Posts Tagged ‘Pandemics’

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.