Posts Tagged ‘Representation’

Playing us for suckers.

datePosted on 14:39, December 7th, 2010 by Pablo

John Key has announced that changes to the SIS enabling laws that will expand its powers of surveillance of cell phones and computers as well as its use of electronic tracking devices will be pushed through parliament before the Rugby World Cup. He claims it is necessary to do so because “many world leaders” will be visiting during the RWC and appropriate security measures must be in place that require changes to the 41 year old SIS charter. The Privacy Commission advised for a three year review of the pertinent laws but was ignored.

This is the second time that Mr. Key has used the RWC to justify a modification of a security measure, the first being the withdrawal of the NZSAS from Afghanistan in 2011 because they are needed for duty at the RWC. Just as it is ludicrous to believe that NZ’s most elite troops would be used as guards or stand-bys for a sporting event held in Aotearoa, it is also an insult to the NZ public intelligence to claim that the RWC is the reason for the law changes that expand the SIS powers of search and surveillance.

The changes are actually just another continuation of the steady expansion of the NZ security apparatus over the last ten years. It runs in parallel with the proposed Search and Surveillance Bill, which gives wiretapping and eavesdropping authority to a range of local and national agencies that have nothing to do with security. Each year the SIS budget increases, as does its personnel. Police intelligence has also increased in numbers and seen its role expanded. The question is, first, what threats exist now that require such an expansion of the coercive powers of the State?  Are these threats of such a magnitude that basic civil liberties must be curtailed in the purported interest of national security? If so, why are they not publicly identified and enumerated so as to raise public awareness of them? If not, why, in an age of public bureaucracy down-sizing and privatisation, is the repressive apparatus growing, especially in its internal dimension?

Truth be told, all claims about terrorists notwithstanding, from where I sit there appears to be very little in the way of new, imminent and developed threats that constitute a clear and present danger to NZ national security so as to justify the continued expansion of the repressive apparatus at the expense of civil liberties.

We will never hear an answer to the questions I have just posed because John Key says that “it is not in the public interest” for hearings on the proposed changes be open to scrutiny. Instead, submissions on the proposed changes will be open to the public but the hearings on them held in private because–you guessed it–it was “not in the interests of national security” for the hearings to be heard openly. In sum: for John Key, the public logic is that for the sake of a one-off athletic event that is limited to a handful of former rugby-playing Commonwealth countries and some joiners (unlike more universal competitions like the World Cup, the Olympics or Commonwealth Games), the entire fabric of (mostly domestic) intelligence-gathering must be expanded and domestic liberties further curtailed.

One wonders what National’s  private logic is.

What are Mr. Key and his pipe dream team smoking that he can bald-faced say such utter nonsense and expect the NZ to be so gullible as to believe him? Or is the NZ public that stupid that it will believe that these proposed law changes are needed to protect visiting world leaders at the RWC and are so sensitive that their merits cannot be debated openly? Does he think that Kiwis do not care about legislation that curtails their basic rights, or that they believe that it is best to allow the government to just push through tougher ‘anti-crime” laws without public debate?

It could well be the case that the proposed changes are due to the fact that advances in telecommunications have allowed criminal and extremist groups to transfer funds and send instructions more easily and securely in and out of NZ. It could well be that criminal and extremists groups are scheming and plotting in NZ, and the proposed law changes will allow the SIS to better counter them. But that should be publicly explained and justified, not considered privately within the confines of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee, which is comprised of a grand total of 5 people and in which the government has the majority.

The bottom line is that the proposed legislation has nothing to do with the RWC and all to do with an ongoing expansion of the State’s powers of coercion at a time when its ideological apparatuses are increasingly failing to reproduce mass consent to the elite’s preferred ideological project. Having supported the equation of dissent with terrorism while in Opposition during the 5th Labour government, National is keen to ramrod more encroachments on basic rights in pursuit of the challenged elite project. Having eroded the right to organise and collectively defend worker’s interests while opening up the country to a variety of investors, yet having its hopes for asset sales to foreigners  and de-regulated mining on public lands thwarted by public resistance, National has turned to the old canard of “security” to dupe the public into giving up more rights to the State.

Raising the spectre of security threats provides a convenient cloak for the assertion of State powers of control and punishment on all those who challenge it, criminal or benign. That is why Mr. Key wants hearings on the proposed changes to be held behind closed doors, because if they were made public then open challenges can be made to the justifications for an expansion of SIS powers as well as the underlying reasons for them.

Mr. Key and his minions must be resisted as the closet authoritarians that they are.  In democracy. law changes need to receive a full and open airing, it is changes to security and intelligence laws that threaten the fundamental rights that lie at the heart of democratic society. The proposed changes are one such instance, which makes it too important a matter to be left to the privacy of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee in the run-up to the RWC. Mr Key cannot have it both ways: either he believes in democratic accountability when it it comes to national security matters and its impact on fundamental rights and restrictions on them, or he believes in elite perogative, to include the issue of balancing of security and rights.

The only way to find out is to force him to choose, and for that to happen requires an Opposition that understands–surprise, surprise– that political advantage can often be gained by standing on principle. One can only hope that is now is such a moment of realisation for Labour, even if it means turning on the monster that it created nearly ten years ago.

Enemies like these

datePosted on 22:04, October 28th, 2010 by Lew

I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.

I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)

But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.

In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.

So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.


The US as the new Greece.

datePosted on 12:33, October 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Watching the lead up to what will be a major Republican and Tea Party comeback in the upcoming US midterm elections, and having spent an earlier part of the year in Greece, I cannot but help but be struck by the parallels between the two countries. This may seem crazy, but sometimes what is obvious is not necessarily apparent.

The US and Greece are saddled with immense debt, most of it public. Both have extremely large state bureacracies that consume an inordinate amount of the tax base. Both have lived, in their personal and public consumption, way beyond their means over the last two decades, riding the wave of financial sector excess and lving off real estate and other speculative bubbles that did not, in fact, significantly contribute to national productive rates.

In each case immediate past centre-right governments contributed to the false sense of security by allowing the financial sector to operate with considerable degrees of autonomy and lack of oversight, reduced taxes for the wealthiest sectors of the population and corporations, and spent money well in excess of state revenues. In Greece state expenditures went into a bloated welfare system that was designed to prop up living standards that are seen as a birthright of all Greeks; in the US, the excess state spending went into war. In both instances the center-right governments increased state spending and the public deficits that accompanied them. In both cases they were turned out at the polls in the past two years.

Center-left governments replaced the discredited right. They inherited unsustainable deficits that will take years to redress and embarked on economic reform programs that were designed to cut the public deficit and increase economic efficiency over the long term. In Greece this meant slashing the public workforce, decreasing public salaries and welfare benefits while offering a package of tax incentives to small and medium business so that they could innovate, expand and thereby take up the slack produced by reductions in the public workforce.

In the US the economic stimulus program was designed to prop up and revitalise at-risk major industries (the automobile and financial sectors in particular) while providing tax relief for 95 percent of the working population. A national health program was instituted that, even though watered down and more pro-business than pro-consumer and nowhere close to socialised medicine,  provides for minimum health coverage for the majority of the population. Selective regulation on the financial sector was legislated, although this worked more on the margins of the system rather than at its core. Military spending was cut at the corners, and in a number of cases companies that received financial bail-out packages have begun to re-pay their debts.  In effect, although in the US public spending increased over the short term with the stimulus and health care packages, the design is oriented towards lowering the overall public spending bill within five to ten years while maintaining a  disproportionate emphasis on “defense.” That is the American way.

In both instances some or most of the center-right opposition in the legislature supported the economic reform packages of the government, but backtracked when confronted by public reaction. In both cases that backtracking led them to move towards the zealot wing of their popular base. That has consequences.

The reason? In each case there was an immediate, reflexive and largely unthinking  public backlash against the reform measures. Following Greek protest tradition, often violent strikes and demonstrations have engulfed the country from the moment austerity measures were announced. Although the protests are led by unions and other elements of the agitational Left, the real beneficiaries of the crisis are the hard Right, who have seen an opportunity to engage in nationalist-populist demagogery in which “foreign interests,’ illegal migrants, “Communists” and a host of other suspected culprits are blamed for the country’s woes.

In the US attempts at reform have been met by a wave of right wing backlash among the mostly white middle classes, who also blame illegal migrants, “Socialists” and other purported “progressives” as well as atheistic liberal homosexual-enabling secular humanists for the decline of Empire. At public forums many vented their anger by calling for a “revolution” or at least the ovethrow of the Washington elite. Some of them turned up armed to make their point.  They have a movement not unlike the Greek ultra-nationalists. It is called the Tea Party.

What is striking about both hard right wing resurgences is that they stand to gain the most from upcoming elections simply by blaming the governing center left administrations without offering a plausible solution to the problems of the day and near future. Both want to return to something long gone. Both want lower, not more taxes, apparently not understanding that in the case of Greece that national pasttimes of tax avoidance, island vacation homes and reliance on the state for pensions, social security and universal health care are contradictory and incompatible. In the US the pejoratively labeled “Tea Baggers” apparently have not connected the dots between maintaining a massive military apparatus that consumes 6 percent of GDP, is fighting two wars of occupation and at least a dozen small irregular conflicts simultaneously, has a presence in 150 countries and deploys three carrier task forces comprised of 7 ships and 75 aircraft at sea at any one time (no other country can deploy even one), and the need for a substantial tax base. Nor can they see that the party that they support is the one that has the most extensive ties to the Wall Street giants that played loose with their money in the game of financial roulette known as the sub-prime lending market that has now come a cropper. Instead they rail against welfare queens and “illegals” stealing the jobs most Americans disdain.

In both countries the conscious anti-intellectualism of the Right is manifest.  They want simple solutions to complex problems, they want the solutions to benefit them without requiring any sacrifice, and they want it all to happen yesterday. Reflexively ignorant political champions lead the charge and rally the masses in each case.

Most of all, it is historical myopia, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the lack of acceptance of responsibility and the shifting of blame that ties the US and Greek public together in their rightwards march. Both cultures prefer to forget the immediate past that led to these tough times and instead focus on a mythical past in which the Nation was strong, proud and united in its demographic homogeneity and cultural mores. Both cultures believe that they are special and especially deserving because fortuitous circumstance determined that they were born Greek or American. Neither culture embraces the notion of individual and collective responsibility as a majority ethos anymore. Instead, the common approach is to blame others for individual failure and collective misfortune.  Both right wing movements have little to offer than hatred for central government elites, current reform policy, bankers of “dubious” persuasion and all the “others” who instigated the entire mess. Mutatis mutandis, there are faint echoes of interwar Europe in all of this.

That may be a basis for victory in any contemporary elections given the circumstances, but it is certainly no blueprint for national regeneration. History has repeatedly shown that national-populist lurches to the right produce more anomie and retrogression than progress. For the latter to occur, people will have to first take individual and collective responsibility about their role in the process of decline. Then they will have to accept the costs of redressing that decline which means that they will need to assume the burden of altered lifestyles no longer easily bought on the back of cheap credit, deficit spending and overinflated notions of national grandeur. They will then have to grin and bear it during the tough times so that their children and grandchildren will prosper under different conditions.

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

In the US, a return to primordialism.

datePosted on 09:03, August 21st, 2010 by Pablo

In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a “post-racial” society was never going to happen.  Instead the reverse transpired, with race, religion and ethnicity now dominating US political debates in a measure not seen in years. Fuelled in part by the president’s overt identification with African-American culture and causes in spite of his mixed race heritage, the real instigators of the return to American primordialism are the conservative media outlets, Tea Party agitators and opportunistic Republican politicians who see political advantage in harping negatively about race, religion and ethnicity. Be it arguments about reverse racism, immigration, “socialist” health policy, religious freedom (in the case of the proposed Islamic cultural centre located 2 blocks from ground zero in New York City), the hot button issues in the lead-up to the November 2010 midterm elections are rooted in conservative white fear of cultural diversity and ethnic equality. That garrison mentality resonates in the great American echo chamber of conservative blogs, radio and television, and it has set the tone for the political debates of the moment.

The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight. This view holds to the belief that White Christians are the carriers of superior values tied to the Protestant Ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship,  and that these values are now under siege from a variety of forces, both domestic and foreign (often working in concert). Fear of the “other” is the subtext of the day. With the nightmare of a black Kenyan Muslim in the oval office now realised (at least in the minds of some), the culturalist Right have chosen to fight. Their method for doing so is to fill the public space with racially charged interrogatives that speak to white grievances against affirmative action, poverty reduction, undocumented immigration (including so-called “anchor babies”), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values.  Cultural scape-goating is phrased as a defense of traditional values in order to cloud the message and make it difficult to refute. The Democrats and progressive elements in the electorate have been slow to stand up to the cultural bullying, and even slower to recast the terms of the political debate. Since those who set the terms of political debate are the ones who usually win the argument, this augers poorly not only for the president and his party in November, but for the future of American social diversity in general.

The return to race baiting and xenophobia is due not only to white Christian conservative fear of what the future US demographic may look like, but also to their inability to offer a policy agenda that is anything other than opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. Capitalising on anti-“big government” sentiment that conveniently overlooks the fact that the expansion of the federal government deficit was fuelled by a massive military build-up in pursuit of two wars undertaken by a conservative Republican president aided and abetted during his first 6 years in office by a GOP-dominated Congress in a context of corporate deregulation and lower taxation of firms and wealthy individuals, the white conservative backlash against Obama is visceral, vicious and anything but virtuous in intent. For some on the US Right the turn to primordialism is a return to their darker ideological roots.

The irony is that the Right’s politics of primordialism is not necessary. In spite of victories in health care and finance industry regulation, the successful rescue of General Motors and its ahead of schedule withdrawal of combat troops  from Iraq, the Obama administration has shown itself to be vacillatory and reactive across a broad range of policy issues. Rather that set a firm agenda it appears to bounce from crisis to crisis, blaming its predecessor for problems that are not of its making (such as regulatory failures that led to the Gulf oil spill, inherited federal deficits and the 2008 financial crisis). All this does is convey the image of an whinging Administration out of its depth or indecisive at the point of engagement, aided by a venal Congress disconnected from the realities of common voters.  Coupled with the usual anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment and an unusual amount of hatred for the federal government, this leaves the Democrats in a perilous position in the lead up to the November midterm elections. 

Hence, in the current context of an impending “double dip” recession and mounting fiscal deficits, ongoing high unemployment and continued foreclosures and mortgagee sales as involvement in foreign conflicts drags on, the Democrats can be defeated in November on issues of policy alone, even if the alternative is incoherent on specific points of remedy. The diversion into the so-called “culture wars” consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice.  The choice is to engage a raw backlash at everything Obama represents as a social construct.

Not surprisingly the focus on primordialism obscures and mystifies the increasing gap between the US corporate elite and investment rich, on the one hand, and the salaried middle and working  classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual “responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “freedom,” this is a return to the late 19th century-early 20th century era of ethnic divide- and-conquer anti-unionisation efforts played by the robber barons and their Pinkerton thugs, and which finds resonance in the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic militia-style rhetoric of the present day. It also is wrapped in a strict constitutionalist interpretation that sees anything not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, such as universal health care, as insidious attempts to undermine the White Christian foundations of the nation.

There is an irony here. The descent into primordialism could spell trouble for the GOP at a time when it should be easily crafting an alternative agenda for a return to political dominance. The libertarian and moderate wings of the Republican Party are being made to choose between the xenophobic Right and disaffiliation. The plight of Florida governor Charlie Crist is instructive.  A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic  and Black populations and a heterogeneous mix of Whites, Crist was losing badly in the polls for the Republican Party Senate candidacy in favour of a more conservative, less experienced candidate. Faced with a primary loss next week, Crist is now running as an Independent in what will be a three-way Senate race in November that looks increasingly hard for the GOP to win given the vote-splitting caused by Crist’s presence.

Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its “small government” origins hijacked by a reactionary culturalist agenda that harks to the Anglo supremacist views of the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and early 1960s. That leaves Tea Party economic liberals and fiscal conservatives at the mercy of the new segregationists and isolationists, thereby dividing the movement at a time it should be uniting around a common agenda for change. That opens space for conservative Democrats to make common cause with the economic, as opposed to socially conservative Tea Party adherents.

The Democrats are not immune from the primordialist temptation. The controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre in NYC has seen a number of prominent Democrats, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, come out against it. Spurred by electoral considerations and like the Republican primordialists, they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.” Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the “provocation” to having Nazis build a monument at Auschwitz or the Japanese building a shrine at Pearl Harbour, conveniently ignoring that the fact that the former was a political movement with genocidal pretensions and the latter was a state declaring war, whereas Islam is the religion of 11 extremists who committed an atrocity (much as Christianity was the religion of the Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh).  In fact, the more appropriate analogy might be to propose to build a Christian church on the site where a murdered abortionist practiced, something that has in fact happened at the place where Dr. George Tiller had his Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tiller’s memory and work on behalf of the pro-choice movement met with little outcry and more than a passing wave of approval on the part of the same people who now most avidly decry the Ground Zero “mosque” (I put the word mosque in quotation marks because the proposal is for a multi-use facility that includes prayer rooms for men and women).

Nor has the “provocation” argument had to reconcile with the fact that two established mosques are located four and six blocks from Ground Zero, respectively, or that various porn shops and strip clubs are located across the street from the hallowed site itself. Even so, few mainstream politicians have spoken out against the inconsistencies of the “provocation” argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese “sneak attack” brush, in no small part for fear of being seen as pro-Islamic. That is sadly telling of the current state of affairs.

In fact, that Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich can make common cause on an issue involving religious freedom demonstrates how debased the US political debate has become. Worst yet, after initially framing the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, President Obama backtracked in the face of conservative criticism and said that it is a matter of local opinion and religious sensitivity to broader public concerns, thereby ceding the argument to the primordialists while confirming the impression that he is indecisive and thin-skinned.

The impact of the return to primordialism has yet to be seen, but two logical inferences can be made if it continues. First, that it will have an atomizing effect on US politics and society, as conservative White and minority ethno-religious communities grow increasingly alienated and see their collective fortunes in zero-sum terms. Rolling back 50 years of improving race relations is a recipe for instability and conflict which cannot be solved over the long term by Whites stockpiling arms and joining civilian militias in a country that is dependent on migrant labour and which will have a majority non-White demographic in 25 years regardless of illegal immigration controls. Secondly, the return to primordialism will confirm in the minds of foreign adversaries that the US is, in fact, a Christian White supremacist imperialist state that seeks to impose its values on non-Whites and non-Christians at home and abroad.  That means that international conflict, in its “clash of civilisations’ mode, will continue unabated until such a time as the US abandons the politics of primordialism. Nothing indicates that will happen soon.

Then there is the final implication: united they will stand, or divided they will fall.

In the debates about the proposed labour law reforms there appears to be fundamental misunderstanding or ignorance by National and ACT of the purpose of unions in capitalism. The latter are seen by NACT as at best a source of inefficiency and profit loss; at worst parasitic wealth destroyers. They appear to misunderstand that capitalism left to its own devices, with no collective counter-weight provided to workers, is akin to a political regime without opposition parties. That is, it is inherently an authoritarian status quo in which owners rule and workers obey. Thus, if we hold it self-evident that democracy is a better form of regime than dictatorship precisely because it allows for the existence of a freely organised competitive political opposition that can contest power and times compete for it, then we must also recognise that capitalism needs unions in order to be representative and fair to the society at large. The trade off between democracy and capitalism is exactly that: a diminished rate of exploitation in direct proportion to the measure of voice exercised by workers in pursuit of a fair share for all.

That is why unions were organised in the first place: to bring a subordinate group vehicle of voice and redress to the economic system. Whatever their very evident flaws (Leninist organisation, iron law of oligarchy bureaucratic rationales), unions provide a democratic counter-weight to unfettered capitalist exploitation. Just as it is preferable not to have a closed, unaccountable (or at least vertically unaccountable) oligarchical elite run the affairs of state, so too is it undesirable, from a democratic perspective, to have a closed, vertically unaccountable economic elite determine the social relations of production. If one believes in democratic capitalism, one must believe in a central partnership role for unions within it.

This is true whether labour-based or capitalist-oriented parties are in power, since in capitalist societies the material welfare of all is dependent on the investment decisions of capitalists. But capitalists need workers to realise their investment, and workers need to be productive for profits to occur. There is consequently a structural bias in favour of providing the working conditions and larger social context in which profitable production can occur over the long term. For that to happen workers need to accept the system as given, which is a function of them perceiving a partnership stake in it. That means a modicum of voice and representation. Democratic capitalists consequently understand the need to exchange super-exploitation and authoritarian control of the workplace for increased working class representation in both politics and production. In turn workers (and their political representatives) accept the capitalist foundations of society and the dominant role of capitalists within it (in other words, they forego a move towards socialism). This exchange is at the heart of democratic capitalism. Although negotiating the margins of the democratic capitalist social contract can occur depending on the nature of the government in power, “touching the essential” aspects of it is not.

Authoritarian capitalism offers many short term advantages to business, but it does not guarantee long term gains. Unmitigated authoritarian exploitation, be it in the workplace, politics or both, breeds resentment. Born of a lack of consent to the dominant system, resentment can be manifest in everything from petty acts of social defiance to industrial sabotage to revolution. Short term acquiescence may be bought with material rewards, but the long-term picture remains clouded so long as workers do not buy in to the system as given and instead resent their subordinate status in it. Absent mass consent and given the inevitability of working class resentment, the resort to the “weapons of the weak” negatively impinges on profit, if for no other reason then that the costs of repression grow larger the longer authoritarian control is maintained. After all, you cannot repress the same amount of people in the same measure over time.  Since capitalists abhor uncertainty and seek stable rates of secure return, a peaceful, consent based socio-economic and political order is preferable to an imposed one. That gives economic utility to democratic capitalism.

In fact, where democratic capitalist systems work best (hegemonically, as it were), many if not most workers strive to become capitalists themselves (small businesspersons, at a minimum). They see themselves on a continuum of upward mobility based on workplace fair play and merit. Socialism is not their preferred option. The proof is in the mythos: is this not the Kiwi, Ozzie and American dream?

Here is where NACTs reforms and the demands of the employer class says much about their true orientation. They claim belief in freedom of choice and the benefits of market competition as the great levelers of social ambition. If that were true, then they would welcome workers to freely organise without legal constraint or negative repercussion because true market competition and workers freedom of choice would improve overall economic (labour) market efficiency. After all, according to their own logic, the market works best when all have equality of opportunity, and it clears best when all actors enter into the market exchange exercising their full potential as free agents involved in the mutual supply and demand of goods and services. So if workers exercising their free choice want unions, then more the better from a market perspective. Why put constraints on that freedom?

Yet in practice NACT seeks to place constraints on working class collective choice and voice so as to better exercise owner/manager prerogatives in the workplace. They are, in other words, hypocrites who do not really believe in the power of the free market or closet authoritarians out of ignorance (unlikely) or by design. Or both. No amount of political spinning can disguise that fact.

What is more, NACT does not appear to comprehend, from a cynical perspective, that allowing for unionisation, including union workplace access, while reducing limitations on the right to strike and collectively bargain across economic sectors can actually serve very usefully as an alienation device in which workers are led to believe that they are real partners in production in a system in which the fruits (surplus value) of their labour are appropriated by others (in a variant of Lenin’s “democracy as capitalism’s best possible political shell” argument). Although unfettered collective action has the potential to open the door to worker challenges to control of production, the reality is that in democratic capitalism private ownership is reified from birth to grave and most workers live with the dream of being bourgeois in culture and consumption if not employment. So whether cynically or sincerely committed to workplace democracy, enlightened capitalists understand the long-term political utility of union representation in democratic society. NACT and its business supporters appear to be anything but enlightened.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the matter (“The Blues Go Black”), the proposed reforms owe their inspiration to the Pinochet Labour Code. The question is whether NACT have the same view of unions as Pinochet and “Pepe” Pinera did, and if so, why do they make any pretense as to being democratic? Could it be that what we are seeing in NZ is the first attempts to turn the economic bases of the democratic social contract into something akin to unchecked elite imposition under manipulated electoral conditions?

The Racial Basis of a Small SE Asian State.*

datePosted on 16:51, July 11th, 2010 by Pablo

From my perch in SE Asia I have observed with some bemusement what passes for immigration debate in the US, UK, Europe and NZ. I am bemused because the place that I live has a very non-PC approach to immigration and yet is held out as a beacon of ethno-cultural diversity, toleration and meritocratic entrepreneurship. Were it that it be so.

In most of the West the dominant discourse on immigration is phrased in terms of labour market necessity. Countries need skilled and/or unskilled labour as the case may be because their domestic reproduction rates cannot keep pace with economic growth. Since capitalism must grow to survive, it needs labour inputs to provide the human fuel for that growth. Depending on the human resource base of the country in question, skilled or unskilled labour is imported and allowed to settle in order to fill labour market demand and to increase inter-generational reproductive rates conducive to eventual labour market self-sufficiency. Or so we are told.

Yet there is a demographic aspect to this labour-market immigration strategy as well.  In the contemporary US Hispanics fill many of the unskilled labour needs; in Germany Turks do the same; in France Algerians fulfill that function; in Greece Albanians perform the role; in Portugal Romanians, Angolans and Brazilians play that part. In NZ it has been traditionally Pacific Islanders who fill the ranks of unskilled labour, and receive preferential immigration treatment as a result. Skilled labour shortages are filled by Indians, Chinese and Europeans in the US, by Spaniards, Greeks, Italians and Eastern Europeans in “old (Northern) Europe,” and by Indians, Asians and expat Europeans and South Africans in NZ (the list is not meant to be exhaustive and recognises overlap in skill categories in some instances). There is, in other words, an ethnic component to inter-state labour market migration.

The unspoken question, and the elephant in the room in such approaches to labour market necessity requiring the import of foreign labour, involves the intertwined issues of race, culture, ethnicity and religion. Until recently, with the exception of conservative or right-wing cultural supremacists, it was simply unacceptable to wonder out loud whether certain races, cultures or creeds were more or less likely to assimilate and contribute to the dominant culture and society of their adoptive countries.  Race-baiting politicians in the US, Europe and NZ have regularly played that card for electoral purposes, but by and large the majority of “proper” people in Western democracies prefer to not to confront the thorny issue of racial and religious composition of immigrants under conditions of labour market necessity. Yet not talking about it does not make the issue of ethnicity in immigration go away. Put bluntly, elites may see immigration in purely labour market terms, but the masses may just as well see it in ethno-religious and cultural terms, with all the baggage that entails.

The SE Asian country I live in has no PC qualms when it comes to the issue of work force demographics. This country is ethnically Chinese dominant (they make up 65% of the population). The ethnic totem pole then descends through Indians (the faithful lieutenants to the Chinese), Europeans (read: white people who are the managerial class for both local and foreign enterprise, and who are derogatorily called ang mor  or ang moh (red haired, which goes to show that NZ is not the only country in which “gingas” are reviled), other Asians (Koreans and Japanese preferably), Malays, Indonesians, Tamils, Sri Lankans, Ceylonese, Filipinos, Burmese and other sub-continental ethnicities. Immigration and reproductive policy is explicitly crafted to favour ethnic Chinese over all others when it comes to immigration, residency and citizenship. Because the country is labour-starved on both ends of the skill spectrum and the local Chinese reproduce at unsustainable rates, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese are given preferential immigration treatment even though the local Chinese look down their noses at their mainland counterparts as uncouth and unwashed uneducated provincials (their disposition is more generous towards Taiwanese but the attitude of superiority of Singaporean Chinese towards other Asians is pervasive). The country makes no secret of its determination to keep the present racial balance so as to maintain ethnic Chinese dominance, and makes no secret of what it sees as the superior cultural values of the dominant ethnic group (familial piety, ambition and discipline being foremost amongst the supposedly “Confucian” traits). For the rest of us it is a take it or leave it proposition, with money being the great leveler when it comes to attracting both top end and low end talent.

The very good public housing system is based on forced racial integration schemes, with the percentage of units allocated in any given housing bloc reflecting the proportional mix of ethnicities in the country. Although promoting racial and religious “disharmony” is prohibited by law and vigorously enforced in the main, racial integration and harmony are construed on Chinese terms and in their favour. From where I sit, it looks a lot like, albeit in a more disguised and benign way, aspects of the Jim Crow Southern US, except that here everything is written in Orwellian terms so that racial “harmony” actually means Chinese dominance. So long as everyone understands their place, play by the rules as given, bow to the rule of the one party state and accept material gratification and commodity fetishism as their reward, the racial status quo is preserved and the business of making money (or in the official jargon,  “pursuing prosperity”) can continue unimpeded.

Even so and despite the official line on racial harmony, racism is a constant latent fact of life here. Besides resistance to inter-marriage and barely disguised inter-racial contempt (particularly by the local Chinese towards Malays, Indonesians and Filipinos), things like housing blocs are divided in such a way that resident Malays can only sell to Malays and Indians to Indians, thereby depressing house prices and impeding upwards mobility for the majority of these subordinate groups. Non-citizens and non-permanent residents cannot own housing bloc units. Although there is much official palaver about being a meritocracy, the unspoken truth is that nepotism and patronage networks are equally if not more the key to economic success, and these unofficial channels are, given the demographics, Chinese-centric (although ethnic Chinese are not alone in the use of informal vehicles for economic advancement, nor is this phenomenon confined to this one state–NZ has its well-known system of old boy and new boy-girl networks that are anything but meritocratic). Here the bottom line is simple: accept the racial status quo as given and toleration of difference will be the order of the day. Challenge that status quo and run the risk of running afoul of the Internal Security Laws and their very broad definition of sedition. A pervasive system of domestic intelligence gathering, particularly but not exclusively focused on the resident Muslim community, ensures that challenges to the status quo are thwarted early and often.

Non-citizens and permanent residents do not receive anywhere close to the health, welfare and housing benefits accorded to citizens. To the contrary, they are actively discriminated against in allocation of public goods. This goes as much for the high end immigrants as for their low end counterparts, but it is only the former who have the personal income or corporate subsidies to cover costs in the private health, retirement and housing  markets (this is the case with most Kiwis, Australians and Americans living here). Low skill foreign workers, mostly coming from ethnics groups such as Tamils, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, do not have the financial resources to engage private care, so most often are deported with token compensation should they fall ill or otherwise unable to work (that includes pregnancy). Most low end foreign workers live in subsistence dormitories provided by employers who sign them to three year minimum wage contracts (some of these dormitories are converted shipping containers housing 30-50 individuals with a single toilet and shower). 

In fact, foreigners in general fall into three categories, investors, employees and dependents, with the first two being the only basis for residency. Should a foreigner lose his or her job or withdraw or lose their investment capital in the country, their visas are withdrawn and they and their families summarily issued orders of deportation (usually with a 30-60 day expiration date; overstayers are regularly caned as part of their punishment). In some cases, such as those of Chinese construction companies, foreign investors bring their own employees with them and subject them to their own labour standards via exclusionary clauses in local labour legislation. Add to that the very lax labour laws governing dismissals and redundancies, and you have a structural bias, in the form of labour market regulations and working visa controls, in favour of ethnic Chinese socio-cultural dominance.

I note all of this with agnosticism. Readers can make whatever inferences they choose to. The larger point I am trying to make is that here is a small state that is considered to be a model of capitalist development in the late 20th and early 21st century that uses an explicitly race-based labour market-driven immigration model in pursuit of the cultural, social and political dominance of the majority ethnic group. The system works; in fact, it is hegemonic by any definition.  Given that success, is it worth broaching the uncomfortable subject of cultural dominance when it comes to immigration in a place like New Zealand? Or is that simply a bridge too far and labour market logics should be the sole rationale (other than refugee quotas) upon which immigration policy is formulated and implemented? But if it is indeed unacceptable for a liberal democracy like NZ to use race-based criteria when confronting labour-market driven immigration  and social policy, then why does the NZ political-economic elite use my current country of residence as a developmental model or example to be emulated?

*Because there has been some misreading of the post in the comments thread, I have updated it in order to clarify some of the argument.

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea

datePosted on 10:21, June 10th, 2010 by Lew

(Image, “Road to Hell”, stolen from Alexander West.)

And I did not mean to shout, just drive
Just get us out, dead or alive
The road’s too long to mention, Lord, it’s something to see
Laid down by the Good Intentions Paving Company
(Joanna Newsom)

John Key’s government is starting to play for keeps after a year and a bit warming up. There have been a few clear examples of this, including the aggressive tax and service cuts in Budget 2010, and signs pointing to privatisation in the not-too-distant future. Less orthodox is the recent hardening of the government’s position on take Māori.

Key was not punished for his calculated snub of Tūhoe, and it seems the success has emboldened him to flip the bird to an even larger Māori audience, saying two things: that Māori can take or leave the government’s public domain proposal for the Foreshore and Seabed; and that by “Māori” he means “the māori party”. It’s these things I want to discuss, and they need a bit of unpacking.

Pragmatism and principle
Conventional wisdom on the Left is that Key’s blowing off Māori is (either) paying the red-neck piper, or a genuine manifestation of his (and the government’s) own racism. I think it’s neither and a bit of both. On the second bit, I accept that the National party’s history on Māori issues is broadly racist inasmuch as it hangs on a “one law for all” rhetorical hook whilst systematically opposing measures which safeguard the equal application of those laws to Māori, but I think this is down to the casual racism of privileged ignorance rather than the malicious anti-Māori sentiments of Orewa. Key’s politics, I am convinced, consist of a thick layer of pragmatism on a thin frame constructed of a few very strong principles. The principles are not the bulk of his politics, but they strictly delineate the extremes of what he will and won’t accept. Fundamentally on cultural issues he’s a pragmatist, and doesn’t much care either way as long as he’s getting his. But there is a solid core there which is only so flexible, and changing the ownership status of huge tracts of land (whether by Treaty settlement in the case of Te Urewera or by nationalisation in the case of the Iwi Leadership Group’s suggestion regarding privately-owned sections of the Foreshore and Seabed) is too much of a flex. There are good principled reasons for National to oppose such a scheme, and for this reason I don’t think he’s pandering to the redneck base so much as preserving what he perceives to be the National Party’s immortal soul: cultural conservatism and the maintenance of material property rights. Although I broadly disagree with the reasons, and the decisions, I wish that Labour had done as much to preserve its own immortal soul in 2004 and 2005.

“One law for all”
While I’m on record opposing a “public domain” resolution of the Foreshore and Seabed because it’s a solution of convenience rather than one born of any deep consideration of the issues in play, I have a little more time for Mark Solomon’s suggestion that if Māori are to give up nascent property rights to the takutai moana, those already holding such property rights ought to be obliged to do the same. I’m not convinced by arguments from PC and DPF to the contrary. PC’s argument, that iwi and hapū ought to have full common-law recourse to test their claims as permitted by the Court of Appeal ruling in favour of Ngāti Apa has more merit than DPF’s, but I still consider it a poor option since there is a high likelihood of a culturally and politically repugnant outcome which would lack durability and further inflame racial hatred. Contrary to DPF’s claim that Solomon’s position is unprincipled, Tim Watkin argues that it’s actually a pretty good representation of “one law for all”. It would ensure that existing landowners — most of whom happen to be Pākehā — are not grandfathered into a new scheme simply by virtue of having bought land which may or may not have been legitimately acquired from whomever it was bought, while iwi and hapū — who happen to be exclusively Māori — are forced to give up their rights. I argued much the same thing a few days ago, and I’m pleased to see someone else thinking along the same lines. While the whole Foreshore and Seabed going into public domain is worse than Hone Harawira’s proposal that the land be vested in customary title with ironclad caveats because it strips away rights rather than granting them, it does have the advantage of stripping those rights equally, rather than on the basis of largely racial discrimination.

There is another, economic, point in play: if land not presently in private ownership is placed in the public domain and declared inalienable, the increased value of those few freehold, fee-simple property rights which do exist at present will have a phenomenal distortive effect on the property market and on New Zealand’s social structure, with the inevitable result that almost every scrap of it will end up in foreign ownership. We will then have the perverse and incoherent result that most of the beaches will be owned in common — but those which aren’t will be the exclusive domains of ultra-wealthy foreigners. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a fair point for debate, but I think this fact will grant Solomon’s proposal considerable appeal to the broader New Zealand public, especially among those who do not — and even at present prices, could never — own waterfront property.

Just who are these “Māori”, anyway?
As I noted above, Key has been clear that he cares not a whit for the Iwi Leadership Group’s views on the matter: he considers that the māori party has a mandate to negotiate for all Māori and the decision is theirs. This is strictly almost correct: they do have a such a mandate, and whatever they decide will be broadly regarded as legitimately representing “Māori”, to the extent that the decision accords broadly with the views of Māori as expressed by their various civil society agencies. This proviso, missing from Key’s glib assessment of the political situation, is crucial. By omitting it, Key aims to drive a wedge between the party and those civil society agencies — chief among them the Iwi Leadership Group convened for this very purpose — from whom they ultimately derive their electoral mana. The māori party, frequent howls of “sellout!” from the Marxist left notwithstanding, do regularly test their policy positions against these stakeholder groups, at hui, and in their electorates. This makes them particularly secure in terms of their support, as long as they act in accordance with their supporters’ wishes. I have long criticised the howlers for misunderstanding just what it is that the māori party stands for, and their mischaracterisation of the party — plump buttocks in the plush leather seats of ministerial limousines, representing “big brown business” — is similarly a wedge, of a slightly different hue. But this issue is the test. Without the support of the Iwi Leadership Group, it’s hard to see how the māori party could maintain its claim to a mandate.

Which brings me to the verse at the top of this post. This issue has deteriorated to the point that the National government — like the Labour government before it — issuing public ultimatums to Māori and prejudging the case by claiming to speak for the māori party’s position. That is not mana-enhancing for a coalition partner which has showed enormous patience and swallowed almost innumerable dead rats in exchange for largely symbolic concessions. This breakdown of diplomacy on its own is not sufficient to call time on the coalition relationship — that comes down to the merits of the choices available, and the proposal simply isn’t enough. I have long defended this approach on the basis that the big issues were still to play out — but the loyalty and commitment shown by the māori party, in the teeth of furious criticism from enemies and allies alike, must be rewarded. A Whanau Ora pilot programme simply isn’t enough. This road was paved with good intentions, and there was a chance it would lead elsewhere than where it did — a chance which had to be taken but which, barring a swift change in the government’s position, seems to have proven unfounded.

If the government holds to its ultimatum, the māori party must turn around and walk back into the light. On this I agree with Rawiri Taonui (audio). The party will lose much more by abandoning its people and agreeing to a Faustian bargain than by simply failing to negotiate the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, which realistically was a nearly impossible task in any case. And even if the party did support the bill, it would not mean the end of the struggle. As Taonui says, although they might have the numbers to pass the legislation, the government’s solution will have no legitimacy or durability in practice without the support of the ILG and those it represents. Where there is injustice, resistance will seep out around the edges. If the issue of the takutai moana remains live, the party can continue to advocate for a just and enduring solution, and the ILG’s proposed solution opens a potential route for re-engagement with the Labour party. All is not lost.

The big question — as I asked in r0b’s excellent thread the other day is: what will Labour do?

They can sit back and say “I told you so” to the māori party, hoping they will fold, or they can make a better offer and hope the māori party will become more inclined to work with them. I can see how either would be a reasonable tactical position in terms of electoral numbers, even though the former course of action would continue the erosion of Labour’s historically liberal and Māori support. But there’s also a real danger the party will do neither, or will attempt to do both and fail at doing either, such as by arguing that the FSA was actually not that bad after all. That would be a tragedy.

The whole world’s watching. I have to say Shane Jones, who the party desperately needs if it is to have credibility on this issue, hasn’t helped dispel the predominant impression of Māori politicians held by the New Zealand public.


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.

A chronicle of deaths foretold.

datePosted on 04:02, May 11th, 2010 by Pablo

On Wednesday May 5 there was a general strike in Greece. It was much publicised and anticipated, with posters hung throughout Athens in the week before calling for a day of “action” in protest against the IMF/European Central Bank austerity regime required for the approval of US$141 billion in bridge loans to the financially beleaguered Greek government. The general strike was called for the day the Greek parliament, controlled by the ruling PASOK (nominally centre-left) party, would vote on the financial rescue package. Athens was therefore the epicenter and focal point of the day of ‘action.” In Greek political parlance a day of “action” means a day of ritualised and raw violence against the status quo. Everyone knows this and prepares accordingly. The transportation workers were kind enough to delay joining the strike until 11 AM (with a return to work at 5PM) so as to accommodate the needs of the demonstrators looking to head downtown (ticket monitors declined to enforce paid passage on the day).

For unions and other disgruntled groups the strike meant preparation of their cadres and organisation of their marching columns, to include stockpiling improvised weapons and going over marching discipline. On the day itself communist (KKE) party-affiliated unions manned the perimeter of their columns with large tough men, since the columns include pensioners and families while unaffiliated provocateurs attempt to infiltrate the ranks (see below). The toughs move to the front of the column once the destination of the protest is reached (in this case, Parliament), where they provide a buffer between the security forces and the leadership while the support masses supply voice, placards, medical aid and replacements for the front line stalwarts.

Other counter-hegemonic factions, particularly anarchist groups and Marxist-Leninist militants such as those in the “Revolutionary Uprising” group, organise more furtively. Unwelcome by the KKE unionists and virtually all other protest groups, these radical elements trail the larger union columns wearing hoods and tear gas masks while carrying pavement stones and petrol bombs. Comprised less of proletarians and more of disgruntled middle class and unemployed youth, they organise into small group cells so as to infiltrate the rear of the union columns where the KKE toughs are less visible, and they use the shelter of the larger columns to stage hit and run attacks on symbols of government or capitalist authority. Their actions are not coordinated with the KKE or other groups, and are designed to inflame the situation so as to provoke a violent police response and wide spread chaos.

On the day of the general strike tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the Syntagma (Constitution) square outside of Parliament. The unions intended to disrupt the vote by storming parliament. The riot police understood this and protected the building. Other groups filled the square in support for the union vanguard, and by noon there were full-frontal clashes between demonstrators and riot police on the parliament steps. These clashes were remarkable for their restraint–the demonstrators threw small stones and an assortment of wooden objects, plastic water bottles and other light projectiles while grappling with the police over their riot shields. The police responded by episodically using hand-held tear gas dispersal units (rather than grenades) at close quarters when the mob threatened to overwhelm a point in the police line. In sum, there was much shouting, pushing and shoving but it was all rather stylised and everyone made their point (it is widely believed that the Police and unions have an understanding about how these demonstrations should proceed, particularly under PASOK governments).

All of that changed at 1:30PM when hooded youths firebombed a branch of the Marfin Egnatia Bank a few blocks from the square. Located in a century old building lacking fire escapes, the bank branch was shuttered but its door left unlocked because its employees had been ordered to work in spite of the strike (leaves were apparently cancelled or not taken). Of the twenty employees inside the branch when the firebombs came through the door, three died of smoke inhalation as they scrambled up a stairwell to escape the toxic fumes of the burning bank lobby. The others were rescued from second floor balconies as smoke billowed from the windows and doors behind them. The rioters on the street below prevented would-be rescuers from entering the front entrance and pelted arriving firefighting units with rocks and Molotov’s. Among the dead was a pregnant first time mother.

The deaths of three innocent Greeks cast a pall on the country. Everyone, politicians and unionists alike, agreed that storming parliament was fair game, but murder was not. The hunt is now on for the perpetrators, who escaped, and the blame game is in full swing.

The government blames the anarchists and other usual “agitators.” Most of the country appears to agree with this view because the bank bombing was part of a larger orgy of violence in which private vehicles, storefronts, media vans and assorted other private property and government offices were stoned, torched or otherwise vandalised. The KKE and most of the union movement chose to blame government policies and its kowtowing to foreign financial interests for setting ther stage for the tragedy. Others blame the bank workers for not shuttering the front door once the mob on the street outside morphed from a well organised column into random groupings of armed youth. Others blame local government regulations that allow the use of old buildings for housing and commercial purposes without fire prevention or escape retrofits. But so far one culprit has remained unscathed by criticism–the bank itself.

Marfim Egnatia Bank is the largest majority Greek owned bank. It controls the Greek Investment Bank and has stakes in a number of commercial enterprises including the likes of Olympic Airways. It borrows heavily from foreign financial institutions in order to maintain and expand its commercial presence. Its Board of Directors is entirely Greek. And yet this bank ordered its workers in downtown Athens to report to work on a day when all of Greece knew that it would become a low intensity conflict zone. No banking business was (or could have been) done at that branch on May 5. But 20 workers, clerical staff and branch management alike, were told to effectively risk their lives and keep ther front door open as a sign that Marfin Egnatia supported the government decision to accept the terms of the bailout and as a symbol of rejection of the general strike. But it was not the Board of Directors or upper management who were going to make that stand. Instead it t was the retail (mostly female) foot soldiers who were made to face the much anticipated wrath of the disaffected children of the bourgeoisie, unemployed working class and assorted lumpenproletarians.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem of Greece. An utterly contemptuous corporate (often hereditary) elite that indulges the political classes and orchestrates oligopolistic control of the national economy from the comfort and safety of the Athenian north and western far suburbs. An elite that weekends in the islands and watches the strikes on TV. An elite that will, by all measures, be singularly unaccountable or untroubled by the austerity regime now imposed on their fellow citizens.

Their disgrace is paralleled by that of the murderous hooded street thugs who enjoy violence for violence sake, and who take advantage of the Greek indulgence of ritualised confrontation to pursue their anti-social agendas, agendas that have zero political purpose other than to demonstrate contempt for the status quo. Both the Marfin Egnatia Bank bosses and the hooded street thugs who threw the firebombs into the bank knew that innocent, working people were being placed in the line of fire.  And in both cases, they simply did not care.  In their contempt for others, it turns out that  Greek elites and street cretins are alike.

That is why the deaths on May 5 were so quintessentially Hellenic: avoidable, unnecessary, preventable, pointless and yet palpable as well as inevitable.

PS: For those interested in English language news coverage of Greece, check out (but be aware that it has a right-centre orientation).

Its all Greek to me.

datePosted on 22:49, May 3rd, 2010 by Pablo

There is a political rhythm to the Greek economic crisis. We spent a long weekend on Santorini dodging strikes–Tuesday was the transport workers, Wednesday was the wharfies, Saturday was the May Day demonstrations. Next Wednesday there is a general strike. Our timing has so far been impeccable. We took a ferry last Thursday, so missed the wharfie action that paralyzed Pireus and left a bunch of cruise ship passengers stranded. We returned on Sunday evening so missed the May Day demonstrations that disrupted the Metro rail. We fly to Samos this upcoming Thursday, so will miss the general strike as well. Fingers crossed that nothing happens next Monday, when we fly back. Given recent strike patterns, Monday is due for one so our luck may run out (not that getting stuck on Samos is a bad thing). But we are getting the hang of the flow of things and look forward to seeing how the general strike goes. Although the foreign press has focused on some violence, the reality is that it is only small groups of anarchists who are clashing with the police, and most of them are teenage students. The unions and other civil associations are led by grey haired folk who may have been prone to street action two or three decades ago, but who now are just trying to protect their collective livelihoods (although two banks were attacked by petrol bombs last night, the usual anarchist and Marxist-Leninist suspects are being blamed).

What is interesting about the unfolding of the Greek economic crisis is how ignorant most foreign observers are about its root causes. Most focus on inefficiency and waste in the public sector and the supposedly indolent Greek way of life, which even if true has its causes in something other than the Greek psyche (as some allege). Let me explain.

In the 1950s a strain of developmentalist thought emerged called modernisation theory that claimed that the problem of Latin America and the Mediterranean Rim was a lack of Anglo-Saxon Protestant values resultant from the mix of rigidly hierarchical religious cultures (Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox) and warm climates. The general drift of this “theory” was encapsulated in the so-called Iberian or Mediterranean Ethos: a culture of indulgence, indolence, patronage, clientalism and fatalism structurally rooted in a benign climate that allowed for easy shelter and food production. If only the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese (which actually is not on the Med) had to live in cold climates where survival depended on industry and resourcefulness–then they would have developed the “proper” entrepreneurial values that would have allowed them to develop along the “proper” lines of the Anglo-Saxon world. In other words, backwardness is a function of culture and climate.

Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of temperate climate locations where entrepreneurial spirits have flourished, and plenty of cold climates where it has not, or the fact that lumping together whole regions in a culturalist explanation is ignorant at best and racist at worst, or that the notion of one universally ‘proper” form of development is both, this discredited canard ignored the structures of economic and political power (many overtly shaped by foreign intervention) that emerged in these regions and which were not reducible to either climate, religion, or civic culture.

By the 1970s modernisation theory was shown to be profoundly flawed. On a scale of over-determinism (when not cultural supremecism), it is up there along with the “warm water port” theory of imperialism. Yet, in recent years, and specifically with relation to the Greek crisis, it has been resurrected in revamped fashion as an explanation for developmental failure. Inspired by neo-liberal thought, the neo-modernisation thesis is that countries with “too much” state involvement in the economy are prone to political nepotism, rent-seeking, corruption and inefficiency. That makes for a lazy, supplicant, and favour-seeking society. The key to development lies in reducing the role of the public sector so that private enterpise can flourish. The private sector is seen as THE panacea for developmental retardation, and elites in places like Germany believe that the Greeks need to accept this.

While there may be some truth to the need for private sector leadership,  the root causes of the current Greek crisis are, again, not as simple as the overbearing role of the state, nor is the solution simply a matter of reducing it.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Greece has an underdeveloped private sector. But–and this is a very big but– the weakness of  the Greek private sector preceded rather than followed the advent of the modern Greek state, and the private sector never attempted to become the motor force for the entire society. If one considers the nature of internecine conflict in Greece dating back two  milenia (for the historically disinclined, please think about Athens and Sparta, or better yet, the Peloponnesian Wars), one realises how parochial local, sectoral and island interests can be.  That worldview continues today. Greek private industry, such as it is, has little concern about contributing to the public good. 

In light of Greek capitalist myopia and parochialism, the recipe for social peace has rested on the public sector being used as a means of absorbing excess labour (along with emigration). The labour market and welfare systems are two-tiered: there are few protections for workers in the private sector outside of employer generosity or union strength, while the public sector adheres to ILO standards. Tax-evasion is a national sport, but the problem is not with individuals but with politically-connected corporations and agricultural interests as well as religious organisations who do not pay anywhere close to their due share of the tax burden but who do put serious money into the main political parties and individual politicians in order to protect their profits (since the money spent on politics is infinitesimal when compared to the valuated tax assessment of their worth). In order to conceal the results of this long-standing practice, successive governments, be they centre-right or centre-left, cook the Treasury books and leave it for their successors to sort out, in what has become an elaborate wink and nod shell game played between themselves and their foreign creditors.

Greeks are by and large a nation of small property owners. Owning a home is, like in NZ, their core objective. The private sector is dominated by small and micro-enterprises run by owner-operators (often familial in nature) who eek out small margins catering to immediate needs (think dairies, dry cleaners. locksmiths and the like). The state does not direct investment capital towards these people, not does it particularly focus investment in large corporations either. What large-scale investment exists comes from foreign-connected sectors such as shipping, and much of the profit generated by the handful of such firms goes off-shore.

To this can be added a large black market fueled by unchecked migration across Greece’s incredibly porous borders. One in ten inhabitants in Greece are foreign born and the majority are undocumented.  This cash economy circulates outside the confines of the state (remember my anecdote about the gypsy street fair in the last post), yet is vital to filling the demand for basic necessities as well as for labour in the agricultural and service (including tourism) industries. Relatively little of the economic activity generated by these non-citizens provides revenue for the state, and with little immigration enforcement available (and largely impossible to regularise in the near term), that situation will only get worse as the official economy shrinks under the austerity regime now being imposed.

Thus the historical source of income stability (at least since the end of the colonel’s dictatorship in 1973) are public service jobs. But without an efficient tax system owing to the political cronyism of the major economic players, public budgets require external financing, which has led to more than two decades of deficit spending happily financed by foreign financial speculators trading in risk derivatives. The idea behind this play, which I accept, is that while firms may go bankrupt nations do not. Compounded interest ensures the investor’s profitability even if the principle is lost in a default (as Argentina showed in 2001-02). So the bottom line is that the system now under siege worked for everyone–the Greek elite enjoyed its privileges, the Greek population remained relatively content and peaceful even if economically underdeveloped by modernisation theory standards, and foreign financiers made money off Greek debt.

The trouble is that with the creation of the Eurozone currency system controlled by one central bank, countries such as Greece were placed in a financial straitjacket that eliminated the autonomy and cushion provided by independent national currencies.  It cannot devalue or overvalue its currency based on market conditions (as for example, Singapore does regularly), and thus is locked into a monetary (supply and demand) framework over which it has not control. Hence, should it default on its debt to its European backers, one major option would be to defect from the Eurozone and re-establish its national currency. There will be pain involved but it would allow Greece to reorganise its finances in more independent, if austere terms. It has enough investment to ensure that even with defection it will not sink (consider that tourism constitutes 20 percent of the Greek economy and its limited niche export markets could actually be favoured by such a move). That in turn might encourage others, particularly the other members of the so-called “Club Med,” to follow suit, which could well spell the end of the Eurozone (especially when considering that a Tory victory in the UK will mean an end  of talk of its ever joining and that Turkish incorporation into the EU could set the stage for an even bigger Greek-type scenario). Thus the Greek bail-out is not so much about Greece as it is about protecting the Eurozone as a currency market.

Which means that the strikes are going to continue, at an increased pace and on a potentially broader scale. In the face of elite indifference to their plight, it is the only means of defense for most Greeks. They have just been told that the public sector will take a 25 percent wage cut on top of a ten percent cut six months ago, then have wages frozen for three years. Imagine if that happened in NZ. Do you think that even the placid Kiwi public worker would take that lying down when s/he had no part in the deficit debacle? The retirement age will also rise while pension benefits will be cut. Although most people appear to accept the former, the latter is a major source of aggravation because as I mentioned before, there is little to no private sector pension plans. Prices of public utilities are set to rise and there is talk of privatising the bulk of the health system (which already is a two-tier system in which private health providers are used by the wealthy). All of which is to say that the burden of sacrifice will be shouldered by those who had nothing to do with creating the crisis in the first place. In fact, although improvements in tax enforcement are mentioned, that remains to be seen, and nowhere has it been mentioned that politicians will take a wage cut or corporations will be required to offer non-wage employment benefits in order to off-set cutbacks in public benefit programs while encouraging labour migration to the private sector. 

Which makes me think that the recently announced IMF/ECB Greek rescue package is more cosmetic than substantive and could well provoke a public backlash that could provoke renewed military interest in internal security. That, indeed, would be a disaster.

Note: As always, my observations on Greece are indebted to the insight of my partner as much as my own. I will take blame for any errors.

PS: I have been thinking of writing a post about our brushes with petty crime and come curious Greek mores, but do not want to turn this into a travelogue.  I shall try to integrate any such thoughts into a larger discussion of more serious subjects.

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