Posts Tagged ‘Participation’

My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).

At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.

If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent.  Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.

Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”

What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.

This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.

That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped.  Instead,  the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal  lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).

Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light.  Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).

In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek “me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power.  For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).

To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts  and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.

That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.

And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established  criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised “outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.”  Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas  and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of  a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.

And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others.  Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.

All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.

Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.

Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.

PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.

Even Dogs Can Play the Riot Game.

datePosted on 20:55, May 14th, 2010 by Pablo

Since there has been a fair bit of bad jokes in the NZ blogosphere as of late, including here at KP, I thought I would continue the Greek-themed posts of the past few weeks with one that humourosly shows the extent to which demos and riots are part of the Athenian way of life. Check it out here.

Hat tip: Tom Charteris.

UPDATE: Some of the dates in the photos apparently are wrong. The dog in question was named Kanellos and lived on the University of Athens campus (which is downtown) as a street dog. His collar was provided by a volunteer organisation that sterilises and vaccinates street dogs. He was a legend in his own time and died in July 2008 (or maybe later–more on this in the comments on the linked post). Either way, his life and times, and the role of his purported heirs (Lukas in particular), illustrates the point about the role of street activism in Athenian civil society. Were  it that NZ activists had these dog’s bollocks.

Something About the Symbolism of Poppies.

datePosted on 03:46, April 22nd, 2010 by Pablo

Peace Movement Aotearoa is running a white poppy campaign as a fund raiser for its activities. It is doing so one day before the RSA red poppy appeal. Some think the timing is unfortunate in the extreme. Others denounce PMA as “parasites.” I beg to differ.

There are obvious freedom of opinion and speech issues involved, all of which must be resolved in favour of the PMA no matter how misguided they may be or how they may be piggy-backing on the veneration of the sacrifice at Gallipoli. But that is exactly why the white poppy campaign should be respected.

The red poppy campaign is a recognition of sacrifice that, although in service of a foreign master and resulting in (tactical) defeat, was a prime example of the measure of the Kiwi spirit. It is to be honoured, which is why I, as a foreigner, have attended ANZAC day celebrations. But I also respect the white poppy campaign.

That is because there is the offically unrecognised aspect to ANZAC celebrations, which is the futility and subserviance of the heroic sacrifice by so many of New Zealand’s best (and not so best) men  of the day. To be honest, many died in vain. In the larger scheme of things Gallipoli was not strategically decisive. That war was not fought in defense of democracy and freedom.

Therein lies the justification for the white poppy campaign. Along with the red poppy recognition of sacrifice, it is entirely fair to recognise the futility of NZ involvement in some wars and to campaign against any such future involvement. I tend to believe that WW1, WW2 and Korea were just wars (look at North Korea now if you think that was an unjustifed conflict), and NZ involvement in the liberation of Timor Leste is commendable, but the point of the white poppy campaign is to underscore the fact that NZ, as a sovereign and independent nation, can now pick and choose its fights when it does not involve defense of the homeland. Although they may not realise that NZ has to pay its international security dues in order to receive international protection against foreign invasion (however improbable that scenario may be), the PMA crowd are perfectly correct in choosing to parallel their campaign of reflection alongside the recognition of ANZAC sacrifice. Put another way–how many Kiwis have died in a war of NZ’s choosing? It may be true that sometimes “you gotta do what you gotta do,” but when it comes to war, sometimes you have to recognise that you do not have a dog in the fight.

Of course this hurts the ANZAC veterans (or their descendents) who choose not to acknowledge that freedom of expression, governance and worship  is not what Gallipoli (or Vietnam) was about–it was about great power quarrels fought in areas of the global periphery with military-strategic importance.  Thus,  if the mythological claims of defense of freedom are to be honoured, then the white poppy campaign should be welcomed along with its red poppy counterparts. After all, it is difference of opinion that makes the defense of freedom so fundamental to the democratic ethos. Although it may not have been at play at Gallipoli, it sure is when it comes to respecting the rights of the white poppy campaigners.

I therefore honour the ANZACs for their (often unthinking) sacrifice. And I respect the PMA for their thinking opposition to war, however much I believe sometimes war is necessary ( if nothing but on lesser evil grounds).

As for the maori component of this sacrifice and current opposition,  I defer to Lew.

>>Written from Greece, where democracy is clearly showing strains but in which the right to voice is sacrosanct.<<

Field studying democratic crisis.

datePosted on 15:58, April 19th, 2010 by Pablo

I am off to Greece this evening for a one month research and pleasure trip. My partner is working on book that compares family, immigration and higher education policy in three peripheral European democracies, and Greece is one of her case studies. I am tagging along because of our shared interest in studying democracies in crisis. People have asked why we would travel and live in Greece at a time of financial meltdowns, government paralysis, riots and strikes. Our answer is because that is precisely the case. Let me explain.

Most Western political science focuses on stable polities. Scholars prefer stability because, among other things, it provides more complete data sets and long-term institutional analysis.  After all, it is easier to study what is than what is not, and to theorise about what is certain rather than what is uncertain. The study of politics in NZ is one case in point–most of the research conducted in NZ politics departments focuses on voting behavior, party and coalition politics, the structure of parliament, policy formation, leadership issues, public management and other topics amenable to both qualitative and quantitative dissection (I am referring here to NZ domestic politics and not to foreign policy and international relations, which tend to be more fluid by nature).

In the last 30 years a sub-field of “transitology” has developed that studies political societies in transition. The sub-field was pioneered by Latin American and Iberian scholars studying the collapse of democracy and rise of authoritarianism, which was followed in the 1980s by path-breaking works on the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy during the so-called “Third Wave” of democratisation that swept the globe in the decade ending in 1995. I was a student of these pioneers, as was my partner (one generation removed). In my case the interest was also personal, as my upbringing in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s occurred during a period of rampant political turmoil, including coups, attempted revolutions and virtual civil war in a host of countries.

For people like us the interest is in the politics of change. This involves the fluid dynamics of crisis, which often is chaotic and un-institutionalised, always uncertain, hard to chronicle and which can lead to what is known by neo-Gramscians as the “organic” crisis of the state. Periods of stability, in which politics is regimented, diachronic and orchestrated, tells relatively little about the real fabric or fiber of society. But a society under stress, in which that fabric is loaded by economic, social and political crises, is an excellent candidate for study of what ultimately holds a societal order together. It could be institutions, it could be culture, it could be religion, it could be nationalism, it could be football or some combination thereof, but it is during times of crisis that the fibric stitching of a society is most evident (said plainly: its basic ethno-cultural composition and socio-economic and political organisation). In some societies the crisis leads to regime collapse, in others to government collapse (which is not the same as a regime collapse), and in some cases it leads to regime reform or reconstitution. In many cases, a change of government does not suffice to overcome the crisis (this is less true for mature democracies as it is for new ones, but the crisis of mature democracy is absolutely manifest in places such as Greece).

Like people themselves, how a society responds to crisis is the true measure of its character. Whatever the outcome, all the fissures and seams of the political order are exposed during the moment of crisis. No quantitative data set can fully capture that picture (and in crisis ridden countries data sets are incomplete or unavailable), which is why qualitative field research at the moment of crisis is necessary. The latter is not a matter of sitting in an office on a university-to-university exchange courtesy of a government scholarship, and/or talking to other academics and “important” commentators, but instead involves hitting the streets to get a feel for the public mood, reading, listening to and watching the daily news, then digging through ministerial and interest group archives, interviewing policy makers, sectorial leaders, other interested parties and even casual conversations with taxi drivers, waiters and landlords to get both a structured and unstructured “feel” for how the crisis was caused, is managed, and how it will be resolved (all of which involve linguistic and cultural skills not generally taught in NZ universities).  Although much of what is recorded cannot be used in a book, it gives the observer a better appreciation of contextual depth when addressing the transitional subject.

Which brings us back to Greece. Greece has what could be described as a vigorous civil society burdened by a clientalistic, corporatist and nepotistic political system. Greeks are quick to defend their perceived rights, often by violent means. This approach is not confined to the political fringe but to middle class groups, students, farmers, shopkeepers, unionists and party activists. For example, a few months back university students took their Rector (akin to a Vice Chancellor) hostage, beat him and forced his resignation because of an increase in student fees. Housewives and shopkeepers have joined in violent protest against rising commodity prices than involved molotov versus tear gas clashes with the police. The use of trash can bombs is a common occurence (especially outside of banks), and the occasional political murder has been known to happen.

In the case of demonstrations in Athens, protestors make an obligatory stop at the US embassy to throw rocks, paint and the occasional firebomb just to make the point that the Yanks suck (much the way the Auckland and Wellington rent-a-mobs target the US consulate and embassy during protests against Israel, globalisation, imperialism, climate change, indigenous exploitation and a host of other real and imagined sins that they hold the US responsible for). The point is that Greeks are extremely politically conscious and very staunch when it comes to defending their self-proclaimed rights (the contrast with NZ society could not be starker, because when it comes to politics–and the 100 person rent-a-mobs nothwithstanding–most Kiwis could not be bothered to get off the couch).

Which is why this is the perfect time to go. Greek society is reeling under the weight of a looming credit default that the EU is still attempting to prevent via a financial rescue package crafted by Germany. Government paralysis is such that it can just stand by and hope for the rescue. Greeks are hitting the streets protesting over any number of greviances, one of which is that they are not in control of their collective destiny. Yet, life goes on.

Besides being a traveling companion to my partner, I shall be making my first observations about how the security forces respond to the crisis. I am particularly interested in how the Greek military reacts to the chaos in civil society, and whether it will take a role in internal security after years of working hard to separate internal from external security functions. Given the ever present animosity towards Turkey, issues of foreign-derived terrorism and demographic change tied to EU expansion, it will be interesting to see how the Greek strategic perspective is configured in light of  the internal and external context of crisis in which it is situated.

I shall attempt to write posts once we are settled. In the meantime Lew will hold down the fort until such a time as I get back on line or Anita returns from her hiatus.

PS–the pleasure part involves some weekend island-hopping. Santorini and Samos are on the itinerary.

A Note on Progressive Praxis in Aotearoa

datePosted on 18:15, December 12th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent debates engaged here and elsewhere on the “proper” course to be taken by NZ Left/progressive politics has given me pause to think about the larger issue of Left/progressive praxis in a country such as this. I am on record as defending the class line-first approach, whereas Lew has quite eloquently expressed the primacy of identity politics (and, it should be noted, I am not as hostile to Lew’s line of thought as some of his other critics). But I do not think that the debate covered the entirety of the subject of Left/progressive praxis, and in fact may have detracted from it.  Thus what follows is a sketch of my view of how Left/progressive praxis needs to be pursued in Aotearoa.

First, let’s set the stage. NZ is dominated by market-driven ideologies. In its social, cultural, political and economic expression, capitalism is the primary and undisputed organising principle. Counter-ideological resistance can be found in all of these domains, but the supremacy of capitalism as a social construct is clear. Even so, when compared with the 1990s, this supremacy is not as unshakable. The global financial crisis, corporate greed, predatory lending, financial market manipulation and fraud, increasing income disparities, assorted mendacious acts of venality and corruption have all contributed to a decline in the ideological legitimacy of market-driven logics, including those espoused by its political representatives. That provides a window of opportunity for Left/progressives, even if their traditional sources of strength in the union movement are no longer capable of exercising decisive leadership of a counter-hegemonic sort. Hence the need for a different type of praxis.

The Left/progressive cause needs to be organized into two branches: a political branch and a social movement branch. In turn, each branch needs to be divided into militant and moderate wings. The political branch would encompass Left/progressive political parties such as the Greens and the Alliance as well as fringe parties willing to cooperate in a common venture such as the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like. Because Labour is no longer a genuine Left Party, its inclusion is problematic, but it is possible that its leftist cadres could be invited to participate. The idea is to form a genuine Left/progressive political coalition that serves as a political pressure group on the mainstream parties while offering real counter-hegemonic alternatives to voters in selected districts. One can envision a Left coalition banner running slates in targeted districts with strong subaltern/subordinate group demographics. The idea is to present a Left/progressive alternative to the status quo that, at a minimum, pressures Labour out of its complacency and conformity with the pro-market status quo. At a maximum it will siphon disaffected voters away from Labour and into a genuine Left/progressive political alternative. This may be hard to do, but it is not impossible if properly conceived and executed.

In parallel, the social movement branch should encompass the now somewhat disparate assortment of environmental, union, animal welfare, indigenous rights, GBLT rights and other advocacy groups under the banner of common cause and reciprocal solidarity. The unifying pledge would be that of mutual support and advocacy. It goes without saying that the political and social movement branches will have areas of overlap in the guise of individuals with feet in each camp, but their strategic goals will be different, as will be their tactics. But each would support the other: the social movement branch would endorse and actively Left/progressive candidates and policy platforms; the Left/progressive political branch would support the social movement causes. This mutual commitment would be the basis for formal ties between and within each branch. 

That brings up the moderate-militant wings. Each branch needs to have  both moderate and militant cadres if they are to be effective in pursuing a common agenda. The moderate wings are those that appear “reasonable” to bourgeois society, and who engage their politics within the institutional confines of the bourgeois state. The militant wings, on the other hand, are committed to direct action that transgresses established institutional boundaries and mores. Since this involves transgressing against criminal as civil law (even if non-violent civil disobedience such as the Plowshares action against the Echelon listening post in Blenheim), the use of small group/cell tactics rooted in autonomous decentralized acts and operational secrecy are paramount for survival and success.  The need for militancy is simple: it is a hedge against co-optation. Political and social militants keep their moderate brethren honest, which in turn allows the moderate wings to exploit the political space opened by militant direct action to pursue an incremental gains agenda in both spheres.

For this type of praxis to work, the key issues are those of organization and contingent compromise. Endongeonously, all interested parties in each branch will have to be capable of organizational unity, which means that principle/agent issues need to resolved in pursuit of coherent collective action, presumably in ways that forestall the emergence of the iron law of oligarchy that permits vanguardist tendencies to predominate. There are enough grassroots leaders and dedicated organisers already operating in the NZ milieu. The question is whether they can put aside their personal positions and parochial concerns in the interest of broader gains. That means that exogenously, these actors will need to find common ground for a unified platform that allows for reciprocal solidarity without the all-to-common ideological and tactical hair-splitting that is the bane of Left/progressive politics. The compromise between the political and social movement branches is contingent on their mutual support, but is designed to prevent co-optation of one by the other (such as what has traditionally tended to occur). If that can be achieved, then strategic unity between the political and social movement branches is possible, with strategic unity and tactical autonomy being the operational mantra for both moderate and militant wings.

On the face of things, all of this may sound quite simplistic and naive. After all it is only a sketch, and far be it for me, a non-citizen pontificating from my perch in authoritarian Asia, to tell Kiwi Left/progressives how to conduct their affairs. It may, in fact, be impossible to achieve given the disparate interests and personalities that would come into play, to say nothing of the resistance to such a project by the political status quo, Labour in particular. But the failures of Left/progressive praxis in NZ can be attributed just as much to its ideological and organizational disunity as it can be to the ideological supremacy and better organization of the Right. Moreover, Labour is in a position where it can no longer ignore groups that it has traditionally taken for granted, to include more militant union cadres who are fed up with being treated as corporate lapdogs and political eunuchs. Thus the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Left/progressive strategy and action, particularly since the NACTIONAL agenda is now being fully exposed in all of its profit-driven, privatization-obsessed glory. Perhaps then, it is a time for a series of Left/Progressive summits in which all interested parties can attempt to forge a common strategy of action. It may take time to hash out such a platform, but the political rewards of such an effort could be significant. After all, la union hace la fuerza: with unity comes strength.

Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.

L

* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?

It’s our public service, why don’t we get a say?

datePosted on 21:55, September 10th, 2009 by Anita

The government is

  • considering merging a variety of departments,
  • carving up others,
  • busy shutting down big chunks of others,
  • abolishing some services,
  • taking control of Institutes of Technology and Polytechs away from communities,
  • studying opening up national parks to mining,
  • re-re-restructuring the health system,
  • oh, the list goes on.

Every one of those changes is to our public service and it affects the public, yet the government is not allowing for public consultation on any of them. They can’t get away with the “we were elected on this platform” excuse or even this government’s TINA (“the recession forces us to do this”), this is straight forward exclusion of public participation.

We, both the left and the right, didn’t let Labour get away with it, why are we allowing John Key and friends to exclude us from decisions that so directly affect our lives?

Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?

datePosted on 15:11, September 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?

I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.

To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy.  That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.

The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of  the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.

I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here:  http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html; and here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/163908/Smart-thinking-NZs-public-intellectuals).>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<

The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?

I shall leave the answers to you.

Voting for participation

datePosted on 21:20, August 19th, 2009 by Anita

It is rare in NZ that we get a chance to participate simply because people campaigned for that chance, and this referendum is one of those chances. 300,000 people signed a petition and hundreds of people carried those petitions around, arranged for people to sign them, and for them to be returned, counted and presented to Parliament.

I don’t agree with their opinion about smacking, but I agree with their attitude to democracy and participation.

So this is your chance. If you haven’t voted in the referendum yet, do it now! Votes  posted on Thursday (early enough for collection) will be counted.

Suppressing resident participation

datePosted on 11:20, August 15th, 2009 by Anita

Auckland

The National-Act government are going against the Royal Commission’s recommendations in an attempt to weaken resident participation, consultation and influence.

Wellington

The National-aligned mayor, Kerry Prendergast, and centre-right Council are trying to remove the public’s right to be consulted on buildings on our beautiful public waterfront.

Christchurch

Labour MP, Clayton Cosgrove, is trying to remove residents’ right to be heard using the Resource Management Act in an attempt to give the airport carte blanche to create as much noise whenever and however they like.

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