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Confronting Despotic Interference.

datePosted on 13:51, October 10th, 2018 by Pablo

It is hard to fix a precise date when despotic politics entered the liberal democratic world, and then again when it began to corrode the rules-based international order. Some say that it started with the emergence of right-wing nationalism in Europe in response to the importation of authoritarian cultural values on the back of mass migration from non-European regions. Others see the rise of despotism as the response to the sclerosis and decay of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist states, where corporate influence, political corruption, post-industrial decline and technocratic indifference to popular concerns conspired to undermine confidence in the institutional system. Still others saw it as a response to unfulfilled expectations in newer democracies, where hopes of equality of opportunity and choice were dashed by a return to oligarchical politics dressed up in electoral garb.

Whatever the cause, the response has been the corrosion of democracy from within exemplified by the rise of new form of despotic politics, and despots, that promise much and which use imposition and manipulation rather than persuasion and compromise as their main tools of trade. Democracy is increasingly rule by the the few for the few, with the mass of citizens serving as pawns in inter-elite struggles and useful fools susceptible to demagogic appeals.

Much attention has focused on the rise of right-wing national populists like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Dutarte or Recep Erdogan. But the turn to despotism in seen on the left as well, such as in the case of the Venezuelan regimes led by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the post-revolutionary Sandinistas led by Daniel Ortega and the South African ANC under Jacob Zuma.

To this can be added the places where despotism never left the scene and defied the successive waves of democratisation that marked the late 20th century. That includes the Middle East in spite of the so-called Arab Spring, most of Sub-Saharan Africa and much of  East, Central and Southeast Asia. Throughout the “Stans” despots reign and places as different as Morocco, Jordan, North Korea and Singapore are ruled by authoritarians of varying degrees of benevolence and legitimacy.

Whatever the date of origin, the rise of despotism is inevitably due to a mix of factors and motives, many idiosyncratic to the country in question. Hungary is not like Italy, which is not like Turkey, which is not like the Philippines or the US. And yet in spite of their variance  across the globe there has been a shift to despotic politics, something that in turn has had a pernicious impact on the international system. The truth is that, much like the waves of democratisation that preceded it and to which it is the antithesis, we have entered a new age of despotism that has international as well as national ramifications.

The global rise of despotic politics has clearly been encouraged by the election of Donald Trump in the US. His attacks on the media, “fake news,” the so-called “Deep State,” his vilification of minorities and political opponents, his xenophobic and racist dog-whistling and his courtship of foreign authoritarians in parallel with his insulting of long-time US allies and trade partners all provide an environment in which the US in no longer seen as a defender of human rights, press freedom and the international rule of law. On one level this has encouraged other despots to emulate him (e.g. Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan of “Make Brazil Great Again,” Matteo Salvini’s calls for erecting an Italian wall against Arab and African immigrants and Dutarte’s dismissal of reports of extra-judicial killings by his police as “fake news’). On another level the US retreat from international affairs and the poisonous impact of domestic despotism in other democracies has led to breakdown in respect of international norms by despots and ostensible democrats alike. It is, in a phrase, a move back towards a Hobbesian state of nature in international affairs.

Into the vacuum left by the US abdication of its traditional international role have entered the politics of despotic interference. Unlike the hard power of military force, soft power of diplomatic persuasion and smart power of hybrid approaches using both in concert, despotic interference is one application of authoritarian “sharp power” where the projection of influence has hostile and subversive intent. Among other objectives, despotic interference is designed to influence foreign perceptions in a favourable way while stifling dissent at home and abroad by nationals and foreigners alike. It offers honey to those who bend to its will and vinegar to those who do not.

Seen in Chinese “influence operations” such as those outlined by Anne-Marie Brady with regard to New Zealand, or in the cyber warfare practiced by Russian military intelligence against Western targets (including hacking attacks on the World Anti-Doping Agency, Democratic National Committee and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), authoritarians no longer feel constrained by the rules of diplomatic respect and non-interference in the sovereign affairs of foreign states. The most unpleasant of these include attempted murder by poison, as practiced by the Russians against a turn-coat Russian spy living in Salisbury, UK and a male member of the Pussy Riot dissident group. In their murderous intent the Russians are not alone. This week a Saudi journalist disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities believed that he was either killed or kidnapped when in the consulate. Not to be outdone, bodyguards of Turkish president Erdogan physically assaulted, in front of the Washington DC police and assembled media cameras, Turkish expat protesters on the occasion of a state visit to meet with president Trump. For their part, the Chinese have used strong-arm tactics against dissident groups abroad such as Falun Gong and, as Australia has found out, muscled its way into political and corporate circles without regard to the conventional niceties of democratic competition (such as having mobs of pro-Chinese students assault and intimidate compatriots voicing non-Party lines). In fact, just like the Russian poison campaign, the Chinese appear to be interested in intimidating opposing views regardless of where they are located.

Many will respond to this line of thought with the usual “whataboutism” that the US and other former colonial powers and mature democracies have extensively intervened in the domestic affairs of other states.  That is obviously true and to be condemned, but it ignores the fact that if we value democracy as an intrinsic good and believe in the right to dissent, then the recent turn towards despotism and despotic interference are inimical to basic values of free and fair societies. That does not excuse the historical excesses and crimes of the US and other liberal democracies when it comes to their meddling in other countries affairs, but it does recognise that what has emerged in recent years is a new form of interventionism that has a negative impact on rules-based societies, to include the international community.

This is where New Zealand comes in. In the months after Professor Brady published her now famous “Magic Weapons” paper, in which she details how the Chinese Communist Party uses “United Front” organisations to advance its interests and suppress dissent in New Zealand and elsewhere, her office and home were burgled by parties unknown. The thieves left valuables behind but took her lap tops, phones and memory sticks, and in the home robberies rifled her bed sheets. Given the brazen nature of the burglaries and public nature of most of what was on her devices, it appears that the break-ins were done as acts of intimidation and warning rather than as information-gathering operations. The question is who would have motive to do so?

If the thieves were acting on behalf or under the orders of Beijing, then the burglaries were a step up from influence operations into criminal acts committed on sovereign New Zealand soil.

The New Zealand Police involved the SIS in the investigation, and most recently announced that the detective work had been handed over to Interpol and that leads were being pursued abroad. This implies that the New Zealand authorities believe that the perpetrators are now overseas, which means that they likely will never be brought to justice even if identified. And if they were Chinese agents, what is the New Zealand government going to do in response? Therein lies the rub.

Despotic interference, to include influence and disruption operations and the direct intimidation of dissidents and critics abroad, happens because those ordering the interference believe that they can get away with it. What are the target countries to do in the face of a hacking episode, a simple burglary or assault on a foreign national because of his/her political beliefs? Escalate things into a diplomatic confrontations? Declare War? Begin trade embargoes?

The beauty of despotic interference is that it does not invite easy retaliation and in fact makes a proper response very difficult to calibrate. The situation is all the more difficult for small target states like New Zealand, especially when the perpetrator of a criminal act of interference happens to be the government of its largest trading partner and a major source of foreign direct investment in the local economy. And yet to allow acts of despotic interference to go unpunished only encourages more of the same, so policy makers in targeted states are caught in a vicious circle about how to appropriately respond.

This is the situation New Zealand will find itself in if the burglars in the Brady break-ins are identified as having links to the Chinese state. Its response options are limited. It might issue a formal protest to the Chinese ambassador in Wellington or expel a low ranking diplomat. It might withdraw the New Zealand ambassador to Beijing for consultations. If the burglars entered New Zealand on student visas, then reducing the number of such visas issues to Chinese nationals might be considered. Limitations on tourist numbers could be considered and military-to-military contacts reduced.

The problem is that the response has to be seen as proportionate and discrete because the Chinese are acutely interested in saving face and are known to react disproportionately to even small slights. This is a serious problem for New Zealand given its trade dependency on China and the as of yet unchecked influence of Chinese money and favours in local politics (unlike Australia, New Zealand has placed no restrictions on fund-raising or influence peddling by suspected Chinese agents operating in Aotearoa). But New Zealand also cannot be seen as doing nothing in the face of such a criminal violation of sovereignty.

There lies the conundrum. If Western liberal democracies do not respond to acts of despotic intervention then they will likely continue and even increase. But many within Western liberal democracies, to include those in policy-making circles, no longer have faith in democratic values or see them in purely instrumental and opportunistic terms. The example being set by Trump in the US is emblematic in that regard but the consequences are felt globally, both in his imitators in other democracies and in the emboldenment of other despots such as Putin and Xi when it comes to meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign democratic states. In that regard New Zealand is no different, with apologists for China denying or downplaying the pernicious nature of  its honey and vinegar approach to Antipodean affairs.

In that regard New Zealand again has become a laboratory rat for larger geopolitical experiments. In this instance the research question, to quote Lenin, is “what is to be done?” Rather than addressing the imperatives of making revolution, here the question is directed at how to respond to despotic interference in order to deter future applications of it. As mentioned, Australia has already tightened legislation governing foreign money and accounting transparency in campaign financing. All of the Five Eyes partners save New Zealand have placed restraints on the involvement of Chinese telecommunications companies in strategically sensitive infrastructure. But even in the face of the criminal violation of Anne Marie Brady’s privacy and academic freedom, New Zealand authorities have only offered vague assurances that it will respond forcefully if the culprits are found to be working for a foreign state.

The answer to the question of what is to be done is whether to draw a line on despotic interference in New Zealand given that it may have escalated into criminal behaviour, or downplay the episode given the diplomatic and economic necessity of avoiding offence and therefore injurious retaliation from an authoritarian great power.

To a significant degree, the true nature of New Zealand’s autonomy and independence in foreign affairs will be seen in how it responds.

Respect, fear and laughter.

datePosted on 12:48, September 28th, 2018 by Pablo

This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.

When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.

According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China.  Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.

The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.

World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.

Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.

Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.

So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.

Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.

Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.

Venezuela Agonistes.

datePosted on 16:04, September 12th, 2018 by Pablo

There are two things remarkable about coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. The first is the silence of the Left in the face of it. This includes the champions of the so-called Latin American “Pink Tide” who saw in the Boliviarian Revolution an alternate developmental model that along with the left leaning regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua offered hope for a new socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere that, unlike the Castro regime in Cuba, was both socialist and democratic. Or at least, that was the thought in the early 2000s. Now, rather than offer robust critiques of what went wrong, those champions have gone quiet, perhaps hugging small comfort pets against their Che Guevara t-shirts while muttering into their pillows something about the sulphuric impact of “neo-imperialism” and globalised corporate control.

The second remarkable aspect of the coverage of Venezuela is the continued misrepresentation by conservative (and even mainstream media) commentators that Venezuela demonstrates (yet again) the failures of socialism in practice. Allow me to address this fallacy.

Before I do so let’s briefly note what is clearly an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state (seen, in Gramscian terms, as economy+civil society+political society).  Regardless of external factors and interference (such as oil prices, Cuban security assistance and US government hostility) and the disloyal nature of most of the traditional opposition to the Boliviarian Movement, the crisis has at its core the incompetence and corruption of the Maduro government. The seeds for the decline were sown by Hugo Chavez himself with his prolifigate spending and cult of personality, but the bitter fruit of criminality, cronyism, patronage, partisanism and despotic maladministration ripened, then rotted under Maduro.

This not entirely surprising because in truth the Boliviarian experiment was always more populist than socialist. Socialism is not just about downwards redistribution of income and expansion of public goods and services via the use of tax revenues.  It is not just about progressive tax reform to make the rich pay their fair share. It is not just about nationalising privately held productive assets or at least strategic economic assets. It not about state ownership of the means of production. And it definitely does not involve a self-appointed authoritarian revolutionary “vanguard” telling everyone what their best interests are, what to do in pursuit of those interests, and concentrating power in a small partisan elite in order to compel others do so.

Instead, socialism involves equality in and of production, to include worker control of decision-making on everything from occupational health and safety to production levels to distribution and reinvestment of profit. Socialism involves decentralisation and local autonomy in political decision-making, to include about the distribution of public goods, social investment and economic development. It involves not just matters of production, particularly with respect to control of productive assets, but also of decision-making behaviour within production and the attendant social relations linked to it. Socialism has cooperatives as a basic unit of social integration; national populism has paramilitary militias and neighbourhood political snitches.

There is more to socialism than what I have outlined, but the point should be pretty clear: socialism is about devolving power to the people, not concentrating it in the hands of a central government. Even if a transition period is needed after bourgeois rule, the move to socialism involves expansion of the number of decisional sites that determine the material, cultural and political fortunes of the average citizen. To do so requires dismantling of a capitalist state apparatus, which is characterised by top down managerial control of public and private policy decision-making, and its replacement with a socialist state in which policy decisions ultimately rest in the hands of immediate stakeholders and are conveyed upwards into national-level platforms. The transition between the two–from a capitalist state to a socialist state–is the hard part of any change from liberal to social democracy (even more so than in violent social revolutions where the destruction of the capitalist state runs in parallel with the elimination of capitalism and its elites), and in Venezuela’s case it was never done. Both Chavez and Maduro have relied on a capitalist state to implement and enforce their populist, and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance.

Rather than socialist and democratic, the Boliviarian revolution is a left-leaning national populist regime using a state capitalist project and corporatist forms of interest group intermediation marshalled along partisan lines in order to redistribute wealth via partisan patronage networks to its support base and to its leaders. It has uncoupled wealth redistribution from productivity and, for all the achievements in education and health made under Chavez, those gains were lost once prices for the single export commodity it relies on (oil) fell and the revenues from oil experts shrunk. Corruption and incompetence, coupled with private capital flight and the exodus of the managerial class (mostly to Florida), accelerated the downward spiral, and now Venezuela is for all purposes a failed state. Inflation is stratospheric, food scarcity is rife, there are shortages of essential medical supplies, power and potable water, petrol supplies (?!) are increasingly spotty, unemployment, under-employment and crime are at all-time highs (the murder rate is 85 per 100,100 population, one of the highest in the world). Violent street protests have become the norm, and spot curfews and other coercive and legal curtailments on freedom of movement and speech are now the most widely used tools with which the Maduro regime handles dissent. For a purportedly Leftist regime, there is no worse indictment than that.

That Chavez, Maduro and their supporters refer to the Boliviarian regime as “socialist” is offered as proof  by some that it is, and that is it is therefore socialism that has failed. That is hopelessly naive. “Socialism” is the label that the Boliviarians have cloaked themselves in because they know that given its history, “populism” is not in fact very popular in Latin America. In its own way the US is finding out why that is so, but the important point to note is that there is nothing genuinely socialist about they way the Boliviarians behave.

The current reality is that the Boliviarian regime has descended from a left-leaning national populist form into an Scotch-addled kleptocracy (Venezuelans have one of the highest per capita intakes of Scotch in the world, and in recent years the regime has taken to hoarding supplies of it). In the measure that it is besieged by its own weaknesses and the rising opposition of the popular base that it ostensibly serves, it increasingly relies on coercion and criminality for its sustenance. Military and government involvement in the narcotics trade, the presence of Cuban intelligence in and out of the armed forces and security apparatus, covert links to states such as Syria and North Korea, the presence of operatives of extra-regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah in government circles–all of these factors suggest that Venezuela’s national interests are no longer foremost in the minds of the Boliviarian elite.

This has not been lost on the population, and the last year has seen over 1.5 million Venezuelans emigrate. This is on a par with Syrian and Rohinga refugee flows and amount to more than 4 million Venezuelans now living outside their motherland (with most leaving after 1999 when Chavez was first elected). The refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, with their borders heavily militarised and safe passage corridors opened for migrants to proceed to countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The extent of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is now regional in nature.

Not surprisingly, there have been some moves against the Maduro regime from within the armed forces. This have failed due to basic incompetence of the plotters and the fact that the Venezuelan military is stocked with Boliviarian sycophants buttressed by Cuban intelligence agents who spend more time looking for moles and dissidents than they do improving national intelligence collection capabilities per se. The combat readiness of the Venezuelan military has been replaced by proficiency in crowd control, and the High Command is staffed by flag ranked officers who have more good conduct medals and Boliviarian revolutionary awards than they do insignia demonstrating operational proficiency in any kinetic endeavour. May the goddess help the Venezuelan armed forces should they ever pick a fight with the battle hardened Colombian military or the well-disciplined Brazilians.

For a military coup to happen, there need to be vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military and push and pull factors compelling it to act. Vertical cleavages are those between officers and the enlisted corps, including rivalries between flag, field and company ranked officers, Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the enlisted soldiers they command. Horizontal cleavages are this between armed services–Army, Navy, Air Force, national gendarme, border patrol, interior ministry secret police, etc–and within those services (say, between armour and infantry in the land forces, or surface fleet and submariners in the Navy).

The Boliviarians and their Cuban advisors have been very good at purging non-loyalists from the officer corps. Their control over NCOs and enlisted personnel is a bit more tenuous, as evidenced by recent attempts to kill Maduro using a drone and an earlier helicopter attack on military installations. But the big cleavages needed to form a coup-making nucleus simply do not exist in the measure that is required, even if the push and pull factors are clearly present. The push factors are those internal to the military that compels it to act, for institutional reasons, against the government (such as loss of discipline, corruption, lack of effective military leadership etc. that erode the ability of the armed forces to discharge their basic defence functions against foreign counterparts ). The pull factors are the external societal conditions, to include family ties of military personnel and civilian elite pleading for the restoration of social order, that draw the uniformed corps towards intervention. So the coup “equation” is just half complete: the motives for intervention are present but the organisational or institutional conditions as of yet are not.

Not that a military coup is a panacea for Venezuela. It could well make things worse. Perhaps this is where a bit of good news has emerged. It turns out that the US was approached by military coup plotters for support and turned down the request. This, in spite of Donald Trump’s public statements about US military intervention against the Maduro regime. It seems that, even if not for all the right reasons, seasoned diplomats understood the downside of agreeing to the request and cooler heads prevailed.

It is praiseworthy that the US, or at least its foreign policy decision-makers, understand that Venezuelans need to be the sole owners of their collective destiny. This destiny might or might not include the reactionary wishful thinkers in the self-exiled community that has made Weston, Florida, a mini-Caracas (and whom have joined with the ageing Cuban exiles to form an anti-communist mafia that fund-raises in “dark” ways). Whether they join or not, the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis involves providing Maduro and his entourage with a safe passage out of government and an incremental and negotiated restoration of the productive apparatus to a mix of interests of different political persuasions under an agreed upon caretaker regime. This will be a difficult process even with military tutelage and arbitration since the military itself will have to be reformed.

However, since the Boliviarian Revolution was never socialist and the capitalist state remains intact even if decrepit, the foundations for a rejuvenated economy are present. Likewise, many of the social gains made by the lower classes under the Boliviarians have taken enough social root so as to be non-removable if violence is to be avoided. So the foundational compromise underpinning the new democratic regime  seems to involve an exchange whereby a return to private ownership of some aspects of the Venezuelan economy under broader market steerage is traded for ongoing state control of strategic assets and the extension of social guarantees involving health, education, housing and welfare. The tax regime will need reforming and the art of tax evasion by the wealthy will need to be curtailed for this to happen, so it is unsure if the majority in the opposition will accept anything other than the status quo ante the emergence of the Boliviarians.

If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.

And there is where I will leave with a note of optimism. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela has a historical precedent of reaching consensus–or at least elite agreement–on the characteristics and contours of a new political system. The 1958 “Pacto de Punto Fijo” (roughly translated as the Full Stop Pact) defined the features of the new democratic regime after years of unstable oligarchical and often violent rule. It led to the power alternation agreement between AD and COPEI under conditions of electoral competition and state control of the oil sector in which agreed upon parameters for public revenue expenditures were respected. While it deteriorated into a lighter version of the current cabal of thieves, it lasted for forty years and only fell because it did not recognise, because of its institutional myopia, the social forces that lay at the root of the Chavez phenomenon and emergence of the Boliviarian movement.

In other words, Venezuela needs a new foundational Pact the provides peaceful exit and entrance strategies to the Boliviarians and their inevitable successors. Otherwise there will be blood whether the imperialists get involved or not.

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

Recognising Penny.

datePosted on 14:26, September 6th, 2018 by Pablo

Activist and former Auckland mayoral candidate Penny Bright is in the last stages of her last battle in this physical realm, and I thought that I would share a few words in recognition of her. She represents an old breed of citizen activist in the sense that she was not so much an ideological diehard championing a party line as she was a person who took personal grievance and turned it into political action. She was neither a “soft” or “hard” leftist but instead a progressive who understood the leeway and limits of direct action in a liberal democracy. He causes were “glocal” in that she focused on things both global and local in nature, and there was rarely a good demo or protest that she would pass on. In that sense she was “organic” and grassroots in essence: self-taught and from the streets rather than the product of elite institutions protected by a comfortable position.

I know that there are millennial activists who have a dim view of Penny, arguing that she was mean to some of them and bullying in her personal ways. I tend to think of her as more headstrong and determined than bullying, and while I cannot speak for the young’uns experience with her I can say that in her dealings with me she came across as principled and steeled by the courage of her convictions. Not that I agreed with (most of ) her views on particular matters and in fact some of her causes had a tin foil hat aspect to them in my view, but I respect the fact that she put herself out there in defence of them. Her high beams were on all of the time in a country where most would opt for dimmers.

She may not have vanquished the windmills that she tilted at or moved the mountains that stood in her way. But she did get under the skin of officialdom and the retrogrades that populate the blogging Right, and that is a good sign as far as I am concerned. She fought hard, lost more than she won and yet persisted. Were it that we all could say the same when it comes to living true to our ideals.

So as Penny prepares for her next chapter may I simply say that I respect her for who she is, I recognise her actions on behalf of others, I appreciate the influence she has had when contesting the official narrative and I am grateful for her contributions to the commonweal. It may not be immediately apparent but her legacy has left its impression far beyond the immediacies of the actions that she was involved with.

Hasta la victoria siempre, compañera!

So a National MP and assorted right-wingers believe that Chelsea Manning should not be allowed to speak in NZ because she is a [insert unpleasant adjectives and nouns here]. Many of those who vociferously demanded that a Canadian white supremacist tag team be allowed to use publicly funded facilities to spew their venom in NZ have gone silent about Manning. To their credit, some of that motley “free speech coalition” think she should be allowed in, so at least they have the virtue of being consistent.

What is interesting is that those who want Manning banned from entering NZ appear to be using a false equivalence. They believe that people who, at little personal cost, encourage racial divisions and promote xenophobia are comparable to people who, at great personal cost, divulge abuses of power and authority in and out of war zones. In their minds both types of speech are basically the same: offensive to some, welcome by others. If racists are to be silenced, then so should dissidents be.

That is simply nonsense. There is no equivalence of any sort between racist xenophobes and people of conscience.

I am not entirely comfortable with what Manning did in releasing classified materials to Wikileaks. I am uncomfortable because Wikileaks has moved from being an objective whistleblowing outfit to a tool of authoritarian forces seeking to undermine Western democracies, and because she had outlets within and outside her military chain of command that she could have gone to in order to raise alarms about improper conduct that she was familiar with (which is why she could not avail herself of the whistleblower protections available to civilians). In any event she was tried, convicted and sentenced for unauthorised disclosure of classified material to unauthorised outlets and had that sentence commuted by President Obama. She is now a free US citizen with no restrictions on her rights to vote, work, travel or speak. In fact, she even ran in the Democratic primary for a Maryland Senate seat (although she lost in a landslide to establishment politicians).

The Canadian racists have suffered no indignities other than cancellation of speaking events and ridicule. Sponsored by Rightist promoters with little legitimate institutional backing, they nevertheless whinge about their treatment and ask that suckers donate money to them in order to cover their expenses. Manning accepts what has happened to her and uses her experience to talk publicly about abuses of authority and the dangers of confronting powerful institutions. Her talks are sponsored by civic organisations and academic institutions.

It is interesting that the National MP who wants Manning banned from NZ, Michael Woodhouse, not only maintained that the racists should have been given a NZ forum, but also appears to have more than Manning on his mind. After all, the Opposition Leader is currently mired in a slow burning fiasco over his travel expenses that threatens to undermine his position. It is widely believed that the leaks about his expenses came from within the National caucus and rumours of plotting and scheming against him are rife. Not surprisingly, Simon Bridges is desperately trying to find a way to put a lid on the affair and move on to anything else. Now Woodhouse drops the call for banning Manning into the mix. Bridges has to respond by either supporting or repudiating his Immigration spokesperson’s demand, a complication that he does not need and a no-win proposition whichever way he chooses to go.

Bridges and Woodhouse may believe that the proposal to ban Manning is worth floating because it is a good diversion that will allow Bridges to reassert control over his caucus while cementing support from National’s conservative base. But, because he defended their right to speak in NZ, it also gives the impression that Bridges would prefer to have foreign racists rather than whistleblowers address audiences in this country. Or perhaps Woodhouse was being mischievous rather than helpful in raising the issue, something that poses more questions about Bridge’s hold on the National Leadership. Whatever the motivations at play, Bridges stands to lose more than he gains from Woodhouse’s gambit.

In the end this is just another beat-up. Unlike the Canadian racists, Manning poses no threat to NZ’s social harmony. She is not coming to test the boundaries of free speech. The idea that her US convictions disqualify her apriori is nonsense given her public role and the fact that what she was convicted for did, in fact, serve the public interest even if it discomfited the authorities that she was exposing (and who took their judicial revenge upon her).  So if foreign racists without prior convictions (that I know of) can come to NZ to preach division (and I did support their right to speak so long as no taxpayer money was used to host them and they provided their own security), then it seems to me that it is only fair that a whistleblower convicted for doing so can come to speak about the dangers of unbridled and unchecked authority under the same rules.

All she needs is a visa and a private venue, something that the racists ultimately were not able to secure.

Then again, perhaps the false equivalence is just a ploy and the beat-up is not just on Manning.

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.

Debunking business “confidence.”

datePosted on 13:02, August 11th, 2018 by Pablo

One of the more suspect metrics used to evaluate a government’s economic program is so-called “business confidence.” The premise behind surveys of “business confidence” is that business is the motor force of capitalist economies and business leaders are the most accurate readers of their health. Business confidence in the state of economic affairs is therefore considered an accurate weathervane on prospects for growth and prosperity. The trouble is that the premise is false as well as one-sided.

That is because “business confidence” is a political rather than an economic indicator given by one collective actor in the process of production. In other words, politics frames the way in which economic policy is made and, given that, political context is what gives business “confidence” in economic policy. It simply reflects the attitude of capitalists towards different governments and their approaches to economic matters. This means that there is an inherent bias in any survey of “business confidence,” to wit, business confidence is always higher under right-leaning governments and lower under left-leaning governments, particularly during the early days of a government’s tenure when policy changes and legislative reform are being enacted.

Although business confidence may wax and wane under both government types, the starting point is always lower for left-leaning governments. Left-leaning governments are believed by capitalists to be interested in strengthening worker’s position in production at the expense of employers. Worse yet from a capitalist perspective, left-leaning governments also seek to alter the social relations of production via so-called social engineering projects that empower the working and disadvantaged classes at the expense of entrepreneurs. Business consequently sees the assumption of office by left-leaning governments as a zero-sum game: capitalists lose in the measure that workers gain (for example, by strengthening rights to organise and collectively bargain and pushing tax-funded redistribution schemes).

Conversely, the presumption is that under right-leaning governments business will gain at worker’s expense (say, via deregulation of  collective labour rights and health and safety standards). That is more a measure of expectation than confidence: business expects right-leaning governments to be favourable to their interests because they assume (often rightly so) that left-leaning governments will not be. The reverse is true for workers: they expect less of right-leaning governments than left-leaning ones. The issue for both sides is one of expectations being met. Confidence in government or the lack thereof derives from that.

Savvy business people will cloak their comments about confidence by citing larger macroeconomic factors such as interest rates, fiscal deficits, trade balances, currency market fluctuations, commodity booms and busts, taxation, skill shortages, foreign disruptions such as Brexit, etc. Although these clearly play a backdrop role, the relative confidence of business is often grounded in more mundane things. Consider New Zealand.

In the current NZ moment, business confidence is said to be low. Why is that? ? If the comments of the head of the NZ Employers and Manufacturers Association are anything to go by, not much. In televised remarks made a few days ago, the EMA boss said that the domestic violence leave and longer tea break legislation was an undue burden on businesses’ bottom lines. Think of that: granting short-term paid leave to employees who are the victims of domestic violence and giving workers slightly longer tea breaks somehow is injurious to business confidence. Apparently the notion of worker morale and welfare does not enter into the EMA equation, and therefore it is, in its own eyes, right for it to have less confidence in a government that seeks to address those issues.

The same goes for business complaints about minimum or living wage increases, paid parental leave, the right to organise and strike etc. None of these necessarily interfere with a company’s productivity or profitability.  What they do is make it harder to exploit the inherent vulnerability of workers in the labour process and/or degrade health, safety and environmental standards, thereby diminishing manager and ownership’s ability to secure gross material advantages as a result.

It is hard to believe that issues such as these are the real concerns that erode business confidence in the current government. In reality, business was always going to claim to be less confident once the Labour-led coalition formed a government, with that lack of confidence accentuated once labour market reform measures began to be implemented. It is quite possible that announcing a lack of business confidence in the Labour-led government’s policies is a capitalist way of punishing the coalition for its election victory. Nothing short of complete upholding of National-era labor laws and regulations would have kept business confidence stable, and even then uncertainty about future changes under the Labour-led coalition would likely have seen a drop in business confidence in anticipation of those changes. Here again, the issue is more about expectations than confidence per se.

In that light, the notion of “business confidence” being an indicator of anything other than capitalist hostility to or distrust of left-leaning governments is silly. A fairer measure would be to survey capitalist “expectations” of governments and compare business surveys with those measuring worker expectations. After all, workers are those who actually produce things and provide services, so even if they are not consulted in investment decisions and long-term planning, they are the (increasingly discardable,) human material upon which such (increasingly political) considerations are made. So their expectations are a necessary part of any honest discussion of “confidence” in government policy.

In other words, expectations are the basis upon which sectorial confidence is secured, and if expectations are negative or low, then confidence will follow accordingly.

It is likely that workers have a reverse image perception to business in that regard: they expect more benefits for workers from left-leaning governments than from right-leaning governments. Recent strike activity by public sector unions demonstrates a willingness of those workers to up the ante when dealing with a left-leaning government in a measure not seen under the previous right-leaning crowd. They simply expect more of the Labour-led coalition.

The true measure of confidence in a government is in the relationship between business and labour expectations. Matching up the expectations of business and workers allows determination of the relative confidence each group has in government. A tilt either way will lead to more or less confidence on the part of one or the other. It is in the balance between the satisfaction of expectations where the compromise on sectorial confidence is found.

It would be interesting to see what areas of common concern and agreement emerge from surveys of business and labour leaders. This could provide grounds for cooperative approaches to policy solutions involving those issue-areas.

All of which is to say that the confidence of those who ultimately produce wealth in society is as important as that of those who manage and own productive assets. This confidence is based on their respective expectations of government set against the economic backdrop of the moment. Only by comparing the two can an accurate picture be drawn of how productive groups view the performance of governments on matters of economic import.

Anything short of that is misleading and biased in favour of capital. But then again, perhaps that is the point of business confidence surveys as they are presented today.

An authoritarian nut in a democratic shell.

datePosted on 16:51, July 31st, 2018 by Pablo

At the turn of the 21st century I was teaching an upper division undergraduate  course titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” in which I explored the four “waves” of democratisation that had occurred since the early 1970s in Southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. I noted that I had also witnessed the rise of concurrent waves of new-form authoritarianism during that rough world time time frame in which old types of despotic leadership were replaced by bureaucratic authoritarians from the Left and Right in response to the crises of oligarchic, populist and weak democratic regimes. These varied from the military nationalists of the Arab world to the revolutionary regimes of Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua and the military junta led-regimes of the Southern Cone of South America, the Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. I also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, authoritarianism was the more natural political fit for many societies organised along hierarchical lines drawn on gender, class, race, religious or ethnic differences.

My point in doing so was to remind students that contrary to the belief of those like Francis Fukuyama who claimed that the emergence of electoral (if not liberal) democracy as a seemingly global trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the “End of History” where the political and economic combination of democratic regimes and capitalist production triumphed over all others (particularly authoritarian capitalism and socialism), human history was dialectical rather than linear. There is no simple progression towards a (preferred) end state and the possibility of reversal is always latent in the move from one political-economic form to another. In this I was channeling my view that Hegelian dialectics, rather than dialectical materialism or any number of property and individual-centric “liberal” theories, best explained the superstructural dynamics inherent in political regime change. They are grounded in but not reducible to changes in production and the social division of labour attendant to it, which means that they have a pattern of historical development all of their own.

This belief comes to mind when I think of today’s widely lamented condition of globalised democratic decline and decay. In both the developed and developing world new and old democracies alike are crumbling from within, beset by a nasty combination of corruption, power-grabbing, institutional sclerosis, gerrymandering, electoral manipulation, economic inefficiency and income disparity, racial and ethnic conflict, migration pressures, youth alienation, crime, judicial bias, incompetence or indifference, poverty and assorted other social ills. This has prompted a return to authoritarianism under electoral guise; that is, in its newest version, the turn to despotism occurs under conditions of electoral rule and is instigated from within the institutional edifice of ostensibly democratic governments in response to what is claimed to be the crisis of civil society.

Here is context in order to explain.

In the 1980s a considerable body of academic writing was focused on the demise of authoritarian regimes and the restoration, resurrection or return of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This followed on earlier academic work that focused on the causes of democratic breakdown. I was lucky to have been mentored by several of the leading figures in that discussion, and through them was exposed to the work of other intellects who together with my mentors formed what came to be known as the first generation of “transitologists,” i.e. people who studied the fluid dynamics of regimes in processes of decline or rise rather than the durable features of stable regimes. As it turns out, regardless of the specific ideology of the regime in question, authoritarians tend to fall for broadly the same reasons having to do with the nature of their rule over time. Likewise, democracies rise and fall due more to general institutional failures than whether they are right or left-leaning in nature.

(For those interested in the dynamics of authoritarian and democratic transition and who may think that recent writing on the subject is all that there is, I commend the companion four part volumes that started the whole transitology industry: The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Johns Hopkins, 1978 and Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Johns Hopkins, 1986).

Into the mix came the person of Juan Linz. A Spanish born sociologist at Yale and one of the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz was more than professionally concerned about dictatorship and democracy. He had seen both in his homeland and worked hard to understand why democracies could fail from within rather than be overthrown from without. As it turns out, just like the reasons for a coup d’état, there are “push” and “pull” factors in democratic decline. The pull factors are those that come from outside the government of the day, be it a disloyal opposition, military plotting, rising civil unrest, business sabotage, irredentist or separatist strife, economic downturns, etc. These should normally be handled by the government through the institutional process into order to reach mutual satisfactory, or at least second best social outcomes: not everyone gets everything that they want but most get some of what they want. When the institutional process fails to meet expectations and achieve those solutions, the external pull to replace those in power gowns stronger if not irresistible.

Linz understood this but also knew that absent an armed insurrection or military interruption, pull factors alone could not bring down a democracy. He consequently focused on the push factors that impelled democratic governments to turn towards authoritarianism as a response to crisis. His concern was on more than the individual whims of megalomaniac presidents and political cabals intent of holding on to power. Instead, it was on deficiencies in institutional design that left some types of democracy more prone to authoritarianism than others.

He outlined a number of factors in his considerable body of work but pinpointed two, one general and one specific, that made some democracies more susceptible to the “authoritarian temptation” than others: presidential systems and the use of Executive decrees. Basically, there are two types of democratic government, presidential systems and parliamentary systems. The latter are dominated by parties that form governments based on the percentage of votes received and the ability to attract coalition partners. The government is led by a Prime Minister who is the leader of the dominant or majority power of any given coalition, but parliament remains a strong check and balance on what the government can do when it comes to policy-making. In contrast, presidential systems, also known as Executive-dominant systems, are those in which the chief executive of the nation–the president–is elected separately from the legislature (parliament or Congress). Here the Executive branch has much more power and authority to enact policy free from the checks imposed by the legislature, to the point that it is the “first amongst equals” when it comes to the three branches of democratic governance.

For Linz presidential systems have a built-in bias towards ruling without the advice and consent of the legislature or judicial review. That is where the more specific design flaw comes into play. Executive decrees or orders are designed to by-pass the legislature in order to provide efficient and decisive policy-implementation in times of crisis or emergency. Normally a president would not make use of such prerogatives if the national condition was stable and peaceful and indeed in most instances that is a case. But take a president confronted with the pull factors mentioned above and/or one who wishes to perpetuate him/herself in office, impose a specific agenda against the will of the people and its elected representatives, or in others ways benefit or take advantage of executive privilege for personal, private or political gain, then the authoritarian temptation becomes authoritarian practice.

This is the phenomena that we are seeing now. It is not just that right-wing national populists are being elected into office and using demagogic language and behaviour to advance their goals. It is not just elected post-revolutionaries like Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro who have turned on their people when these take to the streets in protest against incompetence, corruption and wide-spread scarcity. It is their use of executive powers that is turning their governments into authoritarian vehicles. Donald Trump is a variant on this theme, where executive orders and decrees are used by everyone from Rodrigo Dutarte to Recap Erdogan to Maurico Macri and are championed by leading political contenders such as rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (who openly supports Dutarte’s approach to crime and waxes nostalgic about the days of military rule). In all instances these political leaders have advocated for or turned to the use of executive decrees and orders to impose unpopular or anti-democratic policies.

The situation is made worse when the powers of the presidency are defined more by custom and tradition than by law. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Trump presidency, where time-honoured practices and norms have been repeatedly trampled by the vulgarian in the Oval Office because, as it turns out, there is nothing in law that prevents him from doing so. Presidential practice in the US, as it turns out, is about as much grounded in law as is the interior decoration of the White House because most of it is informal and therefore dependent on the president’s disposition when it comes to adherence to informal norms and customs.

Be that as it may, time and time again, using the pretext of fighting crime, restoring order or handling some other type of national emergency, executives in presidential systems have resorted to decrees and orders to accomplish their ends. And now, in a spectacle that Linz perhaps fortunately did not live to see, we have parliamentary majorities giving extraordinary powers to prime ministers in order to do the same thing. Witness Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his xenophobic policies or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s assaults on judicial independence, which come after their parties gained large coalition majorities that allow them to push through laws in spite of popular opposition or the strictures of decency and fair play.

The key point is that Linz’s bottom line is correct: the combination of a constitutionally strong executive and decree or order-making powers accorded to it is an authoritarian nut in a democratic shell. Short of changing to a parliamentary system with multiple party representation in government, the best immediate solution to the authoritarian temptation inherent in presidential systems is to strip presidents of decree or order-making privileges except in cases of dire national emergency (with what constitutes a dire national emergency spelled out in a constitutional or legal amendment). While this may not prevent the abuse of majorities in parliamentary systems to ram-rod legislation under “urgency,” it can weaken the temptation to go full authoritarian when the law does not explicitly prohibit doing so because it might cause a parliamentary revolt or conscience votes of no-confidence within the ruling coalition.

It is doubtful that any president will abolish the decree or order-making privileges. History has shown that even the most fair minded incumbents tend to leave Executive decree-making powers on the books “just in case.” One only need think of how Barack Obama used Executive Orders to muzzle leakers and whistleblowers to understand that the authoritarian  temptation is powerful even in the best of cases. So the solution has to be found elsewhere, in legislative reform and judicial review that constrain or eliminate the decree-making powers of the Executive.

Even with the cases noted, parliamentary systems are the best safeguards against the authoritarian temptation, something that can be reinforced by eliminating first-past-the-post variants and requiring supermajorities (say, two thirds) to pass legislation under urgency or emergency. A number of parliamentary regimes have in place just such mechanisms but others, including New Zealand, to my knowledge do not. In addition, in parliamentary systems where custom and practice rather than law governs much of what Prime Ministers and their cabinets do (for example, when it comes to national security), the need to increase parliament’s check and balance (if not veto) power is all the more necessary. Getting rid of simple majorities both for government formation and legislation passage is a step in that direction.

When we look at the problems of contemporary democracy, it is not enough to focus on the external or pull factors that cause or facilitate democratic decline–social media manipulation, corporate influence, rank partisanship etc. All of these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the breakdown of democracy. What is sufficient is an inherent institutional disposition towards authoritarianism, something that the combination of presidentialism and executive decree-making authority all but assures.

Word: It is time to re-read Juan Linz and craft our remedies accordingly.

Unions, Parties and the decision to strike.

datePosted on 20:12, July 9th, 2018 by Pablo

For the bulk of my academic career I worked on issues of regime change and interest group intermediation, with a particular interest in Latin America. I wrote a couple of books (one co-authored) about state-labour relations in several South American countries and a fair number of articles that included discussion of how labour engaged in collective action under different regime types. The comparative study of state-labour relations remains an abiding interest of mine.

One of the axioms of comparative democratic labour relations is that unions will engage in more cooperative labour relations strategies and therefore strike less under Left governments than they will under Right governments. The presumption is that since Left governments are working class based or supported, and because they are sympathetic to working class concerns in their policy platforms, there is less incentive for unions to take strong collective action against them, particularly with respect to strikes and  other forms of labour service withdrawal. This is especially so because such direct action could undermine the Left government in question and leave it vulnerable at the next election.

Because unions presumably prefer to have Left governments over Right governments in office, resorting to labour service withdrawals would be a counterproductive union political strategy over the medium term even if economically productive over the short term. That is true of public sector strikes in particular (since strikes, even when focused on economic issues, are inherently political when they involve the state as employer), but private sector strikes are also seen as electorally injurious to Left governments (after all, if a Left government cannot “control” unions then what is the point of having them?).

In terms of so-called political strikes as well as economic strikes, Labour governments are generally thought to offer a better prospect for labour peace.

Conversely, unions supposedly dislike Right governments and therefore engage in more confrontational approaches to labour relations, particularly if there perceive that there has been a rollback of union legal and economic gains under those or previous Right governments. Both economically and politically, unions have reason to adopt more militant strategies under Right governments.

The subtleties embedded in this dichotomy are found in the strategies of public sector versus private sector unions against a backdrop of relative union density and the legal frameworks governing wage-setting. This assumes that union leaders and members share the same ideological orientation and that union leaders accurately transmit the material demands of the rank and file during negotiations with the State and employers (i.e. the principal/agent relationship is tight and coordinated). At that point employer characteristics at the level of the firm as well as productive sector come into play, set against a backdrop of relative business sectorial organisation (both as producers and employers) and the labour relations framework operative at the time. A collective action and strategic interaction is framed by macroeconomic conditions and government budgets, with sectorial growth and Treasury surpluses being determinants of the latitude for negotiation in any particular instance.

For the last three decades all of this occurs in the context of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange under market-oriented macroeconomic policies developed and implemented by public sector technocrats that seek to outsource public sector service provision and downsize the legal authority and managerial and regulatory functions of the State as part of government mandated, market-oriented ideological agendas.

In the era of market-oriented economic reform, changes in labour relations’ legal frameworks have tended to favour employers and business associations over labour unions under both Left and Right democratic governments, with the degree of favouritism seen in the approaches towards collective bargaining adopted by each. Overall, although Left governments have mitigated much market-oriented labour reform while Right governments have sought to accentuate and exploit them in order to weaken the labour movement and atomise working class representation and collective strength, the trend has seen a weakening of union power across the democratic capitalist world as measured in union density, membership numbers and the collective rights and legal authority governing working class representation in production. This has been acutely felt in the private sector where individual worker rights and contracts predominate over collective rights and representation. With their relative collective strength, public sector unions remain as the diminished core of most contemporary labour movements in capitalist democracies.

A key factor in determining the propensity to strike is wage-setting institutions. Generally speaking, the more centralised the bargaining nexus and more monopolistic the bargaining agents doing the negotiating, the more likely that unions will prosper in their demands without having to resort to strikes. In contrast, the more decentralised the bargaining forum and the more disparate the bargaining agents, the more likely it is that employers will have the upper hand in bilateral negotiations with employees, thereby increasing the possibility of strikes. For example, tripartite (labour, state, capital) wage boards governing wage negotiations in specific economic sectors tend to push compromises that trade incremental wage gains for productivity, job security and reinvestment guarantees. Conversely, enterprise level bargaining between employers and various employee bargaining agents tends to fix or depress wage bills in exchange for non-wage guarantees. In New Zealand collective bargaining is more closely based on the latter model rather than the former and yet overall strike levels have remained low.

The way in which the union movement is incorporated and inserted in the political system matters in this regard. The form of initial incorporation (that is, the way in which unions are initially integrated into the national political system), may be more of historical rather than practical import for well-established unions created in the previous century and whose insertion in the political system today was consolidated some time ago. But initial incorporation matters much to recently organised contemporary unions without long political histories. That is because the terms of their political incorporation and subsequent political insertion in the political system are still being determined and sometimes disputed, including by older or more established unions as well as the State and employers. These may not echo or even resemble the conflicts surrounding initial labour incorporation and political insertion in the past, but they nevertheless condition the way these newer collective agents are allowed to exercise economic and political representation in the present context.

There are three main forms of labour political insertion. In some liberal democracies organised labour is inserted in the political system in Left party dominant fashion, e.g., the party dominates the union in both leadership selection as well as member political affiliation. In other liberal democracies unions dominate or control the party, with union representatives holding key Party positions down to grassroots organising and regularly running for office. In still others unions are independent of Left political parties although nominally sympathetic to them, with union leaders and members displaying a broader range of party affiliations than under the first two types. In illiberal democracies so-called “yellow” unions (factory or business unions and “professional associations”) exist that are independent or affiliate with Right parties. In the main these are not considered to be authentic representatives of working class collective interests because they are created by or at the behest of employers in lieu of them.

This brings up the subject at hand. There currently is the possibility of nurses, public servants and teacher’s strikes in the next few weeks. Conservative commentators have claimed that this is to take advantage of the Labour-led coalition’s “weakness” and to seize the moment of opportunity provided by Labour’s unwillingness to confront the unions in question. That runs against the conventional wisdom about Left governments and unions. So the question is: why are the nurses, public sector and post-primary teacher’s unions threatening to strike?

One answer may lie in that all of these collective agents are public sector unions that are independent of the Labour Party and its coalition partners. Membership density is high but the sociological demographic in each is changing, with younger members being more ethnically diverse and less identified with the traditional class structures of the industrial era (since those under 30 are of the post-industrial, post-modern age). This may have led to a rejigging of agent/principal relations within the respective unions that might make them more prone to challenge the labour relations orthodoxies of the past, to include being more cooperative when Left governments are in power.

Another answer may lie in the fact that Labour, for all of its “progressive” policy pronouncements and initiatives, still clings to market-driven logics of production that, even when cushioned along the margins, reinforce the collective bargaining dominance of capitalists. Seen in labour legislation and the role of national labour administration as an interlocutor between labour and capital, this includes cost-cutting managerial rationales in the public sector, where modern Taylorist principles have been borrowed from the private sector and applied to public sector service provision.

That bureaucratic orientation could be partially due to the fact that most Labour leaders are career politicians with few backgrounds “grounded” in the realities of working class activism, and/or because the party’s focus has recently concentrated more on identity rather than class politics. This has caused Labour to accept market logics in principle and market-oriented solutions to employment relations in fact. The NZ Labour Party is less a working class party than a coalition of post-industrial causes joined by antipathy to conservative (read: Anglo-Saxon Christian capitalist heterosexual and patriarchal) mores. Seeing the situation in this light could well disincline nurses, teachers and bureaucrats from continuing to toe the “cooperative” line, especially if the union demographic traits outlined above prove to be correct.

It is worth noting that the long-established unions affiliated with the Labour Party have not uttered a peep about strikes, to include not offering solidarity with the nurses and teachers. Newly created unions like UNITE in the private sector have engaged in strikes regularly against private employers under the previous Right government and are supportive of the action. But in general the union movement in New Zealand has remained out of the conflict between the State (as manager and employer via the civil service, DHBs and Education Ministry) and the nurses, bureaucrats and teachers unions.

Another question is why did these unions (or most others, for that matter) not strike regularly when the National government was in office? Was it a matter of contracts being in force? Or was it the limits placed on strike action both legally and practically? On the face of it, it seems odd that civil servants, nurses, teachers and other productive groups would wait to strike until Labour was in office if they were out of contract towards the end of the National government. Did they think that striking in an election year would lessen Labour’s chances of winning a plurality and forming a government or, put more appropriately, strengthen National’s arguments that they needed to continue to hold a tight reign on labour market dynamics less the economy lose momentum? This is true for private sector unions but particularly so in the case of public sector unions. Or are the conservative commentators correct and non-Left party affiliated public sector unions simply more willing to exploit Labour’s perceived “weakness” on collective bargaining matters?

If so, then the Labour-led coalition has a problem that is more political than economic.

I am still working through the logics at play because I do not know the internal dynamics of the unions in question nor the Labour-led government’s strategy for handling the strike threat. But if any readers would like to join the discussion and illuminate me on the details of each position, that would be welcome.

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