Archive for ‘Economics’ Category

This may sound mean but having bank economists talk about global macro-and political economics on major NZ news outlets is like having pedophiles talking about childcare. Having them speak authoritatively on the “news” skews public perceptions of economic matters towards the preferred constructs of finance capital. Leaving aside the matter of finance capital’s interest in deregulation of capital flows and currency manipulation, using bank economists may be fine when discussing banking take-overs or interest rates in local markets. But there are many other economic interests at play that deserve mention when it comes to issues of political and macro economy and bank economists are ill-suited for a robust discussion of them. To the contrary, their “expert”opinions masquerading as informed commentary in the news media are often poisonous to the integrity of public debate on economic matters.

Is there not a single non-banker economist in NZ who could be used instead? Are all the Economics, Business and Management departments in local universities full of useless PBRF worshippers devoid of real world experience? Are there no economists in research centers, institutes or government agencies who could present a dispassionate and non-vested perspective on the state of global economic play? I find it hard to believe that is the case.

Just saying…

Showing The Money versus Making Numbers Work.

datePosted on 17:33, May 3rd, 2012 by Pablo

That simple phrase “make the numbers work” catches John Key’s approach to the perennial tension between efficiency and transparency in a democracy. To simplify things, it can be said that the more democratic and transparent the policy process, the less efficient it becomes. That is because the more actors are involved in policy decisions, the more likely that additional decisional sites and veto points will be placed in front of policy choices. They key is to find an appropriate balance between efficient policy formulation and implementation and open participatory representation by all potential stakeholders. If forced to choose, democrats err on the side of representation. Authoritarians prefer efficiency.

The corporate world has no objective need for balance. What matters are balance sheets in the black. Firms are structured so that decision-making is hierarchical rathe than horizontal, with decisions flowing from the top rather than as a result of inputs from the bottom or from external parties. Managers rule, workers obey, and shareholders or owners reap profits. Given the sensitivity of any given project, public consultations might be invited and consideration might be given to mitigating factors that impinge on profitability, but the bottom line is that the numbers work in favor of owners, investors and share-holders.

John Key came from (and is likely to go back to) such a world. In fact, with a personal net worth of around $60 million he is a small time member of the “Masters of the Universe:” the network of financial elites (stock brokers, money managers, currency traders, hedge fund administrators and bankers) built up in the 1990s and headquartered in London, New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and Singapore who made the calls on how global liquid assets should be invested. Theirs is a world of numbers, not morality or ethics, and their worth to the network was and is their ability to make the numbers work when constructing investment deals. They answer to themselves and their clients without regard to the public interest because, quite frankly, they are interested in private gain rather than the public good.

With that in mind the self-styled CEO of NZ Inc., John Key, advised himself that changing gambling laws so that SkyCity can have another 500 slot machines in return for building a convention centre on adjacent land at no tax payer expense was a neat deal that was in both the private and public interest (the public presumably being interested in the tax revenues and ancillary benefits that will accrue from having the convention centre up and running, which is a whole different story). By that logic the numbers work.

In order to come to this conclusion, however, NZ’s self-styled CEO had to ignore the counsel of the Auckland City Council, local iwi, problem gambling-related mental health organizations, the Police, traffic authorities, tourism operators and a host of other potential stakeholders (I mention these because the proposed site of the convention centre involves a myriad of urban planning considerations and is only handy to the Casino and not to the Viaduct, Cloud, Winyard Quarter, Ponsoby, Newmarket or other entertainment districts that depend on tourists). When I say “ignore” I mean that he chose not to solicit advice from any of these parties rather than turn his back on advice already given. Mr. Key’s self-advice also told him to order an end to all other tenders once SkyCity got involved, some of which might have contained the input from non-investor interested parties such as those mentioned above. But as a minor Master of the Universe why should he bother with pretenders and outsiders when he could seal the deal with SkyCity for a small change in an industry-specific law? The Hobbit saga taught him that allowing non-investors to have a say could well kill the deal, so this time around he made sure that negotiations were kept quiet.

Clearly Mr. Key is a man who understands numbers and efficiency. But perhaps he spent a bit too much time in Singapore, where public input into policy decision-making is inconsequential to the point that it is not even considered even when it comes to large public works projects (such as the expansion of the MRT train lines currently underway, which have displaced thousands without any input from them and with compensation determined not by market value but by government fiat). In Mr. Key’s world he does not have to waste time and money listening to the blather of a host of obstructionists and self-interested losers (because, after all, he only deals with winners). He is there to crunch the numbers and do the deals. In the pokies-for-convention-centre trade he has done so, efficiently.

No wonder it is rumored that he is tiring of the job. Here he is, cutting deals and helping commercial players make serious money just like in his good old days in the private sector. But now he has to put up with ex-post whingers and other plebians who all want a voice without a full command of the power of numbers. Plus, he is surrounded by career politicians who for the most part could not make a buck even if they won lotto, and the opposition is nothing more than a bunch of special interest namby-pambies who would not get past the lobby of his former corporate headquarters. Why should he stick around and have to listen to their nonsense about addiction, traffic and other social costs?

You have to feel for Mr. Key. Once he was in the stratosphere, unaccountable to anyone but his corporate masters and the private interests that they served. He made money off of money without having to add value or increase production anywhere, and he got rich doing so in part because he made his name in an authoritarian country in which numbers, not people, matter most. Now he has to smile and wave to a bunch of provincial hicks self-absorbed in some weird Antipodean PC navel-gazing where everyone has a say and little gets done.

Then of course there is John Banks, and how he reads the numbers. For Mr. Banks the deal is not about making public and private numbers work. It is about private interests showing him the money in order to advance his political fortunes. Whereas Mr. Key was looking for a way to balance a specific private actor’s desire with a vague public interest (again, assuming that a convention centre adjacent to SkyCity is in the public interest), Mr. Banks was looking for campaign contributions. Presumably there was a quid pro quo involved with at least two known private parties, SkyCity and Kim Dotcom (there are plenty of others who donated “anonymously” to Mr. Banks but let’s focus just on these since they are in the news). What the expectations were for deliverables from Mr. Banks is as of yet unknown, although whatever they were it appears that Mr. Dotcom now feels that he was stiffed on the deal and is exacting his revenge by releasing details of his donations to Mr. Banks’ mayoral 2010 campaign. Whatever it was it was not in the public interest unless one thinks that granting Mr. Dotcom special favors is a collective good.

In the end, what Mr. Key did was not very democratic but it was legal and efficient as far as the tightly defined numbers behind the deal are concerned. Mr. Banks, on the other hand, had no public interest in mind when he solicited funds from Mr. Dotcom and accepted those from SkyCity, even if the latter’s donation was the same as the amount donated to Len Brown at the time (to his credit Mr. Brown reported the donation from SkyCity to his campaign, which mirrored that given to Mr. Banks “anonymously”). SkyCity was just papering both sides of the mayoral aisle with its symmetrical donations to the two leading candidates, and whatever favor was purchased was bound to be equally small given the amounts involved no matter who won the election. But Mr. Dotcom was an individual who papered only one candidate as far as we know, and he did so in excess of the corporate entity known as SkyCity. He was, in other words, trying to purchase individual favor by backing one candidate over another.

That is why there is a difference between the two men. Mr. Key is an authoritarian-minded money man who thinks he knows what is best for the country without regard to the naysayers and whiners, and who makes the numbers work in favor of his preferred vision. Mr. Banks is an egotistical “show me the money” weasel. With the possibility of more revelations about Mr. Banks forthcoming, it could well be the case that the weasel brings down the money man, or at least accelerates his departure from office.

A Turn to Mean.

datePosted on 14:04, April 12th, 2012 by Pablo

As I watched various labour conflicts over the past few months, then took in accounts of greed-mongering of various types (the wheel-clamping rort being the latest), I set to wondering if things have turned mean in NZ. I tend to think so, and believe a lot of it has to do with National’s presence in government as well as the increasing stratification of NZ society–something National’s policies tend to exacerbate. Some of this collusion is obvious, such as changes to labour laws that strip worker’s of collective rights while enhancing employer prerogatives when hiring and firing (under the banner of so-called “flexibility”). Some is less so, such as in the “look the other way” approach to the conditions that led to the Pike River and Rena disasters and the hands-off government reaction to them. But the trend towards meanness began well before National returned to government in 2008 even if it has gotten worse under it.

It strikes me that the syllogism involved goes something like this: increased employment precariousness born of economic recession in climates of market austerity premised on cost-cutting in both the public and private sectors leads to increased anxiety, then desperation amongst the salaried classes as their life opportunities narrow. In the measure that collective means of defense and redress are also pared down and stripped of legal cover, agency takes precedence over principal to the point that individual rank and file interests are sacrificed in favor of continued union bureaucratic presence (however diminished) in those economic sectors that remain at least partially organized. In the measure that workers realize that their agents have adopted the “iron law of oligarchy” where bureaucratic self-interest and survival becomes the primary objective to which rank and file interests must be subordinated, notions of collective solidarity are abandoned in favor of individual self-interest. Since this is the dominant ethos at play in unorganized sectors of the economy and amongst the managerial and financial elites, the move to survivalist alienation becomes endemic (and indeed pandemic, if we include the fact that immigrants are socialized into the culture of meanness, thereby propagating the “disease” beyond its original culture). The original agents of transmission, in any case, would appear to be the market ideologues who have metastasized into the managerial elites of the present day.

When survivalist alienation becomes endemic, cultural, ethnic, religious and other forms of ascriptive categorization are used to justify the “me first” approach to social intercourse. Until then people may just be bitter. But this is the point when things turn mean.

I could be wrong and this has always been the case in NZ. My impressions are formed since 1997, so perhaps what existed before was indeed a land of milk and honey. But it seems to me, beyond the inter-generational inevitability of the trend towards hyper-individualism there lay a number of accelerants that have made things worse in the last ten years.

 

Accumulation versus Distribution.

datePosted on 17:42, March 9th, 2012 by Pablo

The bottom line of any political economy resolves around the question of accumulation versus distribution. Productive activity that generates surpluses (profits) can be accumulated by those who control the means of production (workers or capitalists), or can be distributed throughout the larger community in which production is located. In capitalist system decisions about accumulation and distribution are done by capitalists. Workers organizations fight or bargain for better distribution of profits. Capitalists would prefer to accumulate for their own consumption. Because production is essential for the material standards of everyone, in democracies capitalists and workers negotiate the proper ratio of profits saved to profits distributed. Once distribution has occurred (via wages, benefits and the like) the saved part of profit is re-invested or “taken” by capitalists (owners) for personal use. Both sides adopt minimax negotiating strategies by making maximum claims on the preferred ratio, then settling for a mutually acceptable minimum. By doing so neither wages or profit-taking rise too recklessly or out of proportion to productive gains or inflation, as that would lead to inefficiencies and potential social unrest.

Or so the system is supposed to work. Depending on relative political balances and the specific location of a given productive sector in the capitalist world cycle at any specific moment, workers or capitalists may have structural and political advantages to play in their favor. Workers will attempt to maximize distribution in the form of job security and wage and benefit gains; capitalists will attempt to maximize accumulation by rolling back worker’s redistributive gains.

For the last twenty-five years logics of accumulation and profit-taking have dominated macroeconomic thought. Workers have steadily seen their distributive gains eliminated. As the process has deepened capitalists have pushed not only to reduce the material aspects of the distributive process. Sensing a favorable economic and political environment in places like New Zealand, they are launching attacks on the rights to collectively organize in defense of distributive stakes or goals. Capitalists well understand that for people to have economic rights they must have political rights.  The right to organize collectively is a political right. Reduce that right and previously held economic rights are more easily curtailed or eliminated. The more the concept of economic rights based on distribution is pushed towards a minimalist definition (encapsulated in the saying “you are lucky to have a job”), the more workers will limit their distributive demands in the quest for basic subsistence. The more that they do so the more working class internal competition will further push down the overall wage bill and increase job insecurity. The process of “casualisation” is the result of that trend, with “labor flexibilisation” being the managerial jargon used to describe employment precariousness.

Today in New Zealand the scales are tipped in favor of accumulation over distribution. The political and economic elite (including many in the Labour Party leadership) overtly side with the logics of accumulation argued by capitalists. They accept the reasoning that in the current global economic moment distribution to workers is contrary to future growth. Thus they accept that not only worker’s distributive demands but their political rights must be curtailed in order for economic benefit to occur. Of course, that benefit accrues to capitalists rather than workers, and if the low rates of re-investment in many productive sectors is anything to go by, profit-taking out of accumulated surpluses have been very good for capitalists indeed.

None of this is particularly new or surprising, even if recent labor conflicts had led to commentary about an impending class war in New Zealand, among other places. What is happening today is just the logical conclusion of a process of market-driven accumulation that began in the 1980s and which is reaching deep into the foundations of modern political economies today. The purpose is to forever privilege accumulation over distribution, and to ensure the political conditions in which workers can no longer challenge that logic or have a say in fixing the “equilibrium” ratio of accumulation to distribution.

Such a system has long been noticed and understood by the materialist school of class conflict. It is called the Asiatic Mode of Production, which relies on super-exploitation of human labor for accumulation gains. Given that New Zealand’s original market ideologues borrowed some of their policy prescriptions from the Chicago School of monetarist economics (later conceptually distorted in the word neoliberalism) as widely applied by capitalist authoritarians in the 1970s and 1980s, it seems  that their heirs have borrowed from the Chinese or Singaporean models, which are also heavily reliant on authoritarian political and social controls. This shift in preferred macroeconomic models makes perfect sense when we consider the move, shared by both major parties, to focus NZ’s diplomatic and trade relations on Asia and the Middle East, where democratic “niceties” are in short supply and where capitalists are largely unencumbered by human rights, much less labor rights or worker’s substantive rights to a share of the benefits of production.

The modern Asiatic model is as ruthlessly efficient as its predecessors, but is also based on a downwards redefinition of the concepts of economic and political rights that is generally considered anathema to democratic values (which in the labor market are enshrined in International Labor Organization conventions, now under siege in NZ and elsewhere). It would seem that in this particular market-driven moment, authoritarian capitalist reasoning prevails, accumulation is the sine qua non of macroeconomic policy, and the notion of egalitarianism as the basis for stable social order reflected in a fair ratio of accumulation to distribution has been abandoned in favor of the all-mightly profit-taking “bottom line.”

That is the state of play in New Zealand today.

Really too big to fail.

datePosted on 12:34, August 17th, 2011 by Pablo

Market responses to the US debt crisis and financial downgrade have been like king tides as of late, and inevitably speculation centers on the possibility of a “double dip” global recession (this speculation is more than rhetorical. Gold and other precious metal prices have spiked overt the last three weeks as investors flee the stock, bond, commodity and currency markets). There is much talk, some fearful and some hopeful, of a global meltdown of epic proportions. The argument goes that downgrading the US credit rating devalues US Treasury bonds and the dollar, which slows US private investment at home and abroad, decreases domestic consumption, increases unemployment and generally prolongs the recession begun in 2008. This ripples negatively across the globe given the interconnectivity of commodity chains and the central role of the US in them. Be it on the Left or the Right, the belief in state bankruptcy is taken as an article of faith.

The reality is different. What is happening is a fiscal crisis of the Western State rooted in a cyclic crisis of capitalism. Arguments about the blown-out US public debt obscure the fact that it is the result of the same conditions that produced the 2008 recession and which are at root the cause of the next one. For the last thirty years the ‘bubble” of private debt was replicated by the US Government, in the last decade under the strain of simultaneously fighting two prolonged low intensity conflicts. In Europe public debt was in part procured in order to compensate for private debt (via the provision of subsidized entitlements). Capital was lent on looser and looser terms as interest payment calculations came to rival returns on productive investment as the dominant macroeconomic logic. The market in financial derivatives boomed, then busted, bringing with it a crisis in small scale property ownership at the same time that major manufacturers were being bailed out by the US government.

There is a difference, however, between the private sector and the State when it comes to fiscal crises. The analogy between States and firms is overdrawn. Firms go bankrupt; States do not. States may default on loans and suffer the indignities of downgrading by financial institutions, but they do not go out of business. The reason is simple. States  with a presence in the global economy may fail but they do not cease to exist.

Modern states are political entities with other measures of power beyond economic resources, are rooted in historical and cultural ties within more or less fixed borders, have distinct political systems and political regimes that govern them, and are therefore sheltered from the hard realities that beset wayward market agents in a globalised system of production, service and exchange. More importantly with regard to the social and political relations of production, the modern nation-state supercedes the market at any specific moment even while being generally subject to its rhythms and dictates. It is, after all, a capitalist type of state that is not reducible to the productive apparatus.

Imagine even if the US defaulted on its current obligations. Its credit rating would fall further in parallel with the value of its currency, but how long will that last? Even if the US fails its financial obligations, it would be the markets that push for a debt restructuring favourable to it.  As the core of the global economy, the US is simply too big to fail because its financial collapse would reverberate widely and deeply through the world. In fact, with the exception of undeveloped failed states and microstates with minimal economic resources to promote, virtually all modern states can survive a fiscal crisis and default.

 Take Argentina, which in 2000 defaulted on its foreign loans, uncoupled its currency from the US dollar and then renegotiated the terms of its obligations. Since most of the outstanding balance was interest rather than principal, foreign creditors were eventually forced to settle on terms favourable to the Argentines (about 60 cents on the dollar lent). The weakened Argentine peso stimulated commodity exports and attracted foreign investment in resources and primary goods. In spite of endemic corruption, political interference and a multitude of market inefficiencies, over the last five years Argentina has averaged growth rates in excess of six percent and attracted the highest levels of foreign investment ever even while maintaining a large public deficit.

 Greece, the poster child of all that is supposedly wrong with governments and societies that do not couple entitlements with production, is another such case. What would happen if Greece defaulted on its recently rescheduled loans? Will it cease to be? what it could do is drop out of the Eurozone, replace the Euro with the much less expensive drachma, and print money to fund its domestic obligations. Somee foreign investors may flee, but local capitalists will continue to engage the domestic market, people will continue to consume, albeit at lower rates with regards to imported goods, tourists will still flock to see the historical sites and visit the islands, and the country will continue to exist. In fact, should it be successful at restructuring its economy on more internally-focused terms out from under the straitjacket of Eurozone obligations (say, by making its tax collection system more rational and efficient), it could serve as a model for the other “PIGS” nations—Portugal, Ireland and Spain—as well as Italy.

It was Northern European, mostly German capital, directly and channeled through the European Central Bank, which sought to recycle in the European periphery the super-profits accrued during the last two decades of derivative market expansion. These are the creditors who took the risk in the PIGS and who now demand debt repayment schedules rooted in austerity measures and privatization programs. They are also the beneficiaries of a strong Euro, unlike the weaker Southern European economies now under siege. Should debtor countries in Europe decide to reconfigure their economies around a devalued national currency a la Argentina, the European Union will be finished as a currency regulator. Here the sub-regional ripple or contagion effect makes each of the PIGS too big to fail, something that is magnified in the case of the US. Loss of credit rating and a high debt to GDP ratio, in others words, does not translate into State bankruptcy.

 The larger point is that states can default but they cannot be bankrupted because they are not solely economic agents but instead sovereign political actors with interests that transcend a financial bottom line. They can be upgraded and downgraded as financial risks, but even if investment falls and inflation rises, they will not disappear. Think of Brazil and Argentina in the late 1980s when inflation ran at over 1000 percent per year. Did they disappear? Did all foreign investment dry up? Did local markets crash?

Truth be told, capitalism, led by finance capital, was on overheated overdrive for the two decades before 2008, only slowing down briefly after events such as 9/11, even when objective conditions advised against the maintenance of the macroeconomic policies private agents used to calculate the speed of their returns. Western States emulated private agent logics, whereas Asian banks and sovereign wealth funds  were less keen to adopt derivatives-led financial approaches backed by increasingly unsecured loans (although some of that did creep into Asian markets as regional economies attracted Western investment).

Here is where global networks come in. Rather than wage war on States with economies in default, other States that are debt free or less indebted work to cover their investments, and those of their private agents, in the debtor States. This means that even if private agents in the debtor States fail as a result of their market excesses or miscalculation, and State treasuries do n not have enough reserves to cover their debts, States remain open for business, perhaps even on more favourable terms depending on the nature of sovereign debt restructuring agreements (public debt for equity swaps are one measure that can improve State efficiencies as a result of restructuring). Inefficient producers are expelled from the market; inefficient States muddle along.

The entire Western capitalist combine was due for a retrenchment given the downward slope it has been on since spending, both public and private, exceeded productive output in material goods and services. So long as money could be made off of lending money and risks were passed on to increasingly lower-level actors, early 21st century capitalism saw States tax and spend without coherent productive purpose (which mirrored the approach of the financial markets). This was a good political calculation but not a sound economic grounding for future productive growth within current capitalist parameters. Thus the turn towards private sector retrenchment in 2008, with public sector retrenchment now following.

We hear about the demise of various States because they can no longer afford to repay what they have borrowed in order to maintain whatever it is that is considered precious to national identity and political stability–public goods and entitlements in Europe, a war machine in the US. Retrenching Western States may not be able to provide these services in the measure they used to, but thy remain (however diminished) as linchpins of an international system that has its origins in the Treaty of Westphalia rather than Bretton Woods or the Washington Consensus. States are the ties that bind that global system of exchange, and Western States continue to have a central role in it even as the system moves towards increased multipolarity.

Markets and politicians alike need to be cognizant of this fact, because as Keynes pointed out, it is political conditions, not economic conditions, that are the best guarantors of long-term investment. Rather than the economic particularities of a given investment climate at a specific moment in time, political stability offers better conditions for secure future private return. A stable national polity is the best guarantee of profit even if the public books are not balanced. That is the political cost for the social peace that is the basis for economic stability.

Ironically, it was the short-term focus of the macroeconomic logics that propelled the “bubble” that led first to the financial crisis of 2008 and now to the current conditions of political impasse and social instability in many liberal democracies. That is where the convergence of the fiscal crisis of the Western State and the cyclic crisis of capitalism can lead to liberal democratic State failure: when it produces a crisis of legitimacy of the political elite, often confused with regime crisis, that once rooted in and superimposed on the economic downturn and social unrest constitutes an organic crisis of the State. The UK evidences these type of pre-conditions.

Rather than demand zero-sum tax cuts and a diminished State role in guaranteeing the social relations of production,  the priority of the market during a State fiscal crisis should be to to express confidence in the State because delegitimisation of the latter is an absolute guarantee of disasterous market consequences for the private actors involved with them in the event that they are overthrown or fragment. That is where market ideologues have failed in their basic obligation: to help foster the political and socio-economic conditions in which stable rates of private return are generated. Instead, they are exacerbating the crisis with their jitters, demands and panic trading. This will not lead to an organic crisis in most liberal democratic states (which will muddle along), but it could produce legitimacy crises in newly democratic states or those with significant social cleavages. Even then the prospect of State, as opposed to regime or private sector failure, is unlikely.

All of which is to say that when it comes to the fiscal crises of modern Western States, this too shall pass.

 

 

Rioting Poms.

datePosted on 11:57, August 9th, 2011 by Pablo

A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics.  All was well in the Realm.

In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.

The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.

So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.

The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.

Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.

This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative  to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).

In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.

 

PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier  post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.

Capital punishment

datePosted on 09:23, July 6th, 2011 by Lew

Do yourselves a favour and listen to this morning’s debate between Chris Trotter and Deborah Coddington on Morning Report. This is (or ought to be) the agenda for this year’s election, and this is (or ought to be) how the national debate runs.

The leak of Labour’s purported capital gains tax (by former One News deputy political editor Fran Mold, now Labour press secretary, to her former colleague Guyon Espiner) is undoubtedly Labour’s play of the year to date. It takes an issue of great public interest and thrusts it into the national debate at a time when the electorate is preoccupied with less directly political considerations. As Maxwell McCombs famously said, what the voters think isn’t as relevant as what they think about, and this is a great example of taking the initiative and giving the electorate something to think about.

But not just the electorate. Everyone is thinking about this, because it is — finally — a genuine flagship policy from Labour. John Key’s comments on the topic take up two-thirds of the Vernon Small’s Stuff article yesterday. The property investment lobby are predictably livid about it. David Farrar has come out swinging, despite having been cautiously supportive of considering a CGT earlier in the term. Deborah Coddington, in the linked discussion above, saw fit to analogise CGT to child prostitution laws. Seriously.

The announcement has riled ’em, and it’s not even official yet. They’re scaremongering furiously, and if Labour have an ounce of sense the pitch of the official policy announcement (tomorrow next Thursday) will be to allay the worst of these fears. It should be framed as “redirecting investment to more productive sectors in theeconomy” and “paying our fair share”, with Phil Goff and Labour MPs (many of whom own investment properties) laying down a challenge to others: “we’re prepared to suffer a bit for the good of the rest of the country: are you?”

And then there’s the class-consciousness, demographic wedge, which Chris Trotter got pitch-perfect: property speculators are “landlords”, and the object isn’t to win back disgruntled National voters, but to engage the 20%+ of the electorate who didn’t vote last time because they felt none of the parties spoke for them, and the thousands of people who were too young to cast a vote in 2008 and are now even further from the possibility of home ownership because even the worst recession in half a century has failed to bring sanity to real estate markets.

This is positive-sum, strategically sound and tactically smart politics. Now what remains to be seen is whether Labour can win the battle of ideas over it.

L

Enough rope

datePosted on 10:34, June 23rd, 2011 by Lew

On Mike Hosking’s Newstalk ZB show this morning, a discussion of the gender pay gap and Catherine Delahunty’s bill on the topic — and an object lesson in not believing your own hype:

Alasdair Thompson [Employers & Manufacturers’ Association CEO]: “Let me get down to tin tacks here. It is unfortunate, if you like, that men and women are different –“
Helen Kelly [Council of Trade Unions President]: [incredulous laughter]
AT: “– they are. The fact is, women have babies, they take time out of their careers to have babies. Women have — look, I don’t like saying this, this is how contentious this is, but here’s a fact of life. If you really want to keep some statistics, look at who takes the most sick leave. Why do they take the most sick leave? Women do in general. Why? Because, ah, you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do. They have children that they have to take time off to go home and take leave of. Therefore their productivity — not their fault, it’s … it may be because they haven’t got it sorted out with their partners, where the partners take more responsibility for what happens outside work. There are all of these issues, and none of this is covered in these statistics that this bill wants to sort out. Now, I’m sorry, I don’t like saying these things because it sounds like I’m sexist, but it’s a fact of life.”
HK: “Sure does, Alasdair, I’m glad you said them, it’s fantastic. I let you go on that one.”

(Audio)

Helen Kelly played Alasdair Thompson like a harp here. For a start, his argument is bogus — as Kelly says, the figures don’t back it up in the general case, and where they do back it up there’s a host of confounding variables. (For just one of many possible objections, since women already earn less than men for the same work, there’s an advantage at the margin where they retain the primary childcare responsibility, all else being equal. On the basis of this Thompson says they should be further penalised.)

But quite apart from the standard of the argument, Thompson ended up defending the indefensible in indefensible terms. It’s one thing to defend the indefensible in terms that seem reasonable, quite another to do so in terms that are repugnant. Rather than arguing the difference of interpretation and retaining the dignity of a Captain of Industry, a benevolent leader of men (and women) who cares about their wellbeing, he slipped into the worst sort of boss-man-splaining. This might work just fine in boardrooms where the interests of those present are aligned, but it’s not much good in the public sphere. He clearly realised this, but only once he had committed to it: his delivery was garbled and disjointed, clearly ad-hoc, and so heavily caveated that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

But that’s what we must do. This guy is an experienced representative of New Zealand’s employers, speaking in his official capacity on a topic for which he had (or ought to have) prepared, in a mainstream media outlet. We are entitled to take him at his word, and we should thank him for telling us what he really thinks. And we should thank Helen Kelly for giving him such a plum opportunity to do so.

Update: Not one to do things by halves, Thompson has doubled — or, tripled down, with a press release arguing that women are paid less because they’re just not worth as much, and statements to the Herald blaming “socialists”, “Labour” and “unions” and claiming 90% support for his position. That number has now mysteriously vanished from the Herald’s story, and comments by readers of the National Business Review — Thompson’s natural constituency — are running 80-20 against him at the time of writing this update.

You could say he’s quadrupled down, even, since he’s now taken to twitter, responding to criticism and barbed quips with cut & pasted lines from his press release. A more epic fail is hard to envisage.

L

Recuerdos de la Muerte (Memories of Death).

datePosted on 14:08, March 24th, 2011 by Pablo

Today (March 24) is the 35th anniversary of the coup that ushered in the “dirty war” in Argentina that cost 30,000+ lives, more than 10,000 “desparecidos”  (“disappeared,” or those who were last seen in custody but whose bodies have never been discovered), with tens of thousands tortured and exiled. Never has the dark side of the Argentine psyche been on worse display than during the so-called “Proceso de Reorganisacion Nacional” (“Process of National Reorganisation”), and hopefully the bitter lessons learned will prevent a repetition of that wretched episode in Argentine history. The hard truth is that although the September 11, 1973 golpe that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile is more well-known (as was the dictator Pinochet), and the Argentine coup followed others in Uruguay (1973), Bolivia (1974), Peru (1968), Brazil (1964) and several previous ones in Argentina itself (1962, 1966, with an internal military coup in 1970), the dictatorship installed in 1976 was the most sadistic, murderous and cruel of them all. In its brutality and efficiency it was the exemplar of South American authoritarianism.

For people like me–raised in Argentina and directly exposed to the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s–the horrors of those days do not go away easily. For a generation of Argentines, to say nothing of their counterparts in Chile and elsewhere such as in Central America, the traumas of those years will linger forever, and it is only now, with the birth of a generation completely unaffected by the dictaduras, that the process of psychological healing can begin in earnest. While people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s continue living, it will be impossible to erase from the collective memory the pervasive climate of fear that characterised life during those times.

The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare. Just as children fear the monsters under their beds and are powerless to stop their depredations, so too a society subjected to a systematic campaign of state terror is reduced to a sense of utter helplessness and vulnerability. After all, in the case of the dictatorships, the monsters were real and death or torture could occur at any time, for seemingly any reason. Terror appeared arbitrary but was in fact systematic, with the objective being to break the will of anyone who might oppose the dictatorial project.

The result was a condition of survivalist alienation: people just tried to go about their personal business, retreat into their immediate private lives and avoid trouble by relinquishing public commitments. The Argentines had a phrase for this: “de la casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa:” From the house to work and from work to home. Under such conditions there is no collective social subject. There is just submission.

It was under these conditions that the beginnings of the neoliberal macroeconomic experiments began in the Southern Cone. It was not just a matter of outlawing unions and political parties. It was about “cleaning the slate” of all those who could thwart the laboratory experiment that was the imposition of monetarist policies in South America. It was about using the climate of fear to reforge collective identities  so that the working classes would never challenge the primacy of capital again. It was about elites taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided by dictatorship to restructure the economy in a more favourable image, setting in place structural changes that would fundamentally alter class relations and the relationship of the state and society to capital in a way that the latter would always have the dominant say in social life. It was about, in the language of the time, “forcibly extirpating without anesthesia the malignancies of communism, atheism, feminism and homosexuality from the body politic” (the phrase is attributed to Argentine General Benjamin Menendez, who was one of the dictatorship’s most bloodthirsty leaders). In sum, the project was about using systematic application of state terror to sow the seeds of fear, alienation and despair in which market-driven projects could be imposed. Above that, the use of state terror was focused on social cleansing–in Chile it was about eliminating class challenges to capatilist rule. In Argentina it was about preserving an elite way of life. In either case, the dictators stopped at nothing to make their point.

These are the projects from which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, John Key and the Business Roundtable take inspiration. These are the models upon which the NZ economic reforms are based. And if we think of the way in which NZ macroeconomic reform and other aspects of social policy have been “reformed,” we can see that the authoritarian example has been emulated in more than the economic realm. In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.

We should also remember the climate of fear when we observe the Middle East. Populations that have been victimised, brutalised and traumatised by long-standing dictatorships are unlikely to have forgiveness and conciliation on their minds as the dictators begin to tremble. But the dictators and their allies know this, which stiffens their resolve to not suffer the retributions that they richly deserve. That does not easily make for a democratic “spring.”

All of which is to say, when it comes to contemplating the virtues of dictatorial regimes because they provide economic models or security partnerships, the answer in the first instance should be the rallying cry of the heroic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “Nunca Mas!!”

NB: The title of this post comes from Argentine author Miguel Bonasso, who wrote a book by that name.

Political rights and economic rights.

datePosted on 16:19, February 8th, 2011 by Pablo

Recent discussions have reminded me of the relationship between economic and political rights, and the varying interpretations of it. For orthodox Marxists economic rights supersede political rights for two reasons: 1) without an equitable material distribution of resources political rights mean nothing; and 2) with an equitable material distribution of resources there is no need for political rights.  In this view “politics” is either a status quo instrument of domination that conforms the masses to the requirements of production in a system dominated by private interests, or is a means of revolutionary challenge to that status quo. In neither case is it an end of itself. Subsequent Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist interpretations all concur with this view.

Socialists see economic rights as taking precedence over but not superseding political rights. Here the view is that economic rights are more important than political rights but the latter are needed to ensure the just distribution of material resources in a society. Even if imposed by dictatorial fiat, the maintenance of economic rights requires popular participation in the decision-making process surrounding the collective allocation of resources. That is a matter of political rights.

Social democrats see political rights preceeding economic rights. Here the priority is on gaining political rights first in order to subsequently secure economic rights to the material benefits of production. Since they see political rights as a universal good, they recognise the rights of non-socialists in the political arena, which means operating from a position of structurally-conditioned disadvantage within capitalist societies. The emphasis thus shifts from control of production to redistrubution of surpluses (via taxation and state involvement in the social relations of production, mostly).

The Right has its own interpretations of the relationship. Libertarians place the emphasis on political rights (e.g. the right to do as they please so long as it harms no other) and, in the most extreme version, do not believe in economic “rights.”  Beyond that, the Right gets a bit fuzzy. Some free-marketeers assume the precedence of economic rights over political rights, so long as the rights conferred are market-driven in  nature (i.e., the “right” to make a buck without government interference). Other conservatives see political rights trumping economic rights (e.g. “no taxation without representation” or the right to mandate morality on a collective scale). The Right notion of economic rights differs from the Left notion, as it is not about material redistribution but about unfettered access to and freedom within an economic system controlled by private interests. Likewise, the Right view of political rights is more about freedom of choice and expression rather than about vehicles of collective redress and representation.

Showing my colours, I subscribe to the view that political rights are required for economic rights to obtain. The formation of unions, the extension of suffrage, the recognition of indigenous claims, the redress of past injustices, the acceptance of  universal “human” rights and the very ability to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo or elements of it all hinge on the prior granting of legal authority, or at least recognition, to do so. That is a political act, and legal recognition is the certification of political rights. That makes the move to secure political rights the precondition for the eventual recognition of other rights, to include those of an economic nature.

This is the hidden factor in transitions from authoritarian rule. The transition is most fundamentally marked by the extension of political rights to previously excluded groups, who in turn use the opportunity to agitate for previously unobtainable economic rights. The more the extension of political rights is achieved by force and economic rights redefined as a result, the more revolutionary the character of the regime change. The more negotiated the extension of political and economic rights, the more reformist the change will be.

This is just a broad sketch and not meant to be a definitive pronouncement. Readers are welcome to add their own intepretations as they see fit (within the bounds of civility, of course).

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