Archive for ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Contemplating the neofascist revival.

datePosted on 13:16, August 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Courtesy of Rob Taylor back in Karekare, here is a link to an interesting article about the rise of a neo- or proto-fascist movement in the US. Although I have some quibbles with the structural as well as some of the political aspects of the argument (at least in comparison with the original (European) versions of fascism), the article is nevertheless worth a read. To me the trend is not just evident in the US, but in the rise of right-wing movements in Asia, Europe (and to a lesser extent Latin America) as well. For NZ readers interested in the quality of Kiwi democracy, the question is whether the trend is now evident at home, and if so, what are the means of forestalling it from developing further.

Needing it to be true?

datePosted on 21:08, August 11th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

C S Lewis – Mere Christianity “The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

The political blogosphere is a wondrous beastie for those of us who are interested in rhetoric, argument and the eternal question “Who are these people and why are they saying these things?”

As mentioned elsewhere DPF’s satire on the Green’s climate change policy isn’t all that funny

When Swift made his modest proposal about Irish peasant farmers finding a cure for their problems by eating their children, the target of the satire wasn’t the Irish peasant farmers, but rather the people that were ignoring their plight. That’s pretty much why it was satire and not just an anti-Irish version of the blood libel.

But what interests me is why someone might find DPF’s satire satirical. What’s the point of it?

On one level it could just be what satirist and US Senator Al Franken termed ‘kidding on the square’. This is where you say something outrageous, not minding at all if it gets taken literally, while retaining the defence of ‘just joking’ if challenged. Anne Coulter’s career of accusing liberals of being traitors is built entirely on this tactic.

On this reading DPF’s post is just flat out nasty propaganda, accusing the Greens of having genocidal instincts. Some commenters to the post certainly read it this way, with variants on the “It’s funny/scary because it’s true” routine.

Another reading of the post is that it’s a response to a particular form of psychological dissonance.

As the science around AGW becomes ever harder to dismiss, people who have invested a lot in dismissing it need to find an outlet. It’s not that they were wrong, or blinded by ideology, or that their opponents were smarter than them, or just correct about them in some of the things they said, rather it must be that their opponents are even worse.

Here’s the slacktivist explaining the idea as it relates to certain right wingers in the US at the moment who are convinced, or perhaps just ‘joking’, that ‘health care reform = killing grandma’.

This downward plunge is bound to accelerate. The goal is a feeling of moral superiority, achieved at first by telling oneself little lies about the behavior and motivations of others. But those little lies lead to feelings of guilt. That guilt is legitimate, earned and wholly deserved, but this isn’t about whether one’s feelings are just or appropriate, it’s about whether one’s feelings feel good. So the guilt provokes a feeling of moral inferiority that can, for those addicted, only be countered by telling slightly larger lies about the even-more-inferior morality of others. Those bigger lies carry with them a larger sense of guilt and so the cycle repeats itself again and again with the lies getting larger and larger. And with every downward spiral, the ever-larger lies become ever more implausible, so that it becomes harder and harder to pretend that one actually believes the lies one is telling oneself and the guilt becomes that much more intense and undeniable and can only be staved off, temporarily, through ever more outrageous lies until finally one finds oneself desperately asserting that President Obama’s desire to provide health care for the uninsured is actually a plot to murder your grandmother in cold blood and reinstate the Third Reich here in America.

Consider what the example above means for those embracing it. Even a cursory examination of this claim would reveal it to be false, but they have chosen not to examine it, chosen to swallow it unexamined and to pass it on to others because they need it to be true. They need it to be true because this is what it would take for them to recapture at least the illusion of moral superiority. Let that sink in for a moment.

To be confident of the claim that they are better than some other group, they have chosen to compare themselves to a eugenic Nazi regime that euthanizes senior citizens. That such a regime is wholly a figment of their warped imaginations is less revealing than the fact that they have been forced to imagine such a horrifying scenario in order to find something with which they can believe they compare favorably.

Ouch.

 I read with interest that the SIS keeps a file on Jane Kelsey, apparently dating back almost 20 years. I am not a close friend of Jane but  know both her academic and activist work as well as some of her arguments with the SIS and Privacy Commission about her file (which will not be released to her, even in redacted form). Jane apparently came to the attention of the SIS because she was part of a Filipino solidarity group in the early 1990s and later because of her anti-APEC and anti-neoliberal activities (both of which have subsequently been vindicated in fact). I admire Jane because she is a person of conviction, and because she is staunch in the face of official intimidation. Deborah Manning is another such person. Were that there be many others of such character in New Zealand, but alas, especially amongst the male population, there are comparatively few in my estimation.

Putting aside the gender implications of Kiwi bullying and cowardice, the bottom line is as follows: the SIS is either lying or stonewalling on what Jane Kelsey’s file contains, and the so-called Privacy Commissioner is either an SIS toady or hopelessly ignorant of the issues at stake. Either way, this is another blow against Kiwi democracy. Truth be told,  the demolition of Kiwi civil liberties–particularly the right to privacy–was accentuated rather than diminished under  the Fifth Labour government, something the Key regime has happily continued.

If Jane Kelsey is a national security threat than I am Osama bin Laden, Anita is Ayman al-Zawahiri and Lew is, well…Lew.  We are all accomplices in critiquing the way NZ governments’ operate. If Jane has a file, then anyone who has voiced a public opinion against the government  could have a file. That is because for the last decade or so, dissent has been incrementally criminalised, and the definition of criminality is left to the government of the moment and its sycophants in the security bureaucracy. Hence anything oppositional can be grounds for snooping. That is how the SIS justifies its existence. Just ask Tame Iti or Valerie Morse.

Remember this small fact: being a pain in the rear of the security apparatus because of one’s vocal criticism of government policy, or being a critic of the SIS or the Police itself, does not constitute a threat to national security per se. If it does, that is all the more reason for the SIS or Police to release the evidence justifying claims that is the case. In Jane Kelsey’s case, her requests for release of her file have been met with bureaucratic obfuscation rather than transparency even though the SIS has all but admitted that nothing she has done constitutes a threat to national security. So, one might ask, why the obstruction on “national security grounds?” Although I have an idea why the SIS and Privacy Commissioner are hiding behind the skirt of “national security,” there are broader issues for civil liberties at stake that are worth considering here.

With that in mind I urge any reader who has expressed a dissonant, much  less dissident voice with regards to the way the NZ government and its security agencies operate, to make an official request for  your files. That is because it turns out the the extent of domestic espionage is far beyond what most Kiwis expect to be reasonable, and the SIS is utterly unaccountable for doing so. By this I mean that any dissident, right or left wing, is a potential target of covert monitoring and thus has a probable reason to make an OIA claim. I do not mean just the fringes of the Left-Right continuum, but anything in between: if you piss off the government of the moment or attack the SIS /Police on ethical or practical grounds, you can well be subject to “investigation” on the grounds that you constitute a threat to national security. It is all justified by the empowering legislation that was passed in  the last 15 years, including clauses that justify spying on New Zealand citizens who constitute “threats to  economic security” (which means that anyone opposed to governmental macroeconomic policy might as well be Osama in the opinion of the SIS). So, because she opposes neoliberalism and the APEC “free trade” doctrine, Jane Kelsey is the economic equivalent of a jihadi as far as the SIS is concerned.

That having been said, ask and you shall not receive. If Jane’s campaign is any indication, these  taxpayer-funded security bludgers feel no need to answer the silly requests of the people who pay their salaries. But should you insist, the SIS can be contacted www.nzsis.govt.nz.

Remember that you have to make an OIA (Official Information Act) request, and you should be as precise as possible when specifying the activities that you consider would have “warranted” SIS opening a file on you (of course, even asking that question could “warrant” the SIS opening a file on you).

Please ask Director Warren Tucker for a personal response in your OIA, and tell him that “Pablo” sent you. He knows who I am.

PS: The post has been updated twice to correct typos and clarify some sentences.

Strange things are afoot at the circle K

datePosted on 22:55, July 31st, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission…”
Harry Schoell, CEO, Cyclone Power Technologies Inc.

– The best thing about cheesy 80’s SF on the telly, (and StarWars), was the robots. I was all kinds of disappointed when I saw my first real robot, via the news, and all it did was swing a big ‘arm’ around and did something to help build a car in a Japanese factory.

I suspect now, that the thing I found cool about those SF robots was that they were little metal persons. They clearly had more than just processing power and autonomic reactions. They were self aware, curious, emotional and aware of others. Nothing like robots at all then, appalling SF, and even worse telly. But still, they were pretty cool.

In the early nineties when I was looking at a few theories of mind, Artificial Intelligence was obviously a useful thing to think about. What would it mean to say that a computer, or an integrated system of machines, could think? That would obviously be a mind, wouldn’t it?

Back then I thought the most important issues, if such machines were invented, would be; “What rights, if any, do we give them” and ” Help, they are going to kill us”. Those are still important issues.

– There’s been a bit of talk about what they are calling ‘The Singularity’, defined as the point at which we invent a machine ‘smarter’ than us. The existence of such a machine, would cause a positive feedback loop with the machine(s) being able to further improve both their own descendants, and us, upwards along an increasing spiral of alleged awesome. I’m not at all sure what to think about that.

Most of the talk I’d heard about this was from people mocking the boosters of the idea, many of whom to be fair, do seem a bit strange.

This though, is a little bit different from that. More prosaic, less utopian, more real.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.
The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?

A bunch of scientists have had a meeting discussing AI issues, they’ll be releasing the report “this year”. Should be interesting. The NYT report itself is kind of strange. It seems to be offering a warning, but the meeting also seemed to be about letting people know that there is nothing to be alarmed about. (So look over there and don’t worry your good selfs. It’s all under control.)

Aside from the criminals and terrorists, I’m more than a bit concerned about what governments and corporations will find do-able, working together even.

I’m not stocking up on tin foil just yet, but some of this stuff needs to start getting regulated I think. Or at least talked about. That which isn’t already classified of course.

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

datePosted on 19:26, July 29th, 2009 by Pablo

News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan).  He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.

I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.

One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).

Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.

The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.

To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.

These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.

Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts.  The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.

What is (or should be) NZ’s international role?

datePosted on 22:32, July 20th, 2009 by Pablo

News that the National government has in principle accepted the US request to deploy the NZSAS in Afghanistan once again raises questions as to whether NZ has a dog in that fight, and if so, why it got there. I am already on record in this forum and elsewhere as believing that the NZDF presence in Afghanistan is just on both moral and practical grounds. But many others disagree. That brings up the larger point, which is what, exactly, is (or should be) NZ’s international role? The paradigm shifts and dislocations that followed the Cold War stripped NZ of many of its traditional foreign policy referents, some of which were already being eroded prior to 1990 by the nuclear-free declaration and embrace of market-driven macroeconomic principles. As Lew mentioned in a previous post, trade now appears to be the basis for most contemporary NZ foreign policy, particularly under National governments. I have argued at various times that NZ foreign policy is a mixture of principle and pragmatism, but as of late I am not so sure that the former obtains in any significant measure.

Thus the questions begs: in a fluid international environment such as that which exists today, in which traditional alliance structures and security partnerships have been replaced or overlapped by new trade networks and the emergence of a raft of non-traditional security concerns and policy issues, what role does NZ play? Does it remain a committed multilateral institutionalist? Or is more of a junior partner to a variety of larger countries on a range of selected issues? Should it take the lead in pursuing matters of international principle like the pursuit of non-intervention, disarmanent, non-proliferation, climate change and human rights, or should it wise up and curry favour by getting with the bigger player’s projects, be they Chinese, American or Australian? Does realism or idealism drive NZ foreign policy, and if it is a mixture of the two perspectives, which should dominate given current and near future conditions?

There is a strong isolationist streak in NZ that spans the spectrum from Left to Right, one that sees nonintervention in foreign affairs to be the preferred standard when approaching the international community. In contrast, the trade liberalizers in both major parties and the foreign party bureaucracy speak of trade openings as the end-all, be-all of NZ growth and thus a reason for ongoing and deeper engagement with a multitude of partners. But what happened to principle in all of this, particularly the notion that as a good international citizen NZ has a duty and obligation to support with its active involvement actions that are sanctioned by the UN and other international agencies (the principle that I just happen to believe in when it comes to the foreign policy behaviour of small democratic states)? The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is just one such action, but there are a multitude of others that are seldom mentioned, much less discussed by the NZ political elite or public.

Given the hard economic times of the moment and the folly of recent great power interventions in international affairs, what exactly is or should be NZ’s response to recent international trends, and thus its role in the international environment? Should it lead, follow, be neutral, selective or withdraw when considering its potential range of international commitments?  What should be the criteria for foreign engagement, and to what extent or degree? Should certain existing international commitments be dropped and new ones adopted? Should the traditional pro-Western foreign policy perspective shift to a more Eastern view?

I post this simply as a general reminder that the role of NZ as an international actor gets far too little play in the public discourse, yet is one that it absolutely crucial not only to its international reputation and stature, but also to its continued well-being as a small, vulnerable and dependent nation-state. The question must therefore be repeated: what role should that preferably be?

It is what it is.

datePosted on 13:52, July 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Having returned to my Asian redoubt after 5 weeks in the USA at the family homestead, I can now take stock and reflect on the tone and tenor of American public discourse. Every time I make the yearly pilgrimage back to my native country I notice changes in how people phrase the moment. A few years back, when Dubya was leading his crusade against evil-doers, it was all about “bring it on,” and “opening a can of ass-whuppin.” Last year it was about, paradoxically, ‘change we can believe in” and “being thrown under the bus.” This year’s social motif is caught in the phrase “it is what it is.”

From public officials, to celebrities to the (wo)man on the street, the answer to most thorny questions or complex issues is captured in that phrase. This is remarkable because normally Americans have a strong sense of optimism and unbrindled faith in controlling their own destinies. But the public mood this year is one of resignation and fatalism, if not powerlessness and pessimism. People appear universally resigned to being pawns in a larger game, to be at the mercy of “powers that be,” to being unable to shift the course of their lives based on hard work and idealism alone. Cynicism abounds, apathy is on the rise once again, and people just expect to be disappointed by their leaders or do not expect much from that at all. Somewhat perversely, this debased threshold of consent gives the Obama administration added cushion or leeway when pursuing its policy reforms–anything it manages to accomplish in the policy field will appear to be unexpected and seemingly heroic. Coupled with Obama’s personal charisma, this means his administration really has to do very little in order to impress the mass public.

For the moment the dark mood is pervasive. When asked about personal indiscretions or ongoing subservience to corporate interests (most evident in the stilted debate on national health care), politicians reply: “it is what it is.” When asked about lawsuits, deaths and scandals, celebrities reply: “it is what it is.” When asked about job losses, foreclosures and stifled dreams, average Joe replies “it is what it is.” When asked about the utility of either of the the two wars the USA is fighting, the universal response is that “it is what it is.”When asked if Sarah Palin’s resignation speech was drug-induced or merely incoherent, the reply inevitably is “it is what it is.” This is the 2009 version of the 1970’s adage “s**t happens.” In each instance the point of the phrase is not only to convey resignation; it also signals an end to the conversation on a particular subject.

There also has been is a signal turn in the American social psyche. In a country that already saw little value in public intellectuals and critical discourse, the turn symbolised in this one-sentence fatalism is a sign of despair. It also may be a sign of social rot.

In that spirit I am compelled to ask a few questions myself. Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves? What happened to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller? Why does it not have any responses or initiatives to counter the Obama administration’s projects on a variety of fronts? Why does it continue to cater to religious extremists, social bigots and media charlatans? Why does it allow Dick Cheney, of all people, to be the defender of the faith? Why is it mired in McCarthyite fear of “socialism” or “communism?” Why does it deny any wrong done by the Bush 43 administration, be it the constitutional subversions of the “war on terror,” the trillion dollar national debt, the national financial melt down or the erosion of US international prestige and power? Why does its de facto leaders openly call for Obama’s downfall, in an abject display of disloyal opposition? Why does it not see the need to undergo serious self-examination and rejuvination along new ideological lines given the abject failures of the Bush 43 administration and the electoral massacre suffered in 2008? 

All of this is the stuff of Democratic dreams, and short of arrogance born of unchecked power, the Democrats pretty much have a free run through 2012 (and beyond) so long as the Republicans continue to pursue their 1950s Barbie and Ken dreams in a country where Barbie is increasingly of mixed race and Ken just might be gay. Therein lies the problem, because devoid of a real political opposition that offers substantive alternatives on matters of policy to them (and which extend beyond the tired opposition to abortion and gay rights), the Democrats will, inevitably, succumb to their own greed and indifference. We might call the latter the Clinton syndrome.

The question then is why, in an age of fatalism, the Republican Party does not respond to the challenges of the moment in something other than retrograde fashion?The answer it seems is that it is what it is.

National are, true to prediction, privatising health provision. Also true to prediction they are doing so in a way that gives all the wins to the private sector and keeps all the financial risk for the taxpayer. Private providers may look low cost, but that’s only because they transfer huge amounts of cost to the public sector in terms of both management and back-stop services.

To give an example of a well known issue with private providers, every hip operation has a low very chance of complications leading to the patient spending time in an ICU.

When we cost public provision of a hip op we cost in a part of the cost of public ICU services. When we cost private provision we don’t, but we have to pay for the public ICU costs on top of the private hip op charge. That’s the first issue with the private provider efficiency – they rely on expensive back stop services being provided by the public sector. So we screw the costing model so that the private provider can make a profit off every hip op that goes well, and the public system ensures them against additional costs for the unavoidable not-so-good outcomes. Privatise the profit, socialise the loss!

The second is that there is additional cost in transferring a patient with complications from a private provider to a public ICU – we’re not only screwing the cost model to the benefit of private providers, but we’re actually incurring extra costs to do so.

Third problem? No matter who actually does the surgery “bureaucrats” are required to manage the provision, the eligibility, the bookings, the payments, etc. If one region uses eight small private providers then while each provider might look cheap and light on management there’s going be a team somewhere in the public system making sure that all the patients are allocated and treated, that the contracts are negotiated and the bills are paid and so on. Again, more inefficient that a single large provider responsible for both allocation and provision, again designed to make the private sector look lean and efficient, and the public sector bloated with bureaucrats.

Why, when so many other countries have proved that private healthcare provision is neither cheaper nor more effective thanpublic provision, when our largely private primary health provision is failing to meet demand, and when it is obvious that the private sector would only involve itself in healthcare so it could turn tax dollars into a tidy profit, is National pushing on with privatisation?

Part of the answer is ideological blindness, but part is also the make up of National and its closest friends. The links between National and the private healthcare lobby go back decades. In recent times the fundraising, personal and lobbying ties between National and the Private Hospitals Association are well documented in The Hollow Men, and a quick glance through the list of current National MPs shows just how entwined they remain, from Michael Woodhouse (ex-President of the NZ Private Surgical Hospitals Association), to Jonathan Coleman (a consultant in the medical sector) the list of Nats with personal interests in the profiteering of the private healthcare sector is deep and long.

Between ideology purity and self interest it looks like we’re on a long journey to inefficient expensive and ineffective privatised healthcare courtesy of Tony Ryall, John Key, and friends.

[This borrows from a comment I made on this thread at The Standard. Marty G has some great analysis on just how much of the current National spin about healthcare costs is … just spin]

The bloodless coup that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya this past week has been universally condemned by the UN, OAS, EU, major human rights, civil liberties, academic and policy organisations, as well a scores of individual countries throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond (although I have not found any public record of NZ’s response, which makes me wonder about the Key government’s attitude towards such things). Approval of the coup has been limited to the Zelaya’s opposition in Honduras, Republican bloviators and reactionary chickenhawks such as those that infest the threads at places like DPF’s blog (although DPF himself has speculated on the legitimacy of the Honduran coup, he stopped short of endorsing it). For these intellectually challenged folk, Barack Obama (rather than the US State Department or US government as a whole) has sided with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro in defense of another socialist authoritarian and against “freedom” (as if the US stance was the end-all and be-all of regional politics).  Since I am not smoking the type of left handed cigarettes that produce such hallucinations, let me clarify the facts of the case, then offer some thoughts on the subject of coups in general since I have lived through a few and have studied them as part of my professional life. What is clear is this: the coup ended 15 years of peaceful electoral politics in Central America and is only the second in Latin America in the last 25 years (the other was against Hugo Chavez in 2002 and lasted less than a week). Since these were the longest periods in Latin American history free from overt military intrusion in politics, it is a sad event on that score alone. But was the coup justified?

Manuel Zelaya is a populist who was elected by a comfortable margin in 2006. He campaigned on a predictable platform of anti-elite reform (even though he comes from the rural landowning  elite himself), and by all accounts was popular with the majority. But this year, as his constitutionally mandated term office came to its conclusion, he lobbied for a constitutional reform that among other things was believed by many to include unlimited term limits on the presidency (which would allow him to run again). This constitutional jury-rigging proved successful for Chavez in Venezuela, and some thought it was this model that Zeleya was following.

If so, the trouble for Zelaya was that unlike Chavez he did not have a supplicant Congress, compliant judiciary or allied military backing his plan. Instead Congress, the Supreme Court and the military all resisted the move. Although it may be true that these entities are dominated by elite interests and therefore not so much opposed to Zelaya as what he represents, they were, under the existing Honduran constitution, within their rights to resist his pressure to that end. Confronted by that resistance, Zelaya went public with demands for a non-binding referendum on whether a constitutional reform was necessary (the referendum was scheduled for the day after the coup), and in the week before his ouster had marched with several thousand supporters on a military base in order to take possession of balloting papers stored there. That appears to have been the final straw (as a direct challenge to the corporate integrity of the armed forces), and within days a Supreme Court justice signed a writ authorising his arrest by the military on charges of treason and fraud. His arrest and deportation followed hours later.

Contrary to what conservatives claim, in opposing the coup no country is siding with Castro and Chavez out of ideological affinity. All 34 member nations of the OAS have condemned the coup and refuse to recognise the new government, as has the UN General Assembly (in fact, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza accompanied Zelaya to New York in order for the latter to make his case to the General Assembly). Under provisons of the 1991 “defense of democracy” clause inserted into the OAS Charter (resolution 1080, which was supported by the Bush 41 administration and which includes provisions for the establishment of a Unit for the Protection of Democracy in the event democratic stability is threatened in any member state), and the 2001 Interamerican Democratic Charter, a 2/3 majority of the Permanent Council of the OAS can vote to suspend member status to any state in which a democratically government is overthrown by force. Resolution 1080 was used to justify the multinational military intervention in Hait when the democratically elected Leftist government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown by the military junta led by general Raul Cedras (which was also the first time in regional history that the US intervened against a pro-US military government in support of an anti-US democratic government). The IADC was invoked against the Venezuelan coup-mongerers in 2002. Hence, rather than evidence of some commie sympathies, US and other opposition to the coup is firmly grounded in international law, regional treaty obligations and multilateral institutions.

The Honduran military points out that it has not assumed power and no one died in the action against Zelaya. Instead, Zelaya’s constitutionally designated successor took his place and the Supreme Court declared the whole process to be legal. Elections scheduled for November will proceed apace. Point noted. We shall call this, then, a “soft” coup (as opposed to the 1973 coup that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile or the 1976 military coup in Argentina).

The problem for the Honduran military is that the action was overkill given the circumstances. Ousting a democratically elected president because he is pushing for a non-binding popular referendum is a bit much when other avenues of recourse, such as his arrest by the police or tax authorities on civil or criminal charges, could have allowed him his day in court and averted the situation now unfolding. Given a range of less drastic options, why would the military make the coup move?

The answer lies in the military’s internal organisation and external threat perception. Unlike many advanced democracies, Honduras still has a military charged with internal as well as external security functions. This is a carry-over from the authoritarian days when leftist guerrilla forces operated within Honduran territory (when some of the current military commanders were junior officers blooding themselves for the first time). It is evident in the use of military personnel for police functions such as traffic control (roadblocks) in regions deemed to be of military sensitivity (such as along the Salvadorean and Nicaraguan borders). It is evident in the internal focus of military intelligence, and in the use of para-military units to supplement regular police forces. Thus, internal conflicts between civilian political factions become, by definition, threats to national security, especially when they involve the spectre of mass social unrest. Since the military is encharged with responding to internal threats, it did so after considerable in-house debate and consultation with civilian elites.

The other reason for the coup is that it sends a message. That message is squarely directed at Hugo Chavez. The Honduran military (along with the Guatemalan, Salvadorean and US militaries) is concerned about the inroads Chavez has made in Nicaragua now that former Sandinista commander Daniel Ortega is back in the presidency of that country. Remember that Chavez has purged the Venezuelan military of career professional officers in favour of partisan cronies; has opened military ties with Russia and Iran;  has purchased massive amounts of weaponry disproportionate to the threat environment in which Venezuela operates; and has formed armed civilian militias as an instrument of social and political control. Chavez may have his legitimate reasons for doing so, but that is not what matters in this instance : the Honduran military perception of his actions is all that counts.

The Honduran military fear is that he is now exporting these concepts elsewhere, not only to Nicaragua (which has been receptive to his overtures), but also to El Salvador, where a moderate Left leaning government with ties to the old FMLN guerrilla movement has recently been installed (although it shows no signs of radicalization along Chavez-inspired lines). Worse yet, Zelaya had agreed to join the Chavez-organized ALBA regional trade network in spite of Honduras’ membership in CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade organisation, which was seen as indicative of his future orientation should his proposed constitutional reforms get passed. Whether or not there is truth to these concerns (and it would appear that a considerable element of ideological paranoia has been overlayed on traditional Honduran military concerns about the security of their borders given the behaviour of their neighbours–remember the 1979 “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras), the fact is that the Honduran military want to make clear that it will not tolerate the “Bolivarization” of Honduras. Even if Zelaya is restored–and I suspect he will, especially since the OAS has given Honduras 3 days to reverse the coup–that message has been received and understood by all concerned.

As for coups in general. I shall not address coups against oppressive authoritarian regimes, such as the 1974 Revolution of the Carnations led by Left-leaning mid-ranking officers against the remnants of the Salazar regime in Portugal (and which led to democracy). The justification for such coups should be obvious (except, perhaps, to the chickenhawks).

Instead, let us consider under what conditions a coup against a democratically elected government is justifed. I can only think of one. That is when a freely-elected government suspends democratic rights (including elections, civil liberties and rights to fair trial), imprisons and kills its opponents, outlaws competing political parties, censors or closes down the media, destroys opposition (or “suspect”) organisations, and in general assumes an authoritarian character once it is installed in office (NOTE: to my mind nationalisation of foreign businesses or private property is not a justification, although fair compensation and legal disputation is expected).

Anything short of that is no justification for a coup (which means that the Honduran coup is clearly unjustifed), but military inaction in the face of such behaviour is a recipie for tragedy at home and abroad. The best example of the latter is the rise of the National Socialists from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, where Hitler and his gang of thugs used their electoral victory and ideological appeal to destroy German democracy (an event crystallised, literally, in the Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938). He then turned his sights abroad.

There is only one regime in Latin American that comes even remotely close to satisfying the conditions for a legitimate anti-democratic coup, and there is still some way to go before the criteria for a recourse to arms will be justified: that of Hugo Chavez.

The class element in recent Middle Eastern elections.

datePosted on 10:17, June 30th, 2009 by Pablo

Lost in the chorus of outrage over the Iranian election results and subsequent repression of protest is the socio-economic cleavages evident in the polls. The same is true of the coverage of the Lebanese parliamentary elections held two weeks earlier.  It is therefore worthwhile to examine this dimension.

President Amadinijhad represents not only the militant Islamicist ideological wing embodied in the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij, who are now purportedly in a power struggle with the clerics in the Guardian Council over the direction of the post-revolutionary leadership movement. Amadinijhad also represents, both in tone and demeanour, the urban working and rural classes. Against him are poised the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousani, a former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs who his supporters and Western analysts see as a reformist. He is also a millionaire who receives his support from the urban bourgeousie, secularists, the better educated and university students. In most aspects he is not discernably different from Amadinijhad with regard to major policy issues (such as the civilian nuclear energy program), but he does represent a modernizing element within the revolution, one that is more secular, more technologically savvy and more attuned to Western mores than the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards (at the elite level) and the working classes (at the base) that see Amadinijhad as a bastion against corrosive secularisation of the revolutionary ethos.

The election was a referendum not on Iran’s foreign policy (which the West is obsessed about), but on Amadinijhad’s economic management, which by any measure is poor and which, like in any other country, occupies the attention of the mass electorate. Iran is a net oil importer that cannot feed itself in spite of its large land mass and variegated geography, access to the sea and ample fresh water. It was also a contest between the cell phone and twitter generation and the rest, since only 30 percent of Iranians have access to computer facilities and less than half have access to cell phones. Clearly, Amadinijhad and the mullahs underestimated the power of cellphone and computer access, particiularly when the regime itself is now dependent on computer services and cell phones in order to conduct its daily business (which practically speaking means that universal shut downs or denials of service are nigh impossible). 

My belief is that Amadinijhad won the election, but by a narrow margin that spooked him and his supporters who felt that a close vote would undermine the face of strength and unity they wish to present to the West with regards to the nuclear progam, support for Hamas and Hezbollah and foreign relations in general, to say nothing of their relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of vote fraud so well refined in advanced democracies, the Amadinijhad government–which controlled the balloting–padded their lead too much and hand counted votes too quickly to be credible. Hence the uproar.

But the genie is out of the bottle no matter what happens. Amadinijhad is dead in the water as far as having influence and leverage at home and abroad. In terms of foreign policy, he cannot purport to be the representative of any consensus vis a vis relations with the West, which undermines any bargaining position he hopes to maintain on key foreign policy issues (simply due to the lack of acknowledged majority support for his views). Domestically, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij has been sent a clear message that their ideological project is not shared by a wide swathe of Iranians. Moreover, the class divisions that precipitated the election crisis will not go away just because the government quells the protests. Thus, whether or not the West would like to intervene in the post-election process (a move that has never been proven to be successful over the long-term), the class conflict underpinning the electoral dispute will continue so long as both sides play the dispute in zero-sum terms. In the measure they do, they risk the possibility of civil war, since significant elements in the conventional military (particularly in the more technologically or professionally oriented branches of the Air Force and Navy) will not follow Revolutionary Guard orders to kill their own people  (if nothing else because the officer corps and non-commisioned officers are part of the middle classes), and because the “real” military will be needed to quell any mass revolt. In the measure that the Amadinijhad and Mousavi factions cut a deal and marginalise the Revolutionary Guard and Basij pustchists, the clerics and conventional officer corps will back them. The question is, can they reconcile the class conflicts in a political compromise that is mutually binding, universally acceptable and stable over time?

In Lebanon, Saad el-Hariri assumed the mantle of his assassinated father Rafic and gained a majority in the June 7 parliamentary elections, winning 71 of 128 seats . Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, won 57 seats and accepted the outcome. Hezbollah represents the working class and Shiia vote in Lebanon; Hariri represents the Sunni, Christian, Druze, secularist and bourgeoise vote. The West applauded the result and urged Hariri to proceed with his father’s anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian project, which includes marginalising (and criminalising) Hezbollah. Understanding the realities on the ground, Saad el-Hariri has opted instead to form a  national unity government that includes Hezbollah because he apparently understands that class, not religious conflict, is what drives many to support the Shiia extremists (who deliver on their promises of social services far better than any of their pro-Western counterparts).

 What is remarkable is the unmentioned premise for Western political support in a Middle Eastern (or any other)  election: defense of upper class (read capitalist) interests at the expense of all others. To be sure, religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts are bound up in these electoral contests, but one thing remains clear: even in societies rendered by such superstructural forms of primary identification, it is class that drives the major political divisions, and it is class interest, capitalist class interests specifically, to which the West responds most favorably when it comes to electoral outcomes. All of this is obvious: for the West it seems electoral democracy is not so much about the freedom to choose but about the “freedom” to choose bourgeoise leaders who uphold the national capitalist class interest as well as an affinity for Western economic orientation and macroeconomic logics (in spite of the obvious debacles such orientation has produced in both the developed and developing world). The response to Hamas’s electoral victory is an indication of that view, above and beyond its problematic approach to violence, Iranian connections and  non-recognition of Israel. 

I should note that the current trend in both elections indicates a move away from religious militancy and towards moderate-secularism, which to my mind is a good thing. It also represents a specific repudiation of Shiia militancy, either in the form of the Revolutionary Guard ideology or the perspective of its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies in Lebanon and Palestine ( fully understanding the local conditions underpinning their respective support), something that will undoubtably comfort elites in the Sunni Arab world.

For the social democratic Left the elections pose a conundrum: who to support? The “bad guys” (at least in Western eyes) are supported by the working masses and rural poor; the “good guys” are supported by elites and other propertied groups as well as well-meaning sorts such as intellectuals and artists. The class line does not suffice to chart a course of response to such situations. For social democratic governments, this poses a major problem; for right wing governments such as that temporarily governing NZ, it does not. Thus the question begs: when confronted by this type of class conflict viewed through the prism of contested elections, does the democratic Left (in government or in opposition) choose democracy over class interest or vice versa? If so why, exactly? If not, why not?

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