This week Selwyn Manning and I do a post-mortem on Brazil’s election and a preview of the US midterms under the general banner of “it is about the movement, not the man,” then turn to the tactical and existential issues surrounding Israel’s latest (and increasingly rightwing-leaning) elections. You can draw your conclusions by linking here.
Author Archives: Pablo
Media Link: The Era of Restive Politics.
In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.
This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.
Brutality as a Russian fighting characteristic–and a mistake.
One of my intellectual interests is the study of fighting cultures—Asian (in all of its varieties), Arab (same), European (same), North American, Israeli and, more broadly, Maori, Zulu, Greek, Roman and Persian back in the day. I do not consider myself a warfare expert but I have garnered enough knowledge on a range of conventional, unconventional, regular, irregular, nuclear and hybrid warfare to be more or less conversant in them. The “warrior culture” is wide-spread and yet varied and distinctive in many societies.
In a recent exchange with my friend, journalist Jon Stephenson, we traded views on why the Russians are torturing, murdering, raping and pillaging in occupied areas of the Ukraine. This is what I wrote him, which I have fleshed out in light of our back and forth:
Many fighting cultures incorporate brutality into the warfare mix and the Russians are one of them. Their attitude is that “if we cannot have it, then no one can,” and they destroy everything that they can as they retreat. Part of that is literally destroying people and communities as a warning and reminder of what they are capable of. If we remember that Russia invaded Ukraine under the pretext of “de-Nazification” but which in fact was an attempt at cultural genocide (removing vestiges of indigenous Ukrainian culture and replacing them with Russian culture, something that includes forced repatriation of civilians from the Ukraine into Russia) and regime change (which failed), then the destruction left behind retreating Russian forces becomes more understandable even if utterly indefensible.
Add into this dark alchemy the Russian use of non-Slavic troops from Central and East Asia to prosecute a large part of the war (exploiting age-old ethnic hatreds), to which have been added convicts, poorly trained conscripts, Chechens and mercenaries such as those from the Wagner Group (run by a close ally of Putin), and the genocidal revenge impulse is strong amongst the retreating Russians. Absent strong command and control discipline and worse yet if their behavior is condoned by Russian military commanders, then atrocities against Ukranian civilians will continue and even increase as the defeat approaches.
Trouble is, brutalization is a losing strategy. It does not achieve military strategic objectives either on the offensive or when in retreat. It reveals a military organization to be an ill-disciplined criminal mob. Moreover, prosecution for atrocities is more likely today than ever before because, for example, war crimes investigations are better today than before. There is more video evidence and scientific forensics. Accused perpetrators in lower ranks can cut deals in order to blame superiors. As atrocities and the futility of pursuing victory in a losing war of opportunity are revealed, even homeland support for the war wanes.
The proof of this in Russia is in the reaction of potential conscripts to Putin’s recent call up (who voted with their feet by crossing borders into neighboring states in droves) and in the increasingly angry debates in the government controlled media (and behind the scenes in Putin’s political circles). Saddling (at least some units in) the Russian military with the title “war criminals” does not auger well for force cohesion and domestic political-military relations the longer the conflict drags on. Those not implicated in atrocities and war crimes will want to distance themselves from those who are. Finger-pointing and blame-gaming will increase as the futility and foolishness of the invasion is fully revealed.
Plus, the morale of the Ukrainians only hardens in the wake of atrocities, which is especially important in Russian speaking parts of Ukraine where the Russians thought that they would find support, only to find out that being an ethnic Russian or Russian speaking Ukrainian does not mean that one wants to be Russian. In turn, that realization has made Russian occupiers all the more prone to atrocities because they believe that they have been betrayed by what should have been ethnic kin. In a sense, the Russians are treating large parts of the non-supportive Russian speaking population in Eastern and Southern Ukraine as if they were opponents in a civil war (which have often been described as the “dirtiest” of wars because they involve relatives pitted against each other for material or political reasons).
That, and the counterproductive nature of the Russian air campaign targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, is almost ensuring eventual Russian retreat, if not defeat. As the strategist Robert Pape has noted, air campaigns that seek to terrorize civilian populations such as the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo did not result in German or Japanese military surrender. Air raids on London during the Blitz just annoyed Britons, emboldened Churchill and steeled their collective resistance to German aggression.
In fact, successful “punishment” air campaigns that seek to destroy civilian morale and support for continuing war efforts are the exception to the rule. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “successful” not in that they killed many civilians and undermined the Japanese population’s will to fight, but because they demonstrated that there was no strategic defense against them, especially when a US ground invasion force was being assembled over the horizon that could follow up on the nuclear air-based “hammer” with the conventional “anvil” of ground assaults. The logic behind the Japanese surrender was a military calculus, not a result of a loss of civilian moral support.
In the Ukraine, the Ukrainians have the advantage on the ground and Russian air strikes on their civilian infrastructure have had some physical effect (including a loss of 30 percent of its electricity generation capacity) but have not undermined the morale of the population. There Russian anvil is in retreat, and its hammer has a ball-pean rather than a sledge effect.
For now the strategic race is into winter: can the Ukrainians roll back the Russians sufficiently by January or can the Russians hold on until then in order to see if energy shortages cause domestic unrest in the EU that fractures the anti-Russian coalition? There have already been anti-energy price demonstrations in the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium and France; the new Italian government is full of pro-Russian right-wingers (including Silvio Berlusconi) who want to side with Putin; Hungary refuses to cooperate with NATO; Serbia is just another version of Belarus; and various motley crews of lefties and righties throughout Europe want NATO out of the Ukraine support business.
Putin is relying on those deepening fractures for long-term strategic success. He and his advisors believe that Western democracy is a weak and dying form of socio-political organization, irreversibly softened by material comforts (such as cheap energy from Russia) and post-modern debates about gender and sexual identity, racism, indigenous rights and other “woke” divisions that undermine consensus and homogeneity in national outlook (this belief is shared by many Right-thinking Westerners, which explains their support for Putin’s project). He and his advisors believe that if they can hold the line in Ukraine until the deepest days of the European winter, then resolve within the EU and NATO will crack as politicians see electoral dangers in public discomfort and increased civil society resistance to ongoing sacrifices tied to supporting Ukraine’s war effort.
He may or may not be right. He has miscalculated along these lines before, during the planning for an initial days of the invasion when he thought that NATO would prove to be a paper tiger and succumb to his threats by not intervening on behalf of Ukraine even in a support role. He was wrong then and he could well be wrong now, but that is the logic that is underlining the Russian strategic outlook at the moment.
We shall see what scenario pans out. Ukraine needs to press its advantages while it can, which means now. If it cannot push the Russians back to their borders in the next couple of months, then it must demonstrate to its NATO PLUS support base that it has the will and wherewithal to engage in a protracted conflict that will result in the destruction of the Russian military—or at least its ground forces—as an effective fighting force against a peer competitor. That includes being able to lay siege to Crimea as well as recover occupied territory in the East.
Such a demonstration will have as much if not more of an impact in Moscow as it will in Brussels and Washington because Putin’s generals fully understand that they have a lot of motherland territory to defend, especially in the Far East where tactical alliances today may not mean much in the future if Russian forces are too debilitated to offer effective defense against opposing land forces seeking resource-focused territorial gains. Add to that the range of ethnic groups represented in Russia’s Far East and their cross-border ties to people in the “Stans” and even China, and the cohesiveness of Russian land forces in the event of a military conflict in that theatre is seriously open to question. Brutality will not solve the confrontation in their favour.
In summation. Brutality is an integral part of Russian fighting culture. It may work against opposing forces when defending the motherland but, even if conducted by air and on the ground, it does not work as an intimidation, warning and/or deterrent tactic when pursuing an expeditionary war of opportunity against a smaller but determined adversary fighting on its own territory with the support of other great and medium powers. In fact, it could well hasten defeat.
Advantage (today): Ukraine.
Systemic Realignment and the Long Transition.
The last few decades have seen a world in increasing turmoil. Technological advances, climate deterioration, sharpening domestic and international political conflict and global pandemics are just some of the hallmarks of the contemporary world moment. In this essay I hope to outline some of the dynamics of this time by conceptually framing its recent historical underpinnings.
Think of international relations as a complex system. Because it involves living creatures (humans), rather than inanimate objects, we can think of it as an ecosystem made up of people and their institutions, norms, rules and the behaviours (confirmative or transgressive) that flow from them. The world order is comprised of various subsystems, including regional (meso) and national (micro) systems that encompass economic, political/diplomatic and socio-cultural features linked to but distinct from the global (macro) system.They key is to understand international relations and world politics as a malleable human enterprise.
International systems are dynamic, not static. Although they may enjoy long periods of relative stability or stasis, they are fluid in nature and therefore prone to change over time. In the last century stable world order cycles have become shorter and transitional cycles have become longer due to a number of factors, including technological advances in areas such as transportation and telecommunications, demographic shifts, the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange, ideological diffusion, cultural transfer and increased permeability of national borders. Status quos are more short-lived and transitional moments–moments leading to systemic realignment–are decades in length.
We are currently in the midst of such a long transitional moment.
In fact, the post-Cold War era is a period of long transition. After the fall of the USSR in 1990, the international order moved away from a tight bi-polar system where two nuclear-armed superpowers and their respective alliance systems deterred and balanced each other through credible counter-force based on second-strike capabilities in the event of strategic nuclear war. The bipolar alliance systems were “tight” in the dual sense that their diplomatic and military perspectives were closely bound to those of their respective superpowers (think NATO and the Warsaw Pact), and States in each security bloc tended to trade preferentially with each other (known as trade and security issue linkage).
The geopolitical map of the Cold War was divided into shatter and peripheral zones, with the former being places where direct superpower confrontation was probable and therefore to be avoided (such as Central Europe and East Asia), and the latter being places where the probability of escalation was low and therefore conflicts could be “managed” at the sub-nuclear level because no existential threats to the superpowers were involved (SE Asia, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the South Pacific come to mind). Here proxy wars, guerrilla conflicts and direct superpower interventions could flourish as trialing grounds for great power weaponry and ideological supremacy, but the nature of the conflicts were opportunistic or expedient, not existential for the superpowers and their major allies. Escalation was dangerous in shatter zones; escalation was limited in the periphery.
With the demise of the USSR the bipolar world was replaced by a unipolar world where the US was the sole superpower and therefore considered the “hegemon” (in international relations jargon) where its economic, military and political power was unmatched by any one country or group of countries. This is noteworthy because “hegemonic” superpowers intervene in the international system for systemic reasons. That is, they approach the international system in ways that preserve an institutional and regulatory status quo that supports and reaffirms their position of dominance. In contrast, great and middle powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests rather than systemic values. Absent a hegemon to act as systems regulator, this may or may not lead to disorder.
The hegemonic premise is the conceptual foundation of the liberal international foreign policy approach adopted by US administration and many of its allies (including NZ) during the post -Cold War period and which persists to this day. For the West, the combination of market economics and liberal democracy is the preferred political-economic form because it is seen as the best way to achieve peace and prosperity for its subjects. As a result, it needs to be expanded globally and supported by a “rules-based” international institutional order crafted in its image. Although this belief was honoured most often in the breach (as any number of US-backed military coups d’état demonstrate), it constituted the ideological foundation for post-Cold War international relations because there was no global alternative to it.
US dominance as the sole superpower and global “hegemon” lasted little more than a decade. After the 9/11 attacks (which were not, in spite of their horrifying spectacle, an existential threat to the US unless it over-reacted), the US engaged in a series of military adventures under the umbrella justification of fighting the (sic) “war on terror.” In doing so it engaged in what may be called neo-imperial hubris, which in turn led to neo-imperial overreach. By invading Iraq and extending the (arguably legitimate) original irregular warfare mission against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan into an open-ended nation-building exercise, then invading Iraq on a pretext that it was involved in the 9/11 plot while conducting counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and even in the wider European Rim, the US expended vast amounts of blood and treasure in pursuit of the unachievable goal of redrawing the map of the Middle East in an US-centred image.
That is because although terrorists can be physically eliminated, the ideas that propel them cannot, and unless there is an ideological project that can counter the ideological beliefs of the “extremists,” then the physical wars are a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The US (and the West in general) lacked an ideological counter to Wahabism and Salafism, so the roots of Islamic extremism remain even if its human materiel has been depleted. In addition, pursuing a war of opportunity (rather than of necessity) in Iraq only generated concern and resentment in the Arab world and laid the foundations of the emergence of ISIS as an irregular Sunni fighting force, prompted Iran to pursue its nuclear deterrence option, and diverted resources from the fight in Afghanistan. That in turn allowed the latter to turn into a tar baby for the ISAF coalition fighting the Taliban and various Sunni irregular groups, which eventually produced the graveyard of Empire scenes at Kabul and Bagram airports in 2022.
More importantly for our purposes, despite its surface appearances and the claims of some scholars that a unipolar international hierarchy is the most stable systemic arrangement, a unipolar world is inherently an unstable world. As the hegemon attempts to maintain its dominance in the international order by engaging in wars of conquest, military interventions in peripheral areas or by attempting to be the world’s “policeman” in parallel with economic and diplomatic efforts across the globe, it expends its power on several dimensions. At the same time, pretenders to the throne build their power while avoiding direct confrontations with the superpower until the balance shifts in their favour and the time becomes ripe for a challenge. That is the time when the knives come out. That time could well have arrived and the moment of long transition may be coming to a head.
The move from a unipolar to a multipolar world still in the making began on 9/11 and continues to this day. There is good and bad news in this transition. The good news is that multipolar systems characterised by competition and cooperation among a small odd number (3-7) of great powers is arguably the most stable of international orders because it allows each State to form alliances on specific issues and balance or counter-balance the ambitions of others. The preferred configuration is an odd number because that avoids deadlocks and facilitates cross-cutting alliance formation on specific issues. This leads to a situation where balancing becomes a primary feature and objective of the international system as a whole. In a sense, it is the geopolitical equivalent of the invisible hand of the market: actors act in pursuit of their preferred interests and with a desire to secure preferred outcomes, but it is the aggregate of their actions that leads to balancing and realignment. Actors may wish to steer outcomes in their favour but what eventuates is seldom in line with their individual preferences. Instead, multipolar “market” clearance rests on a dynamic balance of great power national interests..
The bad news is that in the period of transition between unipolar and multipolar orders, consensus on the rules governing State behaviour and adherence to institutional edicts and mores breaks down. International norm erosion becomes widespread, uncertainty becomes generalised and conflict becomes the systems regulator. A lack of enforcement capability by international organisations and States themselves allows norm violations to proceed unchecked and perpetrators to act with impunity (as see, for example, in Syria, the South China Sea or the Ukraine). While geopolitical shatter and peripheral zones continue to exist (albeit not as they existed during the Cold War), the majority of the world becomes contested space in which State, multinational and non-state actors vie for influence using a mix of power variables (say, for instance, chequebook and debt diplomacy, direct influence operations or trade and security agreements). This includes cyber- and outer space, which are increasingly at the forefront of hostile great power contestation.
In a sense, the transitional moment marks a return to a Hobbesian “state of nature” where, absent a Leviathan (the hegemonic power), States and non-state international actors use their power to achieve self-interested goals rather than communitarian ideals.
Transitional conflicts may be economic, cultural, political, military or some combination thereof. In the present moment conflicts are increasingly hybrid in nature, with mixes of persuasive and dissuasive (using mixtures of soft, hard, smart and sharp) power operating on multiple dimensions that, due to technological advancements, do not respect national sovereignty. States and non-state actors now appeal to and influence the predilections of foreign audiences in direct ways that might be called “intermestic” or “glocalized:” what is foreign is also domestic, what is local is global. For hostile actors, the objective of hybrid warfare campaigns that use direct influence tactics is to undermine the enemy from within rather than attack it from without.
There is little governmental filter or defence against such penetrations (say, on social media) and the responses are usually reactive rather than proactive in any event. This is a major problem for liberal democracies that value freedoms of speech and association because often the aim of recent adversarial sharp power campaigns (commonly labeled as disinformation campaigns) is to corrode domestic support for democracy as a form of governance. Because of their repressive nature, authoritarian regimes do not have quite the same problem when confronted by foreign direct influence operations. In that sense, as China and Russia have understood, freedoms of speech, movement and association in liberal democracies constitute Achilles heels that can be exploited by hybrid power direct influence campaigns.
Norm erosion, increased uncertainty and the rise of hybrid conflict as the systems regulator have encouraged the emergence of more authoritarian (here defined as command-oriented rather than consultative in approaches to governance and policy-making), less Western-centric approaches to international relations. The liberal international consensus failed to deliver on its promises in most of the post-colonial world as well as in many advanced democracies, so alternatives began to appear that challenged its basic premise. Many of these have a regressive character to them, characterised by a shift to economic nationalism, anti-immigration policies, and a focus on restoring “traditional” values. After decades of promoting free trade, multilateralism and open borders, the last decade has seen a turn inwards that has encouraged nationalistic authoritarian solutions to domestic and international problems.
National populism is one manifestation of the rejection of the liberal democratic order, and the Asian Values school of thought converged with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiment to reject liberal internationalism on the global plane. Instead, the emphasis is on efficiency under strong centralised leadership grounded in nationalist principles rather than on transparency, multilateralism, inclusion and representativeness. Throughout the world democracy (both as a form of governance as well as a social characteristic) is in decline and authoritarianism is on the rise, with their attendant influence on the conduct of foreign policy and international relations.
This brings up one more aspect of transitional moments leading to systemic realignment: competition between rising and declining powers.
The shift between international systems is at its core the result of competition between ascendent and descend great powers. Ascendency and decline can be the result of economic, military, social or ideological factors. States in decline will attempt to maintain their positions against the challenges of new or resurgent rivals. The competition between them can theoretically be managed peacefully if States accept their fate and trust each other to engage with mutual respect. In reality, transitional competition between rising and declining powers is often existential in nature (at least in the eye of those involved), and if multidimensional conflict turns to war it is usually the declining power that starts it. World War I can be seen in this light, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a contemporary case in point. Although the US is also in decline, it is undergoing a gradual rather than a rapid loss of power and status. Instead of being a new form of politics, Trump and MAGA are the product of a deep long-term malaise that is as socio-cultural as it is political. Trumpism may act as an accelerant in hastening the US decline but it is not, as of yet, immediately terminal.
Russia, on the other hand, is faced with a societal decline (low birthrates, ageing population, pervasive corruption, export commodity dependence, severely distorted income distribution and social anomaly) that is immediate and likely irreversible. It has an economy equivalent in size to that of Spain or the US state of Texas rather than those of Japan, Germany, China or the US. The invasion of Ukraine, phrased in revisionist “return-to-Empire” language, is a last ditch effort to gain both people and land in order to arrest the decline (because annexing Eastern and Southern Ukraine would provide a younger population of Russian speakers, fertile agricultural lands, a non-extractive manufacturing base and warm water trading ports for Russian goods and imports).
Given Ukraine’s and the NATO response, this is akin to the last gasp of a drowning person. No matter whether it “wins” or loses, Russia will be permanently diminished by having undertaken this war. As it turns out, rather than the US, Russia is the great power whose decline motivated the march to war and which will precipitate the emergence of a new multipolar world order.
What might this new multipolar international system look like? A decade ago there was agreement that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) would emerge as great powers and vie with the US on the global stage. India and China clearly remain as emerging great powers. However, Brazil and South Africa have failed to achieve that status due to internal dysfunctions exacerbated by poor political leadership. Rather than restore some of its Empire, Russia is committing an act of national Hara kiri in Ukraine and has lost its chance at genuine great power status in the post-war future .
So who might emerge if not the BRICs? Germany and Japan clearly have the resources and means to join the new multipolar constellation. Beyond that, the picture is cloudy. The UK is in obvious long-term decline and France is unable to elevate beyond its regional power status. No Middle Eastern, Latin American, SE Asia, Central Asian or African country can do more than become a regional power. Nordic and Mediterranean Europe States can complement but not replace powers like Germany in a multipolar world. Australia and Indonesia may someday emerge as rightful contenders for great power status but that day is a ways off. The US will remain as great rather than a superpower, so perhaps the making of a new multipolar order will involve it, China, India and restored Axis powers finally emerging from the ashes of WW2.
On interesting prospect is that both during the transition to a new multipolar world and once it has consolidated, small and medium States may have increased flexibility nd room to manoeuvre between the great powers. This is due to balancing focus of the new constellation, which its a premium on forging alliances on specific issues. That can encourage smaller states to get more involved in negotiations between the great powers, thereby augmenting their diplomatic influence in ways not seen before. On the other hand, if the opportunity is not recognised by the great powers or seized by smaller States, then the broadening of the multipolar constellation to include satellite alliances around specific great power positions will have been lost.
Hybridity as a transitional hallmark extends beyond warfare and traditional conflict and into the world of so-called “grey area phenomena.” It now refers to the the merging of criminal and State organisations in pursuit of a common purpose that serves their mutual interests. Cyber-hacking is the clearest case in point, where state actors like the Russian GRU signals intelligence unit collude with criminal organisations in cyber theft or cyber disruption campaigns. This hand-in-glove arrangement allows them to share technologies in pursuit of particular rewards: money for the criminals and intellectual property theft, security breaches or backdoor vulnerabilities in foreign networks for the state actor. China. Israel, North Korea and Iran are considered prime suspects of ending in such hybrid activities.
Externalities have been magnified during the long transitional moment. In particular, the Covid pandemic has revealed the crisis of contemporary capitalism and the relative levels of government incompetence around the world. The need to secure national borders and curtail the movement of people and goods across entire regions demonstrated that features like commodity concentration, “just-in-time” production, debt-leveraged financing and other late capitalist features exacerbated the costs of and impeded effective response to the pandemic. In turn, the pandemic exposed government corruption and incompetence on a global scale, where the Peter Principle (a person or agency rises to its own level of incompetence) separated efficient from failed pandemic mitigation policy. Where partisan politics interfered with the application of scientific health policy, the situation was made worse. The US, UK, Russia and Brazil are examples of the latter; NZ, Uruguay, Singapore and Taiwan are generally considered to be examples of the former.
What all of this means is that in the post-pandemic future multipolarity will emerge as the new global alignment under conditions of great uncertainty that produce different rules, prompt institutional reform and which promote different international behaviours. Capitalism will have to adapt and change (such as through near-shoring and friend-shoring investment strategies and a decentralisation of commodity production, perhaps including a return to national self-sufficiency in some productive areas and an embrace of competitive rather than comparative advantage economic strategies). “Living within our means” based on sustainability will become an increasingly common policy approach for those who understand the gravity of the moment.
The most change, however, is in the field of post-pandemic governance. The frailties of liberal democracy have been glaringly exposed, including corruption, lack of transparency, sclerotic systems of representation and voice, and pervasive nepotism and patronage in the linkage between constituents and elected officials. Authoritarians have emerged as alternatives in both historically democratic as well as traditionally undemocratic political systems, with that trend set to continue for the near future. That may or not be a salve rather than a solution to the deep seated problems afflicting global society but what it does demonstrate is that not only is the multipolar future uncertain to discern, but the systemic realignment may not necessarily lead to a more peaceful, egalitarian and representative constellation than what we have seen before.
Only time will tell what our future holds.
*This essay is written as a think piece that will serve as the basis for a public lecture the author will deliver to the World Affairs Forum in Auckland on October 10, 2022.
Missing the forest for the trees.
The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has announced with considerable fanfare that members at eight NZ universities have voted overwhelmingly (a claimed average of 80 percent in favour) to strike in pursuit of an eight percent wage increase in the current negotiating round. I used to be a member of the TEU and wrote and co-wrote two books about comparative labour relations in seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay). As part of my field research I observed collective bargaining sessions between Argentine and Uruguayan central labor federations and employers associations. I was a participant in and focus of negotiations between my former university employer and the TEU over my unlawful dismissal, something that resulted in an Employment Court victory but no reinstatement (which is what I wanted but which the TEU argued was a step too far for them to continue to litigate). In other words, I have a fair sense of what collective bargaining entails (including between Marxist and non-Marxist unions, employers and Labor Ministry officials) and I have seen the TEU negotiate with my own eyes.
I mention this because at the same time the TEU is crowing about its high strike support rate across the sector, the Auckland University of Technology has announced plans to eliminate 230 jobs and disestablish entire programs as a cost-cutting measure. This, in spite of generating record surpluses in the past two years (12 percent in 2021; the annual report can be found here). The university managers argue that inflation and the loss of international students due to travel restrictions imposed by Covid mitigation efforts has negatively impacted on their bottom line. That is nonsense. The truth is that the surpluses exceeded expectations in spite of the pandemic impacts. Moreover, most of the programs destined for the chopping block, like the BA in Social Sciences, cater to domestic students. In fact, the majority of students in that particular undergraduate program, which has 300 fees paying students currently enrolled in a year one course on NZ politics, are of Pasifika and Maori heritage and many are the first members of their families to undertake university studies. For many of these students the BA Social Science program is an avenue of upward mobility into a variety of careers, including Law and Policy Studies. That avenue is now being shut down despite AUT management assurances that students “will find some other place to go.”
It is ironic that those directly responsible for disestablishing this program (the AUT Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Arts and Humanities) are Samoan and Maori respectfully.
Yet, even with the imminent displacement of dozens of TEU members from this one university, the TEU is patting itself on the back about the overall membership support for the wage increase strike call (which involves two-to-five-hour workday walkouts on seven campuses so as to not have staff docked pay under current employment law regulations. AUT is the exception, with a 3 week ban on submitting course marks UPDATE: Under threat of a two week suspension without pay for any member who withholds marks from the central office, the AUT TEU branch has caved and will engage in a 4 hour walkout along with the other universities). In spite of the strong support for the strike, I believe this is a short-sighted perspective that ultimately betrays member interests in favour of preserving the influence of what is essentially an employer-cooperative (if not coopted) union that abides by the employer’s logic and rules.
As it is, the 8 percent wage increase is an aspirational, not an achievable goal. The TEU will likely wind up settling for around 5 percent across the board, but then has to deal with each university’s counter-offers based on their different circumstances (wage bargaining for NZ universities occurs in decentralised fashion, with each university TEU branch negotiating with its respective university management based on overall guidelines from the TEU central office). For example, the cost of living in Auckland is higher than in Hamilton, Palmerston. North, Christchurch and Dunedin, so the “one size fits all” TEU approach to wages is clearly unrealistic as a practical tactic. Add to that different enrolment numbers, research grant endowments and other influences on university budgets, and the notion that an eight percent across the board wage increase for all TEU branch members is feasible becomes nothing more than a pipe dream.
The issue is more than a matter of unrealistic wage demands. It is a question of strategic myopia and self-serving organizational preservation. When unions focus solely on short term tactical goals (wage increases) rather than longer term strategic goals (job security, working conditions, individual and collective labor rights), or trade off the latter for the former, they (con)cede the broader contest to the employer. This happened at my former university employer and sadly, looks to be the trade-off that is about to occur at AUT, where “redundancies” may be exchanged for pay rises to the staff that are left (including the (non-union) middle- and upper-layer management layers that free-ride off of collective bargaining outcomes by tying their salary increases to what is negotiated). But those union members at AUT who may benefit now may be the target of future cuts down the road given that the branch union is no longer consulted about employment matters before decisions about them are made. In other words, under the current TEU approach short term gain is traded for long term pain.
Even the focus on wage increases is fraught in a sector such as higher education. Much of the public view academics as overpaid do-nothing navel-gazers with too much free time and very little responsibilities other than to blow hot air at impressionable youth. Saddled with their own economic concerns and in the majority non-unionised, they are therefore unsympathetic to union claims that university wages have not matched inflation and that morale is low. The reality of academic work is very different than this, but it is the context in which the TEU has to operate. It does not appear to be cognisant of this fact.
What is most sad is that the staff designated for redundancy at AUT and eventually elsewhere would likely trade any wage increase for job security, and many of their colleagues not designated for dismissal would agree to less (or even no) wage increases in order to see respected peers retain their jobs. Coupled with voluntary redundancy and retirement schemes for older or unproductive staff after review and consultation, this could achieve both cost and employment savings, thereby bolstering morale for what is now a very anxious and resentful academic cadre. After all, after spending years pursuing advanced degrees in academic disciplines and focusing on undergraduate and graduate-level teaching and research, it is difficult for many university staff to move laterally into other career fields (especially where suspicion of holders of advanced degrees is present), particularly if older than 50 where and when employment ageism is at play. From the perspective of those on the AUT management hit list, that means that they wasted years of time, resources and energy dedicated to pursuing a specialised craft, only to receive a very poor reward for years of service to the institution.
As things stand, this is a classic collective action problem. Myopic focus on wage increases allows union bosses to claim that they are delivering the goods to their members. But ceding involvement in workplace administration decisions leaves the field open for, in this instance, academic management Taylorists to erode both the individual and collective rights of all staff. Decisions on things like research leave, enrolment numbers, course pass rates, ratio of full-time to part-time lecturers, even (in some instances) course content and evaluation requirements are relinquished to non-academic managers with no familiarity, much less degrees in the subjects they are administering and whose main purpose is to engage in “make work” exercises that justify their existences (and salaries) rather than the delivery of a quality intellectual and education product to the research and student communities.
The TEU long ago gave away its participation in the longer-term strategic goal setting in exchange for its iterative resumption of tactical wage bargaining. That is the mandate for its branch unions and that is why NZ universities have been able to erode working conditions for academic staff and downsize permanent staff numbers in favor of part-time, less qualified personnel in pursuit of cost-cutting measures such as those being used as a justification for the AUT jobs massacre. Exceptions to the rule duly noted, the overall impact is a lowering of standards and deterioration of academic quality in NZ universities.
For people like me with a background in academia this is disappointing but not surprising. That is because the TEU is behaving exactly as the sociologist Robert Michels said it will in his seminal 1911 book, Political Parties (I am usually loathed to use Wikipedia as a citation but in the context of a blog post it will suffice. Also see this). Explaining why complex organizations (such as parties, firms and unions) behave as oligarchies in democratic societies, he noted that the first duty of the organization is to itself. That is, preservation of the organization comes before full satisfaction of membership interests. The dynamics of interest group competition and need for ongoing representation leads to a bureaucratic syndrome where leadership (agent) interest in maintaining the organization as a collective representative outweigh the broader interests of the principals (members). This is a dilemma because if unresolved it runs the risk of alienating principals from agents, leading to abandonment of the organization by members and the diminution of the organization’s power over time.
The more that happens within labor organizations, the more unions enter into decline, lose their collective weight when attempting to bargain and consequently are increasingly ignored by employers and the State when reactively defending the interests of their members, much less when making proactive demands. That is especially true when governments adopt market-driven reforms that in their approach to worker’s rights and representation are deliberately designed to weaken union power.
This is exactly what happened in NZ, the US, UK and elsewhere with the rise of so-called “neoliberalism” as the dominant intellectual and policy paradigm. Market-driven approaches to labor relations are designed to atomize individuals in the workplace and subject them to the greater power of corporate or profit-driven entities whose managerial logics are dominated by the quest to generate surpluses, not improving the material and emotional welfare of employees. That logic is now at play at AUT and other NZ universities.
One way of reconciling this agent-principal problem is for union leaders to focus on immediate gains via wage bargaining while sacrificing longer term objectives tied to workplace autonomy and employee job security. In a sense this is a type of false consciousness where, by gaining incremental wage concessions from employers, both the union leadership and many members convince themselves of the value of the short-term tactical approach to collective bargaining even as they are gradually stripped of control over non-wage aspects of the employment relationship.
That is exactly the approach taken by the TEU. But it is just a short-term solution in a much longer-term, extensive form game dominated by market-oriented managerial logics rather than genuine belief in the role of the academe as “critic and conscience” of society. Seen by that measure and notwithstanding the apparent sincerity and commitment of some of its officials, the TEU is acting more as an employer vassal rather than as the committed agent of its members.
Public Lecture Notice.
The lecture is from 6-8PM.
Democratic compromise as the mutual second-best.
For the first ten years of my former academic career I wrote a considerable amount about post-authoritarian democratisation thanks to the mentors that introduced me to the subject and my personal interest in Argentina and the Southern Cone. I alternated this interest with writing about various security related topics like terrorism and comparative civil-military relations, with the natural overlap being that the move from dictatorship to democracy would of necessity entail a move away from state terrorism as practiced by the likes of the Argentine Junta and Pinochet’s regime in Chile and towards civil-military relations that were dominated by civilians, not murderous men in uniforms.
In recent times I have returned to these subjects with some friends and correspondents who share my interest in politics. The erosion of democracy in the US and elsewhere and the rise of national populism, rightwing extremism and various other forms of authoritarianism in places like Brazil, Hungary, Nicaragua, Serbia, Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela and countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” in the early 2010s has brought the subject of what democracy is and is not back to the forefront of my thought.
Most recently a good friend and I, both Americans by birth but living abroad by choice, have traded views on the rise of Trumpism and the sad turn towards MAGAist politics on the part of the Republican Party. Two areas that emerged as major sources of concern were the GOP stacking of local and state governments with MAGA believers pursuant to a program of gerrymandering and voter suppression that effectively disenfranchises demographic groups considered to be opponents of MAGA policy objectives (say, urban African Americans in Southern states or white liberals in Midwestern states). School boards, country clerk offices, electoral commissions–all of these have been targeted by the GOP as priority areas, something that Steve Bannon consistently advocated more than ten years ago, and in the measure that they have been successful (and they have in many instances) they have guaranteed Republican majorities in those states and localities. That it turn reinforces MAGA dominance over political discourse and practice in those parts of the country.
The second, deeper problem is abandonment of the notion that contingent political and economic compromise is at the heart of the democratic social contract. That causes political competition to be seen in zero-sum terms and opponents as adversary “others” who must be defeated at all costs and hopefully forever. It is this shift that lies at the root of the GOP turn to MAGA and the local take-over strategy.
Here is what I wrote to my friend when we discussed the issue. As friends often do in order to make a point, I began mine with an anecdote (my comment is edited and paraphrased for clarity):
“Two observations. 1) When I lived in Tucson in the late 80s-early 90s Mormons used to try to stack school boards and PTAs by running numerous candidates for every school in the district (in my case, the Amphi district where my kids attended primary and secondary school). This allowed them to shape individual and district-wide school policy wherever they won a majority of seats, but even as minorities they were influential in shaping school direction on things like prayer, the pledge of allegiance etc. This locally-focused “bottom-up” political strategy of organising to elect partisan adherents into grassroots, small-town offices was adopted by the GOP in subsequent decades and became a core strategic tenet in the 2010s. Rather than solely focus on federal-level offices, the Republican National Committee (RNC) also worked hard to stack local political decks with (increasingly MAGA) partisan adherents who then worked in unison to guarantee Republican dominance of state and federal electoral processes in their respective jurisdictions. That has produced permanently Red (GOP) electoral outcomes in states like Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Arkansas.”
“But there is more to this process than the “stacking” strategy, and we might call that 2) democratic socialisation. As (my friend) might recall, I was a student of the great generation of “transitologists” of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Schmitter, O’Donnell, Przeworski (all on my Ph.D. committee), Elster, Garreton, Rouquie, Stepan, Linz, Bobbio, et.al. One of the major points that they made was that democracy was the result of what was known as the mutual second-best game: no one could gain everything that they wanted all of the time in a competitive democracy, so instead everyone pursued “second-best” strategies based on mutual contingent compromise that allowed them to achieve some of their objectives some of the time. This turns out to be a Pareto optimal solution in game-theoretic terms since no one can achieve better individual outcomes without hurting those of others (where each has the ability to do so), and as an extensive form game where preferences and outcomes change based on prior outcomes, it laid the foundation for a durable compromise between class and non-class actors and their political representatives (as agents of sectorial interests).”
Of course, the democratic compromise only succeeds if it is respected and popular expectations are met with regard to it. If these are not met the compromise is broken, which paves the way for the imposition of zero-sum authoritarian solutions. That appears to be what has happened in, and to, the US.
“What the GOP stacking strategy has done, most negatively, is reject the notion of a political compromise (much less class compromise) grounded in mutual second best approaches to democratic competition. This is, to say the least, a profoundly authoritarian way of pursuing political interests and as such is inimical–and threatening–to democracy as a regime made up of institutions, norms and values. But it is where we are today, although I believe that the GOP may have taken a step too far in the dictatorial direction under Trump and will soon rue the day that it ever chose to go down the MAGA path because it has now become the province of sociopaths and charlatans.”
That is what has been lost in the US: the acceptance that democracy rests on a contingent economic and political compromise between the electorate and elites. Workers agree to accept capitalism in exchange for better wages, job security and living conditions, including educational opportunity and access to affordable housing, drinking water, transportation, power and the like. Elites agree to use a percentage of their pre-tax profits an/or increased corporate and individual taxation to provide the mass of wage-earners with the material conditions required for social peace. Regardless of partisan identity, governments mediate interests and administer the broad terms of the bargain.
That is a central feature. What brings this all together as a workable outcome over time is a regularly refreshed political bargain between agents of elites and workers in all of their guises–lobbies, unions, parties, non-profits, community organisations etc. They all have their specific interests that make for differences in priority and approaches to pursuing them. But they have a larger common interest in seeing the system work because it is the best guarantee that everyone comes away with something now and in the future. All political actors understand this and governments act accordingly.
Democracy may be transactional in practice but it is founded on a common understanding that the mutual-second best approach and contingent compromise are the best way to guarantee social peace. Needless to say, issues such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other instances of malicious “othering” are not reducible to game theoretic solutions, but the idea is to inculcate a polity with a political socialisation that places a premium on partisan and sectorial compromise and pursuit of mutual contingent consent as mainstays of both the political as well as social system. That in turn widens space for increased toleration of difference, horizontal solidarity networks between different groups of people, and inter-generational reproduction of political norms and value re-orientation focused on the mutual second best as the preferred collective outcome.
Needless to say this is just a distillation of what democracy is as a political form. It does not address the differences and relationship between procedural (electoral) and substantive (institutional, societal, economic) democracy. But is does reduce the concept to a fundamental core characteristic: contingent compromise.
The US is very far from this ideal at the moment, and even in places like Aotearoa understanding of these core concepts appears to have eroded considerably in recent years (perhaps as a result of the US influence on local political practice). In any event, rather than treat democracy as one means towards a desired partisan end, perhaps it is best for all to reflect on its intrinsic worth as the political aggregator of distinct and heterogenous material and ideological preferences in socially pluralistic societies.
Flashback Friday: Before paths diverged.
This picture was taken at an end of year celebration hosted in the early 2000s by the Green Party at a trade union hall on Great North Road. In it are three individuals whose paths crossed at that moment in time. One is a university lecturer. One is a university student who was a Green Party activist at the time. One is a young political commentator/stirrer/gadfly. At the time of the photo the three were connected by the fact that the student was in the professor’s class on Revolutions and Insurgencies and the commentator sat in on the class as well as interview the professor from time to time on political subjects. All were supporters of the Green Party at the time (the Donald, Fitzsimons, Tansczos, Bradford, Locke years when it was truly a “watermelon” party).
The young guy was on the rise in media circles, the young activist was idealistic, energetic and enthusiastic in promoting environmental causes, and the academic was known more for his love of triathlons than anything else.
Flash forward twenty years. Who are they and what are they doing now?
Media Link: AVFA on Trump and the US midterm elections.
This week on the “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the FBI raid on Trump’s Florida property and the impact it and other factors may haven the US midterm elections in November.
Media Link: AVFA on the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict and what is to come.
I have not been up to blogging that much as of late for various reasons but continue to do the “A View from Afar” podcast series with Selwyn Manning. This week we reviewed the current status of the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict and explore the broader (economic, diplomatic and longer-term) aspects of it. In short: time is on the Russian side when non-military considerations are factored in, so the Ukrainians have to make the most of the current strategic moment.