Posts Tagged ‘Participation’
Posted on 15:29, January 23rd, 2014 by Pablo
The post on the death of the NZ political Left has elicited a fair bit of commentary. That is good, because my purpose in writing it as a polemic was to foster debate about the internal weakness of the NZ Left and possible solutions to that problem. I did not discuss all of the negative externalities that work against a revival of the Left, but many others have, both in the comments on the original post as well as in the commentary in places like The Standard. In fact, some of the discussion in the thread on the original post as well as the Standard thread has been very good.
Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere loved the post. Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock and Whaleoil jumped at the opportunity to put the boot in. I commented on the Kiwiblog thread, where I was accused of defining what the “real” and “fake” Left were and of being one of those people who denigrate anything that does not fit their narrow definition of what being “Left” means. One nice person on the Standard derided me for being a “defeatist” and engaging in “self-flagellation.” This kind soul also harked to the idealism and determination of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to show that we should not give up the fight, perhaps forgetting that Mandela renounced socialism once he became president (supposedly to protect democracy) and MLK –never a Leftist, he–got shot for his troubles long before racial equality was achieved in the US. Anyway, it was all quite entertaining.
Now Chris Trotter has entered the fray with this exposition: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/01/23/theres-plenty-left-chris-trotter-responds-to-paul-buchanans-critique-of-the-new-zealand-left/
I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator. Since my comment on Chris’s rejoinder was submitted more than 15 hours ago and 29 other comments have appeared, I assume that it will not be published, so I shall re-print it here:
“Fair rejoinder, but a bit off the mark.
The point of my polemic was to stir debate about the internal weaknesses of the NZ Left that have neutered it as a political alternative to the capitalist socio-political project. Besides the abandonment of a broad working class focus and socialist principles by the institutionalized Left (the party-union nexus) in favour of more narrow po-mo concerns and piecemeal challenges to the market-driven project, there is the factionalization, in-fighting, oligarchical leadership and general political insignificance of the activist Left. This opens the door to opportunists and charlatans to claim ideological leadership within the Left as a vehicle for self-interested advancement.
I see the cultural Left as having significance, but as a political force nether it or much of the informed Left commentariat have much political sway. And when some of that commentariat quietly seek remunerated ties to political actors who are the antithesis of everything socialism stands for, well, that is unfortunate.
So no, I do not share your optimism, but I am far from defeatist by directly addressing what I see as the elephants in the NZ Left room. Self-criticism and self-assessment are good things to do in good times and bad, and in my view the current moment is bad for the NZ Left.
Some of the commentary on the original post address ways to recapture the moment.
I do like your use of Gramsci though. Shallow as it may be in the context of this rejoinder, it points to the necessity of waging an effective counter-hegemonic war of position within the system, using what is given as instruments of usurpation of the ideological status quo.”
I should note that in his post Chris waxes positive about the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana and the CTU. In doing so he helps make my original case: none of these organizations are “Left” in the sense of being socialist or even primarily worker-focused, whatever they may have been at their inception. They may use socialist rhetoric and act “progressive” when compared to National and its allies, and they may be a better choice for Left-leaning people when it comes to electoral preferences and collective representation, but the hard fact is that play the game by the rules as given, do not challenge the system as given and, to be honest, just chip away around the superstructural margins of the edifice that is NZ capitalism.
Although I believe that the NZ political left is comatose if not dead, this does not mean that it cannot be revived or resurrected. As I said to a commentator on my original post, Keynesian economics in liberal democracies led to a 60 year period of class compromise that replaced the politics of class conflict extant prior to 1930. The so-called neo-liberal project in NZ was trialled under authoritarian conditions in places like Chile (yes Chris, I do remember Pinochet in part because his economic policies were emulated by Roger Douglas and company and marked the turn towards feral market-driven policy that persists in NZ today despite your protestations). It if founded on a direct return to the politics of class conflict, this time initiated by the upper bourgeoisie operating from an advantaged global position against the organized working classes via regressive labor legislation and the privatization of state provided welfare, health and education programs.
Many say the neoliberal elite are hegemonic when doing so. I disagree, in part because unlike Chris (who threw some Antonio Gramsci quotes into his rejoinder) I have spent a lot of time studying Gramsci’s concept of “egemonia,” (hegemony, or ideological leadership by consent) specifically its difference with the concept of “dominio” (domination, or rule by submission or acquiescence). Giovanni Tiso wrote a comment of Chris’s post that captures just a part of why Chris went a bit to far with his misuse of the words of the person who coined the non-Leninist interpretation of that special concept amongst the po-mo Left. I mention this because the entire thrust of Chris’s rejoinder read more like an instance of intellectual one-upmanship rather than a reasoned counter-argument.
The fact is that the current ideological dominance of the market-focused elite is only hegemonic in the measure that the political Left allows it to be. In NZ fair-minded people obey but do not consent to the system as given. In my view internal problems in the Left prevent it from presenting a viable counter-argument, much less counter-hegemonic alternative to the contemporary status quo.
It may not be armed conflict but the NZ market project, be it subtle, buffered or stark, is a war against the working classes, one that is based on the atomization of said classes via the destruction of class-based unions and ideological diversions that promote narrow sectoral representation based upon collective assumptions about the primacy of individual self-interest over solidarity, and which privileges greed over empathy.
In comments on the original post I offer some limited suggestions about a new Left praxis in NZ. I am sure that there are many other avenues to explore along those lines. The market-driven project (which is no longer “neoliberal” in the original sense of the term), was an obvious and transparent return to the politics of class conflict, with preferential terms dictated by the financial elite.
No matter how dominant this ideology is at this moment, it opens a window of opportunity for the NZ Left, if it knows how to take the advantage. Rather than a monolithic compendium of all that is impossible to those born wrong, it renders bare the inegalitarian and exploitative foundations of the current socio-economic order as well as the abjectly quisling nature of the political elite that support it.
One final thought. I do not object to Leftists trying to earn a living, even if that means working in capitalist institutions on capitalist terms. I have to do so.
I do not even mind Leftists who live off of trust funds or marry well. In fact, I do not object to Leftists taking up paid work for non-Left parties as part of a tactical alliance against a common enemy or as a way of learning about the enemy from within.
I believe that those on the Left, much more so than those on the Right, need to be upfront about these apparent contradictions. They need to understand that touching power is not the same as confronting, much less wielding it. That is why I object to concealment of financial relationships between capitalist economic and political entities and those who publicly proclaim themselves to be Lions of the Left and champions of the dispossessed and voiceless.
My bottom line? We all have contradictions in our lives. For those on the Left the contradictions of living in a capitalist society can be overwhelming at times. It is how we resolve our ideological contradictions that separates the honest from the hypocritical.
In light of recent events involving the NZ Labour Party, it is worth pondering the phenomenon known as political fratricide and its sub-set, party fratricide.
Political fratricide is the tearing apart of a political movement or organization due to internecine differences amongst political allies or the ideologically kindred. It is fratricidal in that erstwhile brothers and sisters in political arms turn on each other over differences of ideas, strategy and tactics to the point that the movement can no longer sustain itself as a coherent political entity. The original movement is purged of dissenters by the dominant, and often increasingly authoritarian faction. Clear examples are provided by a myriad array of Left movements that fracture and split over ideological hair-splitting and matters of praxis. This weakens their broader appeal, segments them into marginal factions, and therefore diminishes their overall import in the political debates of the day. The more intense and acrimonious the political fratricide, the less likely a movement will recover its original shape and play an effective role in mainstream politics. In most instances that means permanent marginalization.
Party fratricide is a sub-set of this phenomenon. It is characterized by increasing cleavages, factionalization and fragmentation within political parties over any number of issues, including issues of leadership. Party fratricide results in the elimination or purging of losing factions. It is due to either of two reasons. One is irreconcilable differences within the Party on core beliefs. In this instance the very nature of the Party as a political entity becomes the subject of angry internal debate to the point that it can no longer function as a coherent whole. That forces splits and defections by discontented Party members that ultimately results in the formation of new Party off-shoots. As with the case of political movements, this dilutes the electoral strength of the original Party, which may or may not be replaced by one of its off-shoots as the preferred vehicle for the marshaling of a given political cause or belief system. Although the original Party may survive, its core belief structure will be modified by the defections and emergence of ideological competitors holding different conceptualizations of the original beliefs that once bound them together. That has the overall effect of diluting support for the belief system itself because the increased number of disputed interpretations resultant from the fratricidal process muddles popular interpretations of what the “pure” belief really is.
The second cause of Party fratricide is an absence of core values. In this instance, which often is seen in “catch-all” parties that seek to appeal to the widest array of interests possible, the absence of an ideological core leads to the narrow pursuit of segmented interests and policy implementation by a variety of internal factions. That in turn sets the stage for tactical opportunism, be it in the trading of favors via pork-barreling or log-rolling, or in regular shifting of support for policy positions or party factions based upon self-interest and the contemporary dynamics of the Party at any given moment. People of ideological principle finds themselves isolated and outflanked by the tactically astute who are less rooted in ideological conviction. The more this occurs the more likely that bitter personal antipathies develop within the Party as ambitious individuals joust for leadership roles in an evolving informal or subterranean contest that parallels the formal rules of Party leadership contestation and selection. Since there is no one central belief system to which all adhere, the field is left open for cunning tactical opportunists to hold sway in internal party debates.
This appears to be what has happened to the Republican Party in the US, and it shows signs of occurring in the Australian and British Labor/Labour parties. It seems to be what happened to ACT. These parties contest power not out of a core belief system but because of the platform of temporally shared policy interests that they represent. Although that may suffice to win power or office, it also is a source of constant internal tension that has the potential to explode into outright conflict should personal animosities or policy differences turn irreconcilable.
Party fratricide does not necessarily spell the death of the Party but is a sign not only of deep division within it, but of fundamental weakness. After all, if a Party cannot unite around a common set of objectives, leaders or beliefs in the face of a coherent and well-organized opposition, then it is less a political Party than an amalgam of sectoral interests forced together by political circumstance and shallow ideological affinity.
All of this is quite obvious. The question for the day is whether a Party that is exhibiting signs of fratricide can pull back and regroup in a manner that retains its coherence and effectiveness as a political interlocutor. One way may be to rehabilitate, resurrect or recruit again those that have lost favor or been relegated by the internecine battles (many a political Laxarus has been returned to the fray in NZ and elsewhere). There are a number of other means for re-constituting a coherent political platform and leadership cadre that enjoy the support of the Party membership as a whole. Thus the solution set to the problem may be as varied as it is difficult, but for one NZ political party at least, it is also absolutely necessary.
As I watched various labour conflicts over the past few months, then took in accounts of greed-mongering of various types (the wheel-clamping rort being the latest), I set to wondering if things have turned mean in NZ. I tend to think so, and believe a lot of it has to do with National’s presence in government as well as the increasing stratification of NZ society–something National’s policies tend to exacerbate. Some of this collusion is obvious, such as changes to labour laws that strip worker’s of collective rights while enhancing employer prerogatives when hiring and firing (under the banner of so-called “flexibility”). Some is less so, such as in the “look the other way” approach to the conditions that led to the Pike River and Rena disasters and the hands-off government reaction to them. But the trend towards meanness began well before National returned to government in 2008 even if it has gotten worse under it.
It strikes me that the syllogism involved goes something like this: increased employment precariousness born of economic recession in climates of market austerity premised on cost-cutting in both the public and private sectors leads to increased anxiety, then desperation amongst the salaried classes as their life opportunities narrow. In the measure that collective means of defense and redress are also pared down and stripped of legal cover, agency takes precedence over principal to the point that individual rank and file interests are sacrificed in favor of continued union bureaucratic presence (however diminished) in those economic sectors that remain at least partially organized. In the measure that workers realize that their agents have adopted the “iron law of oligarchy” where bureaucratic self-interest and survival becomes the primary objective to which rank and file interests must be subordinated, notions of collective solidarity are abandoned in favor of individual self-interest. Since this is the dominant ethos at play in unorganized sectors of the economy and amongst the managerial and financial elites, the move to survivalist alienation becomes endemic (and indeed pandemic, if we include the fact that immigrants are socialized into the culture of meanness, thereby propagating the “disease” beyond its original culture). The original agents of transmission, in any case, would appear to be the market ideologues who have metastasized into the managerial elites of the present day.
When survivalist alienation becomes endemic, cultural, ethnic, religious and other forms of ascriptive categorization are used to justify the “me first” approach to social intercourse. Until then people may just be bitter. But this is the point when things turn mean.
I could be wrong and this has always been the case in NZ. My impressions are formed since 1997, so perhaps what existed before was indeed a land of milk and honey. But it seems to me, beyond the inter-generational inevitability of the trend towards hyper-individualism there lay a number of accelerants that have made things worse in the last ten years.
Is the global “Occupy” movement a genuine grassroots mobilisation with revolutionary potential or is it bound to fizzle out, be coopted, voluntarily moderate its demands or splinter into myriad fringe groups without promoting substantive change in the socio-economic status quo?
Interested readers are invited to share their views.
Here is a question for readers. Just because NZ is small does that mean it has to be provincial? Having returned–and happily so–to NZ after a 3+ year absence, I am struck as to how insular public debates tend to be. Leave aside the grating RWC ads and hype. Although it makes much ado about a second tier sporting event, it is being hosted here and there is money to be made as well as sporting prestige on the line. So the hoopla could happen anywhere. I also understand the focus on Christchurch given the earthquakes, but am struck by how most attention is on the human dramas and not on the policy response and consequences of the disasters (which seem to this uninformed eye to be slow and not considerate of long-term implications). More broadly, be it in the tone of political debate, the focus of popular culture, or the economic preoccupations of the moment, it all seem a bit inbred to me. Am I just being precious or unduly judgmental?
I ask because I came back from Singapore, which is small but is incredibly cosmopolitan because of its strategic location and thriving expat culture (native Singaporeans are quite insular as well but have been forced to cope with the influx of more worldly people as part of their national transformation project). Switzerland, San Marino, Andorra, Monaco, Ireland and Malta are small but their location in Europe makes them acutely sensitive to and knowledgeable of their larger neighbour’s actions and interests. The same can be said for Uruguay, surrounded by larger States, or Central American republics, dwarfed by Mexico and the US. This is not to say that the masses as a whole in these countries are always on top of international affairs or erudite in their discussions of global trends, but that they seem to have a better appreciation of the world around them than what is evident in NZ. That seems counter-intuitive.
I say so because the tyranny of distance should have been overcome by advances in telecommunications and transportation, NZ is increasingly a nation of immigrants, including many from non-traditional source countries, its commercial ties are more varied and distant than in earlier generations, its has high standards of literacy and access to news sources, it has a good percentage of citizens returning from OE’s and its diplomatic connections reflect all of these trends. So why is it that, if I am correct, NZ remains rooted in a seemingly mythical short-and-gumboots, rugby-fixated mentality unconcerned about the larger world in which it is inserted? After all, unlike like large states that can “afford” to be ignorant of world affairs because of their economic weight and territorial size (e.g., the US), Kiwis are constantly told that their well-being is directly linked to NZ’s position in the international community. If that is true I would expect that average Kiwis would take an interest in global issues and ask questions of national elites about them.
Why, for example, has the NZ government made no public pronouncements on Syria (and muted comments about Libya) given its purported commitment to human rights? Why has issues like human trafficking, child labour and environmental degradation not entered into the debate about undertaking trade agreements with Asian despotic states? Why have tensions between Fiji and Tonga only been awarded two days of media attention, especially given the role of other powers behind the scenes and NZ’s connections to both countries? Why is there no debate about the NZDF role in Afghanistan given the beginning of the US military withdrawal in July? Why is it assumed that “privatisation” and public expenditure reductions are sacrosanct when in many faster developing parts of the world that are also commodity export-dependent (Latin America, SE Asia) such market-driven zealotry has been abandoned in favour of more judicious public management schemes that see public welfare and employment as requisite part of the social contract (and long-term stability)? Why is draconian anti-terrorist legislation and expansion of domestic intelligence powers passed when NZ security elites admit that the threat of a terrorist event is extremely low and that domestic threats are more likely to be criminal than political in nature (with some of that criminality being a direct result of NZ’s permissive attitude towards trade conditions and regulatory requirements on foreign investment and corporate accountability). Why are national leaders allowed to dismiss those who raise such concerns as extremists or unhinged?
In fact, what the heck happened to policy debates in general? Why is it that when not rugby the entire country seems to be fixated on human dramas and political sleaze rather than the pressing issues that impact they very way society is organised?
I realise that NZ may not be alone in this syndrome, should it in fact be real. It just strikes me as incongruous that a country with such an abundance of human capital should be so inward-focused, especially if it’s material, social and political status is directly connected to, and dependent upon, its ties to the outside world. Provincialism may serve the interests of elites who can govern and do business without considered scrutiny so long as a few popular sops are thrown the public’s way, but it seems to me to be an unfortunate comment on national consciousness if indeed it is a reality rather than a figment of my imagination.
The old saying that the two things one does not want to see being made are sausage and legislation comes to mind given that the Security Intelligence Amendment Bill public submission hearings commence this week (the first reading on the Bill was held in December, during the usual Xmas lull in which serious media scrutiny of pretty much anything unrelated to the season is negligible). Labour and the Greens wanted the submission hearings to be held in public, but the government has knocked that back and declared that they will be held in “private” ( that is, in secret). Although submitters can disseminate their submissions as they see fit, the content of the meetings, including questions by committee members and submitters, are subject to non-disclosure provisos.
Regardless of the subject of the hearings, which has to do with specifying the scope of SIS authority and the warrant process involved in conducting surveillance of new electronic technologies such as mobile phones, GPS systems and other gadgets, the failure to hold public hearings is yet another sign of the ingrained authoritarianism of the political elite and its disdain, if not contempt, for the pubic at large. For example, one of the reasons for the surveillance upgrade, according to the government, is the security concerns surrounding the Rugby World Cup. To use that as a rationale beggers belief and just shows the disconnect between the thinking public and what National believes the public will swallow (the reasons why the RWC is not going to be a terrorist target are many but suffice it to say that NZ security agencies have a vested bureaucratic interest in hyping the threat. And should they come, RWC threats will be of a local dissident-protest rather than terrorist in nature, and will not require anything beyond what is already in place in terms of warrants for electronic eavesdropping).
Labour’s call for public hearings is pretty rich given that during its term in office it never held a single one when it came to SIS matters. The Greens, as always when it comes to such things, stand on principle. What is interesting is that the Maori Party and ACT, which have members on the Intelligence and Security oversight committee that will chair the hearings, have sided with National on the issue of transparency–that is, they have opted for the closet rather than the open door when it comes to airing contending views on juxtaposed issues of national security and civil rights. What this says about the Maori Party and ACT leadership, given the targeting of the former’s members by the SIS and the supposed championing by the latter of civil rights, individual freedoms and governmental accountability, I am not not in a position to say. But what I can say is this: the move to hold the SIS Amendment Bill public submission hearings in private is designed to cover the fact that the oversight committee is going to disregard submissions against the granting of expanded surveillance powers to the SIS and will rubber-stamp the legislative changes in any event. There will be no incisive or critical questions offered by committee members with regard to how the electronic spying will be carried out, under what circumstances, for what purposes and with whom it will be shared.
Instead, there will be a collective nod and wave by the majority of the committee behind closed doors, and the SIS Amendment Bill will pass. What is being protected is not state secrets, not confidential material, or anything remotely connected to national security. The reason the hearings will be held behind closed doors is to conceal the lackey lock-step into which the committee will fall. It is about saving coalition face in an election year rather than addressing the serious concerns of intelligence service power-expansion. That shallow political PR calculation is the sole reason why these hearings will be held in secret.
So much for informed public consent and parliamentary accountability when it comes to security and intelligence in this small democracy.
The wave of unrest that has shaken the political foundations of the Middle East is a watershed moment in the region’s history. Although it is still too early to determine if the much hoped-for changes raised by the collective challenge to autocratic rule actually result in tangible improvements in the material and social conditions of the majority of Middle Eastern citizens, it is possible to ascertain who the losers are. Some are obvious, but others are not.
Among the obvious losers the biggest is Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime will topple regardless of whether he hangs onto control in Tripoli for an extended period of time (which is unlikely, since he faces not only internal opposition bolstered by defections from the military and government and does not have control over the oil fields that once made him someone to be reckoned with, but also UN-led international sanctions and a host of asset freezes on the part of individual states. Worst yet, his Ukrainian blond nurse has upped stakes and left for home!). Desposed presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt are also obvious losers, as are their cronies and sycophants, although the regimes they led have weathered the worst of the crises and they have managed to exit office with their lives (something Gaddafi is unlikely to do). Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is also a loser, since he has been forced by public unrest to announce that he will step down from power in 2013, a timeline that may accelerate as a result of defections from within his government and among influential tribal leaders that used to support him.
The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is another loser, as it will have to agree to significant political concessions to the Shiia majority opposition in order to quell unrest. The same is true for Algeria, Jordan, Oman and Syria, which have moved to pre-emptively announce political reforms that may or may not be cosmetic but which indicate increased regime preoccupation with public accountability and governmental performance. In seemingly stable Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, royal families are also working quickly to stave off potential unrest via the institution of preventative reform packages which, however minor in nature, are nevertheless acknowledgement that their rule is not as impregnable as they used to think. In all of the oil oligarchies there is a realisation that they must cede some power in order to stay in power, which opens the door for more substantive change down the road.
Beyond these obvious losers are others that are not immediately apparent. These include energy and weapons firms that struck deals with Gaddafi, who may find the terms and conditions of said contracts voided or renegotiated on different terms by his successors (this includes BP, which is widely believed to be behind the release of the Libyan Pan Am 103 bomber in exchange for Libyan concession rights as well as Chinese investors). They include a number of Italian businesses as well as the government of embattled president Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed warm relations with Gaddafi that now may turn into liabilities once he is gone. They include the Iranian regime, which has seen its crushed opposition resurface to claim the same rights their Sunni Arab brethern are calling for, thereby giving the lie to the official claim that the Ahmadinnejad-fronted theocratic regime enjoys universal support. They include the US government, which reacted slowly, clumsily and viscerally to the wave of protests, engaged in a series of quick policy shifts and contradictory pronouncements, and which has been shown to have a limited ability to predict, respond or influence events on the ground in that strategically important region even as it pontificates about its newly discovered commitment to democracy and human rights in it (it should be noted that other great powers such as China and Russia did not engage in public diplomacy about the unrest, which may be more due to their own authoritarian records rather than a respect for national sovereignty and preference for private diplomacy but which in any event does not leave them looking like hypocrites on the matter). They include Hamas and Hizbollah, whose hopes for region-wide intifadas never materialised. They might include Israel, should the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime take a less cooperative stance towards the Jewish state in response to public pressure in a more open and competitive domestic political environment (should that materialise). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide food for thought about others who may have benefitted from their support for Middle Eastern autocracies who may now find that their fortunes have changed for the worse as a result of the regional crisis.
But the biggest loser by far in this historic moment is the one actor that only gets mentioned by fear-mongerers: al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. In spite of repeated calls for the Muslim masses to join them in their struggle, after years of sacrifice of blood and treasure, international jihadists have seen few echoes of their views in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Rather than call for the establishment of a regional caliphate or even Sharia governance in individual nations, or embrace jihad against infidels at home and abroad, the vast majority of the protests in every single country where they have occurred are about bread and butter issues (mainly jobs, food and public services) and demands for increased political voice, representation, government accountability and official transparency. As it turns out, these purportedly Western and anti-Islamic notions resonate more on the Arab Street than do appeals to martyrdom. Thus, the standard canard that democracy is inapplicable to the Middle East due to cultural preferences rings as hollow for al-Qaeda as it does for the autocrats who parade it as an excuse for their rule.
The picture is clear. Fevered warnings of fear-mongers aside (who now believe that Libya will fall into jihadist’s hands should civil war ensue), after years of fighting and preaching, the ideological appeal of Islamic fundamentalism has gained little traction with the Arab majority, who instead have voiced their preference for forms of governance that take their inspiration from the infidel West, not Usama bin Laden. Not only is al-Qaeda and its allies being militarilly degraded bit by bit all over the world, in a process that may be long but where the outcome is inevitable. More importantly (and which contributes to their inevitable military defeat as a global armed actor capable of challenging for power in all but the most miserably failed states), they have been utterly defeated in the battle of ideas in the very region from whence they originated.
That makes jihadists the biggest losers of all.
UPDATE: I spent a week on holiday out of IT reach thinking about this issue, and a day after I get back and post about it the NYT decides to follow suit.
I decided to package my posts about events in the Middle East in chronological order as they appeared, add an introduction and summary by way of framing the discussion, and send it to the nice folk at Scoop to use as this month’s Word from Afar column. By and large, I think that it holds together pretty well in light of events. It is a pity that I could not add some of the interesting discussion in the threads that followed the posts (since the essay was already at the upper word limit for an op-ed), but I did keep them in mind as I did the edit and added the bracketing material. In any case, the test of whether my analysis is right or wrong will play out over the next few months, and I have no doubts that KP readers will hold me to account in either event.
Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.
Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to ”real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.
It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.
Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.
Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.
For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.
Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.
This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.
For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.
Some definitional clarification is in order when viewing events in Egypt. A coup is the overthrow of a regime by the military. A putsch is the involuntary removal of government leaders within an extant regime. Neither is a revolution, even if occurring within the context of mass protest. Thus what has occurred (so far) in Egypt is neither revolutionary or a coup. It is a putsch carried out within a context of social unrest and mass mobilisation. It is a forced internal reconfiguration of the military-dominated regime that has been in power one way or another for over thirty years, and it has been carried out precisely to maintain the regime in the face of popular protests that centred on Hosni Mubarak but which do not challenge the military’s primacy in Egyptian politics.
The removal of an individual in a military putsch is NOT a democratic revolution, even if the masses rejoice. It is an internal transfer of power that may or may not lead to regime liberalization, which itself does not imply a genuine move towards democracy. It will be interesting to see if internal reconfiguration of the Egyptian regime leads to significant reform over the long term. Foreign pressure will not play a decisive role in the military calculations on whether to reform, retrench or repress. That will be a function of inter-elite bargaining and the organisational strength and practical demands of the opposition. But one thing is sure: due to issues of corporate self-interest and professional autonomy, the Egyptian military has no interest in exercising long-term control over the governmental apparatus. Instead, its interest lies in overseeing the conditions leading to the September 2011 elections, with the primary objective being maintenance of social stability, resumed economic growth and geopolitical continuity no matter who wins the presidency and parliamentary majority.
That is the bottom line of the Egyptian “transition.”