Turns out I am a Sensible Moderate™ after all

datePosted on 10:31, June 8th, 2009 by Lew

Normally I despise and distrust political quizzes as misleading trivia, but since this one confirms my existing prejudices about myself I’ll post it anyhow.

My Political Views
I am a center-left moderate social libertarian
Left: 2.64, Libertarian: 2.48

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: -6.04

My Culture War Stance
Score: -7.51

Hat-tip: Dave at Big News; and ScrubOne (who seems to be my polar opposite) is apparently compiling another chart of the NZ blogosphere, so everyone knows which canned propaganda terms correctly apply to whom.

L

Adult Community Education serves two key purposes: reducing poverty and building strong skilled adults active within their communities. The National government is drastically cutting it, consigning people to lives trapped in poverty and weakening communities. 

The cuts are both deep and vicious, school ACE funding is being cut by 80% from 2010, tertiary ACE funding from 2011, and inflation indexing goes from both, and the funding to help providers develop community education vanished overnight.

National has been banging on about “moroccan cooking courses” and describing them as “hobby courses”, but the reality is very different. Firstly a quick look at any ACE provider will show a very different picture of courses from the one Anne Tolley would like to paint. My local school provider, for instance, is teaching first aid, assertiveness, anger management, effective communication, and how to teach adults – all valuable, all losing funding in 2010.

Secondly, hands on life skills courses are an effective bridge back into education. Within my extended family and network of friends I can think of several people who’ve taken a first easy step back into education through a “hobby” course, found that they could succeed in education and taken another course, and blossomed from there. A concrete example: bike maintenance -> communication skills -> effective writing -> interview preparation -> a brand new job and career. By removing the bridging courses National are consigning a whole raft of people to on-going poverty and no access to education.

Thirdly, we suffer from relatively weak communities in New Zealand: individuals are isolated, people want to help others but don’t know how, community organisations are underfunded, under resourced and lack structural skills. Community Education has been one of the more effective mechanisms for addressing this, not only do they build relationships and create community facilities and meeting places, but they also teach the skills that effective community organisations need.

Anne Tolley, by butchering the Community Education sector, has acted both to keep the weak ill-educated, isolated and unskilled, and to undermine the community organisations that try to help them.

Lawsome

datePosted on 14:29, June 5th, 2009 by Lew

David Haywood has posted a mighty mashuptastic bit of Lawsery on the Richard Worth case which you should all read. Judging by some of his (Laws’, or should that be Lawses?) comments on the wireless this morning, I’d say it’s not too far off the mark.

L

Update: The actual column is somewhat, err, flaccid by comparison.

Balance of scrutiny

datePosted on 10:48, June 5th, 2009 by Lew

One of the major issues in this Richard Worth affair, like the Tony Veitch affair, is the degree of scrutiny to which the various parties are being subjected, and the degree to which their assertions are accepted without scrutiny.

Richard Worth’s motives, alleged actions and responsibility generally have not been subjected to significant public scrutiny or discussion (although his reputation has). The victim’s motives, supposed actions and responsibility for her position as a victim have been subject to a much higher degree of investigation; that is, expected to withstand closer scrutiny in order to be considered credible, as have those of her political agent Phil Goff. In most cases this has not been subtle, although some has.

I know, who’d have thunk it. Sexual harrassment victim held to account more strongly than alleged harrasser, sky blue and water wet. But this case, where the differentials in power and standard of acceptable conduct between alleged harasser and alleged victim could not be more stark, illustrates more than most why it’s arse-backwards.

But I think we are seeing a change in the public attitude toward this sort of thing. Although Louise Nicholas, Kristin Dunne-Powell and the anonymous victim here are still subjected to undue scrutiny and speculation, the media have in each case gradually begun to treat the incidents more seriously. As John Key is discovering, it is no longer politically viable to simply ignore this sort of thing and hope it goes away.

L

Key’s real attitude to women is showing

datePosted on 21:31, June 4th, 2009 by Anita

He did such a good job during the campaign, but the mask is slipping.

In what world is it reasonable to investigate an allegation of serious sexual harassment by speaking only to the person said to have done the harassing and, on the basis alone, deciding that it didn’t happen and saying publicly that you “accepted [his] version of events“?

In what world is it reasonable to say that if you’re given evidence of sexual harassment you’ll give it straight to the media?

In John Key’s world apparently: where the old boys’ club is strong and a leader sides with his men no matter what. Well at least until the political math tells him otherwise.

In case anyone’s missing the nuance: Key has told the media he believes the woman in question is a liar and has threatened to publicly humiliate her if she doesn’t back down. All without even trying to talk to her, all on the word of his good old mate Richard Worth whose unpleasant track record Key is well aware of. Nice eh?

We don’t need to know

datePosted on 17:29, June 3rd, 2009 by Anita

Richard Worth has resigned from his ministerial positions citing “personal reasons” and taken a fortnight’s leave of absence from Parliament, John Key has said this is related to a criminal investigation for matters unrelated to his actions as a Minister or MP.

Why, other than a desire for gossip, do we need to know what Worth is being investigated for?

He, and any victim(s) that may exist, have all the same rights they would have if he were not in Parliament. If one of my neighbours was being investigated by the Police I would have no expectation of being informed of the existence of the investigation, let alone the substance of any allegations. Why is this any different?

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.

In the United States on Sunday George Tiller, a doctor, was shot and killed as he attended church. Tiller, who ran one of only three remaining clinics providing late term abortions in the US, had been shot in 1993, his name has been on anti-abortion assassination lists and his clinic was bombed in 1985.

In New Zealand we have never had an abortion doctor killed, but we have had doctors, nurses and clinic staff threatened, attacked and harassed. I pray that no further anti-abortion violence comes to New Zealand, and at the same time I pray that we will progress the issue to give women the right to control their own bodies and that we will find a social consensus for a woman’s right to choose.

But right now the cost seems very high, and all I can do is pray for the safety of everyone ensuring women continue to have access to the limited choices they are given. George Tiller was a great man whose personal actions gave more to women than I could ever hope to.

I try to not end too many posts with lyrics, but today I can’t help posting a section of Ani DiFranco’s Hello Birmingham. With an echo of Pablo’s recent posts, she is talking, at least in part, of the powerlessness of electors to make the changes that matter.

           now i’ve drawn closed the curtain 
in this little booth where the truth has no place 
to stand 
and i am feeling oh so powerless 
in this stupid booth with this useless 
little lever in my hand 
and outside, my city is bracing 
for the next killing thing 
standing by the bridge and praying 
for the next doctor 
martin 
luther 
king 
  

it was just one shot 
through the kitchen window 
it was just one or two miles from here 
if you fly like a crow 
a bullet came to visit a doctor 
in his one safe place 
a bullet insuring the right to life 
whizzed past his kid and his wife 
and knocked his glasses 
right off of his face 

and the blood poured off the pulpit 
the blood poured down the picket line 
yeah, the hatred was immediate 
and the vengance was devine 
so they went and stuffed god 
down the barrel of a gun 
and after him 
they stuffed his only son

Deconstructing Democracy, Part 2: Consent

datePosted on 15:01, May 29th, 2009 by Pablo

One of the most undervalued concepts in the study of democracy is the notion of consent. Yet it is an absolutely vital aspect of the discourse of civility. “Informed consent” is considered essential for medical treatment; sexual relations should be consensual; parents must sign consent forms releasing schools and sports organisations from liability in the treatment of their children, citizens consent to the decisions of their elected representatives, etc. Even so,  in the study of democracy the notion of consent is conspicuous by its absence. I shall attempt to address it here.

There are two types of political rule: hegemony and domination. Domination is rule where the population acquiesces to superior force and the socio-economic dictates of elites. Hegemony is rule by ideological leadership and consent. Consent is the willing acceptance and subjective incorporation by subordinate groups of elite ideology, political control and socio-economic institutions. Under rule by domination people do not necessarily agree with or accept the legitimacy of the political and economic elite–they just bow before their power. Under hegemonic rule people believe in the legitimacy of the elite ideology and its political institutions and socio-economic form, that is, they actively and willingly accept the elite world view. Consider this parallel in family life: children raised in abusive households do not consent to the authority of their parents, they just acquiesce to their superior strength and physical control. That relationship ends as soon as the child is old and large enough to either leave home or physically confront the abusers. In “hegemonic” households, children consent to the authority of their parents because the believe that parents have their best interests always in mind. Of course, all hegemonic regimes have an element of coercion in them, but it is not the majority basis of rule but rather is used as a disciplinary device against ideological transgressors (which is essentially what all criminal penalties are in democracies). Dominating elites rule primarily rule by coercion; hegemonic elites do not. The good news for those interested in authoritarian regime demise is that rule by force cannot last indefinitely: you cannot coerce or repress the majority in the same measure over extended periods of time without ideological support or increased resistance from the population. Thus it is hegemonic rule that is the most durable.

Although all episodes of domination are dictatorships, properly conceived, and all democracies are ostensibly hegemonic,  hegemony can be achieved by authoritarians in specific instances. The key is to substitute rule by force with ideological leadership designed to secure consent over time. Thus, the Cuban regime in the 1960s and 1970 could be considered hegemonic; so can the country in which I now live. People believe in, support and approve of the authoritarian leadership’s way of doing things and in the majority prefer not to have things change. Conversely, democracies can lose ideological support and the consent of the majority if they fail to deliver on popular expectations or if the leadership begins to rule in its own self-interest–at that point hegemony is lost and domination begins. This was seen in several Latin American countries in the 1990s (think of Peru under Fujimori as the salient case). The key to securing and maintaining mass consent is to meet popular expectations on the political, social and economic levels. That is, consent needs to be simultaneously reproduced on all three dimensions for hegemony to obtain. Although popular support may ebb and wane on any one dimension at a given moment in time, the aggregate must be maintained. Thus, for example, the economic reforms of the 1980s caused severe dislocations in NZ, but it did not fundamentally undermine majority support for democratic institutions or social mores. However, when a crisis on one level deepens and extends into the other two, then the possibility of an “organic crisis of the state” (to use Gramsci’s term) becomes real–that is the revolutionary moment.

The bottom line is this: consent is given willfully, actively and freely. It implies (relative) freedom of choice in doing so on any intersubjective dimension. Acquiescence is unwillingly given, passive and a product of the fear of consequences. It implies limited or no freedom of choice. Majority consent is the basis of long-term rule; majority acquiescence is not. Of course, consent can be manipulated or, as Burowoy argues, manufactured. Parties, unions, firms and other other collective actors frame/channel the hegemonic “debate” in ways that reaffirm rather than challange the status quo. Through such agents elites may construct the terms of the ” debate” in a way that clouds the nature of their relationship with subordinate groups or which diverts attention from the essentials of that relationship and towards incidentals like sports, popular culture, nationalism etc.  That is why subordinate groups need to be autonomous and self-aware in the expression of their collective interests.

The most important aspect of consent, however, is its contingency. Consent is not given once, forever. It is, in reality, contingent on popular expectations being met over time. Think of it this way: most adults in their 40s will not consent to be paid the same salary as they were as teenagers in their first job. They expect more because of their experience, knowledge, discipline etc. Likewise, people living under hegemonic rule demand that their expectations be met at the political, social and economic levels. They want the political leadership to be responsive to their concerns; they want the social order to be peaceful; they want their material needs to be met. Moreover, what constituted the minimum “threshold” of consent in one era will not necessarily suffice to maintain it in the next. In most democracies today, people expect more out of life (and from the state) than they did in 1880 or 1980. Should their expectations not be met,  then the slide towards organic crisis begins….

In democratic capitalism mass contingent consent is two-sided: capitalists consent to a restrained rate of profit and limits on their exploitation via the regulatory and fiscal intervention of a State ruled by majority-elected and responsive political classes (politicians and state managers); subordinate groups consent to the (structural) rule of capital in exchange for incremental increases in their standards of living and freedom of opportunity within the productive apparatus and social division of labour. Together, this dual consent constitutes the democratic class compromise that is, however implicit rather than formalized, at the heart of all democratic capitalist societies.

Thus the “matrix” of consent requires simultaneous reproduction of dual thresholds of consent on all three dimensions leading to a contingent class compromise over time–no mean feat, yet the basis for hegemonic rule in a democratic capitalist society.

There is more to the picture but for the moment this sketch will have to suffice. If I can collect my thoughts further I shall update the post. One thing to bear in mind is that the pursuit and maintenance of mass contingent consent is actually an argument in favour of parliamentary democracy over its presidential alternative, and in favor of MMP over first-past-the-post, two-party systems. The reason is that parliamentary balances under MMP systems are (theoretically at least) more finely attuned to the fluid dynamics and complexities of reproducing a minimum threshold of mass contingent consent in heterogenous societies in which individual and collective expectations often differ (when not counterpoised).

Note: this post has been updated twice since its original publication.

Next post: uncertainty.

Chosŏn Realism

datePosted on 12:37, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)

This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.

ess_north_korean_39
(“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”)

Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.

Tough call.

L

123... 777879... 959697PreviousNext