Archive for ‘History’ Category

The Venezuelan mess, again.

datePosted on 10:37, February 6th, 2019 by Pablo

I continue to watch developments in Venezuela with interest, including the reaction of the international community to the crisis. Increasing numbers of democracies are lending their support to Juan Guaido’s presidential challenge, including 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group convened to facilitate negotiations on a peaceful resolution. Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania joined the UK, France and Germany (and Canada!) in siding with Guaido after the Maduro government refused to call for new elections within the eight day deadline demanded in an ultimatum issued by the EU members. It seems that much of the Western democratic world is now openly opposed to seeing Maduro continue in office.

That got me thinking more about Juan Guaido. How could this young (age 35) man emerge so quickly and be received so warmly by so many democracies? What I found out is interesting.

Guaido is a former student activist and industrial engineer who received post-graduate training at George Washington University in Washington DC. He got into politics when the Chavez government closed down the most popular private TV station in Venezuela and proposed constitutional reforms that strengthened the presidency at the expense of the other two government branches, and has reportedly spent time since entering public life at several Right-leaning think tanks in the US and Europe. After his introduction to politics he came under the wing of the well-known anti-Chavista Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez, now under house arrest, is a neoliberal economist by training (he has degrees from Kenyon College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). He is the son of a former president and former mayor of Caracas himself, so his elite credentials are impeccable (he even did his high school education at an exclusive private boarding school in the US). Reportedly a friend of Elliot Abrams (see previous post), he was a leader of the 2002 abortive coup against Hugo Chavez and spent several years in military prison as a result. In 2014 he led another failed uprising against Maduro, getting house arrest rather than popular support for his efforts. He agitates from his home, where he uses social media and encrypted apps to communicate with foreign and domestic allies and uses his telegenic wife to serve as his spokesperson.

In 2009 Lopez and Guaido formed the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) Party. Although it claims to be a Social Democratic Party affiliated with the Socialist International, VP gained notoriety for its uncompromising, hardline anti-Bolivarian orientation and direct action street tactics. Although some of its thuggery was in response to that of Bolivarian militias and para-militaries, the strategy employed by VP was essentially a two-track approach: work within the institutional framework as given by contesting elections for the National Assembly and presidency; and use direct action on the streets to foment mischief and undermine Bolivarian attempts to establish law and order.

Under an agreement with Lopez, Guaido became VP’s parliamentary leader while Lopez retained the party chairmanship. First elected as an alternate delegate in 2010, Guaido was elected to a full National Assembly seat in 2015 and, given that more senior party members were either under arrest or exiled, named Opposition Leader in 2018. Under the power sharing arrangement in the National Assembly, Guaido assumed the rotating parliamentary leader’s position on January 5 of this year. A week later he declared his presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate due to massive fraud and low voter turn-out (both of which are true). Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the National Assembly leader is declared president if the elected President and Vice President are disqualified, absent or cannot serve, which Guaido claims is the case here.

There is strong suspicion that Lopez has a direct connection to neoconservative circles in Washington, and through them, the Trump administration. There is speculation that some form of material assistance is being funnelled from the US, including from Venezuelan exiles, to VP in order to support its anti-regime efforts and the Guaido campaign. Although I have no direct knowledge of this, it would not be surprising if these claims prove to be true given the quickness in which Guaido emerged on the scene, the strength of the organisation supporting him and the rapidity with which the US recognised his claim. What is confirmed is that emissaries from a number of the region’s democracies as well as the US met quietly and exchanged secret messages with Guaido and his representatives in the weeks leading to his assumption of the parliamentary presidency.

This has me wondering why so many democracies have been quick to jump on the Guaido bandwagon. They surely are not acting just out of ideological distaste for the Bolivarian regime. They surely have good information on Guaido’s background and connections to Lopez and US interlocutors. They surely must know that although Maduro and his cronies are reprehensible thieves posing as a popular government, Guaido’s connections to the US will make it very difficult for him to claim legitimacy and could in fact, spark a violent backlash from the 30 percent of the Venezuelan population that continue to support Maduro (mostly the poor and working class). They also must understand the perils of supporting a foreign-backed constitutional coup (which is essentially what being attempted), especially when the move is closely tied to the threat of US military intervention. So why would they abandon long-held commitments to upholding the doctrine of non-intervention?

Some will argue that the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela requires drastic action and that action cannot come from within Venezuela under present circumstances. Yet even the issue of humanitarian assistance has turned into a political tug of war. The Lima Group and European democracies, led by Spain, have pledged humanitarian assistance, mostly in the form of food and medical provisions, to Venezuela. The same is true for Argentina, Canada and Brazil. But they insist on having Guaido and his supporters administer the aid provision, something that the Maduro government categorically rejects. Neither contender is interested in talking to the other about jointly administering relief assistance and instead are busy staging demonstrations and claiming support from within the military (where so far Maduro has a considerable advantage).

Perhaps the show of external support for Guaido is designed to be no more than a form of pressure on Maduro to call for new elections under international supervision, and not really a vote of confidence in Guaido per se. Coupled with the redoubling of sanctions by the US, UK and others against Maduro, his entourage and state agencies suspected of money laundering, the idea seems to be that the combination of forces being applied to the Boliviarians will make them cave to the election demands. The reasoning may well be that Maduro will see this option as preferable to civil war or a coup because it gives him the chance to run again rather than be run out of town in a hearse. After all, the primary rule for coup-plotters is that the people being ousted must not survive the ouster less they come back to haunt the usurpers–something the failed coup against Chavez demonstrated in spades.

This assumes that the target of the foreign pressure a) feels it to the point of pain and b) has no other options other than to cave to it. At this moment there is no evidence to suggest that Maduro and company are close to either concern. And for all his foreign support, Guaido does not appear to have moved the dial with regards to popular support significantly in his direction.

What we have, thus, is what the Latin American political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell (of bureaucratic-authoritarianism and democratic transitions fame) once called (with reference to Argentina 1946-1983) an “organic crisis and hegemonic stalemate” where both sides can check the other but where neither can unilaterally impose its vision for arresting the national decline.

Under those conditions, it may well be external actors who play a decisive role in determining the outcome, something that does not bode well for the prospects of national reconciliation required to reaffirm democracy while returning peace and stability to Venezuelan life.

The Venezuelan mess.

datePosted on 14:35, February 1st, 2019 by Pablo

WARNING: This post is long and somewhat meandering, as it gathers several strands of thought about the issue.

There has been some concern voiced about New Zealand’s refusal to take a side in the power contest now being waged in Venezuela, where the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, has declared himself interim president in opposition to fraudulently re-elected Nicolas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez in what is known as the “Boliviarian Revolution” that started in 1999. The Maduro administration is notoriously corrupt and incompetent and has driven Venezuela into the ground, to the point that millions are starving and more than 2.1 million have fled the oil-dependent country in the last two years (the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history). The reasons for this human-made disaster are many and will not be covered here. Instead, let’s start with the NZ reaction and proceed to how things might eventuate over the next weeks and months.

When first asked about US support for Guaido (the US recognised his presidency a few hours after he made his claim public) and whether New Zealand would follow suit, Prime Minister Arden said that NZ supported “neither side.” That sent the NZ political right into paroxysms of indignant fulmination, with politicians and commentators claiming that she supported Maduro, communism, evil-doers in general and people who kick their dogs. Not surprisingly, her ad-lib was followed shortly thereafter by a more measured comment by Foreign Minister Winston Peters that NZ does not choose between foreign political parties and contenders and prefers to allow them to settle differences on their own.

Coming after the PM’s comments (which reminded me of her “there are no undeclared Russian spies in NZ” remark in March 2018), Peter’s tidying up was appropriate. Although the Maduro regime is odious, it is less repressive than many other authoritarian regimes that NZ recognises and trades with (its major flaws are grotesque corruption and incompetence). NZ also has a long-standing public commitment to the principle of non-intervention and support for peaceful constitutionally-driven political change. The Maduro regime is now being confronted by an externally-backed constitutional coup in the form of the Guaido challenge (and no one elected him to be anything other than an opposition National Assemblyman. He only assumed leadership of the National Assembly in December as part of a rotation-in-office deal with other opposition coalition parties). Guaido and his supporters are not necessarily democratic champions themselves and their promises to hold new elections in a timely fashion are vague at best, so immediate recognition of him as “president” is more an act of faith or cynicism rather than a demonstrable fact of his democratic inclination. In that context Peter’s statement strikes a good diplomatic balance.

With some notable exceptions most of the Latin American governments supporting Guaido are right-leaning like that of Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Sebastian Pinera in Chile, with the advanced democracies supporting his challenge also being governed by Right administrations (UK, Australia, France, Germany as well as semi-democratic Israel). Meanwhile, left-leaning democracies such as those of Bolivia and Uruguay support the Maduro government. So there appears to be an ideological bias at play in how some democracies are casting their lots on the matter. The majority of the global community have taken a stance akin to that of NZ.

The usual clustering of dictatorships and semi-democracies that are backing Maduro such as the Cuba, PRC, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria have hard-nosed geopolitical as well as ideological reasons for doing so. Cuba gets the majority of its oil from Bolivia at discounted prices and has propped up the Boliviarians with both civilian and security assistance. Russia has cultivated Venezuela as an anti-US bulwark with weapons sales and military aid. China has spent billions investing in Venezuelan infrastructure. Iran and Syria have both benefitted from the Boliviarian’s alliance with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. None of them may be particularly enamoured of Maduro but they have serious investment stakes in the game.

As for the NZ response, think of the PRC’s potential reaction to New Zealand siding with the US after its “choose a side” demands, particularly in light of the Huawei imbroglio. Think of the US response if it sides with Maduro. In other words, the diplomatic consequences of taking sides are not positive regardless of which side is chosen. That is why Peter’s statement is judicious–it annoys no one.

In summary, NZ is correct to not choose sides in the Venezuelan crisis, both for principled as well as pragmatic reason

With regards to the crisis itself, the solution has to be internal rather than externally imposed. They key is for the military–the 130,000 troop Army in particular since it will have to do the repressing–to drop support for Maduro in favour of a transitional government that schedules elections in the near future (the Navy has a limited land presence and along with the the Air Force can only support or resist what the Army does, but neither can prevail on their own no matter which side is chosen). To this end, Guaido’s emissaries have been working hard to establish a dialogue with the armed forces, something that, at least with regard to the Venezuelan high command, so far has been rebuffed.

Venezuelan flag rank officers are Maduro cronies who are deeply corrupt and incapable of leading troops in battle. Instead, they have been siphoning off “tax” from the ministries and border commands that they control (which cover drug, people, petrol and arms smuggling routes). The ones that are the key to what happens next are field grade officers (Colonels, LTCs, Majors and Captains) and NCOs who command the enlisted soldiers with the guns. That means bridging the division between constitutionalists (those who swear an oath to protect the constitution no matter who is president) and nationalists who see themselves as saviours of the nation in a time of need–but those include both pro- and anti-Maduro factions. The move involves mending horizontal (between service branches and ideological factions) and vertical (between ranks or military school graduating class) cleavages, something that often involves intra-institutional violence as a precursor to what follows.

In this type of scenario, the military is subject to what are known as “push” and “pull” factors. The “push” factors are those internal to the military that compels them to intervene in politics. These can be a loss of combat readiness or military discipline and professionalism, overt politicisation of the officer corps, rampant corruption etc. All of these are present within the Venezuelan military.

“Pull” factors are external events or conditions that draw the armed forces out of the barracks and into politics. They include armed challenges to military monopoly over organised violence (say, by paramilitaries, guerrillas, criminal organizations and the like, all of which operate with some impunity in Venezuela), and what is known as civilian pleading. Civilian pleading refers to calls from civil society for the military to act. This includes appeals by business groups, unions, religious and community organizations as well as external actors such as Venezuelan exile communities and foreign governments and organisations such as the OAS.

The sense of compulsion is reinforced by the personal experiences of troops when not in uniform. Militaries do not exist in a vacuum and in fact are reflective, in their own way, of the society from which they are drawn. Venezuela has a volunteer military and many of its personnel return to their families and homes after a day’s work. So they are living the crisis both as uniformed personnel as well as citizens.

In short, the Venezuelan military is getting an earful from many sides and has internal, “corporate” reasons to act in order to preserve its position as the pre-eminent institution responsible for managing organised violence in that society. Whether it adopts an arbitrator or governing role once it does so remains to be seen, but it is now the primary determinant of the nation’s political future.

If the field ranking officers and NCOs abandon support for Maduro he is finished, although his loyalists in the Cuban-dominated intelligence and police/paramilitary services will resist the move. It is also likely that, barring massive defections, the 70,000-strong National Guard (which is the agency primarily responsible for domestic repression and which has gained a reputation for brutality) and 150,000 strong National Militia will continue to side with Maduro. The scene is then set for mass violence and prolonged resistance (remember that the Cubans have helped Maduro create thousand of small-scale neighbourhood militias that are trained to use guerrilla tactics against any superior force, foreign or domestic. Along with National Guard resistance that could protract the conflict and drag foreign forces into another long-term ‘pacification” campaign).

The military could opt to simply lay down their weapons, but that is unlikely given the presence of loyalists in the ranks and the National Guard still loyal to Maduro. Or the military can unite around Maduro and ward off US interference by getting Guaido to back down on his presidential challenge, possibly in exchange for new elections and/or constitutional and political reforms. That is the most peaceful option but it does not solve the underlying economic and social problems or the issue of a potential US military intervention if Maduro remains in power (it is highly unlikely that any Latin American country will contribute troops to any US-led intervention force, although it is feasible that Colombia and Brazil might allow US forces to forward deploy and stage in their territories).

So the likely scenario is that Maduro is removed by force, be it threatened or actual. While inevitably bloody, a pro-Guaido military coup will be better than an external military intervention, where many erstwhile opponents of Maduro will rally against armed foreign interference, especially from the US. If it is revealed that Guaido and his supporters have been receiving advice, money and logistical help from the US, that could backfire hard on his military and civilian allies and increase as well as prolong the bloodshed.

In order to avoid civil war the military will have to be united in its support for one or the other presidential contender and willing to demonstrate its resolve. That is easier over the short term if the field officers and NCOs side with their superiors in defence of Maduro, but given the circumstances that is unlikely to hold over the longer-term and could lead to a direct confrontation with US forces should the Trump administration determine that it is expedient (say, as part of a declaration of “national emergency” that includes emergency funding of the border wall by Executive Order) to sacrifice lives in order to see him ousted (the annotation of “5000 troops–>Colombia” on John Bolton’s press briefing notes this past week may or may not be a real statement of intent but certainly signals that “all options are on the table,” even if they are not well thought out. After all, 5000 troops are not enough to control all Venezuelan territory and will have difficulty subduing militias, guerrilla groups and nearly 1 million strong volunteer military that even with defections and intra-service clashes will dwarf the invading force coming across a well defended land border. Which is to say, armed intervention by the US will involve a lot more than a brigade and a lot more than a land assault from Colombia).

It is telling that the person nominated to lead the US Venezuela task force is Elliot Abrams, of neocon Iran-Contra, death squads and the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez fame. His “skill set” is a dark and narrow one, so his appointment pretty much reveals the foundation of the current US approach to the crisis. The irony is that Abrams was originally a “never-Trumper,” who was initially blacklisted from any administration job. But with fellow neocon John Bolton as NSC advisor, the time for redemption is apparently at hand. It will be the Venezuelans who pay the price for that. 

Foreign supporters of Maduro like to claim that US sanctions imposed on his government are a large part of why the country was crippled. This ignores the fact that the sanctions targeted Maduro administration officials and state-controlled firms suspected of money laundering and pilferage. The sanctions did not target economic activities connected to the provision of basic goods and services, nor did it target average citizens. The loss of basics such as food and medicines is not due to sanctions, but to the rampant thievery and incompetence of what now can only be called a kleptocracy as well as the response by the private sector to it.

On the other hand, the Venezuelan political opposition, when not in-fighting, have behaved less than honourably towards the Boliviarians even before Chavez began to tighten his grip after the 2002 coup–a coup that business elites, domestic political opponents and the US government were quick to support even before his arrest was made public (he was freed and launched a counter-coup just hours after being detained). Business elites have largely liquidated assets and decamped the country rather than accept increased taxes on individual wealth and corporate profits. Since 1999 political opponents have schemed and plotted with the ex-pat community and other Latin American rightwing groups to overthrow the Boliviarians. So there is much blame to spread around and choosing between Maduro and Guaido will not necessarily solve the underlying fundamentals of the national decline.

Let us be clear on a key point: if Maduro and his associates had one shred of decency and honour they would have resigned rather than rig last year’s election. They have managed to squander Chavez’s already diminished legacy, allied themselves with some rather unsavoury foreign actors, alienated most of their regional counterparts and overseen the collapse of what once was a prosperous country. Some of that may be due to the so-called “oil curse,” where countries dependent on fossil fuel exports almost inevitably succumb to authoritarianism and the vicissitudes of commodity booms and busts (as has happened in Venezuela). But the blame for what Gramsci would call an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state lies squarely on the shoulders of Boliviarians, not imperialists and domestic reactionaries. The extent of their perfidy and ineptitude is outlined here.

Guaido is believed to have offered Maduro and his associates (including the military leadership) amnesty for their crimes in exchange for abdication. There are reports that he has offered safe passage into exile for regime leaders along with much of their ill-begotten assets. There are rumours of secret talks between his representatives and field rank officers. His supporters have gathered outside military bases clamouring for the troops to lay down their arms or join with the opposition. It is clear to everyone that the military holds the key to what happens next, but the question remains open as to whether the military will choose a side, fracture or simply remain neutral while the civilian actors negotiate or fight for political control. So far the military leadership remains loyal to Maduro, but defections in the ranks are commonplace (including the military attache to Washington, who defected and requested asylum).

It is unlikely that Guaido would have made his move spontaneously or without the encouragement and support of the US. It is very likely that US representatives worked with him in the weeks leading to his challenge for power, and it would not be surprising if the US has provided logistical and material assistance to his campaign. It is also likely that discrete overtures have been made to military officers by the US, if nothing else then to ascertain the mood of the troops. The emergence of a right-leaning political bloc in Latin America provided Guaido with a favourable geopolitical context in which to make his move (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica all have right-leaning governments at the moment). This has translated into Organisation of American States (OAS) support for Guaido, something that breaks with a long-standing tradition of promoting non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its members.

The bottom line is that Maduro’s position is increasingly untenable but Guaido is somewhat tainted by his association with the US. The solution to the impasse rests in the hands of middle and junior rank Army officers and NCOs, who must choose to defend Maduro or opt to support an election-based political transition to a post-Bolivarian regime (that may or may not be led by Guaido or Maduro if the elections are genuinely free and fair). That requires a public move one way or the other from within the Army as a signal of intent. There is likely to be violence involved with either choice, both within and between armed service branches, paramilitary organisations, intelligence agencies and guerrilla cadres connected to civil society and political parties. But that will be the lesser price to pay if the alternative is US military intervention.

In the meantime the international community can do its part by marshalling humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people. The UN and OAS can lead those efforts and the contending political factions can broker an interim agreement on priority needs and the means and methods of conveying that aid, something that could lessen factional and partisan tensions and set the stage for more substantive negotiations on the terms and conditions for the political transition that, one way or another, is an inevitable part of Venezuela’s future.

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On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

It’s over.

datePosted on 14:01, December 27th, 2018 by Pablo

Media coverage of the Trump administration is like a group of people standing around the bedside of a terminally ill person. Instead of dealing with the fact that the person is soon to depart this earthly coil, they linger on the details of her illness, the early symptoms that remained undiagnosed, the downhill course of her trajectory, the therapies used to prolong her life, the deterioration of her body and the awfulness of it all. That is all well and true but the bottom line is that for the person in the bed, life will soon be over and no amount of picking through her medical history will change that.

Whether it be out of morbid curiosity or driven by ratings boosts linked to the politically macabre, the US media fixates on Trump’s every action. He fuels their addiction to administrative chaos with his inane tweets and moronic statements. Truth be told, the press cannot get enough of it and many a pundit has made his name off of analysing the Trump train wreck. But all this ignores the larger picture, which is that, whether it happen in days, weeks, months or a year, the Trump presidency is finished. Done. Dusted, Kaput. Finis.

The disaster that is his presidency is too obvious to recount in sordid detail here. Suffice it to say that people are being fired or leaving the administration in droves, and many jobs remained unfilled or have been taken by intellectual lightweights. Trump lashes out and reacts impulsively across a range of issues, with suspicions emerging in print that he is addicted to the prescription stimulant Adderol (which is a 25th amendment grounds for removal). He is besieged on several legal fronts, both at the federal as well as state level. Congress is soon to see Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives (which means his legislative agenda is all but finished), and his own Party is not wiling to blindly follow his policy leads. His foreign policy is in tatters, his border wall will not be built and the Mexicans certainly will not pay for it, North Korea still has nukes, his trade war is hurting the states where is electoral base is strongest, the Russians and others laugh at him to his face, his children are in legal jeopardy, and his cabinet has an increasingly feral character to it. Daily scandals, lies and inanities are a constant soundtrack of his presidency. Absorbing all of that, Wall Street, which had been so opportunistically bullish when he entered office (and for which he claims credit), is now moving beyond skittish into full bear territory (for which he blames the Federal Reserve). As New York state prosecutors pointed out with regard to the Trump Foundation, his administration is basically an on-going criminal enterprise rooted in fraud and corruption posing as a government. His lying acolytes are no longer able to keep straight faces when spinning the White House narrative and many of his supporters in high places have simply gone to ground. Even Fox News and rabid rightwing radio personalities are breaking ranks with him. The exact precipitant and method of exit remain unknown, but one thing is clear: He is isolated, incoherent and irrational. He will soon be irrelevant.

That is why the media would be better off ignoring him and focusing on the line of succession and other aspects of institutional continuity. The era of president Mike Pence is at hand, and if it turns out that he played loose with the Russians during the campaign (as is claimed), then he too may be shown the door. That brings the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, into the Oval Office, and if he is unfit to serve, then Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House follows in the line of succession. If Pence is not indicted or otherwise tainted by his association with Russians during the campaign, he is free to choose his own Vice President (subject to Senate confirmation).

It behooves the US political elite to be working with Pence on transition scenarios. Pence is a religious freak and troglodyte on gender and sexual issues, but as a former congressman and governor he knows what it takes to get things done in DC and he is rational in a hyper-conservative way. Although he will likely return to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy and continue to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, reproductive choice and race relations, he will be, after the lunatic steps down, positively easy to deal with. The same goes for Pompeo, who served in Congress before being named CIA director and then Secretary of State.

The institutions themselves need to develop transition plans. Already defence strategists openly worry about Trump going rogue and trying to launch a nuclear strike somewhere as a diversion or as a act of petty revenge on his successors. They point out that he can do so on his own and that there are no formal institutional checks on him (he is only supposed to consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defence and National Security Council as well as other cabinet officials, but he is not obliged to do so or to heed their counsel). Even if senior officers refuse his orders to launch a nuclear strike, he can work his way down the nuclear chain of command until he finds a compliant one. There is consequently a move to get Congress to re-write the law governing nuclear weapons use, but in the meantime DoD and the service commands need to consider the very real possibility of having to refuse a presidential order to use the arsenal. There is precedent for this under Nixon (during Watergate) and Reagan (after his Alzheimer’s became apparent), so it is not an unimaginable task.

The same can be said across the federal bureaucracy. Although Pence will not roll back all or most of Trump’s policies (say, on the environment), he will want his own team at the helm of federal agencies and will want to impose his own stamp on the policy-making process. In order for that to happen in an orderly fashion, planning must be done in anticipation of the change-over. It would be best for career public service managers to prepare contingency plans with an eye towards moving out from under Trump’s political appointees, particularly in contentious portfolios like Education and Homeland Security.

The bottom line is that the obsessive focus on Trump obscures the inevitability of his demise and the need to prepare for a change of administration. Because his downfall of itself will not right the ship of state. For that to happen a plan of action must be in place, something that requires congressional and executive branch coordination even if done without the knowledge of the political moribund in the White House.

Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

Respect, fear and laughter.

datePosted on 12:48, September 28th, 2018 by Pablo

This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.

When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.

According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China.  Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.

The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.

World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.

Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.

Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.

So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.

Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.

Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

Pebbles under the mattress.

datePosted on 08:33, August 21st, 2018 by Pablo

The structure of capitalism can be likened to that of a bed. The productive apparatus serves as the bed frame. Although there is plenty of variance to the exact configuration of the frame, its structure and purpose is the same: to underpin capitalism as a social construct, here meaning the social relations that emerge from the combination of private ownership of the means of production (productive assets) coupled with market steerage of the macroeconomy and the political relations that emerge from them.

Upon this frame lies a mattress made up of the social relations of production. In earlier times the capitalist mattress was heavy and rigid, with class lines sharply and simply defined and social roles strictly prescribed. Over time, as capitalism evolved and got more sophisticated and complex, moving from the industrial revolution to advanced industrial capitalism and then post-industrial production linked via commodity, supply and financial chains to less advanced economies in earlier stages of capitalist development, the social mattress above it developed accordingly, becoming less rigid and more sensitive to variation in collective and individual connections with the productive base. The clear-cut and strongly defined class relations of previous stages of capitalist development have been replaced in advanced societies by a more variegated tissue of social relations that blur class distinctions and add increased diversity to the way in which people interact in and out of production.

As this capitalist bed frame and mattress get more refined, elements previously unnoticed or quashed by the weight of more primitive capitalist relations have begun to be felt. Some predate capitalism, some emerged with it and some are byproducts of its trajectory. These can be called pebbles of identity.

Pebbles of identity unrelated to production in a direct way have existed between the capitalist base and superstructure all along but were previously eclipsed (when not suppressed) by the dominance of socio-economic class identifiers: blue and white collar workers, managers and owners encompassing the proletariat, peasantry, lumpenproletariats, bourgeoisie and what is left of the aristocracy sharing space with entrepreneurial elites.

In the post-industrial, post-modern contemporary era pebbles of identity play a major role in determining social relations, so much so that their presence can prove disruptive to the tranquility of the body politic as traditionally constituted. Identities previously unrecognised become apparent and are acutely felt in social discourse and political action. The question is whether the post-industrial capitalist mattress can comfortably accomodate them or whether it will prove incapable of buffering the inevitable tensions that emerge from the interplay between pre-modern, modern and post-modern identifiers in present day economies. Likewise, the evolution of capitalist modes of production accentuate or reduce the impact of some pebbles of identity over time. Identities associated with agrarian societies may not be not be felt as strongly in post-modern service sector economies. Religion and dialect may diminish in importance as the social mattress of capitalism changes secularly over time, and what were once mere grains of hidden or downplayed identity become prominent to the point of feeling like rocks underlying social intercourse.

The relative import of pebbles of identity is unique to a given capitalist society. In some, pre-modern identities such as gender, race, religion or language are felt more widely than post-modern identities tied to consumption preferences (be it music, arts, food or  automobiles). In others sexual orientation and gender identity overlap and/or compete with activist causes of various stripes. The way in which these are felt is conditioned by the socio-economic class structure embedded in the social fabric of the capitalist mattress.

Most social scientists, including economists, agree that understanding the characteristics of the capitalist frame is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the dynamics of contemporary capitalism as a whole. The question for political analysts and students of social science in general is therefore where to put the emphasis when factoring superstructural features into the equation: the mattress or the pebbles? Identity politics have become very much a dominant theme in left-leaning politics as of late, much to the delight of alt-Right strategists like Steve Bannon who see the durability of socio-economic class as an organising principle for political action and who see the Left’s emphasis on pebbles of identity unrelated to production as the basis for political organising as a guarantee of failure.

Their belief, one that I concur with, is that emphasising identity over socio-economic class leads to a fragmentation of political action to the detriment of unity of purpose. Horizontal solidarity lines based on objective relationship to the means of production (say, as wage earners) are superseded by vertical silos of self-identification (say, as anime or steam punk fans), something that makes effective collective action of any sort very difficult at best when dominant class adversaries are united.

When identity tribalism triumphs over the class line, the Left is atomised and partitioned rather than consolidated.

This does not deny the fact that there are many for whom the socioeconomic class mattress is very thin and for whom the pebbles of non-class identity loom large underneath their notions of individual and collective self. These people emphasise identity as the locus of political action in capitalist societies precisely because the traditional social mattress of capitalism is threadbare and worn, thereby requiring a more granular understanding of the social relations of factors outside of production.  Adding these into the analytic mix helps supplement class analysis and in doing so paints a more representative picture of contemporary capitalism that helps inform  a more responsive form of praxis that is better in step with the tenor of the times.

It is left for readers to decide which approach is best suited to understanding contemporary capitalism. I for one continue to rest easy on the mattress made of the class-based social relations of production. Beyond that my interest in pebbles of identity derives from the explanatory weight I put on different attributes of the society where I have analytically chosen to place my pillow.

An authoritarian nut in a democratic shell.

datePosted on 16:51, July 31st, 2018 by Pablo

At the turn of the 21st century I was teaching an upper division undergraduate  course titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” in which I explored the four “waves” of democratisation that had occurred since the early 1970s in Southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. I noted that I had also witnessed the rise of concurrent waves of new-form authoritarianism during that rough world time time frame in which old types of despotic leadership were replaced by bureaucratic authoritarians from the Left and Right in response to the crises of oligarchic, populist and weak democratic regimes. These varied from the military nationalists of the Arab world to the revolutionary regimes of Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua and the military junta led-regimes of the Southern Cone of South America, the Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. I also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, authoritarianism was the more natural political fit for many societies organised along hierarchical lines drawn on gender, class, race, religious or ethnic differences.

My point in doing so was to remind students that contrary to the belief of those like Francis Fukuyama who claimed that the emergence of electoral (if not liberal) democracy as a seemingly global trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the “End of History” where the political and economic combination of democratic regimes and capitalist production triumphed over all others (particularly authoritarian capitalism and socialism), human history was dialectical rather than linear. There is no simple progression towards a (preferred) end state and the possibility of reversal is always latent in the move from one political-economic form to another. In this I was channeling my view that Hegelian dialectics, rather than dialectical materialism or any number of property and individual-centric “liberal” theories, best explained the superstructural dynamics inherent in political regime change. They are grounded in but not reducible to changes in production and the social division of labour attendant to it, which means that they have a pattern of historical development all of their own.

This belief comes to mind when I think of today’s widely lamented condition of globalised democratic decline and decay. In both the developed and developing world new and old democracies alike are crumbling from within, beset by a nasty combination of corruption, power-grabbing, institutional sclerosis, gerrymandering, electoral manipulation, economic inefficiency and income disparity, racial and ethnic conflict, migration pressures, youth alienation, crime, judicial bias, incompetence or indifference, poverty and assorted other social ills. This has prompted a return to authoritarianism under electoral guise; that is, in its newest version, the turn to despotism occurs under conditions of electoral rule and is instigated from within the institutional edifice of ostensibly democratic governments in response to what is claimed to be the crisis of civil society.

Here is context in order to explain.

In the 1980s a considerable body of academic writing was focused on the demise of authoritarian regimes and the restoration, resurrection or return of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This followed on earlier academic work that focused on the causes of democratic breakdown. I was lucky to have been mentored by several of the leading figures in that discussion, and through them was exposed to the work of other intellects who together with my mentors formed what came to be known as the first generation of “transitologists,” i.e. people who studied the fluid dynamics of regimes in processes of decline or rise rather than the durable features of stable regimes. As it turns out, regardless of the specific ideology of the regime in question, authoritarians tend to fall for broadly the same reasons having to do with the nature of their rule over time. Likewise, democracies rise and fall due more to general institutional failures than whether they are right or left-leaning in nature.

(For those interested in the dynamics of authoritarian and democratic transition and who may think that recent writing on the subject is all that there is, I commend the companion four part volumes that started the whole transitology industry: The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Johns Hopkins, 1978 and Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Johns Hopkins, 1986).

Into the mix came the person of Juan Linz. A Spanish born sociologist at Yale and one of the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz was more than professionally concerned about dictatorship and democracy. He had seen both in his homeland and worked hard to understand why democracies could fail from within rather than be overthrown from without. As it turns out, just like the reasons for a coup d’état, there are “push” and “pull” factors in democratic decline. The pull factors are those that come from outside the government of the day, be it a disloyal opposition, military plotting, rising civil unrest, business sabotage, irredentist or separatist strife, economic downturns, etc. These should normally be handled by the government through the institutional process into order to reach mutual satisfactory, or at least second best social outcomes: not everyone gets everything that they want but most get some of what they want. When the institutional process fails to meet expectations and achieve those solutions, the external pull to replace those in power gowns stronger if not irresistible.

Linz understood this but also knew that absent an armed insurrection or military interruption, pull factors alone could not bring down a democracy. He consequently focused on the push factors that impelled democratic governments to turn towards authoritarianism as a response to crisis. His concern was on more than the individual whims of megalomaniac presidents and political cabals intent of holding on to power. Instead, it was on deficiencies in institutional design that left some types of democracy more prone to authoritarianism than others.

He outlined a number of factors in his considerable body of work but pinpointed two, one general and one specific, that made some democracies more susceptible to the “authoritarian temptation” than others: presidential systems and the use of Executive decrees. Basically, there are two types of democratic government, presidential systems and parliamentary systems. The latter are dominated by parties that form governments based on the percentage of votes received and the ability to attract coalition partners. The government is led by a Prime Minister who is the leader of the dominant or majority power of any given coalition, but parliament remains a strong check and balance on what the government can do when it comes to policy-making. In contrast, presidential systems, also known as Executive-dominant systems, are those in which the chief executive of the nation–the president–is elected separately from the legislature (parliament or Congress). Here the Executive branch has much more power and authority to enact policy free from the checks imposed by the legislature, to the point that it is the “first amongst equals” when it comes to the three branches of democratic governance.

For Linz presidential systems have a built-in bias towards ruling without the advice and consent of the legislature or judicial review. That is where the more specific design flaw comes into play. Executive decrees or orders are designed to by-pass the legislature in order to provide efficient and decisive policy-implementation in times of crisis or emergency. Normally a president would not make use of such prerogatives if the national condition was stable and peaceful and indeed in most instances that is a case. But take a president confronted with the pull factors mentioned above and/or one who wishes to perpetuate him/herself in office, impose a specific agenda against the will of the people and its elected representatives, or in others ways benefit or take advantage of executive privilege for personal, private or political gain, then the authoritarian temptation becomes authoritarian practice.

This is the phenomena that we are seeing now. It is not just that right-wing national populists are being elected into office and using demagogic language and behaviour to advance their goals. It is not just elected post-revolutionaries like Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro who have turned on their people when these take to the streets in protest against incompetence, corruption and wide-spread scarcity. It is their use of executive powers that is turning their governments into authoritarian vehicles. Donald Trump is a variant on this theme, where executive orders and decrees are used by everyone from Rodrigo Dutarte to Recap Erdogan to Maurico Macri and are championed by leading political contenders such as rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (who openly supports Dutarte’s approach to crime and waxes nostalgic about the days of military rule). In all instances these political leaders have advocated for or turned to the use of executive decrees and orders to impose unpopular or anti-democratic policies.

The situation is made worse when the powers of the presidency are defined more by custom and tradition than by law. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Trump presidency, where time-honoured practices and norms have been repeatedly trampled by the vulgarian in the Oval Office because, as it turns out, there is nothing in law that prevents him from doing so. Presidential practice in the US, as it turns out, is about as much grounded in law as is the interior decoration of the White House because most of it is informal and therefore dependent on the president’s disposition when it comes to adherence to informal norms and customs.

Be that as it may, time and time again, using the pretext of fighting crime, restoring order or handling some other type of national emergency, executives in presidential systems have resorted to decrees and orders to accomplish their ends. And now, in a spectacle that Linz perhaps fortunately did not live to see, we have parliamentary majorities giving extraordinary powers to prime ministers in order to do the same thing. Witness Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his xenophobic policies or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s assaults on judicial independence, which come after their parties gained large coalition majorities that allow them to push through laws in spite of popular opposition or the strictures of decency and fair play.

The key point is that Linz’s bottom line is correct: the combination of a constitutionally strong executive and decree or order-making powers accorded to it is an authoritarian nut in a democratic shell. Short of changing to a parliamentary system with multiple party representation in government, the best immediate solution to the authoritarian temptation inherent in presidential systems is to strip presidents of decree or order-making privileges except in cases of dire national emergency (with what constitutes a dire national emergency spelled out in a constitutional or legal amendment). While this may not prevent the abuse of majorities in parliamentary systems to ram-rod legislation under “urgency,” it can weaken the temptation to go full authoritarian when the law does not explicitly prohibit doing so because it might cause a parliamentary revolt or conscience votes of no-confidence within the ruling coalition.

It is doubtful that any president will abolish the decree or order-making privileges. History has shown that even the most fair minded incumbents tend to leave Executive decree-making powers on the books “just in case.” One only need think of how Barack Obama used Executive Orders to muzzle leakers and whistleblowers to understand that the authoritarian  temptation is powerful even in the best of cases. So the solution has to be found elsewhere, in legislative reform and judicial review that constrain or eliminate the decree-making powers of the Executive.

Even with the cases noted, parliamentary systems are the best safeguards against the authoritarian temptation, something that can be reinforced by eliminating first-past-the-post variants and requiring supermajorities (say, two thirds) to pass legislation under urgency or emergency. A number of parliamentary regimes have in place just such mechanisms but others, including New Zealand, to my knowledge do not. In addition, in parliamentary systems where custom and practice rather than law governs much of what Prime Ministers and their cabinets do (for example, when it comes to national security), the need to increase parliament’s check and balance (if not veto) power is all the more necessary. Getting rid of simple majorities both for government formation and legislation passage is a step in that direction.

When we look at the problems of contemporary democracy, it is not enough to focus on the external or pull factors that cause or facilitate democratic decline–social media manipulation, corporate influence, rank partisanship etc. All of these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the breakdown of democracy. What is sufficient is an inherent institutional disposition towards authoritarianism, something that the combination of presidentialism and executive decree-making authority all but assures.

Word: It is time to re-read Juan Linz and craft our remedies accordingly.

Unions, Parties and the decision to strike.

datePosted on 20:12, July 9th, 2018 by Pablo

For the bulk of my academic career I worked on issues of regime change and interest group intermediation, with a particular interest in Latin America. I wrote a couple of books (one co-authored) about state-labour relations in several South American countries and a fair number of articles that included discussion of how labour engaged in collective action under different regime types. The comparative study of state-labour relations remains an abiding interest of mine.

One of the axioms of comparative democratic labour relations is that unions will engage in more cooperative labour relations strategies and therefore strike less under Left governments than they will under Right governments. The presumption is that since Left governments are working class based or supported, and because they are sympathetic to working class concerns in their policy platforms, there is less incentive for unions to take strong collective action against them, particularly with respect to strikes and  other forms of labour service withdrawal. This is especially so because such direct action could undermine the Left government in question and leave it vulnerable at the next election.

Because unions presumably prefer to have Left governments over Right governments in office, resorting to labour service withdrawals would be a counterproductive union political strategy over the medium term even if economically productive over the short term. That is true of public sector strikes in particular (since strikes, even when focused on economic issues, are inherently political when they involve the state as employer), but private sector strikes are also seen as electorally injurious to Left governments (after all, if a Left government cannot “control” unions then what is the point of having them?).

In terms of so-called political strikes as well as economic strikes, Labour governments are generally thought to offer a better prospect for labour peace.

Conversely, unions supposedly dislike Right governments and therefore engage in more confrontational approaches to labour relations, particularly if there perceive that there has been a rollback of union legal and economic gains under those or previous Right governments. Both economically and politically, unions have reason to adopt more militant strategies under Right governments.

The subtleties embedded in this dichotomy are found in the strategies of public sector versus private sector unions against a backdrop of relative union density and the legal frameworks governing wage-setting. This assumes that union leaders and members share the same ideological orientation and that union leaders accurately transmit the material demands of the rank and file during negotiations with the State and employers (i.e. the principal/agent relationship is tight and coordinated). At that point employer characteristics at the level of the firm as well as productive sector come into play, set against a backdrop of relative business sectorial organisation (both as producers and employers) and the labour relations framework operative at the time. A collective action and strategic interaction is framed by macroeconomic conditions and government budgets, with sectorial growth and Treasury surpluses being determinants of the latitude for negotiation in any particular instance.

For the last three decades all of this occurs in the context of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange under market-oriented macroeconomic policies developed and implemented by public sector technocrats that seek to outsource public sector service provision and downsize the legal authority and managerial and regulatory functions of the State as part of government mandated, market-oriented ideological agendas.

In the era of market-oriented economic reform, changes in labour relations’ legal frameworks have tended to favour employers and business associations over labour unions under both Left and Right democratic governments, with the degree of favouritism seen in the approaches towards collective bargaining adopted by each. Overall, although Left governments have mitigated much market-oriented labour reform while Right governments have sought to accentuate and exploit them in order to weaken the labour movement and atomise working class representation and collective strength, the trend has seen a weakening of union power across the democratic capitalist world as measured in union density, membership numbers and the collective rights and legal authority governing working class representation in production. This has been acutely felt in the private sector where individual worker rights and contracts predominate over collective rights and representation. With their relative collective strength, public sector unions remain as the diminished core of most contemporary labour movements in capitalist democracies.

A key factor in determining the propensity to strike is wage-setting institutions. Generally speaking, the more centralised the bargaining nexus and more monopolistic the bargaining agents doing the negotiating, the more likely that unions will prosper in their demands without having to resort to strikes. In contrast, the more decentralised the bargaining forum and the more disparate the bargaining agents, the more likely it is that employers will have the upper hand in bilateral negotiations with employees, thereby increasing the possibility of strikes. For example, tripartite (labour, state, capital) wage boards governing wage negotiations in specific economic sectors tend to push compromises that trade incremental wage gains for productivity, job security and reinvestment guarantees. Conversely, enterprise level bargaining between employers and various employee bargaining agents tends to fix or depress wage bills in exchange for non-wage guarantees. In New Zealand collective bargaining is more closely based on the latter model rather than the former and yet overall strike levels have remained low.

The way in which the union movement is incorporated and inserted in the political system matters in this regard. The form of initial incorporation (that is, the way in which unions are initially integrated into the national political system), may be more of historical rather than practical import for well-established unions created in the previous century and whose insertion in the political system today was consolidated some time ago. But initial incorporation matters much to recently organised contemporary unions without long political histories. That is because the terms of their political incorporation and subsequent political insertion in the political system are still being determined and sometimes disputed, including by older or more established unions as well as the State and employers. These may not echo or even resemble the conflicts surrounding initial labour incorporation and political insertion in the past, but they nevertheless condition the way these newer collective agents are allowed to exercise economic and political representation in the present context.

There are three main forms of labour political insertion. In some liberal democracies organised labour is inserted in the political system in Left party dominant fashion, e.g., the party dominates the union in both leadership selection as well as member political affiliation. In other liberal democracies unions dominate or control the party, with union representatives holding key Party positions down to grassroots organising and regularly running for office. In still others unions are independent of Left political parties although nominally sympathetic to them, with union leaders and members displaying a broader range of party affiliations than under the first two types. In illiberal democracies so-called “yellow” unions (factory or business unions and “professional associations”) exist that are independent or affiliate with Right parties. In the main these are not considered to be authentic representatives of working class collective interests because they are created by or at the behest of employers in lieu of them.

This brings up the subject at hand. There currently is the possibility of nurses, public servants and teacher’s strikes in the next few weeks. Conservative commentators have claimed that this is to take advantage of the Labour-led coalition’s “weakness” and to seize the moment of opportunity provided by Labour’s unwillingness to confront the unions in question. That runs against the conventional wisdom about Left governments and unions. So the question is: why are the nurses, public sector and post-primary teacher’s unions threatening to strike?

One answer may lie in that all of these collective agents are public sector unions that are independent of the Labour Party and its coalition partners. Membership density is high but the sociological demographic in each is changing, with younger members being more ethnically diverse and less identified with the traditional class structures of the industrial era (since those under 30 are of the post-industrial, post-modern age). This may have led to a rejigging of agent/principal relations within the respective unions that might make them more prone to challenge the labour relations orthodoxies of the past, to include being more cooperative when Left governments are in power.

Another answer may lie in the fact that Labour, for all of its “progressive” policy pronouncements and initiatives, still clings to market-driven logics of production that, even when cushioned along the margins, reinforce the collective bargaining dominance of capitalists. Seen in labour legislation and the role of national labour administration as an interlocutor between labour and capital, this includes cost-cutting managerial rationales in the public sector, where modern Taylorist principles have been borrowed from the private sector and applied to public sector service provision.

That bureaucratic orientation could be partially due to the fact that most Labour leaders are career politicians with few backgrounds “grounded” in the realities of working class activism, and/or because the party’s focus has recently concentrated more on identity rather than class politics. This has caused Labour to accept market logics in principle and market-oriented solutions to employment relations in fact. The NZ Labour Party is less a working class party than a coalition of post-industrial causes joined by antipathy to conservative (read: Anglo-Saxon Christian capitalist heterosexual and patriarchal) mores. Seeing the situation in this light could well disincline nurses, teachers and bureaucrats from continuing to toe the “cooperative” line, especially if the union demographic traits outlined above prove to be correct.

It is worth noting that the long-established unions affiliated with the Labour Party have not uttered a peep about strikes, to include not offering solidarity with the nurses and teachers. Newly created unions like UNITE in the private sector have engaged in strikes regularly against private employers under the previous Right government and are supportive of the action. But in general the union movement in New Zealand has remained out of the conflict between the State (as manager and employer via the civil service, DHBs and Education Ministry) and the nurses, bureaucrats and teachers unions.

Another question is why did these unions (or most others, for that matter) not strike regularly when the National government was in office? Was it a matter of contracts being in force? Or was it the limits placed on strike action both legally and practically? On the face of it, it seems odd that civil servants, nurses, teachers and other productive groups would wait to strike until Labour was in office if they were out of contract towards the end of the National government. Did they think that striking in an election year would lessen Labour’s chances of winning a plurality and forming a government or, put more appropriately, strengthen National’s arguments that they needed to continue to hold a tight reign on labour market dynamics less the economy lose momentum? This is true for private sector unions but particularly so in the case of public sector unions. Or are the conservative commentators correct and non-Left party affiliated public sector unions simply more willing to exploit Labour’s perceived “weakness” on collective bargaining matters?

If so, then the Labour-led coalition has a problem that is more political than economic.

I am still working through the logics at play because I do not know the internal dynamics of the unions in question nor the Labour-led government’s strategy for handling the strike threat. But if any readers would like to join the discussion and illuminate me on the details of each position, that would be welcome.

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