Archive for ‘History’ Category

Dollar dollar bill y’all

datePosted on 22:56, July 11th, 2011 by Lew

Tonight’s Native Affairs debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash is now up on their website, and it is must-watch television for a few reasons. The first and most immediately evident is Julian Wilcox’s quality as an interviewer and moderator — this was not a structured debate, with time allotted and mechanical switches between speakers, nor preset, pre-scripted questions. It was a free-flowing affair, with Wilcox acting as both interviewer and moderator; and throughout the two speakers were respectful, genuine, and both had ample opportunity to get their points across. It was superbly done. (Hone Harawira, in a later discussion, twice jokingly invited Wilcox to stand for Te Mana, but for mine he’s too valuable in the media.)

Another reason it was remarkable was because of Don Brash’s bizarre, out-of-touch equation of sentimental or cultural attachment to natural features — maunga, awa, moana and so on — with “animism”. It’s a perverse position to take, given the deep connection New Zealanders — both Māori and Pākehā — have to their landscape, about which I’ve written before. Imagine, if you will, a series of billboards featuring Aoraki Mt Cook, the Waitemata Harbour or Rangitoto, the Waikato or the Whanganui, Wakatipu, Taupo, or my own ‘home’ mountain of Taranaki — with the legend “Brash thinks this is just a lot of water”, or “Brash thinks this is just a rock”. If ACT were politically relevant, it might be worth doing.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me
C.R.E.A.M, get the money
Dollar dollar bill y’all
— Wu-Tang Clan

Like the gangstas of Staten Island legend, this sense that only what’s literal and material matters, that when push comes to shove, money trumps everything is integral to the faux-rational actor model to which ACT subscribes, and this leads into the major thing which made this interview important:

(Image snapped by Michael John Oliver, via twitter, thanks!)

And a brief transcript:

Brash: “Pita, I put …”
Sharples: “No, you didn’t.”
Brash: …”Apirana ta…Ngata on …”
Sharples: “The country put that on. Let’s be clear about that.”
Brash: “I made the decision. I made the decision, as governor. And I put him on that because I think he’s one of the greatest ever New Zealanders.”

Don Brash, the archetypal white rich guy, brought along a fifty dollar note — a note that many poor Māori voters rarely even see — to a debate that was substantively about the reasons why Māori are politically, socially, and economically deprived.

To appeal to Sir Apirana Ngata in a newspaper advertisement — as Brash did this weekend — is merely crass. To bring that actual visage in as a prop in an argument to dismantle the Aotearoa that Ngata and others had worked to build — that, as Sharples said, Ngata was criticised for being a “radical” by rich white guys like Don Brash — and seeking to imprint his divisive and offensive policies with Ngata’s mana is offensive to the man’s memory. To seek to take personal credit for Ngata’s mana being properly recognised — “I made the decision” — is obscene. To play a statesman’s memory like a chip on a weak hand at the last-chance saloon is no sort of respect. It is the ultimate “I’m not racist” gambit — “look, some of my best banknotes have Maaris on”. I wonder if he would treat the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary or Kate Sheppard in this way. Distancing himself from John Ansell’s misogyny by saying “hey, I put a broad on the $10” would be a thing to see. He had a decent crack at “I’m not racist, my wife’s from Singapore” back in the day.

Don Brash, during his brief run in politics, accumulated a series of bad images — “poor optics” as the lingo goes. Walking the plank, struggling to climb into the racing car, scooping mud out of his mouth at Waitangi, and so on. This image — of Brash big-noting to Māoridom, if you’ll excuse the phrase; showing them who’s got the Benjamins, or the Apis — should be one of the enduring memories of the campaign. Brash probably thinks it’s a smart symbolic play, but it calls to mind a bunch of things he doesn’t want to call to peoples’ minds — his own wealth, the extent to which he’s economically out of touch with those he claims to want to represent, and perhaps most of all an almost unspeakably flawed sense of political and historical reverence, which places him out of touch at a deeper level; a level of shared sentiment and aspiration, of common culture and values.

In television, the rule is: don’t tell, show. No matter how often he tells Aotearoa that he shares our views and aspirations, we won’t believe it unless he shows us. Since storming the lofty heights of the ACT party Brash is busily telling us that what we stand for what he stands for, despite 98.3% of the evidence contradicting that assertion. And now he’s showing us exactly the same.

L

Royal Hubris.

datePosted on 16:47, June 26th, 2011 by Pablo

As an ex-pat yank I am not much for royals. Its a war of independence, ex-colonial legacy type of thing, I imagine, but the idea that some otherwise useless people connected by traceable bloodlines can claim superiority and the right to “lead” just grates on me. The universal law of genetic decline comes to mind here (previously posted upon).

So it is with bemusement that I read that the 2nd in line to the British throne and his new bride have decided to skip a NZ visit this year because “it might influence the elections.”

Are they high (legally or not)? Sheeeeet. I suspect anyone who believes this to be true to be absolutely chronic.

Whatever the numbers of royalist fools in NZ, it takes a stoner quantity of imperial hubris to think that Wills and Kate could influence the outcome of the November elections. In fact, I reckon that Alisdair Thompson’s strong National links (including his reported blokey relationship with the PM) will be more decisive in November than these two over-privileged parasites on a party holiday.

If you ever want to see an egregious example of dole-bludgeing, go no further than Royalty.  Some of the men may do military service while living lifestyles way above their pay grade, but the wimin do nothing other than charity socials and token appearances to excite the hoi polloi.

I say **** that. Lets get rid of the bludgers and go for full independence ASAP. After all, what have we to lose other than our symbolic colonial chains?

One axiom of mediation is that the parties sincerely want to settle their dispute and realise that mutual concessions will have to be made in order to do so. Another is that the mediator has to be procedurally and substantively neutral–s/he has no interest in the specific terms of the result and is bound to procedurally enforce the rules on negotiations as well as externally enforce the settlement (which in effect makes the latter a contract between the disputants).

This is why Barack Obama’s latest attempt at mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict is doomed.

In order to establish a semblance of neutrality, he proposed that Hamas recognise Israel’s right to exist in exchange for Israeli acceptance of the (post-conflict) 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations on a two-state solution. He said that mutually agreed upon land swaps would form the basis for the contract. Neither Hamas or the Israeli government accepted the offer and instead rejected it outright. Although it is possible that Obama’s initiative is just the opening gambit in a more delicate elaboration, it is also quite possible that this was his best offer, which is now dead in the water.

The problems with the proposed deal are many. With regards to the US, it is clearly not an impartial mediator. Whether the administration of the moment wants to or not, the power of the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s strategic connections (intelligence sharing, weapons acquisitions and covert political maneuvering) ensure that the US will support it as the default option. To that can be added the fact that the US has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation and openly supports Fatah as the legitimate representative of Palestinian interests even though the latter lost its electoral mandate to Hamas some years ago. By any measure the US is not impartial, neutral or objective, so its role as a mediator is reduced to pressuring Israel to engage limited concessions in the hope that Hamas will take the bait and offer significant concessions of its own. That will not happen. And yet no other country has offered to step into the breach, and it is doubtful that any other country (the UK? Germany? France?) would be acceptable to both parties.

As for the principles, they have no real interest in cutting a deal that binds them over the long-term. Politics in Gaza and Israel are dominated by fundamentalist discourses that see the conflict as a zero-sum struggle where the “other” is seen as sub-human and inherently evil. Both governments are divided and weak, the Palestinians visibly so but the Israelis no less so in spite of their veneer of unity. Corruption has become a major problem on both sides, which delegitimates their standing as honest interlocutors and representatives of their respective constituencies.

Moreover, both Israel and the Palestinians have foreign partners who overtly or covertly work to prolong the impasse and low intensity warfare because it is seen as serving their geopolitical objectives (Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind). Then there are the weapons merchants and others who see profit in fighting and who do not wish to see the source of that profit end. One might argue that there even are NGOs and humanitarian agencies that have a vested organisational interest in an unresolved armed standoff that provides them with the opportunity to “do good.”  In other words, the constellation of interests that favour the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outweigh those that sincerely seek a durable peace.

Which is why Obama’s initiative will not prosper. But there is a factor now at play that may make the US role irrelevant and actually force a hole in the diplomatic logjam obstructing resolution of the Palestinian “question:” the Arab Spring. Although it has yet to result in democracy anywhere in the Arab world, the groundswell of popular protest against authoritarianism has been a game-changer (of sorts). The change is in the acceptance of non-violent mass resistance as the preferred method of voice and redress. Not only does this strategy explicitly turn its back on jihadism. It also forces regimes to either up the ante and engage in mass repression (such as in Syria), or attempt to reform-monger in a way that maintains elite interests while offering more avenues of representation and service to the populations in question. Most importantly, though, it forces the Arab world to reappraise the regional status quo, specifically with regard to the status of Palestine, in such a way that it will make it increasingly less tenable for Israel to continue its policy of illegal settlements and armed force. With popular demands for a harder line on Israel emerging in places like Egypt, the pressure is on for the “reformist” leaders to reconsider the options with regard to Palestine. In addition, the use of (mostly) non-violent passive resistance against Israel such as the Nakbar protests on the Israeli-Syrian border forces it to show its authoritarian stripes (as it did in killing a half dozen of the cross-border protesters) or live up to its supposedly democratic principles when confronting unarmed protest.

Given Israel’s current political climate, it may well ignore all democratic pretense and fire away at will against peaceful demonstrators. But that is a short-term solution. The longer-term impact of the Arab Spring will be to force increased accountability on Arab regimes, which in turn will require them to adjust their approaches to Israel and Palestinians in ways that will not uphold the status quo ante. Should that happen, then it will be Israel that will be forced to make the first significant move with or without US backing, and it will do so not out of a sense of idealism but because it has pragmatic self-interest in doing so. After all, Israel is the stronger actor in this conflict. It has less to lose and much to gain when offering a genuine unilateral concession, in the beginning of what game-theorists call a “tit-for-tat” strategy (that is, it opens with a cooperative move then mirrors the adversaries’ response). It may take a few iterations and more concessions to elicit a cooperative response from Hamas, and the outcome could still result in failure, but that is how the game will have to be played if there is any hope of reaching a negotiated compromise.

Hardline Zionist talk notwithstanding, the best guarantee of Israel’s long term security given the changes underway in the Arab world is not superior counter-force as a deterrent. Instead, the solution that guarantees Israel long-term security is diplomatic, and that involves over-riding hardline interests in pursuit of diplomatic flexibility. There will be domestic consequences when it does make the first move, which will have to involve the unilateral eviction and withdrawal of newer settlements on occupied Palestinian land (think of the precedent of violent resistance by illegal settlers to the limited evictions undertaken by the Israeli government to date), and Hamas and Fatah will have to agree on a commensurate response if negotiations are to advance to the point of establishing a blueprint for dual statehood (which is the only realistic option and where recognition of Israel’s right to exist comes in). None of this will be voluntarily generated by the elites currently in office, not will it be the US that breaks the impasse and brokers the deal. Instead it will be the extension of the Arab Spring into Gaza and Israel that may offer the best hope for a diplomatic opening in pursuit of a durable peace, and should that opening come, it will be endogenous rather than exogenous in nature.

Although it is hard for the Obama administration to do given the imperial hubris that infects US domestic politics and foreign policy, the best thing it can offer is to quietly encourage the Arab Spring, openly condemn repression, seek broader international consensus and let events take their course. Or, as a senior Israeli intelligence official told me a few years ago (and I roughly paraphrase from memory here), “although conditions are not favorable to negotiations at the moment, there will come a time when both sides realise that theirs is an unhappy marriage, but it is for the children’s sake that they stay in it and make it work.” That moment may shortly be upon us, and it will be the “children” who force the issue.

Violating ourselves, redux

datePosted on 23:48, May 10th, 2011 by Lew

A long and largely futile discussion has been running in response to my latest post about the Treaty, and the responsibility that Pākehā have to honour it, according to our own standards of conduct.

This post is nothing more than a formal clarification of the argument. There are really only two contentious points of principle in my case, and they are the following:

(1) Whether the Treaty was materially breached.

(2) Whether honouring one’s agreements in good faith is, in fact, a philosophical baseline of Pākehā culture.

The first premise is the subject of a very considerable literature. The legal weight of the Treaty and its breaches have been exhaustively documented: authoritative accounts have been written by (at least) Walker; King; Belich; Kawharu (junior and senior); Durie (two of) and Orange; not to mention the reams and reams of material deliberated upon by the Māori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal. Treaty breaches are simply a matter of historical reality. Anyone who denies them is ignorant of the facts of the country’s history; is at odds with the views of every qualified expert in the field; the courts, and the official position of the Crown. If you don’t believe the Treaty exists in force and has been materially breached, you quite literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

The second premise is also the subject of a very considerable literature from within the European enlightenment tradition which also gave us the philosophy of liberalism which underpins most of our society — Locke, Mill, Smith, many others. Strong contracts are at the foundation of our pluralist-capitalist society, and in this system, strict enforcement of contracts is a fallback position when good faith and the honour of the two parties fails. Since there is no ultimate authority to enforce the Treaty of Waitangi and to compel the Crown to make good its breaches, as a matter of practicality it falls to the Crown’s adherence to its own stated principles.

If (1) and (2) are both true, Pākehā have a responsibility to negotiate with Māori in good faith to achieve a mutually satisfactory resolution of the breaches. This is my argument. It is not, contrary to the beliefs of those who appear to accept neither of these propositions, a very contentious one.

L

Violating ourselves

datePosted on 00:03, May 5th, 2011 by Lew

This post is more rantish and more polemic than even my usual here, and although I’ve said all this before (it seems like hundreds of times) I feel the utter dearth of understanding of what the Treaty of Waitangi is all about — particularly among Pākehā — necessitates it being said again. Forcefully.

Danyl Mclauchlan is someone who, for the most part, gets it, and over the past few days he has put up a couple of very smart posts on the topic. Both are worth reading, and the comments to both also, if only for a view of the howling gulf which passes for understanding of Aoteatoa’s fundamental history among what is probably one of the largest, smartest, and most liberally-minded blog communities in the country. But I refer to the second, and in particular the three points which Danyl argues nullify Don Brash’s claim that Māori should be treated no differently to any other ethnic group in New Zealand:

  • Maori as a people were signatories to a treaty that was not honored.
  • Maori, their culture and language are unique to New Zealand. If we don’t try and preserve, say, the Chinese culture and language in New Zealand and it is subsumed by the dominant culture then that’s a little sad, but not a tragedy because the culture and language flourishes in other countries. But if the state doesn’t cultivate Maoritanga and it goes then it’s gone forever.
  • Maori are overrepresented in negative statistics like crime and morbidity, and it’s sometimes more effective to target these problems culturally rather than at the wider population.

The first really is the beginning and the end here. The other two are good and worthy, but rest on the utility of those particular goods (value of the culture, wellbeing of Māori people) rather than on hard principle. That permits the “One Nation” lot to argue the waffly details and ignore the fundamental point, which is this: the Treaty of Waitangi provides a settlement right to Tau Iwi, and in particular grants the Crown the right to establish government, from which all future settlement (and other legal and civil society) rights devolve. Nothing else in the factual historical record of New Zealand history grants that right. Nothing else. You take that right and you accept the terms under which it was agreed, or you leave it. Successive generations of settlers have chosen to accept it, and that’s a wonderful thing. But it is not a right which can be enjoyed without obligation.

Hobson and his lot had no rights to settle here until they were granted by the Treaty. Sure, he could have tried — but they were outnumbered 20 to one by well-armed, well-trained soldiers who’d by that point been fighting wars on land and sea for generations, who had a complex internal economy and international trade systems up and running for more than a decade, and who were swiftly becoming cognisant of the realpolitik of the day. You could argue the settlers would have prevailed in the end, and you’d probably be right — but in point of fact that’s not what happened. In any case, if Don Brash or anyone else want to go down the repugnant path of claiming swordright over Aotearoa, they’re welcome to try.

Hobson drafted the Treaty and agreed its terms on behalf of the Crown, and consequently Tau Iwi were granted by Tangata Whenua the right to settle, to implement laws and so on, under conditions stipulated in the Treaty. The opening words of Article 3, the one which Don Brash and the other “one nation” bangers love to quote is “in consideration thereof”; the deal is contingent on the agreement being honoured. One other thing. To all those folks who argue it’s a “relic”, there was no expiry date on the Treaty. It gets amended or disbanded according to the wishes of its signatories, the two parties to it, or their descendants as appropriate. And by no other means. People of today remain bound by the decisions of the governments of yesterday. On the other thread Psycho Milt makes this crystal clear.

So it’s really very simple: as Tau Iwi, if we live here in Aotearoa, we have an obligation to do our bit in ensuring the Treaty gets honoured. Because to the extent it remains unhonoured, we’re in breach of the only thing which grants us any enduring legitimacy, the only agreement which gives us a right to be here. One of the basic, fundamental principles of the English civil society which Hobson represented, and which New Zealanders continue to hold dear today is the notion of adhering to one’s agreements; acting in good faith. In fact, Hobson’s instructions were to deal with the Māori in good faith as equals.

Pākehā society, by refusing to honour the Treaty, isn’t honouring its contract with the Tangata Whenua of this land. That breach is not the breach of some airy fairy notion of being nice to the natives. This is not some set of alien strictures; it is not some Mosaic law handed down from on high, to which we must adhere for fear of divine punishment, and most certainly it is not a set of principles insisted upon by Māori in order to weaken the Pākehā bargaining position. This is Pākehā culture in its purest, most idealised form! By failing to honour the Treaty Pākehā society is in breach of its own most fundamental and hallowed principles. The economically dry parties — ACT and (lately to a much lesser extent) National — who are most strongly opposed to honouring the Treaty are doubly guilty in this regard, because they know better than anyone that reliable contracts are the foundations of good society. The responsibility of adhering to one’s agreements is at the core of their philosophy.

Well, I’m Pākehā, and even if those other pricks won’t live up to their own declared standards, I want to honour my agreements, and those of my forefathers; and those made by people from whom I’m not descended but from which my 20th-Century immigrant grandparents benefitted. This Pākehā, at least, pays his debts. I do not carry guilt for the 170-odd years of breaches to date — I carry the responsibility for making right. What form will that take? Well, that’s a wider question and one to be properly decided by society at large.

By failing to honour the Treaty Don Brash is in violation of his own stated principles as the representative of a party which believes in responsibility. By failing to honour a Treaty drawn up by Pākehā, on Pākehā terms and according to Pākehā custom, we as New Zealanders are, more than anything, violating ourselves.

L

There’s a follow-up to this post and discussion here.

Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys Go Troppo.

datePosted on 15:35, April 10th, 2011 by Pablo

Who would have thunk it? The country vilified by US neo-imperialists as cowardly appeasers of dictatorship a few years ago has now morphed into an avid neo-imperialist of it own. France is currently engaged in three low intensity conflicts, in Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Libya, and has taken a leading role in two of them (Ivory Coast and Libya). All three military interventions are wars of choice rather than necessity (since no core French strategic interest is at stake) authorised by UN Security Council Resolutions that were championed by France as a UNSC permanent member (people may not know it but the resolution to enforce a “no fly” zone in Libya was sponsored by France, the UK and Lebanon. The US merely voted in favour. Although it is obvious that diplomatic machinations were/are at play, the very fact that the US is willing to take a back seat on the issue–as it did with the Ivory Coast resolution–perhaps indicates that it has rediscovered the art of diplomatic nuance after years almost a decade of Fox-news style bully approaches to international politics).

More interestingly, although domestic support for French involvement in Afghanistan is low (the French have lost 40 troops in that mission), popular approval of the Ivory Coast and Libyan interventions is high. Only minority Left and Islamic groups have spoken out against them; all others have essentially agreed to the use of force.

It is worth pondering why this is. Most analysts claim that the French military adventures were ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy as a way of of bolstering his sagging electoral support in the build up to the April 2012 national elections (a fact confirmed not only by Sarkozy’s popularity rating of below 30 percent but also by the resounding defeat suffered by his UMP party in nation-wide local elections held last month–a defeat that saw the UMP not only lose to the Socialists but also to the far-right National Front). Thus his war-mongering is seen as a way of shoring up conservative-nationalist support in the face of the National Front challenge, something also seen in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant tone of his proposed amendments to internal security and civil rights legislation.

What is also interesting is the French public attitude, which appears to celebrate the resurgence of French militarism. Perhaps it s due to a sense of re-claimed national glory. Perhaps it is due to a sense of reaffirming France’s pride of place within the European community (where it has been eclipsed by Germany once again) or even vis a vis the US. Perhaps it speaks to a sense of French manifest destiny, now re-written. But contrary to many other countries that have sizable anti-war movements protesting their government’s involvement in foreign military adventures, in France there is little enthusiasm for protest of this sort. The majority of the French, it seems, are happy to support neo-imperialism. Either that, or they may have spent too much time in the sun.

It is further of note that France’s bellicosity has not met with the wave of international condemnation that often greets US militarism. This could be due to the fact France’s armed interventions have the UN “seal of approval,”  are justified on humanitarian grounds and/or tend to occur in former colonies or where it has had a historical presence. Perhaps it is due to the relatively small scale and scope of their operations. Perhaps it is due to more international tolerance for French military adventurism than for US armed interventions. Whatever the reason, it appears that at home and abroad the French turn to foreign military adventurism has more support than is the case for other large powers.

In France, this speaks to the idiosyncracies of local political culture. In the international arena it may reflect a common belief that some nation other than the US needs to assume a global constabulary role, even if as a deputy sheriff. Whatever the reason, it looks like the French are cheese eating surrender monkeys no more. Oh, to be a fly on Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s wall!

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 Disaster Roulette.

datePosted on 15:57, March 19th, 2011 by Pablo

2011 is shaping up to be a most unhappy year. The seemingly endless parade of human misery caused by the three C’s–calamity, catastrophe and chaos– got me to thinking about which is “worse:” human-caused or natural disasters?

The answer lies in the response. In natural disasters the majority of people band together to work together for the common purpose of overcoming individual and collective hardship and tragedy in pursuit of the common goal of re-establishing normality to the lives. The solidarity exhibited during such times is born of the realisation that nature is a force that cannot be controlled and that no blame can be attributed to it or anything else. It just is, and we live at its mercy. If societies are to thrive, the only response to natural disasters has to be social union and commonality of purpose.

Human disasters, on the other hand, tend to bring out the worst in people. In fact, they are often the product of and the motivation for human cruelty, opportunism and greed. Unlike natural disasters, which are indiscriminate in application, human disasters are discriminate and often deliberate (because even negligence affects some more than others given socio-economic, political and cultural demographics). War and genocide are extreme expressions of human disaster, but the reach of malfeasance is vast and wide. Think of the looting that followed the Iraq occupation or pro-democracy protests in Cairo. Or the cynical use of false information supplied to ISAF forces to settle personal vendettas in Afghanistan. Or the wave of drug-related murders in Mexico (over 35,000 in the last five years) that rides on the back of poverty, ignorance and an unwillingness by consuming societies to recognise the demand aspect of the equation. The same willful blindness and self-serving logics applies to human sex trafficking in SE Asia, which leaves a terrible toll of human and social costs in its wake but which is allowed, even encouraged, by states simply because it channels sexual predation to foreign localised areas (such as Thailand, which is the recipient of well-advertised sex tours from countries such as Japan and Germany). Then there are the corporate disasters ranging from the tobacco industry’s lying about the effects of smoking to lax safety regulations at chemical plants in places like Bophal to the manipulation of financial derivatives by bankers that produced the global financial crisis of 2008-present and which exacted a terrible toll in lost jobs, lost homes and, in some countries, lost public benefits imposed by austerity measures prescribed by the very people who caused the crisis in the first place.

If my view is correct then the answer is clear: human disasters are “worse” than natural disasters.

But there is another scenario that brings the worst of both together: where human folly has magnified the impact of a negative natural event. That may be the case in Japan. If it turns out that concerns about nuclear safety standards were ignored or covered up by power company operators in the years before this year’s earthquake and tsunami, and/or that they are currently downplaying the gravity of the situation in an effort to save face, then the current nuclear crisis is a human add-on to what otherwise is a terrible but surmountable natural disaster. The same is true if it turns out that the supposedly “earthquake-proof” buildings in countries with known fault lines have not been built to code due to corruption or cost-cutting (this is especially true for states located with the Ring of Fire earthquake zone and Central Asia where such standards, if they exist, are haphazardly enforced). I use these two examples because they are in the news at present, but the list of instances where human failures worsened the negative impact of a natural event is long. As for the bible-bashers who place blame on victimised societies because of their supposed failures to adhere to God’s teachings: the less said the better, but they too add unnecessary suffering to those already in distress.

In sum, it seems to me that natural disasters are tragedies for which humanity is socially hard-wried to cope. Human disasters are worse because they promote self-centred advantage-taking, meanness and division rather than solidarity and unity. Human and natural disasters combined are the most calamitous of all because the presence of the former compounds and exacerbates the problem while making more difficult a common response to the latter.

All of which is to say, if I have to spin the disaster wheel given where I live, I bet on natural causes and prepare accordingly (easier to do in NZ than in SG, which is another reason to return home). However, should I ever again live in a conflict zone or where corporate and/or political corruption abounds (and that could well be most of the world), then I will hedge my bets with a human disaster contingency plan as well.

The Biggest Losers (Middle Eastern edition).

datePosted on 21:07, February 27th, 2011 by Pablo

The wave of unrest that has shaken the political foundations of the Middle East is a watershed moment in the region’s history. Although it is still too early to determine if the much hoped-for changes raised by the collective challenge to autocratic rule actually result in tangible improvements in the material and social conditions of the majority of Middle Eastern citizens, it is possible to ascertain who the losers are. Some are obvious, but others are not.

Among the obvious losers the biggest is Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime will topple regardless of whether he hangs onto control in Tripoli for an extended period of time (which is unlikely, since he faces not only internal opposition bolstered by defections from the military and government and does not have control over the oil fields that once made him someone to be reckoned with, but also UN-led international sanctions and a host of asset freezes on the part of individual states. Worst yet, his Ukrainian blond nurse has upped stakes and left for home!). Desposed presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt are also obvious losers, as are their cronies and sycophants, although the regimes they led have weathered the worst of the crises and they have managed to exit office with their lives (something Gaddafi is unlikely to do). Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is also a loser, since he has been forced by public unrest to announce that he will step down from power in 2013, a timeline that may accelerate as a result of defections from within his government and among influential tribal leaders that used to support him.

The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is another loser, as it will have to agree to significant political concessions to the Shiia majority opposition in order to quell unrest. The same is true for Algeria, Jordan, Oman and Syria, which have moved to pre-emptively announce political reforms that may or may not be cosmetic but which indicate increased regime preoccupation with public accountability and governmental performance. In seemingly stable Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, royal families are also working quickly to stave off potential unrest via the institution of preventative reform packages which, however minor in nature, are nevertheless acknowledgement that their rule is not as impregnable as they used to think. In all of the oil oligarchies there is a realisation that they must cede some power in order to stay in power, which opens the door for more substantive change down the road.

Beyond these obvious losers are others that are not immediately apparent. These include energy and weapons firms that struck deals with Gaddafi, who may find the terms and conditions of said contracts voided or renegotiated on different terms by his successors (this includes BP, which is widely believed to be behind the release of the Libyan Pan Am 103 bomber in exchange for Libyan concession rights as well as Chinese investors). They include a number of Italian businesses as well as the government of embattled president Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed warm relations with Gaddafi that now may turn into liabilities once he is gone. They include the Iranian regime, which has seen its crushed opposition resurface to claim the same rights their Sunni Arab brethern are calling for, thereby giving the lie to the official claim that the Ahmadinnejad-fronted theocratic regime enjoys universal support. They include the US government, which reacted slowly, clumsily and viscerally to the wave of protests, engaged in a series of quick policy shifts and contradictory pronouncements, and which has been shown to have a limited ability to predict, respond or influence events on the ground in that strategically important region even as it pontificates about its newly discovered commitment to democracy and human rights in it (it should be noted that other great powers such as China and Russia did not engage in public diplomacy about the unrest, which may be more due to their own authoritarian records rather than a respect for national sovereignty and preference for private diplomacy but which in any event does not leave them looking like hypocrites on the matter). They include Hamas and Hizbollah, whose hopes for region-wide intifadas never materialised. They might include Israel, should the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime take a less cooperative stance towards the Jewish state in response to public pressure in a more open and competitive domestic political environment (should that materialise). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide food for thought about others who may have benefitted from their support for Middle Eastern autocracies who may now find that their fortunes have changed for the worse as a result of the regional crisis.

But the biggest loser by far in this historic moment is the one actor that only gets mentioned by fear-mongerers: al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. In spite of repeated calls for the Muslim masses to join them in their struggle, after years of sacrifice of blood and treasure, international jihadists have seen few echoes of their views in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Rather than call for the establishment of a regional caliphate or even Sharia governance in individual nations, or embrace jihad against infidels at home and abroad, the vast majority of the protests in every single country where they have occurred are about bread and butter issues (mainly jobs, food and public services) and demands for increased political voice, representation, government accountability and official transparency. As it turns out, these purportedly Western and anti-Islamic notions resonate more on the Arab Street than do appeals to martyrdom. Thus, the standard canard that democracy is inapplicable to the Middle East due to cultural preferences rings as hollow for al-Qaeda as it does for the autocrats who parade it as an excuse for their rule.

The picture is clear. Fevered warnings of fear-mongers aside (who now believe that Libya will fall into jihadist’s hands should civil war ensue), after years of fighting and preaching, the ideological appeal of Islamic fundamentalism has gained little traction with the Arab majority, who instead have voiced their preference for forms of governance that take their inspiration from the infidel West, not Usama bin Laden. Not only is al-Qaeda and its allies being militarilly degraded bit by bit all over the world, in a process that may be long but where the outcome is inevitable. More importantly (and which contributes to their inevitable military defeat as a global armed actor capable of challenging for power in all but the most miserably failed states), they have been utterly defeated in the battle of ideas in the very region from whence they originated.

That makes jihadists the biggest losers of all.

UPDATE: I spent a week on holiday out of IT reach thinking about this issue, and a day after I get back and post about it the NYT decides to follow suit.

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.

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