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The coming resource war.

datePosted on 16:11, September 10th, 2019 by Pablo

During my time in the Pentagon I had the privilege of sitting down with military leaders and defence and security officials from a variety of Latin American nations. Sometimes I was present as a subordinate assistant to a senior US defence department official, sometimes as part of a delegation that included people from the State Department and other agencies, and sometimes I was on my own or part of a small team exploring avenues of dialogue or negotiating details of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

One of the more interesting meetings I had was with small group of senior Brazilian military officers led by the then number two officer in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces (which answers to the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, in an arrangement similar to that between the US Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff but with a more vertical hierarchy within it based on officer seniority between service branches). In that meeting I asked the Brazilians what they considered to be the greatest threat to their national security. The answer was astounding: “The pattern of consumption in the North,” said the senior Brazilian officer. Sensing my surprise, he went on to explain that emphasis on economic growth in Northern capitalist societies was causing the rapid depletion of their natural resources along with a host of other environmental problems. He even brought up, at a time when the subject was embryonic, the issue of “global warming,” noting that Brazil was starting to see the subtle impact of climatic shifts in its maritime and terrestrial environments.

I should briefly note, as an aside, that one of the interesting aspects of the Brazilian high command is that many senior officers do advanced post-graduate degrees in France, and tend to focus on public policy and politics. This is a bit different that many countries that send their officers to US or UK War Colleges for professional development and prefer not to have them study politics rather than things like public administration. Like the US, Brazilian officers hold lower-level degrees in “harder” subjects relevant to their military disciplines, but then go on to study at places like the Paris Institute of Political Studies (commonly known as “Sciences Po”). There they receive a distinctly non-US type of political science training, to include the philosophies of people like Althusser, Poulantzas, Foucault, Derrida, Levi, Glucksman, Proust, Aron and others not usually associated with the military enterprise and certainly not part of the standard post-graduate curriculum of US (or NZ) military officers.

With this in mind it should not be surprising that the Brazilians had a slightly different take on what constitutes threats to their national security. But then the general went on. He advanced the notion that eventually Brazil would find itself at war with Northern powers over control of the Amazon. He pointed out that once unchecked economic growth led to the degradation of Northern environments and depletion of natural resources above the equator, the great Northern powers would turn on the Amazon (and elsewhere, like Sub-Saharan Africa) in an attempt to continue their pattern of resource exploitation.

At that point the US admiral sitting next to me turned and said “dang, boy, I have not heard that one before.”

The Brazilian general was not assuaged or convinced by my protestations that the US would never go to war with Brazil over its natural resources. He was not mollified by my attempts to explain that the US would more likely partner with Brazil to preserve its sovereign assets. He told me that although he had no doubt that I was a sincere young fellow and had the ear of the administration that I served, nothing I said would be binding once the next administration arrived and even then, should the US try to negotiate a partnership agreement/treaty with Brazil on control of the Amazon, Brazil would reject it on grounds of foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.

That was in 1994. But the Brazilian view continues to this day.

I write this to provide context to the current discussion of wildfires in Amazonia and the differences between Northern powers and Brazil (or more precisely, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro) when it comes to how to handle the situation now and into the future. Bolsonaro, who calls himself the “Trump of Brazil” and who campaigned as “candidate machete” in rural parts of the country, is a climate change denying homophobe with vulgarian tendencies and unsavoury links to both criminal gangs and extreme right-wing groups, including those operated by paramilitary organisations and and ex-military officers (Bolsonaro is a former Army officer and son of an Amazonian miner). During the campaign and once in office he promised to roll back environmental regulations and those that protected endangered indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, who were already under siege from logging and farming encroachment in their traditional homelands. His promise to bulldoze the Amazon in order to promote economic growth on the way to great power status resonated with nationalists as well as foreign and domestic agricultural and logging conglomerates, who poured both open and dark money into his campaign.

Once Bolsonaro assumed office the practices of clear-cutting and slash-and-burning accelerated dramatically, something that when combined with prolonged drought in Brazil’s north and west contributed to the wildfires that as of yet remain unchecked in many places. Bolsonaro has accused environmentalists of deliberately setting fires to advance their agendas, has rejected some types of international fire-fighting aid (such as from the EU) and has launched into a war of words with the likes of French Prime Minister Macron (including rude comments about the Macron’s wife) in defence of what Bolsonaro claims are assaults on Brazilian sovereignty by foreign powers wishing to gain control over its natural resources.

This is where things get dangerous. The Brazilian military has as one of its national security pillars defence of its natural resources against foreign efforts to seize them in the face of increased environmental destruction. The Bolsonaro government supports clearing large parts of the countryside in the quest for more arable land for commercial purposes and is determined to resist foreign entreaties to reign back the deforestation policy in the interest of global climate sustainability. The scene is then set for armed confrontations between the Brazilian military and any actors (foreign or domestic) that may seek to use direct action to protect the rainforest and pantanal (the southwestern wetlands that extend to the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders). The threats are unlikely to come from state actors over the short-term and certainly not from Brazil’s neighbours, but over the medium to long term the possibility that resource wars might erupt over Brazil’s intransigence cannot be discounted.

In fact, Brazil ultranationalists are already spreading rumours that the unexplored hinterlands are being “infiltrated” by foreign forces, and the Brazilian Army has suspended participation of several Northern militaries in jungle warfare exercises over concerns that it is gives forward intelligence about terrain and Brazilian war-fighting capabilities (the Brazilian Army operates a world-renown jungle warfare school–CIGS– in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. The battalion prayer includes the following phrase: “If we perish defending the Brazilian Amazon, O God, allow us to do so with dignity and deserving of victory. Selva!” (“Jungle!” in Portuguese).

What is worse, significant elements in the Brazilian defence establishment categorically deny that the Amazon is at ecological risk or that it serves as the much vaunted “lungs of the earth.” The vehemence and xenophobic tone of their views is well captured here.

The fact that the Amazonian region is huge and relatively lawless contributes to the Brazilian military’s concern with exercising control over it. Without significant foreign enemies, the Brazilian Navy has placed great emphasis on its riverine capability, while the Army uses the presence of drug, people and weapons smugglers as a justification for conducting counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare exercises in the far reaches of the basin, especially the border regions adjacent to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. Such an extended land border (which also includes Paraguay and Uruguay) makes Brazilian geopolitical strategists acutely focused on staving off intrusions of any nature, so it is not surprising that Brazil has closed its border with Venezuela in order to staunch refugee flows fleeing the Bolivarian kleptocracy that passes for a government in Caracas (it has also closed its borders to Venezuelans trying to enter Brazil from other neighbouring countries).

The combination of a traditional continental geopolitical focus within the Brazilian security establishment, military concern that resource depletion elsewhere will lead to foreign attempts to steal or capture by stealth Amazonian resources, and the presence in presidential office of a demagogic nationalist-populist fixated on untapping those resources for Brazilian gain regardless of environmental consequence may prove explosive down the road should any international moves be made to limit Brazil’s ability to exploit what it considers to be its God-given gift of natural resource endowment.

Or, as that Brazilian general said to me 25 years ago, “the developed world has destroyed its natural resources on the way to becoming modernised industrial societies and now wants to deny Brazil the ability to do the same. We will not let that happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xenophobia is not always racist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the false narrative.

datePosted on 11:19, April 25th, 2019 by Pablo

ISIS and a junior defense minister in the Sri Lankan government have claimed that the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in the island nation were a response to the white supremacist attack on mosques in Christchurch on March 15. The claims need to be treated with skepticism. Here’s why.

Having been defeated on the battlefields of the Levant, ISIS now urges its followers to return to decentralized terrorist attacks as a form of irregular warfare. It wishes to show continued strength by claiming that it can orchestrate attacks world-wide and that no country can escape its reach. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka fit that narrative.

The truth is otherwise. The Sri Lankan attacks may have taken inspiration, and perhaps even logistical support from ISIS but planning and preparation began well before March 15. It is true that ISIS called for retaliatory attacks after the Christchurch attacks, and it could well be possible that March 15 was a precipitant event for the Sri Lankan bombings. But there was and is a larger and yet more local picture in play.

The Easter Sunday bombings occurred against a backdrop of rising violence against both Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhist militants, something that has accentuated in the last year and is the underlying motive for the attacks. These were not random or foreign in origin, but represent a violent response by one oppressed minority using terrorism against another minority and tourists in order to make a sharp point to the constitutionally empowered majority that it sees as increasingly oppressive in nature (70 percent of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism, which is the official religion of the country and which has constitutionally protected privileges). Christians were the targets because they were left unprotected by an indifferent or incompetent government, while tourists were attacked because the country depends on them for hard currency revenues. Neither targeted group were the real subject of the attacks, nor was the objective of the attacks strictly about them.

Operationally speaking, the effort to engage in coordinated, simultaneous attacks against multiple soft targets using significant quantities of explosives and involving at least 7 suicide bombers requires months of target surveillance, stockpiling and concealment of bomb-making ingredients, manufacture of human-portable bombs, coordination and communication between perpetrators and accomplices and logistical support in at least three cities, all under the veil of secrecy. Whether or not Christchurch served as a precipitant or ISIS called for revenge attacks in its wake, the making of the Easter Sunday plot was long in the works well before the white supremacist gunman walked into the Masjid al Noor.

Simply put, the Easter Sunday bombings simply could not have been put together in the month after the Christchurch attacks. Moreover, the Sri Lankan security services were warned several times before March 15 that Muslim extremists were preparing to launch attacks, followed by specific information two weeks ago that Catholic churches were being targeted on Easter. The complexity of the attacks and the repeated warnings of them strongly suggests that ISIS’s claims are opportunistic rather than truthful.

Likewise, the uncorroborated claim by a Sri Lankan junior minister that Christchurch was the reason for the Easter Sunday atrocities appears to be reckless attempt to deflect attention away from the gross negligence that led to the intelligence “failure” that facilitated them. In an atmosphere of rising ethnic and religious tensions, the Sri Lankan government received repeated and specific warnings about the impending attacks and yet did nothing. It did not increase security around churches and hotels and did not seek to preemptively arrest suspects on various extremist watch lists. Instead, rendered by partisan infighting and weighed down by incompetence, the security forces cast a negligent eye on what was going to happen. That may be because the attacks can serve as an excuse to crack down on the Muslim community, something Buddhist hard-liners have been seeking for some time. Whatever the reason, it was not an intelligence “failure” that facilitated the attacks. The security services knew, or at least were warned about what was going to happen. They either could not or chose not to act.

In truth, ISIS and some Sri Lankan government interests converged in making Christchurch part of the narrative. Falsely claiming that the Easter Sunday attacks were revenge for Christchurch makes it seem as if they are part of a larger struggle in which Sri Lanka is a pawn. The reality is more simple: the attacks were a local Islamist response to increased ethno-religious conflict in Sri Lanka in recent years, which itself is part of a larger struggle within South Asia between Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as their lines of division continue to harden.

Therein lies the danger of the false narrative embedded in the ISIS and minister’s claims about Christchurch. They feed into the “clash of civilizations” argument put forward by ideological extremists that the world is in the midst of an cultural and religious conflict in which only one side can win. Subscribing to this argument justifies so-called “tit for tat” responses, whereby an attack by one side leads to an attack by the other, creating a cycle of violence that is designed to spiral into an existential confrontation between antithetical “others.” Although the vast majority of religionists the world over are non-violent and tolerant of other beliefs, this is the apocalyptic vision that extremists want to propagate.

The antidote to this is to place responsibility where it belongs and to not buy into false opportunistic narratives about revenge-based existential conflict. Sometimes the blame for atrocities lies closer to home, both in terms of root causes and inadequate responses.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Radio New Zealand web site (rnz.co.nz) on April 25, 2019.

First a massacre, then the push back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy investments versus speculative investments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interest, values, trade and security.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That leads me to the following pseudo-syllogism:

States have interests, not friends.

Foreign partnerships are based on interest, not friendship.

Trade and security relationships are therefore interest-based.

They may overlap, complement but should never countervail.

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

Values help define but do not determine interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Israel Democratic?

datePosted on 10:41, February 13th, 2019 by Pablo

An interesting thing happened after I wrote last week’s first blog post about Venezuela ( http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2019/02/on-the-venezuelan-mess/). A gentleman from the Israel Institute of New Zealand wrote me at my business email address to request a correction or retraction for something I had written in that post. The objectionable phrase was my reference to Israel as “semi-democratic.” He pointed out that Israel ranked just one point away from France as a “flawed” democracy in the latest Economist democracy ratings, not far behind Germany. In that post I characterised France and Germany as Right-leaning “advanced democracies” so he reckoned that I had slighted Israel when I labeled it as “semi” democratic instead.

We backed and forthed on the subject for a day or so. I told him that I based my characterisation on the fact that Arab Israelis are treated as second class citizens. I told him that I would leave it at that and not get into the subject of settlements on occupied land, the drift rightwards towards extremism and intolerance in its politics under the Likud Party (created by those paragons of democratic virtue Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and now led by Benjamin Netanyahu), the corruption of its government under Netanyahu (and his predecessor), its approach to Palestinians etc. He countered by pointing out that Arab Israelis have all rights given to non-Arabs, that they do not have to do compulsory military service but can vote and that a High Court judge who will hear Netanyahu’s corruption trial is an Arab.

I explained to him that I do not take the Economist’s ranking as gospel. In fact, I think that they are flawed due to an Anglo-Saxon bias and formal procedures and frameworks rather than substantive interactions (for example, I believe that New Zealand is ranked too high and Uruguay is ranked too low in the Economist list). I pointed out that I had an academic background that included writing about democratic theory (and democratisation in practice), so understand democracy to involve procedural (free and fair elections), institutional (impartial application the rule of law), societal (toleration, equality as mass values), and economic (fair distribution of productive wealth) dimensions, all of which I believe are deficient in Israel. He replied that Israel fulfilled the first three criteria. I also told him that I was raised in a strongly pro-Israel household and that I understood its unique security and geopolitical conditions as well as the fact that, when compared to pretty much every other nation in the Middle East, Israel was the most democratic of them. But that is just damning it with faint praise.

Perhaps I expect more of the Israelis, but its behaviour in the last two decades (and more) leads me to believe that it is no longer (if it ever was) a liberal democracy. Just because people have formal, de jure rights on paper does not mean that they have de facto rights on the ground. It may not be apartheid but in its treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants and other non-European Jewish peoples, it falls very short of the “equality for all” mark that I would expect of a truly substantive democracy and well short of most European, North American and Antipodean democracies. This is not to say that the latter are all healthy and above reproach. It just means that Israel does meet even their lowered standards.

We agreed to disagree. I did not print a reaction or correction. I invited him to explain his views in a comment on the thread but he declined. After our correspondence I found myself thinking about how KP readers would classify Israel. I realise that given the ideological leanings of the blog many will be firmly in the anti-Israeli camp, but I wonder what, upon honest reflection, readers think about Israel’s form of governance. In other words, what argument do readers make to themselves about where they stand on Israel?

So here is an invitation for readers to express their views on the matter, formally posed as this question: is Israel democratic? . That way we can get a sense of how intelligent (mostly Left and Kiwi) readers see the Jewish state. But first a few rules:

No anti-Semitic anything. One can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic (as an example, see this). One can criticise Israel without running nasty alt-Right tropes. One can defend Israel without resorting to false charges of anti-Semitism against those who oppose it, and one can defend Israel without making bigoted or other prejudiced remarks about Arabs, Palestinians etc. No re-litigating history. Israel is here to stay regardless of what some might prefer. And, as other democracies have done, it has behaved ruthlessly towards its enemies. So please, do not go down the worm-hole of who did what to who first.

IT goes without saying but is worth repeating nevertheless: No personal attacks on other commentators. Keep the discussion polite, rational and on-topic. I say this because any time Israel is mentioned people tend to lose their senses when confronted with contrary views. It really is a hot button issue.

I shall moderate the comments section a bit more vigorously given the subject matter. But by all means have at it because I am genuinely curious as to how people come to form their opinions on Israel.

On the post-truth moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pebbles under the mattress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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