Archive for ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Although I have enjoyed participating in this weblog collective, I was unprepared to deal with the inability of many commentators to construct a proper argument in the debates about posts. By “inability to construct a proper argument” I do not mean those that  resort to ad hominems and vulgarity (whom we have thankfully excised via moderation). Nor do I refer to those who substitute opinion for fact and make statements or claims on subjects that they clearly know little about.  Instead, I am referring to those otherwise thoughtful commentators who misuse concepts and terms when making their arguments. I refer not to those who deliberately do so to be polemical or provocative, but to those who inadvertently do so. The main problem for the latter is the inability to distinguish between conceptual transfer and conceptual stretching.

Conceptual transfer refers to the process by which a concept or term is taken from its original context and applied to a new situation without appreciable loss of definition or meaning. Conceptual stretching refers to  the distortion of the original concept in order to apply it to a different situation or context. The first is a legitimate argumentative exercise; the second is intellectually dishonest or (most often) lazy.

Let me offer some examples. “Socialism” is a 19th century concept that refers to an economy in which the direct producers of wealth in a society appropriate the common surplus generated by their labours and distribute it according to egalitarian principles rooted in commonly accepted notions of need. Decisions on distribution take into account the need to reproduce the economic form via savings and reinvestment, so current individual allocations are balanced against the common interest in future allocations. This concept can be taken out of its 19th century context and applied, without loss of definition, to 1970s Israeli Kibbutzim, Spanish agricultural cooperatives in the 1990s or post 2002 Argentine worker-owned factories. In all of these instances, the concept was transfered to the new situation without distorting its initial meaning; in each instance workers make democratic allocation decisions about the surpluses they generate. On the other hand, calling the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus package or progressive tax policy “socialist,” or referring to Labour’s macreconomic policies as “socialism,” betrays either profound ignorance of the concept or bad intent on the part of those who make such claims. In the latter cases, the concept has been so badly stretched so has to render it meaningless other than as some type of pejorative.

Take another example: “fascism.” Fascism was a particular inter-war political phenomena. It emerged in response to the Great Depression among the so-called “weak links” of the imperialist chain, former great powers or empires that were being eclipsed by emerging powers. Fascism was characterised by an industrial state capitalist economic project directed by a one party mobilizational authoritarian regime dominated by a charismatic leadership that used inclusionary state corporatist vehicles for mass participation in grand nationalist projects that included the military reassertion of empire. In all cases fascism was a “passive revolution” in that it sought to stave off perceived Marxist-Leninist advances in the countries in which it emerged. European fascism had three variants: Austro-Germanic, in which the core constituency of the national socialist regimes was the lower bourgeoisie; the Italian version, in which the core constituency was the urban working class (Mussolini’s black shirts); and the Spanish version, which grouped monarchists, the agrarian oligarchy and rural peasantry against the urban middle and working classes. In the first two variants, efforts to re-assert their imperial status ended in military defeat. In the Spanish version, the self-recognized inability to re-assert imperial dominance allowed the Franco regime to survive until 1972. As for the Japanese, their version of fascism was an amalgam that had the most cross-class bases of support for monarchism, militarism and imperialism, but without the party mobilizational apparatus used by the European variants.

The point of this extended discussion of the concept of “fascism” is that it was a political form specific to a particular historical moment in the early 20th century, one that can not be replicated simply because the material and political conditions of existence are no longer those that gave it life. The closest parallel to fascism–Latin American populism of the 1940s and 1950s–emulated some but not all of the political features of European fascism and did not have the same economic base. All other recent forms of authoritarianism evidence differences far to great to even remotely call them “fascist.” And yet people do, repeatedly. General Pincohet’s regime in Chile was and is still said to be “fascist” even though his political project was demobilizational and his economic project neoliberal. Commodore Frank Bainarama is called a fascist because he led a coup and rules by fiat in Fiji. Mugabe is a fascist because, well, he is.  What is true is that all of these individuals were and are authoritarians, as are many others, civilian and military alike. But that does not make them “fascist.” To label them as such is to undercut any argument for their removal.

In extending the term “fascist” to other forms of authoritarianism that do not share its structural or political features, the term has been stretched to the point of insignificance. It is now just an insult without intellectual justification. It is, in other words, argumentatively useless.

There are plenty of other concepts that come to mind when the issue of conceptual stretching arises. “Hegemony” and “imperialist” are oft-abused, stretched and distorted concepts. “Nazi” (as in German national socialist) is another popularly distorted term. The list is long, and it appears all to often in the writing/commentary on this blog. I would simply ask that people do their conceptual stretching elsewhere–DPF’s blog is a good start.

Even astute writers can fall prey to conceptual stretching. In his otherwise insightful post on Agenda Setting below, my colleague Lew refers to the likelihood of “a more militaristic, less community-based approaching to policing–in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture” in the aftermath of the Napier shootings and siege. The trouble with his invocation of realism is two-fold: as an international relations theory, realism maintains that the international environment is a Hobbesian state of nature in which anarchy abounds. Absent a Leviathan such as those that exist within nation-states, international actors seek to accumulate and use power in order to a) achieve security and b) pursue national interests. Power in such a view is not simply military might, but includes economic resources, diplomatic influence, moral or ethical leadership–the particular mix of what goes into the notion of “power” is complex and variable, as well as contingent on the objectives being pursued or defended. Power is not exclusively “militaristic” nor is it necessarily anti-community–the formation of alliances and use of supranational organisations for conflict resolution is part and parcel of the realist approach.

Lew’s use of realism to describe a likely police response is doubly flawed because it has been stretched to describe a particularly military approach to law enforcement within a liberal democracy. In other words, both the context and the approach are completely different to those in which realism is applied to international relations.

This is not meant to cast aspersions on Lew. To the contrary, I admire his work and appreciate his insights. Instead, this post is an attempt to point out this very common argumentative flaw among otherwise thoughtful readers and commentators, so that we can avoid repeating them in future debates. In the mean time I shall ponder whether to write about another pet peeve: the inability of people to establish a “chain of causality” between independent, intervening and dependent variables when making their case.

A May Day Reminder.

datePosted on 20:31, May 1st, 2009 by Pablo

For workers around the world, May Day is not just a statutory holiday. It represents over a century of hard won rights, rights that in most cases were won in the face of considerable structural and political odds. It is also a reminder that without vigilance, solidarity and organisation, those rights can be lost in the blink of a legislative (if “democratic”)  or blinkered dictatorial eye.  New Zealand is an exemplary case in point, with the legacy of the Chilean-dictatorship inspired Employment Contracts Act still strongly felt in the labour market (and likely to be felt even more so if the National government is able to undertake its proposed reforms of current employment law).

Less people think I am exaggerating about the Chilean connection to the 1991 ECA, let it be noted that its inspiration was the 1979 Plan Laboral (Labour Plan) imposed by executive fiat on Chileans by the Pincohet regime. The author of the Plan, Jose “Pepe” Pineda, was a frequent guest of Roger Douglas and the Business Roundtable in the 1980s and 1990s, and his framework for acheiving what is known as “enforced” or “atomizing” pluralism in the labour market is the essence of the ECA (and one that was not completely undone by the 1999 Employment Relations Act). Atomizing pluralism is the forced decentralization of collective bargaining at the lowest productive levels. It mandates a mix of individual and collective contracts and the multiplication of bargaining agents on the shop floor. The stated intent is to achieve “labour market flexibility,” but the real intent is to destroy the union movement as an effective economic and political agent of the working classes by forcibly dividing worker representation. This has been achieved in New Zealand.

In a book co-authored with Kate Nicholls titled “Labour Markets in Small Open Democracies” (Palgrave MacMillan 2003) I compared labour movement responses to the double impact of globalization of production and market-oriented reforms (including labour market reform) in Australia, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay after 1990. We paired the cases based upon their similar location on the global production chain (Australia and Chile, New Zealand and Uruguay, with Ireland as an extra-regional outlier that served as a quasi-control variable). Among other things we found that the single most important factor that allowed the labour movement to resist attempts to reduce or break its collective power in the face of the dual threat posed by market globalization and neo-liberal inspired macroeconomic reform was ideological unity and independence from working class based political parties.

Let me rephrase that: ideological unity and independence  are the key to labour movement success in a market-driven age. Thus, Australian and Uruguayan unions, rooted in a strong blue collar ethos, ideologically unified and independent from Leftist parties, retained a considerable capacity to thwart the most noxious of labour market reform prescriptions such as enforced shopfloor pluralism. Conversely, Chilean and Kiwi unions, subordinate to the interests of Left parties and ideologically divided amongst themselves, were powerless to stop market-driven reforms, especially when those reforms were pushed by Left-centre governments they helped elect and in which former union bureaucrats held official positions. Successful betrayal of working class principles in favour of pro-capitalist reforms by the political Left in power was due, more than anything else, to the subordinate status of the union movement relative to the political Left. The political ambitions of professional politicians and union bureaucrats took precedence over the material interests of the rank and file, and the result was a relative decline in union fortunes.

There is more to the story, to include the impact of a working class debt culture and the role of popular diversions in eroding working class solidarity. But  the cautionary tale on this day is that workers need to remember that their political representatives on the Left should work for them, rather than the other way around. Contrary to Leninist principles of party vanguardism where the Party dominates the union movement, the union movement needs to control the Party if it is to be a genuine agent of working class interests. In this age of globalization in which the class “enemy” is diversified, flexible and fluid, social movement unionism and labour internationalism needs to be coupled with a reassertion of grassroots representation in union leaderships, which  in turn must lead to a reassertion of union authority within Left political parties. The stakes are simply too high for workers to allow union apparatchiks and party bosses to determine their fortunes for them.

UNITE is an example of such a new union. The NDU is known to retain a sense of responsibility to the rank and file, Beyond that, the New Zealand labour movement obeys the iron law of oligarchy, whereby the first duty of the organisation is to preserve itself, which means in practice that the interests of the agents rather than the principles is what comes first.

On this May Day, confronted by a Centre Right government after 8 years of sold-out Labour rule, it may be a time for the intellectual Left as well as workers to reflect on these issues in order to effectively confront (if not reverse) the adverse tide into which they have been headed for nearly twenty years. Or as Lenin put it: “What is to be Done?”

PS: I have previously made comments along these lines in the comment thread on Anita’s earlier post titled “Worker Organized Resistance.” For those who have read it my apologies for the overlap.

On the Torture Memos

datePosted on 20:29, April 23rd, 2009 by Pablo

At long last the paper trail authorizing the use of coercive interrogation techniques, to include tortures such as water boarding ( a simulated drowning technique) has been made public. The bottom line is that it reveals that high level Bush administration officials, to include John Ashcroft (Attorney General at the time), John Yoo (Deputy Attorney General), Alberto Gonzalez (White House counsel, later Attorney General) Dick Cheney (Darth Vadar) and Condoleeza Rice (Nurse Ratched), should be indicted for criminal offenses under both US and international law. What is worse, their authorization of criminal acts–no matter how Mr. Yoo’s convoluted legal arguments may wish to paint them as something less than torture and permissible under doctrines of Executive authority anyway–flew in the face of expert opinion that torture is an unreliable method for extracting reliable intelligence and could, in fact, be counter-productive both legally and practically. There are several layers to the story, so I shall briefly run through them.

The techniques used were derived from the SERE school practices. SERE is a program run by the US military to simulate the conditions of a prisoner of war camp in which US aviators and special forces operators might find themselves. It is modeled on 1950s Chinese prison camps. Under controlled conditions, SERE operators subject US personnel to what they admit are “torture techniques” (such as water boarding) in order to teach the US personnel how to resist coercive interrogations. Thus, the Bush White House and Justice department took techniques that were capable of being overcome by determined prisoner resistance and authorized their use, without fully exploring their history or the controlled circumstances of their SERE application, on suspected jihadis whose idea of glory comes in the form of martyrdom. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is just arse-backwards.

In fact, once SERE camp administrators heard of the (mis) application in 2002 they wrote memos to the Defence Department protesting against the use of SERE techniques. They explicitly warned about the unreliability of the confessions extracted and the risk of accidental death. These memos were ignored by the Rumsfeld cronies who ran the Pentagon at the time and were apparently never passed onto the White House and Justice Department (or if they were, they were ignored). What is important to note is that the people who pushed for the use of these techniques were Republican ideologues who had no actual experience with interrogations. Most interrogators are US military counter-intelligence personnel, who are fully aware of the legal and practical pitfalls of using torture to extract confessions. These include the unreliability of the information extracted, the uselessness of such information for strategic intelligence purposes, the problems of garnering actionable information from atomized cells in a decentralized guerrilla network like al-Qaeda–in other words, the complete disutility of using SERE-type techniques for anything other than immediate tactical purposes (if that). Since these forms of punishment were being meted out in “black sites”  thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Iraq (Abu Ghraib was more of a test case rather than a systematic application of the Yoo doctrine) and Afghanistan (although the prison at Bahgram Air Force Base outside of Kabul is reported to contain a “black site’), or in Guatanamo, even the tactical intelligence obtained was mostly unactionable. Hence, professional interrogators such as Special Forces counter-intelligence officers did not conduct the interrogations, but instead were replaced by CIA operatives or private contractors. The can of worms that opens almost defies belief.

In a nutshell:  the Bush administration authorized unproven and unreliable torture techniques against the advice of those who were best informed about the use and results of those methods, then replaced seasoned interrogators with civilians and private contractors to do the dirty work. Presumably this was to gain some of distance on any potential legal repercussions down the road. When one looks at the results of the Abu Ghraib case, where two enlisted soldiers served short jail sentences, two field officers were reprimanded and demoted and one flag rank officer demoted and  forced to retire, it easy to see how Bush administration officials believed that they would never be held responsible for anything that happened in the “black sites.”

Bush administration defenders claim that the coercive interrogation program obtained results in the form of preventing terrorist attacks but are unable or unwilling to offer a single instance of such a success. They claim that revealing the torture memos jeopardizes current and future intelligence operations and demoralizes the CIA. The answer to these claims (other than to laugh when Dick Cheney makes them), is to say 1) provide a single shred of evidence that an attack was prevented by the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture; 2) prove that any information obtained that was useful could not have been obtained using other (non-torture) techniques. Let us be clear: getting the names of other cell members, or of liaison contacts, or of the early outlines of a terrorist plot is not “actionable” intelligence that could not have been obtained by other means (say, by good human intelligence in the field). Arresting some of the Guantanamo detainees was enough to disrupt the most grandiose of al-Qaeda plots, so once their role was ascertained and their backwards linkages traced, use of torture was just vengeance, not intelligence-gathering. If the claim is going to be made that the use of terror was efficient, i.e., that it actually prevented an imminent attack, then it needs to be supported with proof. After all, the “informants” are not going anywhere so need not fear retribution and whatever intelligence penetration of terrorist networks has occurred should not be vulnerable to exposure if the truth of the matter is revealed (otherwise it is simply shoddy workmanship on the part of US intelligence and its allies).

The best way to verify such claims is to grant immunity to interrogators and lower-level CIA and military officials who oversaw coercive interrogations in  order to find out not only whether the techniques were as necessary as the Bush defenders say there were, as well as their results. More importantly, the main purpose of the grants of immunity is to determine the chain of command responsible for authorizing the use of torture, and on what grounds. The last point is important because as it stands, the Bush administration will hide under the doctrine of “plausible deniability” where subordinates get blamed for the physical acts but no evidentiary link can be conclusively made to the orders of high level officials. That deception can be countered with a “due obedience” approach whereby legal immunity to lower-ranked officials is exchanged for their testimony on who gave the orders and how did they do so (as well as how they tried to conceal those orders).  That is the key to getting indictments of Bush administration officials. John Yoo and his chief lieutenants, in particular (the former now happily ensconced as a Law Professor at UC Berkeley, of all places, the latter now anxiously realizing that private legal practice does not afford them any cover in the face of a federal indictment), need to be held to account because they apparently took an untoward interest in specific techniques and were the keenest to authorize their use. Getting these toadies to turn under the threat of imprisonment could in turn be the key to finding out what exact roles were played by Cheney, Bush and Rice in opening the Pandora’s box embedded in the torture memos.

Of course, being a cautious and pragmatic person, Barack Obama may pull the plug on any prosecutions in the interest of political security (his own and of the Democratic Party). If so, it will be up to the International Criminal Court to seek the truth of the matter, so that even those who rule a seemingly unassailable superpower realise that they too are not above basic standards of human rights and international justice. I shall not hold my breath waiting for either to happen. What is certain is that, until something dramatically different is revealed to counter what is known so far,  from a moral-ethical as well as an efficiency-practical standpoint, the US use of torture in the fight against terrorism has been a failure more than a success.

Explaining the Opening of Diplomatic Dialogue

datePosted on 00:47, April 22nd, 2009 by Pablo

There has been much blather about Obama kow-towing to Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega at the recent Summit of the Americas conference, as well as his overtures to Cuba and Iran. At a minimum, his opponents accuse him of sending the wrong message (apparently it involves “legitimizing” governments that have already been majority elected by their own constituents), and at the worst he is labeled a “socialist” and a “traitor” to the US ideals. The drumbeat of hatred in disloyal opposition is stoked by conservative media outlets, who openly incite the ideologically inclined to physically act upon their irrational fears.

Notwithstanding that type of beat-up, and partisan idiocy aside, there is no reason to be alarmed. US broaching of diplomatic dialogue with various adversaries is a tried and true aspect of conventional diplomacy. Henry Kissinger was a major exponent of the approach, so it is no less useful for US President Obama and Secretary  Clinton to do so. 

As a proven diplomatic tactic, one that the Clinton re-treads who run Obama’s foreign policy apparatus clearly subscribe to, the offer to thaw relations between the US and Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is a “tit-for-tat” strategy designed to gauge the intentions of the opponent. Derived from game theory, it simply states that you open with a cooperative move, then replicate the opponent’s response. If the opponent responds with a cooperative gesture, then continue the iteration. If they opponent responds in an uncooperative fashion, then respond in kind, and only change when the opponent changes the tone of its response. In other words, always replicate the opponent’s move.

As the stronger actor, the US is advantaged by such a strategy, as it puts the other side in a quandary vis a vis domestic constituencies and its own rhetoric (Iran is the current case in point). If there are internal contradictions within the political structure of the opponent, such a strategy is designed to expose them.   For example, the US (under Reagan of all people!) told General Pinochet that they would prefer that he not stand for the presidency of Chile under his rigged constitutional referendum in 1988, and offered several inducements (personal as well as political) for his cooperation. He refused, so the US responded by publicly announcing that, in the interest of US-Chile relations, it would prefer that he did not assume the presidency even if he won.  The conservative coalition that backed him splintered over the offer. He consequently lost the referendum and his hand-picked successor lost the 1989 election that restored democracy to Chile. The point is that Reagan and company wanted a conservative post-authoritarian elected government untainted by the name “Pinochet.” When he showed his megalomaniac tendencies and his support base fractured, Chileans got a left-center, pro-market government instead. Win-win on all counts from a post-Reagan US perspective.

I use the Chilean example only because I am personally familiar with it, but the general point is this: a willingness to talk after periods of estrangement is a diplomatic tit-for-tat opening. It puts the ball in the opponent’s court and gives (US) politicians room to delineate their subsequent moves. Exploiting media opportunities to show “friendliness” is symbolic sop thrown out to soften the opponent’s constituency, and can only be undermined by resistance from one’s own constituency (which is why Fox News and its Republican lapdogs are barking so ferociously about it).  Watching local and international media spinmeisters weave their interpretations (however governments may succeed in controlling interpretations), both sides can measure the external and internal consequences of their respective responses, and carry on accordingly. That gives them a degree of separation from political responsibility in the event of failure.

Closer to home, the question arises: does New Zealand understand the utility of a tit-for-tat strategy when dealing with places like, say, Fiji? If not, MFAT should read the above, and the vast literature that underpins it.

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