While we were locked down…

datePosted on 12:25, May 29th, 2020 by Pablo

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

datePosted on 15:33, May 19th, 2020 by Pablo

Arguments by religious folk that they are being discriminated against under the Level 2 pandemic restrictions in NZ, which limit church services to ten people or less when schools, restaurants, malls and other service outlets are allowed to host many more people under voluntary self-distancing protocols, got me to think about whether people understand the rationale behind the government approach as well as the role of religion in society and particularly in a liberal democracy such as NZ. I wrote a tweet outlining my general view and it elicited some contrary responses from people who are either religious and/or dislike the current government. I will not dwell on their responses but I will below string together in fuller scope my side of the discussion.

I began with the first tweet:

“Liberal democracies are secular regimes where church and state are separate and the state treats all religions neutrally and equally while having superordinate authority over material (as opposed to spiritual) issues, including public health. Churches need to respect that.” That began a back and forth with the contrary minded readers, which elicited the following responses from me:

“Stage (sic) 2 is based on opening up commerce, with some social restrictions still in place. Education is critical for commerce in several ways. Services are critical to economic well-being. Religion is a social construct based on belief that is not economically essential. Big diff.

In medicine, the environment, engineering, economics, threat assessment, even political forecasting, among so many other material things, science must and will trump belief. With CV-19 science must prevail over belief. There is nothing “illiberal” about the govt response.”

The last sentence came in response to a commentator’s remark that NZ is an illiberal democracy because of the restriction on religious gatherings, among other things. The author went on to speak of a difference in values between the government and people like him when it comes to family and society. I replied:

“A secular democratic regime can, should and most often does value families and society, and its social policies demonstrate this. The level 2 re-opening is business driven because NZ is a capitalist country, and everyone’s welfare depends on capitalist survival, not churches.

So long as the economic imperatives of a capitalist society remain a paramount concern of govt, then commercial concerns will supersede (much variegated) spiritual ones. Hence the pro-business incrementalism of the govt approach. They respond to structural necessity, not values.”

And that is the bottom line. NZ is a capitalist society. It is a capitalist society because the means of production are mostly in private hands and subject to market-oriented logics, because the relations in and of production reproduce the material hierarchy on which the economic system rests, because it is inserted in a global capitalist system of production, consumption and exchange, and because the social division of labour that emerges out of it reinforces the hierarchical relations between the ultimate producers of wealth and the owners of productive assets in NZ and elsewhere. Most of all, NZ is a capitalist society because the welfare of everyone directly or indirectly depends on the welfare and investment of capitalists–if they do not prosper, no one does.

Regular readers know the I am not a fan of laissez fare capitalism or the various market-driven experiments of the last forty years. Nor am I entirely pleased with how the current government defers to capitalist logics rather than fully embrace the entire policy spectrum involved in well-being budgeting. I am just saying: when it comes to the economic motor of NZ society, it is what it is.

NZ has just faced and continues to be threatened by a deadly global pandemic. The initial government response was a public health campaign marshalled on scientific grounds that was mitigated by an unprecedented economic relief package designed to help people weather the financial storm caused by the disruption of economic activity. Capitalists and workers were included in the relief measures. This response was vetted by a pandemic emergency response committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and communicated in daily press conferences by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, along with other officials. That is far from being the makings of a totalitarian police state that a fair few believe it to be.

Once the lockdown/quarantine phase of the restrictions was lifted (after six weeks), the government announced that its level 3 and 2 approaches were designed to get businesses back to work. This employed a type of pragmatic incrementalism where restrictions on commercial activity were slowly lifted in piecemeal, sectorial and graduated fashion over what is now going on 3 weeks. The government explicitly stated that this was not a social opening and that pre-pandemic social activities that do not have a commercial orientation were very consciously excluded from the stage 3 and 2 re-opening measures.

That is why churches are not allowed to resume pre-pandemic activities, indulging religious services, in the measure that they did before March 23. Note that they can still host church services and other activities but that they must adhere to the “fewer than 10” rule when doing so. No one has restricted their freedom of worship. Only group size when worshipping has been limited, and that is because churches are not considered to be businesses.

If churches want to claim that they are a type of commercial enterprise, then they have reason to feel discriminated against and by all means should air their grievances along those lines. But that might open questions about their tax-free status, real estate holdings, tithing practices and other non-spiritual aspects of their mission. So it is unlikely that we will hear this argument aired in public or as a defence of a church’s right to host large gatherings for religious purposes.

In any case, the “blame” for not including churches in the Level 3 and 2 re-openings is not the fault of government values when it comes to family and society. If anything, blame comes simply from the fact that NZ is a capitalist nation and the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Spirituality is fine but it does not pay the bills, unless of course it is of the “prosperity doctrine” persuasion where the Lord commands that we should enrich ourselves before all others.

Speaking of which: why the heck was that charlatan fraudster Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church minions allowed to defy the level 2 restrictions without punitive sanction? Were the police worried about a confrontation with a large crowd? Even if that was the case, if the letter of the public health order cannot be enforced even with enabling legislation conferring extraordinary enforcement powers on the police, what is the point of having them? Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?

We might call that a type of reverse discrimination.

A matter of definition.

datePosted on 12:43, May 16th, 2020 by Pablo

Recent reports have surfaced that hospital officials in some US localities are inflating the CV-19 death count by classifying anyone who dies in their care who is not the victim of an accident or other obvious non-viral cause as a CV-19 victim. Apparently this is because the US public health scheme, Medicaid, pays hospitals USD$5000 per non CV-19 death versus USD$13,000 for CV-19 related deaths. Most hospitals in the US are private, for profit entities so the hospital administrators (not doctors) who do the paperwork submissions to the federal government for Medicaid death reimbursements have financial incentive to falsify the real causes of death.

There is no independent body above hospital administrations regularly overseeing how cause of death in hospitals is classified unless some gross error comes to the attention of local and state authorities, and there is no way for the federal government to unilaterally challenge the legitimacy of CV-19 death claims. Moreover, since local coroners are swamped by an influx of CV-19 dead and Medicaid is stretched to the breaking point by the upsurge in (legitimate) CV-19 claims, there is little way to hold the dishonest hospital administrators to account unless a whistleblower from within a hospital provides concrete proof of institutional malfeasance.

In contrast, official Russian statistics show that there are over 263,000 cases in the country, with nearly 2.500 deaths and new cases exceeding 10,000 per day. That death count has raised eyebrows outside of Russia, as it is remarkably low when compared to other countries given the number of cases and rate of infection.

Russian officials counter the skeptics by claiming that their definition of a CV-19 death refers only to those that can be directly attributed to the pathogen. They deliberately exclude other causes that are exacerbated by CV-19 contagion, such as heart failures and smoking-related pulmonary embolisms, liver failures etc. Because of this the Russian CV-19 mortality rate is not only very low but also does not disproportionately affect the elderly, whose deaths are most often attributed to the underlying condition rather than to CV-19.

These differences in reporting remind me of an incident that happened to me when conducting research in Brazil in 1987. I had an interest in national health administration because I had worked on that subject when conducting Ph.D. dissertation research in Argentina earlier in the decade, I lived in Rio at the time and had experienced Carnaval in February, when thousands of sex tourists of every persuasion descended on the city in the middle of what was clearly an AIDS epidemic (in a cultural context where men refused to use condoms because that was considered “unmanly” and in which many (usually) straight men used Carnaval as an excuse to enjoy gay sex). Around that time I had to donate blood for my then-wife to use in a blood transfusion after she picked up a water-carried blood infection while cleaning vegetables and because we were told that most of the blood supplies in Rio were infected with both AIDS and syphilis, so I was acutely interested in how health authorities dealt with the convergence of viral calamities.

I managed to arrange an interview with a senior official in the Health Ministry in Brasilia, one who just happened to be involved in infectious disease mitigation. As part of our conversation I asked him how many AIDS cases there were in Brazil. He said “100.” I laughed and said “no, seriously, how many cases are there because I just came from Rio during Carnaval and it was a 24/7 bacchanal of unprotected sex, drug use, drinking, dancing and other assorted debauchery, plus I am told than the blood banks are unreliable because the supplies are infected with AIDS and syphilis.”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair for a moment, and then said “you see, that is where my country and your country are different. In this country a person gets the AIDS virus, loses immune system efficiency, and eventually succumbs to an infectious tropical disease such as malaria or dengue fever. We put the cause of death as the tropical disease, not AIDS. In your country a person gets AIDS and eventually dies of a degenerative disease such as a rare thyroid or other soft tissue cancer. Since they otherwise would not have likely had that cancer, your health authorities list the cause of death as AIDS. For us, the methodology for defining cause of death is not only a means of keeping the official AIDS count low. It also keeps the foreign tourist numbers up because visitors are not fearful of contracting AIDS and have much less fear of malaria or dengue because those are preventable.” I asked him what he thought about those tourists who did contract AIDS while in Brazil on holiday. He replied “that is a problem for their home authorities and how those authorities define their cause of death.”

I recount this story because it seems that we have entered a phase in the CV-19 pandemic where definition of what is and what is not has become a bit of a hair-splitting exercise that has increasing levels of political spin attached to it. It opens a Pandora’s box of questions: Is the lockdown approach overkill? Is the re-opening too soon? Are the overall US CV-19 death figures inflated because of the structural imperatives layered into their health system? Are the Russian figures underestimated because of their politics or because of their accounting methods? Has the PRC lied all along about the extent of the disease before and after it left its borders (in part by assigning different causes of death than CV-19)? At what point do honest medical professionals assign primary cause of death to CV-19 rather than an underlying condition?

There is one thing that I am fairly certain about. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, I have little doubt that the rationale I heard in 1987 is still the rationale being used today, except that now it is CV-19 rather than AIDS that is the scourge that cannot be named.

Between push and shove.

datePosted on 14:32, May 6th, 2020 by Pablo

The NZ government’s handling of the CV-19 pandemic has won international praise for its decisiveness and effectiveness. It is hard to argue with a response that has reduced the number of daily reported transmissions to near zero and the death toll to less than two dozen out of 1500 total cases. Not bad.

But as could have been expected, there are those who are not happy with how the government has comported itself on the matter. There has been much whinging about restrictions on movement during the stage 4 lockdown, and now there is much moaning about ambiguous rules governing shopping, “bubble” expansion and easing of travel restrictions. It seems that some people will simply never be satisfied even if the international community stands in awe of what NZ has accomplished.

There appear to be three types of complainants. The first are the serial whiners. These sorry folk just like to bitch and moan about anything. They do so more as trolls rather than out of partisan spite or informed concern and are best seen as losers. They shall be ignored in this discussion.

The second group are the public health advocates. These include medical professionals, educators, some service sector providers and others who feel the government is moving a little too quickly when lifting the quarantine restrictions on commerce. They believe that the disease must be eradicated or at least its transmission reduced completely before the lockdown is lifted. For them, the current Level 3 restrictions are an invitation to transgression and indeed, that is what has happened in many instances. Some people simply ignore the fact that Level 3 is not about social movement but about gradually getting businesses going again in a limited way. Hence beaches and parks, trails etc. swelled in the days after the move to Level 3 with mindless or selfish opportunists who either ignored or did not understand that Level 3 was not supposed to be an invitation to resume the party.

Public health advocates push for the continuation of restrictions and hence are dissatisfied with the government’s liberal easing of the lockdown after just a month. They want a longer and more complete quarantine as per Levels 3-4, with no imminent move to Level 2. For them, the matter is a public health issue first and foremost, with all economic considerations secondary to that fact.

On the other side are what can be called the profit over people crowd. They are those who demand that the restrictions be lifted yesterday and that the country get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Level 2 cannot come too fast for them and the sooner that NZ gets back to Level 1 normality the better as far as they are concerned, no matter how many get sick or die. They whine about jack-booted government intrusion on their liberties and rights and, while happy to take emergency funds from the government when it suits them, also decry its meddling and interference in their economic affairs. These type of complainants include most of the political opposition and assorted commentators who have been provided media platforms well above their intellectual station. Among this crowd utilitarian logics and lifeboat ethics 101 abound, but the selfish is also strong, as is the self-servingly stupid.

Whatever the specific reason, here economic security comes before public health concerns.

It is understandable that small businesses fear that a prolonged suspension of trade will destroy their livelihoods, and I do not include them in this dichotomy. But the hypocrisy of big corporate players and their political and media acolytes is shameful. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but the overall attitude of many NZ capitalists appears borne of self-interest rather than solidarity. And unlike the public health advocates, who span a range of political persuasions, the profit over people folk are clearly of the rightwing persuasion. That is not surprising.

I admit that these are very crude categorisations and that I have painted things in broad strokes. That was done as a preface to my larger point, which is to note that, because it is unable to satisfy either the public health advocates or the profit over people crowd in the measure that each wants, the government is actually doing the right thing. It is striking a pretty fine balance between the two sides, and its pragmatic incrementalism demonstrates a good understanding of the scientific, economic and political realities in which it operates.

In the end, NZ’s response has been quintessentially democratic. Not because the pandemic emergency response committee is chaired, at the government’s behest, by the Leader of the Opposition. Not because it has allowed for full throated criticism of its actions and used its emergency (coercive) powers very selectively and discretely. Not because it put science above partisanship and politics when addressing the threat. Not because the Prime Minister and Director General of Health fronted daily press briefings for over a month and answered in clear, honest and humane fashion everything that was pitched their way, including inane questions with little relevance to the NZ situation (such as whether it was advisable to ingest disinfectant as a cure). Mostly, because its balancing approach encapsulates the essence of democracy as a social contract: it is not about everyone getting everything they want all of the time, but about everyone getting some of what they want some of the time. In other words, it is about settling for mutual second-best options.

That may not be always the case in NZ and democracies elsewhere. But it is what has been done in this instance. Beyond the positive statistics of the policy response itself, that is the most significant and enduring achievement to come out of this crisis: a reaffirmation of democracy as a contingent sectorial compromise on a grand scale.

Thinking of a post-pandemic future.

datePosted on 15:55, May 2nd, 2020 by Pablo

I was recently invited to participate in an international teleconference on post-pandemic futures. It has a NZ-centric focus but involved distinguished participants from overseas, including former high level government and private sector officials. Discussions were held under Chatham House rules so I cannot get into particulars, but I am writing here as a reflection on what I heard.

Above all, I took away two troubling thoughts. The first is that the discussion was entirely elite-focused, with much talk about trade regimes, supply chain dynamics, attracting foreign direct investment, scientific diplomacy, political leadership characteristics and competition, plus other things of that sort. The second take-away was the nearsightedness of many of the discussants, particularly those representing the private sector. In a nutshell, they just want to get back to business as usual.

I made some remarks that attempted to amplify the context in which we are operating. I will elaborate on them here.

The CV-19 pandemic is an inflection point in a longer trend involving the intertwined crises of national and international governance and models of accumulation. It has exposed the dark contradictions in both. These must be addressed if the world is to emerge a better place. But there is a broader backdrop to this trend that needs to be understood before we get into unpacking its component parts.

The international system is in the midst of a long transition. It has moved from a tight bipolar configuration during the Cold War to a unipolar construct in the 1990s and an emerging multipolar system after 2001. The emerging system is characterised by the interplay between ascendent and descendent great powers, the emergence of non-state actors as key international actors (both irregular and corporate), an erosion of international norms and rules, and the resultant presence of conflict as a systems regulator. The underlying ideological consensus that dominated international relations from the end of World War two until the last decade, that being the notion of a liberal order where the combination of democratic government and market-driven economies was seen as the preferred political-economic construct, has eroded to the point of marginality.

In its wake has re-emerged the concept of realpolitik or power politics, whereby nation-states and other international actors pursue their interests above all things and do so with the resources at their disposal relative to the countervailing powers of others. This does not always mean that might makes right because not all resources are coercive. Some are persuasive, which helps distinguish between so-called “hard” power (coercive, be it economic, military or diplomatic), “soft” power (persuasive), “smart” power (a mixture of both) and “sharp” power (coating coercive intent in a persuasive argument or approach).

Over the last two decades several great powers have emerged or re-emerged, while the lone 1990s superpower, the US, has declined. This is seen in the fact that while superpowers intervene in the international order for systemic reasons, great powers do so for national reasons. One only needs to view the US inability to prevail in regional wars and then turn towards economic nationalism, populist politics and away from support for alliances and international organizations to see its descent. Meanwhile, pretenders to the throne and others have emerged: China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany in the forefront, but other regional contenders also in the mix (Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, France and the UK, perhaps Iran and Turkey as part of lesser constellations).

The issue is not so much who these specific emerging powers are but the fact that they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening). And yet, the contours of the future system will not conform to the specific interests or designs of the emergent powers within it. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economics, it is the aggregate of power dynamics during the transitional moment that will give precise shape to the global future. A new balance of power will emerge, but it remains unclear as to its exact configuration or stability.

That is the broader backdrop to the global crises of governance and models of accumulation. As macro and micro-cosmic reflections of this larger reality, national, regional and international governmental organisations have been sidelined and/or undermined by a combination of forces. Some are internal, such as the ossification of agencies due to corruption and self-interest. Others are external, such as rapid and sudden migration trends resulting in ideological and racial backlash in recipient countries. Whatever the combination of factors, the crisis of governance is seen throughout liberal democracies as well as many authoritarian regimes (even Singapore!) and international organisations like the EU, WHO, WTO, SEATO, OAU, OAS and UN. Many of these agencies are seen as toothless at best and bastions of patronage, nepotism and corruption at worst. Above all they are mostly seen as (and many are) ineffectual and inefficient in discharging their mandates.

The decline in quality of political governance is paralleled and matched by the increasingly obvious contradictions of the global model of accumulation. Commodity supply chain concentration, hyper-specialisation, just-in-time production, “race-to-the-bottom” wage competition, and other features of the globalisation of production, consumption, supply and exchange have produced increased inequalities and fractures in the world social division of labour. Hyper-concentration of wealth in the so-called “one percenters” has happened on the backs of the global poor, who now extend well into what used to be the middle classes of advanced liberal democracies. Again, the US provides an example with its charity food lines and millions of unemployed (rising to 20 percent of the work force and over 30 million unemployment claims lodged in just three months) as a result of the pandemic. The US situation is particular dire because most private health insurance is tied to employment, so the loss of jobs is measured in both declines in income as well as health coverage.

This is what the pandemic has done. It has exposed in dark relief the ugly side of the global market. It has also glaringly revealed government incompetence and indifference on a global scale. These two pathologies have now combined, and the results are being felt by common people, not elites. This could well be the moment when the Liberal Order dies, killed by a disease whose spread was, in a bitter ironic twist, facilitated by its success.

That is why getting back to “normal” and business as usual by returning to the status quo ante will not work, and where short-term solutions will not suffice. That only staves off the inevitable, which is that the dual crises will continue to compound and deepen as they head towards a circuit-breaking outcome. Phrased differently, it appears that what students of social revolutions call the tension-release model is now well in play: there is a slow build up of accumulated tensions punctuated by episodic outbreaks of disorder or discontent, culminating in a cathartic moment in which the old system is destroyed and a new one–however unclear in its precise contours–begins.

If the root causes are not addressed, the next explosion of mass discontent will be precipitated by any number of calamities, man-made or natural: resource conflicts caused by draught, flooding, famine or competition over access to increasingly precious natural resources like fresh water; mass migrations tied to the above; great power war; civil war; sectarian and irredentist violence; pollution- or climate-caused environmental catastrophes; wide spread urban destruction caused by earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, thrones, cyclones or tornados; energy provision failures; and more pandemics. This list is not exhaustive.

It is not as if there has been no warning that things cannot hold. From the 2000 “Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations later that decade, to the Arab Spring of the early teens to the protests in places like Chile, France and Lebanon last year, there has been a slowly rising tide of resistance to politics and economics as given. The protests are not just about one or the other but are in fact about both: systems of governance and systems of profit and their influence on each other.

The malaise is wide-spread. The US and UK are polarised, India is riven by sectarian tensions, Arab oligarchies remain closed but under increased popular pressure, despotic politics have taken hold in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Philippines and Turkey under electoral guise, sub-national actors challenge sovereignty in a host of Sub-Saharan states and even the seemingly monolithic regimes in China and Russia are riven by internal tensions and political intrigue. The world stands at the brink of a valley of transition where the costs of change are real but the outcome is uncertain.

Returning to normal, at least if it is defined as the way things were before the pandemic hit, is a guarantee that the socioeconomic and political contradictions now laid bare will fester, accumulate and eventually explode. That is an outcome few would want. This is why the post-pandemic moment must be seen as a window of opportunity for comprehensive change rather than a resumption of what once was.

In order to avoid an explosive break with the past, the key to post-pandemic recovery lies in addressing the dual crises of governance and accumulation as the most important priorities even if short term economic and political remedies are offered (say, by removing Trump from office, turning to regional supply chains and re-committing international agencies to a rules-based international order). I cannot offer any specifics, but it seems to me that a move towards sustainable development based on restrained rates of profit and renewable resource extraction is a beginning. Given the resurgence of wildlife in urban and suburban areas and air and water cleansing during the lockdown, climate change mitigation efforts need to be wrapped into larger projects of environmental restoration in which a return to natural balance is given urgent attention.

These involve political reforms in which those who advocate for a return to the previous economic status quo are blocked from doing so. After all, there are many interests vested in the current global market framework and they will do everything in their power to resist and thwart meaningful change that undermines their positions and diminishes their bottom lines. The key is to find a consensus about reforming, if not an alternative to, the system as given, including the reconfiguration of incentive structures in order to promote broad adherence to the shift in the global model of accumulation.

The future will be multipolar. The question is whether it will be stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good. The overall process of transition to multipolarity is immutable, but the specific features of the future system will be defined for better or worse by human agency. It remains to be seen if the opportunity to recast the world in a better image will be seized.

Given what I heard at the online meeting, I am not sanguine about the prospects of this happening. It is easier to go back to what is known than venture into the unknown. The forces pushing for a return to the status quo are many and powerful. But the pandemic has pulled away the layers of mystification and false consciousness that heretofore obscured the intense exploitation, class cleavages and unrepresentative politics that lie at the root of the modern global edifice/artifice.

It is time for economic and political architectural re-design on a world scale.

Media Link: Standing Places interview.

datePosted on 10:20, April 22nd, 2020 by Pablo

I did an interview with former student Ivor Wells for his Standing Places podcast out of London. The chat is a bit of rambling meander across several topics, with pauses and background interruptions, but we manage to cover a fair bit of detail, starting with the issue of self-isolating during the pandemic. Think of it as two old friends having a yarn about life in these times.

A pandemic Peter Principle.

datePosted on 15:59, April 9th, 2020 by Pablo

In 1968 Canadian sociologist Laurence Peter coined the phrase “Peter Principle” as a contribution to the sociology of organisations. It explains that in complex organizations people rise to the level of their own incompetence. That is, they get promoted so long as they meet or exceed the specified criteria for and skill set required of a particular position until they eventually reach positions for which they do not have the aptitude, skills or qualifications to continue advancing. Hence a floor manager in a retail outlet may advance to warehouse manager and perhaps regional supply supervisor but then meets the ceiling of his/her competence in handling more complex tasks required for further advancement up the managerial chain of command.

Because Peter was interested in organisational efficiency, he advised training programs for individuals as they progressed upwards. This raised the “ceiling” of their incompetence, which he believed promoted efficiency in corporate decision-making. His views have been very instrumental in organisational sociology and have been applied in numerous contexts beyond the corporate world.

One thing that is relatively under-studied is the specific factors that reveal incompetence. Because the Principle is offered as a broad theory it assumes that at certain points a level of incompetence will be reached, but does not address the specifics of what conditions, duties, responsibilities and other criteria comprise the “ceiling” or end point at which the level of incompetence is reached in given instances. This is an undervalued aspect of the Principle because different organisations and management levels have different responsibilities and skill set requirements as well as criteria for advancement. Moreover, the Principle may, depending on context, be influenced more by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. The tired “Mad Men” era joke about choosing between two secretaries, the one in which the more attractive individual is chosen regardless of qualifications, illustrates the point. The broader question is what factors contribute to determining a level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle? In this essay I extend that thought to the impact of CV-19 on global management responses.

In short, what the pandemic has done is to expose managerial incompetence at a global level. To be sure there are instances of competency is handling the disease, but what is most striking is the sheer number of and decisional sites in which incompetence has been exposed.

Let’s start with the easily identified fiascos. The US leads by negative example, but the UK and Brazil run a close second when it comes to turning a public health threat into an omnishambles of preventable deaths. Italy and Spain have a lot to answer for in this regard, and the Morrison government in Australia is not immune from the incompetency virus. This is different than in places where inadequate resources, human, technological and medical, prevent adequate responses to the infectious spread. In such instances people know what to do but simply do not have the tools with which to do it.

Then there are the sub-national and non-governmental Peter Principled. Around the globe church leaders demand that they be allowed to congregate their flocks within their houses of worship. This may well be a form of divine intervention in which a specific type of Darwin Award candidates are culled from the population, but it seems to me that as a human enterprise this is up there on the incompetence scale. Likewise and closer to home, the responses of Auckland universities has been a blinder. The VC of the more famous one wrote an op ed shortly before global infection numbers exploded saying that any quarantine or border control efforts was discriminatory against Asian students, then demanded a government bailout for the lost tuition revenues generated by those students (so it was not about discrimination or student health after all). This ethics-challenged Einstein is one of NZ’s highest paid “public servants.” Go figure.

The lesser known institution cancelled its classes near the mid-term break and decided, thanks to the advice of an “education theorist” who apparently has never taught a real class, to start all over and move to an on-line “block” teaching format in which students lost all of the work they had completed until then and in spite of the fact that the technological capacity of the university to host mass on-line distance learning was sketchy at best and in many instances unavailable to lower income students with limited access to on-line services. Then, after much hue and cry, the university reversed its decision two weeks into the lockdown and after having its teaching staff drop their original course preparations and quickly devise block style on-line presentations. Not only did this undo all of the staff effort put into ginning up block style courses, it left different faculties with a smorgasbord of half-competed courses and missing assignments that cannot be fully recovered. Yet the genius who thought up the block “surprise” and the VC who ordered it into effect (then not) continue to hold their jobs.

Similarly, the Trust monopoly in West Auckland reduced the number of stores where liquor can be purchased, as well as the number of hours that the stores are open and the number of items (six) that can be purchased at any one time. What it did not do was remove distilled spirits from the shelves, something that was problematic because all hard liquor outlets outside of the Trusts jurisdiction in West Auckland are closed and supermarkets are forbidden from selling anything other than wine and beer. With the “one out, one in” entry policy in place, this was a recipe for disaster as hundreds of out-of-zone punters showed up to buy hard liquor in Trust stores, causing huge crowds who, to say the least, are not always adhering to safe distance guidelines. The efforts to take names and addresses at the doors was an exercise in futility that only added to the waits. After more than a week of complaints, hard liquor was pulled from Trust shelves, and the “one out, one in” policy has been modified so that store employees gather items for customers waiting at the till. The long queues remain.

In short: in the face of pandemic restrictions the Trust leaders decided to limit stores, hours and purchasable quantities but invited an increase in customers from outside the Trusts monopoly zone by neglecting to consider the spill-over effect of hard liquor outlets closures in the rest of the city. Win!

At a more individual level, there is the case of NZ Heath Minister David Clark, who breached the quarantine in order to take his family to a beach, and then use his branded electorate van to take his mountain bike to a popular trailhead before going on a ride. One could argue that this is another example of political Darwin Award aspirations, except for the fact that Clark has no background in medicine or health matters and was actually a Presbyterian minister who held assorted public service jobs before entering parliament. Yet somehow he got bumped up the chain to the Health portfolio, only to fail to understand a cardinal rule of ministerial politics: optics are more important than actual knowledge of the policy area being managed. In any event, it appears that the Peter Principle should have applied earlier in Mr. Clark’s political career, but for some reason the Labour Party decided to extend his shelf life until he became an embarrassment. That was an avoidable mistake.

There is the US Navy response to a plea from the commanding officer of one of its Pacific-based carriers to help off-load CV-19 stricken sailors in Guam (there were more than 150 cases among the 4800 sailors on board when he made his plea). The CO resorted to writing a letter to 20-30 senior uniformed officers in and outside his chain of command when he could not secure the cooperation of his immediate superior (a Rear Admiral who still is the Strike Force Commander of the seven ship carrier group) or of the Pacific Fleet commander (another Admiral) to quickly off-load the sick personnel. Apparently, these superiors and the civilians staffing the highest ranks of the Navy Department were more concerned about disclosing operational details (that the ship was in port with a pandemic in it rather than at sea in the Western Pacific) then in protecting the health and welfare of the sailors on board the carrier. The end result was that the Acting Navy Secretary, a Trump appointee, relieved the CO of his duties (a career ender for a much decorated and loved officer, who has been diagnosed with CV-19 himself) saying that he had compromised national security by sending the letter out over an insecure email system (the .mil system). He then flew, at a cost of over US$250,000, out to the carrier, got on the CO’s bridge microphone rather than address the sailors directly, and proceed to insult and disparage the CO as “naive” and “stupid.” He used a number of profanities while doing so, including a few F bombs for good measure. He then returned to DC, was summoned by Congressional Armed Service committees to explain his actions, initially stonewalled, then played the victim of a media beat-up, only to eventually apologise and resign. All in the space of 5 days.

There is an irony in this particular Peter Principle at work. Having the strongest symbol of US military power, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, crippled from within and idled in port pleading on deaf bureaucratic ears for relief for its sailors, is symptomatic of a much broader malaise in US military and political society. In the past five years the US Navy has seen two negligence-caused fatal ship crashes, accusations of war crimes against its elite commandos, the Fat Leonard corruption scandal involving dozens of senior officers, a number of high profile sex scandals amongst flag ranked officers and delays and irregularities in procurement and commissioning of the next generation of warships. And yet, besides some convenient scapegoats forced into retirement or court-martialled, zero institutional changes have been made to the way in which it operates, especially with regards to promotions into leadership positions. It is as if there is a Peter Principle pandemic at work throughout US Navy leadership circles!

There are many, many more instances of the Peter Principle at play throughout the world. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brasil could have an entire encyclopaedia written about his dumbassery and recklessness, including denying that CV-19 is anything more than a seasonal flu that his political opponents (including those who have previously supported him) have exaggerated for partisan reasons, and urging his followers at mass rallies to to ignore local quarantines and congregate in churches to pray for immunity (there again, you have that religious/idiocy nexus, now floating up to national level politics). He is not alone but the point should be clear: there is a whole lot of incompetence being exposed by this pandemic.

One can argue that what I have described is not so much the application of the Peter Principle on a global scale thanks to the pandemic, but instead mere stupidity, evil, venality and opportunism brought onto display by it–and that is not just confined to Trump. It can also be argued that the Peter Principle cannot be applied to politicians who are elected on things other than merit, or (in the case of authoritarians) for purposes other than the common good. These are reasonable counterpoints but what is different, I think, is that the pandemic has unveiled the gross incompetence of so many “captains” of industry, government and civil society, be they in transportation, logistics, sports, education, local politics, the military and a host of other endeavours.

One can only hope that once the pandemic subsides, there will be a clearing house effect on managerial elites throughout the world, preferably in concert with a return to sustainable economies and environmental protection efforts that, as I mentioned in an earlier post, allow us to live equitably within our means as members of local, national, regional and global societies.

But even then the question will remain: can such a transition remove the Peter Principle as an organisational feature in the future? Methinks not.

A test of civil society.

datePosted on 14:13, March 28th, 2020 by Pablo

The CV-19 (COVID) pandemic has seen the imposition of a government ordered national quarantine and the promulgation of a series of measures designed to spread the burden of pain and soften the economic blow on the most strategically important and most vulnerable sectors of society. The national narrative is framed as a public health versus economic well-being argument, with the logic of infectious disease experts being that we need to accept short term pain in the form of social deprivation and loss of income in order to achieve long term societal gain once the infection has run it course. However, some business leaders argue that a prolonged shut-down of the productive apparatus will cause irreparable harm to the national economy out of proportion to the health risks posed by the pandemic, and thereby set back the country’s development by twenty years or more.

The lockdown is a classic test of the age old philosophical question behind the notion of the “tragedy of the commons:” Should we pursue the collective good by accepting self-sacrifice in the face of an invisible threat and uncertain common pay-off, or do we pursue immediate self-interest and opportunism rather than accept material and lifestyle losses amid the same uncertainties and invisible rewards? Needless to say, it is not a straight dichotomy of choice, but the poles of the dilemma are clear.

Another thing to consider is a principle that will have to be invoked if the disease spreads beyond the ability of the national health system to handle it by exceeding bed and ventilator capacity as well as the required amount of medical personnel due to CV-19 related attrition: lifeboat ethics. If the pandemic surpasses that threshold, then life and death decisions will have to be made using a triage system. Who lives and who dies will then become a public policy as well as moral-ethical issue, and it is doubtful that either government officials or medical professionals want to be placed in a position of deciding who gets pitched out of the boat. So, in a very real sense, the decisions made with regard to the tragedy of the commons have serious follow up effects on society as a whole.

One thing that has not been mentioned too much in discussions about the pandemic and the responses to it is the serious strain that it is placing on civil society. Much is said about “resilience” and being nice to each other in these times of “social distancing” (again, a misnomer given that it is a physical distancing of individuals in pursuit of a common social good). But there are enough instances of hoarding, price-gouging, profiteering–including by major supermarket chains–and selfish lifestyle behaviour to question whether the horizontal solidarity bonds that are considered to be the fabric of democratic civil society are in fact as strongly woven as was once assumed.

There is also the impact of thirty years of market economics on the social division of labour that is the structural foundation of civil society. Along with the mass entrance of women into the workforce came the need for nanny, baby-sitter and daycare networks, some of which were corporatised but many of which were not. Many of these have been disrupted by the self-isolation edict, to which can be added the shuttering of social and sports clubs, arts and reading societies, political and cultural organisations and most all other forms of voluntary social organisation. Critical services that rely on volunteers remain so rural fire parties, search and rescue teams, the coastguard and some surf lifesaving clubs are allowed to respond to callouts and maintain training standards. But by and large the major seams of civil society have been pulled apart by the lockdown order.

This is not intentional. The government wants the public to resume normal activities once the all clear is given. It simply does not know when that may be and it simply cannot spend resources on sustaining much of civil society’s infrastructure when there are more pressing concerns in play. The question is whether civil society in NZ and other liberal democracies is self-reproducing under conditions of temporary yet medium-termed isolation. The Italians hold concerts from their balconies, the Brazilians bang pots in protest against their demagogic populist leader, Argentines serenade medical and emergency workers from rooftops and windows. There is a range of solidarity gestures being expressed throughout the world but the deeper issue is whether, beneath the surface solidarity, civil society can survive under the strain of social atomisation.

I use the last term very guardedly. The reason is because during the state terror experiments to which I was exposed in Latin America, the goal of the terrorist state was to atomise the collective subject, reducing people to self-isolating, inwards-looking individuals who stripped themselves of their horizontal social bonds and collective identities in order to reduce the chances that they became victims of the terrorists in uniforms and grey suits. The operative term was “no te metas” (do not get involved), and it became a characteristic of society during those times. At its peak, this led to what the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell labeled the “infantilisation” of society, whereby atomised and subjugated individuals lived with very real fears and nightmares in circumstances that were beyond their control. Their retreat into isolation was a defence against the evil that surrounded them. Today, the threat may not be evil but it is real and pervasive, as is the turn towards isolation.

I am not suggesting that there is any strong parallel between state terrorism in Latin America and the lockdown impositions of democratic governments in the present age. The motivations of the former were punitive, disciplinary and murderous. The motivations of the latter are protective and prophylactic.

What I am saying, however, is that the consequences for civil society may be roughly comparable. Many Latin American societies took years to reconstitute civil society networks after the dictatorial interludes, although it is clear that, at least when compared to advanced liberal democracies, the strength of democratic norms and values was relatively weak in pretty much all of them with the exception of Uruguay and Costa Rica. Yet, in places like NZ, democratic norms and values have been steadily eroded over the last thirty years, particularly in their collective, horizontal dimension.

The reason is ideological: after three decades of imposed transmission, market-driven logics vulgarly lumped together as “neoliberalism” are now a dominant normative as well as structural trait in NZ society. The country has many, if not more hyper-individualistic self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the population as it does those with a commonweal solidarity orientation. Lumpenproletarians populate both the socioeconomic elite as much as they do the subaltern, marginalised classes. Greed is seen by many as a virtue, not a vice, and empathy is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

The ideological strength of the market-oriented outlook is seen in business responses to the pandemic. In NZ many want bailouts from a government that they otherwise despise. Many are attempting to opportunistically gain from shortages and desperation, in what has become known as “disaster capitalism.” Some try to cheat workers out of their government-provided wage relief allowances, while others simply show staff the door. Arguments about keeping the economy afloat with State subsides compete with arguments about infectious disease spread even though objectively the situation at hand is first a public health problem and secondly a private financial concern.

The importance of civil society for democracy is outlined by another political scientist, Robert Putnam, in a 2000 book titled “Bowling Alone.” In it he uses the loss of civic virtue in the US (in the 1990s) as a negative example of why civil society provides the substantive underpinning of the political-institutional superstructure of liberal democracies. Putnam argues that decreases in membership in voluntary societies, community associations , fraternal organisations, etc. is directly related to lower voter turnouts, public apathy, political disenchantment and increased alienation and anomaly in society. This loss of what he calls “social capital” is also more a product of the hyper-individualisation of leisure pursuits via television, the internet (before smart phones!) and “virtual reality helmets” (gaming) rather than demographic changes such as suburbanisation, casualisation of work, extension of working hours and the general constraints on “disposable” time that would be otherwise given to civic activities as a result of all of the above.

The danger posed by the loss of social capital and civic virtue is that it removes the rich tapestry of community norms, more and practices that provide the social foundation of democratic governance. Absent a robust civil society as a sounding board and feedback mechanism that checks politician’s baser impulses, democratic governance begins to incrementally “harden” towards authoritarianism driven by technocratic solutions to efficiency- rather than equality-based objectives.

The current government appears to be aware of this and has incrementally tried to recover some of the empathy and solidarity in NZ society with its focus on well-being as a policy and social objective. But it could not have foreseen what the pandemic would require in terms of response, especially not the disruptive impact of self-isolation on the fabric of civil society.

It is here where the test of civil society takes place. Either it is self-reproducing as an ideological construct based on norms and values rooted in collective empathy and solidarity, or it will wither and die as a material construct without that ideological underpinning. When confronting this test, the question for NZ and other liberal democracies is simple: is civil society truly the core of the social order or is it a hollow shell?

Given the divided responses to this particular tragedy of the commons, it is hard for me to tell.

Living within our means.

datePosted on 15:08, March 24th, 2020 by Pablo

Years ago the Argentine sociologist Carlos Weisman wrote a book titled “Living within our Means.” It was a critique of Argentine society that focused on the paradoxical question of why, in a land of plenty, there was so much economic instability, inequality, corruption and political turmoil. His conclusion was basically that natural wealth produced indolence and greed: the vast natural resources in Argentina could be exploited inefficiently and without regard to the future, money was siphoned off of productive sectors into all sorts of nonproductive or money wasting enterprises ill-suited for the economics and demographics of the country, and the surpluses generated by the productive sectors (agriculture and mining in particular) could not only line the pockets of those lucky enough to control the means of production but could also be used to buy off subordinate group consent via State benefit distribution derived from minimal taxation on the export-oriented sectors that generated the bulk of the countries GDP.

His most important observation was that Argentines, so accustomed to an economic system that generated wealth in spite of itself, were living beyond their means. The State sector grew bloated, workers lost sight of the connection between productivity and wages, capitalists hoarded, spent and perfected the arts of tax dodging and capital flight, and politicians used patronage and public goods as a means of currying electoral favour, only to have the military step in from time to time under the pretence of putting things right but in reality only to shift benefits of political control to their civilian allies.

New Zealand is not quite as pathological, but for some time I have seen parallels with Argentina in that it appears that the country has, for at least two decades, been living beyond its means. Think of the so-called export sector.

Traditionally, “export sector” means those business that sell their goods overseas, to foreign clients. In NZ that historically meant agriculture (including cattle and sheep farming) mining, forestry and fishing. More recently, high tech value-added industries like software development have been layered into the export mix. But so too have industries like tourism and foreign language and tertiary education. Yes, tourism and educational services for foreign students are classified as “exports” in NZ even though all of the revenue generated and GDP share provided by these services are domestic in nature. Unlike traditional exports, other than some transportation companies, none of the economic activity associated with either industry is generated from abroad (say, via the sale of goods).

There is something insidious about this. Thriving in a largely unregulated environment, tourism surged. Adventure tourism, adrenaline tourism, hobbit tourism, backpacker and freedom camper tourism, glamour tourism, death tourism (trophy hunting) etc. all exploded even thought the infrastructure required to handle them was insufficient or non-existent. Likewise, dodgy fly by night language schools popped up catering to foreign students as young as high school age, and universities lowered admission standards and course requirements in order to attract unqualified foreigners who were willing to pay enrolment fees up to five times higher than domestic students. It did not matter that these foreign student often wound up as the victims of unscrupulous education “brokers,” local employers, hosts and homestay providers. That was fine because the business owners and senior managers operating these industries were rewarded handsomely for their efforts even if their contributions were not, to be clear, really advancing the productivity of NZ society. Both of these industries saw the foreigner’s dollar as their cash cow and soon became dependent on it. So long as the State got its share of tax revenues, all was hunky dorey as far as the economic-political elite was concerned.

A clear case of a non-traditional “export” that does more harm than good is the cruise line business. These floating Petri dishes used to be pretty scarce in NZ ports but now are now commonplace eyesores from the Bay of Islands to Akaroa and Milford Sound. They are seagoing pollution generators with dodgy labour and hygiene practices that disgorge thousands of clueless leisure lovers onto our shores to watch hokey “cultural” shows, go sight-seeing (including to active volcanoes) on fossil fuel vehicles and buy trinkets and baubles from money-grubbing vendors who otherwise could and should be providing services to their communities. What domestic benefit is derived from them is surprisingly narrow in scope, and yet they continue to come in increasing numbers–at least until CV-19 revealed them for what they are when it comes to public health risks.

Even traditional sectors like fisheries and dairy have come to rely more on export markets than on domestic consumption for their well-being, pushing unsustainable growth, environmental degradation, species destruction and oligopolistic market concentration. Uncoupling commodity pricing from domestic wage levels, some agricultural staples have been priced out of the range of most local consumers while a greater percentage of quotas and production are oriented towards foreign buyers. The situation has become so unbalanced in some sectors that, for example, given a drop in Asian demands due to the CV-19 pandemic, fishermen find it more economical to dump crayfish back into the ocean than sell them in the domestic market. Asian demand for cut wood has dried up, leaving huge surpluses in holding lots that are not being released into the domestic market. The price of many wage goods, consumer non-durables and staples is now set by international markets rather than by local demand, thereby narrowing the range of basic goods purchasable by the average NZ consumer.

In light of this, we might see the arrival of the Coronavirus (CV-19) as a great corrective on the national excess. The first industries to shut down are the ones that really should not have grown so large in the first place: tourism and tertiary education. These have been readily followed by service sectors associated with tourism and foreign students, including accomodation and food service provision.

Now the entire country is poised to “shelter in place.” With the government ordering mandatory closures and shut downs as it ramps up its response, primary and secondary schools have closed and a multitude of service providers have switched to at-home work or temporary closures. Soon a full scale lockdown will be imposed.

Essential industries and core state services continue to operate–transportation, food provision, emergency services, law enforcement, telecommunications, waste disposal, etc. Note that if we strip out the non-essential industries that are now shuttered or curtailed, we have a much smaller overall economic footprint yet a larger State presence within it. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

After years of market-driven logics that among other things pushed the kind of excesses described herein, the State is reassuming its role as macro-manager of the economy and direct provider of public goods and strategic production. Prudent financial management that protected surpluses “for a rainy day” allow the current government to ease the burden of pain inflicted on the working population by CV-19. It can also provide the material basis of an economic re-ordering on grand scale. One can only hope that, thanks to the pandemic, the era of down-sizing and privatisation has been proven to be a false promise when it came to national well-being and prosperity, and that it is replaced with a new economic logic that emphasises the importance of the social relations of production as much as the relations in and control of production itself.

There is one more component to this smaller, “natural” economic footprint: small businesses. The NZ economy runs on small business production and services. From metal working shops to plastics manufacturers, furniture makers and tradespeople, NZ has a middle sector in between the big agro-export corporates and State Owned Enterprises and private-public partnerships. The difference between them and the bloated tourism and tertiary education sectors is that they actually produce things of tangible value that benefit domestic society, not the degree-chasing aspirations or Instagram ambitions of foreigners.

The combination of big exporters, State sector and small businesses, one might say, is the critical component of NZ society. Not tourism, not foreign student education, not bars, restaurants, sports and other forms of mass entertainment. These can be resurrected when the pandemic has passed, but this moment of crisis demonstrates where value is created and preserved in NZ society. And it is not with hedge funds, sports teams, video game arcades, waterfront restaurants with space for tips on their service bills, ski resorts, golf courses or heli-tours.

Needless to say, this is a broad brush depiction of the economy of excess in which we live. There are bound to be fine details that prove the exception to the rule such as it has been depicted here. But the gist is clear: NZ has, as a result of the market-oriented experiment of the last 30 plus years created a entire range of parasitic/opportunist capitalism that contributes relatively little of value to the domestic economy or to the population at large. It is this sector that needs to be excised thanks to the arrival of CV-19.

Calls for self-isolation are getting more forceful as the government ramps up its pandemic threat advisories. This type of quarantine is a form of physical separation based on notions of collective solidarity (and not a form of social distancing, as pundits have called it). People retreat into their homes out a sense of collective responsibility and empathy for others, hoping to weather the worst of the pandemic in order to flatten the curve of its distribution. Here again, the burden of sacrifice is borne by small producers, public servants and waged labour, most of whom do not have access to the type of savings or surpluses that allow the corporates to ride out the storm.

It is these people that deserve government financial relief. Not the corporates or those in the bloated, non-essential and non-productive (in a value-added or material sense) sectors of the economy. Not those in parasitic financial sectors and non-traditional export industries. Not sports leagues and yachties.

In the end the CV-19 pandemic is not only a massive corrective to the world and NZ societies, demonstrating the dark and largely ignored side of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. It is more than an economic belt-tightening across the globe. It is a moment for pause and reflection on what living within one’s means really means in practice. For NZ, it means that the time has come to drop the growth is good mantra in certain non-critical sectors of the economy and to refocus energy and resources on those that comprise the economic triad underpinning the good society: “traditional” exporters, small businesses and the State-Owned and public/private enterprises that are the core of the national productive apparatus. This may require major adjustments in all three components, especially in the export sector (to include its very definition), but the moment has arrived thanks to the externality known as Coronavirus.

That result may be a smaller economy than what came before CV-19, but it will be more sustainable, efficient, value-generating and ultimately fairer for NZ society as a whole.

A tipping point for the dotard?

datePosted on 12:04, March 16th, 2020 by Pablo

I guess that we should see the silver lining in the CV-19 pandemic. It has finally done what no political opponent could do. It has fundamentally undermined Trump’s credibility and that of the science-denying elements within the GOP and rightwing media. The important aspect of this is that the loss of credibility is evident in a private sector that otherwise was willing to cast a blind eye on the Trump/GOP corruption and buffoonery so long as the latter advanced business interests via deregulation, tax cuts etc.

Now that Trump’s incompetence has been fully exposed, as has that of his immediate advisors and sycophants in and around the White House, private businesses, state and local governments are taking action in defiance of his original bluster and denials. Led by their owners, elected officials and high level managers, entire sports have cancelled or postponed seasons, universities and school districts have closed, cities and states have ordered mandatory quarantines and numerous mass events have been abandoned. Even the military has acted against his original commands, instead opting to listen to military doctors and other experts about the effects of CV-19 on troop concentrations (such as cancelling military exercises and forbidding all domestic travel for service personnel). This, in response to what Trump initially called a politically inspired hoax and to which the GOP/media science deniers decried as the product of partisan hysteria and media manipulation. The fact that private businesses have led the defiant response is especially telling. No lefties among them.

The ineptitude and incompetence of the Trump administration is not only shown in its delayed response and original denials and deflections. The order to institute a ban on all travellers from Europe–done by the same people who crafted the Muslim ban attempted shortly after Trump was inaugurated–was done without forewarning to airlines, airport authorities and local law enforcement, much less the traveling public, American as well as foreign. No contingency plan was crafted, much less enacted, leaving federal border control agencies such as Customs, Immigration, Border Patrol and TSA short-staffed and undermanned in the face of a surge of last minute mass arrivals before the ban commencement date. Additional CV-19 health screenings deployed at the same time has resulted in chaos at airports of entry, with thousands of passengers stuck for hours in baggage returns and lined outside passport control stations (again, manned by federal employees). The result has been a clusterf**k of epic proportions.

Although he has been tested and cleared after being exposed to the virus, Trump may still fall ill because the test only measures one’s status on the test date. If that happens, he becomes a candidate for Article 25 removal from office since he is physically unable to perform the functions of president (which was the original intent of the framers. I shall leave aside jokes about his mental competence but let’s just say that his addled blathering about the pandemic does not inspire confidence). I have a feeling that if he gets sick, those in the GOP who secretly loathe him will have their knives out, because his gross negligence and inaction in handling the response will have election consequences for the party as a whole later this year. Seriously, if the predicted thousands of deaths and job losses and billions in productivity losses resultant from the botched initial response and the chaotic catch-ups since then actually happen, given the now open news that the Trump administration eliminated key public health agencies and replaced public servant scientists with lackeys, then the makings of an election disaster are looming large over the GOP’s political future.

Until now, the GOP’s 2020 election strategy was to ride Trump’s coattails as hard as possible. In the wake of CV-19 that seems politically suicidal. And if GOP politicians start to distance themselves from Trump in their campaigns, the possibility of intra-GOP fratricide becomes more likely. In fact, it is likely that factions are sharpening their knives as I write, with the pro-Trump crowd developing plans to delay the elections or smear anti-Trump politicians as traitorous during a national emergency. For their part, the anti-Trump faction will attempt to convince the public that they did all that they could to prevent him from doing more harm to the Union. That will be a tough sell, but so to will be any argument in support of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

The real trouble for the GOP starts if the pandemic lasts in the US for months, well into the post-convention campaign season (which starts in July). If the death and sick toll mounts to anything close to what is being predicted and job losses increase while businesses shut down, then perhaps even hardened MAGA morons will re-consider their support for the imbecile-in-chief. Even if they do not, undecided and independent voters could well draw the conclusion that enough is enough while the previously apathetic who did not vote in 2016 may finally realise that their votes do in fact count when it comes to national leadership selection. None of this bodes well for the GOP in November.

Perhaps there is a goddess after all. Her name is Mother Nature, and in this instance all she had to do is to let human folly advance her work. That may wind up being a painful but necessary political blessing for the US regardless of who wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

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