Archive for ‘Politics’ Category

The Other Learning Curve.

datePosted on 20:31, February 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to “real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.

It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.

This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

Why a putsch is not a revolution.

datePosted on 16:21, February 12th, 2011 by Pablo

Some definitional clarification is in order when viewing events in Egypt. A coup is the overthrow of a regime by the military. A putsch is the involuntary removal of government leaders within an extant regime. Neither is a revolution, even if occurring within the context of mass protest. Thus what has occurred (so far) in Egypt is neither revolutionary or a coup. It is a putsch carried out within a context of social unrest and mass mobilisation. It is a forced internal reconfiguration of the military-dominated regime that has been in power one way or another for over thirty years, and it has been carried out precisely to maintain the regime in the face of popular protests that centred on Hosni Mubarak but which do not challenge the military’s primacy in Egyptian politics.

The removal of an individual in a military putsch is NOT a democratic revolution, even if the masses rejoice. It is an internal transfer of power that may or may not lead to regime liberalization, which itself does not imply a genuine move towards democracy. It will be interesting to see if internal reconfiguration of the Egyptian regime leads to significant reform over the long term. Foreign pressure will not play a decisive role in the military calculations on whether to reform, retrench or repress. That will be a function of inter-elite bargaining and the organisational strength and practical demands of the opposition. But one thing is sure: due to issues of corporate self-interest and professional autonomy, the Egyptian military has no interest in exercising long-term control over the governmental apparatus. Instead, its interest lies in overseeing the conditions leading to the September 2011 elections, with the primary objective being maintenance of social stability, resumed economic growth and geopolitical continuity no matter who wins the presidency and parliamentary majority.

That is the bottom line of the Egyptian “transition.”

Political rights and economic rights.

datePosted on 16:19, February 8th, 2011 by Pablo

Recent discussions have reminded me of the relationship between economic and political rights, and the varying interpretations of it. For orthodox Marxists economic rights supersede political rights for two reasons: 1) without an equitable material distribution of resources political rights mean nothing; and 2) with an equitable material distribution of resources there is no need for political rights.  In this view “politics” is either a status quo instrument of domination that conforms the masses to the requirements of production in a system dominated by private interests, or is a means of revolutionary challenge to that status quo. In neither case is it an end of itself. Subsequent Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist interpretations all concur with this view.

Socialists see economic rights as taking precedence over but not superseding political rights. Here the view is that economic rights are more important than political rights but the latter are needed to ensure the just distribution of material resources in a society. Even if imposed by dictatorial fiat, the maintenance of economic rights requires popular participation in the decision-making process surrounding the collective allocation of resources. That is a matter of political rights.

Social democrats see political rights preceeding economic rights. Here the priority is on gaining political rights first in order to subsequently secure economic rights to the material benefits of production. Since they see political rights as a universal good, they recognise the rights of non-socialists in the political arena, which means operating from a position of structurally-conditioned disadvantage within capitalist societies. The emphasis thus shifts from control of production to redistrubution of surpluses (via taxation and state involvement in the social relations of production, mostly).

The Right has its own interpretations of the relationship. Libertarians place the emphasis on political rights (e.g. the right to do as they please so long as it harms no other) and, in the most extreme version, do not believe in economic “rights.”  Beyond that, the Right gets a bit fuzzy. Some free-marketeers assume the precedence of economic rights over political rights, so long as the rights conferred are market-driven in  nature (i.e., the “right” to make a buck without government interference). Other conservatives see political rights trumping economic rights (e.g. “no taxation without representation” or the right to mandate morality on a collective scale). The Right notion of economic rights differs from the Left notion, as it is not about material redistribution but about unfettered access to and freedom within an economic system controlled by private interests. Likewise, the Right view of political rights is more about freedom of choice and expression rather than about vehicles of collective redress and representation.

Showing my colours, I subscribe to the view that political rights are required for economic rights to obtain. The formation of unions, the extension of suffrage, the recognition of indigenous claims, the redress of past injustices, the acceptance of  universal “human” rights and the very ability to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo or elements of it all hinge on the prior granting of legal authority, or at least recognition, to do so. That is a political act, and legal recognition is the certification of political rights. That makes the move to secure political rights the precondition for the eventual recognition of other rights, to include those of an economic nature.

This is the hidden factor in transitions from authoritarian rule. The transition is most fundamentally marked by the extension of political rights to previously excluded groups, who in turn use the opportunity to agitate for previously unobtainable economic rights. The more the extension of political rights is achieved by force and economic rights redefined as a result, the more revolutionary the character of the regime change. The more negotiated the extension of political and economic rights, the more reformist the change will be.

This is just a broad sketch and not meant to be a definitive pronouncement. Readers are welcome to add their own intepretations as they see fit (within the bounds of civility, of course).

John Key either has very poor PR advice, is grossly insensitive or has some darkness in his heart, to say nothing of his small head, when it comes to women. I am less concerned by his choice of words when describing models and actresses that he lusts after. It might have been better for the Prime Minister to refer to the objects of his sexual fantasies as “attractive” or “pretty” rather than using the adolescent term “hot.” But getting a bit horn doggish on a blokey sports talkback show is not the worst of sins.

A slightly worse sin is to reveal admiration for a sports star because he makes “heaps of money” and gets some “fringe benefits” on the side. Talk about revealing your core values! For the PM, money grubbing–admittedly driven by unique talent– and serial adultery–which did not have much to do with talent of one sort or another–are positive traits worth coveting. Crikey! But that is just his shallow venality surfacing, not a mortal sin.

What is a far more serious matter is his apparent condoning of spouse abuse, as exemplified by the poster-boy for putting ass-kickings on women, Mr. Tony Veitch. Not only did Mr. Key agree to sit down for an interview with Tony the Tough Guy on his radio sports show, which legitimates Veitch in areas far outside the blokey sports-minded demographic. Mr. Key has now agreed to do regular spots on Mr. Veitch’s show. If one interview legitimates Mr. Veitch, then subsequent regular interviews symbolically condones what he did.

It was bad enough that a sports radio outlet would see fit to re-hire a spouse abuser who escaped jail time because he paid off the victim and wept crocodile tears at a series of staged press events. Here we have the PM of New Zealand, who should be fully aware of the intimacies of the abuse case as well as the allegations of drug use and other anti-social behaviour by Mr. Veitch, agreeing to grace his show on a regular basis. This, at a time when Mr. Key has terminated at least one guest spot with another radio news show focused on hard news rather than rugby, cricket and league. What is the message Mr. Key is trying to convey here, and on what assumptions does that message rest?

Is it his assumption that most Kiwis think Veitch is a good bloke and he was hard done by the back-talking wench? Is it his assumption that Mr. Veitch did wrong but it was a minor transgression? Is its his assumption that the NZ public do not care any longer what Mr. Veitch did and bygones are bygones? Is it his assumption that sporty blokes at best do not care or at worst condone Mr. Veitch’s behavior, and in an election year connecting with that crowd by engaging in some good-natured letching will increase Mr. Key’s chances of re-election? What, exactly, is the rationale that says that it is OK for the PM to grant privileged regular interviews to an unrepentant spouse-basher while canceling similar interviews with other news shows?

And what message is Mr Key trying to convey here? That he is a sporty bloke? That he is a sporty bloke who sees nothing wrong in the occasional bitch-slapping along with letching, adultery and money grubbing? That he is a sporty bloke who does not give a darn about the high incidence of spousal (and child) abuse in the country he leads? That he is sporty bloke that simply does not care if he objectifies women and symbolically condones spouse-bashing? That he is a sporty bloke who is insensitive to women’s concerns about being objectified and victimised in their own homes as well as in the streets? Or is his message simply that in the run-up to elections catering to the lowest of the low is acceptable? What next, a guest spot with Mongel Mob, Black Power or Headhunter media outlets? After all, they are also sporty blokes who know something about how to treat uppity women.

Maybe I am just a prude. Perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for the PM of an advanced liberal democracy that is not Italy to see nothing wrong in publicly letching, to express admiration for greed and adultery, and who symbolically condones spousal abuse by voluntarily and preferentially associating with a spouse-beating coward who happens to be a celebrity. But if that seems a  bit untoward for a PM (or anyone else), then he and his PR minders need to be made aware of that fact. Boycotting advertisers who buy time on Vietch’s show when it features the Key interview is one way to convey that message. More importantly, and specifically for those women and other decent people who do not condone such behavior and who crossed over to National in the last election, the best way to deliver the message is to do so on November 26, at the ballot box. Of course, it if could get a clue, Labour might make a point of pointing out to the electorate Mr. Key’s apparent lack of regard for the feelings of his female constituency or any others who might think that engaging in egregious sexual innuendo with a spouse abuser is not fitting behaviour for a sitting Prime Minister (or anyone else with a modicum of sensitivity to the issues involved).

After all, not all of us are sporty blokes.

Recent discussions here at KP have revealed some misunderstandings of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be some confusion in the minds of some readers as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’etat and other forms of regime change. Most worrisome, there appears to be a belief, apparently shared by many in the Western Press, that revolutions are intrinsically good things and lead to democracy. Although I have tried to dispel some of these notions in the commentary about other posts, let me address the issue directly and explain some dynamics of regime change that impact on the direction of said change and the prospects of democracy after the collapse or withdrawal of an authoritarian regime.

First of all, let it be clear: Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence mobilized against a political regime and its repressive apparatus that results in the overthrow of that regime and  its replacement with a new political, social and economic order. Second, no revolution in the 20th century led to democracy as a direct result. Ever. What revolutions do is replace one authoritarian regime with another. This is due in part to the fact that what it takes to be a successful revolutionary leader is ruthless determination, ideological zealotry, supreme organizational, strategic and tactical skills in both the armed and propaganda fields, and an unwillingness to compromise in pursuit of victory. That is not the stuff that genuine democrats are made of. In fact, the very traits that make for good democratic leadership are anathema to revolutionary leaders. Hence, if one has a preferential bias in favour of democracy, then revolutions are not the best way to achieve it. If one is less interested in democratic outcomes and more interested in imposing a preferred social construct, then revolutions are the best way to achieve that end.

The other major reason why revolutions lead to authoritarian outcomes is because the defeated authoritarian regime has allies and supporters inside and outside the country that will continue to attempt to block revolutionary reforms after the change in power. These counter-revolutionary forces include former opposition factions that do not share the militant revolutionary goals even though they participated in a tactical alliance with hard-liners against the ancien regime. Confronted by a more radical agenda for change than they anticipated or are prepared to accept, such moderate opposition factions tend to switch sides and propose a moderate counter-revolutionary platform that only serves to strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary hard-liners.

Needless to say, for a revolution to be successful the opposition must be organised and have mass support, while the old regime must suffer decisive internal fractures, especially within its security forces and in the relationship between the repressive apparatuses and the regime elite. So long as there is ideological unity and corporate discipline within the armed forces and other security agencies and the regime elite retain the loyalty of those specialised in the management of organised violence, then no amount of external pressure will topple it. This is true even if some regime leaders are sacrificed to appease public discontent and cooptive reforms or concessions are offered to mollify specific grievances and induce opposition acceptance of the “new” regime (which itself is a divide-and-conquer tactic used on the opposition that allows to the regime to more clearly target intransigent factions within the former). As part of this, a leadership coup or putsch may occur in which despised individuals are replaced by more nondescript or less tainted people who are nevertheless committed members of the ruling elite.

Thus, revolutions are neither always progressive or democratic, as the Iranian Revolution demonstrates. For those interested in seeing a democratic outcome to situations of authoritarian regime crisis amid popular unrest, there is actually a baseline formula that needs to obtain, and it falls far short of revolution. Let me explain.

Authoritarian regimes and their oppositions can be broadly divided into hard-line and soft-line (militant  and moderate) factions. Hard-liners in the regime are usually the political leadership and those directly engaged in acts of repression during its tenure (which can extend down to street level police, paramilitary thugs, intelligence agents and, if complicit, elements of the military itself). Soft-line elements of the authoritarian regime are those who benefited from it but who did not have visible decision-making roles and those uninvolved in repression, as well as the minority few who genuinely worked from the inside to promote reform.

Hard-liners in the opposition are ideological militants and those who suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regime. Their suffering can be physical or economic and their numbers depend on how repressive and criminal the regime was in its dealings with political opponents and non-allied economic and social agents. For the hard-line opposition, the thirst is for revenge, not reconciliation. On the other hand, soft-liners in the opposition are all those who, while having a dislike for the authoritarian elite, did not suffer directly at its hands. For them, the issue is not so much revenge as it is change.

The formula for a democratic transition stemming from authoritarian collapse or withdrawal is simple. If hard-liners dominate both the authoritarian elite and the opposition, the prospects for a democratic outcome are negligible and civil war is probable. If hard-liners dominate the regime and soft-liners dominate the opposition, then regime continuity with minor reforms is the likely outcome. If soft-liners dominate the regime and hard-liners dominate the opposition, the reforms will be more significant but regime continuity will most likely occur simply because of the fear of retribution amongst the regime elite and its supporters when confronted with a hard-line opposition victory.

The only situation is which a transition to democracy is a potential outcome is one where soft-liners dominate in both the regime and opposition. The trouble for these actors is that they must fend off and eventually subordinate their hard-line counterparts while at the same time negotiating the terms and conditions for a transfer of power to openly elected authority. That is a very delicate matter that involves, among other things, an “ethical compromise” whereby both sides agree not to prosecute most of those responsible for state atrocities or insurrectionary violence (in other words, although some notorious figures may be offered up as sacrificial lambs by both sides, the bulk of those involved in human rights abuses and non-state terrorism will walk free). The examples of the Southern Cone of Latin America, Central America and South Africa are illustrative in this regard. If anything, prosecution of human rights violators must wait until the new regime is more or less consolidated in its institutional structure and in the transparent application of universal law. That can take decades.

Hard-liners on both sides will see the soft-liner negotiations for what they are and move to denounce them as sell-outs and lackeys. The more secret the negotiations between the soft-liners on each side the more the minority hard-liners will resort to obstructionist and provocative tactics to thwart any agreement. This can involve internecine as well as partisan bloodshed. The more the hard-liners can thwart soft-liner agreement, the less likely it will be that a peaceful transition of power to a democratically-elected authority will occur.

The strategic position of the country in question will impact on the influence of external actors. In strategically inconsequential countries, external actors will be less inclined to involve themselves in domestic crises and will prefer to observe an internal resolution so long as it does not impact on their national or material interests. Conversely, in countries that have strategic import or geopolitical significance, the more likely it is that external actors, acting individually or in consort, will involve themselves in efforts to shape the outcome. For them, expending diplomatic capital is necessary because of the stakes involved, especially when a transition outcome could have deleterious repercussive effects on regional or international stability.

And that, in sum, is why democratic outcomes of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes are less probable than many hope for. Besides the non-democratic outcome of genuine revolutions involving the overthrow of an authoritarian elite, the dynamics of regime extrication and replacement are such that the more likely outcome of a transition short of revolutionary overthrow is authoritarian regime restoration under different guise, limited democratisation with ongoing authoritarian elite veto power, authoritarian reaffirmation or high-or low-level civil war.

Best to keep that in mind when observing recent events in the Middle East.

Who are the non-geriatric NZ Right thinkers?

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

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

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

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

I yield the floor to you.

Who are the next generation of NZ Left Thinkers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

datePosted on 16:43, January 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists have said such inanities as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple effect spreading from Tunis to other North African states. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunesia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically-driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred was sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the “ripple effect” of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis. Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrygyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature,  do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, the intelligence failures, particularly by the French and the US, to even remotely predict the unrest in Tunisia speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. I mean, how hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve or have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

A PRC Fifth Column in NZ? (With Updated Links)

datePosted on 15:26, January 17th, 2011 by Pablo

In early December the New Citizen Party registered with the Electoral Commission and declared its intention to contest this year’s elections, starting with the Botany by-election caused by Pansy Wong’s resignation in disgrace from Parliament. Taking a page from the Maori Party, the NCP declared that it would be a vehicle for the representation of new, mostly Asian, migrant’s interests in the NZ political system, interests that are not fully given voice within extant political parties. With an emphasis on economic policy and law and order issues, the NCP proposes to represent not only mainland Chinese migrants, but also Koreans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Singaporeans, Indians, non-native Whites and even Maori and Pakeha (i.e. the Botany demographic). That will be a tall order.

The announced leaders of the NCP include Jack Chen, who was involved in the Chinese takeover bid for Crafar Farms (as a representative of Natural Dairy NZ, a subsidiary of the Chinese government controlled Jin Hui Mining Corporation); disgraced Labour Party candidate Stephen Ching (who solicited bribes for political favours in 2005); the pro-PRC Chinese-language newspaper editor Jerry Wen Yang; and Paul Young, who is also of Chinese descent and a principle of Asia Marketing and Advertising Consultants (Mr. Young handled the registration process and has said that his role as NCP Secretary is a temporary formality in order to meet legal requirements, and that he will stand down once the party leadership is finalised. As it turns out, he is NCP candidate for Botany). Although unconfirmed, there are reports that Sammy Wong, Pansy Wong’s husband and the cause of her demise by involving her in a commercial transaction during a taxpayer trip to the PRC, is part of the NCP leadership or at least involved in its strategic decision-making and financing.

In early January the NCP leadership, minus Mr. Young, met in Beijing to discuss a strategy for winning the by-election and to chart a course for its campaign this year. Holding a major party meeting in a foreign capital is interesting enough, because it shows an overt connection with the PRC that is bound to raise eyebrows in some circles (which is a tame reaction by comparison–some democracies forbid the funding, meeting  and sponsorship of political parties in and by foreign powers). What is more interesting is the question of whether the connection to Beijing is more intimate than the NCP has revealed to date, and extends beyond the usual business links that all political parties cultivate in order to peddle influence and financially support their activities (although the direct connection to a foreign government and/or corporations would be a a step beyond what is the usual course of affairs in NZ business-political party relations).

Under MMP, people have a right to organise a political party as they see fit, and as far as I can tell there are no prohibitions on such parties being organised and funded by foreign agents. But there remains the question as to whether the NCP is not so much a vehicle for the representation of new migrant’s interests in the NZ political system as it is a front for PRC economic interests and a means of political influence-mongering and intelligence gathering. In other words, is the NCP a PRC fifth column?

The reason this question must be asked is that, given its disadvantages in Signals (SIGINT) and Technical Intelligence (TECHINT)-gathering capabilities,  the PRC invests heavily in the ethnic Chinese diaspora for human intelligence gathering work. Using business, student and permanent resident visa schemes in targeted countries, the PRC places intelligence-gatherers in places where they can collect tactical as well as strategic intelligence using a variety of means. It also uses monetary incentives to curry favourable attitudes amongst local elites, all in the interest of furthering PRC strategic objectives in the country in question. Such activities have been amply evident in places such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the Cook Islands, as well as regional organisations such as the Pacific Island Forum.

All of this is well known to Western security agencies and measures have been implemented to monitor, if not counter PRC initiatives in that field. But what if the PRC were to secure political representation in a foreign government via open electoral contestation within the limits of the law? NZ has already seen a case where a cabinet minister (Wong) was influenced by an individual (her husband) with direct and close connections to the PRC regime. Although her portfolio was not strategically sensitive, she did attend cabinet and caucus meetings where more sensitive issues of national and party policy were bound to have been discussed, and it is not improbable to think that her pillow and dinner table talk with Sammy Wong might involve some of those issues (note that I am not saying that Mrs. Wong would necessarily have any idea that Sammy Wong was a PRC agent if he were one. What I am saying is that the appearance of a conflict of interest extends beyond the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for her travel when on private business on her husband’s behalf, and that may be the more serious reason why she was forced to resign).

If the PRC has direct involvement with the NCP, an electoral victory by the latter would raise the possibility of its entering into coalition with one of the major parties, most likely the party in power. That would give it direct access to NZ government policy deliberations, privileged information about business and security matters as well as offer a means of extending its influence directly into the NZ cabinet. This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on one’s perspective. But the question has to be asked whether Kiwis would accept similar direct US, Iranian, British, Afghan or Australian influence in government decision-making even if it did not involve adversarial intelligence-gathering. Judging from the reaction to revelations in wikileaks cables that some NZ citizens in positions of power provided “insider” information to the US embassy in Wellington, one would suspect that the answer is “no.”

The (hypothetical) situation of the NCP being used as a PRC front with intelligence-gathering duties within parliament is made all the more interesting by recent changes ordered by the National government with regards to the SIS spying on MPs. The result of the scandal caused by revelations that the SIS spied on Green MPs for decades, John Key ordered that the SIS no longer spy on MPs. That means that a NCP MP working for the PRC could conduct his or her intelligence-gathering activities with relative impunity unless there are provisions in the revamped domestic espionage and counter-espionage charter that specifically provides for exceptions to the no-spying-on MPs rule. But if the exception is invoked that could undermine broader counter-intelligence efforts with regards to the PRC. The conundrum produced by this hypothetical but potential scenario, in other words, is quite exquisite.

Less people feel that these questions are occasioned by racial or ethnic bias, let it be clear that it is not. The questions refer to the PRC, an authoritarian regime, and not to the Chinese or any other ethnic group. As mentioned in a previous paragraph, the same questions could be asked of local political parties directly controlled or overtly influenced by any other foreign power regardless of regime type. So the issue is about who controls the NCP as opposed to who ultimately will represent it.

Bringing the issue up may seem provocative and perhaps un-PC, but given the Beijing meeting, the people currently in NCP leadership positions and given the PRC’s modus operandi when it comes to deploying intelligence assets and extending its influence into foreign governments, it needs to be raised.

In light of the above, for its own sake and in the interest of democratic transparency it behooves the NCP to open its books and reveal its links (should they exist) to the PRC, directly or indirectly. It behooves the NCP to make clear where its loyalties lie and to disprove apriori the suspicion that it may be working as a foreign-backed front in the NZ political system. And given that the Botany by-election will be held in less than two months, that process of proactive accountability needs to begin now.

UPDATE: Since there is some debate as to how I came to my speculation in this post, here are a couple of links that detail PRC intelligence-gathering characteristics: http://www.stratfor.com/node/156898/analysis/20100314_intelligence_services_part_1_spying_chinese_characteristics

and : http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110119-chinese-espionage-and-french-trade-secrets

Upon reading the links, does my conjecture still seem crazy (or bigoted)?

Playing the denial and diversion game (with updated link).

datePosted on 15:04, January 13th, 2011 by Pablo

In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, it has been unsurprising but nevertheless amazing at how the US media Right and other conservatives have rushed to deny any linkage between the shooting and the political climate of the moment. Even some of the usually smart contrarian commentators here at KP have been quick to join the chorus claiming that this attack was just the work of a lone nutter. But let it be clear: even if the killer has clear psychological issues, he chose a political target rather–as in the case of other mass killings by mentally disturbed individuals in the US in recent times–random strangers or family members. For that reason alone, the Tucson massacre is a politically-motivated crime regardless of the Right trying to deny it, and the proof of that is the federal indictments against Mr. Loughner.

Confronted with the obvious–that the vicious political discourse of recent times, a discourse rabidly promoted by conservative media outlets, internet commentators and political demagogues, has set the stage for an inevitable act of armed violence on the part of someone who shares, however partially and incoherently, the world view of the reactionary Right–the media Right and its political acolytes have turned to the tried and true tactic of deny and divert.

First, they deny that the shooting was a political act but instead was just an act of lunacy. These are the same media types who immediately saw world Jihadism behind the rampage conducted by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood. They are the same people who describe murderous anti-abortionists as people of conviction led astray by the strength of  their beliefs, and who claim that the Oklahoma City bombing was conducted by some loser social misfits. The flatly refuse to acknowledge the context in which these attacks occurred, and they flatly refuse to accept their share of responsibility for fomenting an atmosphere of partisan hate and violence. In a country that has seen its popular culture debased and vulgarised to the point that gratuitous violence is a mainstay of popular entertainment and an attitude of insolent disrespect has become a norm in inter-personal exchange, such incendiary posturing does nothing more than provide an accelerant for those who are already disposed to act out in violent ways. And yet, the cowards in the media Right claim they had nothing to do with the events in Tucson.

Instead, they and their political allies have adopted the tactic of diverting and deflecting criticism towards the “liberal” press and politicians who they claim have attempted to make political capital out of the tragedy. They have attempted to equate Left liberal acts of civil disobedience, peaceful resistance and direct action with the shooting and previous Right wing threats of armed violence and actual acts of such (in the infamous list of purported Left wing acts of violence posted by a notorious Right wing blogger there is not a single image of anyone with a firearm, much less of anyone shooting or killing in pursuit of their beliefs. In fact, among the supposed comparable acts listed by that blogger are recordings of people laying down in the front of weapons trains in protest of war. Can that really be considered morally equivalent to a mass shooting? Only in the fevered mind of a Right wing apologist).

Reactionary attention has centred on the comments of Pima Country Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who has held the job for 30 years based upon regular re-election as a Democrat (in a county that is majority Democratic in an otherwise Republican state). In his first press conference after the shootings Sheriff Dupnik denounced the climate of hate and atmosphere of bigotry that has descended on Arizona and the country in general. The Right went ballistic at his  mention of this patent fact, accusing him of partisanship, jeopardizing the case and failing in his duties to prevent the shooting because Laughner was known to the police prior to the event (ignoring the fact that his department is hamstrung by mental health and civil rights laws that prevent it from arresting individuals in cases short of domestic violence where reported threat behaviour is not materially imminent). In other words, in spite of the Right’s attempts to smear him, Sheriff Dupnik well knows of what he speaks, because it is his office that has to confront the daily consequences of loose gun laws an anti-immigrant sentiment in a county that extends down to the Mexican border. Put succinctly, Sheriff Dupnik stated the truth. For that public service, he has been pilloried by the Right wing media frothers.

Regardless of whether Mr. Loughner was indirectly or directly inspired by hate speech and the venom directed at the federal government and “liberals” by Right wing political-media networks, the simple point is the obvious point that Sheriff Dupnik was making: the increasingly public language of hate and divisiveness was the backdrop against which he carried out his rampage. He chose a political target. His intent was political assassination. His was, in sum, a political act, however deranged he may be. And that act was carried out against a “liberal” Democrat in the US federal government who has repeatedly been, along with others of her ideological persuasion, the direct recipients of the hyper partisan vitriol emanating from the mouths of the fear and hate-mongering Right.

No amount of denial, diversion and obfuscation can detract from that fact.

UPDATE: Frank Rich does a good job of summarising the situation.

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