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It should be obvious by now but let’s be clear: The same folk who regularly traffic in disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” are also those who most strongly claim that their freedom of expression rights are being violated when moves are made to curb hate speech (as opposed to protected offensive speech). They lie, they mislead, they conspire and they subvert, only to whine when they are called out on their prejudice and deceit.

That is what might be called message “cloaking” or “masking:” using the legal protections of democracy in order to undermine it from within via propaganda and psychological operations designed to confuse, divide and accentuate extant social cleavages, or what right-wing extremists call “acceleration.” This harks to old Marxist-Leninist notions of exacerbating social contradictions, although for Marxists these are class based in capitalist societies whereas the alt-Right sees race and ethno-religious differences as the main fault lines to be exploited (precisely because capitalism is seen to aggregate ethnicities into socio-economic classes, thereby diluting the racial or ethno-religious basis of “proper”–read: Anglo-Saxon–governance).

Ironically, the alt-Right and white supremacists share Lenin’s view that democracy is “capitalism’s best possible political shell,” and they, like him, see it as an impediment to “pure” government (be it of the workers or of a chosen racial or ethnic group, respectively). Lenin believed that democracy blinds workers to their common interests because of the false promise of choice offered by the universal vote. Conversely, Alt-Right adherents and white supremacists believe that democracy (both in terms of the right to vote and in legal protections for minorities, etc.) gives too much power to “inferior” or “replacement” groups, thereby impeding merit-based efficient (read: White) governance. Perhaps both are right.

The convergence of hate speech enthusiasts, climate change deniers, bigots, xenophobes and assorted conspiracy mongerers has been facilitated by social and alternative media platforms, which has given them common ground and global reach. They fight vigorously to defend their “right” to voice retrograde views while working equally as hard at propagating all sorts of subterfuge and stupidity in pursuit of their ulterior motives.

The saddest part is that this syndrome has seeped into mainstream politics throughout the democratic world, with Right-oriented parties now adopting both dis-and misinformation campaigns and “cloaking” as political tactics. One only needs to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this works. If I was uncharitable I would call it the “Trump tactic dispersion effect:” lie, deny, invent, obfuscate and obstruct in pursuit of partisan and personal gain without regard to the negative impact it has on the political system as a whole. The GOP is too far gone to recover from its infection, but the NZ Right parties need to be called out on their attempts to model some of their tactics on Trump’s approach and those of the alt-Right.

The irony is that the major beneficiaries of this dispersion effect are authoritarians, both those internal to the societies in question as well as the foreign despots who see utility in the weakening of democracy world-wide (and who therefore encourage and support disinformation/cloaking efforts globally).

After all, the deadliest thrusts of sharp power are into soft targets.

An age of protest.

datePosted on 12:50, November 13th, 2019 by Pablo

It seems fair to say that we currently live in a problematic political moment in world history. Democracies are in decline and dictatorships are on the rise. Primordial, sectarian and post-modern divisions have re-emerged, are on the rise or have been accentuated by political evolutions of the moment such as the growth of nationalist-populist movements and the emergence of demagogic leaders uninterested in the constraints of law or civility. Wars continue and are threatened, insurgencies and irredentism remain, crime proliferates in both the physical world and cyberspace and natural disasters and other climatic catastrophes have become more severe and more frequent.

One of the interesting aspects to this “world in turmoil” scenario is the global surge in social protests. Be it peaceful sit-ins, land occupations, silent vigils, government building sieges, street and road blockades, pot-banging and laser-pointing mass demonstrations or riots and collective violence, the moment is rife with protest.

There are some significant differences in the nature of the protests. Contrary to previous eras in which they tended to be ideologically uniform or of certain type (say, student and worker anti-capitalist demonstrations), the current protest movement is heterogeneous in orientation, not just in the tactics used but in the motivations underpinning them. In this essay I shall try to offer a taxonomy of protest according to the nature of their demands.

Much of what is facilitating the current protest wave is global telecommunications technologies. In previous decades people may have read about, heard about or seen protests at home or in far-off places, but unless they were directly involved their impressions came through the filter of state and corporate media and were not communicated with the immediacy of real-time coverage in most instances. Those doing the protests were not appealing to global audiences and usually did not have the means to do so in any event. Coverage of mass collective action was by and large “top down” in nature: it was covered “from above” by journalists who worked for status quo (often state controlled) media outlets at home or parachuted in from abroad with little knowledge of or access to the local, non-elite collective mindset behind the protests.

Today the rise of individual telecommunications technologies such as hand-held devices, social media platforms and constant on-line live streaming, set against a corporate media backdrop of 24/7 news coverage, allows for the direct and immediate transmission of participant perspectives in real time. The coverage is no longer one sided and top down but multi-sided and “bottom up,” something that not only provides counter-narratives to offical discourse but in fact offers a mosaic landscape of perspective and opinion on any given event. When it comes to mass collective action, the perspectives offered are myriad.

The rise of personalised communication also allows for better and immediate domestic and transnational linkages between activists as well as provide learning exercises for protestors on opposite sides of the globe. Protestors can see what tactics work and what does not work in specific situations and contexts elsewhere. Whereas security forces have crowd control and riot training to rely on (often provided by foreign security partners), heretofore it was difficult for protest groups to learn from the experiences of others far away, especially in real time. Now that is not the case, and lessons can be learned from any part of the world.

The nature of contemporary protests can be broadly categorised as follows: protests against economic conditions and policy; protests against central government control; protests against elitism, authoritarianism and corruption (which often go hand-in-hand); protests against “others” (for example, anti-immigrant and rightwing extremist protests in the US and Europe); protests over denied rights or recognition (such as the gay and pro-abortion and anti-femicide demonstrations in Argentina, or indigenous rights protests in Brazil); single-issue protests (e.g. climate change); or mixtures of the above.

The literature on mass collective action often centres on what are known as “grievance versus greed” demands. One side of the continuum involves pure grievance demands, that is, demands for redress born of structural, societal or institutional inequalities. On the other side are demands born of the desire to preserve a self identified right, entitlement or privilege. In spite of the connotations associated with this specific choice of words, greed demands are not necessarily selfish nor are grievance based protests always virtuous. For example, greed demands can involve respect for or return to basic civil liberties as universal human rights or demands for the preservation of democracy, such as in the case of Hong Kong. Conversely, grievances can often be selfish in nature. Thus, although the pro-Brexit demonstrations are construed as demands that politicians heed the will of the people, the underlying motivation is defensive and protective of a peculiarly defined form of nationalism. A particularity of the modern era is that although most of the protests are portrayed as grievance-based, a considerable amount are in fact greed-based and not always virtuous, as in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacy marches and anti-immigrant demonstrations in Europe.

Protests against economic policies and conditions have recently been seen in Chile, France, Ecuador and Iraq. Protests against centralised government control have been seen in Catalonia, Indian Kashmir and Hong Kong. Protests against authoritarianism, elitism and corruption have been seen in Lebanon, Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Iran and Nicaragua. Protests against elitism are seen in the UK (over Brexit), and against state repression in Greece. “Othering” protests have occurred in the US, Italy, Hungary, Greece and South Africa, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of contemporary protests are not strictly economic (structural) in nature, but instead concentrate on superstructural factors such as the behaviour of government, restrictions on voice and representation and/or the vainglorious impunity of socioeconomic elites.

Often, such as in Chile, the protests begin as one thing and morph into another (starting out as protests against economic policy and conditions and then adding in protests against heavy handed state repression). The more new actors join the original protestors, the more likely the protests themselves will adopt a heterogenous or hybrid nature. That also extends to the tactics employed: while some protesters will choose passive resistance and civil disobedience as the preferred course of direct action, others will choose more confrontational tactics. The precise mix of this militant-moderate balance is determined by the prior history of protest and State repression in a given society (see below). The idea is to clear space for a peaceful resolution to the dispute with authorities, something that may require the use of confrontation tactics in order for authorities to accede to moderate demands. Remember: in spite of the language used, the protests in question are not part of or precursors to revolutionary movements, properly defined. They are, in fact, reformist movements seeking to improve upon but not destroy the status quo ante.

In recent times the emergence of leaderless resistance has made more difficult the adoption of a coherent approach to direct action in which moderate and militant tactics are used as part of a unified strategy (or praxis) when confronting political authorities. This is an agent-principal problem before it is a tactical problem because there is no core negotiating cadre for the protest movement that can coordinate the mix of moderate and militant actions and speak to the authorities with a unified voice and grassroots support. Under such conditions it is often difficult to achieve compromises on contentious issues, thereby extending the period of crisis which, if left unresolved by peaceful means, can lead to either a pre-revolutionary moment or a turn towards hard authoritarianism. That again depends on the society, issues and history in question.

Santiago, Chile, November 2019.

Introduction of new actors into mass protest movements inevitably brings with it the arrival of criminals, provocateurs, third columnists and lumpenproletarians. These seek to use the moment of protest as a window of opportunity for the self-entered goals and use the protest movement as a cloak on their actions. These are most often the perpetrators of the worst violence against people and property and are those who get the most mainstream media coverage for doing so. But they should not be confused with the demographic “core” of the movement, which is not reducible to thugs and miscreants and which has something other than narrowly focused personal self-interest or morbid entertainment as a motivating factor.

The type of violence involved in mass collection action tells a story. Attacks on symbols of authority such as monuments and statues, government buildings or corporate entities general point to the direction of discontent. These can range from graffiti to firebombing, depending on the depth of resentment involved. Ransacking of supermarkets is also a sign of the underlying conditions behind the disorder. Destruction of public transportation does so as well. Attacks on security forces in the streets are a symbol of resistance and often used as a counter-punch to what is perceived as heavy handed police and/or military responses to peaceful protest. In some societies (say, South Korea and Nicaragua) the ability to counter-punch has been honed over years of direct action experience and gives pause to security forces when confronting broad-based social protests.

On the other hand, assaults on civilians uninvolved in security or policy-making, attacks on schools or otherwise neutral entities such as sports clubs, churches or community organisations point to either deep social (often ethno-religious) divisions or the presence of untoward elements hiding within the larger movement. Both protest organisers and authorities need to be cognisant of these differences.

In all cases mass protests are ignited by a spark, or in the academic vernacular, a precipitating event or factor. In Bolivia it was president Morals’s re-election under apparently fraudulent conditions. In Chile it was a subway fare hike. In France it was the rise in fuel prices that sparked the Yellow Vest movement that in turn became a protest about the erosion of public pension programs and and worker’s collective rights. In Ecuador it was also a rise in the price of petrol that set things off. In Hong Kong it was an extradition bill.

One relatively understudied aspect of contemporary protests is the broader cultural milieu in which they occur. All societies have distinctive cultures of protest. In some instance, such as Hong Kong, they are not deeply grounded in direct action or collective mass violence, and therefore are slow to challenge the repressive powers of the State (in the six months of Hong Kong protests three people have been killed). In other countries, such as Chile, there is a rich culture of protest to which contemporary activists and organisers can hark back to. Here the ramping up of direct action on the streets comes more quickly and involves the meting out of non-State violence on property and members of the repressive apparatuses (in Chile 30 people have died and thousands injured in one month of protests). In other countries like Iraq, pre-modern sectarian divisions combine with differences over governance to send protests from peaceful to homicidal in an instant (in Iraq over 250 people were killed and 5,000 injured in one week of protest).

Just like their are different war-fighting styles and cultures, so too are their different protest cultures specific to the societies involved.

The differences in protest culture, in turn, are directly related to cultures of repression historically demonstrated by the State. In places like Hong Kong there has been little in the way of a repressive culture prior to the last decade or so, and therefore the Police response has been cautious and incremental when it comes to street violence (always with an eye towards what the PRC overlords as well as Hong Kong public will consider acceptable). In Chile the legacy of the dictatorship hangs like a dark shadow over the security forces, who themselves have enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from civilian oversight in the years since the transition to democracy (in what can be considered, along with the market-driven macroeconomic policies that favour the dictatorship’s economic supporters, another authoritarian legacy). In places like Egypt the repressive response is predicated on belief in the utility value of disproportionate force: any demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with degrees of (often extra-judicial) lethality so as to serve as a lesson and set an example for others.

The way in which state security organisations respond to protests is also a function of the degree of security sector coherence. Issues such as inter-service rivalries, factional disputes within the armed services, different perspectives on civil-military relations and standards of professional autonomy all factor into if and how those charged with the management of organised violence will respond to differentiations types of protest.

It is therefore in the dialectic between social protest and State repressive cultures where the physical-kinetic boundaries of collective mass action are drawn. Some societies are restrained or “polite” and so too are their notions of proper protest. In others, the moment for restraint ends when protests begin.

Underlying different approaches to contemporary protests is the issue of consent and toleration, or more precisely, the threshold of of consent and toleration. Basically popular consent is required for democratic governance to endure and prosper. Consent is given contingently, in the expectation that certain material, social and political thresholds will be met and upheld by those who rule. When the latter fail to meet or uphold their end of the bargain, then consent is withdrawn and social instability begins. Although it is possible for consent to be manipulated by elites, this is a temporary solution to a long-term dilemma, which is how to keep a majority of the subjects content with their lots in life over time?

Contingent mass consent also depends on a threshold of toleration. What will people tolerate in exchange for their consent? The best example is the exchange of political for economic benefits in dictatorships: people give up political rights in order to secure material benefits. But the threshold of toleration is often fragile and unstable, especially when grievances have been festering for a time or demands have repeatedly gone unmet. When that is the case the spark that precipitates the withdrawal of mass contingent consent can be relatively minor (say, defeat by a national football team in a World Cup or the assassination of an innocent by the security forces).

Each society develops its own threshold of contingent consent and toleration. What people will tolerate in Turkey is not the same as what people will tolerate in New Zealand (assuming for the purposes of this argument that Turkey is still a democracy of sorts). In fact, the very basis of consent differ from society to society: what Turks may consider acceptable in terms of material, social and political conditions may not be remotely acceptable to the French. Even outright authoritarians need to be conscious of the threshold of consent and toleration, if not from the masses then certainly from the elites that support them. But that only adds to their governance dilemmas, since pursuit of elite contingent consent can bring with it an intolerable situation for the masses. At that point the cultures of protest and State repression will come into play.

Ultimately, the current age of protest is the product of a global crisis of governance. Belief in the combination of market capitalism and democratic forms of representation as the preferred political-economic combination has eroded significantly. Rapid demographic and technological changes, increased income inequalities and other pathologies associated with the globalisation of production and exchange have undermined the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats under liberal democratic conditions. Authoritarians have increasingly filled the void both in countries that have democratic traditions as well as those that do not. Using the power of the State, they propagate fear-mongering and scapegoating between in- and out-groups in order to consolidate power and stifle opposing views.

The irony is that the turn to authoritarianism may be seen as the solution to the crisis of democratic governance, but it is no panacea for the underlying conditions that produced the current wave of protest and in fact may exacerbate them over the long term if protest demands are repressed rather than addressed. If that is the case, then what is currently is a global move towards reformism “from below” could well become the revolutionary catharsis than recent generations of counter-hegemonic activists failed to deliver.

That alone should be reason enough for contemporary political leaders to study the reasons for and modalities of the current wave of protests. That should be done in an effort not to counter the protests but to reach compromises that, if not satisfying the full spectrum of popular demands, serve as the foundation for an ongoing dialogue that reconstructs the bases of consent and toleration so essential for maintenance of a peaceful social order. It remains to be seen how many will do so.

The end of small “d” democracy?

datePosted on 12:11, September 29th, 2019 by Pablo

As a part of the second generation of “transitologists” interested in the causes, processes and consequences of political regime change, I was exposed to a considerable amount of writing on democratic theory and practice. After all, if one is going to study the reasons for democratic collapse, authoritarian rise and fall and the re-emergence, restoration or first appearance of democracy, one should have a pretty good grasp on what democracy is and is not. In recent years the theme amongst third and fourth generation transitologists includes the unfortunate subject of democratic decline, something that is global in nature and has been evident in mature as well as relatively nascent or immature democracies over the last decade or so.

In a book that I wrote about the relationship between the State, organised labour and capitalists in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, I used my understanding of democratic theory to break down what it looks like in practice. I distinguished between procedural democracy, which is the (electoral) means by which incumbents of political decision making positions are selected, and substantive democracy, which are the institutional, social and economic dimensions underpinning the procedural level and which gives it intrinsic merit.

Without going into the type of detail that a 400 page book carries in it, it is at the substantive level where small “d” democracy signs in. Large “D” Democracy basically refers to the procedural and institutional bases of a particular form of elected political representation–rule of law, separation of powers, universal franchise, horizontal and vertical accountability etc. Although there is overlap with the institutional dimension, small “d” democracy refers to societal and material traits that are inculcated in a politically organised collectivity–a polity, in other words–and which have the potential to become self-reproducing. Over time, concepts like equality, fairness, consensus and consent, mutual respect, toleration and compromise move from being ideals or notions about the proper social order to being baseline characteristics of small “d” societies. These values do not just inform collective decision-making at all levels. They imbue individual behaviour with a personal ethos grounded in them.

In short, the substance of democracy is ideological, which determines the values upon which its institutions and procedures are founded.

Entire careers have been made studying the procedural and institutional bases of democratic political systems. Electoral analysis, polling, constitutional law, legislative studies, party politics, executive relations with the judiciary and legislature–all of these fields (and more) have focused on the mechanics, interactions, processes and personalities involved in the formal side of big “D” Democracies. They assume away, ignore or take for granted that their subjects are underpinned by an ideological foundation grounded in collective agreement on behaviour and representation. This misses a fundamental aspect of the social construct known as democracy.

Put another way, focusing on the procedural-institutional aspects of democracy without considering its substantive dimensions is akin to studying a hollow shell.

Consider this: we repeatedly hear about the importance of the “rule of law,” that no person is above the law and that democracies are founded on laws, not people. But a universal law prohibiting people from sleeping on park benches in fact only prohibits some people from doing so. The practical impact of universal laws, to paraphrase Gramsci, descends through a complex tissue of class, racial, ethno-religious, gender and other vulgarisations on its way to becoming enforceable edicts, with the effect being that law enforcement is often non-universal or discriminatory in nature. In order for universal laws to be universal in application, there needs to an underpinning consensus that they be so regardless of circumstance.

That is where the substance of democracy–its ideological foundations translated into everyday social practice–matters. And that is also where the core problem of democracy currently lies.

International polling over the last decade or so shows a steady erosion in support for democracy and, more alarmingly, greater dissatisfaction with democracy amongst younger people. The erosion of support for democracy is linked to the emergence of elected authoritarians like Dutarte, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan, but also in the rise of the Alt-Right and various nationalist populist movements across the globe. The problems of of democracy appear to be both institutional and ideological.

Institutionally, most advanced democracies display signs of sclerosis. Lobbying, corruption, clientelism, patronage, gerry-mandering, vote-buying and voter suppression, rank partisanship and other pathologies have turned the institutional edifice upon which most current political democracies are perched extremely brittle. That has increased public cynicism and distrust about politics and politicians to the point that the disapproval is of the system as a whole, not just a few “bad apples.” That in turn has made contemporary democracies susceptible to manipulation by external actors using disinformation and psychological operations campaigns in order to exploit social cleavages and further sow divisions from within, knowing that these will be reproduced rather than ameliorated by the political class.

The problem is compounded by the elimination of what used to be called civics education in secondary schools. Replaced by non-critical “social studies” programs that fail to address both the structural and ideological bases of democracy, recent generations of students have no real grasp on what democracy entails. Among the worst areas of confusion are the notion of “rights,” especially with regards to the comparative rights of majorities and minorities and the exercise of freedom of speech. This occurs against a backdrop of increased vulgarisation of social discourse at all levels, so what used to pass as informed debate on contentious issues has now descended into shouting matches and ad hominem attacks from the halls of parliament to local board meetings, ratepayer assemblies and a host of community AGMs ( I write this as I am in the process of filling out my local government voting papers and in light of what I have seen and heard about recent “meet the candidate” events).

More broadly, the focus on rights without regard to responsibilities ignores the mutual second best trade-offs that lie at the core of democratic social culture. To recall: in a democracy no one gets everything they want all of the time but everyone gets some of what they want most of the time, with the guarantee of being able to revisit contentious issues at regularly scheduled intervals (politically, in the form of elections and referenda). That is the core of small “d” democracy: acceptance and reproduction of the values of toleration and compromise based on notions of quality and fair play.

That is the crux of the matter. Large “D” Democracy persists in that it has a procedural and institutional facade with much history and to which much attention is paid. But it is substantively corroded from within and without, and worst yet, it lacks the ideological glue that would allow it to continue to survive as a genuine political alternative to various forms of authoritarianism.

Therein lies the the problem. From politicians to institutions to individuals, the small “d” value system that once sustained big “D” Democracy appears to have diminished into a faint echo. What is left within big ‘D” Democracies is partisanship, opportunism and authoritarianism disguised as problem solving, “common sense” and freedom of expression. Rather than civic minded people of virtue interested in public service, big “D” Democratic politics is increasingly populated by charlatans, demagogues, self-interested grifters, con artists and hypocritical reprobates of various stripes.

With politicians acting in bad faith, partisan cleavages deepening, foreign actors (state and non-state) manipulating news and younger generations ignorant of what democratic values are and are not, it should not be surprising that as a cultural norm, small “d” democracy is on the wane.

Even so, there is room for hope. Things like student climate activism, Code Pink direct action campaigns and the spontaneous activities of a wide range of community groups are signs that there is a thirst for small “d” democracy around the world. But that requires returning to the notion of democratic values as a starting point for any discussion about collective action, political participation and interest group representation. It requires confronting undemocratic bullies who lead local government bodies and volunteer organisations as well as those in the halls of parliament. It needs, in other words, a re-appreciation of the basic social value structure that overrides collective and individual egotism and which forges fresh horizontal solidarity ties between groups as well as their vertical ties to political representatives.

That is a matter of education, not politics.

I did an interview on the TVNZ Breakfast Show about the situation in Hong Kong. I tried to frame the issue as a collective action problem between two sides with very different end games. The video is here.

Because of time constraints we could not discuss the fact that the Hong Kong protests do not have a unified leadership that could lend coherency to the strategy and connection between tactics and that strategy. It also did not address the fact that the protestors have now moved to challenging the (HK) State’s monopoly over organised violence in the territory, which means that it is posing an existential threat to a core function of that State. Since the Hong Kong State has little more than police and intelligence agencies as its repressive apparatus, that means that further and more serious challenges to this monopoly will be met by a State that has far more coercive power at its disposal–the PRC.

I should have mentioned at some point that the interplay between hard-liners and soft-liners on both sides is crucial to a peaceful settlement. Only if soft-liners prevail on both sides will the solution be peaceful, but in order to have that happen the soft-liners will have to prevail within their respective camps. With hard core nationalists on both sides rejecting any form of compromise as a loss of face and demonstration of weakness, the stage is set for them to prevail. If they do the outcome will be bloody.

The soft-line opposition strategy is based on the fact that the PRC can wait a long time while gauging international reaction to immediate events in Hong Kong, added to the fact that provoking a violent PRC response erases what the Hong Kong hard liners aspire to deliver ( and those goals are indeed aspirational rather than deliverable). It remains to be seen if the principles understand this type of logic.

We also did not discuss the how the moderate-militant approach I mention in the clip has to be part of a larger incremental gains strategy whereby the protestors try to push a “two steps forward, one step back” agenda that sees them roll back various authoritarian initiatives while conceding on short term or relatively minor issues (perhaps including the extradition bill that sparked the current round of protests).

Nor did we discuss the fact that at the time of initial handover from the UK, the PRC was in no position to contest the terms of the agreement, especially those centred on the “One Nation, Two Systems” 50 year compromise. Nearly halfway into that process, it is clear that conditions have changed. Among other things, Hong Kong is no longer the source of GDP and international capital that it was for the PRC in 1997, having been eclipsed by mainland centres of commerce like Shanghai. This makes it less risky for the PRC to impose its will and accelerate the devolution process before the 50 year transition period ends in 2047. That puts it on a collision course with those in Hong Kong who want more rather than less autonomy when that time comes.

Finally, we did not discuss the fact that should push come to shove the protesters are on their own. For all the US bluster and the threats of trade sanctions against the PRC if it uses force to quell the protests, no one is coming to the rescue. Not the UK, not the EU, not NATO, not SEATO, not Taiwan, not blue-helmeted UN troops–nobody will do anything significant in their defence.

That means that there is a limit to what the protestors can achieve by pushing the protest envelope, since there will be no counter to the PRC use of force if and when it comes. Hence the need for the incremental gains approach mentioned above, and even that may be too little to stave off the eventual PRC takeover in 2047.

Xenophobia is not always racist.

datePosted on 15:46, July 18th, 2019 by Pablo

I have been reading and listening to the aftermath of Trump’s comments about the four female first term Democratic representatives, all of whom are “people of color.” I found the US coverage interesting both as evidence of partisanship and the deep vein of bigotry that Trump has tapped into in order to advance his political career. But some of the coverage has got me to thinking about how the issue is being framed, specifically whether or not his comments were “racist.”

Here is how I see it: Strictly speaking, the “go back to where you came from” line is xenophobic. It often is underpinned by racism, as in Trump’s case. But it is not the same or reducible to racism because culture, religion, language, dress etc. factor in as well. The primary inference is that the “other” is “foreign.” The distinction is important, especially in a country that has the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol.

Trump’s ignorance of his target’s birth origins does not take away from the underlying anti-foreign message. It appears that in the US xenophobia is more widespread than racism. Trump knows this. That allows him to disavow racism and yet throw bigoted meat to his base because foreigners are “aliens,” the inference being that they are sub-humans who come from crime-infested sh*tholes (his language, not mine). That he speaks of these first generation citizens’ supposed hate for America and loyalty to foreign enemies like al-Qaeda (both demonstrable lies) rather then focus on their racial characteristics is proof that the emphasis is on their foreign “otherness.” Likewise, in calling them socialists and communists Trump and his minions emphasise the “un” American nature of those ideologies and their supposed embrace of them. It is to the xenophobic streak in US society that Trump is speaking to, some of which may be embedded in broader racist sentiment.

As a third generation US citizen descended from Irish Catholic, Italian and Scottish stock, I am well versed in the “go back to where you came from” opinions directed at my grandparents. Then as now it may have overlapped with but was not strictly a matter of racism.

Anyway, as I see it, for all of the nice inscriptions on Lady Liberty, the US has a deeply rooted xenophobic streak that parallels and often overlaps with its history of racism. There are times when one strand overshadows the other, for example during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s when racism took centre stage and xenophobia took a back seat. In today’s context the “acceptable” form of bigotry–besides ongoing homophobia and misogyny–is xenophobia, not racism.

This is what allows the Trump administration to detain thousands of “illegal aliens” (most of the world uses the term “undocumented migrants”) in internment camps. It is what allows it to separate hundreds of “alien” children from their parents and remove them to detention centres far from where their parents are held. The justification for such depravity is not offered on the basis of race but on the basis of birth origin. That, it seems, is more acceptable to many “Americans” who would not accept the wholesale incarceration of African- or Asian-Americans on the sole basis of race.

Oh wait, check that thought. That was only true in other times.

Incidentally, I place qualifier marks around the term “Americans” because “America” refers to continents rather than individual nations, so the appropriation of the word by the US is more a form of linguistic imperialism than an actual descriptor of who is born there.

In any event, I feel that the emphasis on whether Trump’s comments were racist or not obscures and detracts from the fact that xenophobia, stoked by years of endless war against and tensions with foreigners (mostly of color) has made it the preferred form of bigotry wielded by Republicans and those who are fearful of the loss of white dominance in a country where demographic change does not favour them.

Whether or not it will be used as part of a winning electoral strategy by Trump and the Republicans in 2020 remains to be seen. But what it does demonstrably prove is that the historical roots of xenophobic “othering” are being well watered today.

Postscript: Conspicuous by its absence from the MSM coverage is the fact that Trump’s bigotry is, amid all of the rest, gendered at its core. He appears to take particular issue with women who challenge him, especially those who are non-white. He saves the worst of his personal insults for them, and in the case of Rep. Omar he has walked up to the fine line separating protected offensive speech from hate speech. After all, when he falsely claims that someone “hates America,” “is loyal to al-Qaeda,” is a “communist” and even was married to her brother (yes, he did indeed say that), then he is coming perilously close to inciting violence against her. After all, if you condense what he is saying, she is an insolent commie incestuous female who hates America and who therefore does not deserve the common protections afforded “real” citizens.

Yet the media has not focused on these components of his rhetoric as much as they should be. Instead we get the usual analyses that “he is consolidating his base” and “he is trying to tar the Democratic Party with the “four women of the apocalypse” brush”, which if true do not fully capture the evilness of his intent. While I do not think that his offensive views merit impeachment at this point (since in my opinion they do not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours), should anything happen to any one of the so-called “squad,” and should that be the work of a Trump supporter, then I think that there is fair grounds to do so.

Media Link: The March 15 aftermath.

datePosted on 17:03, June 7th, 2019 by Pablo

I was interviewed as part of an Al Jazeera documentary on the aftermath of the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The program is well worth watching because it addresses subjects that most of the NZ media do not want to wrestle with.

You can find it here.

The misogyny of the alt-Right.

datePosted on 12:37, May 22nd, 2019 by Pablo

Comments about Green MP Golriz Ghahraman by ACT MP David Seymour on a reactionary radio talk show, and the threats that followed and which the Police deemed serious enough to merit a security detail for her, got me to thinking about how grotesquely disturbed the Right is in its present form. Seymour, supposedly a Libertarian, calls Ghahraman an “menace to freedom” because she wants to tighten legislation on hate speech (which, unlike protected offensive speech involves the incitement to or support for violence against others). His smear is a deliberate incitement to the alt-Right extreme and an implicit call for censorship, an irony lost on him.

The radio host that he was talking to, Sean Plunket, is a man with serious issues when it comes to women. His track record on gender matters is wretched, so Seymour’s comments gave him room to vent more generally on the subject using Ms. Ghahraman as a foil. What is disturbing is that, as readers may know, violent extremists are surrounded by enablers and accomplices, that is, those who simply look the other way when perpetrators plan and prepare for violence or those who in one form or another, passively or actively help perpetrators in the lead up to the commission of acts of violence.

In that conversation Plunket played the role of enabler while Seymour moved from enabler to accomplice because his dog whistle did in fact, provoke the alt-Right scum to crawl out from under their keyboards in order to heap vicious, often violently sexualised misogynist abuse on the Green MP. Seymour has denied being responsible for the threats made against her, which is akin to Donald Trump saying that he has nothing to do with Russia or the rise in attacks by white supremacists since he took office.

That got me to thinking about a core belief structure of the alt-Right and their white supremacist kin: misogyny. Now, I am no psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist, but one thing is pretty clear: this crowd hates women.

In the case of people like Seymour, it seems that this hatred is born of unrequited lust. Ms. Ghahraman is attractive, smart, and self-assured to the point of being “stroppy” (or as a senior male professor once said to my wife when assessing her suitability for an academic career, “precocious”). But she would never be seen in the company, much less succumb to the courting, of the likes of David Seymour because he is simply a loser who has risen above his proper station in life, one who’s social interaction skills are on a par with the greesy-palmed and pimply 14 year olds that inhabit private schools and believe Ann Rand is “hot.” Boys like these like to bully girls who deep down inside they really, really like but from whom they cannot attract a sideways glance. That is why they get mean. For his part, Plunket projects the image of a guy who has been through a bad divorce or two and/or who has been turned down more than few times in spite of his relative fame and wealth. He is pissed off with women in general, and particularly the mouthy ones who disagree with him yet get to make decisions that affect us all.

We should remember that the misogynist streak pervades the alt-Right, here and elsewhere. It has led to the rise of the so-called “Incel” (involuntarily celibate) culture that has produced several murders of women by blue-balled freaks who think that all of their frustrations and disappointments in life are due to the fact that women will not recognise their genius and consent to having sex with them. Some do not even care about consent but still cannot get laid. This leads them to believe that women are the root of all evil and responsible for the decline of traditional culture, at least when”traditional” refers to a patriarchical white male hierarchy calling the shots over everyone else and enjoying the benefits of their status as Alpha males. These are the type of people to whom Seymour was whistling and for whom Plunket provides a space in which to be safe and comfortable in their views.

If one looks at the common denominators amongst the alt-Right, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists and assorted other denizens of forums like 8Chan and 4Chan (which, incidentally, as of yesterday are still viewable in NZ and which continue to have long threads about the “accelerant” characteristics of the Christchurch killer’s actions), there is more than racism, bigotry and xenophobia at play. There is also an unmistakable hatred of women and loathing of what they supposedly represent. Terms like “pussy,” “cuck” (as in cuckold), “wench,” “slut,” “bitch” etc. compete for space with homophobic slurs in the alt-Right discourse. In fact, I am surprised that Seymour and Plunket were able to control their urges to indulge in a few sexist slurs of their own with regard to the Green MP.

It is not just the alt-Right/white extremist extremes that voice such views. Perusal of the comments pages of supposedly Right-Centre blogs regularly turns up variations on misogynist themes in spite of attempts at “moderation,” and Plunket is not the only prominent media commentator who gets to indulge, even if in “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” fashion, a few jabs at females in order to make a point about weakness versus strength (which almost inevitably such opinionating comes down to).

Of course, many if not most women in positions of authority are the subject of misogynist attacks. Equivocators for Seymour like Paula Bennett (now calling for the names of the Parliamentary rapists apparently mentioned in the report on Parliament’s toxic work environment) will try to draw false equivalences by saying that they too were the subject of sexualised attacks, conveniently forgetting that people like Bennett are attacked because of their hypocrisy and nasty policy positions more so than being female per se, and are not in need of security protection an any event. Fellows like Seymour and Plunket will claim that they have (had) plenty of female friends and partners so they cannot possibly be misogynists. This omits one basic thing: the attacks on Ms. Ghahraman are based on who/what she is more so than anything that she does, so regardless of the marital status or physiology of the critic, such attacks are gendered at their core. Even Judith Collins knows that much.

The real issue is that deep inside the abuse of Ms. Ghahraman lies male insecurity–that of sexual rejection and a loss of masculinity. People like Seymour hate women like Ghahraman because they cannot have her and never will, which they fear is a public sign of weakness on their part. This frustrates them immensely, and because they have neither the intellect, looks or social skills to attract such women, that frustration has no place to go other than onanistic rage. Beneath the smirks and the boy’s banter is a deep abiding fear of not measuring up.

That, more than any ideological difference, is what is at play here. So the next time that you hear or read attacks on Ms. Ghahraman and women like her, take a moment to reflect on why, exactly, critics take issue with them.

First a massacre, then the push back.

datePosted on 13:31, April 2nd, 2019 by Pablo

During the first hours and days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, I tried to be optimistic about what could come out of the event. I saw it as a window of opportunity and teaching moment, a time to grieve, heal and reflect on what New Zealand is as a society. I thought that we could finally confront the elephant in the room: that underneath the veneer of tolerance and egalitarianism there is a dark underbelly in New Zealand. It is called racism.

For the first week it seemed that the opportunity was going to be seized. The government responded with empathy and compassion for the victims and with decisiveness when it came to banning certain types of military-style weapons and parts that can be used to modify hunting weapons into military-style ones. It is pondering how to give the killer a fair trial without turning it into a martyr-making propaganda circus. It is reviewing hate speech laws and has ordered a Royal Commission inquiry into how the attack happened and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to it. The majority of the nation followed its lead and demonstrated that most Kiwis are, in fact, decent people.

However, in the ensuing days the national conversation has been side-tracked. After a period of silence or contrition, rightwing outlets are back to their old enabling games. Outlets like the virulently Islamophobic Whale Oil and slightly more moderate blogs have enforced some degree of moderation when it comes to the language used by authors and commentators, but the hateful tone toward the “Other” remains the same when read between the lines. The rightwing rallying cry is defence of free speech, in which the ruse used is to deliberately conflate protected offensive speech with hate speech in order to demonstrate that “liberal” democratic values are under siege by overzealous Lefties using the tragedy and their control of the state apparatus to impose their will on dissenters. This risable argument is supported by some on the venerable Left who seem to be more concerned about defending the rights of nasty white people rather than consider the fact that it is those people who facilitated and enabled the nasty white guy’s mass murder of a bunch of brown folk whose sole crime was to exist (and who made a point when doing so by gunning them down when they were practicing their faith in their houses of worship).

Diversionary tactics aside, let us be clear. When it comes to free versus hate speech the issue is simple: any speech that incites, encourages, supports, applauds or otherwise instigates or excuses violence against individuals or communities because of who they are (as opposed to anything they have done, although even there the call to violence is debatable), has crossed the line from protected speech into hate speech. Offensive speech remains protected, but the urging of violence is not. The issue is not about causing offence; it is about causing harm.

The gun lobby also has decided that amnesia is the best part of public virtue so now moans and whines about “law-abiding” people losing their gun rights thanks to the government’s legislative reforms, conveniently forgetting that the killer was a law-abiding loser until the moment he stepped out of his car down the street from the Masjid al-Noor on Deans Avenue. Here too, the issue is simple (and I urge readers to look up my blog colleague Lew on Twitter to see his very reasoned explanations of the matters at stake). Tightening of licensing requirements and enforcement of laws governing purchase of semi-automatic weapons and removal of conversion kit and military-style weapons does not infringe on the privileges of the gun-owning majority (note that it is a privilege to own a gun, not a right no matter what the bloody NRA would have us believe). The law changes do not prevent anyone from using guns as tools to target shoot and kill critters. It just helps lower the human body count when a gun owner goes off the rails (do not get me started on the “but then only criminals will have such guns” argument because that is a matter for strict law enforcement, and law enforcement must have the will to, well, strictly enforce the law rather than play nice with gangs and assorted other bad guys).

Then there are the closet racists who have emerged into the light like the Hamilton city councillor and Immigration officer (?!), who besides ranting on Facebook (a prime vector for hate speech in spite of recent bans on white supremacists) about immigrant “scum” in Europe after the Paris terrorist attacks now says without a hint of irony that NZ needs to “move on” from the Christchurch event. He is joined by a-holes like Brian Tamaki, who claimed that the call to prayer on the day of national remembrance a week after the attack was proof the Sharia was being imposed on NZ. He appears to not be the only non-Pakeha religious leader (if you can call a fraudster con artist that) with this sentiment, as I have been told by informed community members that Islamophobia is very much a staple part of sermons in some Pasifika Christian churches.

Assorted talkback hosts and politicians are now in full “whataboutism?” mode, trying to equate the evils of Muslim extremists (and Islam itself) with those of other fanatics (while conveniently avoiding their ideological cause). This follows the denialism of such (perhaps as of yet closeted) politicians as Gerry Brownlee and Lianne Dalziel, who claim (Brownlee in very pointed remarks directed at me) that they were unaware of any white supremacists in Christchurch or anywhere else in NZ. Sensing an opportunity, people with ideological personal and agendas are in full throat, be it as purported experts on gangs and terrorism or pushing lines such as that the 1881 assault on Parihaka is a comparable atrocity (in which no one died).

Let’s not muddy the waters. Arguments about gun control and free speech and the historical grievances that are part of the national story are all diversions from the essence of post 3/15 New Zealand. The core subject is that of racism and the cesspit of bigotry in which it festers, from the enabling head-nodders to the inciting megaphones to the keyboard cowards to the actual perpetrators of physical and psychological (yes, they exist) hate crimes against people who supposedly are “different.”

This is not just a problem with a few skinheads. It is a problem for all. Some Pakeha hate Maori. Some Maori hate Chinese. Some Chinese hate Polynesians and some Polynesians hate Palangi. Some Maori and Pakeha hate Chinese and some Chinese reciprocate the feeling. Some hate Muslims and some hate Jews. Some hate Muslims, Jews and anyone who is brown, black or “yellow.” Some hate gays, lesbians and transgender people. Some hate red heads. Some hate the notion of equality when it usurps patriarchy or heteronormative values. Some hate is individual, some of it is institutional and some is systemic. Some hate involves relationships and asymmetries of power, but not always. Hate comes in multiple cross-cutting dimensions that serve as the foundation for ongoing bigotry and racism. In contemporary Aotearoa it may be a minority sentiment that is fractiously manifest rather than uniformly presented, but it is the wretched garden in which the bitter fruit of bigotry and racism are sown and reaped. And it is endemic in NZ.

THAT is what the national conversation should be about. That is what our children should be taught about. That is what the enablers, accomplices and purveyors of racism must be confronted with. This is no longer a time when we can look the other way, say “she’ll be right” and hope that the unpleasant stuff just goes away.

3/15 changed all that, and it is time to stand up and be counted. And being counted is not to just have academic panel discussions and government inquiries and commemorations. It is about confronting racism and bigotry wherever it rears its nasty head and however it is specifically manifest: on the streets, in buses, in shops, in schools, in sports clubs and volunteer organisations, in churches, in local politics, on-line, on talkback radio and in town halls and community fora–whenever the trolls rise there must be righteous people willing to call them out for what they are: ignorant fearful losers looking for scapegoats for their own failures in life.

It is hard to confront someone, especially if they are bigger or in groups. So strategies must be developed to help the average person perform this important civic duty. That means gaining the support of and involving the authorities so that complaints can be made and charges laid without undue risk to the good people calling out the antisocial misfits. Because if all we do is talk about what a bummer racism is and then go back to our own self-interested lives unwilling to actually walk the walk of daily anti-racist conviction, then we truly are a nation of sheep.

Legacy investments versus speculative investments.

datePosted on 14:01, February 22nd, 2019 by Pablo

Among the arguments about instituting a capital gains tax in NZ (common in many parts of the developed world) is the claim that much property is family residence or inheritance in nature. The argument goes that it is unfair to not differentiate between the sale of a family home, granny flat or holiday residence by middle and working class people and the sale of properties bought by developers and speculators with the intention of “flipping” them for a profit. The first category are long-term, emotionally laden investments whereas the second is simply about making money.

I see merit in the argument for differentiation of property investment categories. In particular, I see a difference between legacy investments and speculative investments. Legacy investments are those where property is bought for family use over time. These can be the main family home but more often are second, smaller flats or holiday homes that are passed on between the generations (think of the archetypical bach or a crib). The emotional as well as financial investment in such places is not based on eventually securing returns but on preserving collective experiences and traditions from generation to generation and giving off-spring the chance to acquire a property stake without the exorbitant financial costs associated with the contemporary real estate market (for example, an equity share in a family bach may help towards securing a first time mortgage loan). It specifically excludes using family members as fronts for speculative purchases (say, of a family farm).

Speculative investments are just that: property investments that are designed to be on-sold in a relatively short period of time in order to secure a positive financial return. Here the intention is to make short-term money off of the buy/sell transaction.

I would suggest that a capital gains tax is appropriate for all speculative investments. They become another cost of playing the real estate flipping game and will eventually be incorporated into the real estate price architecture. On the other hand, I do not think that capital gains tax is appropriate for legacy investments. If a family property is on-sold within blood lines or divided into part ownerships to children and grandchildren, it seems to me that the less financial burden imposed the better for all. People get to keep their properties within the family and share in the collective benefits over time and generational change. That includes rental income from family owned property subject to the requirement that the property must be used by family members for given periods within a specified time frame (this would allow seasonal rentals and other short-term lease arrangements to non-family).

The system would work if there is a legacy declaration made on a property at the time of purchase. Again, this may be less appropriate for a main family home that could likely be on-sold to strangers as the family demographic shifts. There a capital gains tax would apply. But it very much should not apply to properties that families hope to preserve within the bloodlines for posterity. Here on-selling to relatives should not incur capital gains taxes.

On-selling under the legacy clause will require verification of family lineage, and any sale to non-family voids the legacy declaration and makes the sale subject to capital gains tax. Those who try to cheat the system and are caught will be subject to heavy financial penalties in excess of the tax otherwise to be paid.

I am not an economist much less a taxation expert but it seems to me that distinguishing between legacy and speculative investments in the property market strikes a good balance between profiteering and homesteading. I admit to not having thought through all of the implications inherent in this proposed scheme so if any readers want to illuminate me please feel free to do so.

I have no doubt that clever devils will immediately try to game the system and seek out ways to turn legacy homesteading into profit-driven speculation. But with a detailed code of compliance and robust enforcement regime in place, it is possible for this approach to split the fair difference between an all or nothing capital gains tax on property and one that reflects the nuances in property buying preferences. Or perhaps that is simply too much to ask in an ideological climate where the very idea of taxing something other than salaried income, business earnings and consumer purchases and services is considered sacrilegious by the Right.

PS: I have been informed by the smarter adult in my house that this is a silly idea and unworkable. She also points out that trusts already allow for inter-generational transfers of wealth/assets without being subject to tax on the transfer. I am not familiar with trust law and am not going to risk savaging by pointing out that family trusts are something more likely to be created by the well-to-do rather than the middle class, so must accept the scolding and move on. If anyone is familiar with the intricacies of trusts, please feel free to explain.

Interest, values, trade and security.

datePosted on 14:59, February 18th, 2019 by Pablo

The media frenzy about the NZ-PRC relationship got me to thinking, but as I got to thinking I found myself meandering off of my original train of thought. You see, at first I was pondering the one-sided, hectoring nature of the media coverage, where pro-China shills like the business writers at the Herald and assorted corporate types and National Party flunkies like Tod McClay were allowed to run their mouths about how the relationship with China was headed down the tubes. There was the Kiwi coward resident 34 years in China* who implicitly disparaged Anne Marie Brady by saying that “(i)t’s unhelpful for politicians and a few anti-Chinese professors to feed uncorroborated McCarthyite conspiracies about Chinese spy networks in their countries and targeting anyone who doesn’t share their view.” There was Audrey Young’s reference to “ivory tower” eggheads in her regurgitation of business lobby bullet points. All of this was offered without a single rebuttal.

  • *I am not going to mention this useful fool’s name but it would have been nice if a “journalist” has asked him, given his long residency in China and successful business ventures there, whether he was a dual citizen and/or member of or has ever had any formal contact with the Chinese Communist Party, whether he has ever had to “facilitate” transactions or provide pay-offs to party or local officials and whether he is on any Chinese government payroll as a spokesperson, business “ambassador,” representative, go-between or in any other capacity. I say this because it is unusual for Chinese authorities to allow non-diplomat Westerners to comment on official reactions to PRC-related events in foreign countries even if they are citizens of the country in question.

There were even pro-China academics featured in the media and assorted pundits opining that the Labour-led government needed to pull an about-face and correct things ASAP. There were the usual skeptics about the GCSB rational for advising against using Huawei in the 5G roll-out. One of them, a well known rightwing blogger and pollster, used a 2012 junket to Huawei headquarters paid for by the company to proclaim that all the security concerns were a stich up up of an honest company so that Western telecom firms could gain a competitive advantage. There were the usual shouts of racism from the Chinese language media and wanna-be “influencers.” There was even something that looked suspiciously like a planted fake news article in an English language mainland media outlet that was extensively and uncritically quoted in the Herald that said that Chinese tourists in Aoetaroa complained about being “stabbed in the back” by the Kiwis. I shall leave aside the curious fact that the article only appeared in English and used rather odd quotes to describe the reaction of tourists to a minor diplomatic row involving their home and host countries–a row that had zero effect on them.

It was all so sickly obsequious to the Chinese that my initial thought centred on whether most of NZ’s business and political elites (and their lackeys in the media and academia) were so obsessed by self-enrichment, greed and short term opportunism that they completely lost sight of their moral compasses. After all, China is a one-party authoritarian state that uses mass internment camps to control a restive ethno-religious minority, mass surveillance as a form of social control, violates human rights in systematic fashion, transgresses international norms and laws as a matter of course (such as in the island-building projects in the South China Sea) and uses bribery, corruption, fraud and intellectual property theft as an integral part of its business development models. This would seem inimical to the values of the paragons of virtue extolling the “special relationship” between the PRC and NZ but nooooooo. The Chinese are good for the NZ economy and that is all that matters. It would seem that the trade-oriented business elites and their political puppets are China’s Vichy representatives in Aotearoa.

That sent my thoughts in a more academic direction. I recalled that Marx wrote that the combination of private ownership of the means of production and universal suffrage could not hold because if everyone got an equal vote and only a few were property owners (capitalists), then capitalism would be voted out of existence. He was wrong about that due to the reform-mongering function of the capitalist State, but that got me to thinking that he also wrote that capitalists were incapable of being patriots because profits were made globally and hence their interests were not confined to their countries of origin. People may recall that in the Manifesto he wrote “workers of the world unite!” as a response to capitalism as it entered the Gold Age of imperialism, a topic that Lenin subsequently developed a greater length.

It occurred to me that in the arguments about China we see a NZ variant of this. NZ capitalists and their toadies do not give a darn about democratic values, transparency, norms, a rules based order or the security concerns of Western states. They are in it for the buck and if that means kowtowing to a dictatorship then so be it. Given that NZ business and political elites have kowtowed to the likes of the Saudis, this should not be surprising. In their view if there is money to be made then the less impediments to doing so the better.

The smarter types will show the structural impact of Chinese trade with NZ by citing the usual $27 billion in 2018 bilateral trade figure and 8,700 jobs connected to it. But this trade is mostly in milk powder, tourism and English language and tertiary education (as NZ exports) and consumer non-durables (electronics, light machinery and plastics, mostly) as imports, so it is not as if NZ is going to turn into a high tech artificial intelligence and robotic hub thanks to the Chinese. The bottom line, then, is the bottom line: NZ capitalists by and large will cling to the window of opportunity presented by the opening of the Chinese market even if it confirms our trade dependency on primary goods and agro-exports and even if it means sacrificing NZ’s commitment to principle when it comes to exercising an independent foreign policy.

That was going to be the end of my thought process on the matter. I was going to balance the criticism of China by noting that the US and traditional Western partners have less than stellar records in their foreign relations and spy histories and that the US under Trump is an insane clown posse when it comes to international affairs even if the intelligence and security professionals who staff the 5 Eyes network would not be swayed by the craziness swirling around them and would make assessments about security matters on objective grounds. But then I got to thinking about something I read repeatedly on right-wing political sites: values.

One of the major objections to the Chinese and NZ’s relationship with the PRC appears to be the issue of values, or the fact that we do not share values. People point out the long cultural ties that bind NZ to the UK and Anglophone Commonwealth as well as the US. They point to joint sacrifices in war and peace, common sports, notions of good and bad, proper behaviour, etc. These folk do not want these shared values to be usurped and replaced by Asian values, or at least the Confucian-derived cultural mores that contact with China brings to NZ. The list of fears and concerns is long but the bottom line is that many on the conservative side of the political ledger have real fears of the Chinese “other” that go beyond the “Yellow Peril” of the Cold War.

That prompted a turn in my thought. You see, although I have a fairly idealistic streak and understand the utility of constructivism in international relations practice, I am a realist at heart. And realists are not sappy snowflakes looking for a global group grope. Instead, they focus on two things as the currency of international relations and foreign policy: power and interest. As the saying goes, in an anarchic world or Hobessian state of nature where values are not universally shared and norms are contingent on voluntary acceptance by independent State actors as forms of self-imposed restraint, then what matters is the exercise of power in pursuit of national interest.

That leads me to the following pseudo-syllogism:

States have interests, not friends.

Foreign partnerships are based on interest, not friendship.

Trade and security relationships are therefore interest-based.

They may overlap, complement but should never countervail.

A State’s degree of interest in any matter is self-defined.

Values help define but do not determine interest.

Interest may be influenced by values and values may involve shared cultural mores, norms and history that make for notions of “friendship,” but interest is not reducible to them.

Interest prevails over values when interest and values are at odds.

It is the relationship between values and interest that concerns me now. If I accept that values are only part of the definition of interest, then I must accept that shared values do not necessarily place some forms of interest above others. Nor does the absence of shared values do likewise in the negative. And if that is the case, then the matter of trade versus security must be weighed based on the degree of value-free interest in each and the impact each has on the ability of NZ to wield what limited power it has on the global stage.

The issue is problematic because NZ has long claimed to have a “principled” foreign policy that is based on the values of independence, multilateralism, transparency, non-proliferation, human rights adherence and assorted other good things. I do not believe that NZ actually adheres to these when push comes to shove or even as a foreign policy bottom line, but if virtue signaling in international relations is characterised as lauding the role of “principle” in foreign policy, then NZ is the semaphore of that movement.

To be sure, NZ is a trading nation and is committed in principle to it. Securing a favourable balance of trade that helps GDP growth and distribution is a matter of economic security and must be included in any national security estimates, to include threat assessments. There are as a result practical and principled reasons why the issue of assessing relative interest is so important and why it may favour the trade whores.

Put another way, what are the interests at stake in NZ’s security relationships and what is their worth to the national well-being when juxtaposed against the country’s trade relationships (since security and trade have been uncoupled in the NZ foreign policy perspective)? If the benefits of trade are real and immediate while the benefits of security partnership are more ethereal or hypothetical than real (especially given the actual and opportunity costs involved), interest would dictate that trade should be favoured over security. But what if the benefits of security relations are more like those of insurance policies, in which you only fully realise them when you need them? How do you calculate the pluses/minuses of the trade-security dichotomy over the medium to long-term?

I do not have the answer to this. I have written plenty about the NZ-PRC-US strategic triangle and the unfortunate balancing act NZ has to engage in because of the misguided attempt to trade preferentially with China, on the one hand, and seek security guarantees through partnership with the US, on the other. Either could have worked in isolation or when the two great powers were not in competition, as it seemed when the two-track foreign policy approach was developed and refined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But those days are long gone. There are ascendent and descendent great powers contesting for dominance in the Western Pacific, and we are just another pawn in their increasingly acerbic game.

So the question now is how do we measure “interest” in our trade and security relationships and which, on balance, should we favour given the centrifugal pull of each on our policy-makers? Do we give up our Western-centric security ties to fully embrace a China-led Asian/non-Western foreign policy orientation? Or do we give up the material benefits of our Asian-focused trade, learn to live within our means and reaffirm our security ties to our “traditional” partners? Is there a middle road or happy medium that can be pursued without suffering the consequences of alienating our partners on either side?

That seems to be the preferred option for the moment. But that assumes that NZ has a choice in the matter and that its behaviour will influence the corresponding behaviours of its larger, contending interlocutors because their respective interests are maintained by our dichotomous foreign policy approach. That is a very tenuous assumption to make because it is also quite possible that in the end it will be a larger partner who, exercising its power over us in its own national interest within a strategic context dominated by great power rivalries, that makes the choice for us.

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