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Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

datePosted on 15:33, May 19th, 2020 by Pablo

Arguments by religious folk that they are being discriminated against under the Level 2 pandemic restrictions in NZ, which limit church services to ten people or less when schools, restaurants, malls and other service outlets are allowed to host many more people under voluntary self-distancing protocols, got me to think about whether people understand the rationale behind the government approach as well as the role of religion in society and particularly in a liberal democracy such as NZ. I wrote a tweet outlining my general view and it elicited some contrary responses from people who are either religious and/or dislike the current government. I will not dwell on their responses but I will below string together in fuller scope my side of the discussion.

I began with the first tweet:

“Liberal democracies are secular regimes where church and state are separate and the state treats all religions neutrally and equally while having superordinate authority over material (as opposed to spiritual) issues, including public health. Churches need to respect that.” That began a back and forth with the contrary minded readers, which elicited the following responses from me:

“Stage (sic) 2 is based on opening up commerce, with some social restrictions still in place. Education is critical for commerce in several ways. Services are critical to economic well-being. Religion is a social construct based on belief that is not economically essential. Big diff.

In medicine, the environment, engineering, economics, threat assessment, even political forecasting, among so many other material things, science must and will trump belief. With CV-19 science must prevail over belief. There is nothing “illiberal” about the govt response.”

The last sentence came in response to a commentator’s remark that NZ is an illiberal democracy because of the restriction on religious gatherings, among other things. The author went on to speak of a difference in values between the government and people like him when it comes to family and society. I replied:

“A secular democratic regime can, should and most often does value families and society, and its social policies demonstrate this. The level 2 re-opening is business driven because NZ is a capitalist country, and everyone’s welfare depends on capitalist survival, not churches.

So long as the economic imperatives of a capitalist society remain a paramount concern of govt, then commercial concerns will supersede (much variegated) spiritual ones. Hence the pro-business incrementalism of the govt approach. They respond to structural necessity, not values.”

And that is the bottom line. NZ is a capitalist society. It is a capitalist society because the means of production are mostly in private hands and subject to market-oriented logics, because the relations in and of production reproduce the material hierarchy on which the economic system rests, because it is inserted in a global capitalist system of production, consumption and exchange, and because the social division of labour that emerges out of it reinforces the hierarchical relations between the ultimate producers of wealth and the owners of productive assets in NZ and elsewhere. Most of all, NZ is a capitalist society because the welfare of everyone directly or indirectly depends on the welfare and investment of capitalists–if they do not prosper, no one does.

Regular readers know the I am not a fan of laissez fare capitalism or the various market-driven experiments of the last forty years. Nor am I entirely pleased with how the current government defers to capitalist logics rather than fully embrace the entire policy spectrum involved in well-being budgeting. I am just saying: when it comes to the economic motor of NZ society, it is what it is.

NZ has just faced and continues to be threatened by a deadly global pandemic. The initial government response was a public health campaign marshalled on scientific grounds that was mitigated by an unprecedented economic relief package designed to help people weather the financial storm caused by the disruption of economic activity. Capitalists and workers were included in the relief measures. This response was vetted by a pandemic emergency response committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and communicated in daily press conferences by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, along with other officials. That is far from being the makings of a totalitarian police state that a fair few believe it to be.

Once the lockdown/quarantine phase of the restrictions was lifted (after six weeks), the government announced that its level 3 and 2 approaches were designed to get businesses back to work. This employed a type of pragmatic incrementalism where restrictions on commercial activity were slowly lifted in piecemeal, sectorial and graduated fashion over what is now going on 3 weeks. The government explicitly stated that this was not a social opening and that pre-pandemic social activities that do not have a commercial orientation were very consciously excluded from the stage 3 and 2 re-opening measures.

That is why churches are not allowed to resume pre-pandemic activities, indulging religious services, in the measure that they did before March 23. Note that they can still host church services and other activities but that they must adhere to the “fewer than 10” rule when doing so. No one has restricted their freedom of worship. Only group size when worshipping has been limited, and that is because churches are not considered to be businesses.

If churches want to claim that they are a type of commercial enterprise, then they have reason to feel discriminated against and by all means should air their grievances along those lines. But that might open questions about their tax-free status, real estate holdings, tithing practices and other non-spiritual aspects of their mission. So it is unlikely that we will hear this argument aired in public or as a defence of a church’s right to host large gatherings for religious purposes.

In any case, the “blame” for not including churches in the Level 3 and 2 re-openings is not the fault of government values when it comes to family and society. If anything, blame comes simply from the fact that NZ is a capitalist nation and the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Spirituality is fine but it does not pay the bills, unless of course it is of the “prosperity doctrine” persuasion where the Lord commands that we should enrich ourselves before all others.

Speaking of which: why the heck was that charlatan fraudster Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church minions allowed to defy the level 2 restrictions without punitive sanction? Were the police worried about a confrontation with a large crowd? Even if that was the case, if the letter of the public health order cannot be enforced even with enabling legislation conferring extraordinary enforcement powers on the police, what is the point of having them? Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?

We might call that a type of reverse discrimination.

Between push and shove.

datePosted on 14:32, May 6th, 2020 by Pablo

The NZ government’s handling of the CV-19 pandemic has won international praise for its decisiveness and effectiveness. It is hard to argue with a response that has reduced the number of daily reported transmissions to near zero and the death toll to less than two dozen out of 1500 total cases. Not bad.

But as could have been expected, there are those who are not happy with how the government has comported itself on the matter. There has been much whinging about restrictions on movement during the stage 4 lockdown, and now there is much moaning about ambiguous rules governing shopping, “bubble” expansion and easing of travel restrictions. It seems that some people will simply never be satisfied even if the international community stands in awe of what NZ has accomplished.

There appear to be three types of complainants. The first are the serial whiners. These sorry folk just like to bitch and moan about anything. They do so more as trolls rather than out of partisan spite or informed concern and are best seen as losers. They shall be ignored in this discussion.

The second group are the public health advocates. These include medical professionals, educators, some service sector providers and others who feel the government is moving a little too quickly when lifting the quarantine restrictions on commerce. They believe that the disease must be eradicated or at least its transmission reduced completely before the lockdown is lifted. For them, the current Level 3 restrictions are an invitation to transgression and indeed, that is what has happened in many instances. Some people simply ignore the fact that Level 3 is not about social movement but about gradually getting businesses going again in a limited way. Hence beaches and parks, trails etc. swelled in the days after the move to Level 3 with mindless or selfish opportunists who either ignored or did not understand that Level 3 was not supposed to be an invitation to resume the party.

Public health advocates push for the continuation of restrictions and hence are dissatisfied with the government’s liberal easing of the lockdown after just a month. They want a longer and more complete quarantine as per Levels 3-4, with no imminent move to Level 2. For them, the matter is a public health issue first and foremost, with all economic considerations secondary to that fact.

On the other side are what can be called the profit over people crowd. They are those who demand that the restrictions be lifted yesterday and that the country get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Level 2 cannot come too fast for them and the sooner that NZ gets back to Level 1 normality the better as far as they are concerned, no matter how many get sick or die. They whine about jack-booted government intrusion on their liberties and rights and, while happy to take emergency funds from the government when it suits them, also decry its meddling and interference in their economic affairs. These type of complainants include most of the political opposition and assorted commentators who have been provided media platforms well above their intellectual station. Among this crowd utilitarian logics and lifeboat ethics 101 abound, but the selfish is also strong, as is the self-servingly stupid.

Whatever the specific reason, here economic security comes before public health concerns.

It is understandable that small businesses fear that a prolonged suspension of trade will destroy their livelihoods, and I do not include them in this dichotomy. But the hypocrisy of big corporate players and their political and media acolytes is shameful. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but the overall attitude of many NZ capitalists appears borne of self-interest rather than solidarity. And unlike the public health advocates, who span a range of political persuasions, the profit over people folk are clearly of the rightwing persuasion. That is not surprising.

I admit that these are very crude categorisations and that I have painted things in broad strokes. That was done as a preface to my larger point, which is to note that, because it is unable to satisfy either the public health advocates or the profit over people crowd in the measure that each wants, the government is actually doing the right thing. It is striking a pretty fine balance between the two sides, and its pragmatic incrementalism demonstrates a good understanding of the scientific, economic and political realities in which it operates.

In the end, NZ’s response has been quintessentially democratic. Not because the pandemic emergency response committee is chaired, at the government’s behest, by the Leader of the Opposition. Not because it has allowed for full throated criticism of its actions and used its emergency (coercive) powers very selectively and discretely. Not because it put science above partisanship and politics when addressing the threat. Not because the Prime Minister and Director General of Health fronted daily press briefings for over a month and answered in clear, honest and humane fashion everything that was pitched their way, including inane questions with little relevance to the NZ situation (such as whether it was advisable to ingest disinfectant as a cure). Mostly, because its balancing approach encapsulates the essence of democracy as a social contract: it is not about everyone getting everything they want all of the time, but about everyone getting some of what they want some of the time. In other words, it is about settling for mutual second-best options.

That may not be always the case in NZ and democracies elsewhere. But it is what has been done in this instance. Beyond the positive statistics of the policy response itself, that is the most significant and enduring achievement to come out of this crisis: a reaffirmation of democracy as a contingent sectorial compromise on a grand scale.

Media Link: Standing Places interview.

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

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

A test of civil society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An age of protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santiago, Chile, November 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of small “d” democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a matter of education, not politics.

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 ( on April 25, 2019.

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