Archive for ‘governance’ Category

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.

The Penny Drops.

datePosted on 16:49, February 19th, 2011 by Pablo

No matter how much electoral trapping and facade “democratic” niceties it may want to put on it, authoritarian rule is ultimately based on force. It is a limited or non-competitive form of political domination that uses the threat or deployment of organized violence in order to maintain its status quo. In times of peace the threat of force recedes into the background and is only used discretely and sporadically against those who persist in challenging the regime’s legitimacy and authority. In times of challenge and duress, it comes to the fore and is used en masse.

Amid all the optimism about what the wave of protests mean for the Middle East, this fact seems to have been lost. Even the US government initially seemed to think that by it demanding that ME regimes show “restraint” and move to democratise, they inevitably would. This type of neo-imperial hubris demonstrates a lack of understanding of authoritarian dynamics as well as of its own limited influence in fostering foreign regime change short of war. The bottom line is that so long as an authoritarian regime can retain the loyalty of the repressive apparatuses and these are united and determined in quelling protest, then it will prevail against its opposition even if it engages in cosmetic reforms.

That has now become evident in the latest evolution of the ME protests. In Bahrain and Libya the autocrats have decided to take a hard-line on protests, resulting in deaths and injuries to dozens. Jordan has followed suit, albeit with less deadly force. Weaker than the other three, the Yemeni regime has had a more difficult time marshaling its forces against demonstrators, but is now doing so.  In Egypt and Tunisia after the deposal of the executive despots, the military has adopted a more inflexible position regarding protests. In Algeria, rival power factions use armed demonstrations as inter-elite negotiating tools even as they agree to jointly repress anything that appears to be an independent vehicle for expression of dissent. The authoritarian penny has dropped.

The tipping point has come in Baihran. Situated on a island off of Saudi Arabia but with close sea proximity to Iran, a former Iranian possession with a 70 percent lower class Shiia population now ruled by a Sunni Arab absolute monarchy, home port to the US 5th fleet that maintains a carrier task force in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times (in no small part because these contain the sea lanes through which most ME oil passes through, to say nothing of the geo-strategic logics at play), an unchecked Shiia uprising there is seen as a grave threat to the entire Sunni world (Saudi Arabia itself has a 20 percent Shiia population). Fears of Iranian influence in resident Shiia protests have focused the attention of the Gulf states as well as their Arab neighbours, and the larger geopolitical consequences of internal protests coupled with a more assertive Iranian presence in the region (exemplified by the sending of a small Iranian naval task force through the Suez Canal on its way to a port visit in Syria, the symbolism of which is not lost on anyone), have convinced Arab leaders that they must first revert to the authoritarian bottom line before any serious discussion of reform can begin.

As for the Iranians, they have demonstrated quite clearly that they have no qualms about violently putting down protests that they consider to be seditious and orchestrated from abroad. The regime attitude was captured this week by Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who to a cheering gallery of pro-regime legislators called for the execution of opposition leaders linked to the latest protests. Methinks reform is a ways off in Iran.

No wonder then, that the US and other Western powers have modified their rhetoric in recent days and called for “restraint” without coupling that with calls for “democracy” in the Gulf. As I have attempted to explain in the series of previous posts, when the choice becomes one of “turbulence” versus stability, and turbulence is caused by internal protest overlapped on regional geopolitical maneuvering, then interest in democratic reform takes a back seat to reassertion of national authoritarian control that upholds the regional balance of power.

All of which means we can expect more blood to flow in the streets until the protests are suppressed, and that the Western response will be much public hand-wringing and lamentation coupled with a private sigh of relief.

The “transitions” diachronology.

datePosted on 18:05, February 17th, 2011 by Pablo

I decided to package my posts about events in the Middle East in chronological order as they appeared, add an introduction and summary by way of framing the discussion, and send it to the nice folk at Scoop to use as this month’s Word from Afar column. By and large, I think that it holds together pretty well in light of events. It is a pity that I could not add some of the interesting discussion in the threads that followed the posts (since the essay was already at the upper word limit for an op-ed), but I did keep them in mind as I did the edit and added the bracketing material. In any case, the test of whether my analysis is right or wrong will play out over the next few months, and I have no doubts that KP readers will hold me to account in either event.

The Other Learning Curve.

datePosted on 20:31, February 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to “real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.

It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.

This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

Why a putsch is not a revolution.

datePosted on 16:21, February 12th, 2011 by Pablo

Some definitional clarification is in order when viewing events in Egypt. A coup is the overthrow of a regime by the military. A putsch is the involuntary removal of government leaders within an extant regime. Neither is a revolution, even if occurring within the context of mass protest. Thus what has occurred (so far) in Egypt is neither revolutionary or a coup. It is a putsch carried out within a context of social unrest and mass mobilisation. It is a forced internal reconfiguration of the military-dominated regime that has been in power one way or another for over thirty years, and it has been carried out precisely to maintain the regime in the face of popular protests that centred on Hosni Mubarak but which do not challenge the military’s primacy in Egyptian politics.

The removal of an individual in a military putsch is NOT a democratic revolution, even if the masses rejoice. It is an internal transfer of power that may or may not lead to regime liberalization, which itself does not imply a genuine move towards democracy. It will be interesting to see if internal reconfiguration of the Egyptian regime leads to significant reform over the long term. Foreign pressure will not play a decisive role in the military calculations on whether to reform, retrench or repress. That will be a function of inter-elite bargaining and the organisational strength and practical demands of the opposition. But one thing is sure: due to issues of corporate self-interest and professional autonomy, the Egyptian military has no interest in exercising long-term control over the governmental apparatus. Instead, its interest lies in overseeing the conditions leading to the September 2011 elections, with the primary objective being maintenance of social stability, resumed economic growth and geopolitical continuity no matter who wins the presidency and parliamentary majority.

That is the bottom line of the Egyptian “transition.”

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).

John Key either has very poor PR advice, is grossly insensitive or has some darkness in his heart, to say nothing of his small head, when it comes to women. I am less concerned by his choice of words when describing models and actresses that he lusts after. It might have been better for the Prime Minister to refer to the objects of his sexual fantasies as “attractive” or “pretty” rather than using the adolescent term “hot.” But getting a bit horn doggish on a blokey sports talkback show is not the worst of sins.

A slightly worse sin is to reveal admiration for a sports star because he makes “heaps of money” and gets some “fringe benefits” on the side. Talk about revealing your core values! For the PM, money grubbing–admittedly driven by unique talent– and serial adultery–which did not have much to do with talent of one sort or another–are positive traits worth coveting. Crikey! But that is just his shallow venality surfacing, not a mortal sin.

What is a far more serious matter is his apparent condoning of spouse abuse, as exemplified by the poster-boy for putting ass-kickings on women, Mr. Tony Veitch. Not only did Mr. Key agree to sit down for an interview with Tony the Tough Guy on his radio sports show, which legitimates Veitch in areas far outside the blokey sports-minded demographic. Mr. Key has now agreed to do regular spots on Mr. Veitch’s show. If one interview legitimates Mr. Veitch, then subsequent regular interviews symbolically condones what he did.

It was bad enough that a sports radio outlet would see fit to re-hire a spouse abuser who escaped jail time because he paid off the victim and wept crocodile tears at a series of staged press events. Here we have the PM of New Zealand, who should be fully aware of the intimacies of the abuse case as well as the allegations of drug use and other anti-social behaviour by Mr. Veitch, agreeing to grace his show on a regular basis. This, at a time when Mr. Key has terminated at least one guest spot with another radio news show focused on hard news rather than rugby, cricket and league. What is the message Mr. Key is trying to convey here, and on what assumptions does that message rest?

Is it his assumption that most Kiwis think Veitch is a good bloke and he was hard done by the back-talking wench? Is it his assumption that Mr. Veitch did wrong but it was a minor transgression? Is its his assumption that the NZ public do not care any longer what Mr. Veitch did and bygones are bygones? Is it his assumption that sporty blokes at best do not care or at worst condone Mr. Veitch’s behavior, and in an election year connecting with that crowd by engaging in some good-natured letching will increase Mr. Key’s chances of re-election? What, exactly, is the rationale that says that it is OK for the PM to grant privileged regular interviews to an unrepentant spouse-basher while canceling similar interviews with other news shows?

And what message is Mr Key trying to convey here? That he is a sporty bloke? That he is a sporty bloke who sees nothing wrong in the occasional bitch-slapping along with letching, adultery and money grubbing? That he is a sporty bloke who does not give a darn about the high incidence of spousal (and child) abuse in the country he leads? That he is sporty bloke that simply does not care if he objectifies women and symbolically condones spouse-bashing? That he is a sporty bloke who is insensitive to women’s concerns about being objectified and victimised in their own homes as well as in the streets? Or is his message simply that in the run-up to elections catering to the lowest of the low is acceptable? What next, a guest spot with Mongel Mob, Black Power or Headhunter media outlets? After all, they are also sporty blokes who know something about how to treat uppity women.

Maybe I am just a prude. Perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for the PM of an advanced liberal democracy that is not Italy to see nothing wrong in publicly letching, to express admiration for greed and adultery, and who symbolically condones spousal abuse by voluntarily and preferentially associating with a spouse-beating coward who happens to be a celebrity. But if that seems a  bit untoward for a PM (or anyone else), then he and his PR minders need to be made aware of that fact. Boycotting advertisers who buy time on Vietch’s show when it features the Key interview is one way to convey that message. More importantly, and specifically for those women and other decent people who do not condone such behavior and who crossed over to National in the last election, the best way to deliver the message is to do so on November 26, at the ballot box. Of course, it if could get a clue, Labour might make a point of pointing out to the electorate Mr. Key’s apparent lack of regard for the feelings of his female constituency or any others who might think that engaging in egregious sexual innuendo with a spouse abuser is not fitting behaviour for a sitting Prime Minister (or anyone else with a modicum of sensitivity to the issues involved).

After all, not all of us are sporty blokes.

Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

datePosted on 16:43, January 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists have said such inanities as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple effect spreading from Tunis to other North African states. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunesia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically-driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred was sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the “ripple effect” of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis. Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrygyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature,  do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, the intelligence failures, particularly by the French and the US, to even remotely predict the unrest in Tunisia speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. I mean, how hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve or have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

As the gun smoke clears, the Right run for cover.

datePosted on 16:13, January 10th, 2011 by Pablo

As someone who once lived in the area of Tucson where the politically motivated shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others occurred, I have something of a personal connection to the event. I shopped in the strip mall where the attack took place and still have friends in Tucson who I visit when possible. Were I still living at my last address there,  Giffords would have been my Representative. I am well aware of Arizona political culture and the issues that divide it, and know something about its gun laws as well. Thus I am not surprised one iota that an assassination attempt on a “liberal” Democrat would happen in Arizona, although it is somewhat surprising that it happened in Tucson, which is a liberal college town oasis in an otherwise vast political landscape of new and old right-wing conservatism.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as news of the shootings hit the airwaves left-leaning commentators blamed right-wingers for inciting the killer while GOP leaders, Tea Party representatives and the populist demagogues in the media all moved quickly to put distance between themselves and the gunman even though the latter professed beliefs that were very much in concert with the thrust of the Tea Party message as well as those of earlier conservative fringe movements. In fact, some in the rightwing media suggested that the Left has its own violent extremists so the table is balanced on that score.

To which I ask: when was the last time a Left activist in the US attempted to kill a politician? Lee Harvey Oswald was less a committed Stalinist during his time in the USSR and more of a social outcast looking for a belief system to cling to (I shall defer from bringing in Mafia-related and other conspiracy theories at this point). John Hinkley’s attack on Ronald Reagan does not count as he was motivated by the demons in his head, and the attacks on Gerald Ford by members of Charles Manson’s gang in the mid-1970s were equally devoid of political content. But as recently as 2009 a right wing extremist, apparently egged on by the commentary of talkshow rabble rousers, killed abortionist George Tiller outside his church. This has followed a series of attacks carried out by right wing militants that include the Oklahoma City bombing and repeated attacks across the country on abortion clinics. Minutemen and other self-professed right wing militias have demonstrated a penchant for violence against others. The Unibomber was motivated by a mix of left and right views. Islamicists operate according to a profoundly conservative belief system. Anti-Castro Cuban nationalists have committed acts of domestic and international terrorism (including the bombing of a Cuban airliner) in pursuit of their conservative goals.

In contrast, Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front have lefty ideals and destroy property but do not kill people. Anti-trade protestors and anarchists have run riot in Seattle and DC but mostly gotten (some might say well-deserved) police beatings and tear gassed for their efforts. Puerto Rican nationalists have disrupted Congress and planted bombs but killed no one. Thus it would seem that contrary to the claim that the US Left has its fair share of murderous extremists, not since the days of the SLA, Weatherman and Black Panthers has there been a deadly attack carried out by Left militants on political targets. During that same time period, in contrast, the right wing fringe has claimed dozens of victims, of which those in Tucson are the latest. Truth be told, this is only the latest in a long history of right wing assassination attempts on “liberal” political targets that are seen as “communists,” “socialists,” Trilateral Commission and World Government surrender monkeys, atheists or some unholy combination of all of the above. Just as the John Birch Society had its fair share of armed extremists, so now it appears that modern US conservative movements attract a similar element to their ranks. 

To put a not-so-fine point on it: be it as lone wolves or as part of a criminal conspiracy, it is the fringes of the US Right where most political violence comes from. Even if in most cases the extremists involved exhibited signs of mental illness (as in this case), in the modern US it is right-wing militants who disproportionately get murderous. That could be due to the lack of appeal for calls for working class “revolution” in a country founded on the sanctity of individual liberties and property rights, but one would think that would make Leftist militants more rather than less prone to violence against those political figures that attract their ire. Instead, it is the reverse.

Rather than debate the question of how complicit, implicitly or explicitly, the Tea Party, GOP, Sarah Palin and conservative media have been in the Tucson attack, let me offer a simple formula that outlines the context in which it occurred (and will occur again). Note that this “formula” is exclusive to the US but can be altered, mutatis mutandis,  to apply to other countries as well:

Loose gun control laws+availability of semi-automatic weapons+polarised politics+venomous hate mongering political rhetoric in media and in election campaigns+rapid demographic change+economic crisis+ eroding social cohesion and solidarity+deranged or otherwise sociopathic personality disorders+precipitating event (personal or political)=likelihood of an armed attack on a perceived “traitor” by someone espousing militant ideological views.

In the contemporary US, this formula suggests that the attack in Tucson is neither unique or a once-off, and in fact points to a condition of ongoing anomie that barring a major change in both the structural and superstructural causal factors listed above, will lead to more such events in the near to medium future. Rather than the content of any one ideology or creed, it is the combination of factors that makes for the murderous enemy within, and no amount of blame-fixing and scapegoating of “foreign” beliefs detract from that fundamental fact.

PS: for those interested in a more immediate look at the tragedy, take a gander at my old home town newspaper: http://azstarnet.com/

UPDATE: As if on cue a NZ version of the unhinged reactionary chickenhawk faction weighs in, with a link to this post: http://truebluenz.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/it-is-not-about-loughner-or-palin-its-about-the-republic/

Priceless.

Justice delayed, now denied.

datePosted on 18:02, December 31st, 2010 by Pablo

Rather than ring out the old year and ring in the new year with the usual inane rubbish about new beginnings and fresh starts, annual lists, countdowns etc., how about we use the occasion for a reality check, in this case a reality check on the state of the NZ judiciary using one very important case.

On October 15, 2007 a number of individuals were arrested on a variety of charges, including planning terrorist attacks. Others were arrested later, and collectively they have come to be known as the Urewera 18. On May 30, 2011, three and half years after they were arrested, the majority of these defendants will finally go to trial (three defendants will be tried separately).  Not only is the delay largely a result of the Police and Crown trying to introduce new charges after the fact and argue for the admissibility of evidence obtained under the Terrorism Suppression Act that was ultimately not invoked against the accused. Now, in a decision which has had its reasoning suppressed by the court, the Urewera 15 have been ordered to have a trial by judge. You read correctly: not only have they been denied  the right to a prompt trial but are now denied a jury of their peers. To that can be added holding the trial in Auckland when most of the defendants live elsewhere and their purported crimes were committed outside of Auckland.

Between the delays, venue and judge-only trial, the Crown and judiciary is engaging in a blood-letting exercise designed to drain the defendants materially and emotionally long before they enter the courtroom on May 30. Arguing under section 12 that the case is too complex, with too many defendants, with too many side-issues and matters of procedure to be considered adequately by a panel of laymen and women is an insult to the NZ public as well as a thinly veiled attempt at juridically saving face in a case that was over-ambitious, politically-motivated and legally flawed from inception.

This is further evidence of the ingrained authoritarianism and lack of accountability rampant in the judicial system. Judges act as if they are above the laws they are supposed to uphold. The Crown vindictively prosecutes cases without regard to their merits or costs because political interests are at play (remember that the NZ wikileaks cables show NZ government officials telling the US embassy in Wellington that theZaoui case was not winnable–then saw the Crown go ahead for another two years arguing for Zaoui’s incarceration or expulsion until the SIS finally dropped the pretext that he was a threat to national security). Elites are given name suppression for the flimsiest of reasons and judges protect their own when these transgress. This is exactly the sort of judicial attitude in dictatorships.

And yet, it is the attitude in NZ as well. Meanwhile, not a single mainstream media outlet has raised the subject of the long delayed and now jury-denied Urewera trial since the decision on the latter was announced in early December. Not a single right-wing blog has raised the obvious civil liberties and rule of law implications of the case. The Left commentariat has been largely silent as well, with the notable exceptions of Idiot Savant and Russell Brown.

Why is this? Is this silence a result of the fact that the accused are an ideological minority that are easy to scapegoat and persecute? If so, that is exactly the reason why the full spectrum of democratic commentators should be protesting the case: in a democracy it is not mainstream, “normal,” “nice guys” who deserve the most legal protection and rights of redress. It is the ideologically suspect, reprehensible, marginalised, ostracized or otherwise outcast who deserve the full protections of law precisely because they are at the mercy of the majority–a majority that is often ill-informed or manipulated by authorities when it comes to evaluating the merits of any given case against anti-status quo political activists. The majority may rule, but free, fair and impartial trials are the minority’s best bulwark against its tyranny.

That is another reason why a jury trial is deserved by the Urewera 15. A  jury, selected from the public mainstream, can listen to and observe the prosecution evidence and the defense against it in detail, first hand, then deliberate on the merits of each. That ensures that no judicial bias or hidden quid pro quos enter into the process. As things stand, the judge who hears the trial is vulnerable to such accusations, which is more the reason to bring an impartial jury into the process.

I am not entirely sympathetic to the causes being espoused by the Urewera 18. I do believe in their right to act militantly in defense of them subject to the penalties of  law should they act in ways that contravene criminal standards (as hard as it is to say, I extend this belief in the right to militant activism to neo-Nazis and skinheads as well so long as no harm to others results from it). Here I disagree with some distinguished Left commentators, who have seen something sinister in their activities and who believe that the political motivations of the defendants makes the case “special.”

I have already written at length on why politically-motivated crimes should not be treated as a special category so will not belabour it here. But I am sure that those who see sinister intent in the Urewera 18  will agree that the way this prosecution has gone is wrong on several levels. Even if the Urewera defendants are in fact complicit in something more than activist fantasy-ism and role-play, they deserve to be treated fairly according to the rule of law consistent with the foundational principles of a free society. Yet they have not, and nary a peep has been heard about that from those who should know better and who ostensibly are champions of the democratic ethos.

This attitude is shameful and should be repudiated by all fair minded people regardless of ideological persuasion.  The trial-by-judge decision must be appealed as a denial of due process and publicly repudiated by those who believe in the democratic ideal.

How’s that for some New Year’s resolutions?

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