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The US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem.

datePosted on 15:50, December 6th, 2015 by Pablo

The latest spate of mass murder in the US has again demonstrated the hypocrisy and bigotry of right-wingers on the subject. When the murderers are white Christians such as the Colorado Planned Parenthood assassin or the  Charleston South Carolina church gunman, the Right speaks of them being “unstable” or psychopathic. Yet when Muslims commit acts of mass violence such as that in San Bernadino, it is always considered by the Right to be an act of terrorism.

We need to cut through the BS and see things for what they are: not all mass murders are terroristic in nature. In fact, given the easy access to firearms, mass murder is as American as apple pie and almost as common. In most cases it matters less what drives US perpetrators to murder than it is their unique yet common ability to make a statement by murdering in numbers.

Let’s begin with the definition of “problem.” A problem is something pernicious that is persistent, continual and hard to resolve, counter or ameliorate.

Mass murders can be serial, sequential or simultaneous in nature depending on the perpetrator’s intent and capabilities. Most mass murders are motivated by personal reasons–revenge, alienation, stress, and yes, mental illness. The term “going postal” was coined in the US because of the propensity for workplace conflicts to lead to mass bloodshed. In fewer numbers of mass murder cases the killers express support for or involvement in political or ideological causes, such as the Colorado, San Bernadino and South Carolina events mentioned above.  In a fair number of cases personal and political motivations combine into mass murderous intent. In many cases mentally ill people adopt extremist causes as an interpretation of their plight and justification for their murderous intent. The Sydney cafe siege instigator is a case in point. Whatever the motivation, what all the US killers share is their ability to kill in numbers. Given its frequency, that is a particularly American way of death.

We need to be clear that not all politically motivated killing is terrorism. The murder of US presidents, public officials and political activists of various stripes was and is not terroristic in nature. On the either hand, the murder of blacks and civil rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan was clearly terroristic in nature because it was designed to do much more the physically eliminate the victims. Although they were all politically motivated one can argue that the Charleston killings were not terroristic but the Colorado and San Bernadino murders were. The Boston marathon bombing was terroristic, but was the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh also terroristic in nature or was it just a case of lethal lashing out by a disgruntled loser? What about today’s London tube stabber and the Palestinians who kill Israelis with knives? Are they really terrorists or just lashing out in murderous anger? Could not the same be said for all of the events mentioned here?

Terrorism has a target, subject and object. The target is the immediate victims of an act of politically motivated lethal violence, the subject is the larger body politic, and the object is to influence both the general public and decision makers to bend to the will of the perpetrators. This can be done by getting the latter to desist from doing something (say, joining in a foreign conflict) or by getting them to overreact in order to exacerbate tensions or contradictions within the subject society itself. Not all mass murders extend beyond the target, and even then most are not driven by a desire to shape the will of decision-makers or public at large. If we review the cases mentioned earlier, how many of them properly fall into the category of terrorism?

The currency of terrorism is irrational fear and panic. It has a paralysing or galvanising effect depending on the nature of the subject. But the key to differentiating terrorism is that those who perpetrate it seek to manipulate panic and fear to their advantage. They may not always calculate right and and up losing, but that is their intent.

Taking that criteria, it is clear that the US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem. The answer to that problem lies in effective gun control, to be sure, but also involves backing away from the culture of violence into which US citizens are socialised. That includes reducing the amount of everyday exposure to militarism, jingoism, mindless patriotism and violence glorified in popular culture.

That will be hard to do because violence and the fear that it brings sells, and selling violence and playing on fear makes money for those who know how to manipulate it in order to take advantage of the opportunity. Not only does it sell guns and increases the profits of arms manufacturers big and small. It also sells electronic games, movies, toys (!), television series and any number of other appended industries. It helps further political careers. Violence is exalted, even reified as the preferred method of conflict resolution by a mass media industry fuelled by fear mongering and funded by war-mongerers. There are many vested interests in maintaining a culture of violence in which mass murder thrives. Yet these are not terrorists, by definition.

Rather than confront this thorny issue, the US Right prefer to selectively apply the word “terrorism” to mass murders committed by Muslims whether or not they are inspired or directed by a known irregular warfare group such as Daesh. Daesh knows this and along with al-Qaeda has urged supporters in the US to take advantage of loose gun laws to commit so-called “lone wolf” or small cell attacks on everyday targets. Although it is as much an admission of Daesh and al-Qaeda’s inability to confront established states like the US or France directly, the strategy has the virtue of making the threat of Islamic terrorism in the West seem much bigger than it really is, thereby eliciting the type of response called for by the Right–bans on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance and profiling of Muslims, etc. That serves to increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, which suits the Daesh narrative about a clash of civilisations to a “T.”

This is not to say that we should disregard the threat of terrorism, Islamic or otherwise. But what it does suggest is that the focus should be on the penchant for mass slaughter in the US regardless of cause. Once that is addressed the real threat of terrorism can be addressed in proper context and without the ideological opportunism that currently drives debates about guns and extremism in the US.

In summary: Mass murders are extraordinarily common in the US when compared to pretty much everywhere else (not just the “developed” world), specifically because US mass murders are carried out by individuals rather than state forces or irregular armed groups or criminal organisations. The overwhelming majority of US mass murders are not motivated by political or ideological beliefs. Of those that are,  few can be properly considered acts of terrorism and should be seen instead as acts of lethal retribution, retaliation, or striking out at society and authority by individuals with personal as well as political grievances.

This does not make them any less dangerous. Yet  it does help clarify the unique US mass murder phenomena in order to more sharply focus the search for preventatives that address root rather than superficial causes as well as strip that search of the normative baggage many pundits, politicians and the general public currently carry into it.

Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

datePosted on 16:57, September 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.

I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.

The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).

When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.

Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers.  They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.

For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.

Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones.  And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.

Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first”  “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.

Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.

That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.

To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.

More sexist headlines.

datePosted on 10:09, June 21st, 2015 by Pablo

So this was the headline that greeted me when I opened the Herald on line:  “Chris Cairn’s wife accuses Marc Ellis of harassment.” Now, I am not a fan of either Chris Cairn Cairns or Marc Ellis, so wish a pox on both of them. But what galls me about this particular headline is that, once again, some fool copy or sub editor has decided that the female who is the subject of the story should be reduced to the status of someone’s wife. In the article she complains of being mistreated as a senior business woman in Ellis’s ad agency, so it is not as if she is some teeny bopper that Cairns hooked up with in order to bolster his self-image. But in the eyes of the Herald editorial staff, she is just the female appendage of a dodgy ex-jock filing court papers against another ex-jock celebrity. Surely they can do better.

The really sad part of this particular episode is that it seems to be reflective of the casual sexism and misogyny that permeates NZ.  For all the women who have achieved high positions in politics, academia, arts and law (not so much the corporate world), there appears to be this ingrained backward gender weirdness on the part of a significant number of the male population. Come to think of it, sexism and misogyny are the flip side of the coin known as bloke culture–the latter cannot exist without the former.

One interesting aspect of the story is that she was appointed by Ellis to work for his ad agency in the first place. How did that happen? Was she the best qualified person for the job or did the hire have something to do with the fact that she IS Mrs. Cairns? That would add another layer of provincial small mindedness to the equation. The article also mentions that Ellis is the director and sole shareholder of the ad agency, which has as its client Toyota.

Toyota? How did one of the largest vehicle manufacturers on earth happen to award a contract to what is by all appearances a boutique ad firm with no proven track record? Was it because Ellis is seen as representative of the NZ sales demographic that Toyota is targeting? And is that demographic the blokes? That is the only explanation that makes sense to me, but if that is the case then Toyota needs to think harder about that target demographic because Ellis is certainly not representative of it (after all, his blokey larrikin ute-driving days supposedly ended a while ago and he is now portrayed as a responsible businessman, although Mrs. Cairns complaint would suggest otherwise). And if it is the blokes that Toyota is sales targeting, has it not paused to think of the female role in bloke culture? Or does it assume that all women associated with blokes are content with their status as appendages or side kicks to the alpha individual and share his tastes and interests? If so, it has not done enough due diligence with its market research (as well as on Mr. Ellis).

In any event, the headline sucks even though the sexism, nepotism, cronyism, harassment and dubious business practice implicit in the story may well prove true.

Idle chatter.

datePosted on 16:27, April 16th, 2015 by Pablo

Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.

Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.

Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.

Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:

Is he still steering by the real?

Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.

The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis.  As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.

What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.

That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.

Witty Banter

datePosted on 11:42, April 3rd, 2015 by Pablo

I am somewhat amused by the reaction to the Australians sledging of the Black Caps during the Cricket World Cup final. It is clear that, with a couple of exceptions, the Ozzie cricket team display incredibly poor sportsmanship, even to the point of racism on occasion. But what else is new? Why are so many incensed by their oafish behaviour?

Sledging, or trash talking as it is known in the US, is a sad but integral part of many sports. The more contact there is in sport the more trash talking there often is. Some athletic cultures thrive on trash talk–think boxing, American football or league.

On the other hand more ‘genteel” sports like golf, tennis or cricket are expected to provide a more civilised approach to the game. When athletes in these sports adopt more vulgar competitive approaches such as trash talking, they are quickly denounced. John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners in tennis, John Daly in golf, and an assortment of foul-mouthed cricketers have felt the wrath of those who feel that these sports are above the everyday fray.

That, I think, is the heart of the matter. It is a class thing. It is acceptable and considered normal to trash talk in “common” sports played by working and lower class people. But when it comes to the sports of the upper classes and elites, of which cricket, polo and yachting are the epitome, it is unacceptable for players to descend to the level of the hoi polloi. At most, in between tea breaks and pressing their linens for the evening overs, cricketers were and are expected to offer no more to their opponents than witty banter. It does not matter if these sports are now played by non-elites (some of the Australian cricketers can barely string a sentence together, much less hold a degree). What matters is that the genteel image of the sport must not be tarnished by crass displays, verbal or otherwise (recall that Wimbledon still has an all white dress code for players and prohibits shorts on female players).

In effect, the definition of good  and bad sportsmanship is determined not by the nature of the game but by the classes from which it originated. What is acceptable gamesmanship in sports that originated in the working masses is not acceptable in those that had their beginnings in more privileged circumstances.

The outrage directed against the Australian crackers for their sledging is more about about maintaining the appearance of class appropriate propriety than about their very poor sportsmanship. Had their trash talking happened on a soccer or rugby pitch it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and perhaps even gentle ribbing.

This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

Left in tatters.

datePosted on 12:14, September 21st, 2014 by Pablo

A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.

Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.

That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.

After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.

In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.

Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.

Barking from the closet.

datePosted on 10:35, February 22nd, 2014 by Pablo

If one thing has proven true over the years when it comes to religion and politics, it is that those who most ardently decry homosexuality as abnormal and represent themselves as paragons of “christian” family values often are themselves seriously repressed when it comes to their own sexual preferences. Be they Tories in the UK, Republicans in the US and preachers, priests, mullahs and rabbis the world over, these closet hypocrites go to great lengths to hide their “baser” urges, to include engaging in contact (!) sports and other “manly” activities like game hunting, entering into heterosexual marriages, having children, advocating for corporal punishment and loudly and obsessively condemning “deviant” sexual behavior and the gay community and feminists for a myriad of sins against the “natural” order of things.

Their self-loathing is such that some even practice how they walk and talk so as to appear more Roman than Greek (I am using the terms loosely here, as both Romans and Greeks accepted the “baser” urges as a part of life and are differentiated more by the class, gender and age element in them). Some go to great lengths to dress and act acceptably “mainstream” (according to how they perceive the mainstream). The more strident of the closet prudes threaten and bully those who question their public stance as well as their private desires.

Given its egalitarian and tolerant reputation, it would be a real shame if such people were a significant part of the New Zealand political, religious or social elite. Given demographic probability, chances are that there might be a few.

Which raises the question: does Colin Craig share that Larry Craig wide stance?

My posts on the demise of the political Left in NZ have elicited a fair bit of debate, which is good. However, there are two main areas of misunderstanding in the debate that need to be corrected. The first is that that by repeating my oft-stated claim here and elsewhere that socio-economic class, and particularly the working classes, need to be the central focus of Left praxis, I am ignoring the productive and cultural changes of the post-industrial, post-modern era. The second is that I dismiss the entire Left as ineffectual losers.

Let me address the latter first. When I write about the “political” Left I am speaking strictly about those parts of the Left that directly involve themselves in politics, either institutionalized or not. In this category I do not include the cultural or activist Left that engage in direct action in non-political realms such as poverty alleviation, human rights protection, diversity promotion, etc. These type of Left indirectly address political questions and therefore have political import but are not immediately involved with or primarily focused on political matters (say, by acting as parties or running campaigns, among many other things). Some of their members may be, but the Left agencies involved are, first and foremost, non-political in nature.

In a way, these non-political Left entities act much like non-Left charities: they provide direct assistance to the disadvantaged or vulnerable, have clear political content in what they do, but are not political agencies per se.

Thus I recognize the good works of the non-political Left and even see them as providing potential foundation stones for effective Left political activism. But as things currently stand the interface between the non-political and political Left is largely skewed towards diluting the socialist content and neutering the working class orientation inherent in many forms of grassroots Left activism. And where the interface is direct (say, Socialist Aotearoa), the message is too vulgar and the agents too shrill to make their points effectively.

This may sound harsh but that is the reality. The larger point is that I am not dismissing the entire Left as “dead” or moribund. I am confining my diagnosis to the contemporary political Left, narrowly defined, and it is not defeatist to point out what I would have thought was glaringly obvious.

With regard to the second accusation, this has been the subject of much debate here at KP. Lew and Anita have both eloquently written on identity as a primary focus. I accept their arguments but also think that class matters when it comes to a Left praxis. To that end, let me reprise a statement I made in response to a comment made by reader Chris Waugh on the previous post.

Some people mistakenly believe that because I believe that a Left praxis has to be rooted in class consciousness I “dismiss” or neglect superstructural issues like gender, ethnic identity, environmental concerns and sexual preference.

I do not. However, I do not give these superstructural factors primacy in my thought because all of those forms of identification or orientation are non-universal, whereas insertion in a capitalist class system rooted in the exploitation of wage labor is a universal constant. Hence I see modern Left praxis as rooted in a working class consciousness, broadly defined to include all forms of non-managerial wage labor and all ethnicities, genders and preferences.

Put it this way: consider a situation where there is a female hourly worker and a female CEO of a major firm. What identification comes first when they meet each other in the social division of labor? Will identifying as female be so strong that it will bridge the class gap between them? Or will their class determine their relationship in the first instance?

Perhaps gender solidarity will prevail, as could be the case with being gay, Indian, bisexual etc. But I am simply unsure that these identifications universally supersede the class element and therefore should replace it as a focus of Left praxis.

So there you have it. Not all of the Left is ineffectual but the political Left certainly is. A working class orientation is necessary and central to any Left praxis but not sufficient to encompass the myriad of non-class progressive causes that make up the post-industrial Left. Resolving these issues and reconciling the dilemmas inherent in them are what must be done for the Left to regain a significant place in the NZ political arena.

The post on the death of the NZ political Left has elicited a fair bit of commentary. That is good, because my purpose in writing it as a polemic was to foster debate about the internal weakness of the NZ Left and possible solutions to that problem. I did not discuss all of the negative externalities that work against a revival of the Left, but many others have, both in the comments on the original post as well as in the commentary in places like The Standard. In fact, some of the discussion in the thread on the original post as well as the Standard thread has been very good.

Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere loved the post. Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock and Whaleoil jumped at the opportunity to put the boot in. I commented on the Kiwiblog thread, where I was accused of defining what the “real” and “fake” Left were and of being one of those people who denigrate anything that does not fit their narrow definition of what being “Left” means. One nice person on the Standard derided me for being a “defeatist” and engaging in “self-flagellation.” This kind soul also harked to the idealism and determination of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to show that we should not give up the fight, perhaps forgetting that Mandela renounced socialism once he became president (supposedly to protect democracy) and MLK –never a Leftist, he–got shot for his troubles long before racial equality was achieved in the US. Anyway, it was all quite entertaining.

Now Chris Trotter has entered the fray with this exposition: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/01/23/theres-plenty-left-chris-trotter-responds-to-paul-buchanans-critique-of-the-new-zealand-left/

I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator. Since my comment on Chris’s rejoinder was submitted more than 15 hours ago and 29 other comments have appeared, I assume that it will not be published, so I shall re-print it here:

“Fair rejoinder, but a bit off the mark.

The point of my polemic was to stir debate about the internal weaknesses of the NZ Left that have neutered it as a political alternative to the capitalist socio-political project. Besides the abandonment of a broad working class focus and socialist principles by the institutionalized Left (the party-union nexus) in favour of more narrow po-mo concerns and piecemeal challenges to the market-driven project, there is the factionalization, in-fighting, oligarchical leadership and general political insignificance of the activist Left. This opens the door to opportunists and charlatans to claim ideological leadership within the Left as a vehicle for self-interested advancement.

I see the cultural Left as having significance, but as a political force nether it or much of the informed Left commentariat have much political sway. And when some of that commentariat quietly seek remunerated ties to political actors who are the antithesis of everything socialism stands for, well, that is unfortunate.

So no, I do not share your optimism, but I am far from defeatist by directly addressing what I see as the elephants in the NZ Left room. Self-criticism and self-assessment are good things to do in good times and bad, and in my view the current moment is bad for the NZ Left.

Some of the commentary on the original post address ways to recapture the moment.

I do like your use of Gramsci though. Shallow as it may be in the context of this rejoinder, it points to the necessity of waging an effective counter-hegemonic war of position within the system, using what is given as instruments of usurpation of the ideological status quo.”

I should note that in his post Chris waxes positive about the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana and the CTU. In doing so he helps make my original case: none of these organizations are “Left” in the sense of being socialist or even primarily worker-focused, whatever they may have been at their inception. They may use socialist rhetoric and act “progressive” when compared to National and its allies, and they may be a better choice for Left-leaning people when it comes to electoral preferences and collective representation, but the hard fact is that play the game by the rules as given, do not challenge the system as given and, to be honest, just chip away around the superstructural margins of the edifice that is NZ capitalism.

Although I believe that the NZ political left is comatose if not dead, this does not mean that it cannot be revived or resurrected. As I said to a commentator on my original post, Keynesian economics in liberal democracies led to a 60 year period of class compromise that replaced the politics of class conflict extant prior to 1930. The so-called neo-liberal project in NZ was trialled under authoritarian conditions in places like Chile (yes Chris, I do remember Pinochet in part because his economic policies were emulated by Roger Douglas and company and marked the turn towards feral market-driven policy that persists in NZ today despite your protestations). It if founded on a direct return to the politics of class conflict, this time initiated by the upper bourgeoisie operating from an advantaged global position against the organized working classes via regressive labor legislation and the privatization of state provided welfare, health and education programs.

Many say the neoliberal elite are hegemonic when doing so. I disagree, in part because unlike Chris (who threw some Antonio Gramsci quotes into his rejoinder) I have spent a lot of time studying Gramsci’s concept of “egemonia,” (hegemony, or ideological leadership by consent) specifically its difference with the concept of “dominio” (domination, or rule by submission or acquiescence). Giovanni Tiso wrote a comment of Chris’s post that captures just a part of why Chris went a bit to far with his misuse of the words of the person who coined the non-Leninist interpretation of that special concept amongst the po-mo Left. I mention this because the entire thrust of Chris’s rejoinder read more like an instance of intellectual one-upmanship rather than a reasoned counter-argument.

The fact is that the current ideological dominance of the market-focused elite is only hegemonic in the measure that the political Left allows it to be. In NZ fair-minded people obey but do not consent to the system as given. In my view internal problems in the Left prevent it from presenting a viable counter-argument, much less counter-hegemonic alternative to the contemporary status quo.

It may not be armed conflict but the NZ market project, be it subtle, buffered or stark, is a war against the working classes, one that is based on the atomization of said classes via the destruction of class-based unions and ideological diversions that promote narrow sectoral representation based upon collective assumptions about the primacy of individual self-interest over solidarity, and which privileges greed over empathy.

In comments on the original post I offer some limited suggestions about a new Left praxis in NZ. I  am sure that there are many other avenues to explore along those lines. The market-driven project (which is no longer “neoliberal” in the original sense of the term), was an obvious and transparent return to the politics of class conflict, with preferential terms dictated by the financial elite.

No matter how dominant this ideology is at this moment, it opens a window of opportunity for the NZ Left, if it knows how to take the advantage. Rather than a monolithic compendium of all that is impossible to those born wrong, it renders bare the inegalitarian and exploitative foundations of the current socio-economic order as well as the abjectly quisling nature of the political elite that support it.

One final thought. I do not object to Leftists trying to earn a living, even if that means working in capitalist institutions on capitalist terms. I have to do so.

I do not even mind Leftists who live off of trust funds or marry well. In fact, I do not object to Leftists taking up paid work for non-Left parties as part of a tactical alliance against a common enemy or as a way of learning about the enemy from within.

I believe that those on the Left, much more so than those on the Right, need to be upfront about these apparent contradictions. They need to understand that touching power is not the same as confronting, much less wielding it. That is why I object to concealment of financial relationships between capitalist economic and political entities and those who publicly proclaim themselves to be Lions of the Left and champions of the dispossessed and voiceless.

My bottom line? We all have contradictions in our lives. For those on the Left the contradictions of living in a capitalist society can be overwhelming at times. It is how we resolve our ideological contradictions that separates the honest from the hypocritical.

 

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