Archive for ‘History’ 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 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.

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.

Farewell Dame Judith Binney

datePosted on 13:16, February 16th, 2011 by Lew

Sad news today that Dame Judith Binney, who was probably New Zealand’s greatest living historian, has died.

Dame Judith is best known for her remarkable works on the history of colonialism in New Zealand — in particular for Redemption Songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki; and more recently Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921 . Shortly after the publication of Encircled Lands, in December 2009, Dame Judith was hit by a truck while crossing a road in Auckland. She suffered a head injury, and while it has not been confirmed, it seems reasonable to assume that this contributed to her early passing.

I can’t do her work and her career justice, so rather than try, I’ll refer you to Scott Hamilton’s excellent essay Why we need Judith Binney.

A huge and tragic loss.

L

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