Archive for ‘Politics’ Category

A Diplomatic Dilemma: Kowtow or Confront?

datePosted on 17:53, June 18th, 2010 by Pablo

The manhandling of Green Party leader Russell Norman by Chinese security guards as they escorted a high-level delegation into Parliament raises some thorny questions for the government. Norman was protesting in favour of a free Tibet when his flag was taken from him and he was shoved to the ground. Technically speaking, he was exercising his democratic right to free speech and protest on parliament grounds, so the minute the guards laid hands on him they were guilty of assault. Of course, it remains to be seen if Norman did anything to provoke the guards reaction, such as by rushing at the visiting officials or uttering threats (neither of which appears at this juncture to have happened). Some commentators believe that he deserved what he got because he was being provocative merely by protesting , or because the whole episode was a PR stunt anyway. Even so, if the assault on him was provoked by his holding the flag or shouting “free Tibet”  rather than him posing an immediate physical threat to the delegation, then the guards were in fact violating his rights as well as NZ criminal law and parliamentary protocol. So what is the government to do?

China is now the second largest trading partner of NZ, which has secured the first bilateral free trade agreement between China and a Western country. The National government has worked hard to deepen ties with the PRC, to the point that it is working on the details of a military exchange program with the Asian giant and has not opposed the sale of strategic assets to Chinese consortia. In the past the 5th Labour government has coordinated with visiting Chinese delegations to prevent protesters from getting close to the visitors. There is, in other words, a history of NZ officials working to appease Chinese sensitivities about protest and dissent within a larger context of improving relations between the two countries.

But there has never been a direct confrontation between members of a Chinese entourage and NZ citizens, much less a shoving match between Chinese nationals and an MP inside of parliament itself (as far as I know previous protests by Ron Donald never escalated this far). So a precedent is about to be set. If the NZ Police charge the security guards with assault, or if the government declares them personae non grata and expels them, then NZ runs the risk of having these strengthening ties disrupted by a Chinese diplomatic backlash. Even of short lived or partial, any retaliatory curtailment of trade and investment could end up costing NZ millions of dollars in lost revenue (and the jobs that go with it). But if the Police or government do nothing, then they send the signal that NZ’s commitment to civil rights is secondary to its commitment to trade. Some might see that as kowtowing to an authoritarian one party state in the pursuit of profit. So far the Police have said that they will investigate Norman’s complaint about the incident, but  that does not mean it will result in charges being laid.

One line of argument could be that NZ has to look at the broader and longer-term picture and not jeopardise a relationship that is crucial to NZ’s future prosperity over a trivial incident. A counter-argument is that NZ has more to lose if it abandons its democratic principles in favour of the ethereal promise of cash down the road. One rationale privileges principle over practicality; the other privileges the reverse.

So, what is to be done? What should be Labour and ACT’s responses be (as the majority opposition party and supposed champion of individual rights, respectively)? Should pragmatism triumph over principle, or should principle outweigh economic and diplomatic considerations? Is there a compromise solution in which face is saved all around? Will the Police go through the motions of an investigation but do nothing, and if so, what will National do by way of official follow up?

Less one think that this conundrum could only occur because of the nature of the Chinese, consider this scenario:

A protester attempts to approach US Vice President Biden and/or Secretary of State Clinton at the Beehive entrance in order to deliver a petition demanding closure of Camp X Ray at Guantanamo, or better yet, a summons to the International Court of Justice for complicity in US “war crimes” in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think the Secret Service response would be, and if the Secret Service agents surrounding the US dignitaries were to react in a physical manner, would the NZ Police or government press charges against them?

Such are the quandaries of being an elf amongst giants.

My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).

At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.

If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent.  Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.

Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”

What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.

This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.

That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped.  Instead,  the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal  lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).

Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light.  Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).

In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek “me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power.  For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).

To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts  and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.

That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.

And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established  criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised “outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.”  Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas  and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of  a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.

And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others.  Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.

All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.

Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.

Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.

PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.

A chronicle of deaths foretold.

datePosted on 04:02, May 11th, 2010 by Pablo

On Wednesday May 5 there was a general strike in Greece. It was much publicised and anticipated, with posters hung throughout Athens in the week before calling for a day of “action” in protest against the IMF/European Central Bank austerity regime required for the approval of US$141 billion in bridge loans to the financially beleaguered Greek government. The general strike was called for the day the Greek parliament, controlled by the ruling PASOK (nominally centre-left) party, would vote on the financial rescue package. Athens was therefore the epicenter and focal point of the day of ‘action.” In Greek political parlance a day of “action” means a day of ritualised and raw violence against the status quo. Everyone knows this and prepares accordingly. The transportation workers were kind enough to delay joining the strike until 11 AM (with a return to work at 5PM) so as to accommodate the needs of the demonstrators looking to head downtown (ticket monitors declined to enforce paid passage on the day).

For unions and other disgruntled groups the strike meant preparation of their cadres and organisation of their marching columns, to include stockpiling improvised weapons and going over marching discipline. On the day itself communist (KKE) party-affiliated unions manned the perimeter of their columns with large tough men, since the columns include pensioners and families while unaffiliated provocateurs attempt to infiltrate the ranks (see below). The toughs move to the front of the column once the destination of the protest is reached (in this case, Parliament), where they provide a buffer between the security forces and the leadership while the support masses supply voice, placards, medical aid and replacements for the front line stalwarts.

Other counter-hegemonic factions, particularly anarchist groups and Marxist-Leninist militants such as those in the “Revolutionary Uprising” group, organise more furtively. Unwelcome by the KKE unionists and virtually all other protest groups, these radical elements trail the larger union columns wearing hoods and tear gas masks while carrying pavement stones and petrol bombs. Comprised less of proletarians and more of disgruntled middle class and unemployed youth, they organise into small group cells so as to infiltrate the rear of the union columns where the KKE toughs are less visible, and they use the shelter of the larger columns to stage hit and run attacks on symbols of government or capitalist authority. Their actions are not coordinated with the KKE or other groups, and are designed to inflame the situation so as to provoke a violent police response and wide spread chaos.

On the day of the general strike tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the Syntagma (Constitution) square outside of Parliament. The unions intended to disrupt the vote by storming parliament. The riot police understood this and protected the building. Other groups filled the square in support for the union vanguard, and by noon there were full-frontal clashes between demonstrators and riot police on the parliament steps. These clashes were remarkable for their restraint–the demonstrators threw small stones and an assortment of wooden objects, plastic water bottles and other light projectiles while grappling with the police over their riot shields. The police responded by episodically using hand-held tear gas dispersal units (rather than grenades) at close quarters when the mob threatened to overwhelm a point in the police line. In sum, there was much shouting, pushing and shoving but it was all rather stylised and everyone made their point (it is widely believed that the Police and unions have an understanding about how these demonstrations should proceed, particularly under PASOK governments).

All of that changed at 1:30PM when hooded youths firebombed a branch of the Marfin Egnatia Bank a few blocks from the square. Located in a century old building lacking fire escapes, the bank branch was shuttered but its door left unlocked because its employees had been ordered to work in spite of the strike (leaves were apparently cancelled or not taken). Of the twenty employees inside the branch when the firebombs came through the door, three died of smoke inhalation as they scrambled up a stairwell to escape the toxic fumes of the burning bank lobby. The others were rescued from second floor balconies as smoke billowed from the windows and doors behind them. The rioters on the street below prevented would-be rescuers from entering the front entrance and pelted arriving firefighting units with rocks and Molotov’s. Among the dead was a pregnant first time mother.

The deaths of three innocent Greeks cast a pall on the country. Everyone, politicians and unionists alike, agreed that storming parliament was fair game, but murder was not. The hunt is now on for the perpetrators, who escaped, and the blame game is in full swing.

The government blames the anarchists and other usual “agitators.” Most of the country appears to agree with this view because the bank bombing was part of a larger orgy of violence in which private vehicles, storefronts, media vans and assorted other private property and government offices were stoned, torched or otherwise vandalised. The KKE and most of the union movement chose to blame government policies and its kowtowing to foreign financial interests for setting ther stage for the tragedy. Others blame the bank workers for not shuttering the front door once the mob on the street outside morphed from a well organised column into random groupings of armed youth. Others blame local government regulations that allow the use of old buildings for housing and commercial purposes without fire prevention or escape retrofits. But so far one culprit has remained unscathed by criticism–the bank itself.

Marfim Egnatia Bank is the largest majority Greek owned bank. It controls the Greek Investment Bank and has stakes in a number of commercial enterprises including the likes of Olympic Airways. It borrows heavily from foreign financial institutions in order to maintain and expand its commercial presence. Its Board of Directors is entirely Greek. And yet this bank ordered its workers in downtown Athens to report to work on a day when all of Greece knew that it would become a low intensity conflict zone. No banking business was (or could have been) done at that branch on May 5. But 20 workers, clerical staff and branch management alike, were told to effectively risk their lives and keep ther front door open as a sign that Marfin Egnatia supported the government decision to accept the terms of the bailout and as a symbol of rejection of the general strike. But it was not the Board of Directors or upper management who were going to make that stand. Instead it t was the retail (mostly female) foot soldiers who were made to face the much anticipated wrath of the disaffected children of the bourgeoisie, unemployed working class and assorted lumpenproletarians.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem of Greece. An utterly contemptuous corporate (often hereditary) elite that indulges the political classes and orchestrates oligopolistic control of the national economy from the comfort and safety of the Athenian north and western far suburbs. An elite that weekends in the islands and watches the strikes on TV. An elite that will, by all measures, be singularly unaccountable or untroubled by the austerity regime now imposed on their fellow citizens.

Their disgrace is paralleled by that of the murderous hooded street thugs who enjoy violence for violence sake, and who take advantage of the Greek indulgence of ritualised confrontation to pursue their anti-social agendas, agendas that have zero political purpose other than to demonstrate contempt for the status quo. Both the Marfin Egnatia Bank bosses and the hooded street thugs who threw the firebombs into the bank knew that innocent, working people were being placed in the line of fire.  And in both cases, they simply did not care.  In their contempt for others, it turns out that  Greek elites and street cretins are alike.

That is why the deaths on May 5 were so quintessentially Hellenic: avoidable, unnecessary, preventable, pointless and yet palpable as well as inevitable.

PS: For those interested in English language news coverage of Greece, check out www.ekathimerini.com (but be aware that it has a right-centre orientation).

Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

datePosted on 01:38, May 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.

First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?  The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.

But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.

He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.

Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.

Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.

Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.

And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.

Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?

Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?  Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.

And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.  As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.

Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.

Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”

They have to want it as much as you do.*

datePosted on 06:51, April 27th, 2010 by Pablo

I spoke with an old Pentagon friend today (a person with whom I shared strategic planning duties in a specific area of concern, and who went on to far greater things than me), relating to him my early observations about Greece in crisis. I mentioned that the Greeks, who have a public sector that dwarfs the private sector, in which the public sector average wage is far above that of the private sector, have a huge sense of collective entitlement and natural rights. For example, university students (as public entitles) are currently demonstrating daily against proposed cuts in their free lunch and bus pass benefits, but not at the university. Instead, they disrupt downtown traffic. Tomorrow the seafarers, bus drivers and railway workers go on a 12 hour strike to protest wage freezes or labour market infringement  (the train and bus workers are public servants facing wage freezes and the seafarers are striking to protest non-EU ships being allowed berthing rights in Greek ports. Their combined walkout will paralyze the transportation network for 8 hours ). 

But media coverage of the issues is somewhat odd. Rather than look inward, the popular press is full of anti-German rants because the Germans will determine the conditions of the Greek debt bailout (which only delays the inevitable default), and the conditions imposed by the Germans (as majority holders of Greek debt) are considered to be the reasons why Greek workers will not get their entitled, perfunctory raises.  All the while  life goes on–the cafes and supermarkets are full, people crowd the trains, there are few demonstrations outside downtown. People do not appear to connect the impending default to their lifestyle.

Usually wages are tied to productivity, which means that if the public service is well paid it is also efficient (such as in Singapore). But in Greece it is not. From what I have observed and what my Greek interlocutors have told me, nothing gets done or it is waste of time to demand action. For example, on Saturday an illegal gypsy market spung up on the street outside our apartment building. It closed the street to vehicular traffic and vendors camped out on the apartment footsteps. The neighbours shut the front entrance doorway, which is usually propped open, out of fear of robbery. I asked my landlord if that was commonplace and she said that yes, although illegal the gyspy market had run for years because neighbours had zero success in complaining and bribes may have been paid for the authorities to look the other way (which indeed they did–I saw not a single cop during the entire afternoon the market was running).  In other words, Greek public service is as much a hindrance as a help to civil society, hence the proliferation of grey and black market activity. The curious thing is that this situation is tolerated by both of the dominant Greek parties, respectively left and right centre as they may be, because public sector employment and benefits is a common source of patronage and clientilism. Neither one wants to upset that apple cart (even if the latter is foreign debt-bought and effectively owned). 

Mind you, not that all Greek public services stink. When compared to the Auckland raillway system, for example, the Athenian Metro is stellar. There are few delays on the six inter city lines, complete integration with buses and suburban rail lines, and close integration with ferry and airport schedules. The only visible problem, from my non-expert viewpoint, is that there appears to be way too many people (or too little, depending on the station) doing nothing in pursuit of this goal. Then again, I tried the Henderson-Auckland (before and after Britomart) route for years, before and after it was privatised,  and the public-controlled Athens Metro system has it beat by a country mile.

Not that the Greek private sector is a beacon of innovation and entrepeneurship. To the contrary, it is mostly low skilled small holdings with no growth or technological ambition (think butchers, cosmetic vendors and locksmiths), and the political-economic elite (they are the same, crossing familial ties in many instances) in this rigid two party system have no interest in promoting the sort of capitalist ambition that would erode their joint lock on power. Cuba is similar in this regard, because in both cases oligarchic control supplants popular innovation as the motor of progress and majority consent is bought with public sector employment (not that I am drawing a direct line between the two regimes as a whole).

Which is to say, Greek economic backwardness is cultural, contrived and perpetuated by the Greek status quo. The elite see no need to change because deficit spending is a double edged sword, as many US banks found out to their dismay. Deficit-laden countries intimately locked into the European financial system such as Greece will not be allowed to collapse  becuase if they do the financial run is on given that Spain, Portugal and Ireland are all in the same predicament–too much debt, too little ability to pay within IMF/ECB guidlelines.  Hence, Greece may default, but it will not be allowed to financially collapse if for no other reasons than that the repercussions would be catastrophic on the European banking system itself.

Which is where my fomer Pentagon friend comes in. I noted to him that the problem with EU expansion is that the leading EU economies, France and Germany, viewed EU monetary expansion into Southern and Eastern Europe as a development project in which the lagging peripheral economies would be modernised by virtue of their connection with the European core (first via labour-intensive investment, then by value added industrial growth). The Euro giants emulated the US when it engaged Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s under the rubric of modernisation theory: just expose the backward masses to a little capitalist entrepenurialism and all will eventually be right.

Err…wrong.  As my friend noted, the locals have to want the change as much as we/you (external agents) do. And that is a cultural issue more than anything else. 

Developmentalist views such as that of the EU and US ignore the cultural component of investment climates. National preferences are different, cultural mores vary, and collective notions of rights and entitlements are not transferable across borders. The Germans and French may have thought that lending money to Greece to fund the Olympics would promote its modernisation, but like the Yanks in Latin America, they failed to understand that Greek culture–what it means to be Greek–supercedes any IMF/European Central Bank prescriptions. Hosting the Olympics was temporary; to be Greek is forever, and that is not reducible to a current deficit repayment schedule. To the contrary. It is reducible to notions of rights and entitlements crafted over milleniua and mytholoigised as such. That bottom line is not within an IMF  or European Central Bank purview.

Which is why my friend Ray’s point is well taken: an external actor can only help as much as the locals want to help themselves. There is no point in offering assistance and prescriptions if the locals do not see the need to change. Absent a local consensus on the need for change (which can be influenced by externally driven media manipulation but which ultimately has to resonate in the hearts  of the citiznery) better then  for external actors to cut bait than to engage in futile hope that the local conditions will change.

In fact, the opposite may be true: the less a country is propped up by external actors and the more it is forced to look inside itself for solutions, then the more it may eventually address the root causes of its backwardness, decline or stagnation (New Zealand could well be a case in point). In any event, only after internal failure is acknowledged that external assistance will make a difference in Greece or elsewhere, and that difference is not material but attitudinal.

 According to my buddy, that fact is as true for Greece as it is for Somalia, Irag and Afghanistan, and in the latter instances, the stakes are arguably much greater. I disagree with his summary assessment as it applies to Afghanistan (as I believe that there is more at stake than local self-realisation), but cannot help but recognise the truth in his words. At the end of the day in this age, no matter the degree of previous exploitation and subserviance, the root problem of backwardness lies within. Or to put it in my friend’s terms, “if the locals do not want to do it, it aint gonna happen.”

There is truth in that view and no amount of good intentioned external help will resolve the fundamental issue.

*Update: For a jaded by humorous view of Greek politics check this out.

Field studying democratic crisis.

datePosted on 15:58, April 19th, 2010 by Pablo

I am off to Greece this evening for a one month research and pleasure trip. My partner is working on book that compares family, immigration and higher education policy in three peripheral European democracies, and Greece is one of her case studies. I am tagging along because of our shared interest in studying democracies in crisis. People have asked why we would travel and live in Greece at a time of financial meltdowns, government paralysis, riots and strikes. Our answer is because that is precisely the case. Let me explain.

Most Western political science focuses on stable polities. Scholars prefer stability because, among other things, it provides more complete data sets and long-term institutional analysis.  After all, it is easier to study what is than what is not, and to theorise about what is certain rather than what is uncertain. The study of politics in NZ is one case in point–most of the research conducted in NZ politics departments focuses on voting behavior, party and coalition politics, the structure of parliament, policy formation, leadership issues, public management and other topics amenable to both qualitative and quantitative dissection (I am referring here to NZ domestic politics and not to foreign policy and international relations, which tend to be more fluid by nature).

In the last 30 years a sub-field of “transitology” has developed that studies political societies in transition. The sub-field was pioneered by Latin American and Iberian scholars studying the collapse of democracy and rise of authoritarianism, which was followed in the 1980s by path-breaking works on the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy during the so-called “Third Wave” of democratisation that swept the globe in the decade ending in 1995. I was a student of these pioneers, as was my partner (one generation removed). In my case the interest was also personal, as my upbringing in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s occurred during a period of rampant political turmoil, including coups, attempted revolutions and virtual civil war in a host of countries.

For people like us the interest is in the politics of change. This involves the fluid dynamics of crisis, which often is chaotic and un-institutionalised, always uncertain, hard to chronicle and which can lead to what is known by neo-Gramscians as the “organic” crisis of the state. Periods of stability, in which politics is regimented, diachronic and orchestrated, tells relatively little about the real fabric or fiber of society. But a society under stress, in which that fabric is loaded by economic, social and political crises, is an excellent candidate for study of what ultimately holds a societal order together. It could be institutions, it could be culture, it could be religion, it could be nationalism, it could be football or some combination thereof, but it is during times of crisis that the fibric stitching of a society is most evident (said plainly: its basic ethno-cultural composition and socio-economic and political organisation). In some societies the crisis leads to regime collapse, in others to government collapse (which is not the same as a regime collapse), and in some cases it leads to regime reform or reconstitution. In many cases, a change of government does not suffice to overcome the crisis (this is less true for mature democracies as it is for new ones, but the crisis of mature democracy is absolutely manifest in places such as Greece).

Like people themselves, how a society responds to crisis is the true measure of its character. Whatever the outcome, all the fissures and seams of the political order are exposed during the moment of crisis. No quantitative data set can fully capture that picture (and in crisis ridden countries data sets are incomplete or unavailable), which is why qualitative field research at the moment of crisis is necessary. The latter is not a matter of sitting in an office on a university-to-university exchange courtesy of a government scholarship, and/or talking to other academics and “important” commentators, but instead involves hitting the streets to get a feel for the public mood, reading, listening to and watching the daily news, then digging through ministerial and interest group archives, interviewing policy makers, sectorial leaders, other interested parties and even casual conversations with taxi drivers, waiters and landlords to get both a structured and unstructured “feel” for how the crisis was caused, is managed, and how it will be resolved (all of which involve linguistic and cultural skills not generally taught in NZ universities).  Although much of what is recorded cannot be used in a book, it gives the observer a better appreciation of contextual depth when addressing the transitional subject.

Which brings us back to Greece. Greece has what could be described as a vigorous civil society burdened by a clientalistic, corporatist and nepotistic political system. Greeks are quick to defend their perceived rights, often by violent means. This approach is not confined to the political fringe but to middle class groups, students, farmers, shopkeepers, unionists and party activists. For example, a few months back university students took their Rector (akin to a Vice Chancellor) hostage, beat him and forced his resignation because of an increase in student fees. Housewives and shopkeepers have joined in violent protest against rising commodity prices than involved molotov versus tear gas clashes with the police. The use of trash can bombs is a common occurence (especially outside of banks), and the occasional political murder has been known to happen.

In the case of demonstrations in Athens, protestors make an obligatory stop at the US embassy to throw rocks, paint and the occasional firebomb just to make the point that the Yanks suck (much the way the Auckland and Wellington rent-a-mobs target the US consulate and embassy during protests against Israel, globalisation, imperialism, climate change, indigenous exploitation and a host of other real and imagined sins that they hold the US responsible for). The point is that Greeks are extremely politically conscious and very staunch when it comes to defending their self-proclaimed rights (the contrast with NZ society could not be starker, because when it comes to politics–and the 100 person rent-a-mobs nothwithstanding–most Kiwis could not be bothered to get off the couch).

Which is why this is the perfect time to go. Greek society is reeling under the weight of a looming credit default that the EU is still attempting to prevent via a financial rescue package crafted by Germany. Government paralysis is such that it can just stand by and hope for the rescue. Greeks are hitting the streets protesting over any number of greviances, one of which is that they are not in control of their collective destiny. Yet, life goes on.

Besides being a traveling companion to my partner, I shall be making my first observations about how the security forces respond to the crisis. I am particularly interested in how the Greek military reacts to the chaos in civil society, and whether it will take a role in internal security after years of working hard to separate internal from external security functions. Given the ever present animosity towards Turkey, issues of foreign-derived terrorism and demographic change tied to EU expansion, it will be interesting to see how the Greek strategic perspective is configured in light of  the internal and external context of crisis in which it is situated.

I shall attempt to write posts once we are settled. In the meantime Lew will hold down the fort until such a time as I get back on line or Anita returns from her hiatus.

PS–the pleasure part involves some weekend island-hopping. Santorini and Samos are on the itinerary.

Apologies to those who hate rugby metaphors

datePosted on 09:36, April 13th, 2010 by Lew

… but they’re really useful. Here’s another one.

After the election, I ruminated upon the future of the Labour party, employing a fairly hackneyed rugby analogy to describe the crossroads at which they stood. I’ve been meaning to follow it up and write about the fact that they’re very much playing the Crusaders game, rather than the Hurricanes game, but I’ve struggled to find the motivation to do so because it’s just so bleeding obvious that that’s what they’re doing.

But yesterday’s comment by Trevor Mallard on the “Mr Key goes to Washington” story is pretty revealing — especially from such a die-hard Hurricanes fan:

In Super 14 terms this is like a loss with a bonus point.
And what are the odds of the President putting his head into the meeting to give John another chance to smile and wave to the cameras.
Will almost certainly happen but will still be a loss with two bonus points.
Sort of like the Hurricanes rather than the Crusaders –- may be a bit of feel good but no one believes they are really going to be there when the real business is done.

And he has a good point: who wants to back the Hurricanes if they can’t actually do the business, win the matches and bring home the silverware? All the razzle-dazzle in the world is hollow if it doesn’t yield results.

But Trevor could just as well be describing Labour’s performance in opposition. He characterises National and its government as playing the Hurricanes game, while it’s clear that Labour are playing the Crusaders game — but the problem is that Labour are playing the Crusaders game badly. They’re trying to be defensively strong, but they’re not really; the consensus is just that their opponents lack strike power out wide. They’re struggling to win even their own set-piece ball. Despite plenty of opportunities they’ve been almost singularly unable to punish mistakes — and the mistakes they’ve taken aim at have often been the wrong ones. They’ve tried various tactics which are analogous to infringing at the ruck, but have been caught out by the ref, making them look desperate rather than enterprising.

So what’s the half-time talk? I don’t know. It would probably be worse to try to change the gameplan at this stage than to persist, but absent a stunning second-half rally, it’ll be a long and humiliating off-season. Good thing relegation isn’t a possibility.

Update: Naly D reckons I’ve described the Chiefs game, rather than a poor version of the Crusaders game. So if that suits you, imagine it thus. But it sort of ruins the symmetry. Too much accuracy in an analogy isn’t always a good thing.

L

Blog Link: Is all against enough?

datePosted on 12:40, April 12th, 2010 by Pablo

This month’s Word from Afar essay focuses on the nature of and differences between proactive and reactive political movements, with particular reference to the Tea Party movement.

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