Archive for ‘Make a difference’ Category

Throughout the globalised system of capitalist production, grassroots discontent with the economic and political status quo has produced a number of national counter-hegemonic mass mobilizations. All are born of alienation, but their social origins, goals, modalities and outcomes differ.

Alienation is a product of environment, natural and human. Even if conforming in the main to universal standards of conduct, individual (and later collective) social subjects become emotionally detached from the realities of everyday existence.  The causes are many–disaffection with a job or lack of employment prospects, racial difference, inter-personal difficulties, environmentally-caused psychological disorders, etc. This promotes a social outlook that grows increasingly hostile in the measure that adverse life conditions are interpreted to be the result of circumstances created or exacerbated by the socio-economic and political elite. That leads to various types of “anti-social” behaviour, individual and collective, which constitute expressions of the resentment that alienation breeds. Some of this behaviour is little more than petty acts of rebellion. Others pose a more serious threat. Individual and small-group alienation can often be treated as a psychological and criminal problem. Mass alienation resulting in grassroots mobilization is another thing because it involves horizontal solidarity and networking between self-perceived disenfranchised groups rallying in opposition to a common (elite) enemy. However, this does not mean that there is ideological coherence in the oppositional claims of the alienated.

The reason is simple. One product of alienation is false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition where the individual and collective social subject thinks about the causes of alienation in ways that run contrary to material self-interest under the assumption that the reasons for deteriorating or negative life circumstances are rooted in cultural or ideological factors rather than structural realities. Rather than confront the macroeconomic presumptions and biases inherent in a market-driven system of private (and increasingly corporate) ownership, consumption and exchange, false consciousness focuses on behavioral differences rooted in primordial beliefs, identities, ideological differences or contrary collective action.

Under conditions of collective false consciousness there is often a yearning for a return to tradition or a retrenchment of in-group identification along national, ethnic, religious or racial lines, sometimes with overtly nostalgic class content. This mainly occurs with descendent class fractions (for example, the industrial working class in the US) whose position in the social division of labour has been eroded by structural changes wrought by the globalization project. Confronted by this slippage in class status, descendent class fractions such as the white Christian middle classes in a host of liberal democracies blame their condition of so-called “others:” immigrants, religious minorities, non-traditional or opposition ideological movements, etc. In an effort to reclaim their past status, declining social groups are willing to condone anti-establishment, non-institutionalised forms of political competition because for them the threat is existential. When these forms of collective action take on a restorative or revanchist tone, they are considered to be passive revolutions.*

Passive revolutions are not genuine social revolutions. Although they can be violent, they do not destroy and transform the socio-economic and political parameters of society. Instead, they seek to use non-institutional means to reclaim a previous status quo in which they prospered. Because contemporary and future structural conditions preclude a return to a previous form of production and its attendant social division of labour, these groups are prone to extremism in the measure that they are denied their self-perceived just rewards. The starkest examples of passive revolutionary movements were European fascism and Latin American national populism. Although each had a different socio-economic core (Southern European fascism was a mixture of working class and small property owners’ movements, whereas Northern European fascism was urban middle class based, with national populism being a combination of urban working class and peasant movements depending on the specific country in which it manifested itself), they all had the commonality of being a reaction against something rather than a source of substantive forward-looking change to the basic parameters of society.

Not that all progressive counter-hegemonic grassroots movements are necessarily revolutionary. Many progressives seek to improve upon rather than transform the status quo. They do not seek to question its basic foundations but to make it more humane (hence the refrain “people before profits”). Coupled with an aversion to violence on the part of most progressive groups in liberal democratic societies, this leads to counter-hegemonic strategies that are not wars of position or of maneuver. Instead, they are collectively reformist rather than revolutionary in nature.

Given the above, from an elite perspective counter-hegemonic grassroots mobilization is best handled via state reformism and reform mongering. State reformism is the adoption of a conciliatory and concession-based policy approach by which elites give up certain prerogatives and agree to modify certain institutional frameworks in order to allow for more popular voice and benefit. Although the distribution of benefits between dominant and subordinate groups may be altered by such arrangements, overall control of material conditions, ideological context and political office remain in the hands of the elite. Reform mongering is the piecemeal allocation of concessions to social groups based upon the persistence of their demands and their strategic importance in the social division of labor (which can also be part of a divide-and-conquer strategy). Things such as civil rights and labor legislation represent examples of reform mongering in capitalist regimes, with broader programs such as the US New Deal and Great Society are examples of reformism at work.

This brings up the issue of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements in the US, the England riots and the mass mobilizations that have occurred in France, Greece and Spain among other places. While some of the mobilizations have been progressive, there has been plenty of passive revolutionary sentiment embodied in them as well. The Tea Party movement is a glaring example of the phenomena, but the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe is also emblematic in that regard. Even the ethereal “Waitakere Man” has, if only latently, as much passive revolutionary as it does reformist traits, with very little progressive revolutionary consciousness evident in the collective “him.”

The dominant ideological tendency towards reactionary or reformist rather than revolutionary perspectives poses problems for progressives because the three ideological strands that are the most difficult to overcome in any parametric struggle are cultural tradition, nationalism and religion. When these are combined in a reactionary groundswell against the usurping “others,” they make for a formidable obstacle to substantive change, especially when elites tacitly support their emergence as a hedge against mass collective action that is focused on structural transformation.

The so-called Arab Spring is a variant on the theme. Although some believe the uprisings to be revolutionary, they are in fact reformist at best and passive revolutionary at worst. There is no doubt that post-Gaddafi Libya will remain capitalist, sectarian and tribal, albeit under different (most likely authoritarian) leadership. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true for Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab states, to say nothing of Iran should popular discontent magnify to the point of unstoppable mass uprising. Revolts are not revolutions because of their reformist and passive revolutionary character.

The lesson in all of this is to recognize that alienation may be at the root of the thirst for socio-economic and political change, but false consciousness often intrudes on perceptions of the proper “solution set” to the point that the passive revolutionary option remains as viable if not more so than reformist alternatives, with the chances of genuine social revolution lessened to the extent that false consciousness, be it spontaneous or manicured, prevails in society.

In sum: passive revolutionary sentiment in the body politic in modern capitalist society constitutes the biggest obstacle to progressive change. With corporate elites dominating the media discourse and actively encouraging such beliefs, the task of the grassroots mobilizer becomes all the more difficult because the first step required is to promote an ideological conversion amongst non-believers who are indoctrinated to believe that the status quo is worth defending, even if in modified form.

Couple that with the limited revolutionary consciousness of the organized labour movement in most advanced capitalist democracies, the reformist nature of the likes of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the apathy and narcissism that is another manifestation of alienation, this augers poorly for the prospects of parametric grassroots change in the near future.

* Left for another time is discussion of ascendant class fractions in the contemporary capitalist context, not all of who (such as finance elites) embody the spirit of progressive change.


The countdown (to the return) begins.

datePosted on 20:34, May 14th, 2011 by Pablo

As an antidote to some of the heavy discussion occasioned by Lew’s recent posts, I figured that I would interject with a mention that two weeks from today my partner and I return to NZ. The definitive return was delayed six months by an offer of a teaching position in Singapore, but that has now finished. All of the marking has been done, and other than a videoconference lecture by me, a brief holiday in Bintan and packing, we are done in Singapore. Although it has not always been the most pleasant experience, it has been interesting in many ways and we have learned from our stay. I expect that either individually or together we will write at least one scholarly essay about the place, simply because analyses of things like the gross exploitation of foreign low-skilled labor and domestic workers needs to be more widely exposed. We also have in a mind a comparative project using Singapore and Cuba as case studies–two one party authoritarian island states whose regimes were born of traumatic circumstances that were originally led by charismatic leaders, now in a slow process of political liberalisation in which the original leadership cadres are being replaced by a third generation of less battle-hardened and dogmatic cadres, and in which the attitudes of the younger generation of citizens are not shaped by the origins of the regimes in question.

There is more to the comparison–the state-centric nature of the economies is a structural likeness that defies the clear differences in macro-economic approaches–so it will be interesting to delve into the subject in greater analytic depth. I also have an interest in studying the role of the third generation Singaporean Armed Forces in the process of regime liberalisation, as its role as regime defender is being challenged from within and without the SAF by a new generation of “professional” officers more interested in meritocratic and technocratic advancement than cultivating political ties to the PAP, and who find echo in young professional in the civilian bureaucracy who are not as interested in joining the PAP patronage networks that underpin the supposedly “meritocratic” criteria for promotion to senior ranks.

I think I have a fair grasp on these subjects. My post on the Singaporean elections, along with the version on Scoop, got a lot of play in Singapore, most of it favourable. This a good sign because (especially Chinese) Singaporeans have a good deal of anti-foreign sentiment and reject being told, in spite of what economic growth and government propaganda lead them to believe, about the flaws in their system of governance and culture (for example, the endemic racism against Malays, Indians, Filipinos and Tamils by the dominant group that is codified in not-to-subtle legal jargon, as well as the simmering resentment of Anglo-Saxons in spite of the fact that the country can not operate successfully without them). The fact that I was not pilloried in the coverage of my essay indicates that, written in the appropriate manner, some of what I/we propose to research could provide a contribution to debates within Singapore about the future of the country. We shall see.

In the meantime we are looking forward to wearing sweaters and jeans, enjoying cool weather, breathing clean air and resuming the existence on the western slopes of the Waitakeres from whence we came. That, and contributing in our own ways to political and social debates in the land of the long white cloud.

NB: In light of Phil’s remark I have amended the title less readers think that I have developed some pop idol fixation.

Ending my academic career.

datePosted on 22:20, April 15th, 2011 by Pablo

This is a personal note. I have finished classes at the National University of Singapore, ending my visiting professorship at that institution. Although I have some marking to do before I wind things up at NUS, it looks to be the last time that I will grace a classroom. Rather than with a bang, I am going out quietly (although not quite whimpering). The moment is bittersweet.

Some detractors and malicious rumor-mongers notwithstanding, I have generally had very good evaluations by students in the four countries in which I have taught. I have also enjoyed having the library access and other support that goes with university employment, which has allowed me to research and write on over a dozen issues and countries spanning the fields of comparative and international politics. The output has been good–3 books, over 50 scholarly articles, chapters, reviews and monographs, more than 120 opinion and editorial essays and a a swag of nice fellowships, including Fulbright, Heinz, Tinker and Kellogg research fellowships as well as an Asia-Pacific Rim University fellowship the year before Auckland dispensed with me. All in all it was a decent ride (to say nothing of comparable with what passes for the best of contemporary NZ political scientists) and I still have research and writing projects to complete that will keep me busy after my return to NZ in June.

What I am less thrilled about is having to leave academia in the first place, which is a result of my contratemps with Auckland University. That resulted in my de facto blacklisting in NZ academia and a besmirching of my reputation abroad.  I have applied for over 30 academic positions, including twice at Otago and three times at Victoria, without even making it past the first round in spite of being amply qualified for all of the listings (some at universities of less repute when compared to the ones I have taught at and with academic staff with far less credentials than mine (NUS is placed 30 places above Auckland in international rankings). The fact that I was eventually vindicated in my employment dispute, and found to be correct in my assessment that the student excuse that led to my unjustified dismissal at the hands of the current Auckland University management turned out to be, as I suspected, a ruse rather than a verifiable fact, matters little now. My name has been sullied to the point that I am no longer employable in my chosen and long-held (25 years) career. I often wonder if I have a case for defamation given that I was called a racist and a few other choice epithets in the aftermath of the email exchange that led to my dismissal (those accusations still circulate on the internet and were mentioned by NUS officials when they initially cancelled my visiting professorship, only to relent when I won the ERA case). What I cannot undo is my (admittedly rude) email, the reaction of NZ university managers when they see my name, or the internet-generated taint associated with it.

Some readers may see my revisiting of this theme as whinging, and it is, a bit. But my reflection is also about comparative loss and gains: I have been ejected from academia while the duplicitous student and university managers were rewarded for their unethical behavior. People like Tony Veitch and Paul Henry (to say nothing of a bunch of email abusers) do worse things and keep their careers. That sucks, for me in particular but also as a general principle.

I am fortunate to have a partner who has secured an academic position in NZ so that we can return, and that I have enough political risk consulting experience to start a dedicated consultancy along those lines, the first such in NZ, as an alternative. But I remain wistful about the classroom door closing. The class was, for me, a moment in which I could reveal another persona, one far more extroverted than my usual self, in order to communicate the language, concepts and importance of politics to undergrad and grad students. It was a wonderful moment when I got out of my skin and put the full emotive weight into my feelings about politics. It was a moment when I relived what I did in past lives and what I hoped for the future. It was, in sum, a moment that I could not capture, nor would I expect would be accepted, outside the classroom. Taken together over the course of more than two decades, those are moments that I relish and which I will miss, and which I believe I should have been allowed to enjoy for years to come.

As for students, I can only say that the top ten percent of undergrads in any country that I have taught are world class, the bottom ten percent should not be at university, and the rest divide out according to how hard they work. NZ students were, I hate to say it, particularly lazy and prone to lame excuses about their failure to meet obligations and fulfill assignments, something that foreign exchange students picked up on and elaborated–a syndrome that eventually did me in.

For the record, I should note that the NZ student excuses–95 percent of which were offered the day before, the day of, or after the assignment was due, with no proof of any work done on the assignment (which I made a point of requesting to see if progress towards completion had been made)–were culturally and nationality-driven: Pakeha and white exchange students offered computer and relationship failures as the reason for the failure to complete on time; Pacific Islanders, Asian and Middle Easterners offered family tragedies as the excuse (as a comparative cultural aside, the main excuse of NUS students is food poisoning, given the Singaporean national penchant for eating at unhygenic outdoors food hawker stalls. The trouble is that 10 percent of the student population comes down with food poisoning on the same week at the end of the semester, and they all did eat not in the same place. That is statistically improbable, especially when repeated year after year like the NZ excuses).

In 99 percent of the cases the student offered no proof of the excuse, and as it turns out, because of the volume of students with excuses given towards the end of the semester, the university health centre at Auckland does not bother asking for them for proof of bereavement or physical or emotional distress before issuing medical and mental health certificates. University Health just accepts the student’s word as to the ailment, in concert with the amount of extension requests increasing 100-fold during the last week of classes or exam week. In other words, ask for a medical or mental health certificate for an extension early in the semester, one might be asked for proof. Ask for a mental health or medical certificate at the end of the semester when the rush of extension requests is on, then no proof is required. There is a claim of right in this process, and it is perverse.

Phrased politely,  the extension-issuance system at Auckland U. is being gamed, and the university managers actively connive in the play because the point of the university is to keep fees-paying “consumers” happy regardless of academic merit (As things turned out, no mental health certificate was ever presented by the student involved in my case).

This may be an uncomfortable fact for people to deal with, but it gives an idea of the pressures lecturers (and university health professionals) are faced with when it comes to marking in a “bums in seats,” profit-before-quality educational atmosphere. As for the serious students–they always alerted me as soon as possible to a family or personal problem, showed me the work they had begun on the assignment, and inevitably were granted an extension that was fair to them as well as the rest of the class. 

Whatever the case, the vast majority of students, be it in the US, NZ, Singapore or Chile (where I taught briefly as a visitor), were responsive to what I had to say and what I was trying to convey. Which is why I am left with this: if any of the 5000+ students I have taught has left my classes informed about something that they did not know before they entered the class, then I did my job. If they went on to inform their lives with some of that knowledge, that is icing on the cake.

I suspect I have left some icing on the cake.

The three cities of Christchurch

datePosted on 12:59, March 2nd, 2011 by Lew

As local context and in contrast to my recent posts on the media response to the Christchurch earthquake, you must read this arresting report from Christchurch resident Peter Hyde. It is long, but the following facts are crucial:

There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.
RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!
It’s given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It’s extremely television-friendly.
My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.
SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that’s about 65% of the city — much of it out west.
In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life — though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.
The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.
REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch — mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.
Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours’, for over a week now.
That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad – and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.
Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the “must boil” water that is available — assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.
They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers — if you can get one — are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn’t help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!
All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no “voice” either. It’s remarkably hard to call talkback radio – or your local politician — or emergency services — when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes – but not 20! – when calling the sole government helpline.
The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don’t cover it that much. From my observations, the officials – those who are making decisions about the relief effort – seem to do likewise.

It continues at considerable length, and I urge you to read it all, particularly the bit which tells you what you can do to make a difference.

Edit: There is another similarly grim comment from Puddleglum at The Standard:

I’ve spent the last few days shovelling silt in the east of Christchurch. My nephew who had helped dig a friend out of his house in Bexley on Saturday has been over more of the eastern suburbs. Basically, it gets exponentially worse the further east from the central city you go.
These people are already angry, stressed, dismissive of the reactions of most authorities and doggedly trying to do it themselves – yet, as the poster notes, they had the fewest resources to begin with. It’s heartbreaking. Bitter jokes punctuate emotionally strained comments about ‘you just have to go on’, ‘what else can you do?’, ‘THEY won’t help’. They did really appreciate the volunteer ‘diggers’, though.

Read the whole thing.

I’m on deadline and short on time, but my initial response is as follows.

The response is not blind to class or social station. Of course it’s not; as early as last Wednesday I was seeing tweets from people in what is now Shower City saying “we’re doing it hard, but those poor areas down the line haven’t got anything”. This is a feature of disaster responses everywhere. Of course, those suburbs hardest-hit are those suburbs hardest-hit. But what’s really problematic is intersectionality: live in a hard-hit suburb and you’re poor? Tough for you.

I suspect the problem is not so much exploitation as it is ignorance, both wilful and otherwise; by both officials and others. Referring back to the discussions of exploitation on my previous posts, it might be that the residents of Refugee City would welcome a horde of snooping cameras, as long as they could be assured that the footage they captured would stimulate a greater and better-targeted response.

The media has a responsibility to tell this story, as much as it does to relay the uplifting narratives of solidarity and community resilience from Rescue and Shower Cities. A week on from the event, it should not fall to an insomniac resident of Refugee City who is fortunate enough to have the electricity, technical means, personal wherewithal and social networks to tell this story as if it is some sort of revelation. That is the job of the professionals. We should already know all of this.

In their meagre defence, I have heard some media outlets asking questions such as these. A reporter (from TV3) asked Bob Parker yesterday, after the fanfare resulting from the discovery of the time capsule, whether it was good enough that Aranui still didn’t have toilets. (His reply was not good enough — that the response had been very good overall — and the journalist did not push him.) They toured Aranui yesterday, talking with the residents and broadcasting their concerns — lack of facilities, lack of attention, breakdown of the rule of law. Breakdown of the rule of law. People fleeing their homes because, at twilight, groups of people roam around casing houses for burglary.

The media must report this, and in some cases it has: but ultimately it is for the government to undertake a response which mitigates against this inequitably-distributed misery. And a government who is reportedly considering policy changes which will weigh heavily upon lower-income New Zealanders would be well-advised to look after those citizens’ response.

As they say: the whole world’s watching.


(Thanks to Emma Hart for bringing this to my attention.)

Who are the non-geriatric NZ Right thinkers?

datePosted on 15:01, January 27th, 2011 by Pablo

OK, you knew this was coming. In the interest of ideological balance, or better yet, just because I am curious, I would like to ask readers who the under-60 Right thinkers are. Given that the Left thinker thread spun off into tangents about age limits, outlets and who and what constitutes the “proper “Left (thereby confirming the view that Lefties would rather argue about ideological purity and how many Marxists can balance on the head of the pin than simply answer a straight-forward question), here the label “Right” includes anything that is not skinhead neo-Nazi holocaust denier (which means Ann Rand enthusiasts and those of religious inclinations are eligible). In order to avoid nomination of the fossilised architects of the neo-liberal destruction of NZ’s welfare state, I have placed an age limit of 60 so that we can see if there is new blood in the Right waters.

Please be nice. I was gratified to see that only one commentator on the Left Thinker thread engaged in trolling, and just once at that. Thus I ask that Lefties not engage in bad behaviour and either refrain from making nasty or derisive comments or be sincere in their choices. Of course the same applies for any Right-oriented readers. That means, among other things, that due to reason of probity Rick “I think that my argument is so powerful that it’s not necessary to talk about it” Giles is ineligible for nomination. Beyond that and within the guidelines mentioned above, the field is open.

Although the Left Thinker post elicited a spike in page reads and much commentary (still going), it only elicited a couple of consensus names and a few others, thereby falling short of the short list I had asked for (perhaps that was my mistake, as I figured that a short list would be somewhere between 5-10). Thus I wonder what the Right list will look like (should there be one) even if I have added 20 years to the upper age limit and made no negative editorial remarks about various Right factions in the post (except about skinheads, neo-Nazis and their ilk).

I yield the floor to you.

Who are the next generation of NZ Left Thinkers?

datePosted on 17:18, January 24th, 2011 by Pablo

I almost choked on my chardonnay when I read over the weekend a quote from Chris Trotter stating that Bomber Bradbury represented the future of NZ Left thinking. Martin is a genial enough, alternative-minded, progressive niche market entertainer with strong opinions, generally good intentions and a decent grasp of current affairs. But Chris must have dropped an E to be that generous in his assessment of Bomber’s contributions to NZ’s Left intelligentsia. He also mentioned Jordan Carter as an up-and-coming Labour strategist, which seems to be less a product of party drug induced rapture and more of a wide-spread consensus amongst Lefty consignieri (and Labour Party consiglieri) about Jordan’s talents as a party strategist.

That got me to thinking about who are the next generation of NZ’s Left thinkers. I have had a fair share of young progressives pass through my classes while engaged in university teaching in Aotearoa (including, I believe, both Jordan and Bomber), which makes me wonder who in the under 40-generation will inherit the mantle that Chris, Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and very few others currently represent (not that I think that the over 40’s are finished in terms of their contributions to activism and Left political thought–it is the future of the ideological school that has been piqued in my mind by Chris’s comment). Note that I am not thinking exclusively of activists, academicians or politicians, and am trying to get an idea of the wide swathe of young Left thinkers that may be out there.

I of course am biased in favour of my colleagues here on KP Anita and Lew, who I think represent the sharper edge of Left-leaning bloggers. Idiot Savant is another blogger who seems to fit the bill, as do some of the authors at The Hand Mirror, and some of the folk over at the Standard exhibit intellectual depth beyond their obvious partisan ties. Bryce Edwards might be one who straddles the gap between blogging and academia (although truth be told, I know little of Bryce’s scholarly writing and am quite aware that there are very few quality Left academicians in NZ social science departments–most are po-mo or derivationist navel-gazing PC knee jerkers with little to offer by the way of contribution to modern Marxist, neo-Marxist or post-Marxist debates). There are bound to be young Maori who can contribute to future Left debates from more than a reflexive, grievance-based perspective. Of the neo-Gramscians, Kate Nicholls is a personal favorite of mine, but I am too close to her to be fully objective. For their part, I do not think that Stalinist or Trotskyites represent the future of NZ Left praxis, much less thought.

The issue is important because unless the NZ Left can rejuvenate itself intellectually and separate its scholarly tradition from the base practice of partisan politics and street-level activism, then it will cede the field of reasoned debate to the intellectual Right, something that in turn will have negative consequences for the overall prospects of progressive change in the country. In other words, the Left needs to reproduce itself intellectually as well as politically if it is to compete in the market of ideas that in turn influences the way in which the very concepts of politics, citizenship, rights, entitlements and obligations are addressed.

I therefore pose the question to KP readers: who would be on your short list of young NZ Left intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in Aotearoa?

Justice delayed, now denied.

datePosted on 18:02, December 31st, 2010 by Pablo

Rather than ring out the old year and ring in the new year with the usual inane rubbish about new beginnings and fresh starts, annual lists, countdowns etc., how about we use the occasion for a reality check, in this case a reality check on the state of the NZ judiciary using one very important case.

On October 15, 2007 a number of individuals were arrested on a variety of charges, including planning terrorist attacks. Others were arrested later, and collectively they have come to be known as the Urewera 18. On May 30, 2011, three and half years after they were arrested, the majority of these defendants will finally go to trial (three defendants will be tried separately).  Not only is the delay largely a result of the Police and Crown trying to introduce new charges after the fact and argue for the admissibility of evidence obtained under the Terrorism Suppression Act that was ultimately not invoked against the accused. Now, in a decision which has had its reasoning suppressed by the court, the Urewera 15 have been ordered to have a trial by judge. You read correctly: not only have they been denied  the right to a prompt trial but are now denied a jury of their peers. To that can be added holding the trial in Auckland when most of the defendants live elsewhere and their purported crimes were committed outside of Auckland.

Between the delays, venue and judge-only trial, the Crown and judiciary is engaging in a blood-letting exercise designed to drain the defendants materially and emotionally long before they enter the courtroom on May 30. Arguing under section 12 that the case is too complex, with too many defendants, with too many side-issues and matters of procedure to be considered adequately by a panel of laymen and women is an insult to the NZ public as well as a thinly veiled attempt at juridically saving face in a case that was over-ambitious, politically-motivated and legally flawed from inception.

This is further evidence of the ingrained authoritarianism and lack of accountability rampant in the judicial system. Judges act as if they are above the laws they are supposed to uphold. The Crown vindictively prosecutes cases without regard to their merits or costs because political interests are at play (remember that the NZ wikileaks cables show NZ government officials telling the US embassy in Wellington that theZaoui case was not winnable–then saw the Crown go ahead for another two years arguing for Zaoui’s incarceration or expulsion until the SIS finally dropped the pretext that he was a threat to national security). Elites are given name suppression for the flimsiest of reasons and judges protect their own when these transgress. This is exactly the sort of judicial attitude in dictatorships.

And yet, it is the attitude in NZ as well. Meanwhile, not a single mainstream media outlet has raised the subject of the long delayed and now jury-denied Urewera trial since the decision on the latter was announced in early December. Not a single right-wing blog has raised the obvious civil liberties and rule of law implications of the case. The Left commentariat has been largely silent as well, with the notable exceptions of Idiot Savant and Russell Brown.

Why is this? Is this silence a result of the fact that the accused are an ideological minority that are easy to scapegoat and persecute? If so, that is exactly the reason why the full spectrum of democratic commentators should be protesting the case: in a democracy it is not mainstream, “normal,” “nice guys” who deserve the most legal protection and rights of redress. It is the ideologically suspect, reprehensible, marginalised, ostracized or otherwise outcast who deserve the full protections of law precisely because they are at the mercy of the majority–a majority that is often ill-informed or manipulated by authorities when it comes to evaluating the merits of any given case against anti-status quo political activists. The majority may rule, but free, fair and impartial trials are the minority’s best bulwark against its tyranny.

That is another reason why a jury trial is deserved by the Urewera 15. A  jury, selected from the public mainstream, can listen to and observe the prosecution evidence and the defense against it in detail, first hand, then deliberate on the merits of each. That ensures that no judicial bias or hidden quid pro quos enter into the process. As things stand, the judge who hears the trial is vulnerable to such accusations, which is more the reason to bring an impartial jury into the process.

I am not entirely sympathetic to the causes being espoused by the Urewera 18. I do believe in their right to act militantly in defense of them subject to the penalties of  law should they act in ways that contravene criminal standards (as hard as it is to say, I extend this belief in the right to militant activism to neo-Nazis and skinheads as well so long as no harm to others results from it). Here I disagree with some distinguished Left commentators, who have seen something sinister in their activities and who believe that the political motivations of the defendants makes the case “special.”

I have already written at length on why politically-motivated crimes should not be treated as a special category so will not belabour it here. But I am sure that those who see sinister intent in the Urewera 18  will agree that the way this prosecution has gone is wrong on several levels. Even if the Urewera defendants are in fact complicit in something more than activist fantasy-ism and role-play, they deserve to be treated fairly according to the rule of law consistent with the foundational principles of a free society. Yet they have not, and nary a peep has been heard about that from those who should know better and who ostensibly are champions of the democratic ethos.

This attitude is shameful and should be repudiated by all fair minded people regardless of ideological persuasion.  The trial-by-judge decision must be appealed as a denial of due process and publicly repudiated by those who believe in the democratic ideal.

How’s that for some New Year’s resolutions?

Headed home, looking to contribute.

datePosted on 15:04, October 20th, 2010 by Pablo

Tomorrow evening I fly back to Auckland for the beginning of a phased return to NZ. I have some pending obligations and personal commitments in SE Asia so  after two months in NZ will be doing a long distance commute between NZ and SG until the middle of next year. But I have made the decision that it is time to permanently return to NZ and find a way to contribute in a non-academic capacity. To that end I am registering a NZ-based political risk, market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy under the name Buchanan Strategic Advisors, Ltd.  As far as I can tell it is the first of its kind in NZ: a consultancy solely dedicated to international and comparative industry and market analysis, political context assessment and security threat evaluation. I will also focus on labour market characteristics, industry-political relations, futures forecasting (both strategic and sector-specific) and ethical and sustainable investment. The firm will have a public outreach component that will provide expert commentary to general and professional audiences as well as the media on matters of contemporary international import. As readers may know, I have long been concerned about the lack of strategic vision, both in its long-term and in-depth dimensions, exhibited by NZ public and private entities when it comes to foreign affairs. This is my way of helping to fill that analytic and policy gap.

It may seem counter-intuitive but I believe that basing the firm in NZ enhances its “brand” because of NZ’s reputation and image as a fair, transparent, honest and autonomous country, We may know that in fact NZ does not quite live up to its image in many respects, but having lived in nine countries I believe that it comes the closest to doing so. Since we operate in an age of telecommunications and rapid transport, I do not see NZ’s size and location as a major disadvantage to providing the intellectual value added services embodied in the firm. To the contrary, I see the firm as an ideal interface between NZ and foreign partners, complementing and reinforcing existing diplomatic and business networks.

I have been fortunate to have a number of Kiwis encourage me in this venture and have some leads on business opportunities. The real test is to see if public and private entities in NZ will pay for such services. I believe that it fills a niche for actors that do not have in-house expertise on specific subjects or whom do not wish to pay the full costs of maintaining a full-time, in-house political risk capability. But I also have offered this type of service for free to several NZ entities, only to have them baulk at continuing receiving my analysis and opinion on a fee-paying basis (this includes some specialised security agencies that clearly lack in-house capabilities in the areas that I am competent to discuss). Thus the real make-or-break issue is whether private firms and public agencies are willing to pay for this type of specialised advice. The next year or so will tell.

In any event, I am thrilled to be heading back home. I get to reclaim my house in the Waitakeres and breathe clean air (the Indonesian smoke haze in SG at the moment is at dangerous levels), feel the nighttime silence of the bush, and reacquaint myself with friends. That will make the pressures of setting up the firm all the more bearable. It may be a challenge after so many years of doing full-time academic work and part-time consulting, but if there is an ideal place in which to undertake a new venture like this, Aotearoa is my choice.

A press release on the establishment of the firm can be found here.

The real Chilean miracle.

datePosted on 21:47, October 14th, 2010 by Pablo

The rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Chile is an epic feat. It is a testament to Chilean tenacity, discipline and ingenuity that the rescue operation was a sterling success. Bien hecho y felicitaciones, companeros!

There are some less covered aspects to the incident that are worth highlighting.

First, contrary to what US TV coverage may lead one to believe, the US did not spearhead the rescue efforts. A total of four US private contractors were sent to supervise the rescue bore drilling, and the derrick for that bore was US-made. There were also Canadian, Austrian and Kiwi experts on scene, but the majority of those involved in planning and carrying out the operation were Chilenos. Of course that should obviously be so: mining is the foundation of Chile’s export economy so it has a long history of expertise in that field. However, the accident itself has origins in policies that obviated any expertise. And in that regard it had a direct US connection: the Chicago School (as translated by Arnold Harberger) and the so-called “Washington Consensus.”

Under the market-driven edicts imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship and followed by the democratic Concertacion governments that ruled from 1990 until March of this year (the last two under Socialist presidents), the mining industry was deregulated and partially privatised. Although the Chilean state retains a majority interest in the largest copper mining ventures because copper is Chile’s hard income export earner (40 percent of the world’s copper comes from Chile), many smaller mining outfits proliferated under successive resource extraction plans developed by each of the democratic governments. That included allowing non-union workers into the mines and the proliferation of non-union “bargaining agents” at the shop level, all of which decreased worker input into the management of the deregulated and privatised mines (the larger state-owned mines are almost completely unionised). The mine in question is owned by one of these smaller private operators and has a long history of equipment failures, accidents, regulatory violations (such as the disarming of tunnel alarm systems) and maintenance problems. Plus, it was going broke (one of the ironies of the accident was that many of the rescued miners were about to be laid off due to the company’s financial difficulties). Thus the accident was a direct result of privatisation and deregulation leading to a lax workplace safety environment on the part of the mine’s owners.

Confronted by the mine owner’s inability to cope with the disaster the state-owned mining corporation, CODELCO, assumed control of the operation and brought its experts in. It was these people, effectively state employees, who directed, planned, staffed and executed the rescue (in fact, several of the six man rescue team were military personnel trained in advanced search and rescue operations). Or to put it very bluntly: it was the consequences of free market capitalism that caused the accident, and it was state capitalism that fixed it.

One thing that may not have been apparent to non-Spanish speaking viewers but which was quite clearly audible to those who do understand the language, was that several of the rescued miners, including the shift foreman who came out last as well as several of the rescuers sent underground to retrieve them, specifically said to Chilean president Sebastian Pinera that the accident was preventable and that measures must be taken to avoid a repetition of the event. Some of these remarks were quite pointed given that Pinera is of the centre-right and has benefited personally and professionally from Pinochet’s policies because he is the son of Pinochet’s Labour Minister and started his fortune by capitalising on the deregulation of the health insurance and private credit markets in the 1980s. To his benefit, president Pinera announced to the nation that he has ordered a review of the entire occupational safety framework, not just in mining but across the spectrum of economic activity, saying that it was clear that there was “gaps” and “failures” in the workplace protection of Chilean workers that needed tighter regulatory controls.  If he is true to his word and the review is genuine, that could result in a very positive outcome stemming from this near-tragedy.

As for Pinera’s role, he has acquitted himself very well. He monitored the operation from day 1 and did not just show up at the end to bask in the glory of the rescue. For a Righty, he came off as remarkably clued into the needs of his working class charges.  The same can be said for the Minsters for Health and Mining as well as the senior management team brought into supervise the rescue operation. From the erection of “Camp Hope” on the mining site (where relatives of the trapped miners held a vigil), to the flow of communication to the press and supply of necessities to the miners themselves, the pressed-into-service bosses performed admirably. And they all are public sector employees, even if the Ministers originated from the dark side of the political spectrum. Whatever the case, credit is deserved where it is due, and the president and the management team he sent to the rescue deserve gratitude and respect for their handling of the crisis.

One element of farce in the rescue was the arrival of Bolivian president Evo Morales on the scene. Morales was there because one of the rescued miners is a Bolivian. Morales promised him a house and a job if he returned home with him on the specially charted plane Morales arrived in. Trouble is, the miner left Bolivia at the age of 14 (he is now 24) to seek better economic fortune in Chile, has a Chilean partner and a network of friends, and for all outward appearances seems disinclined to return to his native country. So that left Morales to grandstand in his public speech in an effort to pressure the miner to return with him. To his credit, president Pinera noted that a medical evaluation would have to take place first, at which time the miner could make up his mind about what to do. Morales left a few hours later, alone.

There are of course many other sub-plots to this remarkable story of survival. But as someone who has lived and worked in Chile as a youth and adult, has several Chilean friends and who has written professionally on aspects of its political and economic development, it reminds me of how quietly and humbly efficient they are as a nation. They have suffered hardship and  disaster, both human and nature-made, yet they display a measure of stoicism, discipline and tenacity that is truly remarkable. The last 68 days has offered proof of that above and below ground. Viva Chile y sus mineros!

Drawing Blood from a Stone.

datePosted on 19:59, October 8th, 2010 by Pablo

The government’s decision to file a civil suit against the “Waihopai 3” is vindictive and a gross waste of taxpayer dollars. Much like the Zaoui case, which could have been concluded years before it actually did at far less cost than the amount on the final bill, this is a classic example of a vexatious state litigation. Vexatious state litigation, to coin a phrase, is an instance when the state (exemplified here by the Crown) continues prosecutions, appeals or defenses long after legal defeat is obvious and, as in the case here, judicially administered. Even so, there are a few aspects of the case worth reviewing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post titled “Political Idealism Trumps the Law,” the Waihopai 3 expertly exploited the claim of right defense to defend their direct action against the eavesdropping station. Contrary to most direct action proponents, they did not admit their crimes and accept their due punishment, but instead used the claim of right defense to argue their innocence based on moral grounds. Among other things that defense states that even if mistaken in their motives, people who honestly believe that their acts will prevent a greater harm are exonerated of responsibility for the consequences of those acts. Thus, although I (and presumably the government) believe that they are mistaken in claiming that the Echelon station at Waihopai facilitates torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations, the important point is that Peter Murnane, Adrian Leason and Sam Land were found by a jury of their peers to be innocent because they sincerely believed that their actions were helping to prevent a greater harm. So long as the claim of right defense exists in the law and juries are willing to accept that defense as legitimate, then the verdict should stand and, in the absence of irregularities in the administration of the case, no appeals or civil lawsuits filed. In other words, that should be the end of the story.

If the government does not like the claim of right clause in the law, it can work to change it. But suing for civil damages to the tune of 1.2 million dollars, including the cost of pies, beer and savories for repair workers, smacks of imperial hubris. Moreover, the claim is unrecoverable even if the Crown were to win the lawsuit. Father Peter has no tangible assets, and since neither the Dominican Order or the Catholic Church were party to his actions, they cannot be made parties to the suit. As for Land and Leason, what is the Crown going to do–confiscate Land’s organic farm and repossess Leason’s house while garnishing his salary, thereby throwing their families onto the street (and dole)? Even if it did so, the amount recovered from the sale of the assets of all three men would not come close to paying the full bill. So what is the point if the full costs are not anywhere close to recoverable?

The Crown also has not thought through the consequences of its lawsuit. The GCSB refused to front up at the original trial in order to refute the defendant’s allegations. That pretty much left their claims uncontested, which was instrumental in the jury’s verdict. Is the GCSB now going to show up at a civil trial and be prepared to re-litigate the original claims under the claim of right defense? If not, then there is no case for damages because a verdict of innocence under the right of defense absolves defendants of financial liability stemming from their acts. To put it bluntly: a verdict of innocence under the claim of right defense means full absolution from liability. That is why the right of defense is such a dramatic line to take and so difficult to argue successfully, which is why most direct action militants do not even bother with it and opt to plead guilty and ask for judicial mercy citing mitigating factors. But in this case the right of defense was made and it prevailed. Unless the GCSB wants to testify as to the merits of the claim of right defense as well as to the extent of the damages incurred (which I believe have been exaggerated) then there is no case to be made. If there is no case to be made, the pursuing the lawsuit is a waste of time and public money.

If the government allows this civil suit to continue it will be another example of politicians and state bureaucrats playing loose with taxpayer money in order to prove a vengeful point regardless of the merits of the case. The suit is clearly designed to be a warning to others who would dare to use the claim of right defense for direct actions, and therefore not only a form of vexatious state litigation but also an act of official intimidation against those who would dare speak (their) truth to power. For a supposed liberal democracy, that is a bad look.