Archive for ‘Democracy’ Category

Mt Albert and Russel Norman

datePosted on 11:04, April 25th, 2009 by Anita

What’s with that? I mean, really, what’s with that?

Norman can’t possibly hope to win Mt Albert, this bears no resemblence to either Ōhariu or Epsom and there is no obvious electoral advantage to Mt Albert voters in voting for Norman. The only possible outcome of Norman upping the Green electorate vote in Mt Albert is converting a historically strong left wing seat to an apparently right wing one, and Lee may have the skill to keep it soft blue from there on out.

So the Greens appear, to my outsider’s eye, to trying something which has a possible down side but no possible up side. At the same time Norman’s dragging the Greens away from their reputation for principled electoral politics into the arena of carpetbagging disingenuous political gamesmanship.

No chance of an overt win, significant possible cost, and treating voters like chess pieces – is Russel Norman the Greens’ Murray McCully?

Bah!

Everyone loves a referendum

datePosted on 01:18, April 25th, 2009 by Lew

… but only when they serve our political purposes.

That’s the message you can draw from the two cases in which referenda have been recently proposed; for s59 and for the future of Auckland. The clearest distinction is between ACT and Labour, with Labour calling for a referendum on the Auckland issue in much the same way that ACT pushed for a referendum on s59; and Rodney Hide declining on a pretext, as Helen Clark was widely criticised for doing.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to equivocate on the two issues. I think the Auckland supercity referendum has merit (though phrasing the question will be tricky) and I think the s59 referendum is a jack-up for pure PR purposes – the point I’m making is about parties’ willingness to resort to plebiscite when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t.

L

pirate-jail-thumb-230x130-2644-fBackground
The Pirate Bay is a BitTorrent tracker – one of the world’s largest, most popular and best-known. Four of its co-founders were yesterday convicted of “assisting in making copyright content available”, sentenced to 12 months’ jail each and required to pay 30 million Kronor (about NZ$6.3m) between them. The offence was not the same as actually distributing the copyright material – the torrent files hosted on TPB are not themselves subject to copyright, but they enable a user to easily access material which is. For a quick backgrounder, see The Guardian’s FAQ, and for exhaustive coverage, see Threat Level’s archive.

I’m very interested indeed in the roles which intellectual property mechanisms play in the world. This verdict has complex and possibly profound political, social, technological and economic implications. I won’t argue its legal merits, but, despite their claims, I don’t think this case or verdict is in the content owners’ best long-term interests, because it perpetuates a business model which has been proven unfit for its purpose.

pirate-bay-guilty-mass-protests-followSocial and political implications
The social and political implications of this verdict seem likely to result in a sort of Streisand effect where by winning a battle, copyright owners may galvanise opposition to their business model and enforcement practices. This verdict was never going to be the end; as defendant Peter Sunde said it was to decide nothing other than which side would file an appeal. [Video in two parts here and here. The first five minutes or so is in Swedish; the rest is in English.] So as much bad-will as there is against the content owners, there’s plenty more time for it to build.

Online media consumption (sanctioned and otherwise) is largely the domain of the two generations born since the baby boom – quite distinct from those in control of the legal, business and political systems which produce that media and constrain its usage, who are middle-aged and older. There exists a significant disconnect between these generations, and the Pirate Bay verdict seems like it could crystallise that disconnect into an outright generational divide along political and philosophical lines. Those in their thirties and forties have been heavily involved in shaping the internet into the phenomenon it is, nurturing fledgling technologies (including filesharing) to meet their own needs and building cultures and identities around different types of participation. It’s theirs; they created it. The generation now in their teens and twenties have known nothing else, and they are the driving force behind its constant recreation, and are if anything even more strongly engaged. The content industry is currently trying the ‘stick’ approach – trying to dictate terms to two generations who’re used to having things their way and are more than capable of making it so. As those generations displace their pre-internet elders, and as the developing world begins to participate more strongly in traditionally-Western information communities, content owners will find themselves less able to dictate terms, not more so. Those in charge of intellectual property realise this and have been busy over the past few decades establishing and extending copyright, patent and trademark systems, conditional trade treaties, anti-circumvention legislation, privacy infringements under the guise of cyber-terrorism prevention, and other such measures under the auspices of TRIPS, the DMCA, the PATRIOT Act, IPRED and plenty of lawsuits, including this one – all in order to retain their existing, inferior business models rather than be forced to compete on the open market of ideas in order to develop better ones.

pirate-party-membership There are political implications for all of this, as well – the Pirate Party of Sweden, formed to reform copyright law, abolish the patent system and strengthen privacy rights, claims to have gained 3,000 new members in the seven hours following the verdict, giving it a larger membership than four out of seven current parties in the Swedish parliament (and if their online membership graph can be believed, it looks like they were up above 5,000 new members within 12 hours). Candidate Christian Engström said:

“The ruling is our ticket to the European Parliament,” concluded Engström, who expects a populist backlash against the ruling to help his party’s chances of gaining a seat in the EU’s primary legislative body. [source]

Now, single-issue parties have a particularly hard row to hoe (even TPB’s Peter Sunde doesn’t vote for the Pirate Party), and in terms of realpolitik few countries can afford to deviate from the intellectual property line established by TRIPS. Nevertheless there are big philosophical issues at stake here. Politicians ignore those two generations at their peril.

Technological and economic implicationspirate_bay
Technological and economic implications are linked because technology dictates the means by which content may be distributed, and without distribution there is no revenue. The Streisand effect mentioned above will likely manifest initially in the market for media as a short-term (and possibly short-lived) , but its long-term implications are much broader. Many of the content owners’ arguments against groups like TPB rest on the flawed premise that demand for content is static and copyright infringement is zero-sum (that is: every copy downloaded represents one less copy bought). The fall in revenue, they claim, is because of copyright infringement, so reducing copyright infringement will necessarily cause revenue to pick up again. There are two problems here: first, the genie is already out of the bottle, and two generations are now accustomed to consuming media on their own terms. They will not be forced to consume media in only the ways which content owners want them to, and whoever applies the stick in an attempt to make them do so will suffer as a consequence, because the content industries depend upon their consumers for survival, not the other way around. Second, and this is critical: by engaging in an aggressive game of whack-a-mole to safeguard a broken business model, the content industry has hastened the destruction of that business model by ensuring that only the fittest filesharing systems survive. Cory Doctorow makes both points better than I:

If The Pirate Bay shuts down, it’s certain that something else will spring up in its wake, of course — just as The Pirate Bay appeared in the wake of the closure of other, more “moderate” services.
With each successive takedown, the entertainment industry forces these services into architectures that are harder to police and harder to shut down. And with each takedown, the industry creates martyrs who inspire their users into an ideological opposition to the entertainment industry, turning them into people who actively dislike these companies and wish them ill (as opposed to opportunists who supplemented their legal acquisition of copyrighted materials with infringing downloads).
It’s a race to turn a relatively benign symbiote (the original Napster, which offered to pay for its downloads if it could get a license) into vicious, antibiotic resistant bacteria that’s dedicated to their destruction.

Content owners, by enforcing the discipline required to survive in a hostile environment, are granting clandestine distribution systems an enormous advantage: those systems evolve and improve while their own system stagnates. There are a few exceptions: Radiohead and Trent Reznor are at the forefront.

Of much more grave seriousness, however, is the chilling effect this verdict could have on the internet – search engines, ISPs and end users. Roger Wallis, Emeritus Professor of Media at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology (and an expert witness for the defence) warned:

This will cause a flood of court cases. Against all the ISPs. Because if these guys assisted in copyright infringements, then the ISPs also did. This will have huge consequences. The entire development of broadband may be stalled.

His point is that TPB’s technology meant their servers never hosted copyright files – those were hosted on its users’ home computers, and TPB simply provides a search engine to find content and a service which tells one user’s computer where to find files hosted on another user’s computer. If that makes one criminally liable, then those who are doing the actual distribution (te end users) and a whole lot of other people and organisations whose computers provide similar assistance including search engines and ISPs, are also criminally liable – and could even be more culpable than TPB were, since those computers actually host and distribute the copyright files themselves. Due to the highly robust, distributed, fault-tolerant nature of modern content-distribution systems made fit by nearly a decade’s worth of fine-tuning, there is simply no way to beat filesharing without targeting end-users and ISPs on a case-by-case basis. Any reluctance to roll out or use broadband internet services will have catastrophic flow-on economic effects, and given that media consumption is a major driver of broadband, content owners are in a catch-22 situation: either they aggressively prosecute ISPs and end-users or they fail to beat filesharing. In the former case, they get to keep their business model, at the cost of making criminals of their consumer base and ensuring that yet more complex, robust and powerful distribution mechanisms are developed – and possibly at the cost of the internet as we know it. In the latter case, they have to develop systems which are fit enough to survive on their own. The longer they delay, the harder it will be.

An upcoming post will look at the battle for hearts and minds which will fundamentally determine the winner in this contest.

L

The Parallels between Fiji and Thailand

datePosted on 18:38, April 12th, 2009 by Pablo

Although it may not seem likely on the face of it, there are some significant similarities between the political situations of Fiji and Thailand. To understand why, we must start with some background and definitions. Fiji and Thailand are modern examples of praetorian societies. Prateorian societies are those in which social group and political competition occurs in non-institutionalized fashion. Rather than use mediating vehicles such as courts, parliaments, collective bargaining and the like, inter-group competition assumes direct action characteristics: street demonstrations, riots,strikes, lockouts, blockades, and outright physical conflict. This can be due to the failure of such institutions to accommodate social group and political competition within established boundaries of rules and procedure, or it can  be due to social and political group disregard for the institutions themselves. Where institutions such as parliament and the courts still function, they tend to microcosmically replicate the zero-sum approaches of the society at large: dominant groups manipulate the system to their own advantage and use it to punish their opponents. In turn, opponents attempt to wrest control of state institutions for their own gain. Compromise and toleration of difference are lost in the struggle.

The reason social praetorianism occurs is that there is not a shared majority consensus on the political “rules of the game.” This can be due to the lack of ideological consensus or disenchantment with the system as given. Either way, it spells trouble in the form of political and social instability. As a reflection of the surrounding society, this gives rise to something known as military prateorianism. Taking its name from the praetorian guard of Roman emperors, who were said to be the makers and unmakers of kings, a praetorian military emerges as the dominant political actor in socially praetorian societies by virtue of  the force of arms. It s the default option given generalized institutional failure, and as such is characterized by an internal (rather than external) security orientation, high levels of politicization and a strong interventionist streak.

There are two types of praetorian militaries: arbitrator (or mediator) and ruler. Arbitrator military praetorians assume control of government when civilian institutions break down, but do so only to re-establish the constitutional order and provide the law and order that gives civilian actors the time and space to re-establish a consensus on the rules of the political “game.” They usually enter into power via relatively peaceful coups and set themselves a non-partisan agenda as well as a specific timetable for withdrawal from government. The point of the intervention in the political system is to stop political bickering and re-establish the institutional bases of civilian rule.

Ruler military praetorians have no such limitations. Often emerging in the wake of repeated attempts at military arbitration between competing civilian groups, the ruler military has no timetable for withdrawal and a political, social and economic agenda of its own. They tend to be more violent than their arbitrator counterparts, in no small part because they see civilian society as undisciplined and chaotic and civilian politicians as venal, self-serving and corrupt. The modern archetypes were the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1970s, the Pinochet regime in Chile being the most notorious of them. They tend to hold power for a half decade or more in order to transform, via the use or threat of force, the basic socio-economic and political parameters of the praetorian societies in which they are located. When they withdraw, they do so under rules of the game they set down for their civilian successors.

Thailand has oscillated between periods of arbitrator and ruler military rule, interspersed with numerous failed attempts at democratic governance. In the current political crisis, the pro-royalist “yellows” (of airport blockade fame) and pro-government “blues” are vying with anti-government “reds”  (of ASEAN summit cancellation fame) to vie not so much for democracy (which is what they all claim) but for the favor of the Thai military when it finally steps back into power. The yellows are more elite and middle-class in social origin, whereas the reds are lower middle and working class in composition, so the historical odds favor the yellows (the blues are a cross-section of party loyalists of the current Prime Minister, disaffected yellows and hired thugs). But with an ailing King and more reds than yellows taking to the streets, the military may be swayed away from its traditional pro-royalist stance in the interests of securing majority support for a reformative coup. If this analysis is correct, it implies the inevitability of another Thai coup, most likely leading to a ruler military regime that embarks on a program of political reform that breaks with the partisan lines of the past. Given that it confronts a significant Muslim insurgency in the south of the country that has links to similarly-minded insurgent groups in the Philippines, the Thai military will be loathe to be drawn into politics and will only do so if the present levels of social praetorianism threaten to escalate into unacceptable levels of violence that challenge its monopoly of organized coercion within the territorial limits. It is for the Thai civilian elite to prevent this from happening, and so far they have shown no inclination to do so.

The Fijian military has repeatedly intervened in the country’s politics over the last two decades, and the Bainirarama regime is no exception. Fiji’s social praetorianism stems from the conflicts between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, a conflict that has socio-economic class as well as ethno-religios and linguisitic characteristics. Its civilian political elites have proven incapable of achieving consensus and have a strong penchant for corruption and nepotism. Thus the military sees itself as the “saviour” of Fijian society. With this latest “coup-within-a-coup,” (see Lew’s post immediately below) the Fijian military praetorians appear to be moving from an arbitrator to a ruler role, perhaps because they believe that the country is nowhere close to consensus on a reformed and reconstituted rules of the political game. I have written previously (“Bullying Fiji Part 2: The Inside Game”) some of the reasons why this may be so, but the larger point is that it appears that no amount of pressure from New Zealand or Australia will alter the conviction of Commodore Bainimarama and his colleagues in the Fijian armed forces hierarchy that it is in the country’s best interests to prevent a Thai-type scenario from developing. The UN may be able to exercise some pressure in curtailing Fijian military involvement in multinational “blue helmet” operations, but even then, with Russia and China on the Security Council, the likelihood of passing resolutions authorizing this form of sanction on Fiji for what is an internal matter is, to say the least, unlikely.

The are two dangers to ruler militaries, one specific and one general. The longer leaders of ruler militaries stay in power, the more enamored of the perks of the position they become. Whatever their good intentions at the onset, they tend to become increasingly despotic over time, losing sight of the original project in order to concentrate on their personal fortunes. That increases resentment against the regime and factionalisation within it, which essentially returns the praetorian situation to where it began. Moreover, the longer a military is in power, overseeing civilian ministries and involving itself in politics, the less its leaders are maintaining and honing their war-fighting command skills. This may not be an issue for a country without enemies, but for countries with internal or external threats, the erosion of a war-fighting capability strikes to the heart of the military raison d’etre and emboldens adversaries of all persuasions. Put another way, to remain in power is to lose war-fighting capability, and to lose war-fighting skills (including command skills) is to invite attack. This is especially true for the Thai military, but even the Fijians need to consider this given their regular deployment of troops to foreign conflict zones under UN mandate.

The final problem is that whether the military intervenes or not, and whether it does so in arbitrator or ruler guise, on-going situations of social praetorianism is the key element leading to state failure. One only need look at the recent history of Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan to understand the implications.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

datePosted on 18:53, April 9th, 2009 by Lew

Lesson 1 for everyone:
Political expedience is no substitute for democratic process.
Lesson 2 for would-be tyrants:
If you’re going to overthrow a state, leave no functional apparatus which might threaten your regime.

The Fijian Court of Appeal has ruled that Frank Bainimarama’s coup was unlawful and that he should be removed from his position as the head of the interim government and replaced with an “independent person” appointed by the President. (No Right Turn has more.)

This is complicated. A few implications I can see (Pablo can probably do better than I, and anyone is welcome to suggest more):

  • The court hasn’t ruled that Former PM Laisenia Qarase should be reinstated – and he would not qualify as an independent person. It’s difficult to think who could, given the regime’s tendency to deport, imprison or intimidate those who didn’t play its game.
  • May 1 is the deadline to announce an election date. However Bainimarama is (I assume) no longer constitutionally empowered to do so. He’s damned either way here – if he fails to do so, he tacitly accepts that he hasn’t the right, and if he does so, then he overrides the court of the land and gives his political opponents a legitimate chance to overthrow the regime.
  • Bainimarama may now be officially illegitimate in law, but he does still command the armed forces in fact, and they have demonstrated in the past few years what they’re prepared to do for him. The task of re-establishing legitimate government is harder than simply declaring an “independent person” the new interim PM.
  • Assuming Bainimarama doesn’t step down, the international community now has firm grounds to throw the figurative book at Fiji, cutting off all aid, trade and diplomatic ties on the grounds that Bainimarama’s government is now illegitimate in law. Indeed, you could argue that they have no choice but to do so. This means a likely deepening of previous policies which haven’t really done much to hurt the regime but have done plenty to hurt the ordinary Fijian people, and could drive Fiji closer to China. Tough call.

Geopolitics is a funny beast. Everyone who’s honest with themselves has known this all along – but it’s taken a panel of Australian judges stating the obvious to pull away the fig leaf and (presumably) force a response.

L

Edit 20090415: Too much has happened over the long weekend for me to write cogently about given the other things I need to do this week, so I’ll refer yous to the excellent Idiot/Savant, with whose judgements I mostly agree on this matter.

Headline of the day:

datePosted on 10:25, April 7th, 2009 by Lew

Axe bounces off ministers – Tracy Watkins, The Dominion Post

Nice and cynical, that’s what we like. Pity it’s attached to something so trivial.

L

Trotter: more on the h

datePosted on 00:03, April 7th, 2009 by Lew

This blog is almost becoming Kiwipoliticoh, since given my limited time at present I’m having to pick my battles.

I’m pleased Chris Trotter has come to terms with his inner racist. His characteristically torrid column is basically a rehash of the bogus arguments I discredited here, which Chris has apparently not bothered to read, much less answer the questions I pose in it. His latest column makes explicit what I wrote in the first post on the matter and discussed in more general terms in another post – that people pick an ideological side on matters like this and employ whatever post-hoc rationalisations they need to convince themselves of that position. I freely admit I’ve done the same in this h debate – to me, as to most, it just seems obvious which side is in the right, and that’s a sure sign of ideological knee-jerk. The difference is that my position has some weight of philosophical and legal precedent and linguistic and geographic fact behind it, not just settler ideology.

The column is not pure rehash, though – it’s got some new hash thrown in for good measure, and none of it any more useful than the first lot. It is the canard that by changing a European name back to a Māori name the former is somehow “obliterated” or “expunged” from history. The very examples Chris gives to support this absurd contention disproves it, and moreover it shows the naked settler racism of the position.

Names are important, and to his credit Chris does not succumb to the smug `haven’t those maaris got more important things to worry about’ rhetoric, hoever he over-eggs his pudding a bit here. If, on its own, changing a name genuinely did obliterate and expunge it from history and this was a necessarily bad thing, then Chris ought for consistency’s sake to form a club to protect Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie Roads, in danger of being so obliterated and expunged by the nefarious newcomer Bowalley Road. The fact is that those names have not been lost – they have faded from common usage but remain a part of the fabric of local culture, to be remembered and celebrated, as they are. If the change goes ahead, nobody except the fearmongers such as Trotter and Laws are suggesting that all historical references to Wanganui be struck from the records, or that a great terminology purge be conducted. The name and the fact of its usage for a century and a half will stand in the documentary record, as it ought to. The generations currently living here will mostly go on using Wanganui, and even many businesses will not bother to change their stationery, out of a dogged loyalty to the identity or out of simple inertia.*

Instead of mourning the loss of Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie, Chris lionises the upstart Bowalley Road in the very name of his blog. This reveals that Chris accepts that some names have more intrinsic value than others, and on this point I agree with him. Where we disagree is on the basis by which we determine which of an exclusive pair of names should take precedence over the other, a simple matter of logic which I covered in the first post.

Now for the racism: having accepted that some names have more value than others, and having chosen to privilege the colonial name over the traditional name, Chris and others like him essentially say “the settler tradition is more valuable and important than the Māori tradition”. If the case were a marginal one, or if there were two equal competing claims, this would be fair enough – I’m not suggesting that all or even most names ought to be Māori names by right – but in a case where there is a clearly and obviously correct name which isn’t being used in preference to a clearly and obviously incorrect name, the implied statement changes from “the settler tradition is more important than the Māori tradition” to become “settler mistakes are more important than the Māori tradition”, which is much more pejorative. It essentially says “our ignorance is worth more than your identity”, and that, right there, is colonialism in a nutshell.

The battle will be an fierce one, and the troops are massing. The NZGB has signalled that numerical advantage – `preponderance of community views’ – isn’t enough to prevent the change, but it also grants significant weight to those views. In a bald attempt to strengthen their crude majoritarian argument before the NZGB, the Wanganui District Council (which, oddly, will not have to change its name even if the city name changes) has decided to seek a legal opinion on the NZGB’s decision, and to hold another referendum on the spelling of the name. As if there is such a thing, they plan to “conduct a neutral information campaign” on the matter beforehand, though it isn’t clear how they plan on ensuring even a fig-leaf of neutrality – will the council (who voted against the change) argue the sans-h case while Te Runanga o Tupoho (who brought the petition to the NZGB) argues the h case? Will the council pretend it can be neutral on this matter? And what is the purpose of an information campaign anyway, when they, better than anyone else, know that this isn’t a matter of logical, dispassionate assessment of facts and history – it’s a matter of picking sides. I watch the carrion birds circling with interest.

L

* Incidentally, the Wanganui Chronicle had a good laugh at itself and its readership on April 1 with a front-page story announcing that the name would be changed to the Whanganui Chronicle. Good on them! A few days later the editorial apologised to all those who had been taken in, saying that they’d thought the story too absurd to be believable.

NZGB to settlers:

datePosted on 14:28, March 31st, 2009 by Lew

Matters of linguistic and geographic fact are determined by meritorious debate, not majoritarian opinion.

Yesterday the New Zealand Geographic Board announced that there is a valid case for the name of the city of Wanganui to be spelt in its correct rendition of Whanganui. (I posted on this issue twice recently.)

The NZGB explicitly rejected the majoritarian argument, stating that the debate was important, not just the show of hands:

The Board noted the results of a referendum held in 2006, when a considerable number of Wanganui residents indicated their preference to retain the current spelling. However, the Board was conscious that declining the proposal at this point would not allow views both for and against to be expressed

Michael Laws has predictably come out calling this an attack on democracy. Unfortunately for demagogues like Laws (fortunately for the rest of us) facts are not democratically determined. Facts are defined by their relationship to reality, not by their relationship to majority opinion. Democracy is good for a very large number of things, but it’s very poor indeed for determining matters of actual factual observable and demonstrable reality.

But the really important aspect of the NZGB’s release are the implications of the following two statements:

“Wanganui, the name given to the town to reflect its position near the mouth of the Whanganui River, was spelt incorrectly and has never been formally gazetted by this Board or its predecessors. It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name.”

[…]

“While the Board acknowledges the historical transcription was based on the local pronunciation, the mechanics of standardising a previous unwritten language, together with its full meaning/translation, signal that the name was intended to be ‘Whanganui’. This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago.”

In these statements Dr Don Grant suggests that a local council may not by simple fiat enshrine an error as a norm – the origin of that error matters, and if its correctness is disputed then the intention of those who originated it becomes relevant. This implies a burden of proof on those wanting to retain the current no-h spelling to demonstrate that those who originally spelt the name that way intended to do so – thereby coining a new word. That is an untenable position held only by those with no genuine arguments of merit, whose leader Laws stated that people who didn’t like the current spelling could go to `Fuckatanay’ (as he pronounced it), neatly highlighting the crass idiocy of the position.

It is also an important matter of precedence. My arguments have been based on the idea that the current spelling of `Wanganui’ is the correct spelling in law, while Dr Grant made quite clear that it has no legitimacy, having never been formally recognised by the body properly constituted to do so, which is not the Wanganui District Council. Because of this, the decision the NZGB needs to make is not whether to confirm the de jure status quo spelling as the settlers suggest, but whether to give the de facto spelling precedence over the de jure status quo, which (since no alternative spelling has been approved by the properly-constituted body) can only be Whanganui. The core of the settler position is this claim to the status quo, that possession is nine tenths of the law and that since the name is currently in settler possession it is theirs to define and use as they wish without consideration to others or to the historical, linguistic and geographic facts of the matter. The status quo in this case is clearly on the side of the h: if the settlers cannot convince the board of their claim it will not remain as Wanganui but will revert to the correct spelling. That’s a huge difference.

Submissions open in mid-May. If you have an argument you want heard on this, make a submission. The debate matters.

L

Rethinking market socialism.

datePosted on 20:15, March 28th, 2009 by Pablo

The crisis of the latest incarnation of market -driven economics, particularly in its financial sector, has raised the possibility of political-economic alternatives not so much as remedies but as significantly different approaches to the structuring of national economies in a global system of production and exchange. One of these is a revamped–as opposed to resurrected–market socialism. For those who are not familiar with the concept, a quick synopsis is found here. Although current conditions are different from those that led to the original formulation, some basic tenets can be discerned and elaborated upon. Basically, within a market system of supply and demand, the state operates as a macroeconomic manager (not just a toothless regulator) by obtaining majority stakes in strategic assets (be they primary good or value added). In parallel, at a mircroeconomic level it moves to promote significant (be it as a majority or as part of a tripartite arrangement with the state and capitalists) worker ownership in strategic industries (such as through employee stock option programmes  (ESOPs) or by encouraging the formation of cooperatives) in exchange for wage restraint and greater productivity. The logic is that with workers as co-owners of the industries in which they are employed, they will understand managerial rationales as well as the conditions on the production line, thereby promoting what could be called “equitable efficiency” in production.  Non-strategic components of the economy can be encouraged to follow suit but will not be forced to engage in such “socialising” programmes, but will be taxed at a higher rate if worker participation schemes are not incorporated. All sectors will follow the laws of economic efficiency followed by private firms–that is, the market logics of supply, demand and prices. Hence, the object is to prevent rent seeking behaviours usually associated with state ownership of the means of production–to wit, no “make work” or ghost worker schemes, no padding of employee roles, no patronage or clientalistic networks etc. Needless to say, unions may see a threat in this, but their self-interest as agents should not detract from the potential benefits of ownership accrued by workers as a class as well as principals of unions (where they are organised). Union shareholding schemes might be one way to reconcile the interests of agents and principals in such an event.

Under such a market socialist approach a restrained individual taxation rate that increases the amount of discretionary income to wage-owners as well as as capitalists can be complemented by a differential corporate rate that rewards worker ownership with lower rates while maintaining a higher rate for “traditional” firms–i.e. those that appropriate the surplus generated by workers in the form of profits that are in the majority distributed to non-workers (be they shareholders or managers).

With a greater State macroeconomic presence as a stakeholder in strategic industries and manager of microfoundational (the orientation of specific  industry) policy, coupled with active promotion of worker participation in ownership of the industries in which they are employed, backed by a taxation policy that rewards those who see the wisdom of making workers co-owners and understand that the State, as representative of all sectoral interests, is better suited for macroeconomic management than individual capitalists or their associations, a new market socialist project can be advanced that will filter global market dynamics into a more nuanced, and fairer, distribution of wealth and income in society. In a small island trade-dependent state, socio-economic stability depends on this.

There is actually a model for such a system, although it has yet to incorporate worker ownership schemes as part of its developmental project. That model is Singapore and the only reason it does not incorporate policies of worker ownership  into what is otherwise a state-dominated export-oriented economy that is successful is that it is a)authoritarian and thus can impose its will without worrying about the filter of mass consent;  b) foreign investors resist worker participation as a condition for investment; and c) as a result of the previous two factors, foreign workers on temporary visas unprotected by labor laws reserved for Singaporean citizens are used to structurally undermine any moves in that direction.

As a liberal democracy NZ can not emulate everything that Singapore does, but what it can do is note the commanding position of the State in its macroeconomic affairs, to include its use of  State holding companies as channels for public investment in a range of “private” industries as well as its use of taxation as an incentive for corporate investment and production, on the one hand, and household consumption on the other. Admittedly, the argument presented here is just a simplified sketch of the possibilities of market socialism in the present conjuncture, but the intention is to raise the point rather than fully elaborate upon it. The latter task is left to the readers.

A Green Neo-Realist Foreign Policy Manifesto

datePosted on 23:28, March 24th, 2009 by Pablo

Now that the Green Party has matured into the third most important political party in NZ, it is time that it develop an equally robust foreign policy stance that moves beyond its visceral commitment to pacifism, human rights and civil liberties, international ecological defence and anti-imperialism. Although laudable goals that still have a place on the Green foreign policy agenda, these foundational pillars need to be supplemented by a more nuanced and less ideologically rigid, but no less idealist in principle, approach to New Zealand’s foreign affairs.

Lets start with defence and intelligence. The Green Party should maintain their absolute commitment to conventional and unconventional weapons non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, prohibitions of chemical and biological weapons and bans on the manufacture and sale of land mines and other indiscriminate munitions. It should maintain its commitment to seeing the NZDF externally focused on peace-keeping and nation building as its major priority. It should resist efforts to turn the NZDF in to a mini Australian armed forces, and resist the calls for the NZDF to follow Australia, the US and the UK into battle no matter the context or justification. But it also has to realise that NZ’s own defence is premised on its being a good international security partner, and that it cannot abrogate its responsibilities in that field. To that end, the Greens should support efforts to restore a close air/ground support wing to the NZAF in order to provide NZ peace-keeping troops with independent air cover in foreign conflict zones. Even when under multinational military control such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, military protocols allow services of each country to protect their fellow troops as a priority. If NZ is going to continue its level of international troop deployments in conflict zones like Afghanistan, East Timor, the Solomons and elsewhere, the ability to provide protective air cover to its troops on the ground is surely a worthy cause. And, as it turns, out, be they rotary or fixed wing, surplus close air support platforms in the inventories of several NATO and other countries come relatively cheap when compared to the aborted F-16 purchase of a decade ago.

Likewise, the Greens needs to support the reinforcement of the Navy’s long-range patrol and interdiction capability, if for no other reason than to protect the resources located in the NZ Exclusive Economic Zone and to deter illegal poaching of whale and endangered fish in the waters adjacent to it. Moreover, such a capability can also serve in anti-piracy roles in the sea lines of communication most vital to new Zealand’s trade, and to keep track of the increasing presence of foreign submarine and surface fleets in and around New Zealand waters. Passivity in the face of such probes will likely be interpreted as acquiescence or inability to counter them, which will encourage further encroachments into the EEC, if not the territorial limit itself. That is also why the Greens need to support the continuing emphasis placed on the NZSAS as the country’s special operations branch. What it can do differently is question the deployments they undertake on behalf of foreign powers, perhaps broadening the scope of their activities to areas outside of the usual SOLIC (special operations and low intensity conflict) scenarios.

 Thus, the Greens should support efforts to increase NZDF spending to  1.5 percent of GDP, in line with the lower threshold of OECD nations, but with a specific focus on the Green “line” of defense and security priorities. No more over priced and ill-suited LAVs, no more $1 million-a-copy anti-tank shoulder fired rockets–just the best weapons and platforms for the NZDF’s unique “niche” role in international security affairs. Even if coat-tailing on previous Labour initiatives, a neo-realist Green approach to defence can provide a human security orientation that extends beyond the traditional security concerns of the major parties.

With regard to intelligence, the Greens must continue their valiant opposition to the unaccountable and often rogue behaviour of  the NZSIS and Police intelligence. But it must couple its demands for more democratic accountability and transparency–something that may begin with the appointment of Russell Norman and Tariana Turia to the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee–with a more reasoned demand that external intelligence collection be separated from domestic intelligence collection and delegated to different agencies. Counter-intelligence functions can be shared because foreign espionage often follows commercial and criminal avenues, but the business of spying in foreign places is very different than spying on one’s own citizens. Thus the Police should be responsible for the latter, with all of the attendant legal safeguards that purportedly govern their operations, whereas the NZSIS can limit itself, along with the GCSB, to external intelligence collection and analysis. No other political party has even mentioned this, much less understood the multiple rationales as to why decentralisation of intelligence functions is actually an important step towards removing the authoritarian culture so deeply imbedded in New Zealand’s intelligence apparatus. In line with these reforms, the Greens should demand that the PSIC be elevated to the status of select committee allowed to review classified material in closed session. Only then will real parliamentary oversight of the intelligence apparatus be possible.

In terms of trade, the Greens need to modify their generic opposition to trade. Instead of a seeming blanket opposition to open economies, the NZ Green Party needs to understand that for a vulnerable isolated and resource-scarce country like NZ, trade is a lifeline. It is here to stay as the mainstay of macroeconomic policy. Therefore, the issue should not whether to trade or not to trade, but how to trade? The answer, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is to trade fairly as well as (or as opposed to) freely. Trading fairly means to concentrate not just on tariff reduction and other bi-or multilateral entry conditions, but on after-entry conditions pertinent to labour rights, working conditions, gender and indigenous issues, wages, health, safety and environmental standards. The goal is to promote a level of regulatory symmetry n the trade relationship, thereby leveling the playing field or at least standardising the rules of investment and competition in the interest of productivity, growth AND human dignity in the labour process. This is as true for NZ investment abroad as well as foreign investment in Aotearoa. The basic thrust is to do onto other (foreign) laborers as what one would do onto oneself (or one’s co-nationals). Capitalists may not like the impact on their short-term profits of promoting such trade agreements, but it is in their longer-term interests, in terms of a guaranteed restrained rate of profit, that they play fair and symmetrically. Moreover, such a stance places NZ at the forefront of trade debates that emphasize a balance between profit, growth and larger communitarian considerations.

Diplomatically, the Greens need to promote a strengthened constructivist-institutionalist approach to foreign policy. Constructivism in foreign policy is focused on normative value change in key policy areas (say, human rights and disarmament)  and institutionalism is focused on strengthening multilateral institutional approaches to conflict resolution and global peace and stability based on shared ideals.  Although Labour advocated such an approach, it too often has compromised its stance in order to curry favour with trade or defence partners. National has no commitment to idealism in foreign affairs. Thus it is left for the Greens to push hardest for an ongoing, if not increased commitment to finding multilateral institutionalised approaches to the sources of international disputes, and to push for progressive value change within international organisations and regional institutions. In doing so it will help continue New Zealand’s reputation as an honest international broker, mediator and arbitrator committed to supra-and transnational methods of grievance redress and resolution. After all, if the world is truly to move away from the anarchic” state of nature” that is the realist conception of international affairs, it needs to move beyond the nation-state as the ultimate adjudicator of international disputes. It is up to small countries to make the case. It is their self-interest to do so, and that is eminently realist in conception. It is, in other words, a bit of Green (neo) realism at play.

All of this is a big task and may run counter to the wishes of more militant elements in the “watermelon” constituency of the Green Party (which should be seen as a source of strength rather than as a weakness). Now is the time to move beyond the parochial environmentalism, classism and other foundational Green principles and towards an agenda that attracts more mainstream voters in pursuit of being a legitimate swing vote and therefore real power broker in the New Zealand political system. This foreign policy manifesto is a gesture in that direction. That does not mean abandonment of  the foundational principles, but the enhancing and expanding of them. This is important because only the Greens have the ability to contribute significantly to a shift in the status quo political discourse currently on display. No other party does.

 After all, with ACT having prostituted its libertarian principles to the crime and punishment authoritarians headed by Mr.Garrett (see Lew and Anita’s posts on the issue  below), the Greens are the only honest political party left in parliament–with them, what you see is what you get, full stop. Given that unique position of advantage, now is the time for the Green Party to develop more depth to their policy agenda, which is why this post is tabled.

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