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Ideology as an organising principle.

datePosted on 11:16, January 14th, 2021 by Pablo

For over a decade commentators have noted the rise of a new brand of explicitly ideological politics throughout the world. By this they usually refer to the re-emergence of national populism and avowedly illiberal approaches to governance in the “advanced” democratic community, but they also extend the thought to the post-Soviet and developing world in places like Hungary, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines. The general notion is that there has been a world-wide turn towards wearing one’s notions of the proper society and approach to governance on one’s sleeve, as it were, and overtly using said approach to impose that particular vision on society.

The phenomenon extends beyond those who govern. This was made abundantly evident in the storming of the US Congress by a pro-Trump mob challenging the presidential election result. They are said to be “highly ideological” in their motivations, which is what drove some to violence in defence of their “convictions” (read: conspiracies) about defending the president in his time of need. In pursuing their version of the truth they were abetted by a wide range of media and politicians as well as the president himself. If anything, their “passion” (read: anger) was motivated by their ideas about what should hold true and what is a danger in American society.

By that token al-Qaeda, Daesh, the Taliban and assorted white surpemacists (some of the latter participants in the Capitol siege) are also truth-seekers and defenders of the proper social order because they too have an explicitly ideological interpretation of how the world should be.

The view that the current world time is particularly “ideological” is shared by those who lament the decline of consensus politics and policy-making neutrality or compromise. For these people the gold standard for democratic societies is multipartisan consensus and objective-technocratic approaches to policy-making and implementation. Here there is little to no room for ideology in politics. Instead, rationality prevails in political argumentation and voters decide between competing policy approaches and logics when choosing their political representatives. Notions of left and right distill into alternative conceptualisations of what is the best way of promoting free, fair and prosperous societies.

This misunderstands the nature of ideology. Ideology is not just a particular political movement or viewpoint. It is not just a rhetorical stand, rallying cry or mobilizational device. It is not just a political phenomenon. It is not merely a policy orientation.

Instead, it is an organising principle for a way of life. Rules to live by, by another name.

Ideology is a human artifice, a social construct conjured in the mind to explain what and who we are, how we live and where we are going as a species and its sub-groups. It is in that sense that humans are ideational–we construct ideas about our existence–and from that we construct ideological frameworks that organize reality over time and specify the relationship between the imaginary and the real. This is why we are both ideational and ideological: We temporarily live as physical beings on a material entity known as Earth, but we imagine the past, present and future possibilities of who we are as a sentient species based on our interpretations of our evolution. We organize our thoughts about different aspects of our existence. From the ideational mind comes ideology.

Since humans are material beings with physical characteristics, ideology organises the relationship of humans to the world in which we live and beyond. Primordially, that includes our relationship to the natural realm, animals, machines, climate, geography, outer space–the gamut of where human endeavour intersects with the cosmos amid and beyond us. We develop ideas about the universe and our immediate physical world and the material relationships we have with all component parts based on the knowledge gained by our collective experience over time. Much of this is done via scientific inquiry, exploration and education, although there are plenty of non- and quasi-scientific explanations floating around as well (e.g. astrology).

In the human ecosystem societies are formed around economic, social and political communities. These communities are bound together by norms, values, principles and mores that together constitute the ideological foundations of the “proper” order. Over time these belief systems are codified into institutions that combine abstract edicts with physical organisations that reproduce the foundational ideology. The more these institutions succeed in inculcating notions of the what is correct and what is transgressive, the more ideology recedes in the mind until it is subjectively interiorised into the subconscious. When that happens people do not need to be told what and what not to do; they just do or don’t.

That helps distinguish between large “I” and small “i” ideologues. Much like large and small “d” democracy, there is a difference between ideology as a social organising construct (small “i”) and ideology as a political belief system (large “I”). One is the meta thought; the other is just a point of view.

Think of it this way. We go about our daily routines according to a set of unwritten and written rules that we spontaneously abide by. We get up, wash, eat and dress in certain ways using certain implements, go to work via assorted regulated modes of transportation, work prescribed hours in designated spaces designed to encourage productivity, shop and seek leisure pursuits outside of work according to custom and practice, and return to our designated places of private shelter in order to rest. The precise nature of this routine is generally the same across societies and countries even if cultural mores add specificity to customary practice.

From birth to death, dawn to dusk, year to year, we operate under a set of norms, practices, procedures and values that have not emerged spontaneously out of the ether, but which have been developed by humans to assign consistency, efficiency, stability and predictability to individual and social life. None of this is explicitly political. It is just the way in which things are done thanks to trial and error, custom and practice improved by invention and innovation and practiced over time.

The impact of ideology on human perception and consciousness is captured well by Antonio Gramsci. As someone who understood the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the economic base, Gramsci noted the power of ideas in framing and reproducing society. He wrote that what made some ideologies “hegemonic” was that, while they originated from the minds of elites defending their privilege, they became accepted and embedded in the minds of subordinate groups as the way things are meant to be. This subjective interiorisation by subordinate groups of what began as a set of dominant group ideas is what gave them power as a social construct and made it all the more harder to offer “counter-hegemonic” ideas against them (particularly when the flow of social information is controlled by elites who dominate the political and economic status quos). As he wrote, elite ideology is hegemonic when it “descends through a complex tissue of vulgarisations in order to emerge as common sense.”

The specific ideology used for social organising purposes can be one of many: religious, political, scientific, economic or some combination thereof. For example, think of the so-called “Protestant Ethos” whereby Christian beliefs are wedded to capitalism, science and patriarchy in order to produce a specific type of (disciplined, repressed, hierarchical) society. Or the notion of the “Socialist Man” that also seeks, via the imposition of economic equality of opportunity and reward, societal value transformation in pursuit of the commonweal. This points to the fact that because it is a human construct ideology can differ between communities and over time even as it addresses the same set of basic social concerns.

Ideologies can also start with limited scope but then expand into an all-encompassing world-view. Consider the case of so-called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism started as a type of monetarist economic theory championed by Milton Friedman and the other “Chicago Boys” associated with the University of Chicago Economics Department. Simplified, its fundamental premise was that finance capital was the highest form of capital and should lead investment decisions on both the national and international level. Financiers are the best determinants of where productive assets should be allocated, so de-regulation of financial markets are the best means of efficiently aggregating resources in a society.

This relatively straight-forward (yet arguable premise) was re-worked and expanded under the so-called “Washington Consensus” whereby reduction of the State role in the economy as a regulator and direct producer (via more de-regulation and privatisation of public assets) became part of the project. This led to pushes to privatise health, insurance, welfare and educational systems. The logic that unregulated private markets knew best grew into the belief that in an “un-regulated” society individuals became self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the markets in which they operated. Unfettered by rules and regulations about how to pursue economic interests and unprotected by artificial social safety nets constructed by well-meaning but ultimately ignorant policy elites, they know what is best for themselves. At that point markets clear at the economic, social and political levels as individuals and groups pursue their preferences based on self-interested yet objective criteria. People sort themselves out in the social division of labor depending on their individual ambition and drive.

Over the four decades that variants of “neoliberalism’ have dominated economic policy-making in advanced democracies the impact has spread into ideas about how society and politics should be organised. That meant less horizontal solidarity ties and more vertical, individualistic approaches to collective issues and communitarian concerns. Some of this was the result of deliberate policy reform, such as the assault on union rights in places like NZ in the 1990s. Others were a trickle down consequence of the hyper-individualisation of social discourse. Successive generations of young people have been inculcated in the neoliberal ethos and become increasingly accepting of the view that charity and empathy begin at home, with the self, rather than with the community.

Needless to say, much is questionable about the neoliberal premise and its subsequent extension into all aspects of human life. Issues like incomplete access to information, unequal resource allocation and opportunity structures, collective versus individual right and responsibilities, etc., are largely ignored or downplayed in the neoliberal mind. And yet it has prevailed and become the dominant ideology in western democracies in chelate 20th and early 21st centuries.

The larger point is that what started out as an economic ideology has morphed over forty years into an approach to social organisation as a whole.

Understanding this puts discussion of recent political trends into better perspective. The move to national-populism in places like the US, Brasil or Hungary is a shift in the value components and rank ordering of priorities in the affected societies. These moves are restorative rather than transformative and designed to re-assert or reaffirm a socio-economic status quo that is perceived to be under siege. Although mobilizational in its appeal, it is not any more ideological than any other political belief system. To claim so is like saying that a person with a megaphone is more erudite than a person at a lectern.

For those of us who see much wrong in the current systems of economic production, exchange and distribution as well as in forms of social and political domination (even in supposedly democratic societies), the key to effective resistance and reform is understanding the power of ideology as an organising principle. Because only then can we see the primary multiple and overlapping trenches in which power must be engaged. Arguments about whether or not politics is more ideological today than they were ten or twenty years ago only detract from that fundamental concern.

Taxonomies of mass political violence.

datePosted on 16:15, January 8th, 2021 by Pablo

The assault on the US Capitol and constitutional crisis that it has caused was telegraphed, predictable and yet unexpected and confusing. There are several subplots involved: whether the occupation of the Michigan State House in May was a trial run for the attacks on Congress; whether people involved in the Michigan attack and other rightwing extremists from groups such as the Proud Boys were involved (as video shows individuals rallying and directing the crowds to the Capitol, initiating the first and subsequent clashes with the Capitol Police over the concentric perimeter barricades and then leading the charge towards the debating chambers and congressional offices while yelling threats to specific politicians like Pence and Pelosi; whether there was collusion between the president and elements in the DoJ, DoD and Capitol Police leadership to “stand down” their forces even in the face of intelligence reports that mass violence was distinctly possible; whether this was done purposefully to allow the occupation in order delay the electoral college certification vote hoping that somehow Trump would be declared the default winner (he would not); and so on.

Rather then get into these subjects while the smoke has yet to clear, allow me to offer a critique and then clarify some key concepts needed to understand what happened.

To begin with, the liberal corporate media is doing us no favours by loosely throwing out words like “domestic terrorists” and “coup” (the rightwing media prefers to blame everything on Antifa or portray the rioters as “misguided patriots” so will be ignored). This a prime example of conceptual stretching that devalues the true meaning of the words and renders them meaningless as analytic tools at a delicate moment. Conceptual precision, not conceptual stretching, is needed now. So in the interest of conceptual precision let me briefly offer the following taxonomy:

Military coup: removal of a government by the armed forces often working on behalf of or with civilian elite factions via the threat or use of force. It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and often pre-emptive in the face of a potential grassroots mass uprising. Its scale of violence can range from low to very high depending on the perception of common threat by the coup-mongering elites. It can involve universal or particular (corporate, in terms of specifically military) grievances. Depending on what the coup-mongering coalition intends, it can involve regime rather than government change. Other names for this phenomenon are “golpe de Estado (golpe)” or “putsch” (although in recent history the term refers to violent inter-military leadership disputes rather than regime change per se).

Constitutional coup: removal of government by a disloyal opposition via manipulation of legal norms (e.g. impeachment under false pretences). It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and the scale of violence is low. May embrace universal claims but uses particular grievances as precipitant or justifying factors. Does not involve regime change.

Insurrection: attempted/actual overthrow of government by armed political faction(s). It involves collective violence that is mass but not necessarily majority based. It is bottom-up in nature even if encouraged by elites and the scale of violence ranges from low to very high depending on the level of State and/or civil resistance to it. Embraces universal claims but may use particular grievances as a justification for action. May or may not desire or cause regime change.

Armed revolt: violent protest against government. Non-elite and bottom up in nature and execution. Low to medium scale of violence depending on scope of adhesion and State and social resistance. Often particularistic rather than universal in its grievances or claims. It can be minority or mass based depending on the scope of social adhesion. It may or may not result in government or policy change and will not result in regime change.

Sedition: advocating or instigating the usurpation/overthrow of duly constituted government. Can be elite or grassroots in nature and execution but with a limited mass base in any event. Low to medium scale of violence depending on degree of State repression. May have particular or universal grievances or claims but is not focused on regime change.

Revolution: mass (violent/non-violent) collective action leading to socio-economic and political parametric change (which involves regime, social and structural changes that transcend simple government overthrow). Bottom-up and grassroots in nature and execution based on universal claims or grievances (even if led by organised revolutionary vanguards). Scale of violence low to extreme based on scope of social and State resistance (i.e. class, religious and ethnic divisions increase the probability of violence).

Revolts, insurrections and sedition can lead to coups or revolution but are not synonymous with them.

So what happened in the US? The attack on Congress is best seen as an insurrection/limited mass revolt instigated by a seditious president refusing to step down after losing an election. It is not a coup because those are basically quarrels amongst elites that require overt or tacit involvement by the armed forces in support of one faction or one elite faction overthrowing another via “constitutional” means. It did not intend regime (or even governmental) change but instead the reassertion or re-validation of a particular type of administrative authority in a presidential democracy.

Nor was terrorism involved. Terrorism is the use of seemingly indiscriminate extreme or disproportionate violence on defenceless targets for symbolic purposes. It has a target (victims), object (purpose) and subject (audience(s)). The object is to sow pervasive fear and dread with the purpose of bending the subject to the perpetrator’s will. It can be criminal, state- (including military), state-sponsored, or non-state ideological in nature.

The assault on Capitol Hill did not involve extreme or wanton indiscriminate violence against defenceless targets. It was not designed to sow generalised fear. It was a limited, low-level mass act of partisan violence on a symbol of power that involved thuggery (including corporal harm) for the purposes of intimidation. It resulted in arrests, injuries and deaths, but it failed.

Once we understand these basic differences, we can more specifically consider the proportionate remedies needed to address the problem. Throwing around emotive language during a delicate and charged time only cheapens the debate and compounds the real issues involved. So let’s be precise.

PS: Long term readers will note that I have discussed various aspects of civil-military relations and the causal factors at play in coups in previous posts. Things like push and pull factors, vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military, disloyal oppositions and partisan stalemates–there is much more to the coup phenomenon than simplistic (mostly Left) punditry would have us believe. The truth with regard to recent event in the US is more complex, scary in part and yet comforting in the end.

Masking Alone.

datePosted on 15:06, December 29th, 2020 by Pablo

A while back I was talking to a friend about the reasons why I believe that the US has failed so miserably in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Our starting point was the idiocy surround the “masks interfere with our freedom” argument. Besides the fact that with individual and collective rights come responsibilities resulting in all sort of public interest regulations that people routinely accept (seatbelts, bike helmets for children, protective gear in the workplace), or the fact that retail outlets and other private entities routinely demand dress standards (“no shoes, no shirts, no service”), the problem appears to be rooted in the dumbing down of the US public over decades coupled with the rise of alternative (often false and conspiratorial) sources of information. As some have mentioned, never before have we had so much information at our finger tips and yet never before have we been so ill-informed.

That means that it is not political polarisation per se or leadership incompetence in the Oval Office that conspired to impede effective public health crisis mitigation. To be sure, once the narrative–encouraged from the White House–became one of “freedom” and “choice” versus THE STATE, the debate about pandemic control was hopelessly lost to the nutters. Rightwing media pushing the “freedom” versus authoritarianism line made things worse. But beyond that, the deep-seated mistrust of government, scientific expertise, health authorities and collective good sense in the US is rooted in something far more pernicious than the MAGA Moron phenomenon.

That something is the the erosion and corruption of what I will broadly describe as “social institutions.” These are the civil and political society groups that, along with their distinctive cultural and ethical mores and norms, are considered to be the foundation of collective identity and, writ large, notions of nationhood. In 2000 Robert Putnam ascribed the hollowing out of American democracy to the loss of these institutions in his book Bowling Alone, where he uses the metaphor of the post-1950s decline of bowling (and bowling alleys) as evidence that US civil society, and along with it civic virtue, was/is in decline. He called this a loss of “social capital.” It is the loss of social capital that is the root cause of today’s US predicament.

I am aware of the many good critiques of Putnam’s book and so will just address and add to the notion that a decline in social institutions is a precursor to the type of political polarisation and social anomaly that exists in the US today.

First of all, Putnam did not adequately explain the relationship between the decline of “social capital” and the evolution of US capitalism over the last half century. The move from postwar industrial logics of production to increasingly service-oriented economics amid a technology-propelled globalisation of commerce and exchange was the main driver in the entrance of women into the commodified labor force amid the destruction of the industrial era social division of labor. Unions declined, part-time work became mainstreamed, two-income families became a necessity rather than a choice, automation and out-sourcing killed off entire industries, corporate savings declined while “leveraged” borrowing and debt increased –the list of changes is long. The US is now a military-industrial, high tech, highly automated service-oriented economy, and the strong industrial class lines that emerged before and after WW2 have now been broken into a small but unified class elite governing over dozens of post-industrial class factions divided by race, region, religion and (types of) recreation.

Income inequalities have increased exponentially since 1980. The US is now a country where the top one percent of income earners own 30 percent of the country’s wealth, more than the entire middle class. The dislocating effects of the economic shifts of the last half century are both broad and deep, extending from corporate cultures, small business practices to inter-personal affective relationships.

To that can be added the alienating effects of advanced telecommunications, particularly the introduction of mass computing technologies that obliterated the barriers between personal, private, public and corporate communications, entertainment and consumption. Take the notion of leisure. What used to be collective pursuits held in public group settings, such as bowling, gradually were replaced by more individualised pursuits done in private settings, like gaming. Profits from physical attendance at sporting or entertainment events have been eclipsed by those generated by televised coverage of the events. Plus, with wages increasingly compressed (again, the reasons are many) and work demands increased, people no longer had the time or money to commit to social networking significantly outside of work-related activities.

Here is a small example. After World War Two my father worked at the General Motors Overseas Corporation (GMOC) based in New York. GMOC was the international production and trading arm of General Motors Corporation based in Detroit. For legal and tax reasons it was a separate business entity from the domestic side of the business, with its top management holding selected senior positions in the overall umbrella structure of the Detroit-based firm.

Back in those days my father was no senior manager. Instead he started as a mailroom clerk and worked his way up. He met my mother, a secretary, at GMOC. During the entire time that he was at GMOC, before he took a job in Argentina and GMOC New York was dismantled and integrated into the Detroit parent company, he played sports for GMOC teams. Baseball in the summer, basketball in the fall and winter, softball in the spring and bowling year round. He and my mom met in Central Park where the outdoor games were held and either had picnics or went out to eat after the games were finished. In colder weather they met in gyms and at the lanes to do variations of the same. When I was very young I was brought along to share those moments along with my parent’s colleagues and young families.

After we moved to Argentina my Dad continued to play softball for a GM team that was established there. It played against other automobile and oil companies (Ford, Chysler, Esso and Shell) and some local Argentine teams keen on improving their skills against US competition. Meanwhile, even before GMOC was reorganised and relocated to Detroit in 1971, the corporate athletic leagues in New York City began to decline as per Putnam’s observation. Younger employees moved to the suburbs rather than live in the buroughs, family pressures and commuting infringed on the time available to play ball, and by the end of the 1970s the entire network of NY corporate sports associations was on life support.

There have been attempts to resurrect or replace these Leagues with mixed success. The point is that their decline was driven not by changes in cultural mores alone but by the irresistible forces operating in production and in the social division of labour that grew out of them.

Even so, cultural mores have been at play in the decline of social capital in the US. The hyper-competitive drive that pushed the evolution of US capitalism has resulted in the emergence of what I think of as a “survivalist alienation” ethos coupled with a liability mentality. People increasingly see each other as competitors rather than colleagues, much less comrades. They abdicate personal responsibility in favour of “other-blaming.” An entire industry–personal injury litigation, aka ambulance chasing–has been built on these twin pillars. This leads to a form of collective narcissism that one might call “hyper-individualism:” it is all about me, me me.

This turn to the self is cloaked in a vulgarisation of social discourse evident in pop culture but extending much beyond it. Even sports have coarsened: cage fighting and scripted wrestling have moved from the fringe to the centre of profit-making athletics.

The impact is seen in what is left of social institutions. The phenomena of raging soccer moms and fighting baseball dads are so common that sports field security for pre-teens is required for insurance purposes and sideline rage has entire social media channels dedicated to it. Little kids now preen and strut, mock their opponents, and generally behave like the lumpenproletarians they see in professional sports. What this amounts to is a rot from within, where the pure soul of sport is carved out and replaced by something far darker.

Likewise, be it in bridge clubs or local volunteer fire departments, the US has seen both declining numbers and declining civility within social institutions. That is the social capital that is being lost. Horizontal solidarities have consequently been disrupted while vertical socio-economic disparities have increased. People are atomised in production and increasingly isolated in civil society. That leads to political alienation and dysfunction, making the terrain, as Gramsci said, “delicate and dangerous” and ripe for “charismatic men of destiny” to stamp their imprint on it. Trump and his GOP minions have done exactly that.

It occurs to me that the dislocating effects of capitalist production in its post-industrial phase coupled with a coarsening of popular discourse in the US lie at the root of the decline in social institutions/social capital that Putnam described, which in turn facilitated political polarisation, media stratification and a retreat into comfortable idiocy on the part of many citizens. That prevented any united approach to pandemic mitigation because the atomising and centrifugal forces at play were (and still are) multiple, overlapped, intertwined–and antagonistically reinforcing around the lightening rod that is the 45th president.

To this can be added two other American pathologies: lack of historical memory and the cultural predisposition towards the “quick fix” rather than more long-term, drawn out and measured responses. The lack of historical memory is not just about the 1918 so-called “Spanish Flu.” It is about any disease, from polio to SARS. Very little in the Trump administration, city or state responses was grounded in historical reads of previous disease eradication efforts (what references were made had mostly to do with case and death statistics, not to the progression of and specific mitigation efforts against the disease). Instead, when not a complete shambles of denial and blame-shifting such as that of the White House, what passed for containment policies were drawn from contemporary experiences around the globe. Even successful Obama-era public health campaigns were derided on partisan grounds. That might not have been problematic in places where the response initially worked, but given that Covid-19 has moved into second- and third-wave mutations, it was no panacea over the longer term.

This wilful lack of historical references is compounded by the American penchant for the “quick fix.” Rather than put on masks, practice social distancing and suffer short term economic deprivation for longer term gain, many Americans preferred to live their lives as usual, without precautions, bleating about their “rights” and “freedom” while they waited for a vaccine to be developed. Here too the lack of historical memory hurt, because many simply did not believe the experts when they said that, based on experience, a vaccine was a year or more away from being developed. As it turns out, vaccines have been developed and rolled out in less than a year, which is truly remarkable. But the disease moved deeper into society as winter came, and now 1 in very 1000 Americans (335,000) have died of it before the vaccine is broadly available. Cases are nearing 20 million and by the time the vaccine is widely available the estimates are that at least 10 million more will be infected and 400,000 American will be dead. Not surprisingly, both the prevalence of the disease and access to vaccines is marshalled along socio-economic class and ethnic lines.

In sum, the wretched excuse of the US pandemic response is the culmination of a long period of decline that is founded on the erosion of social institutions and loss of social capital caused by the evolution of the US mode of production. To be sure there are other intervening variables and factors at play in the cultural and political milieus that contributed to the disaster (because that is what this is–a human disaster in both cause and response). But in the end the problem of the US pandemic response was not one of public health failures but one of US capitalism and its social and political superstructure.

Hence the need during this holiday season for Americans to mask alone.

When the blind lead the blind.

datePosted on 08:28, December 15th, 2020 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has been released and the verdict is mixed. Some are pleased that systemic failures were identified and acknowledged while others are disappointed that no single person or agency was held to account for those failures. The Muslim community, although given a prominent place in the RCI investigations and Report and offered direct apologies by the Prime Minister and heads of Police and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), remains unsatisfied with the outcome even if it accepts the recommendations that derive from the Report (as does the government).

Under its terms of reference, the RCI investigation was very broad and very shallow. Because of its scope it eventually had to be extended a year beyond its original six month mandate and have its budget doubled. It was broad in the sense that it had to address the terrorist and his activities, the impact his actions had on the targeted community, the actions and inaction of State security agencies (not just those involved in counter-terrorism (CT) efforts) that contributed to the event and a host of extraneous factors considered relevant to the investigation (for example, European and US experiences with rightwing terrorism).

It was shallow in the sense that, even though it could have availed itself of powers of compulsion under oath under the Inquiries Act, it chose not to. Instead, the RCI engaged in a self-limiting investigatory approach where it was dependent on the voluntary cooperation of State entities and officials when it came to evidence provision and testimony. Because of concerns about national security, no government officials (other than agency heads) identified during the course of the investigation were publicly named and their testimony is to remain sealed for thirty years. Although available to security authorities, the terrorist’s evidence is permanently suppressed in order to avoid copy-cat behaviour. 

One view is that this was done to encourage honesty and candor on the part of witnesses with potential liability exposure, but it also meant that in terms of transparency and public accountability, the RCI was hamstrung from the start. A more cynical view has it that this covers up culpability and whitewashes the truth while absolving the guilty.

Others have written about the before and after-effects of the attacks on New Zealand’s Muslim community as well as the history of local white supremacists and rightwing extremists. The work of the RCI has been amply scrutinised. The Report itself has been dissected at length. Given that, here the focus is on the institutional deficiencies within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) that were uncovered by the RCI.

If one phrase sums up the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks, it is “systemic failure.” The failure was institutional and individual, within and across New Zealand’s borders and involved errors of commission and omission.

The most salient finding is that there was a pervasive obsession with Islamic extremists within the NZ Counter-Terrorism community dating to 9/11. This myopic focus was shared by collection (operational) agencies, analytic agencies, oversight and coordination agencies, foreign partners, the governments and most politicians of the day. The media and the public, while largely unconcerned about the possibility of domestic terrorism, accepted the official line that after 9/11 and given events in the Middle East, Islamic extremism was the most likely threat to the Kiwi way of life.

The problem with this perspective is its lack of grounding in fact. Before and after 9/11, no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of any act of ideologically-motivated violence in Aotearoa. A couple of people have been arrested and imprisoned for possessing jihadist materials, a few have been detained for objectionable social media posts, some have been sent into de-radicalisation diversion programs and some have had their passports cancelled based upon fears that they would travel to the Middle East to join ISIS or al-Qaeda. Two have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East and one is languishing in a Syrian opposition jail. Back at home, at any given time, 30-35 people are monitored by the intelligence services because of their perceived jihadist sympathies. They may be inclined towards violence but as of yet none have decisively acted on their impulses. When it comes to contemplating acts of terrorist violence on NZ soil, would-be jihadists have been relatively few and far between, and all talk and no lethal action.

During the same timeframe, right-wing extremism world-wide grew bolder in terms of violent acts and larger in terms of numbers, starting with the mass murders perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Oslo in 2011 and accelerating after 2015 with murderous attacks in places like the US, UK and Germany as Daesh was defeated in Iraq and Syria and refugee flows increased from the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe. On-line white supremacist forums proliferated, as did the number of self-radicalised “lone wolves” who populated discussion groups focused on who, when and how to commit violence against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays, Arabs, Africans, and other perceived undesirables.

Groups like Atomwaffen Division, English Defense League, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois moved from their keyboards to the streets. NZ was not immune to this phenomenon, with groups such as the Dominion Movement, Northern Front, National Front, White Defense League, New Order, Right Wing Resistance, and more recent off-shoots like Western Guard and European Students Association waxing and waning before becoming more visible and vitriolic over the last ten years (other violently-inclined groups have formed after March 15, including Action Zealandia). 

This suggests that post-2011 NZ counter-terrorism (CT) threat assessments should have incorporated the rising global trend of irregular right-wing violence. Yet in the period 2010-2019 right-wing extremism was mentioned only a handful of times in CT reports, most in reference to terrorist attacks overseas. When and where the possibility of a right-wing terrorist attack in NZ was mentioned, such as in a 2011 Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) report that the Oslo attack was a model for copycats and that New Zealand’s firearms regimes allowed for the legal purchase of military-style weapons with that intent, it was ignored by other agencies. Bureaucratic rivalries may have contributed to that.

The organization of the NZIC and the business model used by front line collection agencies made detection of non-Islamicist terrorist threats difficult. Collection agencies like the NZSIS and NZ Police operate on a “lead-based” and “customer” focused business model, in which the agencies react to tips about suspicious behaviour and frame their operations and analyses according to the perceived needs of their sponsors and patrons—primarily the government and foreign partners. The decentralised and siloed nature of the NZIC is another contributing factor to the failure to detect terrorist plots, whereby the alphabet soup of intelligence shops in areas like Customs, Immigration, MBIE and coordinating and analytic agencies like CTAG, the National Assessments Bureau (NAB), Security and Intelligence Board (SIB), Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee (CTCC) and a number of others compartamentalise and narrowly share classified information on a “need to know” basis.

There are no strong hierarchies in the chains of command linking the functionally-differentiated agencies within the NZIC, with various intelligence units answering to different ministers and seldom to each other. This led to duplication of functions and tunnel vision within the community. Although the NAB ostensibly serves as the lead agency in the decentralised NZIC organizational pyramid, vertical as well as horizontal accountability between NZIC members was and is limited.

Then there was the issue of emphasis. In terms of overall organizational focus, domestic terrorism was a secondary concern for the NZ security community in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks. Only 20 mentions of domestic terrorism were made during that period. The bulk of those referred to home-grown and returning jihadists.

The dysfunctional organizational arrangement and myopic mindset was compounded by the fact that there is little proactive or “over the horizon,” futures-forecasting strategic analysis within the NZIC’s component parts. Under extant funding models and given the security orientation of political masters and foreign partners, there was little incentive for intelligence shops to expend resources on discerning distant threats via strategic analysis or convincing political funders that the CT focus needed to be expanded in light of an emerging global right-wing extremist movement that uses the internet as a recruiting, radicalisation and irregular warfare tutorial platform.

This was obviously short-sighted and (still) leads to institutional lag when confronting the threat environment (whereby agencies play steep learning curve catch-up because their focus is on the last and not the next major threat). It also violates the basic professional requirement that threat landscapes be divided according to an objectively-determined differentiation between possible, probable, proximate, immediate and imminent threats upon which preventive measures can be predicated.

The Report repeatedly references Police and SIS complaints that they were under-resourced during the decade prior to the attacks, something that contributed to their inability to monitor right-wing extremism. The SIS reported that it had 225 personnel in 2013-14, of which 35-50 percent were engaged in security vetting and the rest in domestic and foreign espionage and counter-espionage functions, with only 4.5 full time equivalent staff dedicated to terrorism investigations. By 2019 the total staff had increased to 328 full time equivalents but the functional distribution remained the same. During the same period the SIS budget increased 245 percent, from $33,751,000 in 2007-08 to $82,843,000 in 2018-19. This does not include at least one dedicated cash injection of over $175 million provided by the National government in 2016-17 to the NZIC and excludes any “black budget” expenditures (most intelligence agencies carry off-the-books “black budgets” for particularly sensitive operations).

The nearly $50 million operational budget increase and 100 staff added during the half decade leading to the attacks was not reflected in SIS CT operations, so the question begs as to whether it was not so much the lack of resources that impeded improvement in that operational area but a maldistribution of resources within it that contributed to the SIS failure to detect the threat emerging from the extremist Right. After all, it dedicated between a third and half of its staff to vetting security clearance applications. Assuming that clerical staff occupy five-ten percent of personnel numbers, then the amount of people dedicated to domestic espionage (including CT), foreign espionage and counter-espionage within the SIS is remarkably low for a front-line intelligence agency. The political priority given to counter-terrorism efforts by governments during the years after 9/11 and emergence of ISIS in Europe make it hard to fathom that only 4.5 equivalent full time staff were dedicated to CT efforts in 2014, and that the same distribution of personnel continued even with the 50 percent increase in staff by mid-2019.

The NZ Police also claim to have struggled with resources for intelligence work in general and CT work in particular. Citing shortfalls, the Police stopped investigating right-wing extremism in 2014 and no reports on the subject were issued until 2019 (after the attacks). The intelligence wings of the Police were said to be lightly staffed and spread over a number of issue areas that went well beyond CT concerns. Both the National Security Group (NSG)  and Security and Intelligence Group (SITG) claimed to not have enough resources to engage in the type of strategic intelligence assessments that would have made early detection of right-wing extremists easier. In 2010 the National Intelligence Centre employed 53 staff out of a total complement of 11,890, then 63 in 2012 and 52 in 2013 with similar total numbers, while in 2018 “International and National Security” functions employed 357 out of 12,467 staff (organizational changes made for different staffing statistic categories in Annual Reports after 2017). 

Even with the changes in statistics measurements that incorporated other liaison and analysis duties, it is clear that staffing of Police intelligence operations remained fairly constant and even rose slightly towards the end of the period covered by the RCI Report. It was therefore not a major impediment to CT operations per se. Instead, it appears that the allocations of resources within the intelligence branch were directed to areas other than CT, again, consistently throughout the years and paralleling the operational priorities of the SIS. Funding for additional CT staff at the national level was approved in 2018, but the problem remained that, to quote the Report, the “New Zealand Police had generally viewed right-wing extremism as more of a public order issue than a potential terrorist threat” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 30).

There is no mention in the Report of whether Police intelligence received information about violent right-wing extremists during the course of undercover operations targeting criminal gang activities such as drugs or weapons dealing (so-called “street crimes”). Yet, although no information on right-wing extremists was reported at the national level after 2014, “(w)e (the RCI) were also provided examples from the National Security Investigations Team of leads related to right-wing extremism that met the risk threshold and were pursued.” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 36). In other words, there were leads coming from somewhere about right-wing extremists and they were pursued, but nothing more is known about them (at least as far as the public record is concerned).

The “lack of interest” problem regarding right-wing extremism was compounded by the fact that tactical intelligence leads are mostly developed by each Police District, and during the time period in which the killer was planning and preparing apparently no leads on violent right-wing extremists were developed by the intelligence shops based in Dunedin and Christchurch, much less elsewhere. Instead, at both the district and national levels, in terms of strategic as well as tactical assessments, the NZ Police focused CT efforts on detecting and disrupting the plans of Islamicists (and had some success with that).

Even so, the NZ Police did allocate intelligence resources to monitoring some non-Islamicist groups. During the period covered by the Review, which came in the wake of the infamous Urewera Raids, the Police followed intelligence leads and conducted operations against environmental, animal rights and anti-1080 activists along with the ‘normal” business of providing intelligence for non-ideologically motivated criminal investigations. This is worth noting because terrorism involving lethal mass attacks is most likely to be ideologically rather than criminally motivated (following the logic that criminal activity is a form of commercial rather than advocacy enterprise and public violence is generally bad for business). Amongst ideological activists in NZ, environmental and other Leftist groups are less prone to supporting terrorism to advance their goals than either aspiring jihadists or right-wing extremists (including so-called “eco-fascists” involved in anti-1080 campaigns). And yet they received more attention from the intelligence services than neo-Nazis did, and CT efforts remained focused on would-be jihadists.

It was therefore not just a lack of resources allocated to CT efforts within the Police, SIS and other agencies that impeded the detection of right-wing terrorist threats. Instead, it was the lack of priority given to them that contributed to the systemic intelligence failure. Intelligence work done by the Police and the SIS involve at their core human intelligence collection. That essentially means boots on and ears to the ground, which in turn is an issue of trained staff dedicated to the task on the one hand, and objective threat recognition on the other. In spite of the evolving threat landscape in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks, CT staffing numbers remained small and steady, with low emphasis placed on non-Islamicist threats. When they were, the objects of scrutiny were not from the extremist Right.

The GCSB was exonerated of any culpability in enabling the attacks. That is because, according to the Report, it basically serves as a foreign signals intelligence agency and only engages in domestic espionage when tasked to do so under warrant by a NZ partner agency. In the decade before March 15 it was never tasked by the SIS, Police or other security agencies to monitor right-wing extremists.

Although it exposes the disorganization and biases of the NZ intelligence apparatus when it came to CT prior to March 15, the Report claims that these systemic failures did not contribute to the attacks because the killer’s operational security made discovering him a matter of “chance.” That, in spite of reports about his peculiar behaviour at a gun club, his social media rants and use of IP addresses associated with extremist views and weapons purchases, his drone surveillance of the al-Noor mosque and his stockpiling of military-style weapons and ammunition (which are attributed to deficiencies of the firearms licensing regime and failures by vetting authorities to discharge their duties properly). The dots were there to be connected but, according to the RCI, only by chance could they have been.

That has the makings of a Tui ad.

What is clear is that foreign intelligence partners and domestic intelligence agencies saw right-wing extremism as a low priority local law enforcement issue, not a pressing national security threat. In spite of some brief warnings and occasional mentions, the NZ Police and SIS did not see violent right-wing extremism as posing an imminent danger to society and other frontline agencies did not screen for it in their threat assessments. Instead, the security community prioritized the domestic aspects of  the so-called “War on Terror” (sic). Local politicians supported and funded that approach, which was generally given low priority because domestic terrorism was, in spite of the anti-jihadist fear-mongering of the Key government, a secondary concern in the NZIC collective assessment  of NZ’s threat landscape.

With the overall likelihood of domestic terrorism downplayed and jihadist threats over-emphasized within potential domestic terrorism scenarios, when it came to local right-wing terrorism the NZIC was not just looking the wrong way—it was not looking at all. Instead, for political and operational reasons the CT focus could and would not see terrorist threats beyond those rooted in Islam. Even though the domestic terrorist threat landscape changed in the years after 9/11, the NZIC was disinclined to move beyond threat assessment parameters that supported the anti-jihadist narrative. That is why the it failed to see the danger coming from the extreme Right.

More than “chance,” it was these institutional deficiencies, both in outlook and organization, that wound up costing people’s lives.

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Spinoff, December 15, 2020.

Outliving his usefulness.

datePosted on 15:18, December 2nd, 2020 by Pablo

With his whining about the “stolen” election, Drumpf does not appear to understand a basic rule of politics: politicians are only valuable because of their utility to others. Once they stop being useful they become expendable, and political utility never lasts forever.

With his transactional approach to everything, Drumpf should have been quick to realise this and in his use of pardons he seems to grasp the basic principles of the quid pro quos involved. But he also fails to grasp that he was only useful to the GOP so long as they could ride his coattails and exploit the window of opportunity his presence in the Oval Office represented for themselves and their constituents. Once it became clear that he lost the election, few GOP heavyweights came to his defense. That was left to lightweights and sycophants peddling increasingly deranged conspiracy theories.

Remember that many traditional GOP backers held their noses as Drumpf scorched his rivals during the 2016 primaries, then grabbed their ankles when he won that November because they saw that doing so facilitated Drumpf doing their bidding. The strategy worked well for them, at least when it came to domestic deregulatory and tax legislation. But in order to get that, the “old” GOP stalwarts had to swallow a lot of crow from the vulgar upstart and his uncouth entourage when it came to everything else, be it in culture wars, race relations or foreign policy.

For short -term gain, they gave up hard earned long term guarantees of stability at home and abroad, and then the pandemic exposed the basic incompetence, indifference and crude venality that passed for Drumpf’s Executive leadership. As part of his pathology, Drumpf doubled down on his destabilisation tactics, blaming Antifa and BLM while encouraging racists and other rightwing nutters to take matters into their own hands against politicians who refused to support, much less challenged him on the pandemic response and matters of race, law and order. Truth be told, by late summer the US social order was in melt down mode, and that continued through the elections last month.

Now his relentless attacks on the electoral system as a whole not only render him useless as a vehicle for the GOP’s political advancement. It also threatens to divide it between MAGA and non-MAGA factions, thereby jeopardizing the future of the party itself. For the Republican old guard, the limits of toleration of the buffoon have been reached. They are now slowly but surely turning on him because they know that when it comes to politics, the Party is more important than the person.

That is where Joe Biden comes in. In spite of the attempts to smear him, ole Joe ain’t no commie. Nor is Kamala. The “Squad” got no jobs in their cabinet. Instead, corporate America can breath easy so there is no need for the Republicans to bluster and puff about the American capitalist way of life. Joe’s 40 years of swamp living has made him a known entity across the aisle and his penchant for compromise, as distasteful as it is to me and other Lefties, allows the GOP to exit the Drumpf era with some grace, if not dignity. For all his lack of charisma, Sleepy Joe is exactly the kind of Democratic usher that the GOP can live with. Drumpf is no longer needed, much less essential for traditional Republican interests to be served.

In sum. Having moved from being no longer useful to becoming a threat to GOP unity, Trump has transitioned from expendable to expellable. His best hope now is to be ignored on his way quietly out of office, less further outbursts and outrages force the Republicans to publicly repudiate him. That moment could well be coming, even if the shadow of his future actions also weighs heavily on that decision.

The bottom line in any event is that Drumpf is done. Trumpism may survive as an ideological current within rightwing circles, but its political value will diminish without the advantages of having access to the bully pulpit of presidential office. Drumpf may agitate from the sidelines and there will be pretenders to the throne within the GOP, but it is more likely that Republicans will try to reclaim the party from Trumpism rather than resurrect it. That will be especially true if criminal investigations of Drumpf administration activities unobstructed by obstacles placed from within by the Justice Department and White House result in state and/or federal prosecutions of people connected to it.

Even Moscow Mitch knows that.

Ready to be let down.

datePosted on 15:32, November 30th, 2020 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has tabled its report with the Governor General and Minister of Internal Affairs. The Report will be introduced to parliament and released to the public before Christmas. In the lead up to its release the office of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet consulted with a number of people, myself included, on how to go about managing the release. My advice was for the heads of the security agencies mentioned in the Report–the SIS and Police in particular–to front-foot the release because there was much skepticism that the Report would be anything but a whitewash and cover up. I mentioned that if systemic, institutional as well as individual failures, biases and blindness were not mentioned then the Report would be seen as exactly that. Other people suggested deeper engagement with immigrant ethnic groups, Maori, and being as transparent as possible.

Alas, the latter does not look like it will happen if early word about the Report is true. Remember, by its terms of reference the Report’s public findings and recommendations will not identify government officials mentioned in it. Nor will it contain information that is deemed sensitive on national security grounds. So, along with other limitations that I mentioned in an earlier post about it, the RCI was hamstrung from the start.

To be sure, I have not read either the findings or the recommendations so can do nothing other than speculate about them. But what I have read so far is this: the evidence from the killer as to how he planned the attack will be suppressed forever because it constitutes a “how to” primer for murderous copy-cats that identifies exploitable holes, flaws and deficiencies in NZ’s counter-terrorism defences and the advantages and opportunities presented to him by the wider context in which he planned and prepared the attacks. Moreover, the names of government officials mentioned in the Report will not only be redacted from the public version, but will be suppressed for thirty years, again on national security grounds.

Already, word has leaked that the Report will note how the firearms purchase and vetting regime failed in this instance due to legal loopholes and human folly. This was always going to be an easy way out for the State because after the attacks the government immediately pushed through law reforms governing certain types of firearms such as those used during the massacres (now being challenged by rightwing parties and groups), while blaming officers on the low end of the Police totem pole for not properly doing firearms license background checks absolves the higher-ups of any complicity in the matter. Nothing about systemic or institutional biases, failures or blindness is to be found in that sort of blame game.

Needless to say, some are not happy with these developments. Both the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) and Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) have expressed serious concerns about the suppression order’s impact on issues of transparency and accountability by the agencies and individuals whose actions or inaction may have contributed to the events of March 15, 2019. This is notable because the RCI remit specified that the views of the NZ Muslim community should be given great consideration, to the point that a special Muslim Reference Group was set up to advise the Commission (although its advice was non-binding on the RCI).

Now, in the wake of the news about the selective long-term suppression of findings, both FIANZ and IWCNZ have released their submissions to the RCI. These include lengthy expositions about the myriad ways in which the Muslim community has been stigmatised, harassed, surveilled, vilified and attacked since 9/11 in the NZ media and society, and about how government agencies were indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the community as a whole, systematically ignoring the community’s very specific details of hate-based violence directed at them and repeated appeals for help. These submissions noted the government’s focus on Muslims as potential jihadis, including so-called “jihadi brides” and the infiltration of their houses of worship and community activity centres by agents of the State.

The submissions were extensive and well-documented, using everything from international to local human rights legislation and witness testimonies to provide proof that the global “War on Terror” had a very real, disproportionate and negative impact on NZ Muslims regardless of their affinity for extremism (it should be noted that no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of an ideologically-motivated act of violence in NZ before or after 9/11. Two individuals have been jailed for having jihadist literature, a couple of converts have been killed in drone strikes abroad and the bumbling Pakeha jihadist remains imprisoned in Syria).

Meanwhile white supremacists in NZ organised, recruited, trained and encouraged each other on line, including threats against local Muslims. Yet they apparently were either not considered to be sufficient enough of a threat to warrant closer official scrutiny, or the security community had other priorities, or, as has been said repeatedly by various sources, the killer “flew under the radar” in the build up to the attacks because he had no association with local neo-Nazi communities (oh, and he was Australian). He had no enablers, no accomplices, no acquaintances–no one at all who, in spite of his travels to conflict zones and expressed hatreds, had a clue of what he was planning to do. There was no warning.

Yeah, right.

That NZ’s two leading Muslim organisations have now come out with what were originally non-public submissions detailing what in retrospect were obvious alarm bells is an indictment of the RCI and proof that fears of a whitewash may turn out to be justified.

Others are not as pessimistic. Some believe that the RCI will recommend throwing what amounts to “blood” money at the victims, their families and the Muslim community in general while engaging in a “whole of government approach” (the new bureaucratic buzzphrase, apparently) to the problem of ethnic, religious and/or race-based extremism and violence in Aotearoa. Some think that although names and evidence will be suppressed, behind closed doors action will be taken to hold decision-makers to account. There is a belief that the RCI will in fact fulfil its duty and detail the systemic and institutional failures that contributed by commission omission to the attacks. I am not so sure.

It could be that the pre-public release of selected aspects of the Report is being done by officials to prepare the ground for its full release (by lowering expectations from the non-Muslim community), or has been done by someone on the inside who is not happy with the Report. Either way, it has set up a situation where the truth will be obscured by official shading of what can be publicly known.

The bottom line is this. Long term evidence suppression is valid based on national security concerns about revelations involving sources, methods, evidence of capabilities/vulnerabilities and sensitive foreign relationships. Invalid reasons for suppressing names and evidence involve efforts at face-saving, whitewashing or cover ups of individual and/or institutional malpractice, incompetence, bias, blindness or negligence.

From what has been released so far, there is reason to presume that the Report will tilt more towards the latter than the former, and as a result New Zealand will have missed its moment of opportunity to address and remedy what were the “whole of government” failures that contributed to the darkest day in its modern history. Instead, it might well turn out to be the official equivalent of a lump of Xmas coal delivered to the cause of official transparency and accountability.

That would be a shame.

Sedition from within.

datePosted on 15:49, November 13th, 2020 by Pablo

The refusal of Donald Trump and his supporters in the media and Republican Party to acknowledge his defeat in the presidential election has taken an ominous turn. What at first could be discounted as the childish petulance of a sore loser is now morphing into the makings of a constitutional coup. The move is two sided, involving the de-legitimation of the electoral process as a foundational institution of the political system; and the hollowing out and/or partisan stacking of key agencies that otherwise would be the most resistant to that type of subversion. This is, in effect, sedition from within.

In the last days Trump has fired the Secretary of Defense and forced the resignations of key aides, including the DoD Chief of Staff and head of special operations and low intensity conflict. He has replaced them with craven loyalists, including Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, a former Army special forces soldier and recently Director of Counter-Terrorism at the NSC. Miller has an intense hatred for Iran and supports Trump’s efforts to immediately withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in order to re-deploy them on Iran’s Western flank, which in turn will be part of the “maximum pressure” campaign Trump wants to wage on the Persian State. US military commanders object to both the withdrawal and to the lop-sided re-deployment, to say nothing of being drawn into yet another (senseless) war of opportunity.

Trump is rumored to be getting ready to fire the CIA and FBI directors. He has purged professional careerists in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and replaced them with hyper partisans. He has politicised and promoted partisans and loyalists in the Border Patrol and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The pace of this “purge and replace” process has quickened since Election Day. If he continues to do so, by Inauguration Day he will have cleared a path in the repressive apparatus of so-called “constitutionalists” in favor of loyalists.

The Miller appointment is also ominous because Acting Directors do not need Senate confirmation and one of the main missions of US Army special forces is to train indigenous militias in guerrilla warfare. Already there is speculation that his experience can be used to forge links between DoD, Republican-led state governments and various rightwing militia groups in the event that Trump’s refusal to abdicate turns into physical confrontations between his supporters and Biden supporters and/or local government security agencies. This puts pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and service branch leadership as to what they will do in the event that DoD lends its institutional weight and resources to the pro-Trump insurgents, egged on from within the Oval Office.

The Trump administration has already held a trial run of sorts when it comes to politicised domestic repression. A few months ago armed federal “agents” wearing uniforms without identification were sent into Portland to counter BLM protests. They were not invited by the mayor or the Oregon governor. They stayed for several weeks, making arrests, using batons and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, seizing people and removing them in unmarked vans to locations outside the city centre. They worked alongside the Portland Police, who in turn cast a blind eye on armed right-wing militants showing up to counter-demonstrate against the BLM crowds. It turns out that these unidentified federal agents were recruited from within the Border Patrol, ICE, Customs and other agencies overseen by DHS. They were removed from Portland when their activities were exposed in the media and were subsequently prohibited by several local jurisdictions–Chicago and New York among them–from deploying there in spite of Trump’s threats to “send them in.”

Then, of course, there was the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray by National Guard and other federal security units against peaceful demonstrators in and around Lafayette Square in Washington DC. When DC based National Guard troops–many of them African Americans–baulked at repressing their fellow Washingtonians, Trump had supportive Republican governors supply National Guards from their respective states (National Guard units are commanded by state governors or, in the case of federal territory like the District of Columbia, by the president himself). He went so far as to stage a photo opportunity outside St. Johns Episcopal church adjacent to the square in which the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and then-defence Secretary Mark Esper were paraded out and used as props (both Milley and Esper later claimed that they were unaware of what was going on when they were invited to join the president for a walk into the Square).

Trump has refused to allow Biden to receive the daily intelligence briefs that incoming presidents are normally provided. He has made no plans or engaged in the usual niceties of transitions between administrations. Instead, he has dug his heels in on the fraudulent election claims and in this he has been supported by (with a few exceptions) the Republican Party at all levels, rightwing media, and foreign despots like Jair Bolsonaro. Whether out of prudence or preference, the autocrats running China and Russia have remained silent on the issue.

If Trump is able to corrode the institutional apparatus by hollowing it out and stacking it with cronies, then one of the last defences against a full authoritarian take-over of the executive will have to be the courts. But Trump has the Bill Barr-led Justice department running cover for him, not only in cases involving his administration, his campaign or disputes with Congress, but even attempts to represent him in personal matters such as defence against lawsuits stemming from rape allegations dating back to his days as a private citizen. He has named over 200 judges to federal courts and has successfully placed three Supreme Court judges on the highest bench in the land. He is banking on them coming to his side when push comes to shove regarding the presidency. It remains to be seen if they will do so but the fact that it may even come to that is alarming of itself.

Opinion polls show that Republican voters are much less supportive of democracy as a construct and much more supportive of governments that cater to their policy preferences. That is to say, when it comes to democracy, for US conservatives it is all about deliverables. This is a variant of the old “trains run on time” argument made about Mussolini–that efficiency is more important than representativeness, equality or transparency when it comes to governance. It is this instrumental view of democracy–that it only works or is preferable if it works in one’s (partisan) favour–that under-rides popular support for Trump’s authoritarian moves.

The anti-democratic trend is visible world wide in both new and mature democracies, but in the US it has a distinctly partisan aspect to it. Normally anarchists, communists and assorted other Leftists would be the most opposed to what Lenin called capitalism’s “best possible shell.” But in the US it is the right-wing view that this political shell–bourgeois democracy–covers the work and policies of nefarious liberal elites. QAnon elevated the nefarious nature of elite behaviour into the realm of pedophilia and sex-trafficking in Deep State-operated circles, so the crazy is strong and runs deep on that side of the US ideological ladder.

That is what makes Trump’s moves more alarming than they should be under “normal” circumstances. There are a lot of people who welcome his sedition and in fact want to be part of it. For many it is a defence of the historical status quo that motivates them, heterosexist, patriarchical, racist, xenophobic and classist as that may be. For others it is just an opportunity for taking advantage. Whatever the motivation, this coalition of deplorables are ready, able and willing to join the Trump-led subversion of American political institutions. And they are here to stay whether he remains in office or not.

The danger of a US constitutional coup is compounded by the fact that many people in and outside the federal bureaucracy do not believe that “it can happen here.” For every MAGA maniac frothing about the Deep State, there are many reasonable others who believe that the US institutional foundation is too solid to be usurped or overthrown. They simply cannot grasp the notion that a coup can occur in the US, much less one that is carried out quietly, incrementally and from within the State apparatus. And yet for the entirety of his presidency, Trump has been preparing the ground for exactly that, using the justifications of “draining the swamp” and fighting the Deep State as the cover for his seditious intent.

That brings up the question about Republicans. Although it is widely understood that they at first thought that they could control Trump and bend him in their preferred image, by now they must realise that was a pipe dream. So the question of the moment is why do major components of the Republican Party and rightwing ecosystem continue to cling to him after the election and tie themselves to his attempts to overturn the results? Is it their desire to ride his political coattails? Or what he could do to them down the road? Is it fear of what his MAGA base can do to them now and down the road? Or are they sincere in thinking that the election was stolen (only where he lost) and that usurping the constitution and institutional foundations is justified by that circumstance even if it destroys the Republic?

It may pay for the GOP to remember that Trump was a Democrat before he switched to being a Republican ten years ago. It may pay for them to recall that he said that he switched because Republican voters were dumb and it was easier to dupe them. It may pay for them to remember that before he embraced evangelical Xtians he led a degenerate atheist lifestyle that has only been slightly tempered by his move into public office. It may pay for them to remember how he turns on those in their ranks who question his actions, and on Fox News when it stops blindly cheerleading for him. Because what that should tell them is that their loyalty to him is not reciprocal, and that his actions are based in personal self-interest, not principle or partisan conviction. That is the ultimate motivation for his sedition from within.

It may seem far-fetched, but of this the US constitutional coup could be made.

Setting them up to fail?

datePosted on 14:55, November 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

There has been some excitement about the naming of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister and Peeni Henare as Defense Minister in the new Labour cabinet. At first glance neither one appears to have much experience or background in the portfolios that they are now responsible for, but Mahuta is the first female (and Maori) Foreign Minister, complete with a moko kauae. Henare, first elected in 2014, has been Minister for Civil Defense during the last year and half. He is also Minister of Whānau Ora. They comprise part of a cabinet that is considered to be one of the most diverse in NZ history and have received global attention as a result.

Mahuta first entered parliament in 1996 on the Labour list, then was elected in 1999 to the Te Tai Hauauru seat (beating Tuku Morgan), then transferred and won the Tainui/Hauraki-Waikato in 2002. She has been re-elected ever since and made a run for the party leadership in 2014. She was Minister for Customs, Youth Development, Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment from 2005-2008 during the 5th Labour government and prior to her appointment as Foreign Minister was Minister of Local Government and Maori Development in the 6th Labour government (the first of which she retains). While in Opposition she served as the Labour spokesperson for Maori Affairs, Education, Energy and Conservation. She is also Associate Minister of Trade and Export Growth, Environment and Housing.

After 24 years in parliament, Mahuta surely knows her away around the Beehive and the domestic policy scene. But questions remain about her and Henare’s suitability for the positions they have been given. The breakdown of the questions goes something like this:

The symbolism of diversity is a powerful thing. However, beyond its symbolic value diversity in cabinet is a laudable goal only if it is accompanied by substance. The latter is defined as competence, background or experience in the policy areas for which the appointee is responsible, or the ability to learn fast. Diversity without substance is a cynical form of tokenism because it rewards those without merit in order to engage in empty symbolism as a PR tactic. It also sets up the appointees for failure if s/he is out of depth or is unable to overcome resistance from inside and outside of the Ministries for which they are responsible. That in turn serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about the ethnic, religious, racial or other groups to which they belong.

A big problem for ministerial neophytes of any persuasion is that they run the risk of bureaucratic capture by the agencies that they ostensibly oversee. Bureaucratic capture is a phenomenon where career bureaucrats surround a Ministerial appointee with everything from puffery and flattery to stonewalling and sandbagging in order to get the new leader to absorb and accept institutional logics as his or her own. This may include the “baubles” of office: getting to play with big boys toys in the case of Defense, and jetting off to exotic lands in the case of Foreign Affairs. All courtesy of the taxpayer. The syndrome is familiar.

Another problem is bureaucratic resistance or shunning. This phenomenon is when career bureaucrats endeavour to resist policy initiatives and change instigated by the new appointee by diluting or subverting the message within the institutional maze (which the new Minister is unfamiliar with), or simply ignore directives that do not suit or run contrary to their entrenched interests until the initiatives are dropped. This is an all-to-common problem in the intelligence and security field, where cadres of so-called “old boys” work hard to prevent real effective institutional reform from happening so long as they feel that the status quo works for them. The resistance to reform is less visible in Foreign Affairs because of the arc of modern diplomacy (multi-faceted, involving a variety of actors and subjects), but it remains in some institutional niches nevertheless.

In Foreign Affairs and Defence there is the additional problem that newly appointed Ministers must immediately engage with foreign interlocutors. Many of these foreign diplomats and military officials have great experience and often a considerable degree of cynicism when addressing areas of mutual interest. They very often have different cultural backgrounds, different ideological motivations, different economic interests and different ways of conceptualising the international order (say, being realist rather than idealist or constructivist in perspective). Without the shared cultural and ideological referents common to home, Ministerial neophytes thrust onto the world as the senior faces of NZ face formidable challenges unlike those found domestically.

The questions about Mahuta and Henare are therefore driven by concerns about their experience and competence when confronting these realities, and about whether their domestic experience can immediately translate into the skillset required to effectively engage both the internal (bureaucratic) and external (foreign interaction) aspects of their jobs.

Not surprisingly, some of the responses to those asking these questions have been to accuse them of being racist. That could well be true for some people, but the knee jerk, reflexive defensiveness of these reactions simply serves to obscure the reality of tokenism and overlook incompetence in the event that it does occur.

More reasoned rebuttals focus on Mahuta’s long career in parliament and the range of portfolios she has held over the years. Although Henare has a much shorter parliamentary career, he is seen as a competent quick learner in the areas in which he has previously been given responsibility. So the reasoning goes that even if they do not have deep experience in military-security matters and foreign affairs, both Mahuta and Henare are well equipped to rapidly get up to speed on their portfolios.

Beyond that, there is the domestic political side of the appointment equation to consider. Mahuta and Henare represent important Maori constituencies that Labour seeks to retain as a support base. Henare comes from a distinguished military lineage, so the symbolism of his appointment bestows mana on his office and in the eyes of many of his troops. Mahuta, known as “The Princess” in some circles, is Maori royalty. This might prove very useful when engaging Pacific Island nobility on matters of regional and mutual concern, and her familiarity with pomp and circumstance makes her a natural for ceremonial occasions when representing the State.

Other assessments of the appointments are mixed. There is a line of thought that posits that, on the one hand, the Mahuta appointment is a way of getting a long serving, important yet underwhelming MP out of the way via a golden parachute into a glamorous job while on the other hand a young, up-and-coming Maori MP is given his first shot at playing with the Big Boys. If they do not pan out, this reasoning holds, then no harm done because others will be running the show in any event.

That dovetails with the belief that PM Ardern is going to be the de facto Foreign Minister, using the leverage of her global celebrity to advance major NZ initiatives on the world stage while Mahuta works on what a knowledgeable friend of mine calls the “mice and rats” of foreign affairs. Mahuta will also be a visible indigenous symbol of the multicultural and polyethnic nature of NZ society. So, while Ardern does the heavy lifting in things such as climate change, non-proliferation and bilateral relations with the likes of the PRC and US, Mahuta can provide the ceremonial face of NZ diplomatic representation to the global community.

For Henare the issue is simple: translate his generally well-regarded work in Civil Defense into an understanding of the logistics and operational requirements of complex service organisations such as the MoD/NZDF that operate under relatively tight budgetary constraints and with significant institutional shortcomings when it comes to personnel, material and overall force readiness, and which recently have (in the case of the NZDF) suffered some serious incidents of professional and personal misconduct within both senior and junior ranks. That notwithstanding, much of what the NZDF does under MoD policy directives IS civil defense, be it in terms of disaster relief, humanitarian interventions and emergency engineering and transport. So the experience he has gained in his previous portfolio, even if relatively short, should well suit him for his new role. More to the point, none of this will interfere with how the NZDF leadership see and approach the world around them.

The most jaded idea being advanced is that, regardless of whether they are competent or not, both of these politicians will be the subject of bureaucratic capture. Senior managers and careerists in Mfat and MoD and NZDF will in fact run these agencies largely unimpeded by their respective ministers, who will cut ribbons, shake hands and bestow honours instead. A “Yes Minister” scenario will prevail, if you will.

Not all the reaction to these appointments has been negative or questioning. Many at home and abroad are celebrating the diversity represented in the new Cabinet and the individual achievements of Mahuta, Henare and their non-Pakeha, non-straight and/or female colleagues. The era of the straight white male in politics is seen as coming to an end, with NZ leading the way.

Perhaps that is true but it is not for me to say. Along with being called a racist for having broached some of the afore-mentioned questions on social media as well as being labeled a member of the Pakeha international relations and security community (I have to plead guilty to that one), I am loathe to tread further into the minefield that is identity politics in Aotearoa. Moreover, since I focus on matters of international and comparative polities and security, I cannot offer a knowledgeable opinion about appointments made to domestic-focused portfolios or about which of the scenarios outlined above is the closest to the truth. It seems likely that there is a mix of factors and reasons involved in these appointments, both opportunistic and sincere.

All I can hope for is that both of the new ministers are not being set up to fail and that even if their learning curves are steep, that they succeed in gaining command of the important instruments of State that they have been directed to lead. Time will tell.

Counterfeiting information.

datePosted on 14:24, October 30th, 2020 by Pablo

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

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