Archive for ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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?

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.

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