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Autumn of the Patriarch.

datePosted on 14:00, August 21st, 2016 by Pablo

Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago. During the public celebration of his milestone he sat in a specialised wheel chair between his brother Raul and Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela. He is physically frail but his mind is still sharp, as evidenced in a (rather self-serving) editorial he wrote in which he praised his revolution and denounced US president Obama and the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba (which his brother, now president of Cuba after Fidel’s abdication due to illness, helped engineer). As part of the month long celebrations of his birth, he is being gifted a 90 meter long cigar, a world record for “puros” of any type. Bill Clinton should be so lucky.

Yet, I felt sadness and some pity at watching Fidel in his autumn years. Like Garcia Marquez’s Colonel, he is a man of the past wrapped in memories of what could have been. A man who once was an icon of the Latin American Left, worthy successor to Jose Marti, comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, patron of the Angolan and Mozambiquian revolutions, inspiration to insurrectionists world-wide, cunning adversary of the US for over five decades and arguably the best poker player the world after he bluffed the US into thinking that he would rather be incinerated rather than relent to US demands during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the USSR eventually agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba over Castro’s objections in exchange for a US withdrawal of surface to surface missile batteries in Turkey).

But rather than the imposing physical specimen that towered over so many of his emulators both in height and intellect and who attracted the attention of the rich, famous and powerful during his heyday, here sat a stooped, gaunt, hollow faced elder with visible hand tremors and a certifiable fool sitting on his left side. In fact, if Fidel represented the best hopes and aspirations of a previous generation of revolutionaries, Nicolas Maduro represents the terminal decline of the contemporary “Pink Tide” of elected neo-socialists that emerged during the 2000s and who, with few exceptions like the Frente Amplio governments of Uruguay, have been proven to be no less authoritarian, no less corrupt, and equally if not more incompetent than their capitalist predecessors. In some cases, these Pink Tide regimes were not so much socialist as they were kleptocratic, populist-corporatist or sold-out to the corporate interests they ostensibly opposed. And like Fidel, they have fallen on hard times.

Other than Maduro, no foreign leaders of note attended Fidel’s birthday party (even the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a country in which many Cubans spilled blood in the overthrow of Somoza and defense of the Sandinista Revolution, did not send a high level delegation). The rich and powerful were absent. In a sense, Fidel’s decline mirrors the struggles of the Cuban Revolution after the USSR withdrew its economic support for it. More tellingly, it symbolises the squandered opportunity of the Pink Tide.

The emergence of elected Left regimes in Latin America during the 2000s was a moment of great hope for progressives in the hemisphere. It followed a wave of so-called neoliberal, market-friendly economic reforms undertaken by a variety of right and populist regimes such as those of Menem in Argentina and Fujimori in Peru during the previous decades. As the negative consequences of neoliberalism began to impact on basic social indicators such as income inequality and child poverty, and could no longer be hidden by creative accounting and statistical manipulation, a window of ideological opportunity opened for the Latin American Left. They were the earliest and fiercest critics of the so-called “Washington Consensus” behind the adoption of neo-liberal reforms.  They were the academics, activists, organisers and politicians who marshalled protests, demonstrations and other forms of passive and active resistance to the implementation of market-driven edicts. They were the outlets through which the dislocating effects and social impact of the “more market” approaches were highlighted. And they had one more thing: structural opportunity in the form of a global commodities boom.

With the rise of China as an economic powerhouse in competition and/or concert with other established and new powers (e.g. the US, India), the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the demand for commodities–primary goods, raw materials and especially minerals, metals and fossil fuels–skyrocket. As prices soared on the back of increased demand previously unexploited regions became the subjects of concerted interest by Chinese and other investors. What already existed in terms of commodities–oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, natural gas and oil in Brazil, copper in Chile, even soy, maize and beef in Argentina and Uruguay–saw redoubled investment in extractive export industries. A boom time ensued.

At the turn of the century Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela elected or re-elected neo-socialist governments (El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru did as well but their tenures were short-lived). Every one of these countries benefited from the commodities boom. The question was not so much how to generate public money surpluses but in what measure and how to make use of them. But, just like Soviet subsidies gave Fidel’s Cuba an unnatural sense of comfort and inflated standard of living, the commodities boom was a temporary boost rather than a long term panacea for the region’s problems, depending on what was done with the surpluses generated by the golden moment.

With the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, pretty much everywhere else the preferred combination was public spending on popular projects mixed with epic corruption, graft and theft. To be sure, health, education, welfare and housing services improved in the early years of these regimes and social indicators improved relative to the neo-liberal baselines. Income redistribution downwards was accomplished via generous benefits packages provided to the lower classes. Public services such as transport, electricity and gas were heavily subsidised by the State. So were basic food staples. Public works schemes generated employment. But after a while the money provided for such projects began to run out as the demand for commodities stabilised and prices began to drop.

Worse yet, what most of these regimes did not do was invest constructively in long-term productive capacity and infrastructure. Instead, they threw money at popular short term projects and grandiose schemes such as building sports arenas and stadiums. They pushed increased export commodity dependency rather than diversification of the productive apparatus. In parallel, they siphoned off millions in public funds to friends, cronies and family of government officials, when not to themselves. The combination was one of immediate gain (for them and their supporters) at the expense of long-term sustainability, and now those chickens have come home to roost.

In places like Argentina under Cristina Fernandez de Kichner, corruption was elevated to an art form (in a country where it was already a highly developed practice). In places like Brazil and Ecuador corruption was an integral part of the public-private nexus in construction and fossil fuel exploration. But it is in Venezuela where the full depths of the decline are seen. Even before Hugo Chavez died, his “revolution” had turned into a feeding trough for the Boliviarian elites. Billions of dollars were provided to creating anti-imperialist alliances such as ALBA, the anti-capitalist trading bloc that was supposed  to counter MERCOSUR and which never got off the ground. Billions in subsidised oil was sent to Cuba to prop up the Castro regime as a form of anti-US solidarity. After Chavez died, under Maduro, Venezuela has become an economic basket case where shortages of basic staples and power outages are the norm and where both government services and private industry have nearly ground to a halt (in a country with one of the world’s largest oil reserves). In Venezuela and elsewhere there was a conspicuous lack of foresight or public planning. Few sovereign wealth funds were created to save during times of plenty for the inevitable lean times that come with the boom and bust cycles of the commodities trade. Once the lean times came, the response of the neo-socialist Left was to blame anyone but themselves and to grab as much of the dwindling public reserves for their own benefit.

In some cases, the actions of disloyal oppositions and foreign powers hastened the authoritarian response and increased self-enrichment of Leftist leaders. This was very much true in Venezuela. In other cases the sheer weight of historical patterns of political patronage and private nepotism wore down the resolve of Left politicians to resist the temptation to do things “as usual.” That was and is the case of Brazil. In Chile the strength of the military-business network has impeded anything but incremental reform by the most determined Left governments. In some cases (Bolivia and Ecuador) long tenures in power slowly insulated Left governments from the masses and allowed for the development of cultures of impunity in which public officials were no longer responsive to the commonweal and instead focused on maintaining themselves in power. In virtually all cases, again with the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, public officials treated national treasuries as individual and collective ATMs.

In some countries Left governments have been electorally replaced by Right ones (Argentina and Peru). In Brazil the Left PT government has crumbled under the weight of corruption scandals and succumbed to what amounted to a constitutional coup carried out by no less corrupt right-wingers. In several others such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Left continues to rule, however sclerotically and increasingly autocratically. In Chile the Concertacion government of Michelle Bachelet that preceded and replaced the one-term Right government of Sebastian Pinera is more establishment-friendly centrist than anything else (because it has to be in order to keep the coup plotters at bay). Only in Uruguay has the Left, in the form of the Frente Amplio governments of Tabare Vazquez and Jose Mujica, been true to its socialist and democratic principles.

This is just an broad overview. The extent of mismanagement, incompetence, ineptitude and outright criminality undertaken by the neo-socialist Left when governing in Latin American during the last decade and a half has been astounding. The hard truth is that the Latin American Left had its golden windows of opportunity in the 2000s and with some notable exceptions squandered it all.

In a sense, that is a fate they share with Fidel. Had he passed from the scene in the 80s or even 90s he would still be revered in many progressive circles. But he has lingered too long, well after the contradictions and frailty of his revolution have been exposed. In fact, an entire generation of Cubans have been raised in the “special times” of austerity and deprivation that have marked the last 25 years of Communist rule in Cuba and which has forced his brother to open the national economy and seek rapprochement with the US. This has made that generation much less committed to revolutionary ideals and much more committed to materially improving themselves. As an old friend said to me upon returning from Cuba: “Ideology goes out the window when you are hungry.”

Worse yet, it now appears true that Fidel was less a committed revolutionary as he was a Cuban nationalist who used the context of the Cold War to bolster his rule and burnish his credentials as a committed internationalist. Mutatis mutandis, that is a trait shared by many neo-socialists of the Pink Tide: they were and are socialists more in name than in deed, and are more interested in enshrining their rule than in truly re-making their countries into viable socialist (or social democratic) societies in which political power is exercised by the people for the people. Revolutionary rhetoric is no substitute for revolutionary praxis and is a poor cover for political and economic mismanagement.

I say this with much regret. One never expects the Latin American Right (or pretty much any Right) to do anything other than enrich themselves and their cronies. But one certainly expects that self-professed socialists will behave differently, especially more fairly and less venally, when in power. Many people, myself included, wanted to believe in the promise of the Pink Tide just as we previously wanted to believe in the transformational impact of the Cuban Revolution. And yet, like the neo-liberals before them, the majority of Pink Tide neo-socialists have been exposed as charlatans, thieves and frauds.

On those grounds Fidel has one thing over them. He may not have accomplished all of the things that he promised that he would, and his “revolution” may have been much less than he promised and more dependent than he admits, but at least he has remained true to himself in his declining years. That cannot be said for the likes of the Boliviarians and their erstwhile regional comrades.

That is why I felt sadness when I watched his birthday celebrations. In the autumn of his life, el Comandante is condemned to the unique solitude that goes with being the last of his kind.

PS: Looks like I am not the only one who thinks that the Pink Tide failed to deliver on its promise (although this author puts a more positive and hopeful spin on things).

Apologies in advance to my friend Hardly for tacking off his rebuttal to my post last week but I have spent the last week fascinated with the idea of getting the government I deserve.

I would not be writing the following words if not for George Orwell.

As intellectual hero’s go, I have few, but Orwell (along with John Ralston Saul) is one of them. Also it would be no short statement to say that his influence on my political thinking has been very profound*.

I read 1984 at the tender age of 12 and it was the first clearly political thing I had ever read and after that there was no turning back. I sought out more of his books to read along with anything else that seemed to be similar. Today I am proud to say that I have the complete set of his works, as printed by Penguin, and not a year goes by that I don’t re-read one of his books or loose myself in his essays, letters or poems.

I sometimes also ruminate on some of the similarities of our lives as while I had many reasons to live and work in Asia as long as I did, one of them was knowing that Orwell had spent five years in Burma or that his naturally contrarian and polemic positions was as much a product of his circumstances as who he was (much the same as myself).

But what I really love about Orwell is the way you can see his mind at work in his writing, it’s not just his thoughts on the page but his thought processes, his arguments, making their way towards their inevitable conclusions and the often ugly truth which they reveal.

In his stream of consciousness writing (mostly his essays but also in Homage to Catalonia, Road to Wigan Pier, Burmese Days, Down and Out in London and Paris and even 1984 (for its description of the bureaucratic life in all its dull glory) I have found much in common with the Gonzo works of Hunter S Thompson (via the placing of the writer in the story themselves and making them a central part), another writer I greatly admire.

But if there is anything I have learnt from reading his works it’s to have your own thoughts and opinions, to not just accept whatever is placed in front of you and to not be afraid to say what is needed to be said.

A good example of this is his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written while German bombs were still falling on London and the outcome of the war was still in doubt, it traces his argument for democratic socialism as the change required for England to win the war.

In it he pulls no punches in analyzing the reasons for the precarious state of pre-war England (the failure of the ruling class and capitalism to see the threat of a re-arming Germany), the strengths and weaknesses of Hitler’s Germany, criticism of the Left, the quirks of English nationalism and its intellectual character, the hypocrisy of empire mixed with the stated knowledge that while the British Empire was no saint any Nazi empire would be far worse.

He could have written just another polemic denouncing Nazism and supporting the government (buy more bonds!) as was common at the time but instead he attacked both sides as well as acknowledged their various strengths and weaknesses before finally offering a third solution entirely.

And it’s the clear understanding of the situation mixed with the unflinching analysis of what was needed that makes his argument so compelling, personal and so readable. Even now, in the age of drone warfare, no privacy and neo-liberal governments it’s easy to understand his hopes and fears about the situation (worries about Germany winning and the failures of capitalism and empire) and trace his logic throughout to the essays end which unlike so many other works from that period paints a clear and real picture by being so open to admit the failures of his own side and the strengths of the other.

But in the end it’s his critique of empire and capitalism and the fact that he saw them not as simple constructs but also vested with the character of their respective cultures that could give them various virtues and traits that makes his essay work. He was not seeking to defend them (as he was arguing for democratic socialism) but for the need to have a realistic view of the situation as it was then and to not be blinded by sheer ideology or dogma in the face of a mortal threat.

So how does my short hagiography of Orwell relate to the title of this post?

Simple, Orwell did not like twisting words to suit circumstances and his rules for writing were to use simple clear language to present the truth (no matter how upsetting)  but with a rather gentlemanly escape clause to prevent it being presented barbarously (something which I can sometimes forget in my own poisonous screeds).

And the platitude that people get the governments they deserve is something I don’t agree with and I believe neither would Orwell.

But I am not going to be citing Orwell as my defense for the rest of this post, I will be making my own arguments and presenting them as I can.

Firstly such a saying is a platitude, it’s not a definitive or historical statement although it may work as a retroactive tool in examining the outcome of a term of government but as a warning, wisdom or sheer statement its powerless as well as having the cruel and bitter tone of a sore loser rather than offering any holistic wisdom (sorry Hardly, its not directed at you per se, it just came out that way :).

Also most people don’t know the difference between a platitude and a platypus and so believe these little crud nuggets as accepted fact without examining things any further (another side effect of living in the age of the media soundbite as expected wisdom).

But returning to the point, getting the governments we deserve: did the German people get what they deserved when they elected Hitler? Is New Zealand getting what it “deserves” in having elected John Key? Or what about Trump/Clinton, will the US be getting what its just deserts in electing either one of them?

The answer to all three is, No!

We can differentiate between saying that it’s clear that one system or candidate appears better than another or that retrospectively a choice was not the best but these are not the same as saying that a people, any people, deserved what their votes got them.

In saying that someone deserved something there is a moral judgement and while we can all have a morals, democratic politics is morally neutral.

Democratic states don’t exist or operate on morals (the people in them have morals); they operate on the rule of law and a series of underlying principles which if not allowed to exist will rapidly make a state anything but democratic. So if you happen to live in a state with morals underlining your government you’re living in a theocracy or some other nation where church and state reside in the same house (in essence God as absolute monarch and an oligarchy of priests running things on Gods behalf)**.

Now I won’t be going all POLS 101 here but I will briefly highlight some key points for readers just so things are clear about what is needed for a state to be democratic.

For a state to be democratic it must be brought to life through the will of the people; the peoples will must be expressed freely and fairly; there must be sufficient political participation to make a majority and ensure proper participation, fundamental rights must be respected, there must be trust in the government elected and the means to remove it if they lose that trust.

Readers may have noticed I did not specifically mention elections (also known as 30 minutes once every three years before going back to sleep) which while a great means of enacting many of the above principles not much if the choices of who to vote for are not really free, not everyone is voting or governments once elected can behave any way they want without censure or removal.

There are many nations around the world which call themselves a democracy but that does not make them so. Simply saying it’s the will of the people when the mechanisms of the election itself are flawed will not make those flaws go away. Does one vote every three years, for a limited pool of candidates really makes the outcome the “will of the people”? I don’t think so.

But I can see that you’re not all convinced and to help explain further, it is worth diving a little deeper into the ways people view their government and their relationship with it.

Without realizing it most people view their state (democratic or otherwise) through either one of two basic lenses.

You are either a Hobbesian in your views in that the state protects you against the ravages and depredation of others states and a brutish nature and that your social contract with it is binding regardless of what kind of government you get OR you are Lockean in nature and believe that democratic states only operate with the consent of the governed and that consent can be removed at any time, forcibly if need be.

Of course I am simplifying things quite a bit here (as I have a word limit) but this is the essence of the two positions. It’s also worth pointing out that I see benefits in both arguments but at the end of the day I come down on the side of John Locke rather than Thomas Hobbes.

If you believe that people get the governments they deserve then your most likely going to groove to what Hobbes had to say in Leviathan (and I do recommend reading it as once you get past the old time English his arguments are persuasive and readable) and it’s easy to understand how such a view, in the wake of the English Civil War (stability at any price rather than chaos), might make sense but since Hobbes believed in, and was arguing for only an absolute monarchy, you may wish to temper any ideas of who deserves what government they get with the idea of life in an absolute monarchy and you not being the absolute monarch.

If you believe that people should have a better government than the one they currently have then you will dig Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. It might just be your bag but be aware that just as Hobbes was writing in response to the chaos of civil war and to defend strong government Locke was writing to help justify removing government, by revolution if necessary! So if you like the government you have but a lot of other people do not then don’t expect them to agree with your political views or sit idly by.

Neither of these two positions, if taken to extreme, really work, but they provide the foundation of much of the ideas of the social contract and of what kind of government we expect to get.

And it’s the social contract that we turn to next because the next question is, can one vote (30 minutes every three years) be necessary and sufficient for a government to represent an entire country, electorate and all actions taken in its course.

The answer is no. Obviously the necessary works but the sufficient does not and this is where the other factors come into play.

For most of us, we get out once every three years and vote, have a big yawn and then we go back to sleep politically and forget what we were actually voting about until the next media frenzy three years later.

The idea that we voted and so the will of the people has been expressed is now good for the next electoral period is a pernicious idea and one that many in power would like us to believe. But where do we draw the line, democracy can either be direct (you have input in all decisions in government) or representative (you elect someone to represent you in government) and in the modern age who would have the time or the knowledge to participate let alone be informed as to what they were participating in?

So until we get the electronic democracy that was discussed last week we are stuck with electing people to represent us. But where is the balance between voting once every three years and then leaving the government free to do what it wants until the next election and having to give consent on each and every issue a government faces?

And this is where Orwell gets back into the argument with his articulation in The Lion and the Unicorn that the debate is not necessarily binary in position and that there may be a third option for us to consider; that of a flexible and realistic response to the situation rather than a punitive platitude in lieu of open debate or partisan politics.

And what would such a response be? What info would we give to the people of Germany, NZ and the US (the past, our present and future) in response to the question posed?

For Germany, the answer is retrospective, we can’t change time but looking back it’s easy to see where things were going but again like Locke and Hobbes the mood at the time was not as we live in now.

Germany (well 34% of them) welcomed Hitler in the wake of weak and failing government, the treaty of Versailles and things like the Great Depression. Hitler did not magically spring into being but was enacted through the democratic system and a genuine desire for change by people living in unhappy times. This does not excuse the actions taken by the brown-shirts in the street battles leading up to the election (or Hitlers own after) where political opponents were intimidated, beaten and later sent off to a concentration camp.

They hoped for something better but it took a world war and a smashed state to remove the consequence of that decision. Did they deserve that outcome based on one vote? No they did not. If anything Hitlers rise to power remains a warning about those who would seek to remove barriers to absolute power and the mechanisms of democracy. Of course there are some deep sociological questions about states in the thrall of a dictator and such but that’s for another post.

In New Zealand, as the housing hernia continues to grow and National continue to run a bargain basement government headed by a predatory merchant banker and his grubby cabal of sleazy criminals, are we getting the government we deserve, weather we voted for them (37% at the last election) or not?

No! We deserve better, we deserve a government that does not pander to just one section of the electorate at the expense of the other but neither should we simply be penalizing one section of the electorate for being worried about the market rupturing and being left with a house worth less than their mortgage when the crash comes. We deserve a government which represents us all and will get the hernia operation before we blow an O-ring in public. We deserve a government which is not selling out the populace and where ideas of eradicating poverty (better wages and fairer tax laws) and housing for all are not pie in the sky arguments.

Will the US deserve Trump as president, or Clinton as president simply to prevent Trump from being president? Is the outcome of either, if they turn out to be a bad president, able to be blamed on the electorate, the “people”, when only half of those eligible to vote, do vote; where the system locks out third parties and their differing viewpoints despite substantial support bases and both candidates are bastions of fear and loathing among many voters? Do those that vote, no matter what side, deserve what they are likely to get?

The answer again is, and chant it with me, no! Who knows what either of these two water heads will unleash on the US and the rest of the world as leader of it. Neither have the confidence of the people and neither represent a majority in a country where 50% of the populace does not vote and politics for politics sake is the order of the day. The US deserves a better president, one that generates hope and trust not fear and loathing.

The key to all of these situations is you, the voter. You don’t deserve a bad government no matter who you vote for because no one votes for a bad government. Your vote, when you cast it, is made with the best of intentions, no matter which party you support. Yes I might question your views, and yes your party might have a political pedigree of a man sized liver fluke (X-files reference!) but you did not cast that vote in the aim of seeing your country come out worse than before, you cast it in the hope of something better.

Does this absolve you from making questionable vote choices? No it does not. Caveat Emptor is the watch word at all times but that maxim cuts both ways and never forget that. Don’t just react like a pinball and careen around the partisan bumpers of political parties hoping to not go down the hole. Aim up the table for the high score and extra ball which keep you in the game just that little bit longer.

Also its not just enough to vote once a term and return to your slumbers.

If you live in a real democracy***, not one just in name but one that has all the things which make it real then fight to keep it that way.

If you live in one of those fake democracies, you know which ones I am talking about, then do more than just legitimate the status quo every three, four or five years by voting and then switching off. Be part of the political process in any way shape or form more than just voting (you could post on political blog for example) because if you do nothing but vote you will more than likely get something you won’t like no matter what you hoped/wished for when you voted.

You deserve better than the government you get.

 

*something which regular readers may have noticed given one small clue which I regularly give away.

** the current market state with obedience to the invisible hand of the market and economists deciding things is a lot closer to a theocracy than a democratic state.

***I would love to apply this argument to people not living in democracies but their situation is a lot harder to correct. Also you can decide if you live in a real democracy or not.

The Language of Violence

datePosted on 10:37, July 18th, 2016 by E.A.

There was an attempted coup in Turkey on the weekend. So far there are no real details on why and militaries can end up intervening in politics for a variety of reasons. Jets were scrambled, an attack helicopter was shot down and people massed in the streets and suddenly as it started it was over.

What is known is that while Erdogan is back in power I don’t think this is really a victory for democracy as he has become increasingly authoritarian over time and been connected to more than one scandal while in government.

Already the media has been talking about “purges” of both bad military personnel and anyone else who happens to oppose him so don’t expect the underlying issues which sparked the coup to go away anytime soon.

Add to this an ongoing bombing campaign in Turkey, often directed at military personnel and the “fun fun fun” next door in Syria and it’s not too difficult to see what may have been going through the minds of the plotters when they decided to have a coup.

The death toll from all of this is around 300 and it appears that those in the coup maker’s side decided to fire on civilians at least once, which while not the turning point, would not have been a recommended means to gather support when overthrowing a government.

Meanwhile in the US more police officers are dead in what is starting to appear to be tit for tat style killings in response to police killing various black American males.

While tragic I can’t help but feel somewhat concerned that in a nation full of guns and racial tensions (among other things) this is not going to be the last time this happens. An example has been set and if the police continue to use guns as a means to enforce the law then expect others to do so as well in response to issues of police behaving lawlessly.

And while somewhat peripheral to the situation, killings those tasked to enforce the law is a text book indicator of a brewing insurgency. Usually these acts happen to not only send a message and destabilize the current authority (allowing the insurgent to substitute its own authority) but to also acquire weapons to which further the struggle but in gun crazy USA there is no need to worry about getting your hands on high power weaponry (thanks NRA!) so consider this just a message sent.

Politicians and pundits wring their hands, the president says something reassuring but I can’t see any political means for the US to step away from this. The US looks more and more like an apartheid state every day and nothing I hear from friends and family living there gives me any indication that the horrible momentum of a dying super power will be arrested before the inevitable fall happens (for those who would like to get an indicator of how this goes I strongly recomend Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a text book read for how Empires fail).

And over in Asia the sabers are being rattled after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decided to enforce the UNCLOS (United Nations Law of the Sea) against Chinese actions in the South China Sea, deeming them illegal.

Will that actually stop China from building islands and military bases on coral reefs and atolls and behaving belligerently? Probably not as the immediate response out of Beijing was to declare it “rigged” in favor of the West which I would normally consider an appropriate response from China but in this instance just smacks of sour grapes.

In fact I expect immediate action form China in the wake of this as its already verbally blasted Australia for commenting unfavorably on this and I wonder if our current trade spat with China might be related to our not kowtowing to China on this issue.

What is clear that this one has been slow brewing for the past half-decade and even longer once you get into the history of it (one of my specialist areas of Masters study) and with natural resources like fishing, possible oil, and territorial sovereignty on the line among China, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan (as something similar is brewing between Japan and China over disputed islands between them) no body is likely to be able, or willing to back down.

Add to this increased naval and related weapons sales to all parties and the US firmly opposed to China on this issue and you have all the makings of a cold war style thriller (which, if I remember correctly, was actually predicted by some Cold War style Tom Clancy type novelist in the 1980’s, whose names escapes me at this time).

And finally in NZ we have two individuals shot dead by the Police in one week. Both may have been in self-defense and both may have been justified (as details, while sketchy, seem to indicate that it was a means of last resort or in the face of imminent threat) but again the message is clear and unlike the US not (at least yet) a common occurrence in our society.

There is no common thread among these events except one which is, as the song* says, that “death is the silence” in the language of violence.

*-The Language of Violence by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

 

 

 

I was invited to speak at a forum in Wellington on the “Privacy Security Dilemma.” It included a variety of people from government, the private sector, academia and public interest groups. The discussion basically revolved around the issue of whether the quest for security in the current era is increasingly infringing on the right to privacy. There were about 150 people present, a mixture of government servants, students, retirees, academics, foreign officials and a few intelligence officers.

There were some interesting points made, including the view that in order to be free we must be secure in our daily lives (Professor Robert Ayson), that Anglo-Saxon notions of personal identity and privacy do not account for the collective nature of identity and privacy amongst Maori (Professor Karen Coutts), that notions of privacy are contextual rather than universal (Professor Miriam Lips), that in the information age we may know more but are no wiser for it (Professor Ayson), that mass intrusions of privacy in targeted minority groups in the name of security leads to alienation, disaffection and resentment in those groups (Anjum Rahman), and that in the contemporary era physical borders are no impediment to nefarious activities carried out by a variety of state and non-state actors (various).

We also heard from Michael Cullen and Chris Finlayson. Cullen chaired the recent Intelligence Review and Finlayson is the current Minister of Security and Intelligence. Cullen summarised the main points of the recommendations in the Review and was kind enough to stay for questions after his panel. Finlayson arrived two hours late, failed to acknowledge any of the speakers other than Privacy Commissioner John Edwards (who gave an encouraging talk), read a standard stump speech from notes, and bolted from the room as soon as as he stopped speaking.

Thomas Beagle gave a strong presentation that was almost Nicky Hageresque in its denouncement of government powers of surveillance and control. His most important point, and one that I found compelling, was that the issue is not about the tradeoff between security and privacy but between security and power. He noted that expanded government security authority was more about wielding power over subjects than about simply infringing on privacy. If I understand him correctly, privacy is a commodity in a larger ethical game.

Note that I say commodity rather than prize. “Prize” is largely construed as a reward, gain, victory or the achievement of some other coveted objective, especially in the face of underhanded, dishonest, unscrupulous and often murderous opposition.  However, here privacy is used as a pawn in a larger struggle between the state and its subjects. Although I disagree with his assessment that corporations do not wield power over clients when they amass data on them, his point that the government can and does wield (often retaliatory) power over people through the (mis) use of data collection is sobering at the very least.

When I agreed to join the forum I was not sure exactly what was expected from me. I decided to go for some food for thought about three basic phrases used in the information gathering business, and how the notion of consent is applied to them.

The first phrase is “bulk collection.” Bulk collection is the wholesale acquisition and storage of data for the purposes of subsequent trawling and mining in pursuit of more specific “nuggets” of actionable information. Although signals intelligence agencies such as the GCSB are known for doing this, many private entities such as social media platforms and internet service providers also do so. Whereas signals intelligence agencies may be looking for terrorists and spies in their use of filters such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE, private entities use data mining algorithms for marketing purposes (hence the targeted advertisements on social media).

“Mass surveillance” is the ongoing and undifferentiated monitoring of collective behaviour for the purposes of identifying, targeting and analysing the behaviour of specific individuals or groups. It is not the same thing as bulk collection, if for no other reason than it has a more immediate, real-time application. Mass surveillance is done by a host of public agencies, be it the Police via CCTV coverage of public spaces, transportation authorities’ coverage of roadways, railroads and airports,  local council coverage of recreational facilities and areas, district health board monitoring of hospitals, etc. It is not only public agencies that engage in mass surveillance. Private retail outlets, shopping centres and malls, carparks, stadiums, entertainment venues, clubs, pubs, firms and gated communities all use mass surveillance. We know why they do so, just as we know why public agencies do so (crime prevention being the most common reason), but the salient fact is that they all do it.

“Targeted spying” is the covert or surreptitious observation and monitoring of targeted individuals and groups in order to identify specific activities and behaviours. It can be physical or electronic (i.e. via direct human observation or video/computer/telephone intercepts). Most of this is done by the Police and government intelligence agencies such as the SIS, and most often it is done under warrant (although the restrictions on warrantless spying have been loosened in the post 9/11 era). Yet, it is not only government security and intelligence agencies that undertake targeted spying. Private investigators, credit card agencies, debt collectors, background checking firms and others all use this as a tool of their trades.

What is evident on the face of things is that all of the information gathering activities mentioned here violate not only the right to privacy but also the presumption of innocence, particularly the first two. Information is gathered on a mass scale regardless of whether people are violating the law or, in the case of targeted spying, on the suspicion that they are.

The way governments have addressed concerns about this basic violation of democratic principles is through the warrant system. But what about wholesale data-gathering by private as well as public entities? Who gives them permission to do so, and how?

That is where informed consent comes in. Informed consent of the electorate is considered to be a hallmark of robust or mature democracies. The voting public are aware of and have institutional channels of expression and decision-making influence when it comes to the laws and regulations that govern their communal relations.

But how is that given? As it turns out, in the private sphere it is given by the phrase “terms and conditions.” Be it when we sign up to a social media platform or internet service, or when we park our cars, or when we enter a mall and engage in some retail therapy, or when we take a cab, ride the bus or board a train, there are public notices governing the terms and conditions of use of these services that include giving up the right to privacy in that particular context. It may be hidden in the fine print of an internet provider service agreement, or on a small sticker in the corner of a mall or shop entry, or on the back of a ticket, but in this day and age the use of a service comes attached with it the forfeiture of at least some degree of privacy. As soon as we tick on a box agreeing to the terms or make use of a given service, we consent to that exchange.

One can rightly argue that many people do not read the terms or conditions of service contracts. But that is the point: just as ignorance is no excuse for violation of the law, ignorance of the terms of service does not mean that consent has not been given. But here again, the question is how can this be informed consent? Well, it is not.

That takes us to the public sphere and issues of governance. The reality is that many people are not informed and do not even think that their consent is required for governments to go about their business. This brings up the issue of “implicit,” “implied” or inferred” consent. In Latin American societies the view is that if you do not say no then you implicitly mean yes. In Anglophone cultures the reverse is true: if you do not explicitly say yes than you mean no. But in contemporary Aotearoa, it seems that the Latin view prevails, as the electorate is often uninformed, disinterested, ignorant of and certainly not explicitly consenting to many government policy initiatives, including those in the security field and with regards to basic civil liberties such as the right to privacy and presumption of innocence.

One can argue that in representative democracy consent is given indirectly via electoral processes whereby politicians are elected to exercise the will of the people. Politicians make the laws that govern us all and the people can challenge them in neutral courts. Consent is given indirectly and is contingent on the courts upholding the legality if not legitimacy of policy decisions.

But is that really informed contingent consent? Do we abdicate any say about discrete policy decisions and legislative changes once we elect a government? Or do we broadly do so at regular intervals, say every three years, and then just forget about having another say until the next election cycle? I would think and hope not. And yet, that appears to be the practice in New Zealand.

Therein lies the rub. When it comes to consenting to intrusions on our privacy be they in the private or public sphere, we are more often doing so in implicit rather than informed fashion. Moreover, we tend to give broad consent to governments of the day rather than offer it on a discrete, case by case, policy by policy, law by law basis. And because we do so, both public authorities and private agencies can collect, store, manipulate and exchange our private information at their discretion rather than ours.

Sorry no budget commentary (what would I write about anyway) but something a little different.

I have been thinking about Labours great betrayal in 1984 and trying to figure out what actually happened, or more to the point why they did what they did?

This post is for all those who have been burnt by that betrayal, all those who got screwed over by it, who lost their jobs, who had their farms or land taken away, who went into the 90’s unprepared for the savagery of nine years of National government continuing to twist the knife and cut one bloody piece off after another and for those who are now part of the that great kiwi diaspora still euphemistically called “the big OE”. This is for those people. The rest of you might as well stop reading now.

What follows is not a discussion of history, nor is it a well-researched jaunt through a serious of loosely assembled facts. None of this will offer any comfort, solace or even cathartic release for what this country has become; because if you are like me, nothing can heal those wounds short of the various people responsible hanging from the lamp posts along Lambton Quay (of course in effigy only). None the less I feel compelled to describe it as it now appears, as unbelievable as it seems even to me.

And what I am getting at and where I am going is because by living through those times I was deeply affected by them and due to these experiences I have been shaped by them. If the 80s and 90s did’nt politicise you then you left NZ (I was also one of those) for better jobs and better lives overseas or you simply decided (in true Kiwi fashion) to say nothing, do nothing and (with great apathy) give up the ghost to become the middle class voter mass which has helped perpetuate this sorry state of affairs.

And the burning question is how did a party which was effectively Socialist and Keynesian in focus and Roger Douglas, a man trained as an accountant, with no radical bones in his body and with an impeccable left wing pedigree, embark on such a radically Laissez faire fare course of action that in the end has done far more damage to this country than good.

The answers may surprise you.

NZ spent a lot of the 70s under National after a brief flirtation with Labour between 1972 and 1975**. Before 1972 it had been 12 years of National government, Vietnam, the 60s, counter culture and the scent of revolution in the air. Governments across the world were freaked out at the prospect of their quiet little Hobbesian playground being disturbed by the massive social shifts taking place.

National in the 1970s and early 1980s was Rob Muldoon and Think Big with Muldoon often acting more like a left winger than a right with his highly socialised/big government/authoritarian approach to running New Zealand.

It was’nt quite Smiths Dream but there was no reason not to believe that such a dystopia was not just around the corner and this was view shared by both those in the public and in government (although with very different outlooks and expectations).

At this time two events stand out as amazing examples of what Kiwis can do when motivated to do so, when not afraid or apathetic and when the still but deep running idealist streak in this country combines with issues which are perceived as worth the effort. They were the Maori Land Marches/Bastion Point and the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Both of these events changed the face of NZ, both of these were the first major upheavals since the land wars where a mass of people were fighting back and the established powers had no real response. The 1951 Waterfront Strikes also stand out but they were eventually crushed.

To those used to ruling NZ (and I will not name names as I can’t afford the legal fees to fight of defamation charges) these changes portended the end of their hold on this country, the ruin of their plans for Godzone and termination of the colonial status quo.

To these people, just reparation for land stolen or upholding ethical principles over business practice was just not on and like so many scared elites they began to formulate plans for the inevitable counter revolution.

But what to do and how to do it? It was clear that the National Government was on the out and that an energized Labour Party was going to take power come the next election and possibly sweep away all their privilege.

National, the traditional party of the status quo, was now ruled by Muldoon and suffering from the economic fallout of Think Big which had drained the country of funds and left it economically crippled while Labour still had some of the Magic or Norman Kirk about them, despite being driven from government in 1975 with the same vigor that had seen them enter in 1972 (this sudden reversal was in part to the sudden death of the highly popular Kirk and his replacement by the less charismatic Bill Rowling but also due to the internecine power struggle that immediately erupted in the Labour Party after Kirks passing).

So with National not able to fulfill its traditional role as the vehicle for vested interests a plan was hatched to enact a social and economic blitzkrieg on the nation which would not only stifle dissent but use the damage inflicted by Think Big to drive though sweeping deregulation by the soon to be government, the Labour party.

But for this to happen Labour would need to completely abandon its ideological base and core principles. Could the powers that be make this happen, could they turn water in wine? It seems they could.

Many of the details will remain obscured and like Philby and Blunt those involved will probably take the truth to their graves but the fact of the matter is that after the 1984 election things were never the same again.

If you don’t believe in counter revolutions then think again, history is full of political and social elites enacting all manner of schemes to protect their wealth, privilege and lifestyles when threatened and betrayers and double crossers also abound, playing more than one side for their own personal gain.

Since 1984 those elites have strengthened their hold on our nation and society and seen a would be technocrat-tyrant become PM to ensure their ongoing control (think of Key as less than Quadaffi in Libya and more like Salazar in Portugal).

Also keep in mind that less than five years ago many people scoffed at the idea of things that are known to be true today thanks to people like Wiki-leaks, Edward Snowden or the Panama papers.

Is it too far to believe that Rodger Douglas, and others, were moles infiltrating the Labour party so as to drive through a series of reforms that would create such shock and dislocation that, like all good counter revolutions, the opposition would be thrown off balance, fractured and unable to mount a coherent response? Is that such an unrealistic thing to believe? If it is I have one word for you: COINTELPRO.

And when you realize the damage that has been done to Labour since those times is it such a step to understanding that by infiltrating the opposition party and then compromising it at the highest levels that it would effectively taint the party for life and ensure that it would have little or no credibility for years to come, thus neutering it politically.

And can anyone who ever witnessed (or watched on TV) the land marches or the tour protests forget the feeling that the nation was on the brink, that decades of tension and repression were spilling forth in the act of pitting one Kiwi against another.

I believe that right now, today, we are on the cusp of similar changes, the de-regulated state and its grim servants cannot contain the effects or damage of their actions over the last 30 years. We now have at least two generations that have grown up under this and another, much poorer one, on its way.

This is not about Labour being the magic bullet to the depravity of National or having an ideal solution to the problems of the day. This is about us understanding our history, even if it is completely untrue, to enable us to get past it. This is about enacting the Utopian ideals that make Kiwis the world beating iconoclasts that we can be when we put our minds to it and when we are not servants of the power.

Just as then events today are politicizing us and the issues are once again rising up to demand a change the establishment is once again (this time with National in power) going to do everything it can to stop us.

This is why I believe the Greens will be the next to be co-opted if they allow it or that Labour lacks the heart to dismantle the dark satanic mills that John Key manages on behalf of the absentee owners who look down from their high towers and wonder fearfully at the crowds massing below.

*-Thanks to Robot Chicken Season 6 for the title

**- Labour lost in 1975 by almost the same margin it got in on in 72

I was invited by the nice folk at sustainnews.co.nz to contribute a short essay related to sustainable economics from my perspective as a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultant. The essay wound up  making the connection between political risk and sustainable enterprise, and more importantly, the relationship between sustainable enterprise and democracy. You are welcome to view it here.

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.

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