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On democratic rights and responsibilities.

datePosted on 12:57, July 18th, 2020 by Pablo

The sight of MAGA morons holding anti-mask rallies and generally freaking out because they believe that their freedom is being curtailed by private and public entities demanding that masks be worn as a preventative to contagion from Covid-19 got me to wondering if those people truly understand what so-called democratic freedoms entail. It seems that the stupid is strong in the US–not just in the White House–and people simply confuse convenience or personal interest for “freedom.” Similarly, there are those in NZ who refused to accept the rules and regulations of the pandemic lockdown and complained that they too were being “oppressed” by a “totalitarian” police state. Not surprisingly, most of these people are on the right side of the political spectrum, where sophomoric interpretations of Ann Rand-style libertarianism overlap with alt-Right ethno-nationalism and other aberrations posing as political ideologies.

Given that I spent a long academic career reading and writing about both the theoretical and practical aspects of democracy and democratisation in previously authoritarian states, and worked in the security bureaucracy of a major democratic state, let me try to deconstruct into a simple primer what democracy really means when it comes to “freedom.”

Democracy as a social and political form can be seen as a two by two box with four cells. On one axis there are rights, which are individual and collective. On the other axis are responsibilities, which are also individual and collective. Rights can be formally enunciated and codified in Constitutions and a Bill of Rights but they can also be a matter of custom, usage and social norms that are are enshrined in civil law. Conversely, in some democracies such as those that use Roman Law systems, responsibilities are codified and rights are assumed: the law specifies what cannot be done rather than what can be done, with the latter being anything otherwise not prohibited.

What rights are conferred bring with them responsibilities when they are exercised. Take for example speech. An individual has the right to freely voice an opinion, but only so long as it does not cause injury to others. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater may seem funny to some, but disregards the responsibility to consider the context in which the yelling occurs. Likewise, hurling racist insults and threats may be part of everyday discourse for white supremacists hanging out in their trailer parks, but it is quite another thing for them to be directed towards people of color on the street. In both instances, the exercise of an individual right violates the responsibility to do no harm to others.

The balance between individual rights and responsibilities is crystallised in the act of driving a motor vehicle. People have a right to freedom of movement in democracies. But they do not have a right to drive a car. That is a licensed responsibility that entails learning rules and regulations, physical, practical and intellectual testing, and then behaving as responsible members of society when operating potentially lethal conveyances. Should they not, then the privilege of driving is curtailed or removed. The right to freedom of movement remains, but just not in a certain way.

Likewise, there are collective rights that are considered sacrosanct in democracies, be it of assembly, organization, or representation. Those also come with the responsibility to exercise those rights in way that do not injure or impede others from doing likewise. Peaceful protest against police brutality and systemic racism is one thing; a Klan or boogaloo boys rally is quite another. Forming unions, business associations and political parties is (theoretically) a democratic collective right. Forming irregular armed groups for the purposes of intimidation or insurrection is not.

As with individuals who in the exercise of their self-defined rights do harm to others, collective violence is a breach of peace, and social peace is what civilised societies are founded on. In some societies social peace is imposed by authoritarian measures (which can result in mass collective violence against unjust rule). In democracies it is achieved by voluntary adhesion to individual and collective notions of rights and responsibilities, which presumably avoids the need to take up arms against oppressive government.

That is the difference between rule by consent and rule by acquiescence: one is given voluntarily while the other is given under duress. The consent that underpins democratic societies is double-sided. It is consent to exercise rights and responsibilities, not one or the other.

That may no longer hold true.

It appears that, encouraged and supported by the proliferation of rightwing media, many have lost sight of the responsibility and collective sides of the democratic equation. Now, everything is about individual rights and nothing about individual or collective responsibilities. The erosion of the responsibility side of the democratic equation can be traced to the advent of what has come to be known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism originated as an economic theory that posited that finance capital was the best allocator of resources in a society and hence needed to be unencumbered by laws and restrictions that impeded finance capitalists from operating in unfettered fashion. It morphed into a public policy approach–codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus”–that was based on the privatisation of public assets and the withdrawal of the State from its economic macro-manager role in society. The downsizing of the State as a physical and regulatory entity created space for “entrepreneurs,” who in turn carried the values of “free” enterprise and competition into society and resulted in emulative behaviour on the part of others. This led to the ideological expansion of neoliberalism as a social construct, where it is no longer confined to the economic realm but extends into conceptualisations of the proper social order and the role of individuals within it.

The result, to coin a phrase, is a form of hyper-individualism that on the one hand is manifest in survivalist alienation and on the other in predatory and cowboy capitalist practices in which enrichment and greed are considered attributes rather than vices. Solidarity is for suckers, and society prospers because the uncoordinated and unrestricted pursuit of freedom and profit by self-interested maximisers of opportunities, be they individuals, firms or collectivities, is believed to act as the invisible hand of the market in modern times. Or so they say.

Even though the practical benefits of neoliberal thought have proven mixed at best and much of its theoretical foundations repudiated, its impact on non-economic aspects of social life remain strong and wide-spread. With the megaphoning of its hyper-individualistic ethos in rightwing corporate and social media, it is a major reason why the notion of democratic responsibilities both individual and collective has been superseded by the exaltation of individual rights. In a sense, this is the lumpenproletarianisation of the democratic world.

There is more.

Given human nature, people are more inclined to prioritise their rights over their responsibilities. Different forms of democracy have been in part defined by the emphasis that they place on individual and collective rights. Liberal democracies put a premium on individual rights. Social democracies put a premium on collective rights. In all democracies the law primarily focuses on enforcing responsibilities of both types. Laws codify responsibilities down to minute detail and enumerate the penalties for failing to adhere or discharge them. To be clear: laws are inherently coercive, as they detail what is and is not permitted and use penalties and disincentives to enforce compliance. Although rights are recognised within the law, it is responsibility that laws are directed at because failure to be responsible as a member of society and a polity has deleterious effects on social order. Even so, there is a difference. Civil law includes various aspects of democratic rights, for example, property rights, along with its enforcement of responsibilities. Criminal law addresses transgressions of basic responsibility, both individual and collective, with the notion of rights being limited to those that strictly apply to suspects, defendants and those convicted and sentenced.

Enforcing individual and collective responsibility has long been the mainstay of democratic security policy. The police exist in to guard against individual and collective transgressions against individual and collective rights. That is, repressive state apparatuses (to put it in Althusserian terms) not only enforce the broad overall ideological project that is democracy as a social construct, but also punish those who challenge the responsibilities inherent in that project. For that to happen, the elected representatives of a democratic polity and the public bureaucracies that serve under them must agree and commit to enforcing responsibility as well as protecting rights. In other words, there must be an ideological consensus on the limits of rights and the extent of responsibilities in a democratic society.

The consensus on enforcing responsibility has eroded amongst the political class due to the same reasons that have undermined the balance between rights and responsibilities in society as a whole. That has allowed the expansion of what is considered to be an inherent “right” at the expense of what is a democratic responsibility. The arguments about “free” versus “hate” speech illustrate the erosion. The (mostly rightwing) contemporary champions of “free” speech believe that they can say anything, anywhere without concern for context or consequence. They reject the notion that the right to speak freely includes the burden of doing so responsibly. They do not care about causing offence or injury to others and complain when laws restrict their ability to do so.

This is symptomatic of the larger problem. Freedom is now equated in many circles as unfettered exercise of individual rights. Anything that constrains freedom so defined is considered an infringement on natural, God-given or universal rights, even if in fact the notion of democratic rights is a human construct that is materially and intellectual grounded in specific historical moments in time and place. In the US in 1776, democratic rights were reserved for white slave and land owning men, yet today the concept has been widened to include others (well, in theory anyway). In other words, there is nothing immutable about the notion of rights. They are a product of their times, as is the notion of what it is to be a responsible member of a democratic society.

Unfortunately responsibilities have become the unwanted stepchild in post-modern democratic societies. The erosion of notions of collective solidarity and death of empathy under the weight of ideological hyper-individualism have resulted in what might be called the “atomisation” of democracy where responsibilities are to oneself and chosen in-groups and rights are whatever one says they are.

Given the prevalence of neoliberalism as an ideological underpinning of many post-modern democratic societies, it will be difficult to reverse thirty years (and a generation) of its inculcation in the social fabric. Restoring the balance between democratic rights and responsibilities therefore entails a new form of counter-hegemonic project that works to promote the idea that “freedom” is as much a product of individual an collective responsibility as it is the exercise of individual and collective rights. The success of such a project will only occur when not only is neoliberalism replaced, but when the new ideological consciousness is internalised to the point of inter-generational self-reproduction. That is a tall order.

That does not mean that it cannot be done. Given the compound failures of governance and international economics in the lead up and responses to the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, the post-pandemic world offers the opportunity to redefine basic notions of democratic citizenship. Unlike classic notions of counter-hegemonic projects, which always emanate from the grassroots and which are based on opposition to an elite-centric hegemonic status quo, the re-definition of democracy as a balance between rights and responsibilities can include enlightened government working from the top down. This can occur as part of a public education campaign and can be incorporated into school curricula that also emphasises sustainable development along with traditional “civics” notions of equality and fair play.

In fact, the re-valuation of responsibilities as well as rights and re-equilibration of the balance between them can easily piggy back on traditional notions of fairness and burden-sharing in pursuit of social peace. Neoliberalism is hierarchical at its core and therefore antithetical to the ideological myth of equality in democratic societies. A counter-hegemonic narrative based on a return to principles of equality and fairness embedded in the balance between rights and responsibilities would therefore seem to be a more natural “fit” for mature democratic systems.

If that is true, then its time is now.

Thinking of a post-pandemic future.

datePosted on 15:55, May 2nd, 2020 by Pablo

I was recently invited to participate in an international teleconference on post-pandemic futures. It has a NZ-centric focus but involved distinguished participants from overseas, including former high level government and private sector officials. Discussions were held under Chatham House rules so I cannot get into particulars, but I am writing here as a reflection on what I heard.

Above all, I took away two troubling thoughts. The first is that the discussion was entirely elite-focused, with much talk about trade regimes, supply chain dynamics, attracting foreign direct investment, scientific diplomacy, political leadership characteristics and competition, plus other things of that sort. The second take-away was the nearsightedness of many of the discussants, particularly those representing the private sector. In a nutshell, they just want to get back to business as usual.

I made some remarks that attempted to amplify the context in which we are operating. I will elaborate on them here.

The CV-19 pandemic is an inflection point in a longer trend involving the intertwined crises of national and international governance and models of accumulation. It has exposed the dark contradictions in both. These must be addressed if the world is to emerge a better place. But there is a broader backdrop to this trend that needs to be understood before we get into unpacking its component parts.

The international system is in the midst of a long transition. It has moved from a tight bipolar configuration during the Cold War to a unipolar construct in the 1990s and an emerging multipolar system after 2001. The emerging system is characterised by the interplay between ascendent and descendent great powers, the emergence of non-state actors as key international actors (both irregular and corporate), an erosion of international norms and rules, and the resultant presence of conflict as a systems regulator. The underlying ideological consensus that dominated international relations from the end of World War two until the last decade, that being the notion of a liberal order where the combination of democratic government and market-driven economies was seen as the preferred political-economic construct, has eroded to the point of marginality.

In its wake has re-emerged the concept of realpolitik or power politics, whereby nation-states and other international actors pursue their interests above all things and do so with the resources at their disposal relative to the countervailing powers of others. This does not always mean that might makes right because not all resources are coercive. Some are persuasive, which helps distinguish between so-called “hard” power (coercive, be it economic, military or diplomatic), “soft” power (persuasive), “smart” power (a mixture of both) and “sharp” power (coating coercive intent in a persuasive argument or approach).

Over the last two decades several great powers have emerged or re-emerged, while the lone 1990s superpower, the US, has declined. This is seen in the fact that while superpowers intervene in the international order for systemic reasons, great powers do so for national reasons. One only needs to view the US inability to prevail in regional wars and then turn towards economic nationalism, populist politics and away from support for alliances and international organizations to see its descent. Meanwhile, pretenders to the throne and others have emerged: China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany in the forefront, but other regional contenders also in the mix (Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, France and the UK, perhaps Iran and Turkey as part of lesser constellations).

The issue is not so much who these specific emerging powers are but the fact that they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening). And yet, the contours of the future system will not conform to the specific interests or designs of the emergent powers within it. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economics, it is the aggregate of power dynamics during the transitional moment that will give precise shape to the global future. A new balance of power will emerge, but it remains unclear as to its exact configuration or stability.

That is the broader backdrop to the global crises of governance and models of accumulation. As macro and micro-cosmic reflections of this larger reality, national, regional and international governmental organisations have been sidelined and/or undermined by a combination of forces. Some are internal, such as the ossification of agencies due to corruption and self-interest. Others are external, such as rapid and sudden migration trends resulting in ideological and racial backlash in recipient countries. Whatever the combination of factors, the crisis of governance is seen throughout liberal democracies as well as many authoritarian regimes (even Singapore!) and international organisations like the EU, WHO, WTO, SEATO, OAU, OAS and UN. Many of these agencies are seen as toothless at best and bastions of patronage, nepotism and corruption at worst. Above all they are mostly seen as (and many are) ineffectual and inefficient in discharging their mandates.

The decline in quality of political governance is paralleled and matched by the increasingly obvious contradictions of the global model of accumulation. Commodity supply chain concentration, hyper-specialisation, just-in-time production, “race-to-the-bottom” wage competition, and other features of the globalisation of production, consumption, supply and exchange have produced increased inequalities and fractures in the world social division of labour. Hyper-concentration of wealth in the so-called “one percenters” has happened on the backs of the global poor, who now extend well into what used to be the middle classes of advanced liberal democracies. Again, the US provides an example with its charity food lines and millions of unemployed (rising to 20 percent of the work force and over 30 million unemployment claims lodged in just three months) as a result of the pandemic. The US situation is particular dire because most private health insurance is tied to employment, so the loss of jobs is measured in both declines in income as well as health coverage.

This is what the pandemic has done. It has exposed in dark relief the ugly side of the global market. It has also glaringly revealed government incompetence and indifference on a global scale. These two pathologies have now combined, and the results are being felt by common people, not elites. This could well be the moment when the Liberal Order dies, killed by a disease whose spread was, in a bitter ironic twist, facilitated by its success.

That is why getting back to “normal” and business as usual by returning to the status quo ante will not work, and where short-term solutions will not suffice. That only staves off the inevitable, which is that the dual crises will continue to compound and deepen as they head towards a circuit-breaking outcome. Phrased differently, it appears that what students of social revolutions call the tension-release model is now well in play: there is a slow build up of accumulated tensions punctuated by episodic outbreaks of disorder or discontent, culminating in a cathartic moment in which the old system is destroyed and a new one–however unclear in its precise contours–begins.

If the root causes are not addressed, the next explosion of mass discontent will be precipitated by any number of calamities, man-made or natural: resource conflicts caused by draught, flooding, famine or competition over access to increasingly precious natural resources like fresh water; mass migrations tied to the above; great power war; civil war; sectarian and irredentist violence; pollution- or climate-caused environmental catastrophes; wide spread urban destruction caused by earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, thrones, cyclones or tornados; energy provision failures; and more pandemics. This list is not exhaustive.

It is not as if there has been no warning that things cannot hold. From the 2000 “Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations later that decade, to the Arab Spring of the early teens to the protests in places like Chile, France and Lebanon last year, there has been a slowly rising tide of resistance to politics and economics as given. The protests are not just about one or the other but are in fact about both: systems of governance and systems of profit and their influence on each other.

The malaise is wide-spread. The US and UK are polarised, India is riven by sectarian tensions, Arab oligarchies remain closed but under increased popular pressure, despotic politics have taken hold in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Philippines and Turkey under electoral guise, sub-national actors challenge sovereignty in a host of Sub-Saharan states and even the seemingly monolithic regimes in China and Russia are riven by internal tensions and political intrigue. The world stands at the brink of a valley of transition where the costs of change are real but the outcome is uncertain.

Returning to normal, at least if it is defined as the way things were before the pandemic hit, is a guarantee that the socioeconomic and political contradictions now laid bare will fester, accumulate and eventually explode. That is an outcome few would want. This is why the post-pandemic moment must be seen as a window of opportunity for comprehensive change rather than a resumption of what once was.

In order to avoid an explosive break with the past, the key to post-pandemic recovery lies in addressing the dual crises of governance and accumulation as the most important priorities even if short term economic and political remedies are offered (say, by removing Trump from office, turning to regional supply chains and re-committing international agencies to a rules-based international order). I cannot offer any specifics, but it seems to me that a move towards sustainable development based on restrained rates of profit and renewable resource extraction is a beginning. Given the resurgence of wildlife in urban and suburban areas and air and water cleansing during the lockdown, climate change mitigation efforts need to be wrapped into larger projects of environmental restoration in which a return to natural balance is given urgent attention.

These involve political reforms in which those who advocate for a return to the previous economic status quo are blocked from doing so. After all, there are many interests vested in the current global market framework and they will do everything in their power to resist and thwart meaningful change that undermines their positions and diminishes their bottom lines. The key is to find a consensus about reforming, if not an alternative to, the system as given, including the reconfiguration of incentive structures in order to promote broad adherence to the shift in the global model of accumulation.

The future will be multipolar. The question is whether it will be stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good. The overall process of transition to multipolarity is immutable, but the specific features of the future system will be defined for better or worse by human agency. It remains to be seen if the opportunity to recast the world in a better image will be seized.

Given what I heard at the online meeting, I am not sanguine about the prospects of this happening. It is easier to go back to what is known than venture into the unknown. The forces pushing for a return to the status quo are many and powerful. But the pandemic has pulled away the layers of mystification and false consciousness that heretofore obscured the intense exploitation, class cleavages and unrepresentative politics that lie at the root of the modern global edifice/artifice.

It is time for economic and political architectural re-design on a world scale.

Media Link: Standing Places interview.

datePosted on 10:20, April 22nd, 2020 by Pablo

I did an interview with former student Ivor Wells for his Standing Places podcast out of London. The chat is a bit of rambling meander across several topics, with pauses and background interruptions, but we manage to cover a fair bit of detail, starting with the issue of self-isolating during the pandemic. Think of it as two old friends having a yarn about life in these times.

A test of civil society.

datePosted on 14:13, March 28th, 2020 by Pablo

The CV-19 (COVID) pandemic has seen the imposition of a government ordered national quarantine and the promulgation of a series of measures designed to spread the burden of pain and soften the economic blow on the most strategically important and most vulnerable sectors of society. The national narrative is framed as a public health versus economic well-being argument, with the logic of infectious disease experts being that we need to accept short term pain in the form of social deprivation and loss of income in order to achieve long term societal gain once the infection has run it course. However, some business leaders argue that a prolonged shut-down of the productive apparatus will cause irreparable harm to the national economy out of proportion to the health risks posed by the pandemic, and thereby set back the country’s development by twenty years or more.

The lockdown is a classic test of the age old philosophical question behind the notion of the “tragedy of the commons:” Should we pursue the collective good by accepting self-sacrifice in the face of an invisible threat and uncertain common pay-off, or do we pursue immediate self-interest and opportunism rather than accept material and lifestyle losses amid the same uncertainties and invisible rewards? Needless to say, it is not a straight dichotomy of choice, but the poles of the dilemma are clear.

Another thing to consider is a principle that will have to be invoked if the disease spreads beyond the ability of the national health system to handle it by exceeding bed and ventilator capacity as well as the required amount of medical personnel due to CV-19 related attrition: lifeboat ethics. If the pandemic surpasses that threshold, then life and death decisions will have to be made using a triage system. Who lives and who dies will then become a public policy as well as moral-ethical issue, and it is doubtful that either government officials or medical professionals want to be placed in a position of deciding who gets pitched out of the boat. So, in a very real sense, the decisions made with regard to the tragedy of the commons have serious follow up effects on society as a whole.

One thing that has not been mentioned too much in discussions about the pandemic and the responses to it is the serious strain that it is placing on civil society. Much is said about “resilience” and being nice to each other in these times of “social distancing” (again, a misnomer given that it is a physical distancing of individuals in pursuit of a common social good). But there are enough instances of hoarding, price-gouging, profiteering–including by major supermarket chains–and selfish lifestyle behaviour to question whether the horizontal solidarity bonds that are considered to be the fabric of democratic civil society are in fact as strongly woven as was once assumed.

There is also the impact of thirty years of market economics on the social division of labour that is the structural foundation of civil society. Along with the mass entrance of women into the workforce came the need for nanny, baby-sitter and daycare networks, some of which were corporatised but many of which were not. Many of these have been disrupted by the self-isolation edict, to which can be added the shuttering of social and sports clubs, arts and reading societies, political and cultural organisations and most all other forms of voluntary social organisation. Critical services that rely on volunteers remain so rural fire parties, search and rescue teams, the coastguard and some surf lifesaving clubs are allowed to respond to callouts and maintain training standards. But by and large the major seams of civil society have been pulled apart by the lockdown order.

This is not intentional. The government wants the public to resume normal activities once the all clear is given. It simply does not know when that may be and it simply cannot spend resources on sustaining much of civil society’s infrastructure when there are more pressing concerns in play. The question is whether civil society in NZ and other liberal democracies is self-reproducing under conditions of temporary yet medium-termed isolation. The Italians hold concerts from their balconies, the Brazilians bang pots in protest against their demagogic populist leader, Argentines serenade medical and emergency workers from rooftops and windows. There is a range of solidarity gestures being expressed throughout the world but the deeper issue is whether, beneath the surface solidarity, civil society can survive under the strain of social atomisation.

I use the last term very guardedly. The reason is because during the state terror experiments to which I was exposed in Latin America, the goal of the terrorist state was to atomise the collective subject, reducing people to self-isolating, inwards-looking individuals who stripped themselves of their horizontal social bonds and collective identities in order to reduce the chances that they became victims of the terrorists in uniforms and grey suits. The operative term was “no te metas” (do not get involved), and it became a characteristic of society during those times. At its peak, this led to what the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell labeled the “infantilisation” of society, whereby atomised and subjugated individuals lived with very real fears and nightmares in circumstances that were beyond their control. Their retreat into isolation was a defence against the evil that surrounded them. Today, the threat may not be evil but it is real and pervasive, as is the turn towards isolation.

I am not suggesting that there is any strong parallel between state terrorism in Latin America and the lockdown impositions of democratic governments in the present age. The motivations of the former were punitive, disciplinary and murderous. The motivations of the latter are protective and prophylactic.

What I am saying, however, is that the consequences for civil society may be roughly comparable. Many Latin American societies took years to reconstitute civil society networks after the dictatorial interludes, although it is clear that, at least when compared to advanced liberal democracies, the strength of democratic norms and values was relatively weak in pretty much all of them with the exception of Uruguay and Costa Rica. Yet, in places like NZ, democratic norms and values have been steadily eroded over the last thirty years, particularly in their collective, horizontal dimension.

The reason is ideological: after three decades of imposed transmission, market-driven logics vulgarly lumped together as “neoliberalism” are now a dominant normative as well as structural trait in NZ society. The country has many, if not more hyper-individualistic self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the population as it does those with a commonweal solidarity orientation. Lumpenproletarians populate both the socioeconomic elite as much as they do the subaltern, marginalised classes. Greed is seen by many as a virtue, not a vice, and empathy is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

The ideological strength of the market-oriented outlook is seen in business responses to the pandemic. In NZ many want bailouts from a government that they otherwise despise. Many are attempting to opportunistically gain from shortages and desperation, in what has become known as “disaster capitalism.” Some try to cheat workers out of their government-provided wage relief allowances, while others simply show staff the door. Arguments about keeping the economy afloat with State subsides compete with arguments about infectious disease spread even though objectively the situation at hand is first a public health problem and secondly a private financial concern.

The importance of civil society for democracy is outlined by another political scientist, Robert Putnam, in a 2000 book titled “Bowling Alone.” In it he uses the loss of civic virtue in the US (in the 1990s) as a negative example of why civil society provides the substantive underpinning of the political-institutional superstructure of liberal democracies. Putnam argues that decreases in membership in voluntary societies, community associations , fraternal organisations, etc. is directly related to lower voter turnouts, public apathy, political disenchantment and increased alienation and anomaly in society. This loss of what he calls “social capital” is also more a product of the hyper-individualisation of leisure pursuits via television, the internet (before smart phones!) and “virtual reality helmets” (gaming) rather than demographic changes such as suburbanisation, casualisation of work, extension of working hours and the general constraints on “disposable” time that would be otherwise given to civic activities as a result of all of the above.

The danger posed by the loss of social capital and civic virtue is that it removes the rich tapestry of community norms, more and practices that provide the social foundation of democratic governance. Absent a robust civil society as a sounding board and feedback mechanism that checks politician’s baser impulses, democratic governance begins to incrementally “harden” towards authoritarianism driven by technocratic solutions to efficiency- rather than equality-based objectives.

The current government appears to be aware of this and has incrementally tried to recover some of the empathy and solidarity in NZ society with its focus on well-being as a policy and social objective. But it could not have foreseen what the pandemic would require in terms of response, especially not the disruptive impact of self-isolation on the fabric of civil society.

It is here where the test of civil society takes place. Either it is self-reproducing as an ideological construct based on norms and values rooted in collective empathy and solidarity, or it will wither and die as a material construct without that ideological underpinning. When confronting this test, the question for NZ and other liberal democracies is simple: is civil society truly the core of the social order or is it a hollow shell?

Given the divided responses to this particular tragedy of the commons, it is hard for me to tell.

Living within our means.

datePosted on 15:08, March 24th, 2020 by Pablo

Years ago the Argentine sociologist Carlos Weisman wrote a book titled “Living within our Means.” It was a critique of Argentine society that focused on the paradoxical question of why, in a land of plenty, there was so much economic instability, inequality, corruption and political turmoil. His conclusion was basically that natural wealth produced indolence and greed: the vast natural resources in Argentina could be exploited inefficiently and without regard to the future, money was siphoned off of productive sectors into all sorts of nonproductive or money wasting enterprises ill-suited for the economics and demographics of the country, and the surpluses generated by the productive sectors (agriculture and mining in particular) could not only line the pockets of those lucky enough to control the means of production but could also be used to buy off subordinate group consent via State benefit distribution derived from minimal taxation on the export-oriented sectors that generated the bulk of the countries GDP.

His most important observation was that Argentines, so accustomed to an economic system that generated wealth in spite of itself, were living beyond their means. The State sector grew bloated, workers lost sight of the connection between productivity and wages, capitalists hoarded, spent and perfected the arts of tax dodging and capital flight, and politicians used patronage and public goods as a means of currying electoral favour, only to have the military step in from time to time under the pretence of putting things right but in reality only to shift benefits of political control to their civilian allies.

New Zealand is not quite as pathological, but for some time I have seen parallels with Argentina in that it appears that the country has, for at least two decades, been living beyond its means. Think of the so-called export sector.

Traditionally, “export sector” means those business that sell their goods overseas, to foreign clients. In NZ that historically meant agriculture (including cattle and sheep farming) mining, forestry and fishing. More recently, high tech value-added industries like software development have been layered into the export mix. But so too have industries like tourism and foreign language and tertiary education. Yes, tourism and educational services for foreign students are classified as “exports” in NZ even though all of the revenue generated and GDP share provided by these services are domestic in nature. Unlike traditional exports, other than some transportation companies, none of the economic activity associated with either industry is generated from abroad (say, via the sale of goods).

There is something insidious about this. Thriving in a largely unregulated environment, tourism surged. Adventure tourism, adrenaline tourism, hobbit tourism, backpacker and freedom camper tourism, glamour tourism, death tourism (trophy hunting) etc. all exploded even thought the infrastructure required to handle them was insufficient or non-existent. Likewise, dodgy fly by night language schools popped up catering to foreign students as young as high school age, and universities lowered admission standards and course requirements in order to attract unqualified foreigners who were willing to pay enrolment fees up to five times higher than domestic students. It did not matter that these foreign student often wound up as the victims of unscrupulous education “brokers,” local employers, hosts and homestay providers. That was fine because the business owners and senior managers operating these industries were rewarded handsomely for their efforts even if their contributions were not, to be clear, really advancing the productivity of NZ society. Both of these industries saw the foreigner’s dollar as their cash cow and soon became dependent on it. So long as the State got its share of tax revenues, all was hunky dorey as far as the economic-political elite was concerned.

A clear case of a non-traditional “export” that does more harm than good is the cruise line business. These floating Petri dishes used to be pretty scarce in NZ ports but now are now commonplace eyesores from the Bay of Islands to Akaroa and Milford Sound. They are seagoing pollution generators with dodgy labour and hygiene practices that disgorge thousands of clueless leisure lovers onto our shores to watch hokey “cultural” shows, go sight-seeing (including to active volcanoes) on fossil fuel vehicles and buy trinkets and baubles from money-grubbing vendors who otherwise could and should be providing services to their communities. What domestic benefit is derived from them is surprisingly narrow in scope, and yet they continue to come in increasing numbers–at least until CV-19 revealed them for what they are when it comes to public health risks.

Even traditional sectors like fisheries and dairy have come to rely more on export markets than on domestic consumption for their well-being, pushing unsustainable growth, environmental degradation, species destruction and oligopolistic market concentration. Uncoupling commodity pricing from domestic wage levels, some agricultural staples have been priced out of the range of most local consumers while a greater percentage of quotas and production are oriented towards foreign buyers. The situation has become so unbalanced in some sectors that, for example, given a drop in Asian demands due to the CV-19 pandemic, fishermen find it more economical to dump crayfish back into the ocean than sell them in the domestic market. Asian demand for cut wood has dried up, leaving huge surpluses in holding lots that are not being released into the domestic market. The price of many wage goods, consumer non-durables and staples is now set by international markets rather than by local demand, thereby narrowing the range of basic goods purchasable by the average NZ consumer.

In light of this, we might see the arrival of the Coronavirus (CV-19) as a great corrective on the national excess. The first industries to shut down are the ones that really should not have grown so large in the first place: tourism and tertiary education. These have been readily followed by service sectors associated with tourism and foreign students, including accomodation and food service provision.

Now the entire country is poised to “shelter in place.” With the government ordering mandatory closures and shut downs as it ramps up its response, primary and secondary schools have closed and a multitude of service providers have switched to at-home work or temporary closures. Soon a full scale lockdown will be imposed.

Essential industries and core state services continue to operate–transportation, food provision, emergency services, law enforcement, telecommunications, waste disposal, etc. Note that if we strip out the non-essential industries that are now shuttered or curtailed, we have a much smaller overall economic footprint yet a larger State presence within it. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

After years of market-driven logics that among other things pushed the kind of excesses described herein, the State is reassuming its role as macro-manager of the economy and direct provider of public goods and strategic production. Prudent financial management that protected surpluses “for a rainy day” allow the current government to ease the burden of pain inflicted on the working population by CV-19. It can also provide the material basis of an economic re-ordering on grand scale. One can only hope that, thanks to the pandemic, the era of down-sizing and privatisation has been proven to be a false promise when it came to national well-being and prosperity, and that it is replaced with a new economic logic that emphasises the importance of the social relations of production as much as the relations in and control of production itself.

There is one more component to this smaller, “natural” economic footprint: small businesses. The NZ economy runs on small business production and services. From metal working shops to plastics manufacturers, furniture makers and tradespeople, NZ has a middle sector in between the big agro-export corporates and State Owned Enterprises and private-public partnerships. The difference between them and the bloated tourism and tertiary education sectors is that they actually produce things of tangible value that benefit domestic society, not the degree-chasing aspirations or Instagram ambitions of foreigners.

The combination of big exporters, State sector and small businesses, one might say, is the critical component of NZ society. Not tourism, not foreign student education, not bars, restaurants, sports and other forms of mass entertainment. These can be resurrected when the pandemic has passed, but this moment of crisis demonstrates where value is created and preserved in NZ society. And it is not with hedge funds, sports teams, video game arcades, waterfront restaurants with space for tips on their service bills, ski resorts, golf courses or heli-tours.

Needless to say, this is a broad brush depiction of the economy of excess in which we live. There are bound to be fine details that prove the exception to the rule such as it has been depicted here. But the gist is clear: NZ has, as a result of the market-oriented experiment of the last 30 plus years created a entire range of parasitic/opportunist capitalism that contributes relatively little of value to the domestic economy or to the population at large. It is this sector that needs to be excised thanks to the arrival of CV-19.

Calls for self-isolation are getting more forceful as the government ramps up its pandemic threat advisories. This type of quarantine is a form of physical separation based on notions of collective solidarity (and not a form of social distancing, as pundits have called it). People retreat into their homes out a sense of collective responsibility and empathy for others, hoping to weather the worst of the pandemic in order to flatten the curve of its distribution. Here again, the burden of sacrifice is borne by small producers, public servants and waged labour, most of whom do not have access to the type of savings or surpluses that allow the corporates to ride out the storm.

It is these people that deserve government financial relief. Not the corporates or those in the bloated, non-essential and non-productive (in a value-added or material sense) sectors of the economy. Not those in parasitic financial sectors and non-traditional export industries. Not sports leagues and yachties.

In the end the CV-19 pandemic is not only a massive corrective to the world and NZ societies, demonstrating the dark and largely ignored side of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. It is more than an economic belt-tightening across the globe. It is a moment for pause and reflection on what living within one’s means really means in practice. For NZ, it means that the time has come to drop the growth is good mantra in certain non-critical sectors of the economy and to refocus energy and resources on those that comprise the economic triad underpinning the good society: “traditional” exporters, small businesses and the State-Owned and public/private enterprises that are the core of the national productive apparatus. This may require major adjustments in all three components, especially in the export sector (to include its very definition), but the moment has arrived thanks to the externality known as Coronavirus.

That result may be a smaller economy than what came before CV-19, but it will be more sustainable, efficient, value-generating and ultimately fairer for NZ society as a whole.

Don’t fear the Bern.

datePosted on 14:02, March 8th, 2020 by Pablo

With Super Tuesday primaries concluded, it is looking like the Democratic presidential nomination will be a two horse contest much like it was in 2016, with Joe Biden replacing Hillary Clinton as the centrist pick backed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Bernie Sanders once again carries the underdog aspirations of the progressive wing of the party. This year Sanders represents a more significant threat to the centrists than he did in 2016, and they have worked very hard to disparage him as “unelectable” and “”too radical” for the American voting public. I believe that this may be a wrong assumption to make.

Let’s address the issue of Sander’s socialism first. He professes to be democratic socialist, running as such under the banner of “Independent” throughout his political career until registering for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. But his “socialism” does not include socialising the means of production or doing anything other than using tax policy to redistribute wealth downwards, reforming health and education so that they become affordable to lower and middle income earners, promoting public works projects, re-establishing the role of the State as a macro-manager in economic areas prone to excess or abuse and diminishing support for fossil fuel production and defence spending.

Everything else on his policy agenda, while different than those of his opponents (say, when it comes to the US relationship with Israel and Palestine), may be alternative but are not socialist per se. In fact, all of his policy prescriptions are more akin to those of European social democracy than to democratic socialism (where the decisions about socialising the economy are done via democratic processes) because capitalism as a socio-economic construct is not challenged or replaced. It is just humanised and re-oriented towards the welfare of the majority, not of the elite minority. Sanders himself has pointed out that the stress is on the “democratic” in his democratic socialism, so it does not appear that he is doctrinaire when it comes to policy outcomes.

To this intrinsic aspect of his political philosophy can be added the extrinsic constraints on what he can do. The structural power of capital in the US is not going to be seriously challenged, much less undermined by a Sanders presidency. The US economy and its social relations of production are deeply rooted in notions of private property, self-initiative, “free” enterprise and a host of other market-focused orientations that transcend the business world. The US remains a huge economic engine that, even if it has lapsed into cowboy, crony and parasitic capitalism in places (such as the financial and health industries) and is very dependent on the State for its competitive edge (say, in awarding of defence- and other technology-related contracts), is largely impervious to whole-scale reform or collapse.

Along with an economy that is “too big to fail,” it is best to think of the relationship between US capitalism and the presidency as that of a monkey driving a machine–it is not so much the monkey that matters but the ongoing movement of the machine. In that light, Sanders can play the role of the monkey, acting as a corrective that tries to reign in the baser urges of the cowboys, cronies and parasites now dominating the US economic engine without impeding the forward momentum of the entire combine.

Added to the sheer structural inertia that must be overcome in order to reconstitute US capitalism is the political influence that it wields. Corporate influence permeates all levels of the US political system. Its influence is corrupting and often corrosive in places, and it extended deep into the Democratic Party–particularly the Party’s centrist, corporate-friendly faction. As Poulantzas wrote, the capitalist elite is not homogeneous and is divided into ascendent and descendent class fractions. The GOP defends the interests of the descendent class fractions that represent fossils fuels, auto manufacturers, agricultural interests, the military-industrial complex and traditional financial sectors. Democrats represent high tech, telecommunications, renewable energy, new financial sectors and other nascent and ascendent industries. The Democrats also represent, however diminished in presence when compared to the 1960s and 70s, the organised labour movement in traditional manufacturing industries as well as the public sector.

The capitalist class divisions in the US are not razor sharp and there is some overlapping in their political representation (for example, pharmaceuticals and insurance), particularly when the lobbying interests incorporate cultural idioms (such as the case with the gun lobby). Needless to say, there a host of other non-economic interests represented in the political system, although identity and value-based groups tend to aggregate in polar fashion (say, among ethnic, LBGTQ and religious communities). The main point is the centrist Democrats are corporate Democrats, not progressives, and for all of the talk of the “Gang of Four” leftist female representatives, the majority of Democrats in Congress are underwritten by and represent the corporate interests of the capitalist class fractions that they are associated with.

A Sanders presidency will therefore confront not only a hostile Republican opposition in Congress and in states dominated by Republicans. It will also have to contend with the very centrists that tried to impede his nomination in the first place. These corporate/centrist democrats will demand concessions and challenge anything that see as too radical to pass as law. That means that a Sanders policy agenda is likely to be watered down if it is to be implemented, which means that the final product will be anything but radical. The end result will be an incremental approach to policy reform, not revolution.

Sanders has already reframed the narrative on universal health to the point that some variation of single-user pay is likely to meet with congressional majority approval (assuming that the Democrats hold the house in 2020). He would be smart if he allowed for private health insurance schemes to co-exist with the public option (as in many other liberal democracies), since that will allow those with disposable incomes to afford things such as elective or cosmetic care outside of the public health system. The larger point is that he has offered some alternatives and initiatives that could well find support in Congress, especially if his election victory over Trump is significant. The greater the margin of his victory, the more a mandate he has within the Democratic Party as well as amongst the national electorate, and a large win will also help diminish GOP resistance to post-Trump corrections because in defeat Trump will have few political friends.

All of which is to say that although Sanders has many constraints on what he can do once in office, he potentially will have enough political clout and flexibility to pass legislation and enact significant reforms even if they cannot be described as “radical” or “revolutionary.”

It is true that Trump and the GOP dirty tricksters relish the opportunity to run against Sanders, who they see as easily beatable in a general election. The Republican smear machine is primed to go all out with its Cold War style fear-mongering. For them, Biden is a harder opponent to defeat because he cannot be painted into an ideological corner and tarred by spurious associations with the demons of the bi-polar world past.

But just like the centrist Democrats, the GOP may be wrong in its appraisal. Many younger voters are not frightened by the epithet “Socialist!” and have no memory of the Cold War. Bernie’s cantankerous independence from machine politics is seen as a positive. It is therefore possible that they will turn out in numbers that otherwise will not be seen in support of a Biden candidacy. The defensive “anyone but Trump” vote might be enhanced rather than diminished by Sanders. After all, Bernie represents a true break with the Swamp, whereas Biden is its product and Trump is basking in it while trying to monetarily benefit from the immersion. So it could well be that dismissals of The Bern are premature because his strengths as an honest alternative within the Democratic Party outweigh his weaknesses as an outsider in a system that is rigged in favour of insiders (for example, via the use of Superdelegates as tie-breakers in the Democratic National Convention).

What is clear is that the DNC fear a Sanders nomination not so much because they think that he will lose to Trump but because he represents a threat to THEIR interests. Even if diluted, his policy reforms will target them as a first order of business, as a way of clearing the path for substantive reforms in the policy areas in which they are vested.

Hence the disparaging of Sanders and downplaying of his chances at a general election victory. The proof of whether the anti-Sanders campaign has worked will come in the next two weeks when a cluster of primaries are held, including in Florida where I, just as a did in 2016, voted (via absentee mail ballot) for the Bern. If nothing else, just like then, my rationale is that even if Sanders does not win the nomination, if he gets a substantial amount of delegates he will have influence on Biden’s policy platform. Biden needs Sanders’ supporters to back him–and many “Bernie Bros” have said that they would rather sit on the couch or vote for Trump than see another corporate Democrat dash their progressive aspirations–so my thinking is that if the convention vote is close or at least not a Biden landslide, then the centrists will have to negotiate with Sanders over the campaign platform in order to get him to endorse Biden and encourage his followers to join the “anyone but Trump” camp.

Given the obstacles in front of him, Sanders may not be able to implement the progressive agenda that he campaigns on and which his supporters yearn for. But when compared with Biden, he certainly is not more of the same. Building on the momentum of the 2018 mid-term elections, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.

Parsing the Democratic Primaries.

datePosted on 15:37, February 22nd, 2020 by Pablo

I am about to mail my overseas ballot to Florida so that it can be counted in the Democratic primary on March 17. In Florida you have closed as opposed to open primaries, which means that one must declare a party preference in order to vote in a party primary. Unlike open primaries, independents are excluded from primary voting in Florida (although they are allowed to vote in the general election in November). The restriction on primary voters impedes voting on local candidates and ballot initiatives, referenda and local ordinance amendments that are not included on the general ballot.

Because of this I registered as a Democrat in the early 2000s. I primary voted for Kerry in 2004, Clinton in 2008, Obama in 2012 and Sanders in 2016. My vote was based on rationales that included anyone against Bush 43 in 2004, a female over a dark-hued male in 2008 (because I thought that changing the gender of the presidency was more significant than the color of the guy in it), support for a good president under difficult circumstances in 2012 and support for a democratic socialist in 2016 (in order to pull the Democratic Party platform to the left when running against an unhinged maniac because the writing was on the wall by March that Trump was going to win the GOP nomination and my thought was that even if Bernie lost to Clinton it would force her to adopt some of his policy initiatives because she needed his supporters to vote for her). My selections lost the general in 2004, lost the primary in 2008, won general re-election in 2012 and lost the primary in 2016. Because the ballot is printed well in advance, I have a choice of sixteen candidates, most of whom dropped out of the race a while ago.

This year the Democratic primary campaign has two axis points. The first is generational, as elderly candidates (defined as those over 60) vie against younger ones. Biden, Sanders, Warren, Steyer and now Bloomberg are staffing the geriatric front, while Klobuchar and Buttigieg are what is left of the young guns. Of the oldies, none other than Sanders appears to have medical issues of consequence and all appear to attract support without regard to age. So agism will not be a factor in the election, especially given that Trump is in that age bracket as well.

The second axis is ideological. Warren and Sanders represent the “progressive” side of the Democratic coin, whereas Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer represent the pragmatic side.

Within these camps there are divisions as well. Sanders has long described himself as a democratic socialist and for many years campaigned and won elections as an independent, only joining the Democratic Party in 2016 (and again in 2019) in order to run for president (he continues to serve and run for re-election as the junior Senator from Vermont as an Independent and campaigns as a democratic socialist in that state). Warren is a social democrat, not opposed to capitalism per se but interested in humanising it. Like Sanders she is a junior Senator from a liberal Northeastern state (Massachusetts, where she replaced the temporary excuse for a Senator now serving as Trump’s ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown). Both have been effective legislators, although Warren is seen as a bit more ideological than Sanders within the confines of the Senate Democratic caucus and Sanders, despite his somewhat crusty personality, being more amendable to intra-party compromise.

Both of these candidates are challenging the Democratic establishment. They repudiate the corporate orientation of the Democratic National Committee and the “centrist” policies of the likes of the Clintons. Not withstanding support from the “Squad,” they are not particularly well-liked by their congressional peers or the party establishment but have mobilised strong grassroots support. Warren has a (now distanced) corporate background and has agreed to some SuperPAC (third party unlimited bundled) funding. Sanders has not and continues with his grassroots, small donor approach to campaign financing.

On the pragmatic side, there are two billionaires, Bloomberg and Steyer. They appeal to voters based on their business success and the fact that they are not conmen like Trump. Bloomberg is a former three term mayor of New York City, where his crime fighting policies have come under fire for being racist and discriminatory (the so-called “stop and frisk” policy targeting African and Latino young males). He also has been the subject of numerous sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits. Steyer has no political experience to speak of but also does not have the baggage associated with it.

I will not vote for either billionaire on principle given that the Democratic Party is supposed to be the party that defends workers within the US political system. As for the pragmatic non-businessmen, Biden is the quintecent Washington insider, an integral member of the corporate/centrist faction with the party. He has vast experience in many important roles, including that of Vice President under Obama. But his experience has been checkered and now hangs like an albatross across his neck when it comes to electoral appeal. While it is true that he is certainly a better alternative than Trump, he also seems to be losing a bit of his mental edge. It is one thing to be a deranged lunatic throwing insane red meat rants and tweets to his base while feathering the nest for his family, cronies and friends from the Oval Office (Trump). It is another to be seen as doddering when trying to convey maturity and seriousness of purpose. So Biden is not the guy for me.

Buttigieg and Konuchar are interesting. She is a former prosecutor turned Senator from a conservative north Midwestern state (Minnesota, where only the snow is whiter than the population). She is seen as bringing that good old midwestern practicality to her politics, and she works hard to be seen as the voice of reason given the limits of US political discourse. Buttigieg just ended his eight year term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the city where he was born and where he was widely popular except for in the African-American community (since he removed a popular African American police chief and condoned hard police tactics against minority suspects). The novelty of his candidacy resides in the fact that he is young (38), gay, and served as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2014. His positions largely mirror those of Klobuchar, and like her he campaigns on his centrism, common sense and a dedication to public service. The two of them project themselves as non-traditional but reasonable alternatives to the Orange Weasel as well as the leftists in their party. They tick a number of constituency boxes that are important for Democratic voters, so their appeal has the potential to transcend their policy proposals.

Conventional wisdom is that “socialists” cannot win US general elections. The DNC and mainstream corporate media are working hard to undermine the Sanders and Warren candidacies as “unelectable.” The pragmatists are trying to capitalise on this perception, warning that to nominate a leftists is to guarantee victory to Trump.

At one time apparently afraid of the threat posed by Biden, Trump now appears to believe the truth in the “no socialist” line, yet cleverly harps on how Sanders is getting a raw deal from the DNC and media. Remember that part of the reason Biden has fallen in the polls is that Trump’s smears against him and his son relating to the Ukraine, which resulted in Trump’s impeachment, have in some measure stuck. Now, with Biden trending down, Trump sees his easiest path to victory being a one on one with Sanders, contrasting his national populist bombast with the Senator’s critiques of the system as given.

We even have the Russians apparently wading into the mix, supporting both Trump and Sanders in their 2020 disinformation and hacking campaigns. This is apparently due to the fact that a) they were very successful in 2016 when implementing this “undermine from within” strategy in favour of Trump; and b) both Trump and Sanders are correctly seen as “disruptor” candidates, so no matter who wins so does the Russian subterfuge. Trump, of course, denies any Russian meddling and forced the resignation of intelligence officials who made the claims to Congress. Sanders has repudiated any and all Russian interference no matter who is favoured. Regardless, Russia has inserted itself into the election narrative in, yet again, a central way. Somewhere Stalin is smiling.

That is the background to my primary vote. My choice remains difficult. I am leaning towards a progressive, so it will have to be Warren or Sanders, again, so as to not only get one of them into office but to re-frame the parameters of the Democratic policy platform. But I have major problems with both. Sanders comes off, in my eyes, as a stooped over cranky guy with medical issues who is the political equivalent of the old man yelling “get off of my lawn.” He may be right on his policy prescriptions but he is somewhat off-putting, and his refusal to come clean on his recent heart attack and underlying condition may be exploited by Trump in the event that he wins the nomination.

Likewise, Warren reminds me of someone’s grandmother preaching a holier than thou gospel while glossing over some of the contradictions in her past. Trump has already given her a racist nickname and he and his operatives will go to town on her if she has any dirt in her past. Even so, her dismantling of Bloomberg in the Nevada debates was excellent and showed that she has the acuity and spine to go after powerful adversaries. She may have a chip on her shoulder for a variety of reasons, but if she can use that as a motivational force I say good on her.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg are more personally appealing and both seem likeable as well as articulate and competent. Trump is going to have a hard time attacking them on personal grounds unless there is something sordid in their past. Professionally, in spite of some rumblings about both of their records in public office, there appears to be nothing that is disqualifying. But they clearly have the corporate/media backing, with Buttigieg in particular appearing to attract major money from deep- pocketed interests. That is worrisome because, no matter how much certain well-heeled liberal elites hate Trump, their support comes with strings attached.

My preference would be to vote for president/vice-president tickets in order to get a balance amongst them. I regret that Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, because she seems like a very tough cookie from a liberal state who could could easily shred Trump in any head to head. Female and of color, she hits the identity politics checkmarks, but she is not progressive. Perhaps she is lining herself up for a VP run or a cabinet post, but I question whether either of those options is better than where she is now as Senator from California.

Sanders and Warren will not likely share a ticket together. It is unlikely that they would go with any of the pragmatists unless Klobuchar or Buttigieg change their policy proposals. Biden might go with the younger pragmatists but they are unlikely to welcome him onto the ticket, and the progressives will run from him. A Klobuchar/Buttigieg ticket or vice versa would be an attractive proposition for many people in spite of the limited regional appeal they have outside of the midwest. Individually, however, they will have a hard time appealing to progressive Democratic voters.

So a major question I have is about the feasibility and popular appeal of a progressive/progressive, pragmatic/pragmatic, progressive/pragmatic or pragmatic/progressive ticket in November. That question will not answered until after the Democratic Convention in July, so I have to return to who I prefer for the top spot.

All of these possibilities rest against a backdrop of defensive voting. I mentioned this in posts about the 2016 election and I was wrong. What I said then was that voters from groups that Trump scapegoated and demonised would come out and vote against him in numbers, seeing Clinton as the lesser evil in that equation. Asians, Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, LBQT folk, feminists, youth, leftists–I was sure that they would rally against the clear and present danger that was Trump back then. But they did not. Instead, they stayed home, thereby handing the victory to him (44 percent of eligible voters abstained from voting in the 2016 presidential election). Sure, a lot of this was due to the Russian disinformation campaign, including the leaked Clinton emails to Wikileaks and the FBI investigation into her communications security one month out from Election Day. But a lot had to do with disenchantment with the system in general and the lack of progressive, or at least sensible Democratic options.

I am not so sure that apathy will prevail in 2020. Trump is no longer a possibility but instead is a reality. The harm he has caused is tangible, not potential. Another four years of him will be, from the standpoint of Russian saboteurs, a strategic wet dream. So it is possible that previously apathetic voters will come to the plate this time around and, if nothing else, use the lesser evil approach to vote against Trump’s re-election.

There is another thing to consider. in 2016 the Republican National Community and GOP political establishment all argued that a centrist was needed in order to defeat the Democrats. A ‘safe pair of hands” with a stronger grasp on foreign policy and committed to the pursuit of trade, etc. was the key to success. Someone like Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Mitt Romney. The whole point was to demonstrate strength with a conservative tilt. Instead, they were sidelined by a xenophobic, bigoted sexual predator with narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies who made gutter-level, crass rightwing populist appeals to the stupidest and greediest segments of the voting population. That carried him first to victory over the GOP elites and then to victory over the mainstream establishment candidate (thanks Steve Bannon).

And then the GOP fell in line behind Trump, so the decent into hyper-partisan lunacy is now complete.

Perhaps then, it is the same with the Democrats. Perhaps the DNC is wrong and a centrist is not the answer to Trump. Perhaps the Democratic corporate elite and media centrists are not reading the pulse of the Democratic electorate correctly and have misjudged the thirst for real progressive change lying latent (and not so latent) in the land. Perhaps, having once been given hope, now there is real thirst for change, and that change starts with nominating a Democratic presidential candidate who can not only defeat the corporate-backed centrists and then Trump, but also defeat the institutional obstacles (say, in healthcare, immigration, education and foreign policy) now standing between meaningful reform and more of the same.

After all, the polls and the pundits suggest that the US electorate is more polarized than ever. So why would a centrist strategy work, especially when the other side has gone full tilt in favor of a demagogic Mad King?

In the meantime, who the heck am I going to vote for?

Postscript: Citizenship Granted.

datePosted on 12:03, January 15th, 2020 by Pablo

I am pleased to say that I have been granted NZ citizenship. I need to do the ceremony for things to be official, but the application was a success. I now join my son as a dual NZ-US citizen.

To be fair, very little will change other than the fact that I can now run for political office, apply for a government security clearance or for a public sector job requiring one, and will need to get a passport so that I can travel unencumbered to places where my US passport is viewed with distrust or hostility. I do not plan to run for office but given the nature of my work the eligibility for clearances and a passport could be of great benefit.

And for those who still wonder how I can swear loyalty to the Queen, that is easy. The oath is to declare loyalty to the “Queen of New Zealand” and since she lives in my house, I am doing it anyway. :-0

A good moment for one Kiwi family.

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.

All of this happens in a context where public cynicism about political elites runs deep in both mature and emergent democratic societies. Venality, corruption and instrumental opportunism are rife throughout the so-called ‘free” world, leading to disenchantment and anger towards “the system” as a whole. This creates the space where conspiracy theories, false alternative narratives, fear-mongering, scape-goating and other deliberate distortions of the truth take hold in the collective consciousness. Some of this is at play on the Left side of the political spectrum but the majority of notions about the existence of a (presumably homogeneous in outlook and transnational in manifestation) Deep State, climate change being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, etc. come from the Right, harking back to previous incarnations of paranoid fantasies like those of the John Birch Society and various anti-Semitic cults that see Jewish control behind every major social organisation. In fact, pushed by social media connectivity, new and old Rightist tropes have merged into a particularly nasty amalgam of hate and manipulated ignorance.

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. National-populist parties provide the most obvious example, but one only need to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this seepage 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 MAGA 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.

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