Archive for ‘Democracy’ Category

Apologies in advance to my friend Hardly for tacking off his rebuttal to my post last week but I have spent the last week fascinated with the idea of getting the government I deserve.

I would not be writing the following words if not for George Orwell.

As intellectual hero’s go, I have few, but Orwell (along with John Ralston Saul) is one of them. Also it would be no short statement to say that his influence on my political thinking has been very profound*.

I read 1984 at the tender age of 12 and it was the first clearly political thing I had ever read and after that there was no turning back. I sought out more of his books to read along with anything else that seemed to be similar. Today I am proud to say that I have the complete set of his works, as printed by Penguin, and not a year goes by that I don’t re-read one of his books or loose myself in his essays, letters or poems.

I sometimes also ruminate on some of the similarities of our lives as while I had many reasons to live and work in Asia as long as I did, one of them was knowing that Orwell had spent five years in Burma or that his naturally contrarian and polemic positions was as much a product of his circumstances as who he was (much the same as myself).

But what I really love about Orwell is the way you can see his mind at work in his writing, it’s not just his thoughts on the page but his thought processes, his arguments, making their way towards their inevitable conclusions and the often ugly truth which they reveal.

In his stream of consciousness writing (mostly his essays but also in Homage to Catalonia, Road to Wigan Pier, Burmese Days, Down and Out in London and Paris and even 1984 (for its description of the bureaucratic life in all its dull glory) I have found much in common with the Gonzo works of Hunter S Thompson (via the placing of the writer in the story themselves and making them a central part), another writer I greatly admire.

But if there is anything I have learnt from reading his works it’s to have your own thoughts and opinions, to not just accept whatever is placed in front of you and to not be afraid to say what is needed to be said.

A good example of this is his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written while German bombs were still falling on London and the outcome of the war was still in doubt, it traces his argument for democratic socialism as the change required for England to win the war.

In it he pulls no punches in analyzing the reasons for the precarious state of pre-war England (the failure of the ruling class and capitalism to see the threat of a re-arming Germany), the strengths and weaknesses of Hitler’s Germany, criticism of the Left, the quirks of English nationalism and its intellectual character, the hypocrisy of empire mixed with the stated knowledge that while the British Empire was no saint any Nazi empire would be far worse.

He could have written just another polemic denouncing Nazism and supporting the government (buy more bonds!) as was common at the time but instead he attacked both sides as well as acknowledged their various strengths and weaknesses before finally offering a third solution entirely.

And it’s the clear understanding of the situation mixed with the unflinching analysis of what was needed that makes his argument so compelling, personal and so readable. Even now, in the age of drone warfare, no privacy and neo-liberal governments it’s easy to understand his hopes and fears about the situation (worries about Germany winning and the failures of capitalism and empire) and trace his logic throughout to the essays end which unlike so many other works from that period paints a clear and real picture by being so open to admit the failures of his own side and the strengths of the other.

But in the end it’s his critique of empire and capitalism and the fact that he saw them not as simple constructs but also vested with the character of their respective cultures that could give them various virtues and traits that makes his essay work. He was not seeking to defend them (as he was arguing for democratic socialism) but for the need to have a realistic view of the situation as it was then and to not be blinded by sheer ideology or dogma in the face of a mortal threat.

So how does my short hagiography of Orwell relate to the title of this post?

Simple, Orwell did not like twisting words to suit circumstances and his rules for writing were to use simple clear language to present the truth (no matter how upsetting)  but with a rather gentlemanly escape clause to prevent it being presented barbarously (something which I can sometimes forget in my own poisonous screeds).

And the platitude that people get the governments they deserve is something I don’t agree with and I believe neither would Orwell.

But I am not going to be citing Orwell as my defense for the rest of this post, I will be making my own arguments and presenting them as I can.

Firstly such a saying is a platitude, it’s not a definitive or historical statement although it may work as a retroactive tool in examining the outcome of a term of government but as a warning, wisdom or sheer statement its powerless as well as having the cruel and bitter tone of a sore loser rather than offering any holistic wisdom (sorry Hardly, its not directed at you per se, it just came out that way :).

Also most people don’t know the difference between a platitude and a platypus and so believe these little crud nuggets as accepted fact without examining things any further (another side effect of living in the age of the media soundbite as expected wisdom).

But returning to the point, getting the governments we deserve: did the German people get what they deserved when they elected Hitler? Is New Zealand getting what it “deserves” in having elected John Key? Or what about Trump/Clinton, will the US be getting what its just deserts in electing either one of them?

The answer to all three is, No!

We can differentiate between saying that it’s clear that one system or candidate appears better than another or that retrospectively a choice was not the best but these are not the same as saying that a people, any people, deserved what their votes got them.

In saying that someone deserved something there is a moral judgement and while we can all have a morals, democratic politics is morally neutral.

Democratic states don’t exist or operate on morals (the people in them have morals); they operate on the rule of law and a series of underlying principles which if not allowed to exist will rapidly make a state anything but democratic. So if you happen to live in a state with morals underlining your government you’re living in a theocracy or some other nation where church and state reside in the same house (in essence God as absolute monarch and an oligarchy of priests running things on Gods behalf)**.

Now I won’t be going all POLS 101 here but I will briefly highlight some key points for readers just so things are clear about what is needed for a state to be democratic.

For a state to be democratic it must be brought to life through the will of the people; the peoples will must be expressed freely and fairly; there must be sufficient political participation to make a majority and ensure proper participation, fundamental rights must be respected, there must be trust in the government elected and the means to remove it if they lose that trust.

Readers may have noticed I did not specifically mention elections (also known as 30 minutes once every three years before going back to sleep) which while a great means of enacting many of the above principles not much if the choices of who to vote for are not really free, not everyone is voting or governments once elected can behave any way they want without censure or removal.

There are many nations around the world which call themselves a democracy but that does not make them so. Simply saying it’s the will of the people when the mechanisms of the election itself are flawed will not make those flaws go away. Does one vote every three years, for a limited pool of candidates really makes the outcome the “will of the people”? I don’t think so.

But I can see that you’re not all convinced and to help explain further, it is worth diving a little deeper into the ways people view their government and their relationship with it.

Without realizing it most people view their state (democratic or otherwise) through either one of two basic lenses.

You are either a Hobbesian in your views in that the state protects you against the ravages and depredation of others states and a brutish nature and that your social contract with it is binding regardless of what kind of government you get OR you are Lockean in nature and believe that democratic states only operate with the consent of the governed and that consent can be removed at any time, forcibly if need be.

Of course I am simplifying things quite a bit here (as I have a word limit) but this is the essence of the two positions. It’s also worth pointing out that I see benefits in both arguments but at the end of the day I come down on the side of John Locke rather than Thomas Hobbes.

If you believe that people get the governments they deserve then your most likely going to groove to what Hobbes had to say in Leviathan (and I do recommend reading it as once you get past the old time English his arguments are persuasive and readable) and it’s easy to understand how such a view, in the wake of the English Civil War (stability at any price rather than chaos), might make sense but since Hobbes believed in, and was arguing for only an absolute monarchy, you may wish to temper any ideas of who deserves what government they get with the idea of life in an absolute monarchy and you not being the absolute monarch.

If you believe that people should have a better government than the one they currently have then you will dig Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. It might just be your bag but be aware that just as Hobbes was writing in response to the chaos of civil war and to defend strong government Locke was writing to help justify removing government, by revolution if necessary! So if you like the government you have but a lot of other people do not then don’t expect them to agree with your political views or sit idly by.

Neither of these two positions, if taken to extreme, really work, but they provide the foundation of much of the ideas of the social contract and of what kind of government we expect to get.

And it’s the social contract that we turn to next because the next question is, can one vote (30 minutes every three years) be necessary and sufficient for a government to represent an entire country, electorate and all actions taken in its course.

The answer is no. Obviously the necessary works but the sufficient does not and this is where the other factors come into play.

For most of us, we get out once every three years and vote, have a big yawn and then we go back to sleep politically and forget what we were actually voting about until the next media frenzy three years later.

The idea that we voted and so the will of the people has been expressed is now good for the next electoral period is a pernicious idea and one that many in power would like us to believe. But where do we draw the line, democracy can either be direct (you have input in all decisions in government) or representative (you elect someone to represent you in government) and in the modern age who would have the time or the knowledge to participate let alone be informed as to what they were participating in?

So until we get the electronic democracy that was discussed last week we are stuck with electing people to represent us. But where is the balance between voting once every three years and then leaving the government free to do what it wants until the next election and having to give consent on each and every issue a government faces?

And this is where Orwell gets back into the argument with his articulation in The Lion and the Unicorn that the debate is not necessarily binary in position and that there may be a third option for us to consider; that of a flexible and realistic response to the situation rather than a punitive platitude in lieu of open debate or partisan politics.

And what would such a response be? What info would we give to the people of Germany, NZ and the US (the past, our present and future) in response to the question posed?

For Germany, the answer is retrospective, we can’t change time but looking back it’s easy to see where things were going but again like Locke and Hobbes the mood at the time was not as we live in now.

Germany (well 34% of them) welcomed Hitler in the wake of weak and failing government, the treaty of Versailles and things like the Great Depression. Hitler did not magically spring into being but was enacted through the democratic system and a genuine desire for change by people living in unhappy times. This does not excuse the actions taken by the brown-shirts in the street battles leading up to the election (or Hitlers own after) where political opponents were intimidated, beaten and later sent off to a concentration camp.

They hoped for something better but it took a world war and a smashed state to remove the consequence of that decision. Did they deserve that outcome based on one vote? No they did not. If anything Hitlers rise to power remains a warning about those who would seek to remove barriers to absolute power and the mechanisms of democracy. Of course there are some deep sociological questions about states in the thrall of a dictator and such but that’s for another post.

In New Zealand, as the housing hernia continues to grow and National continue to run a bargain basement government headed by a predatory merchant banker and his grubby cabal of sleazy criminals, are we getting the government we deserve, weather we voted for them (37% at the last election) or not?

No! We deserve better, we deserve a government that does not pander to just one section of the electorate at the expense of the other but neither should we simply be penalizing one section of the electorate for being worried about the market rupturing and being left with a house worth less than their mortgage when the crash comes. We deserve a government which represents us all and will get the hernia operation before we blow an O-ring in public. We deserve a government which is not selling out the populace and where ideas of eradicating poverty (better wages and fairer tax laws) and housing for all are not pie in the sky arguments.

Will the US deserve Trump as president, or Clinton as president simply to prevent Trump from being president? Is the outcome of either, if they turn out to be a bad president, able to be blamed on the electorate, the “people”, when only half of those eligible to vote, do vote; where the system locks out third parties and their differing viewpoints despite substantial support bases and both candidates are bastions of fear and loathing among many voters? Do those that vote, no matter what side, deserve what they are likely to get?

The answer again is, and chant it with me, no! Who knows what either of these two water heads will unleash on the US and the rest of the world as leader of it. Neither have the confidence of the people and neither represent a majority in a country where 50% of the populace does not vote and politics for politics sake is the order of the day. The US deserves a better president, one that generates hope and trust not fear and loathing.

The key to all of these situations is you, the voter. You don’t deserve a bad government no matter who you vote for because no one votes for a bad government. Your vote, when you cast it, is made with the best of intentions, no matter which party you support. Yes I might question your views, and yes your party might have a political pedigree of a man sized liver fluke (X-files reference!) but you did not cast that vote in the aim of seeing your country come out worse than before, you cast it in the hope of something better.

Does this absolve you from making questionable vote choices? No it does not. Caveat Emptor is the watch word at all times but that maxim cuts both ways and never forget that. Don’t just react like a pinball and careen around the partisan bumpers of political parties hoping to not go down the hole. Aim up the table for the high score and extra ball which keep you in the game just that little bit longer.

Also its not just enough to vote once a term and return to your slumbers.

If you live in a real democracy***, not one just in name but one that has all the things which make it real then fight to keep it that way.

If you live in one of those fake democracies, you know which ones I am talking about, then do more than just legitimate the status quo every three, four or five years by voting and then switching off. Be part of the political process in any way shape or form more than just voting (you could post on political blog for example) because if you do nothing but vote you will more than likely get something you won’t like no matter what you hoped/wished for when you voted.

You deserve better than the government you get.


*something which regular readers may have noticed given one small clue which I regularly give away.

** the current market state with obedience to the invisible hand of the market and economists deciding things is a lot closer to a theocracy than a democratic state.

***I would love to apply this argument to people not living in democracies but their situation is a lot harder to correct. Also you can decide if you live in a real democracy or not.

Watching it Bern: Why its OK to vote for Donald Trump

datePosted on 12:20, July 28th, 2016 by E.A.

I’m going to get flak for this little rant but those that know me know I relish debate and will do my best to honestly defend my position.

So let’s address what I see as the 200 kilogram reptillianoid in the room; the fear driven media hyperbole around Donald Trump possibly being president.

At its simplest the argument runs something like this: better the lesser of two evils, Vote Hillary.

Your average democratic voter might make the partisan argument that Hillary Clinton is actually a good candidate while Donald Trump is a bad one. So vote Hillary.

More articulate commentators will go with the position that The Don is the death of the democratic system in the US so in order to save the system vote for Hillary!

None of these arguments (or related others), I believe, actually does the situation justice and all are essentially falling for the false front articulation that it’s better to save the system than destroy it by allowing a vote for Trump which has been articulated through a range of hysterical hyperbole about trump while simultaneously minimizing or obscuring any concerns or criticisms about Hillary.

Now I am not here to praise or bury either of these two dingbats. I find both to be representative nadirs of their respective political parties, and I am not alone in this, as record numbers of US voters on both sides of the line also have a queasy feeling in their stomach when thinking about ticking the box for either of these political bottom feeders.

But I am here to point out that the dialog being had is not always representative or balanced and in fact the current surge in popularity for anti-establishment candidates (something which I have described as “Fukyoo” politics) is in fact a good thing, an antidote to the sick and dying political systems in the US and democracies around the world.

Conversely attempts by establishments and their respective parties to hold onto their power and position by shutting out candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders at the expense of everybody else is in fact far worse than allowing these people to genuinely poll. It is in essence highly undemocratic and represents a clear step away from democratic practice and principle and a rather elitist move towards Oligarchy or worse by demonizing potential voters through their choice of candidate.

But I can already hear the howls of outrage and the tensing of fingers on keyboards to point out that this is exactly what Donald Trump is advocating. Really? Is that what Trump represents?

US political history from Watergate on has been a slow starting then sudden plunge into the sleazy abyss in which it now finds itself. Scandals like Iran/Contra, both Gulf Wars, Bush I and II, Clinton, Wag the Dog (the practice of bombing other countries by Clinton to detract from his own scandals in the US), the pardoning of Nixon by Ford, almost everything Ronald (and Nancy) Regan (and their minions) did while in office, Dick Cheney, the Neo Cons and all the blow-back from nearly 70 years of Imperial US rule have preceded both Trump and Sanders. They are the true avatars and inheritors of the toxic spill that US politics has become.

Straddling all this is the two party system which now has a stranglehold on the political discourse, a discourse which filters a plurality of views and opinions through two very large and very coarse partisan viewpoints (if only the had considered MMP!). Third party candidates or dissenting views are not allowed and to outsiders the whole thing has the reek of the protestant vrs catholic religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Heresy abounds and you’re either for or against, no dissenting opinions allowed!

“But…” I hear you cry “what about democratic manipulators like Putin in Russia, Berscolini in Italy, Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Blair in the UK, who got in under democratic means then decided to stay by gaming the system in their favour all the while perpetuating hideous crimes against their own people and sometimes other nations? That’s what Trump represents, we have to stop him!”

Easy there Tiger, hold on a second. As disgusting as these candidates appear in retrospect did they actually get power through undemocratic means? Did they seize arrive via a coup? No they did not, they made it in through free and (reasonably) fair elections.

And this is the painful and somewhat upsetting thing about democracy; anyone can run for the top job, be they ex KGB spooks, media tycoons, former freedom fighters or centrist politicians. Speculation about what they will do once in power should not preclude them from running for office. For example who has the highest body count attached to their name out of the four I have listed above? Answer Blair for his involvement in the Invasions of Iraq and the blood in the Balkans. Yet he got genuinely elected by popular mandate. Go figure!

And this is the profoundly undemocratic narrative coming forth in all the anti-trump screeching. Yes he has said some bizarre and at times disturbing things but in many ways he is the same as a candidate who makes all sorts of rash promises while on the campaign trail, only to get a reality check once in office by not being able to deliver on them. Wall on the border with Mexico; not going to happen just on costs alone, banning all Muslims; easier said than done; gold plated trump logo on the White house; … well that’s a possibility.

And in some cases, such as the WW3 worries or Madeline Albright’s comment about “giving the nuclear codes to a man who praises Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein” could be defused (no pun intended) by pointing out that Trump has said that US involvement in NATO will be conditional which does not sound like the ranting of a warmonger no matter who his idols are. This also leaves aside Albright’s grim record regarding civilian deaths in Iraq but that’s another story.

But the playing field is not level it seems, as recent revelations about the DNC being secretly opposed to Bernie Sanders and actively working to undermine him all the while saying they were “neutral” have shown. And its duplicity which has torn the Democratic convention in Philadelphia apart with Sanders being booed by his very own supporters when he fronted for Hillary even after the ugly truth of the DNC campaign against him was revealed.

If pressed for an honest answer the DNC might say that they were saving the party from taking the final step off the cliff by preventing  Sanders socialist rhetoric from killing the parties chances in the coming election when in reality Sanders socialist rhetoric was what was making him so popular! And in doing so Sanders was actually stepping away from the wreck of the Democratic Party, at the bottom of the cliff!

And it’s the same for Trump. His message has resonated much stronger than any other Republican contender (not surprising given the morally vacuous shells that got pushed out into the spot light) despite the often ugly tones of his individual statements and in doing so has tapped into the deep wellspring of discontent that has been bubbling away in the US long before Ross Perot ran for president as an independent in 92.

And with Sanders now falling into line behind Clinton all that frustration with the same old faces and the same old system has to go somewhere, which to some extent will go to Trump if Sanders supporters are to be taken at their word (which has been “Anyone but Hillary!”).

So back to the hyperbole, back to the desperate need to avoid Trump by voting Hillary under the assumption that such an action has merit when you don’t really want Hillary either. This is the position more than one possible Hillary voter has taken and talking to my brother and friends in the US has revealed a fear of Trump that’s been stoked by the fires of media manipulation to an extent that they would vote for one person they don’t really want to stop another person they don’t really want.

At the end of the day much of the blame lies with the monolithic two party system in the US which has mechanized politics to such a degree and entrenched various factions so deep into the system that, like the alien face huger in the movie Alien, the victim dies if it is removed. The irony being is that once the face hugger is on its too late as the egg is already implanted in the host and soon the little alien will burst forth in a shower of gore, killing the host in the process. They don’t call them chest bursters for nothing.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are those aliens. They have come forth in a shower of entrails but they are not the problem; they are the result of the state the system is in. And Hillary Clinton is not Sigourney Weaver running around with a flame thrower and pulse rifle saving the day in this rather tortuous analogy, she is the sinister android, secretly serving the Company by protecting the alien until it’s too late to stop it.

Clinton’s record with her emails, Benghazi and elsewhere is far more demonstrable evidence of dangerous and untrustworthy behavior than anything trump has done.

Clinton has breached national security protocols; Trump has not (yet!). Clinton has narrowly, and many say unfairly, avoided prosecution by the US Justice Department (the head of which was visited, the day before its decision was announced, by Bill Clinton in a completely unconnected, “just happened to be passing” visit) for having a private email server for official government business as Secretary of State no less; Trump has some bankruptcy and a dodgy university to contend with but again this is not on par with exposing state secrets or being considered up for prosecution for doing so.

So I am not buying into the hyperbole and nor will I be regurgitating phrases delivered to me via a compliant media. I wouldn’t be voting for Trump either, I might add, if I was a US citizen but then neither would I be voting for Hillary.

US politics has reaped what it has sown and now it’s time to pay its dues and sinister fantasies about Trump being the harbinger of WW3 are just as much a fiction as the smoke clouds of virtue billowing around Clinton. The two heads, one body, monster that is US politics is dying of its own toxicity and the establishment parasites which have lived off it are dying also.

In short it’s the Arab Spring, US style, writ large across Western Democracies as average citizens come to realize that those who are supposed to represent them are not fulfilling the task they were elected to do and are now expressing extreme discontent by delivering spoiler candidates into the fold, not as a genuine alternate (although I think Sanders could have pulled that off until he turned Judas) but as a resoundingly Joker like solution to the failure of the system. As Alfred says in the Dark Knight, “Some people just want to watch the world burn”

In this context both Trump and Hillary are two fiddlers fighting over who gets to play while Rome burns spectacularly. I think Machiavelli would be very disappointed in both of them.

The failed coup was Turkish democracy’s last stand.

datePosted on 08:24, July 20th, 2016 by Pablo

I have observed with bemusement some of the commentary (including here at KP) that views the failed coup in Turkey as a “victory for democracy.”  As someone who has lived through several coups in Latin America and who has academically studied, professionally written, and worked in developing policy for the US government on issues of comparative civil-military relations (including how to address coups), and who has written at length on the differences between coups d’etat, putsches, revolts and revolutions in the Middle East and elsewhere (some of it here on KP), I find it hard to believe that otherwise sensible commentators (with a notable exception) would think that anything good can come of the coup’s failure. This was not a simple matter of Turkish good guys versus bad guys, and the sequels to the violence will not be pleasant but will be long-lasting.

In any event, this week the Herald editorial board wrote favourably of the outcome in Turkey. My colleague Kate Nicholls (a comparative politics scholar) and I were disappointed by it and penned a response. It looks like the Herald will not publish the critique, so here it is:

As students of comparative civil-military relations, we were surprised to read the Herald’s July 19 editorial “Coup’s failure hopeful sign for democracy.” Unlike the Herald’s editors we see no positives resulting from the aborted coup. Instead we foresee the death throes of a painstakingly crafted secular, albeit imperfect, democracy, that was the crowning achievement of Kemal Atuturk and which has been under siege since the election of former Istanbul mayor Recep Erdogan to the Prime Ministry in 2003 and Presidency in 2014.

The cornerstones of the Kemalist vision of Turkish democracy were an apolitical professional military, an independent secular judiciary, and a multiparty electoral system characterized by a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.  Granted, Ataturk’s nationalism, which bound the country together in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, often worked to stifle free speech and repress ethnic minorities, notably the Kurds. Turkish democracy has also always been “guarded”, meaning that the military has on occasion acted as unelected veto-player. Yet since the rise of Erdogan to power 16 years ago, things have gotten incrementally but steadily worse.

Since he assumed office, Erdogan has undermined the judiciary by appointing ideological cronies and firing or arresting independent minded jurists; sacked hundreds of senior military officers and replaced them with loyalists; introduced mandatory Islamic Studies into military curricula; censored, banned and/or arrested non-supplicant media outlets and reporters; rigged electoral rules favour of his own party; and instituted constitutional amendments designed to perpetrate his rule and re-impose Sharia precepts on public institutions (something not seen since the days of the Ottomans). He has enriched himself and his friends by using public construction projects as sources of political patronage and illicit gain. All in all, he has destroyed the promise of a moderate democratic Islamism that brought him to power in the first place. Using populist methods to reaffirm his electoral popularity with the rural and urban poor, Erdogan has been steadily eroding Turkish democracy from within.

Erdogan has also proven himself to be diplomatically incompetent. From a position of stability as the regional power in the Levant, under his guidance Turkey now finds itself at war with adversaries on two borders, estranged from the US, Russia, Egypt and Israel as well as the Gulf Arab states, at odds with Europe over a host of political and economic issues, and confronted by a rising tide of domestic terrorism. His tenure has been ruinous for Turkish aspirations for European Union membership and Turkey’s increasingly unfavorable international reputation was cemented by its loss to New Zealand and Spain in the 2014 elections for a UN Security Council temporary seat for the 2015-17 term.

Erdogan has blamed the coup attempt on the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose power base is to be found amongst the more educated and liberal sectors of Turkish society and whose brand of Islam appears more compatible with the older secular nationalist vision. Whether Gulen was really behind the coup attempt remains to be seen, but there are reasons to suspect the President’s version of the coup’s origins, not least that the plot was very poorly planned and doomed to failure from the outset. For example, the plotters did not grab Erdogan or take over media outlets before announcing the takeover; did not move to censor social media in order to deny Erdogan and his loyalists an alternative communications platform; did not have more than a brigade’s worth of infantry troops (mostly conscripts) trying to control the entire country; and did not have enough armour or aviation on their side to impose emergency rule. As with many failed coups it was led by junior rather than senior officers, although that is because the senior ranks are full of Erdogan loyalists. One thing about modern day coups is that those leading them have a wealth of history to learn from, learning that does not seem to be much in evidence here in spite of Turkey’s history with previous coups and the examples provided by a host of countries elsewhere.

When it comes to the future of Turkish democracy, whether the coup was instigated from Pennsylvania or just a bit closer to the President’s own office is in many ways irrelevant. Erdogan is already using the events of the past week to further purge the military of secularist factions with the arrest of at least 6000 military personnel (including 130 officers), and has broadened the retaliatory sweep by suspending 8000 police officers, 15,000 public educators and 3000 members of the judiciary (all of whom are suspected of being opposed to his Islamicisation project for the Turkish state). He has moved to reintroduce the death penalty—a move which both appeals to baser populist tendencies and will be yet another setback in Turkey’s fifty-year long negotiation over accession to the European Union. None of this is supportive of democracy.

One of the major consequences of all this will be the reconfiguration of the Turkish military as a praetorian guard rather than professional organization. Based on Roman Imperial Guards, praetorian militaries are those that are heavily politicized, intervene in national politics, engage in domestic repression and serve the government of the day rather than the commonweal. Professional militaries, in contrast, are apolitical and non-partisan, focused on external defense and serve the nation as a whole regardless of who is in government.

What prompts a military to move from professional to a praetorian posture is a combination of push (internal) and pull (external) factors. The former include horizontal (between armed services) and vertical (between ranks) cleavages as well as resistance to government interference in military affairs. The latter include government corruption, stalemate, mishandling of security matters or inability to manage threats to national security, civil society pleading for intervention and loss of business confidence.

All of these factors were at play in Turkey’s latest coup. Nearly 300 people died in inter-service clashes. Erdogan loyalists swarmed under-manned and lightly armed soldiers in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Seeing that, civilian coup supporters stayed at home. Cynics will note that, in spite of its apparent near-success and the intense violence directed at loyalist-controlled security agencies and parliament, the nature of the undertaking suggested not so much a well-planned and militarily precise operation in defense of democracy as it did an opportunistic manipulation of discontent within military ranks in order to justify a purge of the discontented.

Whether the coup was done as a last ditch defense of the Kemalist democratic legacy or not, the outcome is now clear: Turkey has veered hard towards outright dictatorship with Erdogan as the primary beneficiary. The President’s announcement that he will now “clean all state institutions of the virus” that led to the coup is an ominous sign of things to come.

PS: The Herald was kind enough to publish a short version of the original essay on July 21, 2016.

The Language of Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Media Link: The US election circus.

datePosted on 11:09, July 16th, 2016 by Pablo

I have just returned to NZ after a month traveling in the US. While there I spent a fair bit of time talking with political friends and former colleagues, and it has been refreshing to see that there are plenty of people who see the situation for what it is rather than succumb to the uncritical and conservative media-induced notion that Donald Trump represents a genuine alternative to the political status quo and a real hope for positive change.

Now that he has chosen a troglodyte conservative white male governor from one of the most reactionary states as his Vice Presidential running mate, the die has been cast for one of the most remarkable acts of party self-destruction in modern times. That will become apparent over the next few days as the Republican convention unfolds in Cleveland. Expect riots both inside and outside the convention arena, and with less than a handful of significant senior national level Republicans and at least four (other) Trumps on the speakers list, this could be one of the best inbred political dog and pony shows ever seen. Let the fireworks begin!

I shall write more on the US elections between now and November (when the general election is held). For the moment here is a NZ radio interview I did while in the US that covers some recent developments.

Word around the campfire (several campfires in fact) is that Peter Dunne is a good minister.

I open with this little bit of information to be fair in the information I present (yeah right!) and to balance out my following assessment of him.

You see, unlike my other research into political parties and the individuals that compose them (a process which usually consists of me trolling the internet, checking my library, badgering my sources and “polling” those around me for a general opinion of the situation) I did not turn up the usual treasure trove of data, Wellington gossip, internet foot prints or scathing rants attached to the Peter or the United Future Party.

Oh to be sure there were some juicy slabs of salacious gossip abounding but none which could be verified beyond even the merest rumor and as such I decided to leave such things out and focus on what I actually could confirm by more than one source.

Which lead to a surprising amount of people, from many places in government, having nothing but praise for the man in his role as both current (DIA) and previous (IRD) ministerial positions (and various sub and acting ministerial roles).

It seems that Peter Dunne is the kind of minister that Chief Executives and Permanent Secretaries like (except for those truly aspiring to be Sir Humphrey Appleby) as he is intelligent enough to know the material, studious enough to know it in detail, pragmatic enough to take advice given and principled enough still make decisions in line with the party ideals and general values.

Dunne is not one of those ministers that require vast amounts of baby-sitting (Sam Lotu-Liga in the wake of the Serco debacle and his rapid removal from the corrections portfolio to something much much safer (and far less important); the Local Government portfolio); is a power hungry profiteer (Steven Joyce); dangerously ignorant (Murray McCully and Jerry Brownlee) or one of those empty political vessels which then become an avatar of greed, avarice and naked ambition (Judith Collins and most of the remaining vermin in cabinet).

All of which soon overwhelmed my own preconceived notions of him as a bow tie wearing political hack who simply went whatever which way the winds were blowing and who was now a dangerous relic helping to prop up an increasingly unpopular government.

It was my good friend Q who pointed out one night over drinks that while Dunne was all of those things that I believed he was (and Q should know having spent a good deal of time actually walking the halls of parliament playing nurse maid to its many skeezy denizens in both Labour and National governments) he also had many of the better points I have listed above and while still a political creature he could be considered “one of the better examples of the breed”.

On first hearing this I nearly choked on my drink as Q, while the perfect example of the legal/rational devil’s advocate type that can be found in Wellington if you look hard enough, was not known for laying out such glowing endorsements for MPs without an equal measure of dirty laundry culled from his time as first hand witness to their grubby behaviors.

But there was no skid marked Y-fronts to be found this time and I had to accept the fact if I was looking for examples of the usual slimy tendencies that politicians display I would be better suited to look elsewhere.

And so it went, time and again, over drinks, dinner and in the tea-break small talk between meetings which make up the bulk of the time any actual work in Wellington is achieved (for further details I direct the reader to Parkinson’s Law). Same story, again and again; competent minister, rational individual, good to work for and such and so forth.

Which meant that by the time I came to write this I felt compelled to open in the manner I just have which for me is a hard thing to do. I rate politicians just above pedophiles and just below lawyers.

But the subconscious nag which kept running in the back of my mind that accepting Minister Dunne as some sort of silver slipper bobbing among the turds in the parliamentary toilet bowl was wrong just would not go away.

So it was time to put some Jazz on the turntable, pop open a few beers, lie back on the couch in my usual meditative (or just plain lazy) position (fingers in the traditional Monty Burns “excellent!” manner) and think things through.

So after a few Montheiths and several sides of Donald Byrd I felt I had a handle on things and it went a little something like this.

Peter Dunne has been in politics, and parliament, for over 30 years. First as a member of the Labour Party (he entered in 1984) and later as an Independent MP and then as part of various assemblages of parties which eventually ended up under the banner of United Future.

And Dunne, like his significant doppelganger Winston Peters, has been in coalition with both Labour and National, supporting both governments and holding ministerial positions in both. Both have developed into one man band operations, despite the veneer of party structure each has assembled around them.

Both men have seen various bills through parliament and both have had their moments of controversy (although Winston could claim a lot more) and both have fallen afoul of the particular government of the day (Peters with both National and Labour and Dunne with National in 2013 over his leaking of documents to journo Andrea Vance).

But NZ First, as a party, appears a lot more coherent, if more sycophantic (I am always impressed when Winston storms or is thrown out of the house and his drones obediently follow) while United Future is a shell party assembled to give the illusion (for those who remember the de-registration saga in 2013) of coherent support outside of Dunne’s immediate staff so he can continue to receive government funding and allow Dunne to remain in parliament.

Where the symbiosis ends is that while Peters has championed the cause of the proverbial, and possibly theoretical, Kiwi, Dunne has not. Peters has retained a constituency outside of any particular electorate despite his win in Northland and his loss of his previous long held seat in Tauranga while Dunne has only ever held one seat (now by the slimmest of margins), Ohariu in Wellington.

From the Numbers side United Future has sunk in public polling from 6% in 2002 to 0.27% in 2014 while Dunnes margin in his home electorate has shrunk to a few percentage points ahead of Labour (36% to 34% in the 2014 election) and with National and the Greens holding healthy shares as well (National at 16% and the Greens at 7%).

NZ First on the other hand stole 54% of the votes in an electorate in had not really polled in before (Northland) and NZ first holds at around 7% to 10% on any given day in the party popularity stakes.

This means that as a political party United Future is a non-existent entity with no mandate of any kind and with a single MP who holds his electorate by the barest of margins due to a fractured makeup (the previously grumbles by Charles Chauvel of Labour in 2011 that Dunne had won the seat due to a deal with National to feed voters to United Future was probably sour grapes on Chauvels part but to me it would be less a case of National doing a deal with Dunne and more National simply encouraging its voters to “vote strategically” by supporting Dunne without any conspiracy needed to keep Dunne in power knowing that they could not win it themselves and to keep Labour out).

And the party website reflects all of this with sparse (if any) policy prescriptions, a list of members which appear to be entirely composed of all the individuals who care about the party (when you read their bios) and tag line “Economically responsible, socially conservative” all of which screams “dead man walking” in our current political climate. Granted it’s not as bad as ACTs website but that is a matter of degree not difference.

And Dunne is a dead man walking, he is a statistical anomaly who exists because he has carefully created a niche in the MMP ecosystem where he can remain and exploit his position in governments which require minor party support to make a majority.

He has played key roles in getting many pieces of legislation through the house and none worse than his deciding vote in making government asset sales a reality (which for me was the turning point where I went from seeing Dunne as a true inhabitant of the middle ground to a servant of the power).

His competence as a minister is commendable but not a saving grace in such a situation. And while I do believe that he is a genuinely principled individual (as his willingness to criticize the government of the day can sometimes show) his position in the system (and the actions he takes) comes at a far greater costs to the country than any service he has given to his electorate or imaginary party supporters.

Where Winston Peters is an out and out political showman demagogue grandstanding on issues to cynically get votes and keep punching his meal ticket Dunne has quietly enabled the slow motion train wreck (although he is not alone in this) that New Zealand politics has become by being one of the “silent majority” that has helped keep the neo-liberal reforms in place and the machine oiled and running.

It’s all there on the United Future Website where it tells the visitor that they are part of a “global movement” under which the flag of neo liberalism is proudly flown and in his own history when his move out of Labour in the 1980s came after Rodger Douglas and the other right wingers had already exited and Dunne was left alone in a party with blood on its hands and trying to rid itself of the remaining guilty candidates (of which Dunne was one).

But let’s compare further with his significant other. Winston’s great(est) moment in the political spot light was the Wine box inquiry which saw him expose the seedy underbelly of New Zealand for all to see through his uncanny ability to grab an issue and extract maximum fury from it while Dunne’s was his refusal to handover all his emails to a government inquiry which saw him vilified for a short while by National (and many in public) and then let back into the beehive clubhouse. Winston remains a potent threat to any government in that he will scramble their entire agenda if it warrants or he does not get what he wants.

Dunne can occasionally express mild upset or disapproval at various tweaks of government policy (as his rather entertaining twitter feed shows) but his protestations usually amount silent farts of apathy and reek of a schizophrenia of morals rather than any real outrage or protest.

And it is there that the difference shows, as a true centrist Peters remains a threat to either side and retains his King maker mystique while Dunne is an accomplice to whatever government will pay his price but without any real threat value. I admit that it’s a small difference but in MMP politics it’s a crucial one; that of unpredictability and exposure vrs predictability and acquiescence.

Some had said that Peter Dunne died in the 90s along with Jim Anderton and the Alliance (yes I know he was an MP till 2011 but he was another example of a MP leeching off his electorate) and was resurrected in 2002 by the “Worm” used to monitor the statements made by MPs during the televised debates (and lets not start on the Worm right now, a more blatant example of election engineering I cannot think of).

If that is the case and Dunne owes his current existence to a cheap TV gimmick then he has done well from this quirk of fate but in the final analysis he, like Peters, Anderton and ACT, is a child of MMP and the system allows for such creatures but unlike Winston, Dunne is on borrowed time as the only thing holding him in place is the fact that any push by Labour to unseat him might drive voters in his electorate in the arms of National as much as themselves. But a desperate Labour might just be tempted to risk it to get one more “easy” seat come a tight 2017 race.

But I leave the final words to my good friend Q who in his measured tones noted that despite all of the vitriol I could muster Peter Dunne may actually be the “most successful politician in NZ politics today” having served both as a MP continuously for over 30 years (Winston has 40 but it has gaps out of office and his limited time helming actual portfolios weakens his legacy) and for long stretches as a minister in many governments which is not a feat that many politicians can boast of.

Of course that was a pure measurement on the scale of politics devoid of morality of anything else (Q is a trained lawyer after all) but grudgingly I would have to agree with him.

I was invited to speak at a forum in Wellington on the “Privacy Security Dilemma.” It included a variety of people from government, the private sector, academia and public interest groups. The discussion basically revolved around the issue of whether the quest for security in the current era is increasingly infringing on the right to privacy. There were about 150 people present, a mixture of government servants, students, retirees, academics, foreign officials and a few intelligence officers.

There were some interesting points made, including the view that in order to be free we must be secure in our daily lives (Professor Robert Ayson), that Anglo-Saxon notions of personal identity and privacy do not account for the collective nature of identity and privacy amongst Maori (Professor Karen Coutts), that notions of privacy are contextual rather than universal (Professor Miriam Lips), that in the information age we may know more but are no wiser for it (Professor Ayson), that mass intrusions of privacy in targeted minority groups in the name of security leads to alienation, disaffection and resentment in those groups (Anjum Rahman), and that in the contemporary era physical borders are no impediment to nefarious activities carried out by a variety of state and non-state actors (various).

We also heard from Michael Cullen and Chris Finlayson. Cullen chaired the recent Intelligence Review and Finlayson is the current Minister of Security and Intelligence. Cullen summarised the main points of the recommendations in the Review and was kind enough to stay for questions after his panel. Finlayson arrived two hours late, failed to acknowledge any of the speakers other than Privacy Commissioner John Edwards (who gave an encouraging talk), read a standard stump speech from notes, and bolted from the room as soon as as he stopped speaking.

Thomas Beagle gave a strong presentation that was almost Nicky Hageresque in its denouncement of government powers of surveillance and control. His most important point, and one that I found compelling, was that the issue is not about the tradeoff between security and privacy but between security and power. He noted that expanded government security authority was more about wielding power over subjects than about simply infringing on privacy. If I understand him correctly, privacy is a commodity in a larger ethical game.

Note that I say commodity rather than prize. “Prize” is largely construed as a reward, gain, victory or the achievement of some other coveted objective, especially in the face of underhanded, dishonest, unscrupulous and often murderous opposition.  However, here privacy is used as a pawn in a larger struggle between the state and its subjects. Although I disagree with his assessment that corporations do not wield power over clients when they amass data on them, his point that the government can and does wield (often retaliatory) power over people through the (mis) use of data collection is sobering at the very least.

When I agreed to join the forum I was not sure exactly what was expected from me. I decided to go for some food for thought about three basic phrases used in the information gathering business, and how the notion of consent is applied to them.

The first phrase is “bulk collection.” Bulk collection is the wholesale acquisition and storage of data for the purposes of subsequent trawling and mining in pursuit of more specific “nuggets” of actionable information. Although signals intelligence agencies such as the GCSB are known for doing this, many private entities such as social media platforms and internet service providers also do so. Whereas signals intelligence agencies may be looking for terrorists and spies in their use of filters such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE, private entities use data mining algorithms for marketing purposes (hence the targeted advertisements on social media).

“Mass surveillance” is the ongoing and undifferentiated monitoring of collective behaviour for the purposes of identifying, targeting and analysing the behaviour of specific individuals or groups. It is not the same thing as bulk collection, if for no other reason than it has a more immediate, real-time application. Mass surveillance is done by a host of public agencies, be it the Police via CCTV coverage of public spaces, transportation authorities’ coverage of roadways, railroads and airports,  local council coverage of recreational facilities and areas, district health board monitoring of hospitals, etc. It is not only public agencies that engage in mass surveillance. Private retail outlets, shopping centres and malls, carparks, stadiums, entertainment venues, clubs, pubs, firms and gated communities all use mass surveillance. We know why they do so, just as we know why public agencies do so (crime prevention being the most common reason), but the salient fact is that they all do it.

“Targeted spying” is the covert or surreptitious observation and monitoring of targeted individuals and groups in order to identify specific activities and behaviours. It can be physical or electronic (i.e. via direct human observation or video/computer/telephone intercepts). Most of this is done by the Police and government intelligence agencies such as the SIS, and most often it is done under warrant (although the restrictions on warrantless spying have been loosened in the post 9/11 era). Yet, it is not only government security and intelligence agencies that undertake targeted spying. Private investigators, credit card agencies, debt collectors, background checking firms and others all use this as a tool of their trades.

What is evident on the face of things is that all of the information gathering activities mentioned here violate not only the right to privacy but also the presumption of innocence, particularly the first two. Information is gathered on a mass scale regardless of whether people are violating the law or, in the case of targeted spying, on the suspicion that they are.

The way governments have addressed concerns about this basic violation of democratic principles is through the warrant system. But what about wholesale data-gathering by private as well as public entities? Who gives them permission to do so, and how?

That is where informed consent comes in. Informed consent of the electorate is considered to be a hallmark of robust or mature democracies. The voting public are aware of and have institutional channels of expression and decision-making influence when it comes to the laws and regulations that govern their communal relations.

But how is that given? As it turns out, in the private sphere it is given by the phrase “terms and conditions.” Be it when we sign up to a social media platform or internet service, or when we park our cars, or when we enter a mall and engage in some retail therapy, or when we take a cab, ride the bus or board a train, there are public notices governing the terms and conditions of use of these services that include giving up the right to privacy in that particular context. It may be hidden in the fine print of an internet provider service agreement, or on a small sticker in the corner of a mall or shop entry, or on the back of a ticket, but in this day and age the use of a service comes attached with it the forfeiture of at least some degree of privacy. As soon as we tick on a box agreeing to the terms or make use of a given service, we consent to that exchange.

One can rightly argue that many people do not read the terms or conditions of service contracts. But that is the point: just as ignorance is no excuse for violation of the law, ignorance of the terms of service does not mean that consent has not been given. But here again, the question is how can this be informed consent? Well, it is not.

That takes us to the public sphere and issues of governance. The reality is that many people are not informed and do not even think that their consent is required for governments to go about their business. This brings up the issue of “implicit,” “implied” or inferred” consent. In Latin American societies the view is that if you do not say no then you implicitly mean yes. In Anglophone cultures the reverse is true: if you do not explicitly say yes than you mean no. But in contemporary Aotearoa, it seems that the Latin view prevails, as the electorate is often uninformed, disinterested, ignorant of and certainly not explicitly consenting to many government policy initiatives, including those in the security field and with regards to basic civil liberties such as the right to privacy and presumption of innocence.

One can argue that in representative democracy consent is given indirectly via electoral processes whereby politicians are elected to exercise the will of the people. Politicians make the laws that govern us all and the people can challenge them in neutral courts. Consent is given indirectly and is contingent on the courts upholding the legality if not legitimacy of policy decisions.

But is that really informed contingent consent? Do we abdicate any say about discrete policy decisions and legislative changes once we elect a government? Or do we broadly do so at regular intervals, say every three years, and then just forget about having another say until the next election cycle? I would think and hope not. And yet, that appears to be the practice in New Zealand.

Therein lies the rub. When it comes to consenting to intrusions on our privacy be they in the private or public sphere, we are more often doing so in implicit rather than informed fashion. Moreover, we tend to give broad consent to governments of the day rather than offer it on a discrete, case by case, policy by policy, law by law basis. And because we do so, both public authorities and private agencies can collect, store, manipulate and exchange our private information at their discretion rather than ours.

What we are expected to believe

datePosted on 07:48, May 24th, 2016 by Lew

In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.

Bullshit and its proliferation

I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.

That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:

  • That the Prime Minister, the former head of global foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch who in 2005 said that New Zealand should become “the Jersey of the South Pacific”, does not know how overseas trusts in places like the Cayman Islands, Panama and New Zealand work.
  • That the Minister of Health, a former GP and health sector business consultant, does not think the quality of hospital food has declined as a result of cost-cutting he has forced upon the Southern DHB.
  • That the head of the Ministry of Primary Industries says there is no problem with fish being illegally dumped at sea, when internal documents from within his own department contain proof that such dumping is “widespread”, and further, that the contradiction between these two positions is “absolutely not a cover-up”.
  • That the Prime Minister thinks homeless people should see WINZ, when WINZ routinely refuse to deal with anyone who doesn’t have an address.
  • That putting those homeless people in $1300pw rental accomodation, the cost of which they must repay at a rate of $10-$20 per week for decades to come, is the best solution that the Ministry of Social Development can come up with, notwithstanding its annual budget of $24 billion and hundreds of qualified staff whose job it is to work out solutions to problems like this.

Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.

What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.

How we know it is bullshit

In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.

At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.

To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:

  1. Lack of automated, objective and repeatable metrics that can measure progress.
  2. IT engineers tend to be optimists. (In government, we might substitute policy analysts.)
  3. Managers like to look good and to give good news, because
  4. Upper management tends to reward good news and punish bad news, regardless of the actual truth content. Honesty in reporting problems or lack of progress is seldom rewarded; usually it is discouraged, subtly or at times quite bluntly.

So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”

[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]

This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.

Bullshit is the enemy of democracy

But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.

Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:

If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that we’re watching unfold.

The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.

The electoral risks of taking the piss

Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.

At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.

That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.

While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.

Not Quite But Getting There

datePosted on 15:11, May 23rd, 2016 by E.A.

It seems that Labour might have finally gotten the memo about getting it’s A into G but perhaps not quite digested the content. Still it’s a start. The last month has seen a steady stream of both Labour and Little in the media, highlighting issues in the electorate and proposing solutions (Panama papers, housing, hotel deals, house prices, fishing quotas etc)

National continues to say that is nothing but “slogans” which is rich coming from them but let’s put the bitterness aside for the moment and have a bit more of a look at the situation.

On my first post about Labour I referred to them needing to come up with something new and that trying the same old policy routine was not going to win them the election from an entrenched National. A few weeks ago I noted that Andrew Little needed to be on the attack if he and the party was actually going make traction in the media and with the electorate.

The rationale behind these two points is simple and my “scouring” of both the mainstream media in NZ and the blogsphere has turned up similar sentiments, the key points of which are that Labour needs to get back to its real roots to atone for the heinous betrayal of 1984 and that a dug in National wont be giving up points easy so Labour needs to take the initiative and hone its policy and pre-election stance through trial by fire rather than more party retreats.

In effect its fat camp, a makeover and a whole new wardrobe for Labour and the effects may have already started to show but I have heard and read several people slag the whole thing off as pointless and a waste of time.

There is some truth to the assertion that it’s too early yet to really see a change in Labour, so far its policy platforms/ideas are still just not hitting the nerve with the electorate but the party seems to be putting out more press releases about the state of affairs in NZ and linking the government to it and that’s a start.

The idea is less about scoring points against National, although a few would be nice, but rather get the party name back in the media and start positioning itself again as the true party of the opposition.

But here is where I would be earning my money if I was a party spin doctor. So far the prescriptions are standard and predictable (ie get the name out more, provide alternatives etc) but the real reason for getting out and about in the media is that it starves National of air and either forces it to burrow deeper into its bunker or come out and fight on core issues or risk having Labour take over the narrative.

And it’s here where a well-planned and prepared policy and media ambushes would work wonders. The current state of New Zealand is full of low hanging fruit just begging for a solution to the problem of the day. National has had eight years in power and it’s clear that nothing is getting better. It’s also clear that Labour has started to think like that and started to gear its message along those lines. But it’s not enough.

The race to November 2017 is not a short sprint and National has banked on the long haul, saving its shots for a John Key led media blitz in the actual campaigning phase. This makes sound sense if Labour wallows in apathy and can’t get out of its own funk as National just has to play it safe and compare itself to Labour to win the prize.

This won’t work if Little and Labour go and stay on the offensive from here until December 2017 but to make this work requires more than just a slew of media releases and trotting out the same old arguments (and MPs) as before.

The key factor in this is Labour shedding all its 1984 to 2016 baggage and emerging anew from the cocoon of policy it has woven itself into and to do this means that the party has to re-cross the Rubicon of sorts and return to ideological roots, albeit with a 21st century spin.

And to return to my original point it looks like Labour has started a charm offensive by running a range of media attacks on National but without the bigger ideological transformation National can continue to say that it’s just slogans because that’s all it will be.

Little does look to be getting some stones with his standing by his comments about hotel deals in Niue (although if you read through his statements you can see the lawyer in him inserting the escape clause at the end) and various senior MPs appearing in the media attacking this and that of govt policy.

It’s an encouraging start but it’s just a start and this race to November next year will require something special to keep the momentum going and to begin wresting back those wayward Labour voters and that is the monumental policy/ideology shift required to sustain the party for the long haul. In short a swift step away from the center and back to the Left.

It’s easy to see why the party has balked at this suggestion in the past but the 1984 to 2016 period has been poison to the party and ammunition for National every time Labour opens its mouth to point out how bad things are under the current government.

The vital point in this whole plan is to differentiate itself from National in every way shape and form, no more squabbling over the scraps of the middle voter demographic, which is now beginning to wither and die anyway under National Policy, but instead a return to easily identifiable core values which come pre-packed with a message and a meaning that is in opposition to everything National stands for.

And the messages have, for most part, avoided Key and gone for Nationals weakness, its bloody awful polices and record across the board with its stewardship of NZ which is key (no pun intended) to defeating National.

This is clever as if they dont fight Key head on, but make National wheel out its golden boy to defend on all and any issues it will take the shine off his royal behind between now and polling day and prep the ground for the whole new message that Labour should be unveiling in the next few months as there have been indications here and there and Labours new general secretary, Andrew Kirton, dropped some tantalising words in the Listener a while back which sounded like there were bigger plans afoot.

This strategy has some other benefits as its will not only starve National of air but it will also do the same to both the Greens and NZ First. If there is any chance of Labour/Winston coalition Labour will have to be the biggest dog in the yard come polling day, not after, and that only comes from being the big dog, picking fights and scrapping it out in public, the the media and not just the benches with all and any challengers.

It’s a risk, I admit, but the issues that bedevil Labour will remain, if not get worse, if they lose this election and by the time the 2020 election comes round could be way too late to salvage the party. It’s the same dilemma National face once John Key decouples from the party

So if Labour has its eyes set on getting the gold in November next year it’s going to have to take things to the next level. My concern is that just as it’s getting its mojo back the party will hold there and try and run a half-baked policy platform through the election and get beaten with predictable results.


Bernie the spoiler.

datePosted on 13:39, May 19th, 2016 by Pablo

Things are getting interesting on the Democratic side of the US presidential primaries. Although Hillary Clinton is on pace to win the nomination, Bernie Sanders continues to dog her steps with wins that keep him, if not within striking distance of securing the nomination himself, close enough in delegate count and popular support to narrow the gap between them to the point that she cannot claim a decisive mandate as the nominee. That is important because if the trend continues, and especially if he can stay close or win in California in early June, he can arrive at the convention armed with demands that will have to be met if he is to throw his support behind her in the general election. There is already talk of him running as an independent (which is what he was until he entered the Democratic primary). That would prove disastrous for the Clinton campaign and could turn the presidential race into a mirror image of two divided major parties having candidates from within their ranks running as spoilers against their convention nominees.

Let us be very clear on one thing: Bernie is right when he says that the Democratic nomination process is stacked against him. Between interest group super delegates whose loyalty is pledged to Clinton regardless of primary results to the closed primary process itself, there has been concerted effort by Democratic party bosses to keep his numbers down by denying independents the right to vote and counter-balancing the popular vote with super delegate selections. He has, quite frankly, been cheated on more than one occasion and that does not even take into account the more underhanded tactics used against him by the Democratic National Committee.

This spilled over recently in the Nevada Democratic convention, where a pro-Clinton state party chairperson overruled Sanders supporter’s motions and sat Clinton delegates rather than those pledged to Bernie. The convention descended into chaos and the chairperson, a woman, was inundated with vicious misogynistic physical threats mainly from the so-called “Bernie Bros,” presumably angry young men. Although Sanders issued a one line sentence condemning violence in a three paragraph statement about that convention, the bulk of it was dedicated to highlighting the underhanded moves made by the chairperson and her minions. He followed that with a victory speech after the Oregon primary (which he won handily) in which he remained defiant, belligerent and determined to take his campaign to the convention. He does not appear to be in the mood for reconciliation with Ms. Clinton.

Needless to say, Democratic Party leaders, Clinton supporters and many liberals are freaking out over this. They see Sanders as a sore loser given that he knew what he was getting into when he joined the party last year in order to run for the nomination. They see his candidacy as interfering with the streamlined selection process that was supposed to result in a unified consensus backing Clinton. More importantly, they see his intransigence and talk of a third party run as handing the keys to the Oval Office to Donald Trump, especially given that some Republican Party luminaries are lining up behind the Orange Crush as a matter of partisan duty regardless of what the consequences may be should he become president. In fact, however reluctantly, the Clinton haters within the GOP and their media surrogates appear to be coalescing behind Trump at the same time that the fractures within the Democratic Party are getting more pronounced. No wonder Democrats are freaking.

I am less concerned than my liberal US friends about this because I think that Sanders is playing his cards correctly. The reason is because I think that what he is playing is a variant of the “moderate-militant” strategy. A moderate-militant strategy is one where a militant objective is announced as a first negotiating point and pursued until an opposing actor makes moderate concessions to the militant. Rather than the militant goals, the real intent is to secure moderate gains. The militant starting point is just a negotiating ploy designed to force the opposing side to move towards it in the hope of securing an agreement.

In the Sanders version, the strategy is to run his campaign on “socialist” principles all the way to the convention. By playing hardball and not wavering before it, he forces the Clinton camp to accept the fact that without him they cannot win and with his supporters opposed they will certainly lose the general election. If Sanders arrives at the convention armed with a strong contingent of delegates in spite of all the manoeuvres against him, he can threaten to tell his supporters to either not vote or cast their ballots against her in the general election. In that case it is very likely that Clinton will concede on important issues and incorporate them into her policy platform before she is declared the nominee. This decision will be made easier by the GOP partisan consolidation around Trump, which brings closer to reality the heretofore unimaginable prospect of his presidency. Given her own negatives, she can no longer rely on loathing of Trump as a guarantee of a defensive vote turnout against him. She needs Bernie more than he needs her, and his playing tough all the way to the convention is a way of underscoring that point.

The worst thing that Sanders can do is concede or pull out of the race before the convention. Were he to do so he would lose any bargaining position he might have had at the convention because for the militant-moderate strategy to work it must be held steadfast until the other side makes a conciliatory move. Given their differences, including opposing views on whether to embrace corporate reform and accept special interest political financing among many other things (such as the US position on Israel-Palestine), it would be a waste of all the time, resources and effort he and his supporters have put into his campaign to abandon it before they have a chance to make their case at the common gathering. Instead, the best bet for his voice being heard strongly at the convention is to press on all the way to it, and then some.

Under no circumstances should Sanders accept Clinton’s assurances on key policy issues in return for his quitting the race and throwing his support to her. I would not trust the DNC and Clinton camp as far as I could throw them. Instead, he must make a condition of his support that the party write in the concessions to his policy demands into the presidential campaign platform adopted at the convention. It may not make for an airtight guarantee once she is elected but it will be much better than relying on her good faith that what was promised will be delivered come January 2017.

If the Clinton camp is smart they will realise that Sanders has brought something new into the party, which given the polarisation of the country and who they are running against, can be a key to their success in November. They must understand how he is playing the game and why he is doing so. They must understand that offering him a position in a Clinton administration is not what he is after and would not suffice to mollify his supporters in any event. They must study their positions in advance and see where they can concede readily and where negotiations on substantive issues will be harder. But what they must understand most is that the chances of a Clinton victory in November rest as much on gaining his support as they do on her own qualifications and experience.

If that is understood, the remaining primaries can be contested vigorously (if not honestly) with a mind towards clearly demonstrating the policy-based platforms of the Democratic candidates versus the empty rhetoric, simple-minded prescriptions and opportunistic bombast coming from the other side. Once that is done, the convention can become not only an arena of contestation between contending ideas about how to take the country forward, but also an opportunity to exchange concessions in order to present a unified front to the voting public. Therein lies the recipe for success in November.

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