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Hosted by Selwyn Manning and EveningReport.nz, ” A View from Afar” is a podcast series dedicated to exploring current affairs, international relations, political events and military-security issues from somewhat uncommon angles. In this first episode we continue the coverage of the Portland protests first offered on these pages. The conversation can be found here or here.

On democratic rights and responsibilities.

datePosted on 12:57, July 18th, 2020 by Pablo

The sight of MAGA morons holding anti-mask rallies and generally freaking out because they believe that their freedom is being curtailed by private and public entities demanding that masks be worn as a preventative to contagion from Covid-19 got me to wondering if those people truly understand what so-called democratic freedoms entail. It seems that the stupid is strong in the US–not just in the White House–and people simply confuse convenience or personal interest for “freedom.” Similarly, there are those in NZ who refused to accept the rules and regulations of the pandemic lockdown and complained that they too were being “oppressed” by a “totalitarian” police state. Not surprisingly, most of these people are on the right side of the political spectrum, where sophomoric interpretations of Ann Rand-style libertarianism overlap with alt-Right ethno-nationalism and other aberrations posing as political ideologies.

Given that I spent a long academic career reading and writing about both the theoretical and practical aspects of democracy and democratisation in previously authoritarian states, and worked in the security bureaucracy of a major democratic state, let me try to deconstruct into a simple primer what democracy really means when it comes to “freedom.”

Democracy as a social and political form can be seen as a two by two box with four cells. On one axis there are rights, which are individual and collective. On the other axis are responsibilities, which are also individual and collective. Rights can be formally enunciated and codified in Constitutions and a Bill of Rights but they can also be a matter of custom, usage and social norms that are are enshrined in civil law. Conversely, in some democracies such as those that use Roman Law systems, responsibilities are codified and rights are assumed: the law specifies what cannot be done rather than what can be done, with the latter being anything otherwise not prohibited.

What rights are conferred bring with them responsibilities when they are exercised. Take for example speech. An individual has the right to freely voice an opinion, but only so long as it does not cause injury to others. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater may seem funny to some, but disregards the responsibility to consider the context in which the yelling occurs. Likewise, hurling racist insults and threats may be part of everyday discourse for white supremacists hanging out in their trailer parks, but it is quite another thing for them to be directed towards people of color on the street. In both instances, the exercise of an individual right violates the responsibility to do no harm to others.

The balance between individual rights and responsibilities is crystallised in the act of driving a motor vehicle. People have a right to freedom of movement in democracies. But they do not have a right to drive a car. That is a licensed responsibility that entails learning rules and regulations, physical, practical and intellectual testing, and then behaving as responsible members of society when operating potentially lethal conveyances. Should they not, then the privilege of driving is curtailed or removed. The right to freedom of movement remains, but just not in a certain way.

Likewise, there are collective rights that are considered sacrosanct in democracies, be it of assembly, organization, or representation. Those also come with the responsibility to exercise those rights in way that do not injure or impede others from doing likewise. Peaceful protest against police brutality and systemic racism is one thing; a Klan or boogaloo boys rally is quite another. Forming unions, business associations and political parties is (theoretically) a democratic collective right. Forming irregular armed groups for the purposes of intimidation or insurrection is not.

As with individuals who in the exercise of their self-defined rights do harm to others, collective violence is a breach of peace, and social peace is what civilised societies are founded on. In some societies social peace is imposed by authoritarian measures (which can result in mass collective violence against unjust rule). In democracies it is achieved by voluntary adhesion to individual and collective notions of rights and responsibilities, which presumably avoids the need to take up arms against oppressive government.

That is the difference between rule by consent and rule by acquiescence: one is given voluntarily while the other is given under duress. The consent that underpins democratic societies is double-sided. It is consent to exercise rights and responsibilities, not one or the other.

That may no longer hold true.

It appears that, encouraged and supported by the proliferation of rightwing media, many have lost sight of the responsibility and collective sides of the democratic equation. Now, everything is about individual rights and nothing about individual or collective responsibilities. The erosion of the responsibility side of the democratic equation can be traced to the advent of what has come to be known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism originated as an economic theory that posited that finance capital was the best allocator of resources in a society and hence needed to be unencumbered by laws and restrictions that impeded finance capitalists from operating in unfettered fashion. It morphed into a public policy approach–codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus”–that was based on the privatisation of public assets and the withdrawal of the State from its economic macro-manager role in society. The downsizing of the State as a physical and regulatory entity created space for “entrepreneurs,” who in turn carried the values of “free” enterprise and competition into society and resulted in emulative behaviour on the part of others. This led to the ideological expansion of neoliberalism as a social construct, where it is no longer confined to the economic realm but extends into conceptualisations of the proper social order and the role of individuals within it.

The result, to coin a phrase, is a form of hyper-individualism that on the one hand is manifest in survivalist alienation and on the other in predatory and cowboy capitalist practices in which enrichment and greed are considered attributes rather than vices. Solidarity is for suckers, and society prospers because the uncoordinated and unrestricted pursuit of freedom and profit by self-interested maximisers of opportunities, be they individuals, firms or collectivities, is believed to act as the invisible hand of the market in modern times. Or so they say.

Even though the practical benefits of neoliberal thought have proven mixed at best and much of its theoretical foundations repudiated, its impact on non-economic aspects of social life remain strong and wide-spread. With the megaphoning of its hyper-individualistic ethos in rightwing corporate and social media, it is a major reason why the notion of democratic responsibilities both individual and collective has been superseded by the exaltation of individual rights. In a sense, this is the lumpenproletarianisation of the democratic world.

There is more.

Given human nature, people are more inclined to prioritise their rights over their responsibilities. Different forms of democracy have been in part defined by the emphasis that they place on individual and collective rights. Liberal democracies put a premium on individual rights. Social democracies put a premium on collective rights. In all democracies the law primarily focuses on enforcing responsibilities of both types. Laws codify responsibilities down to minute detail and enumerate the penalties for failing to adhere or discharge them. To be clear: laws are inherently coercive, as they detail what is and is not permitted and use penalties and disincentives to enforce compliance. Although rights are recognised within the law, it is responsibility that laws are directed at because failure to be responsible as a member of society and a polity has deleterious effects on social order. Even so, there is a difference. Civil law includes various aspects of democratic rights, for example, property rights, along with its enforcement of responsibilities. Criminal law addresses transgressions of basic responsibility, both individual and collective, with the notion of rights being limited to those that strictly apply to suspects, defendants and those convicted and sentenced.

Enforcing individual and collective responsibility has long been the mainstay of democratic security policy. The police exist in to guard against individual and collective transgressions against individual and collective rights. That is, repressive state apparatuses (to put it in Althusserian terms) not only enforce the broad overall ideological project that is democracy as a social construct, but also punish those who challenge the responsibilities inherent in that project. For that to happen, the elected representatives of a democratic polity and the public bureaucracies that serve under them must agree and commit to enforcing responsibility as well as protecting rights. In other words, there must be an ideological consensus on the limits of rights and the extent of responsibilities in a democratic society.

The consensus on enforcing responsibility has eroded amongst the political class due to the same reasons that have undermined the balance between rights and responsibilities in society as a whole. That has allowed the expansion of what is considered to be an inherent “right” at the expense of what is a democratic responsibility. The arguments about “free” versus “hate” speech illustrate the erosion. The (mostly rightwing) contemporary champions of “free” speech believe that they can say anything, anywhere without concern for context or consequence. They reject the notion that the right to speak freely includes the burden of doing so responsibly. They do not care about causing offence or injury to others and complain when laws restrict their ability to do so.

This is symptomatic of the larger problem. Freedom is now equated in many circles as unfettered exercise of individual rights. Anything that constrains freedom so defined is considered an infringement on natural, God-given or universal rights, even if in fact the notion of democratic rights is a human construct that is materially and intellectual grounded in specific historical moments in time and place. In the US in 1776, democratic rights were reserved for white slave and land owning men, yet today the concept has been widened to include others (well, in theory anyway). In other words, there is nothing immutable about the notion of rights. They are a product of their times, as is the notion of what it is to be a responsible member of a democratic society.

Unfortunately responsibilities have become the unwanted stepchild in post-modern democratic societies. The erosion of notions of collective solidarity and death of empathy under the weight of ideological hyper-individualism have resulted in what might be called the “atomisation” of democracy where responsibilities are to oneself and chosen in-groups and rights are whatever one says they are.

Given the prevalence of neoliberalism as an ideological underpinning of many post-modern democratic societies, it will be difficult to reverse thirty years (and a generation) of its inculcation in the social fabric. Restoring the balance between democratic rights and responsibilities therefore entails a new form of counter-hegemonic project that works to promote the idea that “freedom” is as much a product of individual an collective responsibility as it is the exercise of individual and collective rights. The success of such a project will only occur when not only is neoliberalism replaced, but when the new ideological consciousness is internalised to the point of inter-generational self-reproduction. That is a tall order.

That does not mean that it cannot be done. Given the compound failures of governance and international economics in the lead up and responses to the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, the post-pandemic world offers the opportunity to redefine basic notions of democratic citizenship. Unlike classic notions of counter-hegemonic projects, which always emanate from the grassroots and which are based on opposition to an elite-centric hegemonic status quo, the re-definition of democracy as a balance between rights and responsibilities can include enlightened government working from the top down. This can occur as part of a public education campaign and can be incorporated into school curricula that also emphasises sustainable development along with traditional “civics” notions of equality and fair play.

In fact, the re-valuation of responsibilities as well as rights and re-equilibration of the balance between them can easily piggy back on traditional notions of fairness and burden-sharing in pursuit of social peace. Neoliberalism is hierarchical at its core and therefore antithetical to the ideological myth of equality in democratic societies. A counter-hegemonic narrative based on a return to principles of equality and fairness embedded in the balance between rights and responsibilities would therefore seem to be a more natural “fit” for mature democratic systems.

If that is true, then its time is now.

Trump as an agent of change.

datePosted on 13:00, June 12th, 2020 by Pablo

Brothers and sisters, I have a confession to make. After much reflection I have now come to the conclusion that the US evangelicals are correct. Trump is indeed a God-sent gift to the Republic. He is a modern day version of the Persian King Cyrus, a non-believer who delivered Jews to their promised land. He has a bit of King David in him as well, imperfect and flawed but possessing strong character. He is the vessel through which the Almighty will transform the Republic and restore its greatness. Of this, I truly believe. Can I get an Amen for that, my fellow children of the Lord?

Say Hallelujah!

Now, some of you might wonder why an atheistic commie like me would all of a sudden turn around and endorse the evangelical’s “empty vessel” beliefs. Well, think of it this way, brothers and sisters. Just like the Hebrew warrior Saul was knocked off his donkey and blinded by a vision of the ascendant Jesus on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Christians, only to have his sight restored and convert to the Christian Saint Paul the Apostle, so too I have had a moment of clarity. Trump is indeed an agent of change. But the great fairy in the sky works in mysterious and dialectical ways. Let me explain.

Trump is doing what no one else has been able to do in modern US history. He is bringing to a head all of the contradictions in US society. Everything that is bad, he makes worse. Everything that is good, he tarnishes. He embraces evil and he shuns fairness. In doing so he has, like an ointment on an infected wound, brought all of the racist, xenophobic and bigoted rot out to the surface, where he revels like a pig in slop in their ignorance and hate.

Christian fundamentalists think that he is the vessel that will deliver them to the Rapture, and that in the meantime he will restore the white Anglo Saxon Christian character of the nation by pushing back–and down–on those who would challenge that status quo. No more insolent people of color to contend with, no alphabet soup of sexual deviants to put up with, no freeloading criminal minded foreigners sneaking across the borders, no snowflakes libtards squawking about rights from the safety of their safe spaces. Hell no!

But this is where the bible-bashers and I part company. You see, it is because Trump is so ignorant, so incompetent, so self-centred and such a profoundly horrid excuse for humanity that he is now forcing US society to confront head on the contradictions that it has so long buried under a veneer of “democratic” civility and which allowed him to win the presidency. This has been building since the moment he announced his campaign, and now, with the incoherent and indifferent response to the pandemic, the resort to quasi-fascist tactics in order to suppress the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the abject pandering to the thuggish racist minority that are his “base,” Trump has managed to force society into a reckoning.

And that reckoning is going against him. States, cities, industries and private firms were the first to walk away, not just over the pandemic response but also over issues of statutory authority, jurisdictional control and public funding priorities (e.g. education, healthcare and transportation). The military and intelligence communities, long-suffering under this barrage of uninformed criticism and worship of foreign dictators, then used as props in his attempted war on his own citizens during the protests, has begun to put public distance between themselves and the idiot-in-chief. After rushing to reap the opportunistic rewards of his tax and regulatory dismantling, Wall Street, Silicone Valley, the Farm Belt and pretty much everything in between have begin to hedge against his staying in office. He is now openly mocked in the corporate media, with commentators speculating about his mental and physical status being in decline.

Even the Republican Party is starting to waver in its support, having seen his reckless incompetence on overt display the last few months and fearing not only for its presence in Congress but its future as a unified party.

One might say that all of this is necessary but not sufficient to topple him, and that he has managed to weather impeachment, caging kids, assorted conflicts of interests and corruption scandals, a merry-go-round of top level personnel appointments and yet still remains as president. He lies, he insults, he posts conspiracy theories and generally rants in ways so unhinged that he appears to be a thirteen year old boy after his ever first round of bourbon and cokes. But he still stands. Heck, he even managed to dodge a lightening bolt when he held up that dusty bible in front of the church near Lafayette Park that he had cleared by teargas and rubber bullets. Not even Satan himself would have been so bold.

Now the concern is that he will use the pandemic and the protests to either postpone the November election citing a state of national emergency or he will–as he is now doing–claim that the vote is being rigged against him and refuse to recognise the results. He will then call on his followers to hit the streets to defend his mandate, and at that point things will head seriously South.

Except for one thing. NASCAR just banned confederate flags from all of its facilities–racetracks, spectator stands, cars, uniforms, advertising, the works. There may be commercial considerations at play, but this represents a cultural shift so significant, so momentous, so gosh darn biblical in effect, that I have now seen the Light. Forget the post-March 15 Crusaders’ symbolism row. It is as if the All Blacks abandoned both the name and colours in order to become the Kiwi Cherry Pops.

Now states, cities and agencies are proposing to remove Confederate iconography from public spaces, including Congress, various Southern cities and even military bases named after Confederate generals–all against Trump’s wishes. He can whine, but he cannot do anything to prevent local authorities, Congress or even the military from doing so and in fact his opposition to removing slave era icons only serves to galvanize support for their removal. Phrased differently: it took Trump’s open embrace of symbols of racism and disunity to unify consensus that they have to go.

That is why Trump is an agent of change. Not in the direction that he and his supporters want to go, but as a catalyst for the long-docile majority to rise, say “enough,” and move in a different if not opposite direction. It turns out that the US, and the world, needed someone like him to expose all that is wrong with the American Dream, all that is fake, a lie, and a betrayal of the foundational ideals that, if not perfect in construction were and are a heck of a lot better than the smash and grab crime spree that is this presidency and the political support Mafia that surrounds him.

So yes, I do believe in miracles. The time of political revelation is coming because the sun has set on the Stars and Bars in the soul of the Confederacy. And with it, the Trump presidency and all that it represents. There may still be kicking and screaming on the way out, but the days of Satan/POTUS are nigh.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammo!

In the US, an organic crisis?

datePosted on 15:48, June 1st, 2020 by Pablo

The US appears to be headed towards what Antonio Gramsci and other Italian political theorists call an “organic crisis of the State.” It involves the simultaneous and compounded fractures of economy, society and politics, which together constitute a tipping point in a nation’s history. Social contradictions are exacerbated, class and identity divisions are exposed and governments prove incapable or incompetent in offering peaceful relief or resolution to what is a very “delicate and dangerous” situation.

The moment of crisis is brought on by a catalyst or precipitant that cannot be resolved by “ordinary” institutional means. The turn then is towards “extraordinary” means, which often involve, under the guise of re-establishing “law and order,” the imposition of authoritarian controls on the body politic in order to “cleanse” the nation-State of the “impurities” that elites–often led by so-called “charismatic men of destiny” who are most often self-serving if not malign in intent–see as the root source of the national malaise. The classic examples of this phenomenon come from interwar Europe but there are plenty of others, including the military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes of Central America and the Southern Cone of the 1960s-1980s.

This is the danger. Although the sources of American discontent are many and lie deep, the Trump administration and its Republican allies seek only to address the immediate “problem” of public unrest while working to reinforce their partisan interests. Already, the language used by the Trump administration with regards to political opponents, immigrants and others seen as obstacles echoes the language used by authoritarians of the past, something that is now accompanied by open calls for increased repression of protesters. The administration and its media acolytes have shifted their attention from the police murder of an unarmed black man to blaming “radical leftists” for the looting and vandalism that has swept the nation in response. Media coverage feeds into that narrative, as its focus fixates on scenes of destruction and violence. Less attention is paid to the underlying causes of mass collective violence in the US and the history of unsuccessful peaceful resistance that gave way to it, or to the fact that looting and attacks on symbols of authority and power is a major venting mechanism for oppressed populations the world over. The media coverage is on the symptoms, not the cause, and the government response is an example of the problem, not the solution.

The government response was predictable but has been worsened by Trump. He blames movements like Antifa and threatens to unleash “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on demonstrators, not too subtlety evoking images of police violence against peaceful protestors in the US South in the 1960s. He says that “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” echoing the words of a Southern police chief from that era. He speaks of “thugs,” infiltrators, agitators and even “Radical Democrats” opportunistically exploiting the moment for selfish gain.

Media pundits have likened the current moment to the situation in 1967-68, when a wave of race riots swept the country in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy amidst the ongoing protests against the Vietnam War and the cultural wars between hippies and hardhats. However, this situation is worse. In 1968 the economy was robust and the political establishment, for all of its old pale male characteristics, was stable and united on ideological fundamentals. The crisis of the day was social, not existential or organic.

Today the US is a bitterly divided country in decline with a dysfunctional political system, an economy in recession and a society swept by social, ideological, racial and class divisions–all blanketed in a pandemic and backdropped by a slow moving climate disaster.

There are other points of difference. Technological advances have widened the coverage of as well as the communication between protests, thereby amplifying their impact and the linkage between them. Rather than radical leftists (such as those who challenged the status quo in the 1960s and 1970s), now well-organised rightwing extremists have infiltrated the protests in pursuit of what is known as “acceleration theory,” whereby acts of violence in the context of otherwise peaceful protest are used as accelerants that bring social contradictions to a head and quicken the path towards open race war. Along with so-called “replacement theory,” where it is claimed that unless it stands and fights now, the white race will be replaced by non-white races in the near future due to demographic trends, acceleration theory was the ideological underpinning of the Christchurch terrorist and many other perpetrators of mass murder in recent years. It is what lay at the heart of the neo-Nazi March on Charlottesville and it is not only deeply rooted in the the US but is, however obliquely, encouraged from the highest levels of the Trump administration (see: Stephen Miller).

Where there are parallels with 1968 is in the mobilisation of the National Guard in several states, the imposition of curfews in cities and states, and the declaration of states of emergency in many areas. Trump has ordered mobilisation of active duty military police units as reinforcements for local police and Guard units. Yet even here the situation is now more acute. After years of militarisation, local law enforcement agencies deploy sworn officers in storm trooper outfits and wielding military-grade weapons along with an assortment of “non-lethal” crowd control instruments. Many police are veterans of recent wars given special admission to law enforcement, and many of the equipment they use is surplus inventory from those wars. Not all of these officers have eliminated the combat ethos from their personal ideas about law enforcement. In any event, the approach of US repressive apparatuses as a whole addresses the immediate expressions of community rage but does nothing, and in fact often is counter-productive to, resolve the underlying problems in US society.

There is another source of concern beyond the fact that the Trump administration’s response is an example of the political dimension of the organic crisis. Increasingly under siege because of his incompetence and imbecility, Trump’s behaviour is getting more reckless and unpredictable. There is growing apprehension that he may do something drastic (read: stupid) to divert attention away from his domestic failures. This could be starting a war with Iran, increasing the tensions with China, provoking a cross-border dispute with Mexico or pursuing a number of other foreign misadventures. It could also include postponing national elections under the rise of a national emergency declaration, with the argument being that the combination of public health and public order threats require extraordinary counter-measures, including a delay in voting. Regrettably, it is within Trump’s powers to do so.

All of this must be seen against the backdrop of an international system in transition, where ascendant and descendent powers jockey for position in the move from a unipolar to a multipolar world. It is possible that what we are seeing in the US today is the domestic manifestation of its decline, a former superpower now cracking under the stresses of attempting to hang on to lost empire while at the same time seeing long-simmering (yet obvious) internal contradictions come to the surface. Adversarial powers see this evolution and will no doubt attempt to take advantage of it, to include exploiting US internal divisions via disinformation campaigns as well as presenting direct challenges in areas of contestation abroad. That may well accentuate the erratic actions of an unhinged president enabled by a coterie of grifters and opportunists and unburdened by a political opposition or national bureaucracy that can or is willing to intervene in defence of the nation (if nothing else, by ignoring his orders).

Whatever happens over the next few months, the stage is set for an ugly outcome.

Thinking of a post-pandemic future.

datePosted on 15:55, May 2nd, 2020 by Pablo

I was recently invited to participate in an international teleconference on post-pandemic futures. It has a NZ-centric focus but involved distinguished participants from overseas, including former high level government and private sector officials. Discussions were held under Chatham House rules so I cannot get into particulars, but I am writing here as a reflection on what I heard.

Above all, I took away two troubling thoughts. The first is that the discussion was entirely elite-focused, with much talk about trade regimes, supply chain dynamics, attracting foreign direct investment, scientific diplomacy, political leadership characteristics and competition, plus other things of that sort. The second take-away was the nearsightedness of many of the discussants, particularly those representing the private sector. In a nutshell, they just want to get back to business as usual.

I made some remarks that attempted to amplify the context in which we are operating. I will elaborate on them here.

The CV-19 pandemic is an inflection point in a longer trend involving the intertwined crises of national and international governance and models of accumulation. It has exposed the dark contradictions in both. These must be addressed if the world is to emerge a better place. But there is a broader backdrop to this trend that needs to be understood before we get into unpacking its component parts.

The international system is in the midst of a long transition. It has moved from a tight bipolar configuration during the Cold War to a unipolar construct in the 1990s and an emerging multipolar system after 2001. The emerging system is characterised by the interplay between ascendent and descendent great powers, the emergence of non-state actors as key international actors (both irregular and corporate), an erosion of international norms and rules, and the resultant presence of conflict as a systems regulator. The underlying ideological consensus that dominated international relations from the end of World War two until the last decade, that being the notion of a liberal order where the combination of democratic government and market-driven economies was seen as the preferred political-economic construct, has eroded to the point of marginality.

In its wake has re-emerged the concept of realpolitik or power politics, whereby nation-states and other international actors pursue their interests above all things and do so with the resources at their disposal relative to the countervailing powers of others. This does not always mean that might makes right because not all resources are coercive. Some are persuasive, which helps distinguish between so-called “hard” power (coercive, be it economic, military or diplomatic), “soft” power (persuasive), “smart” power (a mixture of both) and “sharp” power (coating coercive intent in a persuasive argument or approach).

Over the last two decades several great powers have emerged or re-emerged, while the lone 1990s superpower, the US, has declined. This is seen in the fact that while superpowers intervene in the international order for systemic reasons, great powers do so for national reasons. One only needs to view the US inability to prevail in regional wars and then turn towards economic nationalism, populist politics and away from support for alliances and international organizations to see its descent. Meanwhile, pretenders to the throne and others have emerged: China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany in the forefront, but other regional contenders also in the mix (Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, France and the UK, perhaps Iran and Turkey as part of lesser constellations).

The issue is not so much who these specific emerging powers are but the fact that they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening). And yet, the contours of the future system will not conform to the specific interests or designs of the emergent powers within it. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economics, it is the aggregate of power dynamics during the transitional moment that will give precise shape to the global future. A new balance of power will emerge, but it remains unclear as to its exact configuration or stability.

That is the broader backdrop to the global crises of governance and models of accumulation. As macro and micro-cosmic reflections of this larger reality, national, regional and international governmental organisations have been sidelined and/or undermined by a combination of forces. Some are internal, such as the ossification of agencies due to corruption and self-interest. Others are external, such as rapid and sudden migration trends resulting in ideological and racial backlash in recipient countries. Whatever the combination of factors, the crisis of governance is seen throughout liberal democracies as well as many authoritarian regimes (even Singapore!) and international organisations like the EU, WHO, WTO, SEATO, OAU, OAS and UN. Many of these agencies are seen as toothless at best and bastions of patronage, nepotism and corruption at worst. Above all they are mostly seen as (and many are) ineffectual and inefficient in discharging their mandates.

The decline in quality of political governance is paralleled and matched by the increasingly obvious contradictions of the global model of accumulation. Commodity supply chain concentration, hyper-specialisation, just-in-time production, “race-to-the-bottom” wage competition, and other features of the globalisation of production, consumption, supply and exchange have produced increased inequalities and fractures in the world social division of labour. Hyper-concentration of wealth in the so-called “one percenters” has happened on the backs of the global poor, who now extend well into what used to be the middle classes of advanced liberal democracies. Again, the US provides an example with its charity food lines and millions of unemployed (rising to 20 percent of the work force and over 30 million unemployment claims lodged in just three months) as a result of the pandemic. The US situation is particular dire because most private health insurance is tied to employment, so the loss of jobs is measured in both declines in income as well as health coverage.

This is what the pandemic has done. It has exposed in dark relief the ugly side of the global market. It has also glaringly revealed government incompetence and indifference on a global scale. These two pathologies have now combined, and the results are being felt by common people, not elites. This could well be the moment when the Liberal Order dies, killed by a disease whose spread was, in a bitter ironic twist, facilitated by its success.

That is why getting back to “normal” and business as usual by returning to the status quo ante will not work, and where short-term solutions will not suffice. That only staves off the inevitable, which is that the dual crises will continue to compound and deepen as they head towards a circuit-breaking outcome. Phrased differently, it appears that what students of social revolutions call the tension-release model is now well in play: there is a slow build up of accumulated tensions punctuated by episodic outbreaks of disorder or discontent, culminating in a cathartic moment in which the old system is destroyed and a new one–however unclear in its precise contours–begins.

If the root causes are not addressed, the next explosion of mass discontent will be precipitated by any number of calamities, man-made or natural: resource conflicts caused by draught, flooding, famine or competition over access to increasingly precious natural resources like fresh water; mass migrations tied to the above; great power war; civil war; sectarian and irredentist violence; pollution- or climate-caused environmental catastrophes; wide spread urban destruction caused by earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, thrones, cyclones or tornados; energy provision failures; and more pandemics. This list is not exhaustive.

It is not as if there has been no warning that things cannot hold. From the 2000 “Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations later that decade, to the Arab Spring of the early teens to the protests in places like Chile, France and Lebanon last year, there has been a slowly rising tide of resistance to politics and economics as given. The protests are not just about one or the other but are in fact about both: systems of governance and systems of profit and their influence on each other.

The malaise is wide-spread. The US and UK are polarised, India is riven by sectarian tensions, Arab oligarchies remain closed but under increased popular pressure, despotic politics have taken hold in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Philippines and Turkey under electoral guise, sub-national actors challenge sovereignty in a host of Sub-Saharan states and even the seemingly monolithic regimes in China and Russia are riven by internal tensions and political intrigue. The world stands at the brink of a valley of transition where the costs of change are real but the outcome is uncertain.

Returning to normal, at least if it is defined as the way things were before the pandemic hit, is a guarantee that the socioeconomic and political contradictions now laid bare will fester, accumulate and eventually explode. That is an outcome few would want. This is why the post-pandemic moment must be seen as a window of opportunity for comprehensive change rather than a resumption of what once was.

In order to avoid an explosive break with the past, the key to post-pandemic recovery lies in addressing the dual crises of governance and accumulation as the most important priorities even if short term economic and political remedies are offered (say, by removing Trump from office, turning to regional supply chains and re-committing international agencies to a rules-based international order). I cannot offer any specifics, but it seems to me that a move towards sustainable development based on restrained rates of profit and renewable resource extraction is a beginning. Given the resurgence of wildlife in urban and suburban areas and air and water cleansing during the lockdown, climate change mitigation efforts need to be wrapped into larger projects of environmental restoration in which a return to natural balance is given urgent attention.

These involve political reforms in which those who advocate for a return to the previous economic status quo are blocked from doing so. After all, there are many interests vested in the current global market framework and they will do everything in their power to resist and thwart meaningful change that undermines their positions and diminishes their bottom lines. The key is to find a consensus about reforming, if not an alternative to, the system as given, including the reconfiguration of incentive structures in order to promote broad adherence to the shift in the global model of accumulation.

The future will be multipolar. The question is whether it will be stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good. The overall process of transition to multipolarity is immutable, but the specific features of the future system will be defined for better or worse by human agency. It remains to be seen if the opportunity to recast the world in a better image will be seized.

Given what I heard at the online meeting, I am not sanguine about the prospects of this happening. It is easier to go back to what is known than venture into the unknown. The forces pushing for a return to the status quo are many and powerful. But the pandemic has pulled away the layers of mystification and false consciousness that heretofore obscured the intense exploitation, class cleavages and unrepresentative politics that lie at the root of the modern global edifice/artifice.

It is time for economic and political architectural re-design on a world scale.

A pandemic Peter Principle.

datePosted on 15:59, April 9th, 2020 by Pablo

In 1968 Canadian sociologist Laurence Peter coined the phrase “Peter Principle” as a contribution to the sociology of organisations. It explains that in complex organizations people rise to the level of their own incompetence. That is, they get promoted so long as they meet or exceed the specified criteria for and skill set required of a particular position until they eventually reach positions for which they do not have the aptitude, skills or qualifications to continue advancing. Hence a floor manager in a retail outlet may advance to warehouse manager and perhaps regional supply supervisor but then meets the ceiling of his/her competence in handling more complex tasks required for further advancement up the managerial chain of command.

Because Peter was interested in organisational efficiency, he advised training programs for individuals as they progressed upwards. This raised the “ceiling” of their incompetence, which he believed promoted efficiency in corporate decision-making. His views have been very instrumental in organisational sociology and have been applied in numerous contexts beyond the corporate world.

One thing that is relatively under-studied is the specific factors that reveal incompetence. Because the Principle is offered as a broad theory it assumes that at certain points a level of incompetence will be reached, but does not address the specifics of what conditions, duties, responsibilities and other criteria comprise the “ceiling” or end point at which the level of incompetence is reached in given instances. This is an undervalued aspect of the Principle because different organisations and management levels have different responsibilities and skill set requirements as well as criteria for advancement. Moreover, the Principle may, depending on context, be influenced more by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. The tired “Mad Men” era joke about choosing between two secretaries, the one in which the more attractive individual is chosen regardless of qualifications, illustrates the point. The broader question is what factors contribute to determining a level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle? In this essay I extend that thought to the impact of CV-19 on global management responses.

In short, what the pandemic has done is to expose managerial incompetence at a global level. To be sure there are instances of competency is handling the disease, but what is most striking is the sheer number of and decisional sites in which incompetence has been exposed.

Let’s start with the easily identified fiascos. The US leads by negative example, but the UK and Brazil run a close second when it comes to turning a public health threat into an omnishambles of preventable deaths. Italy and Spain have a lot to answer for in this regard, and the Morrison government in Australia is not immune from the incompetency virus. This is different than in places where inadequate resources, human, technological and medical, prevent adequate responses to the infectious spread. In such instances people know what to do but simply do not have the tools with which to do it.

Then there are the sub-national and non-governmental Peter Principled. Around the globe church leaders demand that they be allowed to congregate their flocks within their houses of worship. This may well be a form of divine intervention in which a specific type of Darwin Award candidates are culled from the population, but it seems to me that as a human enterprise this is up there on the incompetence scale. Likewise and closer to home, the responses of Auckland universities has been a blinder. The VC of the more famous one wrote an op ed shortly before global infection numbers exploded saying that any quarantine or border control efforts was discriminatory against Asian students, then demanded a government bailout for the lost tuition revenues generated by those students (so it was not about discrimination or student health after all). This ethics-challenged Einstein is one of NZ’s highest paid “public servants.” Go figure.

The lesser known institution cancelled its classes near the mid-term break and decided, thanks to the advice of an “education theorist” who apparently has never taught a real class, to start all over and move to an on-line “block” teaching format in which students lost all of the work they had completed until then and in spite of the fact that the technological capacity of the university to host mass on-line distance learning was sketchy at best and in many instances unavailable to lower income students with limited access to on-line services. Then, after much hue and cry, the university reversed its decision two weeks into the lockdown and after having its teaching staff drop their original course preparations and quickly devise block style on-line presentations. Not only did this undo all of the staff effort put into ginning up block style courses, it left different faculties with a smorgasbord of half-competed courses and missing assignments that cannot be fully recovered. Yet the genius who thought up the block “surprise” and the VC who ordered it into effect (then not) continue to hold their jobs.

Similarly, the Trust monopoly in West Auckland reduced the number of stores where liquor can be purchased, as well as the number of hours that the stores are open and the number of items (six) that can be purchased at any one time. What it did not do was remove distilled spirits from the shelves, something that was problematic because all hard liquor outlets outside of the Trusts jurisdiction in West Auckland are closed and supermarkets are forbidden from selling anything other than wine and beer. With the “one out, one in” entry policy in place, this was a recipe for disaster as hundreds of out-of-zone punters showed up to buy hard liquor in Trust stores, causing huge crowds who, to say the least, are not always adhering to safe distance guidelines. The efforts to take names and addresses at the doors was an exercise in futility that only added to the waits. After more than a week of complaints, hard liquor was pulled from Trust shelves, and the “one out, one in” policy has been modified so that store employees gather items for customers waiting at the till. The long queues remain.

In short: in the face of pandemic restrictions the Trust leaders decided to limit stores, hours and purchasable quantities but invited an increase in customers from outside the Trusts monopoly zone by neglecting to consider the spill-over effect of hard liquor outlets closures in the rest of the city. Win!

At a more individual level, there is the case of NZ Heath Minister David Clark, who breached the quarantine in order to take his family to a beach, and then use his branded electorate van to take his mountain bike to a popular trailhead before going on a ride. One could argue that this is another example of political Darwin Award aspirations, except for the fact that Clark has no background in medicine or health matters and was actually a Presbyterian minister who held assorted public service jobs before entering parliament. Yet somehow he got bumped up the chain to the Health portfolio, only to fail to understand a cardinal rule of ministerial politics: optics are more important than actual knowledge of the policy area being managed. In any event, it appears that the Peter Principle should have applied earlier in Mr. Clark’s political career, but for some reason the Labour Party decided to extend his shelf life until he became an embarrassment. That was an avoidable mistake.

There is the US Navy response to a plea from the commanding officer of one of its Pacific-based carriers to help off-load CV-19 stricken sailors in Guam (there were more than 150 cases among the 4800 sailors on board when he made his plea). The CO resorted to writing a letter to 20-30 senior uniformed officers in and outside his chain of command when he could not secure the cooperation of his immediate superior (a Rear Admiral who still is the Strike Force Commander of the seven ship carrier group) or of the Pacific Fleet commander (another Admiral) to quickly off-load the sick personnel. Apparently, these superiors and the civilians staffing the highest ranks of the Navy Department were more concerned about disclosing operational details (that the ship was in port with a pandemic in it rather than at sea in the Western Pacific) then in protecting the health and welfare of the sailors on board the carrier. The end result was that the Acting Navy Secretary, a Trump appointee, relieved the CO of his duties (a career ender for a much decorated and loved officer, who has been diagnosed with CV-19 himself) saying that he had compromised national security by sending the letter out over an insecure email system (the .mil system). He then flew, at a cost of over US$250,000, out to the carrier, got on the CO’s bridge microphone rather than address the sailors directly, and proceed to insult and disparage the CO as “naive” and “stupid.” He used a number of profanities while doing so, including a few F bombs for good measure. He then returned to DC, was summoned by Congressional Armed Service committees to explain his actions, initially stonewalled, then played the victim of a media beat-up, only to eventually apologise and resign. All in the space of 5 days.

There is an irony in this particular Peter Principle at work. Having the strongest symbol of US military power, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, crippled from within and idled in port pleading on deaf bureaucratic ears for relief for its sailors, is symptomatic of a much broader malaise in US military and political society. In the past five years the US Navy has seen two negligence-caused fatal ship crashes, accusations of war crimes against its elite commandos, the Fat Leonard corruption scandal involving dozens of senior officers, a number of high profile sex scandals amongst flag ranked officers and delays and irregularities in procurement and commissioning of the next generation of warships. And yet, besides some convenient scapegoats forced into retirement or court-martialled, zero institutional changes have been made to the way in which it operates, especially with regards to promotions into leadership positions. It is as if there is a Peter Principle pandemic at work throughout US Navy leadership circles!

There are many, many more instances of the Peter Principle at play throughout the world. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brasil could have an entire encyclopaedia written about his dumbassery and recklessness, including denying that CV-19 is anything more than a seasonal flu that his political opponents (including those who have previously supported him) have exaggerated for partisan reasons, and urging his followers at mass rallies to to ignore local quarantines and congregate in churches to pray for immunity (there again, you have that religious/idiocy nexus, now floating up to national level politics). He is not alone but the point should be clear: there is a whole lot of incompetence being exposed by this pandemic.

One can argue that what I have described is not so much the application of the Peter Principle on a global scale thanks to the pandemic, but instead mere stupidity, evil, venality and opportunism brought onto display by it–and that is not just confined to Trump. It can also be argued that the Peter Principle cannot be applied to politicians who are elected on things other than merit, or (in the case of authoritarians) for purposes other than the common good. These are reasonable counterpoints but what is different, I think, is that the pandemic has unveiled the gross incompetence of so many “captains” of industry, government and civil society, be they in transportation, logistics, sports, education, local politics, the military and a host of other endeavours.

One can only hope that once the pandemic subsides, there will be a clearing house effect on managerial elites throughout the world, preferably in concert with a return to sustainable economies and environmental protection efforts that, as I mentioned in an earlier post, allow us to live equitably within our means as members of local, national, regional and global societies.

But even then the question will remain: can such a transition remove the Peter Principle as an organisational feature in the future? Methinks not.

A test of civil society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inviting trouble?

datePosted on 14:43, March 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

Over the next few weeks New Zealand will host two major international sporting events involving hundreds of athletes and spectators gathered together in iconic settings. The gun goes off on Ironman NZ this upcoming weekend in Taupo, and then a week later the World Surf League (WSL) hosts the inaugural Piha Pro surfing competition in the namesake West Auckland seaside town. Ironman NZ will have 1500 competitors at the starting line, and the Piha Pro is said to attract, along with a highly competitive international field of surfers, up to 25,000 spectators during finals weekend (the competition runs for one week). The events are considered to be economic boons for the local communities as well as excellent ways of popularising the Kiwi “brand” around the world.

As a former surf lifeguard who lives near Piha and who spent nearly twenty years doing triathlons (including Ironman NZ), I can attest to the fact that events such as these are very important to those who engage in such sports. I have seen the energy generated by mass competition events and well understand why people are enthusiastic about supporting them. But this year there is something else added into the equation, one that has forced me to put on my day job hat as a someone involved in the risk management business: coronavirus.

Both Ironman NZ and the Piha Pro will bring athletes from all over the world, including countries with coronavirus outbreaks. They will by flying in on what are essentially long metal cigar tubes with recycled air, often on flights of 8 hours or more. Many of these athletes will bring family, friends and other support crews. Likewise, the organisers of these events–both Ironman and the WSL are international firms headquartered abroad,–basically act as a traveling circus, bringing in equipment, machines and staff and hiring local providers to do the same as part of the set-up process. All of these people mingle in close quarters in the days leading up to, through and after the event, and when not at the venues themselves populate the restaurants, bars, hotels, motels and rental accommodations near them.

What makes this issue a bit trickey is that the virus is not only spread by human-to-human contact but via contact with contaminated surfaces, be they plastic, metal, glass or wood. The incubation period is two days to two weeks in humans, but the surface contamination longevity is thought to be much longer. Infrared disinfection is considered the best way of treating contaminated surfaces but that requires resources and knowing which surfaces to treat.

Interestingly, the fitter one is nearing a long-distance triathlon, the more an individual’s immune system becomes depressed. This has to do with rigours imposed on the body by long-distance swimming, cycling and running for months at a time before the race, which is why a so-called “taper” is used whereby athletes gradually back off on training starting two weeks before race day. Surfers do not have quite the same problem, but for many in the WSL time is spent as much traveling as on the water, which also wears on the body.

And now they all get on those flying Petri dishes and head to Auckland.

Out of curiosity I have looked into the specific coronavirus contingency planning around these events. The bottom line is this: there appears to be none. It seems that neither the organisers or the district councils involved have drawn up plans for what happens in the event that someone involved in the competitions comes down sick with the virus. General guidance is provided by the Ministry of Health, to which councils can refer. Auckland Council offered this:

“At this stage Auckland Council is monitoring advice from the Ministry of Health and Auckland Regional Public Health. There is guidance for event organisers and attendees on their website below: https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-novel-coronavirus-information-specific-audiences/covid-19-advice-public-events-and-mass-gatherings. We’re aware that some community-led events are being cancelled by their organisers – they have their own reasons for making that decision and is entirely up to them. The current advice we’re relaying is for Aucklanders to take care of themselves and their families and follow health experts’ advice. Organisers and attendees should keep an eye on the health authorities’ websites for any new/changed information.”

That is the general advice given throughout the country. I was unable to find anything by the Ironman Corporation or WSL on coronavirus contingency planning for the New Zealand events, even though some Ironman-branded races have been cancelled or postponed in Asia because of the pandemic. The WSL has been silent on the subject in general even though there have been questions in the surfing community about whether the Olympics to be held in Japan at the end of July will go on if the pandemic deepens in Japan and/or spreads further (with surfing making its debut as an Olympic sport). Ironman New Zealand makes no mention of the disease in media announcements or on its website.

I assume that the insurance underwriters for these events have taken stock of the odds and given the green light for them to go ahead. That is certainly good news for everyone involved. But I also fear that the unique circumstances particular to these competitions might be inviting trouble, and that if it is left to participants, spectators, organisers and local communities to sort things out as per the general guidelines should the coronavirus arrive in their midst, then a public health emergency might occur.

Then again, having just become a naturalised Kiwi, rather than contingency planning and preparation for the possibility of trouble, I can always fall back on the belief that at the end of the day, “she’ll be right.”

An age of protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santiago, Chile, November 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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