Archive for ‘Social change’ Category
Posted on 14:43, May 27th, 2016 by E.A.
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
Posted on 15:25, March 8th, 2016 by Pablo
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.
Posted 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.
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.
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.
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.
I am somewhat amused by the reaction to the Australians sledging of the Black Caps during the Cricket World Cup final. It is clear that, with a couple of exceptions, the Ozzie cricket team display incredibly poor sportsmanship, even to the point of racism on occasion. But what else is new? Why are so many incensed by their oafish behaviour?
Sledging, or trash talking as it is known in the US, is a sad but integral part of many sports. The more contact there is in sport the more trash talking there often is. Some athletic cultures thrive on trash talk–think boxing, American football or league.
On the other hand more ‘genteel” sports like golf, tennis or cricket are expected to provide a more civilised approach to the game. When athletes in these sports adopt more vulgar competitive approaches such as trash talking, they are quickly denounced. John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners in tennis, John Daly in golf, and an assortment of foul-mouthed cricketers have felt the wrath of those who feel that these sports are above the everyday fray.
That, I think, is the heart of the matter. It is a class thing. It is acceptable and considered normal to trash talk in “common” sports played by working and lower class people. But when it comes to the sports of the upper classes and elites, of which cricket, polo and yachting are the epitome, it is unacceptable for players to descend to the level of the hoi polloi. At most, in between tea breaks and pressing their linens for the evening overs, cricketers were and are expected to offer no more to their opponents than witty banter. It does not matter if these sports are now played by non-elites (some of the Australian cricketers can barely string a sentence together, much less hold a degree). What matters is that the genteel image of the sport must not be tarnished by crass displays, verbal or otherwise (recall that Wimbledon still has an all white dress code for players and prohibits shorts on female players).
In effect, the definition of good and bad sportsmanship is determined not by the nature of the game but by the classes from which it originated. What is acceptable gamesmanship in sports that originated in the working masses is not acceptable in those that had their beginnings in more privileged circumstances.
The outrage directed against the Australian crackers for their sledging is more about about maintaining the appearance of class appropriate propriety than about their very poor sportsmanship. Had their trash talking happened on a soccer or rugby pitch it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and perhaps even gentle ribbing.
Posted on 15:25, January 15th, 2015 by Pablo
This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.
She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.
Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.
As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.
“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.
So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.
Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya. Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.
A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power. One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.
However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.
This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.
But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?
I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.
That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).
That is why I see al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.
In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.
PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.
A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.
Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.
That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.
After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.
In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.
Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.
If one thing has proven true over the years when it comes to religion and politics, it is that those who most ardently decry homosexuality as abnormal and represent themselves as paragons of “christian” family values often are themselves seriously repressed when it comes to their own sexual preferences. Be they Tories in the UK, Republicans in the US and preachers, priests, mullahs and rabbis the world over, these closet hypocrites go to great lengths to hide their “baser” urges, to include engaging in contact (!) sports and other “manly” activities like game hunting, entering into heterosexual marriages, having children, advocating for corporal punishment and loudly and obsessively condemning “deviant” sexual behavior and the gay community and feminists for a myriad of sins against the “natural” order of things.
Their self-loathing is such that some even practice how they walk and talk so as to appear more Roman than Greek (I am using the terms loosely here, as both Romans and Greeks accepted the “baser” urges as a part of life and are differentiated more by the class, gender and age element in them). Some go to great lengths to dress and act acceptably “mainstream” (according to how they perceive the mainstream). The more strident of the closet prudes threaten and bully those who question their public stance as well as their private desires.
Given its egalitarian and tolerant reputation, it would be a real shame if such people were a significant part of the New Zealand political, religious or social elite. Given demographic probability, chances are that there might be a few.
Which raises the question: does Colin Craig share that Larry Craig wide stance?