to anything close to what is being predicted and job losses increase while businesses shut down, then perhaps even hardened MAGA morons will re-consider their support for the imbecile-in-chief. Even if they do not, undecided and independent voters could well draw the conclusion that enough is enough while the previously apathetic who did not vote in 2016 may finally realise that their votes do in fact count when it comes to national leadership selection. None of this bodes well for the GOP in November.

Perhaps there is a goddess after all. Her name is Mother Nature, and in this instance all she had to do is to let human folly advance her work. That may wind up being a painful but necessary political blessing for the US regardless of who wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

Don’t fear the Bern.

datePosted on 14:02, March 8th, 2020 by Pablo

With Super Tuesday primaries concluded, it is looking like the Democratic presidential nomination will be a two horse contest much like it was in 2016, with Joe Biden replacing Hillary Clinton as the centrist pick backed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Bernie Sanders once again carries the underdog aspirations of the progressive wing of the party. This year Sanders represents a more significant threat to the centrists than he did in 2016, and they have worked very hard to disparage him as “unelectable” and “”too radical” for the American voting public. I believe that this may be a wrong assumption to make.

Let’s address the issue of Sander’s socialism first. He professes to be democratic socialist, running as such under the banner of “Independent” throughout his political career until registering for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. But his “socialism” does not include socialising the means of production or doing anything other than using tax policy to redistribute wealth downwards, reforming health and education so that they become affordable to lower and middle income earners, promoting public works projects, re-establishing the role of the State as a macro-manager in economic areas prone to excess or abuse and diminishing support for fossil fuel production and defence spending.

Everything else on his policy agenda, while different than those of his opponents (say, when it comes to the US relationship with Israel and Palestine), may be alternative but are not socialist per se. In fact, all of his policy prescriptions are more akin to those of European social democracy than to democratic socialism (where the decisions about socialising the economy are done via democratic processes) because capitalism as a socio-economic construct is not challenged or replaced. It is just humanised and re-oriented towards the welfare of the majority, not of the elite minority. Sanders himself has pointed out that the stress is on the “democratic” in his democratic socialism, so it does not appear that he is doctrinaire when it comes to policy outcomes.

To this intrinsic aspect of his political philosophy can be added the extrinsic constraints on what he can do. The structural power of capital in the US is not going to be seriously challenged, much less undermined by a Sanders presidency. The US economy and its social relations of production are deeply rooted in notions of private property, self-initiative, “free” enterprise and a host of other market-focused orientations that transcend the business world. The US remains a huge economic engine that, even if it has lapsed into cowboy, crony and parasitic capitalism in places (such as the financial and health industries) and is very dependent on the State for its competitive edge (say, in awarding of defence- and other technology-related contracts), is largely impervious to whole-scale reform or collapse.

Along with an economy that is “too big to fail,” it is best to think of the relationship between US capitalism and the presidency as that of a monkey driving a machine–it is not so much the monkey that matters but the ongoing movement of the machine. In that light, Sanders can play the role of the monkey, acting as a corrective that tries to reign in the baser urges of the cowboys, cronies and parasites now dominating the US economic engine without impeding the forward momentum of the entire combine.

Added to the sheer structural inertia that must be overcome in order to reconstitute US capitalism is the political influence that it wields. Corporate influence permeates all levels of the US political system. Its influence is corrupting and often corrosive in places, and it extended deep into the Democratic Party–particularly the Party’s centrist, corporate-friendly faction. As Poulantzas wrote, the capitalist elite is not homogeneous and is divided into ascendent and descendent class fractions. The GOP defends the interests of the descendent class fractions that represent fossils fuels, auto manufacturers, agricultural interests, the military-industrial complex and traditional financial sectors. Democrats represent high tech, telecommunications, renewable energy, new financial sectors and other nascent and ascendent industries. The Democrats also represent, however diminished in presence when compared to the 1960s and 70s, the organised labour movement in traditional manufacturing industries as well as the public sector.

The capitalist class divisions in the US are not razor sharp and there is some overlapping in their political representation (for example, pharmaceuticals and insurance), particularly when the lobbying interests incorporate cultural idioms (such as the case with the gun lobby). Needless to say, there a host of other non-economic interests represented in the political system, although identity and value-based groups tend to aggregate in polar fashion (say, among ethnic, LBGTQ and religious communities). The main point is the centrist Democrats are corporate Democrats, not progressives, and for all of the talk of the “Gang of Four” leftist female representatives, the majority of Democrats in Congress are underwritten by and represent the corporate interests of the capitalist class fractions that they are associated with.

A Sanders presidency will therefore confront not only a hostile Republican opposition in Congress and in states dominated by Republicans. It will also have to contend with the very centrists that tried to impede his nomination in the first place. These corporate/centrist democrats will demand concessions and challenge anything that see as too radical to pass as law. That means that a Sanders policy agenda is likely to be watered down if it is to be implemented, which means that the final product will be anything but radical. The end result will be an incremental approach to policy reform, not revolution.

Sanders has already reframed the narrative on universal health to the point that some variation of single-user pay is likely to meet with congressional majority approval (assuming that the Democrats hold the house in 2020). He would be smart if he allowed for private health insurance schemes to co-exist with the public option (as in many other liberal democracies), since that will allow those with disposable incomes to afford things such as elective or cosmetic care outside of the public health system. The larger point is that he has offered some alternatives and initiatives that could well find support in Congress, especially if his election victory over Trump is significant. The greater the margin of his victory, the more a mandate he has within the Democratic Party as well as amongst the national electorate, and a large win will also help diminish GOP resistance to post-Trump corrections because in defeat Trump will have few political friends.

All of which is to say that although Sanders has many constraints on what he can do once in office, he potentially will have enough political clout and flexibility to pass legislation and enact significant reforms even if they cannot be described as “radical” or “revolutionary.”

It is true that Trump and the GOP dirty tricksters relish the opportunity to run against Sanders, who they see as easily beatable in a general election. The Republican smear machine is primed to go all out with its Cold War style fear-mongering. For them, Biden is a harder opponent to defeat because he cannot be painted into an ideological corner and tarred by spurious associations with the demons of the bi-polar world past.

But just like the centrist Democrats, the GOP may be wrong in its appraisal. Many younger voters are not frightened by the epithet “Socialist!” and have no memory of the Cold War. Bernie’s cantankerous independence from machine politics is seen as a positive. It is therefore possible that they will turn out in numbers that otherwise will not be seen in support of a Biden candidacy. The defensive “anyone but Trump” vote might be enhanced rather than diminished by Sanders. After all, Bernie represents a true break with the Swamp, whereas Biden is its product and Trump is basking in it while trying to monetarily benefit from the immersion. So it could well be that dismissals of The Bern are premature because his strengths as an honest alternative within the Democratic Party outweigh his weaknesses as an outsider in a system that is rigged in favour of insiders (for example, via the use of Superdelegates as tie-breakers in the Democratic National Convention).

What is clear is that the DNC fear a Sanders nomination not so much because they think that he will lose to Trump but because he represents a threat to THEIR interests. Even if diluted, his policy reforms will target them as a first order of business, as a way of clearing the path for substantive reforms in the policy areas in which they are vested.

Hence the disparaging of Sanders and downplaying of his chances at a general election victory. The proof of whether the anti-Sanders campaign has worked will come in the next two weeks when a cluster of primaries are held, including in Florida where I, just as a did in 2016, voted (via absentee mail ballot) for the Bern. If nothing else, just like then, my rationale is that even if Sanders does not win the nomination, if he gets a substantial amount of delegates he will have influence on Biden’s policy platform. Biden needs Sanders’ supporters to back him–and many “Bernie Bros” have said that they would rather sit on the couch or vote for Trump than see another corporate Democrat dash their progressive aspirations–so my thinking is that if the convention vote is close or at least not a Biden landslide, then the centrists will have to negotiate with Sanders over the campaign platform in order to get him to endorse Biden and encourage his followers to join the “anyone but Trump” camp.

Given the obstacles in front of him, Sanders may not be able to implement the progressive agenda that he campaigns on and which his supporters yearn for. But when compared with Biden, he certainly is not more of the same. Building on the momentum of the 2018 mid-term elections, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.

Parsing the Democratic Primaries.

datePosted on 15:37, February 22nd, 2020 by Pablo

I am about to mail my overseas ballot to Florida so that it can be counted in the Democratic primary on March 17. In Florida you have closed as opposed to open primaries, which means that one must declare a party preference in order to vote in a party primary. Unlike open primaries, independents are excluded from primary voting in Florida (although they are allowed to vote in the general election in November). The restriction on primary voters impedes voting on local candidates and ballot initiatives, referenda and local ordinance amendments that are not included on the general ballot.

Because of this I registered as a Democrat in the early 2000s. I primary voted for Kerry in 2004, Clinton in 2008, Obama in 2012 and Sanders in 2016. My vote was based on rationales that included anyone against Bush 43 in 2004, a female over a dark-hued male in 2008 (because I thought that changing the gender of the presidency was more significant than the color of the guy in it), support for a good president under difficult circumstances in 2012 and support for a democratic socialist in 2016 (in order to pull the Democratic Party platform to the left when running against an unhinged maniac because the writing was on the wall by March that Trump was going to win the GOP nomination and my thought was that even if Bernie lost to Clinton it would force her to adopt some of his policy initiatives because she needed his supporters to vote for her). My selections lost the general in 2004, lost the primary in 2008, won general re-election in 2012 and lost the primary in 2016. Because the ballot is printed well in advance, I have a choice of sixteen candidates, most of whom dropped out of the race a while ago.

This year the Democratic primary campaign has two axis points. The first is generational, as elderly candidates (defined as those over 60) vie against younger ones. Biden, Sanders, Warren, Steyer and now Bloomberg are staffing the geriatric front, while Klobuchar and Buttigieg are what is left of the young guns. Of the oldies, none other than Sanders appears to have medical issues of consequence and all appear to attract support without regard to age. So agism will not be a factor in the election, especially given that Trump is in that age bracket as well.

The second axis is ideological. Warren and Sanders represent the “progressive” side of the Democratic coin, whereas Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer represent the pragmatic side.

Within these camps there are divisions as well. Sanders has long described himself as a democratic socialist and for many years campaigned and won elections as an independent, only joining the Democratic Party in 2016 (and again in 2019) in order to run for president (he continues to serve and run for re-election as the junior Senator from Vermont as an Independent and campaigns as a democratic socialist in that state). Warren is a social democrat, not opposed to capitalism per se but interested in humanising it. Like Sanders she is a junior Senator from a liberal Northeastern state (Massachusetts, where she replaced the temporary excuse for a Senator now serving as Trump’s ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown). Both have been effective legislators, although Warren is seen as a bit more ideological than Sanders within the confines of the Senate Democratic caucus and Sanders, despite his somewhat crusty personality, being more amendable to intra-party compromise.

Both of these candidates are challenging the Democratic establishment. They repudiate the corporate orientation of the Democratic National Committee and the “centrist” policies of the likes of the Clintons. Not withstanding support from the “Squad,” they are not particularly well-liked by their congressional peers or the party establishment but have mobilised strong grassroots support. Warren has a (now distanced) corporate background and has agreed to some SuperPAC (third party unlimited bundled) funding. Sanders has not and continues with his grassroots, small donor approach to campaign financing.

On the pragmatic side, there are two billionaires, Bloomberg and Steyer. They appeal to voters based on their business success and the fact that they are not conmen like Trump. Bloomberg is a former three term mayor of New York City, where his crime fighting policies have come under fire for being racist and discriminatory (the so-called “stop and frisk” policy targeting African and Latino young males). He also has been the subject of numerous sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits. Steyer has no political experience to speak of but also does not have the baggage associated with it.

I will not vote for either billionaire on principle given that the Democratic Party is supposed to be the party that defends workers within the US political system. As for the pragmatic non-businessmen, Biden is the quintecent Washington insider, an integral member of the corporate/centrist faction with the party. He has vast experience in many important roles, including that of Vice President under Obama. But his experience has been checkered and now hangs like an albatross across his neck when it comes to electoral appeal. While it is true that he is certainly a better alternative than Trump, he also seems to be losing a bit of his mental edge. It is one thing to be a deranged lunatic throwing insane red meat rants and tweets to his base while feathering the nest for his family, cronies and friends from the Oval Office (Trump). It is another to be seen as doddering when trying to convey maturity and seriousness of purpose. So Biden is not the guy for me.

Buttigieg and Konuchar are interesting. She is a former prosecutor turned Senator from a conservative north Midwestern state (Minnesota, where only the snow is whiter than the population). She is seen as bringing that good old midwestern practicality to her politics, and she works hard to be seen as the voice of reason given the limits of US political discourse. Buttigieg just ended his eight year term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the city where he was born and where he was widely popular except for in the African-American community (since he removed a popular African American police chief and condoned hard police tactics against minority suspects). The novelty of his candidacy resides in the fact that he is young (38), gay, and served as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2014. His positions largely mirror those of Klobuchar, and like her he campaigns on his centrism, common sense and a dedication to public service. The two of them project themselves as non-traditional but reasonable alternatives to the Orange Weasel as well as the leftists in their party. They tick a number of constituency boxes that are important for Democratic voters, so their appeal has the potential to transcend their policy proposals.

Conventional wisdom is that “socialists” cannot win US general elections. The DNC and mainstream corporate media are working hard to undermine the Sanders and Warren candidacies as “unelectable.” The pragmatists are trying to capitalise on this perception, warning that to nominate a leftists is to guarantee victory to Trump.

At one time apparently afraid of the threat posed by Biden, Trump now appears to believe the truth in the “no socialist” line, yet cleverly harps on how Sanders is getting a raw deal from the DNC and media. Remember that part of the reason Biden has fallen in the polls is that Trump’s smears against him and his son relating to the Ukraine, which resulted in Trump’s impeachment, have in some measure stuck. Now, with Biden trending down, Trump sees his easiest path to victory being a one on one with Sanders, contrasting his national populist bombast with the Senator’s critiques of the system as given.

We even have the Russians apparently wading into the mix, supporting both Trump and Sanders in their 2020 disinformation and hacking campaigns. This is apparently due to the fact that a) they were very successful in 2016 when implementing this “undermine from within” strategy in favour of Trump; and b) both Trump and Sanders are correctly seen as “disruptor” candidates, so no matter who wins so does the Russian subterfuge. Trump, of course, denies any Russian meddling and forced the resignation of intelligence officials who made the claims to Congress. Sanders has repudiated any and all Russian interference no matter who is favoured. Regardless, Russia has inserted itself into the election narrative in, yet again, a central way. Somewhere Stalin is smiling.

That is the background to my primary vote. My choice remains difficult. I am leaning towards a progressive, so it will have to be Warren or Sanders, again, so as to not only get one of them into office but to re-frame the parameters of the Democratic policy platform. But I have major problems with both. Sanders comes off, in my eyes, as a stooped over cranky guy with medical issues who is the political equivalent of the old man yelling “get off of my lawn.” He may be right on his policy prescriptions but he is somewhat off-putting, and his refusal to come clean on his recent heart attack and underlying condition may be exploited by Trump in the event that he wins the nomination.

Likewise, Warren reminds me of someone’s grandmother preaching a holier than thou gospel while glossing over some of the contradictions in her past. Trump has already given her a racist nickname and he and his operatives will go to town on her if she has any dirt in her past. Even so, her dismantling of Bloomberg in the Nevada debates was excellent and showed that she has the acuity and spine to go after powerful adversaries. She may have a chip on her shoulder for a variety of reasons, but if she can use that as a motivational force I say good on her.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg are more personally appealing and both seem likeable as well as articulate and competent. Trump is going to have a hard time attacking them on personal grounds unless there is something sordid in their past. Professionally, in spite of some rumblings about both of their records in public office, there appears to be nothing that is disqualifying. But they clearly have the corporate/media backing, with Buttigieg in particular appearing to attract major money from deep- pocketed interests. That is worrisome because, no matter how much certain well-heeled liberal elites hate Trump, their support comes with strings attached.

My preference would be to vote for president/vice-president tickets in order to get a balance amongst them. I regret that Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, because she seems like a very tough cookie from a liberal state who could could easily shred Trump in any head to head. Female and of color, she hits the identity politics checkmarks, but she is not progressive. Perhaps she is lining herself up for a VP run or a cabinet post, but I question whether either of those options is better than where she is now as Senator from California.

Sanders and Warren will not likely share a ticket together. It is unlikely that they would go with any of the pragmatists unless Klobuchar or Buttigieg change their policy proposals. Biden might go with the younger pragmatists but they are unlikely to welcome him onto the ticket, and the progressives will run from him. A Klobuchar/Buttigieg ticket or vice versa would be an attractive proposition for many people in spite of the limited regional appeal they have outside of the midwest. Individually, however, they will have a hard time appealing to progressive Democratic voters.

So a major question I have is about the feasibility and popular appeal of a progressive/progressive, pragmatic/pragmatic, progressive/pragmatic or pragmatic/progressive ticket in November. That question will not answered until after the Democratic Convention in July, so I have to return to who I prefer for the top spot.

All of these possibilities rest against a backdrop of defensive voting. I mentioned this in posts about the 2016 election and I was wrong. What I said then was that voters from groups that Trump scapegoated and demonised would come out and vote against him in numbers, seeing Clinton as the lesser evil in that equation. Asians, Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, LBQT folk, feminists, youth, leftists–I was sure that they would rally against the clear and present danger that was Trump back then. But they did not. Instead, they stayed home, thereby handing the victory to him (44 percent of eligible voters abstained from voting in the 2016 presidential election). Sure, a lot of this was due to the Russian disinformation campaign, including the leaked Clinton emails to Wikileaks and the FBI investigation into her communications security one month out from Election Day. But a lot had to do with disenchantment with the system in general and the lack of progressive, or at least sensible Democratic options.

I am not so sure that apathy will prevail in 2020. Trump is no longer a possibility but instead is a reality. The harm he has caused is tangible, not potential. Another four years of him will be, from the standpoint of Russian saboteurs, a strategic wet dream. So it is possible that previously apathetic voters will come to the plate this time around and, if nothing else, use the lesser evil approach to vote against Trump’s re-election.

There is another thing to consider. in 2016 the Republican National Community and GOP political establishment all argued that a centrist was needed in order to defeat the Democrats. A ‘safe pair of hands” with a stronger grasp on foreign policy and committed to the pursuit of trade, etc. was the key to success. Someone like Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Mitt Romney. The whole point was to demonstrate strength with a conservative tilt. Instead, they were sidelined by a xenophobic, bigoted sexual predator with narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies who made gutter-level, crass rightwing populist appeals to the stupidest and greediest segments of the voting population. That carried him first to victory over the GOP elites and then to victory over the mainstream establishment candidate (thanks Steve Bannon).

And then the GOP fell in line behind Trump, so the decent into hyper-partisan lunacy is now complete.

Perhaps then, it is the same with the Democrats. Perhaps the DNC is wrong and a centrist is not the answer to Trump. Perhaps the Democratic corporate elite and media centrists are not reading the pulse of the Democratic electorate correctly and have misjudged the thirst for real progressive change lying latent (and not so latent) in the land. Perhaps, having once been given hope, now there is real thirst for change, and that change starts with nominating a Democratic presidential candidate who can not only defeat the corporate-backed centrists and then Trump, but also defeat the institutional obstacles (say, in healthcare, immigration, education and foreign policy) now standing between meaningful reform and more of the same.

After all, the polls and the pundits suggest that the US electorate is more polarized than ever. So why would a centrist strategy work, especially when the other side has gone full tilt in favor of a demagogic Mad King?

In the meantime, who the heck am I going to vote for?

Media Link: Iran as a strategic actor.

datePosted on 12:00, February 5th, 2020 by Pablo

Unhappy with the demonisation of Iran in Western media, I was fortunate to have the Australian Institute of International Affairs invite me to write an alternative analysis for their on-line journal Australian Outlook. I did, and they serialised it into two parts. The essays are short, so I did not get into the fraught history of Iran-US relations dating back to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Emperor of Iran or the alliances that contemporary Iran has with China and Russia (which complicates any attempts to attack it). My main objective was to provide a counter to the notion that Iran is a rogue actor run by religious extremists hell-bent on sowing chaos on the world stage.

The essays are here and here.

An age of protest.

datePosted on 12:50, November 13th, 2019 by Pablo

It seems fair to say that we currently live in a problematic political moment in world history. Democracies are in decline and dictatorships are on the rise. Primordial, sectarian and post-modern divisions have re-emerged, are on the rise or have been accentuated by political evolutions of the moment such as the growth of nationalist-populist movements and the emergence of demagogic leaders uninterested in the constraints of law or civility. Wars continue and are threatened, insurgencies and irredentism remain, crime proliferates in both the physical world and cyberspace and natural disasters and other climatic catastrophes have become more severe and more frequent.

One of the interesting aspects to this “world in turmoil” scenario is the global surge in social protests. Be it peaceful sit-ins, land occupations, silent vigils, government building sieges, street and road blockades, pot-banging and laser-pointing mass demonstrations or riots and collective violence, the moment is rife with protest.

There are some significant differences in the nature of the protests. Contrary to previous eras in which they tended to be ideologically uniform or of certain type (say, student and worker anti-capitalist demonstrations), the current protest movement is heterogeneous in orientation, not just in the tactics used but in the motivations underpinning them. In this essay I shall try to offer a taxonomy of protest according to the nature of their demands.

Much of what is facilitating the current protest wave is global telecommunications technologies. In previous decades people may have read about, heard about or seen protests at home or in far-off places, but unless they were directly involved their impressions came through the filter of state and corporate media and were not communicated with the immediacy of real-time coverage in most instances. Those doing the protests were not appealing to global audiences and usually did not have the means to do so in any event. Coverage of mass collective action was by and large “top down” in nature: it was covered “from above” by journalists who worked for status quo (often state controlled) media outlets at home or parachuted in from abroad with little knowledge of or access to the local, non-elite collective mindset behind the protests.

Today the rise of individual telecommunications technologies such as hand-held devices, social media platforms and constant on-line live streaming, set against a corporate media backdrop of 24/7 news coverage, allows for the direct and immediate transmission of participant perspectives in real time. The coverage is no longer one sided and top down but multi-sided and “bottom up,” something that not only provides counter-narratives to offical discourse but in fact offers a mosaic landscape of perspective and opinion on any given event. When it comes to mass collective action, the perspectives offered are myriad.

The rise of personalised communication also allows for better and immediate domestic and transnational linkages between activists as well as provide learning exercises for protestors on opposite sides of the globe. Protestors can see what tactics work and what does not work in specific situations and contexts elsewhere. Whereas security forces have crowd control and riot training to rely on (often provided by foreign security partners), heretofore it was difficult for protest groups to learn from the experiences of others far away, especially in real time. Now that is not the case, and lessons can be learned from any part of the world.

The nature of contemporary protests can be broadly categorised as follows: protests against economic conditions and policy; protests against central government control; protests against elitism, authoritarianism and corruption (which often go hand-in-hand); protests against “others” (for example, anti-immigrant and rightwing extremist protests in the US and Europe); protests over denied rights or recognition (such as the gay and pro-abortion and anti-femicide demonstrations in Argentina, or indigenous rights protests in Brazil); single-issue protests (e.g. climate change); or mixtures of the above.

The literature on mass collective action often centres on what are known as “grievance versus greed” demands. One side of the continuum involves pure grievance demands, that is, demands for redress born of structural, societal or institutional inequalities. On the other side are demands born of the desire to preserve a self identified right, entitlement or privilege. In spite of the connotations associated with this specific choice of words, greed demands are not necessarily selfish nor are grievance based protests always virtuous. For example, greed demands can involve respect for or return to basic civil liberties as universal human rights or demands for the preservation of democracy, such as in the case of Hong Kong. Conversely, grievances can often be selfish in nature. Thus, although the pro-Brexit demonstrations are construed as demands that politicians heed the will of the people, the underlying motivation is defensive and protective of a peculiarly defined form of nationalism. A particularity of the modern era is that although most of the protests are portrayed as grievance-based, a considerable amount are in fact greed-based and not always virtuous, as in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacy marches and anti-immigrant demonstrations in Europe.

Protests against economic policies and conditions have recently been seen in Chile, France, Ecuador and Iraq. Protests against centralised government control have been seen in Catalonia, Indian Kashmir and Hong Kong. Protests against authoritarianism, elitism and corruption have been seen in Lebanon, Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Iran and Nicaragua. Protests against elitism are seen in the UK (over Brexit), and against state repression in Greece. “Othering” protests have occurred in the US, Italy, Hungary, Greece and South Africa, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of contemporary protests are not strictly economic (structural) in nature, but instead concentrate on superstructural factors such as the behaviour of government, restrictions on voice and representation and/or the vainglorious impunity of socioeconomic elites.

Often, such as in Chile, the protests begin as one thing and morph into another (starting out as protests against economic policy and conditions and then adding in protests against heavy handed state repression). The more new actors join the original protestors, the more likely the protests themselves will adopt a heterogenous or hybrid nature. That also extends to the tactics employed: while some protesters will choose passive resistance and civil disobedience as the preferred course of direct action, others will choose more confrontational tactics. The precise mix of this militant-moderate balance is determined by the prior history of protest and State repression in a given society (see below). The idea is to clear space for a peaceful resolution to the dispute with authorities, something that may require the use of confrontation tactics in order for authorities to accede to moderate demands. Remember: in spite of the language used, the protests in question are not part of or precursors to revolutionary movements, properly defined. They are, in fact, reformist movements seeking to improve upon but not destroy the status quo ante.

In recent times the emergence of leaderless resistance has made more difficult the adoption of a coherent approach to direct action in which moderate and militant tactics are used as part of a unified strategy (or praxis) when confronting political authorities. This is an agent-principal problem before it is a tactical problem because there is no core negotiating cadre for the protest movement that can coordinate the mix of moderate and militant actions and speak to the authorities with a unified voice and grassroots support. Under such conditions it is often difficult to achieve compromises on contentious issues, thereby extending the period of crisis which, if left unresolved by peaceful means, can lead to either a pre-revolutionary moment or a turn towards hard authoritarianism. That again depends on the society, issues and history in question.

Santiago, Chile, November 2019.

Introduction of new actors into mass protest movements inevitably brings with it the arrival of criminals, provocateurs, third columnists and lumpenproletarians. These seek to use the moment of protest as a window of opportunity for the self-entered goals and use the protest movement as a cloak on their actions. These are most often the perpetrators of the worst violence against people and property and are those who get the most mainstream media coverage for doing so. But they should not be confused with the demographic “core” of the movement, which is not reducible to thugs and miscreants and which has something other than narrowly focused personal self-interest or morbid entertainment as a motivating factor.

The type of violence involved in mass collection action tells a story. Attacks on symbols of authority such as monuments and statues, government buildings or corporate entities general point to the direction of discontent. These can range from graffiti to firebombing, depending on the depth of resentment involved. Ransacking of supermarkets is also a sign of the underlying conditions behind the disorder. Destruction of public transportation does so as well. Attacks on security forces in the streets are a symbol of resistance and often used as a counter-punch to what is perceived as heavy handed police and/or military responses to peaceful protest. In some societies (say, South Korea and Nicaragua) the ability to counter-punch has been honed over years of direct action experience and gives pause to security forces when confronting broad-based social protests.

On the other hand, assaults on civilians uninvolved in security or policy-making, attacks on schools or otherwise neutral entities such as sports clubs, churches or community organisations point to either deep social (often ethno-religious) divisions or the presence of untoward elements hiding within the larger movement. Both protest organisers and authorities need to be cognisant of these differences.

In all cases mass protests are ignited by a spark, or in the academic vernacular, a precipitating event or factor. In Bolivia it was president Morals’s re-election under apparently fraudulent conditions. In Chile it was a subway fare hike. In France it was the rise in fuel prices that sparked the Yellow Vest movement that in turn became a protest about the erosion of public pension programs and and worker’s collective rights. In Ecuador it was also a rise in the price of petrol that set things off. In Hong Kong it was an extradition bill.

One relatively understudied aspect of contemporary protests is the broader cultural milieu in which they occur. All societies have distinctive cultures of protest. In some instance, such as Hong Kong, they are not deeply grounded in direct action or collective mass violence, and therefore are slow to challenge the repressive powers of the State (in the six months of Hong Kong protests three people have been killed). In other countries, such as Chile, there is a rich culture of protest to which contemporary activists and organisers can hark back to. Here the ramping up of direct action on the streets comes more quickly and involves the meting out of non-State violence on property and members of the repressive apparatuses (in Chile 30 people have died and thousands injured in one month of protests). In other countries like Iraq, pre-modern sectarian divisions combine with differences over governance to send protests from peaceful to homicidal in an instant (in Iraq over 250 people were killed and 5,000 injured in one week of protest).

Just like their are different war-fighting styles and cultures, so too are their different protest cultures specific to the societies involved.

The differences in protest culture, in turn, are directly related to cultures of repression historically demonstrated by the State. In places like Hong Kong there has been little in the way of a repressive culture prior to the last decade or so, and therefore the Police response has been cautious and incremental when it comes to street violence (always with an eye towards what the PRC overlords as well as Hong Kong public will consider acceptable). In Chile the legacy of the dictatorship hangs like a dark shadow over the security forces, who themselves have enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from civilian oversight in the years since the transition to democracy (in what can be considered, along with the market-driven macroeconomic policies that favour the dictatorship’s economic supporters, another authoritarian legacy). In places like Egypt the repressive response is predicated on belief in the utility value of disproportionate force: any demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with degrees of (often extra-judicial) lethality so as to serve as a lesson and set an example for others.

The way in which state security organisations respond to protests is also a function of the degree of security sector coherence. Issues such as inter-service rivalries, factional disputes within the armed services, different perspectives on civil-military relations and standards of professional autonomy all factor into if and how those charged with the management of organised violence will respond to differentiations types of protest.

It is therefore in the dialectic between social protest and State repressive cultures where the physical-kinetic boundaries of collective mass action are drawn. Some societies are restrained or “polite” and so too are their notions of proper protest. In others, the moment for restraint ends when protests begin.

Underlying different approaches to contemporary protests is the issue of consent and toleration, or more precisely, the threshold of of consent and toleration. Basically popular consent is required for democratic governance to endure and prosper. Consent is given contingently, in the expectation that certain material, social and political thresholds will be met and upheld by those who rule. When the latter fail to meet or uphold their end of the bargain, then consent is withdrawn and social instability begins. Although it is possible for consent to be manipulated by elites, this is a temporary solution to a long-term dilemma, which is how to keep a majority of the subjects content with their lots in life over time?

Contingent mass consent also depends on a threshold of toleration. What will people tolerate in exchange for their consent? The best example is the exchange of political for economic benefits in dictatorships: people give up political rights in order to secure material benefits. But the threshold of toleration is often fragile and unstable, especially when grievances have been festering for a time or demands have repeatedly gone unmet. When that is the case the spark that precipitates the withdrawal of mass contingent consent can be relatively minor (say, defeat by a national football team in a World Cup or the assassination of an innocent by the security forces).

Each society develops its own threshold of contingent consent and toleration. What people will tolerate in Turkey is not the same as what people will tolerate in New Zealand (assuming for the purposes of this argument that Turkey is still a democracy of sorts). In fact, the very basis of consent differ from society to society: what Turks may consider acceptable in terms of material, social and political conditions may not be remotely acceptable to the French. Even outright authoritarians need to be conscious of the threshold of consent and toleration, if not from the masses then certainly from the elites that support them. But that only adds to their governance dilemmas, since pursuit of elite contingent consent can bring with it an intolerable situation for the masses. At that point the cultures of protest and State repression will come into play.

Ultimately, the current age of protest is the product of a global crisis of governance. Belief in the combination of market capitalism and democratic forms of representation as the preferred political-economic combination has eroded significantly. Rapid demographic and technological changes, increased income inequalities and other pathologies associated with the globalisation of production and exchange have undermined the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats under liberal democratic conditions. Authoritarians have increasingly filled the void both in countries that have democratic traditions as well as those that do not. Using the power of the State, they propagate fear-mongering and scapegoating between in- and out-groups in order to consolidate power and stifle opposing views.

The irony is that the turn to authoritarianism may be seen as the solution to the crisis of democratic governance, but it is no panacea for the underlying conditions that produced the current wave of protest and in fact may exacerbate them over the long term if protest demands are repressed rather than addressed. If that is the case, then what is currently is a global move towards reformism “from below” could well become the revolutionary catharsis than recent generations of counter-hegemonic activists failed to deliver.

That alone should be reason enough for contemporary political leaders to study the reasons for and modalities of the current wave of protests. That should be done in an effort not to counter the protests but to reach compromises that, if not satisfying the full spectrum of popular demands, serve as the foundation for an ongoing dialogue that reconstructs the bases of consent and toleration so essential for maintenance of a peaceful social order. It remains to be seen how many will do so.

The fallacy of the proximity argument.

datePosted on 12:43, September 3rd, 2019 by Pablo

Longer term readers may remember my complaining that, as a political scientist, it is burdensome to have non-political scientists wanting to engage me about politics. No layperson would think to approach an astrophysicist and lecture him/her on the finer details of quarks and black holes, but everybody with an opinion feels perfectly entitled to tell me exactly why their views are just if not more accurate than mine when it comes to discussing political phenomena. Some go on to mention that I must have gotten my degrees so that I could become a politician, which is like telling a primatologist that he wants to be a chimp (I have used this analogy before so apologies if you have already read or heard it).

One of the most often used lines that I hear is what I call the “proximity argument.” That is the belief that proximity to an event, situation or process gives one special insights into them and therefore entitles one to opine from a position of purportedly superior insight. In vulgar terms it is the “you don’t live here” or “I was there” argument, in which the fact of being proximately familiar with something confers special argumentative rights when discussing it.

In recent weeks I have been following the lead up to October’s general elections in Argentina, including reading the posts from friends in Argentina on social media. Their opinions are deeply divided between Left and Right-oriented folk, with some of their commentary bordering on hysterical. What they all have in common is that they claim to know better what the “objective” situation is because they are living in Argentina at the moment, so observations from the likes of me, regardless of the fact that I have written professionally about Argentine politics for all of may adult life, do not count because I live outside of the country.

I cannot enumerate the times that people in the US, particularly MAGA morons, discount what I have to say about US politics because “you don’t live here anymore.” This despite my years of government service prior to emigration, my research and writing on various aspects of US foreign policy and military affairs and my ongoing connections to people in politics and government in that country. “You gotta be here,” they say.

Closer to home, I repeatedly hear and read people claim that one can not opine about issues involving Maori if one is not Maori. Most recently, I have watched with concern the unhappiness voiced by members of the NZ Muslim community with the way on which the investigations into the March 15 attacks have proceeded, in particular the way in which the Royal Commission of Inquiry has handled their participation in the process. The claim is made that since they were the targets and subjects of the attacks, Muslims should be front and centre in any investigation into the events that led up to March 15.

Conversely, several prominent commentators–Gerry Brownlee, Lianne Dalziel and Russell Brown amongst them–attacked me in personal terms because of my media commentary that Christchurch had a well- documented history of white supremacism prior to the attacks. Beside the hypocrisy that comes naturally to politicians, one can only assume that their reactions are due to their personal connections to that city, which may have led them to the conclusion that I was attacking the city as a whole rather than a well-known extremist element within it. In other words, they could or would not see the very rotten trees in their particular forest, or will not admit to having known about them (Dalziel still insists that there is no white supremacist “problem”).

Putting on my analyst’s hat, I find that proximity arguments of this sort to be problematic. Of course familiarity with something gives particular insight into it and therefore those closest to an event, situation or process need to be heard when seeking remedies or even just objective understanding of the phenomenon. But proximity also brings with it emotion and subjectivity, both of which are anathema to analytic objectivity.

Years ago I published a collection of essays titled “With Distance Comes Perspective.” The book title was taken from the Spanish phrase “hay que tomar distancia” (“take some distance”), which refers to the fact that one must sometimes step back and put some distance on something in order to understand its objective status. That always reminds me of the children’s story about five blind people touching an elephant–each describes a different beast depending on what part of the elephant they are touching–because the emotion and subjectivity conferred by proximity often makes one blind to the larger realities at play, or at least the bigger picture.

I put together that collection because I gained perspective on the US, and international politics in general, from having moved to NZ and gaining literal, figurative and theoretical distance on great power dynamics by adopting the perspective of a very small democratic state. I found that in order to better understand US foreign policy I needed to move away from it after having spent time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

That helps explain why the proximity argument is fallacious. It may be necessary to understanding something but it is not sufficient when trying to explain it. In many cases it obscures objective understanding because it clouds the analysis with emotion and/or the particular (often myopic) perspective of specific participants in or observers of an event. Balanced analysis requires objectivity and objectivity more often than not requires neutral distance from the subject of study. Emotion and subjectivity have no place in the analytic mind.

That does not mean that proximate familiarity is not required. All Ph.D. programs in comparative politics worth their reputations require students to acquire language skills and conduct in-country field research as part of their dissertations, preferably through the use of personal interviews, archival research, documentary collection and observer participation in the broader events and context surrounding their studies. The purpose is for the student to gain cultural familiarity with their case study or studies in order to give depth and contextual understanding to the specific research that they are undertaking. For example, one can never fully understand the nature of Argentine football if one does not understand the class and urban/rural divisions that underpin it, be it from club structure and the stadium songs used by fans to the role of organised crime in club governance and the selection process for the national team. For that to happen, one has to spend time there, both in general and in the stadiums.

For me the dissertation process required repeated trips to Argentina in order to conduct research in the Health and Labour Ministries, interview unionists and health policy makers, and run ideas past others in the research institutes to which I was affiliated at the time (all in Spanish, of course). Being raised in Argentina gave me a distinct advantage when it came to moving around and making connections, but I had to put my political beliefs and personal feelings aside when engaging in research and writing because my dissertation committee were not interested in how I felt but in rather what I objectively observed and the analytic conclusions that I reached from said observations (I left the personal stuff for the dedication page of the finished work).

That is something that I have carried with me over the years and, along with things such as inductive versus deductive reasoning, most-similar versus most-different and large-N versus small-N methodologies, that I tried to impart on students during 25 years of academic service. The idea is to use proximity whenever possible but to use it in a broader context where neutral analytic distance is maintained.

All of which is to say that we must not be fooled by those who use the proximity argument when opining about current events or policy issues. Be it measles, land rights, climate change, gun control, political finance, threat assessments or any other matter of contentious public concern, the false expertise of those who rely on the proximity argument must be balanced with the objective appraisals of those who can address the subject dispassionately and knowledgeably whether or not they have immediate connection to what is being discussed.

123... 101112Next