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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.

The end of small “d” democracy?

datePosted on 12:11, September 29th, 2019 by Pablo

As a part of the second generation of “transitologists” interested in the causes, processes and consequences of political regime change, I was exposed to a considerable amount of writing on democratic theory and practice. After all, if one is going to study the reasons for democratic collapse, authoritarian rise and fall and the re-emergence, restoration or first appearance of democracy, one should have a pretty good grasp on what democracy is and is not. In recent years the theme amongst third and fourth generation transitologists includes the unfortunate subject of democratic decline, something that is global in nature and has been evident in mature as well as relatively nascent or immature democracies over the last decade or so.

In a book that I wrote about the relationship between the State, organised labour and capitalists in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, I used my understanding of democratic theory to break down what it looks like in practice. I distinguished between procedural democracy, which is the (electoral) means by which incumbents of political decision making positions are selected, and substantive democracy, which are the institutional, social and economic dimensions underpinning the procedural level and which gives it intrinsic merit.

Without going into the type of detail that a 400 page book carries in it, it is at the substantive level where small “d” democracy signs in. Large “D” Democracy basically refers to the procedural and institutional bases of a particular form of elected political representation–rule of law, separation of powers, universal franchise, horizontal and vertical accountability etc. Although there is overlap with the institutional dimension, small “d” democracy refers to societal and material traits that are inculcated in a politically organised collectivity–a polity, in other words–and which have the potential to become self-reproducing. Over time, concepts like equality, fairness, consensus and consent, mutual respect, toleration and compromise move from being ideals or notions about the proper social order to being baseline characteristics of small “d” societies. These values do not just inform collective decision-making at all levels. They imbue individual behaviour with a personal ethos grounded in them.

In short, the substance of democracy is ideological, which determines the values upon which its institutions and procedures are founded.

Entire careers have been made studying the procedural and institutional bases of democratic political systems. Electoral analysis, polling, constitutional law, legislative studies, party politics, executive relations with the judiciary and legislature–all of these fields (and more) have focused on the mechanics, interactions, processes and personalities involved in the formal side of big “D” Democracies. They assume away, ignore or take for granted that their subjects are underpinned by an ideological foundation grounded in collective agreement on behaviour and representation. This misses a fundamental aspect of the social construct known as democracy.

Put another way, focusing on the procedural-institutional aspects of democracy without considering its substantive dimensions is akin to studying a hollow shell.

Consider this: we repeatedly hear about the importance of the “rule of law,” that no person is above the law and that democracies are founded on laws, not people. But a universal law prohibiting people from sleeping on park benches in fact only prohibits some people from doing so. The practical impact of universal laws, to paraphrase Gramsci, descends through a complex tissue of class, racial, ethno-religious, gender and other vulgarisations on its way to becoming enforceable edicts, with the effect being that law enforcement is often non-universal or discriminatory in nature. In order for universal laws to be universal in application, there needs to an underpinning consensus that they be so regardless of circumstance.

That is where the substance of democracy–its ideological foundations translated into everyday social practice–matters. And that is also where the core problem of democracy currently lies.

International polling over the last decade or so shows a steady erosion in support for democracy and, more alarmingly, greater dissatisfaction with democracy amongst younger people. The erosion of support for democracy is linked to the emergence of elected authoritarians like Dutarte, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan, but also in the rise of the Alt-Right and various nationalist populist movements across the globe. The problems of of democracy appear to be both institutional and ideological.

Institutionally, most advanced democracies display signs of sclerosis. Lobbying, corruption, clientelism, patronage, gerry-mandering, vote-buying and voter suppression, rank partisanship and other pathologies have turned the institutional edifice upon which most current political democracies are perched extremely brittle. That has increased public cynicism and distrust about politics and politicians to the point that the disapproval is of the system as a whole, not just a few “bad apples.” That in turn has made contemporary democracies susceptible to manipulation by external actors using disinformation and psychological operations campaigns in order to exploit social cleavages and further sow divisions from within, knowing that these will be reproduced rather than ameliorated by the political class.

The problem is compounded by the elimination of what used to be called civics education in secondary schools. Replaced by non-critical “social studies” programs that fail to address both the structural and ideological bases of democracy, recent generations of students have no real grasp on what democracy entails. Among the worst areas of confusion are the notion of “rights,” especially with regards to the comparative rights of majorities and minorities and the exercise of freedom of speech. This occurs against a backdrop of increased vulgarisation of social discourse at all levels, so what used to pass as informed debate on contentious issues has now descended into shouting matches and ad hominem attacks from the halls of parliament to local board meetings, ratepayer assemblies and a host of community AGMs ( I write this as I am in the process of filling out my local government voting papers and in light of what I have seen and heard about recent “meet the candidate” events).

More broadly, the focus on rights without regard to responsibilities ignores the mutual second best trade-offs that lie at the core of democratic social culture. To recall: in a democracy no one gets everything they want all of the time but everyone gets some of what they want most of the time, with the guarantee of being able to revisit contentious issues at regularly scheduled intervals (politically, in the form of elections and referenda). That is the core of small “d” democracy: acceptance and reproduction of the values of toleration and compromise based on notions of quality and fair play.

That is the crux of the matter. Large “D” Democracy persists in that it has a procedural and institutional facade with much history and to which much attention is paid. But it is substantively corroded from within and without, and worst yet, it lacks the ideological glue that would allow it to continue to survive as a genuine political alternative to various forms of authoritarianism.

Therein lies the the problem. From politicians to institutions to individuals, the small “d” value system that once sustained big “D” Democracy appears to have diminished into a faint echo. What is left within big ‘D” Democracies is partisanship, opportunism and authoritarianism disguised as problem solving, “common sense” and freedom of expression. Rather than civic minded people of virtue interested in public service, big “D” Democratic politics is increasingly populated by charlatans, demagogues, self-interested grifters, con artists and hypocritical reprobates of various stripes.

With politicians acting in bad faith, partisan cleavages deepening, foreign actors (state and non-state) manipulating news and younger generations ignorant of what democratic values are and are not, it should not be surprising that as a cultural norm, small “d” democracy is on the wane.

Even so, there is room for hope. Things like student climate activism, Code Pink direct action campaigns and the spontaneous activities of a wide range of community groups are signs that there is a thirst for small “d” democracy around the world. But that requires returning to the notion of democratic values as a starting point for any discussion about collective action, political participation and interest group representation. It requires confronting undemocratic bullies who lead local government bodies and volunteer organisations as well as those in the halls of parliament. It needs, in other words, a re-appreciation of the basic social value structure that overrides collective and individual egotism and which forges fresh horizontal solidarity ties between groups as well as their vertical ties to political representatives.

That is a matter of education, not politics.

Xenophobia is not always racist.

datePosted on 15:46, July 18th, 2019 by Pablo

I have been reading and listening to the aftermath of Trump’s comments about the four female first term Democratic representatives, all of whom are “people of color.” I found the US coverage interesting both as evidence of partisanship and the deep vein of bigotry that Trump has tapped into in order to advance his political career. But some of the coverage has got me to thinking about how the issue is being framed, specifically whether or not his comments were “racist.”

Here is how I see it: Strictly speaking, the “go back to where you came from” line is xenophobic. It often is underpinned by racism, as in Trump’s case. But it is not the same or reducible to racism because culture, religion, language, dress etc. factor in as well. The primary inference is that the “other” is “foreign.” The distinction is important, especially in a country that has the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol.

Trump’s ignorance of his target’s birth origins does not take away from the underlying anti-foreign message. It appears that in the US xenophobia is more widespread than racism. Trump knows this. That allows him to disavow racism and yet throw bigoted meat to his base because foreigners are “aliens,” the inference being that they are sub-humans who come from crime-infested sh*tholes (his language, not mine). That he speaks of these first generation citizens’ supposed hate for America and loyalty to foreign enemies like al-Qaeda (both demonstrable lies) rather then focus on their racial characteristics is proof that the emphasis is on their foreign “otherness.” Likewise, in calling them socialists and communists Trump and his minions emphasise the “un” American nature of those ideologies and their supposed embrace of them. It is to the xenophobic streak in US society that Trump is speaking to, some of which may be embedded in broader racist sentiment.

As a third generation US citizen descended from Irish Catholic, Italian and Scottish stock, I am well versed in the “go back to where you came from” opinions directed at my grandparents. Then as now it may have overlapped with but was not strictly a matter of racism.

Anyway, as I see it, for all of the nice inscriptions on Lady Liberty, the US has a deeply rooted xenophobic streak that parallels and often overlaps with its history of racism. There are times when one strand overshadows the other, for example during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s when racism took centre stage and xenophobia took a back seat. In today’s context the “acceptable” form of bigotry–besides ongoing homophobia and misogyny–is xenophobia, not racism.

This is what allows the Trump administration to detain thousands of “illegal aliens” (most of the world uses the term “undocumented migrants”) in internment camps. It is what allows it to separate hundreds of “alien” children from their parents and remove them to detention centres far from where their parents are held. The justification for such depravity is not offered on the basis of race but on the basis of birth origin. That, it seems, is more acceptable to many “Americans” who would not accept the wholesale incarceration of African- or Asian-Americans on the sole basis of race.

Oh wait, check that thought. That was only true in other times.

Incidentally, I place qualifier marks around the term “Americans” because “America” refers to continents rather than individual nations, so the appropriation of the word by the US is more a form of linguistic imperialism than an actual descriptor of who is born there.

In any event, I feel that the emphasis on whether Trump’s comments were racist or not obscures and detracts from the fact that xenophobia, stoked by years of endless war against and tensions with foreigners (mostly of color) has made it the preferred form of bigotry wielded by Republicans and those who are fearful of the loss of white dominance in a country where demographic change does not favour them.

Whether or not it will be used as part of a winning electoral strategy by Trump and the Republicans in 2020 remains to be seen. But what it does demonstrably prove is that the historical roots of xenophobic “othering” are being well watered today.

Postscript: Conspicuous by its absence from the MSM coverage is the fact that Trump’s bigotry is, amid all of the rest, gendered at its core. He appears to take particular issue with women who challenge him, especially those who are non-white. He saves the worst of his personal insults for them, and in the case of Rep. Omar he has walked up to the fine line separating protected offensive speech from hate speech. After all, when he falsely claims that someone “hates America,” “is loyal to al-Qaeda,” is a “communist” and even was married to her brother (yes, he did indeed say that), then he is coming perilously close to inciting violence against her. After all, if you condense what he is saying, she is an insolent commie incestuous female who hates America and who therefore does not deserve the common protections afforded “real” citizens.

Yet the media has not focused on these components of his rhetoric as much as they should be. Instead we get the usual analyses that “he is consolidating his base” and “he is trying to tar the Democratic Party with the “four women of the apocalypse” brush”, which if true do not fully capture the evilness of his intent. While I do not think that his offensive views merit impeachment at this point (since in my opinion they do not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours), should anything happen to any one of the so-called “squad,” and should that be the work of a Trump supporter, then I think that there is fair grounds to do so.

First a massacre, then the push back.

datePosted on 13:31, April 2nd, 2019 by Pablo

During the first hours and days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, I tried to be optimistic about what could come out of the event. I saw it as a window of opportunity and teaching moment, a time to grieve, heal and reflect on what New Zealand is as a society. I thought that we could finally confront the elephant in the room: that underneath the veneer of tolerance and egalitarianism there is a dark underbelly in New Zealand. It is called racism.

For the first week it seemed that the opportunity was going to be seized. The government responded with empathy and compassion for the victims and with decisiveness when it came to banning certain types of military-style weapons and parts that can be used to modify hunting weapons into military-style ones. It is pondering how to give the killer a fair trial without turning it into a martyr-making propaganda circus. It is reviewing hate speech laws and has ordered a Royal Commission inquiry into how the attack happened and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to it. The majority of the nation followed its lead and demonstrated that most Kiwis are, in fact, decent people.

However, in the ensuing days the national conversation has been side-tracked. After a period of silence or contrition, rightwing outlets are back to their old enabling games. Outlets like the virulently Islamophobic Whale Oil and slightly more moderate blogs have enforced some degree of moderation when it comes to the language used by authors and commentators, but the hateful tone toward the “Other” remains the same when read between the lines. The rightwing rallying cry is defence of free speech, in which the ruse used is to deliberately conflate protected offensive speech with hate speech in order to demonstrate that “liberal” democratic values are under siege by overzealous Lefties using the tragedy and their control of the state apparatus to impose their will on dissenters. This risable argument is supported by some on the venerable Left who seem to be more concerned about defending the rights of nasty white people rather than consider the fact that it is those people who facilitated and enabled the nasty white guy’s mass murder of a bunch of brown folk whose sole crime was to exist (and who made a point when doing so by gunning them down when they were practicing their faith in their houses of worship).

Diversionary tactics aside, let us be clear. When it comes to free versus hate speech the issue is simple: any speech that incites, encourages, supports, applauds or otherwise instigates or excuses violence against individuals or communities because of who they are (as opposed to anything they have done, although even there the call to violence is debatable), has crossed the line from protected speech into hate speech. Offensive speech remains protected, but the urging of violence is not. The issue is not about causing offence; it is about causing harm.

The gun lobby also has decided that amnesia is the best part of public virtue so now moans and whines about “law-abiding” people losing their gun rights thanks to the government’s legislative reforms, conveniently forgetting that the killer was a law-abiding loser until the moment he stepped out of his car down the street from the Masjid al-Noor on Deans Avenue. Here too, the issue is simple (and I urge readers to look up my blog colleague Lew on Twitter to see his very reasoned explanations of the matters at stake). Tightening of licensing requirements and enforcement of laws governing purchase of semi-automatic weapons and removal of conversion kit and military-style weapons does not infringe on the privileges of the gun-owning majority (note that it is a privilege to own a gun, not a right no matter what the bloody NRA would have us believe). The law changes do not prevent anyone from using guns as tools to target shoot and kill critters. It just helps lower the human body count when a gun owner goes off the rails (do not get me started on the “but then only criminals will have such guns” argument because that is a matter for strict law enforcement, and law enforcement must have the will to, well, strictly enforce the law rather than play nice with gangs and assorted other bad guys).

Then there are the closet racists who have emerged into the light like the Hamilton city councillor and Immigration officer (?!), who besides ranting on Facebook (a prime vector for hate speech in spite of recent bans on white supremacists) about immigrant “scum” in Europe after the Paris terrorist attacks now says without a hint of irony that NZ needs to “move on” from the Christchurch event. He is joined by a-holes like Brian Tamaki, who claimed that the call to prayer on the day of national remembrance a week after the attack was proof the Sharia was being imposed on NZ. He appears to not be the only non-Pakeha religious leader (if you can call a fraudster con artist that) with this sentiment, as I have been told by informed community members that Islamophobia is very much a staple part of sermons in some Pasifika Christian churches.

Assorted talkback hosts and politicians are now in full “whataboutism?” mode, trying to equate the evils of Muslim extremists (and Islam itself) with those of other fanatics (while conveniently avoiding their ideological cause). This follows the denialism of such (perhaps as of yet closeted) politicians as Gerry Brownlee and Lianne Dalziel, who claim (Brownlee in very pointed remarks directed at me) that they were unaware of any white supremacists in Christchurch or anywhere else in NZ. Sensing an opportunity, people with ideological personal and agendas are in full throat, be it as purported experts on gangs and terrorism or pushing lines such as that the 1881 assault on Parihaka is a comparable atrocity (in which no one died).

Let’s not muddy the waters. Arguments about gun control and free speech and the historical grievances that are part of the national story are all diversions from the essence of post 3/15 New Zealand. The core subject is that of racism and the cesspit of bigotry in which it festers, from the enabling head-nodders to the inciting megaphones to the keyboard cowards to the actual perpetrators of physical and psychological (yes, they exist) hate crimes against people who supposedly are “different.”

This is not just a problem with a few skinheads. It is a problem for all. Some Pakeha hate Maori. Some Maori hate Chinese. Some Chinese hate Polynesians and some Polynesians hate Palangi. Some Maori and Pakeha hate Chinese and some Chinese reciprocate the feeling. Some hate Muslims and some hate Jews. Some hate Muslims, Jews and anyone who is brown, black or “yellow.” Some hate gays, lesbians and transgender people. Some hate red heads. Some hate the notion of equality when it usurps patriarchy or heteronormative values. Some hate is individual, some of it is institutional and some is systemic. Some hate involves relationships and asymmetries of power, but not always. Hate comes in multiple cross-cutting dimensions that serve as the foundation for ongoing bigotry and racism. In contemporary Aotearoa it may be a minority sentiment that is fractiously manifest rather than uniformly presented, but it is the wretched garden in which the bitter fruit of bigotry and racism are sown and reaped. And it is endemic in NZ.

THAT is what the national conversation should be about. That is what our children should be taught about. That is what the enablers, accomplices and purveyors of racism must be confronted with. This is no longer a time when we can look the other way, say “she’ll be right” and hope that the unpleasant stuff just goes away.

3/15 changed all that, and it is time to stand up and be counted. And being counted is not to just have academic panel discussions and government inquiries and commemorations. It is about confronting racism and bigotry wherever it rears its nasty head and however it is specifically manifest: on the streets, in buses, in shops, in schools, in sports clubs and volunteer organisations, in churches, in local politics, on-line, on talkback radio and in town halls and community fora–whenever the trolls rise there must be righteous people willing to call them out for what they are: ignorant fearful losers looking for scapegoats for their own failures in life.

It is hard to confront someone, especially if they are bigger or in groups. So strategies must be developed to help the average person perform this important civic duty. That means gaining the support of and involving the authorities so that complaints can be made and charges laid without undue risk to the good people calling out the antisocial misfits. Because if all we do is talk about what a bummer racism is and then go back to our own self-interested lives unwilling to actually walk the walk of daily anti-racist conviction, then we truly are a nation of sheep.

Owning It (updated).

datePosted on 12:00, March 21st, 2019 by Pablo

Earlier versions of this essay were published by Radio New Zealand and Australian Outlook.

The terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, which resulted in the deaths of fifty people and injuries to dozens of others, is a watershed moment in New Zealand history. In the days, months and years ahead much soul-searching will be conducted about the social and political factors that contributed to the massacre. Here the focus is on two: the spread of hate speech via social media; and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to the event.

With the proliferation of social media platforms during the last decade there has been a steady increase in their use by extremist groups. Be it Wahabbist and Salafists calling for jihad, 9/11 conspiracy theorists or white supremacists, social media has given them global reach in a measure never seen before. This allows extremists in disparate parts of the world to instantly communicate and reinforce their views without having to be in physical contact. They can even plot acts of violence using encrypted platforms and the so-called “Dark Web.” This was the case with the Christchurch gunman, who went on extremist platforms in real time to announce his intentions shortly before he began his attack, then live streamed it on Facebook. As the massacre unfolded from the killer’s perspective (he was wearing a popular sporting camera on his chest), hundreds of people cheered him on (and later debated the merits of the action. See, e.g., here).

That is what is different today when compared to twenty years ago: the threat of decentralized, even autonomous extremist violence has increased commensurate with the emergence of social media outlets that allow them to disseminate their views.

This produces both an echo chamber and megaphone effect: not only do kindred spirits find common space to vent and practice their hate against the perceived “Other,” but more moderate, mainstream outlets begin to pick and emulate some of the language used in them. Language that was once socially unacceptable in most democratic societies has crept into mainstream social discourse, be it about immigrants, minorities, sexual minorities or indigenous groups. Hate speech is increasingly normalized under the mantle of free speech, where the hate-mongerers turn the tables on civil libertarians by claiming that their freedom of expression is being trampled by political correctness gone mad. That in turn has crept into the rhetoric of politics itself, where mainstream politicians and political commentators adopt some of the language and policy positions that once were only championed by a rabid yet marginalized political fringe. One only need to remember the anti-immigrant language of certain politicians and the mysogynist, homophobic and/or xenophobic rantings of assorted radio hosts and television personalities, to say nothing of the comments section of what used to be moderate political blogs, to see how the discursive trend has evolved in New Zealand.

The problem is almost exclusively a democratic one. Authoritarian regimes censor as a matter of course and control the flow of information in their societies, so what can be seen and heard is up to the regime. Unless authorized or condoned by the State, extremists are not given space to air their views in public.

Democratic societies uphold the right to free speech no matter how noxious it may be because it is exactly the unpopular views that need defending. But the principle of free speech never reckoned with the practice of social and mainstream media outlets using business models that are at least in part founded on the idea that there is money to be made in catering to extremist views. If advertising can be sold on extremist sites and offensive speech is protected, then the bottom line advises that it is not for the media conglomerates to determine what is and what is not acceptable social discourse. That is for others to decide.

In other words, the cover of free speech gives media conglomerates the excuse to continue to pursue profit by hosting extremist sites and allowing vile content on their platforms. The more that extremist views are filtered through outlets like Fox News and talk-back radio, the more they tilt public perceptions in a xenophobic, paranoid, fear-driven direction. This is not healthy for democracies.

This is the public policy conundrum. Where to draw the line between free and hate speech? When does offensive speech become dangerous speech? One would think that the answer would be simple in that any calls for violence against others, be it individual or collective in nature, is what separates offensive from hate speech. And yet to this day democracies grapple, increasingly unsteadily, with the question of what constitutes censorable material on-line. In a world where hard core pornography is increasingly available and normalized, it is hard to argue that people expressing ugly views are any worse than what is allowed in the skin trade.

With regard to whether there was an intelligence failure. Obviously there was because the massacre occurred. But the question is whether this was due to policy errors, tactical mistakes, some combination of both or the superb stealth of the bad guy.

At a policy level the question has to be asked if whether the intelligence services and police placed too much emphasis after 9/11 on detecting and preventing home-grown jihadists from emerging to the detriment of focusing on white supremacist groups, of which there are a number in Aotearoa. Given a limited amount of resources, the security community has to prioritize between possible, probable and imminent threats. So what happened that allowed the killer to plan and prepare for two years, amass a small arsenal of weapons, make some improvised explosives and yet still fly under the radar of the authorities? It is known that the security community monitors environmental, animal activist, social justice and Maori sovereignty groups and even works with private investigators as partners when doing so, so why were the white supremacists not given the same level of attention?

Or were they? The best form of intelligence gathering on extremist movements is via informants, sources or infiltration of the group by undercover agents (who can target individuals for monitoring by other means, including cyber intercepts). Perhaps there simply are not enough covert human intelligence agents in New Zealand to undertake the physical monitoring of would-be jihadists, other domestic activists and white supremacists. Perhaps white supremacist groups were in fact being monitored this way or via technical means but that failed to detect the Christchurch gunman.

That begs another question. Was the killer, even if a white supremacist himself, not an associate of groups that were being monitored or infiltrated by the authorities? Could he have maintained such good operational security and worked in absolute secrecy that none of his friends and associates had a clue as to his intentions? Was he the ultimate “lone wolf” who planned and prepared without giving himself away to anyone?

If the latter is the case then no amount of intelligence policy re-orientation or tactical emphasis on white supremacists would have prevented the attack. As the saying goes in the intelligence business, “the public only hears about failures, not successes.”

In his apparent radicalization after he arrived in New Zealand, in his choice of targets in Christchurch and in his ability to exploit domestic gun laws, in the fact that although he was socially active no one knew or ignored his plans, the killer was local. In the inability of local authorities to detect and prevent him from carrying out the attacks, the intelligence failures were local.

It is in this sense that New Zealand must “own” the Christchurch attack.

PS: I have been criticised for initially claiming, before his arrest, that the gunman may have come from Christchurch. Many people, including a prominent music and pro-cannabis blogger, felt that I was “reckless” for doing so, especially after it emerged that the suspect was Australian and lived in Dunedin (on and off since at least 2014). Let me explain why I made that initial error.

Within minutes of the gunfire I received links to the 4Chan and 8Chan platforms in which the shooter announced his intentions and linked to the live stream of his attack. As I read the commentary on the extremist platforms and watched the news over the next hour a source in Christchurch called and said that given his escape and the failure to initially detect and apprehend him (it took an hour to do so), the speculation by those chasing him was that he was a local. I repeated that live on radio as events unfolded, using the qualifier “apparently.” It was a mistake but not a reckless one, and in the larger scheme of things it simply does not matter.

I also made a mistake when I said that the weapon used was likely sourced on the black market from organised crime and may have been a modified hunting weapon with a suppressor on it (that much was clear from the video). As it turns out it was a legally purchased weapon by a licensed gun owner. My bad.

Finally, for thoses who keep on insisting that because the killer is Australian that absolves NZ of any complicity or guilt in the event–get real. Christchurch is the epicentre of South Island white supremacism and for all we know the killer may have chosen his targets not only because the Muslim population is fairly large in that city but also because he could show off to his mates on their home turf. If reports turn out to be true that he had kindred spirits at his gun club, then perhaps he was not as “alone” as is currently believed when planning and preparing for the attacks.

Legacy investments versus speculative investments.

datePosted on 14:01, February 22nd, 2019 by Pablo

Among the arguments about instituting a capital gains tax in NZ (common in many parts of the developed world) is the claim that much property is family residence or inheritance in nature. The argument goes that it is unfair to not differentiate between the sale of a family home, granny flat or holiday residence by middle and working class people and the sale of properties bought by developers and speculators with the intention of “flipping” them for a profit. The first category are long-term, emotionally laden investments whereas the second is simply about making money.

I see merit in the argument for differentiation of property investment categories. In particular, I see a difference between legacy investments and speculative investments. Legacy investments are those where property is bought for family use over time. These can be the main family home but more often are second, smaller flats or holiday homes that are passed on between the generations (think of the archetypical bach or a crib). The emotional as well as financial investment in such places is not based on eventually securing returns but on preserving collective experiences and traditions from generation to generation and giving off-spring the chance to acquire a property stake without the exorbitant financial costs associated with the contemporary real estate market (for example, an equity share in a family bach may help towards securing a first time mortgage loan). It specifically excludes using family members as fronts for speculative purchases (say, of a family farm).

Speculative investments are just that: property investments that are designed to be on-sold in a relatively short period of time in order to secure a positive financial return. Here the intention is to make short-term money off of the buy/sell transaction.

I would suggest that a capital gains tax is appropriate for all speculative investments. They become another cost of playing the real estate flipping game and will eventually be incorporated into the real estate price architecture. On the other hand, I do not think that capital gains tax is appropriate for legacy investments. If a family property is on-sold within blood lines or divided into part ownerships to children and grandchildren, it seems to me that the less financial burden imposed the better for all. People get to keep their properties within the family and share in the collective benefits over time and generational change. That includes rental income from family owned property subject to the requirement that the property must be used by family members for given periods within a specified time frame (this would allow seasonal rentals and other short-term lease arrangements to non-family).

The system would work if there is a legacy declaration made on a property at the time of purchase. Again, this may be less appropriate for a main family home that could likely be on-sold to strangers as the family demographic shifts. There a capital gains tax would apply. But it very much should not apply to properties that families hope to preserve within the bloodlines for posterity. Here on-selling to relatives should not incur capital gains taxes.

On-selling under the legacy clause will require verification of family lineage, and any sale to non-family voids the legacy declaration and makes the sale subject to capital gains tax. Those who try to cheat the system and are caught will be subject to heavy financial penalties in excess of the tax otherwise to be paid.

I am not an economist much less a taxation expert but it seems to me that distinguishing between legacy and speculative investments in the property market strikes a good balance between profiteering and homesteading. I admit to not having thought through all of the implications inherent in this proposed scheme so if any readers want to illuminate me please feel free to do so.

I have no doubt that clever devils will immediately try to game the system and seek out ways to turn legacy homesteading into profit-driven speculation. But with a detailed code of compliance and robust enforcement regime in place, it is possible for this approach to split the fair difference between an all or nothing capital gains tax on property and one that reflects the nuances in property buying preferences. Or perhaps that is simply too much to ask in an ideological climate where the very idea of taxing something other than salaried income, business earnings and consumer purchases and services is considered sacrilegious by the Right.

PS: I have been informed by the smarter adult in my house that this is a silly idea and unworkable. She also points out that trusts already allow for inter-generational transfers of wealth/assets without being subject to tax on the transfer. I am not familiar with trust law and am not going to risk savaging by pointing out that family trusts are something more likely to be created by the well-to-do rather than the middle class, so must accept the scolding and move on. If anyone is familiar with the intricacies of trusts, please feel free to explain.

On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

Pebbles under the mattress.

datePosted on 08:33, August 21st, 2018 by Pablo

The structure of capitalism can be likened to that of a bed. The productive apparatus serves as the bed frame. Although there is plenty of variance to the exact configuration of the frame, its structure and purpose is the same: to underpin capitalism as a social construct, here meaning the social relations that emerge from the combination of private ownership of the means of production (productive assets) coupled with market steerage of the macroeconomy and the political relations that emerge from them.

Upon this frame lies a mattress made up of the social relations of production. In earlier times the capitalist mattress was heavy and rigid, with class lines sharply and simply defined and social roles strictly prescribed. Over time, as capitalism evolved and got more sophisticated and complex, moving from the industrial revolution to advanced industrial capitalism and then post-industrial production linked via commodity, supply and financial chains to less advanced economies in earlier stages of capitalist development, the social mattress above it developed accordingly, becoming less rigid and more sensitive to variation in collective and individual connections with the productive base. The clear-cut and strongly defined class relations of previous stages of capitalist development have been replaced in advanced societies by a more variegated tissue of social relations that blur class distinctions and add increased diversity to the way in which people interact in and out of production.

As this capitalist bed frame and mattress get more refined, elements previously unnoticed or quashed by the weight of more primitive capitalist relations have begun to be felt. Some predate capitalism, some emerged with it and some are byproducts of its trajectory. These can be called pebbles of identity.

Pebbles of identity unrelated to production in a direct way have existed between the capitalist base and superstructure all along but were previously eclipsed (when not suppressed) by the dominance of socio-economic class identifiers: blue and white collar workers, managers and owners encompassing the proletariat, peasantry, lumpenproletariats, bourgeoisie and what is left of the aristocracy sharing space with entrepreneurial elites.

In the post-industrial, post-modern contemporary era pebbles of identity play a major role in determining social relations, so much so that their presence can prove disruptive to the tranquility of the body politic as traditionally constituted. Identities previously unrecognised become apparent and are acutely felt in social discourse and political action. The question is whether the post-industrial capitalist mattress can comfortably accomodate them or whether it will prove incapable of buffering the inevitable tensions that emerge from the interplay between pre-modern, modern and post-modern identifiers in present day economies. Likewise, the evolution of capitalist modes of production accentuate or reduce the impact of some pebbles of identity over time. Identities associated with agrarian societies may not be not be felt as strongly in post-modern service sector economies. Religion and dialect may diminish in importance as the social mattress of capitalism changes secularly over time, and what were once mere grains of hidden or downplayed identity become prominent to the point of feeling like rocks underlying social intercourse.

The relative import of pebbles of identity is unique to a given capitalist society. In some, pre-modern identities such as gender, race, religion or language are felt more widely than post-modern identities tied to consumption preferences (be it music, arts, food or  automobiles). In others sexual orientation and gender identity overlap and/or compete with activist causes of various stripes. The way in which these are felt is conditioned by the socio-economic class structure embedded in the social fabric of the capitalist mattress.

Most social scientists, including economists, agree that understanding the characteristics of the capitalist frame is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the dynamics of contemporary capitalism as a whole. The question for political analysts and students of social science in general is therefore where to put the emphasis when factoring superstructural features into the equation: the mattress or the pebbles? Identity politics have become very much a dominant theme in left-leaning politics as of late, much to the delight of alt-Right strategists like Steve Bannon who see the durability of socio-economic class as an organising principle for political action and who see the Left’s emphasis on pebbles of identity unrelated to production as the basis for political organising as a guarantee of failure.

Their belief, one that I concur with, is that emphasising identity over socio-economic class leads to a fragmentation of political action to the detriment of unity of purpose. Horizontal solidarity lines based on objective relationship to the means of production (say, as wage earners) are superseded by vertical silos of self-identification (say, as anime or steam punk fans), something that makes effective collective action of any sort very difficult at best when dominant class adversaries are united.

When identity tribalism triumphs over the class line, the Left is atomised and partitioned rather than consolidated.

This does not deny the fact that there are many for whom the socioeconomic class mattress is very thin and for whom the pebbles of non-class identity loom large underneath their notions of individual and collective self. These people emphasise identity as the locus of political action in capitalist societies precisely because the traditional social mattress of capitalism is threadbare and worn, thereby requiring a more granular understanding of the social relations of factors outside of production.  Adding these into the analytic mix helps supplement class analysis and in doing so paints a more representative picture of contemporary capitalism that helps inform  a more responsive form of praxis that is better in step with the tenor of the times.

It is left for readers to decide which approach is best suited to understanding contemporary capitalism. I for one continue to rest easy on the mattress made of the class-based social relations of production. Beyond that my interest in pebbles of identity derives from the explanatory weight I put on different attributes of the society where I have analytically chosen to place my pillow.

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