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In Part 2 of this series I mentioned the notion of contingent consent. I noted that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is contingent on collective and individual expectations being met at the economic, social and political levels.  Today I begin by broadening that notion.

As Adam Przeworski pointed out some time ago, democracy is a contingent outcome of conflicts. No more and no less, at a political level “democracy” is a particular method for resolving conflicts between competing political and socio-economic groups. There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, but those involve degrees of coercion, intimidation and imposition rather than peaceful resolution of competing interests. Democracy is unique in that it is a political system (and society) that is based upon the contingent, amicable resolution of conflicts between collective (at the political level) and individual (at the societal level) interests. It is therefore unusual in the sense that it has an institutional bias (a story in and of itself) in favour of compromise rather than imposition. It is unique amongst social hierarchies because of its preference for the middlle view, rather than elite preference. Yet, the orientation towards peaceful or amicable conflict resolution in pursuit of mass consensus adds weight to the contingency of the resolution in question. Once again, we must unpack the term in order to understand its broader implications.

Democracy survives in the measure that it meets popular (not just majority) expectations. Expectations are a product of popular conceptions of entitlements and rights, often enshrined in law but always perpetuated in foklore and myth. The key for all governments is to manage expectations so that the political form can be reproduced. Authoritarian regimes reduce expectations (often to zero) in certain policy areas in order to satisfy those in others (if at all; in their most degenerate stage authoritarian regimes become mere kleptocracies, ideologically perverse fetishists or homicidal cliques, as the regimes led by Anastasio Somoza, Kim Jung-Il or Robert Mugabe attest). The difference is that democracies must satisify popular expectations in virtually all policy areas, or at least convince the public that a commonly-recognized hierachy of needs must be satisfied in order of priority, so as to reproduce mass contingent consent successfully. Everything political, in other words, is contigent in a democracy.

Democratic rule is contingent on popular expectations being met, and those expectations are raised or lowered by party promises while in government and opposition. In the measure that popular expectations of policy outcomes are broadly met, the government survives and the regime prospers. In the measure that popular expectations are not met governments fall and the regime is undermined. The reason for the latter is that, when confronted with repeated failures to meet expectations by ideologically different governments, popular confidence in the regime type  as a whole begins to fall. When successive governments fail to meet expectations or live up to their promises, popular confidence in the regime begins to suffer. If prolonged, such a loss of confidence can lead to withdrawl of mass contingent consent to the regime, as people do not differentiate between the inaction or failures of particular governments and the regime as a whole (this was seen in Latin America in the 1990s and led directly to the resurgence of indigenous socialism in that region in the 2000s).  Put another way: how many people, including those in the media, confuse the term “government” and “regime” when addressing issues of policy even during stable times? (another reason why conceptual precision should be a requirement in journalism as well as academic discourse). The result in any event is mass withdrawal of consent and a crisis of the regime. Hence, of all regime types, democracy is the most contingent on popular expectations being continuously met, which in turn forces political elites to frame policy debates in ways that allow them to do so. The more informed the public and the stronger the sense of entitlement and endowment of basic rights in society, the harder it is for elites to control the terms of that debate.

How then, can democratic governments continuously meet popular, or at least majority expectations with an eye towards peacefully resolving collective conflicts in order to secure ongoing contingent mass consent given any particular mix of perceived rights and entitlements? The answer lies at the heart of democratic society and is what distinguishes it from all non-democratic social hierarchies: self-restraint. Collective and individual self-restraint is the hallmark of “mature” democracies.

Contrary to economic logics that posit that the uncoordinated actions of self-interested maximizers of opportunities lead the market to clear in an equilibrated state, strategic interaction in democracies is predicated on the conscious adoption by collective actors (and individuals) of self-restraint when pursuing their interests. The use of self-restraint (or self-binding strategies) is done in order to pursue mutual second-best options rather than first choices, since the pursuit of the latter can lead to unbrindled conflict that, although individually optimal for the victors,  is collectively sub-optimal in terms of social peace and regime stability (as it is inherently unstable and prone to challenge by force).  Actors may use militant-moderate strategies to pursue their interests, in which they stake a militant position or demand in order to create space for the achievement of moderate compromises (as occurs in collective wage bargaining), but the objective is the moderate goal, not the militant one. In adopting the mutual second best approach to strategic interaction, collective actors and individuals take into account the interests and strategies of other actors. The democratic “game,” in other words, is coordinated, with actor coordination premised on mutual self-restraint.

Recall that capitalist democracy is itself a product of self-restraint and compromise on the part of capitalists and workers: capitalists consent to democracy and a reduced rate of exploitation, while workers consent to private ownership of the means of production and the universal logics of capitalist markets. Democracy is, in effect, a grand compromise born of collective self-restraint in pursuit of  mass contingent consent.

The threat to democracy comes when collective actors and individuals abandon the practice of self-restraint and pursuit of mutual second best choices that are Nash equilibrated and often Pareto optimal in favour of egotistical first choice preferences. Often this is done because the actor in question believes in the superiority of its view on a given social construct or policy issue, but it can also be simply a matter of greed or ingrained authoritarianism. In New Zealand the political party that is the closest to this approach is ACT, which sees its market/libertarian/social authoritarian beliefs (yes, there is a contradiction there) as superior to all other political views and thus not worth compromising. Most other parties, to include the Greens, understand the give and take needed for the collective mutual second best to obtain over time, but ACT remains zealous, some might say extremist, in its approach to policy-making. In the measure that it continues to do so it is, consequently, a threat to democratic stability.

As with the other concepts examined in this series,there is more to the discussion of contingency and self-restraint in a democracy, particularly the macro-, meso- and micro-levels in which they are manifest and the tradeoffs that occur within and between each level. Suffice it to note here that the salient characteristics of democracies are their ability to inculcate in rulers and ruled the notion that self-restraint is an important ideal in and of itself, and that all political decisions and policy outputs must subject themselves to the contingency test that diminishes uncertainties, upholds universal rights, satisfies entitlements, improves accountability and reproduces mass consent over time. In the measure that they do so, we can say that such democracies are “hegemonic.”

This is the last of this series. My partner has joked that I have single-handedly driven down the blog readership with my long-winded ruminations amid the more topical posts of my blog colleagues. My apologies if that is so, but if nothing else the very act of writing has begun to clarify my thinking on the subject, and hopefully that of some readers as well.

Deconstructing Democracy, Part 4: Entitlement.

datePosted on 01:41, June 10th, 2009 by Pablo

One of the most divisive issues in modern democracies is the notion of entitlements. In NZ the dividing line mostly centres on interpretations of Te Tiriti and its sequels.  In this discussion I shall try to unpack the concept in order to phrase its importance to sustainable democracy in broader terms.

To that end let us clarify what entitlements are not. Entitlements are not objective rights. Objective rights are universal standards guaranteed and enforced by the State. Contrary to what many believe and the desires of constitution-makers, they are not naturally given or divinely ordained. Rights are not  “objectively” or materially given (contrary to what natural law and capitalist theorists believe).  Instead, people are born into social contexts in which the notion of inalienable or universal rights may or may not exist, and may shift depending on circumstance (think the US government stance on torture under W. Bush). Individual and collective rights are not guaranteed deus ex machina but by human invention. They are a human artifice encoded, enshrined or ensured by human instrument. Thus, be it the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights or civil liberties statutes in any given country, universal rights standards are effectively enforced by States, which are also the primary abusers of individual and collective rights. Universal rights in principle are selectively upheld in practice depending on the disposition of States and the regimes that govern them. In reality they are not natural, innate, inherent or immutable, but instead are the intellectual product of human beings (elites, for the most part) acting upon notions of collective interest in specific historical contexts.  

Although they may overlap with universal rights and are often confused with them, entitlements do not originate in the State and are not always universal or objective. Instead, entitlements are subjectively driven assessments of what is deemed to be expected or “due” a person or group based upon their location in the socio-economic and political context. Such assessments are group and context specific in origins, although “outsiders” may believe in their validity.  Thus, Kazak goat herders may feel that they are entitled to guaranteed pasture; Taiwaneese teenagers may feel that they are entitled to MP3s; Cubans may feel entitled to first class health and education services; Singaporeans may feel entitled to cheap public housing and food; Argentines may believe that they are entitled to a daily ration of “bife” (steak); Tongan fishing villagers may feel entitled to a portion of any day’s catch; Salafists may believe that they are entitled to religious freedom in Christian societies; Pashtun fathers may feel entitled to marry off their daughters as they see fit; African-Americans may feel entitled to affirmative action; physically disabled people may feel entitled to accessible facilities; religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities may feel entitled to observe their differences in a preferential way; Maori and other indigenous groups in post colonial societies may feel that they are entitled to the land, sea and air that comprise the physical boundaries in which they exist, and to continuing the cultural practices of their ancestors.  The point is that all people have a sense of entitlement to something, and that something is a product of historical events and practice translated into current perspective, grievance, and approach, all subjectively assessed from the standpoint of the individual or group in question. Although they may be well-founded and quite necessary for the people in question to lead fulfilling lives, and may in fact be universally shared, these notions of entitlements are not, by definition, rights.

Authoritarians do not much have to worry about reconciling their political projects with notions of entitlement.  They can recognize or disregard entitlements as they please, using force as the ultimate arbiter of disputes arising from differences over who is entitled to what. For democracies however, particularly those in heterogeneous societies with past records of oppression, exploitation and expropriation, addressing the issue of selective group entitlements is central to regime stability. That is where the so-called rights (entitlements?) of the majority may run in conflict with the rights (entitlements?) of minorities. Rights are always universal and State-granted; entitlements may or not be. The question in democracies is how to reconcile them.

Depending on the political strength of any given actor, selective notions of entitlement can be pushed onto the policy-making agenda.  If successful, the promotion of entitlements can lead to legislative recognition, which in turn can lead to the treatment of entitlements as rights. The key to democratic stability is for selective entitlements to be accepted by the majority as if they were universal rights. That assumes majority consensus on the historical record that produces a shared definition and perspective on selected group entitlements as well as their means of achievement or redress. That is, above all, an ideological project.

Rights are defined, bestowed and enforced by the State, in a top-down process of elite attribution and mass application. Entitlements are construed “from below,” originating in grassroots conceptualisations of what is (historically) due to or expected by a given group or groups. In the measure that selective notions of entitlement enter into the majority consciousness as reasonable and fair given a particular history and current context, they then have the chance to become part of the policy process. In the measure that they enter into the purview of the State (as the operational agent for the implementation of policy), they can become synonymous with the general interest. At that point they become State-sanctioned and enforced.  But however conflated their usuage may become, entitlements can never be construed as rights unless they are universally shared. That is why debates on selective entitlements are so heated and divisive. Be it on matters of cultural identity, resource extraction or political representation, the conflict between selective entitlements and universal rights is a permanent feature of the social landscape in modern democratic societies. 

I admit to not having a complete grasp on how to reconcile group entitlements and universal rights in a democracy. Yet in seems that it is one of the most important and intractable issues in the reproduction of the democratic form. Better said, it is the resolution of the entitlements versus rights conundrum that lies at the heart of sustainable democracy in the early 21st century. And that, again, may be in the first instance more of an ideological project than a matter of policy.

Next post: contingency and self-restraint.

Deconstructing Democracy, Part 3: Uncertainty.

datePosted on 20:42, June 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

The thing people fear the most is uncertainty. Bad or good, things that are known can be prepared for and dealt with. Things that are unknown can be ignored. But things that are known in the abstract but unknown in their specifics cause visceral angst in human beings. We know that we are going to die, but not how. We know that airplanes crash out of the sky, but not when. As someone who enjoys open water swimming, I always enter the ocean (particularly new bodies of water) with the knowledge that big toothy fish inhabit the sea, but I do not know if they will be sharing proximate space with me at that particular moment. That makes me anxious (after all, if I know that they are there, I do not go into the water; if I do not know that they are there, I do not worry when I do so–although I might subsequently be surprised). Many terminally ill people have noted that it is the uncertainty of their prognosis that is the hardest aspect of their condition, and that the final prognosis gives them the peace of mind to accept their fate (I experienced this first hand with my father). The bottom line is drawn by none other than Donald Rumsfeld: There are known knowns and  known unknowns, but the problem lies with the unknown unknowns.

People consequently spend their whole lives hedging against uncertainty. We cling to our parents at the sight of new and strange things, waiting for their reassurance that all is OK. We go to school and educate ourselves so that we can increase our career and income prospects. We form emotional attachments and enter into relationships in order to to fill the uncertainties of solitary existence. We buy insurance. We double check our parachutes and bungy cords. We clean our guns, we check the oil and fluids before long trips–our lives are a long list of hedging against the uncertainties of the moment. The point is simple: there is an innate fear of uncertainty inherent in the human condition, which we constantly try to overcome by imposing degrees of certainty in our lives.

That makes democracy a most remarkable and unnatural form of political rule. As part of the quest for certainty, humans establish social hierarchies. Firms, schools, churches, unions, parties, even the family itself, are hierarchical organisations. Thus authoritarianism, as the ultimate political expression of social hierarchy, is also the ultimate guarantor of political certainty: as the saying goes, Mussolini made the trains run on time. Many have argued that authoritarianism (especially in non-Anglo Saxon societies), is the more natural form of political regime. Perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, under authoritarian regimes there is the certainty of punishment for voicing opposition, the certainty of favour given to allies and toadies, the certainty that you will not be bothered if you keep your head down and go to work or school, the certainty of imprisonment or death should one confront the hierarchical status quo. Authoritarians are all about certainty, and in that measure they are naturally reassuring to a risk-adverse and uncertain public.

Yet, democracy is unique in that it takes what we fear the most–uncertainty–and turns it into the centerpiece of the political system. Elections are no more than institutionalised (if not ritualised) uncertainty. At the moment of ballot casting, no one knows the outcome. To be sure, incumbents may have an advantage over opponents, opinion polls attempt to semi-scientifically show clear tendencies among voting preferences, and electoral fraud abounds at all levels in many democratic regimes. The point is that these occur precisely because contenders for elected positions are trying to achieve some measure of certainty over the outcome, which creates a whole industry of prognosticators and facilitators attempting to do the same for profit. In other words, the measure of a mature democratic system is the relatively high degree of uncertainty of its electoral processes. The more certain the outcome of any given election, the more undemocratic the political system in which it occurs (fully understanding that popular support in advance of elections can make outcomes all but certain–but the point is that we do not absolutely know that at the time our ballots are cast). But that still does not address the existential dilemma: we want to have some degree of certainty about where out lives are heading, politically and otherwise.

The answer, as it turns out, is counter-intuitive yet simple. Institutionalised uncertainty in the form of regular free and transparent elections amongst a universally enfranchised adult population is not only a  contradiction of the social hierarchies that are the organisational bulk of most human society; they are also a guarantee of accountability. That is the beauty of the mechanism, and why it needs to be protected. Hierarchy may guarnatee some degree of certainty, but it reduces accountability in most instances. The duty of those at the top of social hierarchies are to themselves and other social leaders, and much less so to their subordinates. The reason? Such hierarchical accountability leads to more certainty in decision-making (if not outcomes). That is why genuine grassroots consultation in hierarchical social systems is an exeption rather than the rule. 

Uncertain electoral outcomes are what keep politicians honest and accountable. No matter what they do, they know that at regular 2, 3, 4 or 6 year intervals they will be held to account by the voting population. While they may try to hide their corruption and personal malfeasance, politicians ultimately have to deliver on the promises and behave according to popular expectations of office-holders (or at least disguise their behaviour accordingly). It is the uncertainty of the electoral moment that hangs, like the shadow of the future, over present political decision-making; politicians need to think of the future  electoral consequences of their current decisions. This may, from time to time, lead to sub-optimal policy outcomes since popular majority opinion may not always be informed on specific subjects (the despicable treatment of Ahmed Zaoui by the Fifth Labour government was due, in part, to its calculation that rough treatment of a Muslim asylum seeker would be countenanced by the NZ public in the wake of 9/11–and so it was). But the larger point is that institutionalised uncertainty in the form of open and transparent elections at regular intervals is a hedge against unaccountability on the part of the political elite. Thus we must resist the siren song of politicians who say that is in the general interest for them to enact policy unencumbered by popular opinion or who ram through policy without popular consultation. Politicians  that do so believe that the public are either stupid or suffer from short-sightedness and political amnesia, leading to no adverse electoral consequences and a reaffirmation of the certainty of hierarchy (in which elite interests are satisfied first). Instead, the voting public must run against its baser instinct and embrace uncertainty when it comes to the political system, since it is that embrace that promotes accountability from those chosen to lead it.

Next post: entitlements.

Deconstructing Democracy: Introduction.

datePosted on 19:38, May 26th, 2009 by Pablo

Anita’s post below on raising democratic children was meaningful to me because I was primarily raised in authoritarian societies, was involved in anti-authoritarian activities in my youth and first got to vote when I arrived in the US to attend university (under Nixon!). Later as a single parent I worked hard to raise my kids in what I liked to call a “triangular” social democratic family (Dad and two kids with a reasonably equitable sharing of household rights and responsibilities given our respective life positions). Although we do not agree on many issues, I can confidently say that they are both politically engaged.

I spent a large part of the Reagan years living on and off in Latin America studying processes of authoritarian demise and democratic (re)constitution, spent the early 1990s working in and out of the US government, then decided to emigrate to NZ once the kids were old enough to fend for themselves. In NZ I initially found one of the two freest places I have lived in (along with Uruguay), but then unhappily watched the corrosion of democratic values in both political and civil society over the next decade. I am now again involuntarily living under yet another authoritarian regime (not quite as murderous as the ones of my youth), and having written previously about the dilemmas of democratic consolidation in post-authoritarian societies, I have time to reflect from afar on what the term means to me, with specific reference to NZ.  Once I finish the current book project I am working on, I intend to write a book about the subject of democracy in transitional societies, and to that purpose have begun to deconstruct my thought on what democracy involves.

Over the next few blog posts I will sketch out my preliminary thoughts on the issue (these are too long for one post). The reason I do so is not so much as a self-indulgent attempt to see what the thoughts look like on paper, but because I think that sometimes people who have lived their entire lives in a democratic society lose sight of what that really means and what it involves. Perhaps it takes someone who has experience with both dictatorial and democratic systems to cast fresh light on the latter. That is my purpose here.

To begin with, we must separate “democracy” into its procedural and substantive dimensions. Procedural democracy refers to the means (procedures) by which political power is acquired and maintained. Substantive democracy refers to the three dimensions on which democratic societies are reproduced: institutional, societal and economic. I explain each in turn.

Procedural democracy is characterised by free and open competitive elections between self-constituted political actors awarded equal legal status and free from interference from the state, with an unencumbered right to vote shared by the entire adult population of citizens (and in the case of NZ, permanent residents, of which I am one).  This much is the obvious procedural minimum–there is more with regard to how the selection of incumbents of political decision-making positions is accomplished. But the key points are the freedom of expression, preference and competition embedded in the concept of procedural democracy; and the fact that elections, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic worth. By themselves elections are just a procedure, or as a Chilean observer once commented, a type of “secular communion” held at regular intervals by the electorate to consecrate their commitment to the political form as well as to select those who shall temporarily rule.

That is where substantive democracy comes in. Elections without institutional, societal and economic underpinnings are all procedure and no substance. Ferdinand Marcos held (and won) regular elections, as did the PRI regime in Mexico and Brazilian military regime of 1964-1985. The country where I am currently living has regular elections as well, but the outcome is pre-determined: the ruling party always wins. Thus, what matters most for the constitution and consolidation of democracy is not holding elections, but the substantive reproduction of democracy in its institutional, societal and economic dimensions.

Institutional democracy refers to the organization of the state apparatus and collective actors, the rules that bind them, and the forms of interaction they engage. The guiding principle of institutional democracy is transparency, equality and accountability. Institutions, both public and private, big and small, operate in away that minimizes preferential bias or ascriptive intrusions in their governance and outputs. The notions of polyarchy and pluralism apply here. Good representation of the concept is the notion that “justice is blind” or that collective agents and public officials are responsible (effectively answerable) to their principals. Needless to say, even in an advanced liberal democracy like NZ, the reality is somewhat less than the ideal.

That may be due to difficulties at the societal level. Societal democracy refers to the inculcation of notions of consent, concession, compromise, collective interest, equality, solidarity, individual rights, mutual consideration, egalitarianism and legitimate exchange. This promotes general belief in tolerance, respect for difference, non-hierarchical outlooks and negotiated solutions in the pursuit of mutual second-best collective outcomes (as opposed to self-interested first choice maximization of opportunities). It also promotes a (relatively) high degree of public participation in politically-oriented activity (including participation in the type of demonstrations seen in Auckland the past few days). This is what distinguishes democratic from authoritarian societies. Yet here too the ideal is not matched by reality even in the most mature of democracies–but it remains an aspirational objective.

Part of the reason societal democracy is less than perfect is due to failures to achieve economic democracy. At an economic level substantive democracy involves a general agreement within society that favours political guarantees for maintaining a minimum standard of living and just compensation for productive labour. It includes acceptance of minimum health and welfare standards for those who are structurally unemployable (i.e., through no fault of their own). The means of achieving economic democracy are much debated, but the fact of its necessity is not.

There is a fair bit of argument about what dimension should come first. Does procedural-institutional democracy precede societal and economic democracy (as liberal theorists claim), or, as Marxists argue, is the process the reverse? Can it be imposed by external actors, and if so, on which dimensions? (I would argue that in most cases it cannot). The degree to which a society has moved towards achieving procedural and substantive democracy helps distinguish between liberal, illiberal, exclusionary, delegative and radical democratic systems. As an example, let us imagine that we can “score” democratic “value” points based on a continuum from least to most (please note that this is my subjective rating for heuristic purposes and does not use Freedom House or Transparency International scores). Generally speaking, arrayed on a scale of 1-10 (1=undemocratic; 10=democratic utopia), countries are considered democratic if they score above 5 on all dimensions (a minimum of 20 points). Moreover, that score is not static or immutable–it varies over time depending on socio-economic, demographic and political conditions. Thus, when I arrived in NZ in 1997 I scored the country as a 8 on a procedural level, 8 on an institutional level, 9 on a societal level and a 7 on an economic level. By 2007 my scores for NZ were 7.5, 7, 8 and 8 ( a net decline of 1.5 democratic “value” points). In contrast, I had the US scored in 1997 as 6, 6, 8 and 7, moving to 5., 5.5, 7.5 and 6 under the reign of George W. Bush. As for the country I am currently living in, the scores are 1.5, 5, 6.5 and 1.

The point is not to argue for the precision of these scores. The point is that democracy is a living, breathing entity, one that reproduces dialectically across the above-mentioned dimensions, and one that is susceptible to decline if it does not reproduce a minimum threshold of democratic “value” across them. In subsequent posts I shall elaborate on the five factors that need to be reconciled for this to occur. These are consent, uncertainty, contingency, entitlements and self-restraint. In the next post I shall address the issue of consent as the foundation of hegemonic rule, and of  democracies specifically. 

For the moment suffice it to say that I endorse Anita’s insightful remarks about the early political socialisation of children, as that constitutes a precondition for the achievement of societal and institutional democracy.

PS: Please feel free to weigh in. All reasoned views welcome–after all, I have a book project in mind!

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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