When it rains it pours…and pours.

I know, that is a pretty corny title but given the circumstances here in the Auckland region, I just had to say it. The more oblique reference embedded in the phrase is that beyond the rain and wind, there is the matter of the leadership failures exhibited by Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown and his senior management team when confronted by the crisis brought by the cyclonic water bomb that dropped on the upper North Island. Their response to the natural disaster has been a cluster f**k of epic proportions, particularly on the communications side of things where his high profile and highly paid National-linked advisors disappeared as soon as the excrement hit the fan once it became apparent that for the first 12 hours or so after the rain began the mayor was AWOL (and in fact is reported to have been playing tennis on a dry court while water levels rose precipitously in South and West Auckland and slips and flash-flooding were already closing roads throughout the region).

To be clear, Wayne Brown was elected to cut rates and prioritize public services and amenities to the salubrious Eastern and Northern suburbs where the well-heeled and light-skinned live securely and in comfort (even if, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, they are living lives of quiet desperation as well). He was installed to serve the interests of a specific demographic rather than the city and its surroundings as a whole, and is therefore not interested in helping (mostly) brown-skinned opposition voters living in flood plains and gullies. For him, the once-in-a-lifetime storm has been more of a nuisance that interferes with his social schedule than a moment to rise above his own ego and partisan biases in service of the commonweal.

I should note that for all the commentary about “leadership” and why business types like Brown and National Party Leader Chris Luxon may not be good fits for public office leadership, relatively little is made of the fact that political leadership in liberal democracies has many more external as well as internal horizontal checks, balances and veto points imposed on decision-making when compared to the hierarchical ordering and competitive environment of business firms. Competence in businesses is measured in the first instance by profitability and return on investment under given market conditions, whereas competence in liberal democratic politics is about managing public sector responsiveness and delivery of services to the polity under given political conditions. In the case of Mr. Brown, his business acumen appears to have been exaggerated for electoral purposes and his understanding of the responsibilities of public office holders in a democracy appears to be negligible.

I will leave it for others to dissect the remaining political entrails of this corpse of a mayor but suffice it to say that a politician who cannot even fake empathy and compassion for those in his electorate who have been negatively impacted by the storm (including many who have lost everything, and in four cases, their lives), and who victim-blames those worst affected and finger-points at his subordinates when it comes to assigning responsibility for response delays and “mistakes” while arguing with media in front of cameras during press stand-ups, is not fit to be a parking warden much less mayor of NZ’s largest city.

I went on the infamous social media platform to briefly summarize my take on things. Here are my comments:

“Times of crisis render transparent leadership qualities and flaws. Covid did this on a world scale, with Trump and Johnson baring their ineptness (and ignorance) for all to see while Ardern, Hipkins and Bloomfield (demonstrated) what a competent leadership team looks like. Now Auckland is confronted by an unprecedented natural disaster and the Peter Principle is being demonstrated at the highest local government level. Shame because this could have been prevented had voters understood what their votes were really getting in terms of “leadership.” OTOH, the doddering mayor’s media stand-ups have been unwitting comedic gold. Perhaps this is why what should have been dealt with as a First World problem becomes a Third World reality.

Put shortly: The crucible of crisis is the pressure test of leadership. Under it some hold, some crack. The Auckland weather bomb is such a crucible. The test results are clear.”

On the darkness behind the PM’s departure.

Over the weekend I was interviewed by a media outlet about the threats that Jacinda Ardern and her family have received while she has been PM and what can be expected now that she has resigned. I noted that the level of threat she has been exposed to is unprecedented in NZ history, something that is due not as much as to the content of her policies (especially but not exclusively the pandemic mitigation measures and 3 Waters initiative), but to the social media megaphoning of (often foreign imported) conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment that used her policies as an excuse to engage in extremely misogynistic and violent verbal attacks and physical threats against her. The 2022 Parliamentary Protests represented the NZ January 6 moment in terms of crystallising the focused hatred of the assortment of seditionists assembled in one place (including Nazi imagery superimposed on the PMs face and nooses hung with placards calling for her and other politician’s executions), but their threats will not go away just because she has left office.

The original story got picked up by other outlets that include overseas media platforms. The response has been mixed. Although commentary has often sided with my view that the hatred directed at Ms. Ardern is unprecedented in NZ, a large number of pundits have proved my point by repeating the threats as well as justifications for them (“she reaps what she sowed,” “she deserves it,” “the penalty for treason is death,” “she created a two tier society,” “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” “she is a Satanist globalist freemason Big Pharma puppet intent on destroying the Kiwi way of life” and so much more along such lines. The authors of these nuggets of brilliance walk amongst us.

I decided to throw together a couple of tweets on the business account to note two points of interest. They are “If Jacinda Ardern’s resignation sparks a national discussion about gendered abuse and violence in Aotearoa in general and against females/women in positions of authority in particular (political as well as elsewhere), then it will have been a fitting parting gesture on her part. But that will not be the end of it for her.” (I added the term “women” here because some po-mo people objected to the term “female” in the original post).

And (on the issue of the threat environment she must confront): “One measure of the threat landscape that Jacinda Ardern has had to traverse is the personal security detail she and her family will need after she leaves public life. Our reckon is that it will be significant, at least over the short term.” That brought a number of responses, some of which questioned how things got to this point and whether I was exaggerating what could be just foreign threats or blowhard ranting here at home. My response:

“When threat assessing, there are perpetrators, accomplices, enablers, subjects and objects. NZ is full of media (social and corporate) accomplices and enablers when it comes to subjecting Ardern to violent intimidation by a dangerous local fringe (the object). The danger is here.” To elaborate: threat assessment is about establishing a hierarchy of actors and their potential for action, then determining what action they are likely to take and how realistic and imminent is the possibility/probability of their turning words into action. In the case of Jacinta Ardern, I do not believe that the threats to her and her family will go away just because she has stepped down. And given that the Police have eight active investigations into individuals who have made such threats and because I believe that they are just the tip of a threat pyramid that is real and imminent, I continue to stand by these statements.

I could go on to elaborate on what I said in the original interview and follow ups but the story is now viral and can be better accessed by search for the coverage itself.

Suffice to say, this not a good moment for the former PM but also for the country as a political society, and that has nothing to do with her policies or behaviour in office but all to do with those who began and those who then facilitated the mainstreaming of extremist discourse into corporate media narratives and coverage of her government’s policies. Between social media networked nastiness and corporate media megaphoning and legitimating of previously fringe views untethered to reality, the moment is, to paraphrase Gramsci,” delicate and dangerous.”

In this election year more than any other time, especially because of the delicacy of the moment, that is a syndrome that must be remembered and confronted.

Trump’s toxic tail.

I was going to write about something else to start off the KP year but current events have intruded in the form of the craziness surrounding the selection of US House Speaker and the storming of the Brazilian seats of power (Congress, the Supreme Court and Presidential Palace) by (so-called “Trump of the Tropics”) Jair Bolsonaro supporters who refuse to concede that he lost the October 2022 presidential election to Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula). I thought I would briefly address the connection between them

When Trump was elected in 2016 I wrote here and in other outlets that one of the problems of his success was that it would encourage imitators at home and abroad. The imitators at home would seek to emulate and deepen his retrograde messages on immigration, race, gender, and other cultural-idelogical issues (such as how to treat the Confederate legacy), whereas external imitators would adopt his nationalist-populist style to tailor their similarly retrograde messages to domestic audiences. The Trump “ripple effect,” I argued, would spread like a grease stain across the global political landscape, including here in NZ. Sure enough, it has.

To continue the analogy, it is now clear that Trump ripped off the scab that covered the festering pustulence of authoritarian bigotry and intolerance that lie under the surface of most democratic societies. He made it “cool” to be a proto- or neofascist. He made it safe to be an ignorant, anti-scientific xenophobic, conspiracy theory believer. He coddles anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers and praises murderous dictators. He normalised pathological lying as a political tactic and he attempted to wield presidential powers as personal weapons with which to settle political scores and pursue personal vendettas. He turned public sector nepotism into a family and friend cash cow. He is, in a word, a pox on humanity.

I say this because the sequels to his presidency are now being seen in the US and elsewhere. In the US the election of a new Republican House Speaker turned into a clown show after MAGA diehards (first known as the “Taliban Twenty,” then recast as the “Fascist Five”–or Six, if you are a pedantic MAGA purist) voted in opposition to Kevin McCarthy, who himself is a 2020 election-denying Trump bootlicker who did everything in his power to cover up and diminish the January 6, 2021 storming and occupation of the US Capitol. The MAGA fanatics, who are also pro-Russian, wanted to outflank McCarthy on the Right, tying personal benefits and unworkable policy demands to their support for his candidacy. (We must remember that the Democrats control both the Senate and the Presidency for the next two years, so some of the MAGA proposals are dead in the water even if they pass in the House).

After 15 rounds of balloting spanning 4 days, they eventual allowed him to win by voting “present,” which lowered McCarthy’s threshold for victory from 218 votes to 216 (Democrats voted unanimously 15 times for Opposition Leader Hakeen Jeffries to be Speaker giving him 212 votes each time). In winning McCarthy became the biggest loser. He is now beholden to this fanatical fringe of MAGA sociopaths, which includes several Jan.6 collaborators, assorted anti-vax loonies, a guy being investigated for child sex trafficking and a former high school dropout-turned-escort and bar owner who got her entry into politics courtesy of being introduced to GOP Senator Tom Cruz at a conservative convention in Las Vegas in the early Trump years (she clearly made an impression on him). This collection of Einsteins now hold the entire House hostage to their demands on the Speaker.

The biggest winner in the House Speaker election was Donald Trump. He backed McCarthy from the onset and once the MAGA morons dug in their heels in later-round balloting it was he who called them and convinced them to switch their votes from other (equally unqualified) candidates to “present.” McCarthy acknowledged his influence once the dust had settled, and it is now McCarthy who will be in the grip of a political vise made up by the Fascist Five inside his party conference and by Trump outside of it. To put it in more organic terms, Trump and his Fascist Five minions have McCarthy by the gonads, assuming that they are still in his possession.

This is a very bad thing. Trump, who was becoming increasingly irrelevant and a spent force in GOP politics as he contends with the imminent possibility of criminal indictments at the state and federal level on a host of charges, including inciting the Jan 6 insurrection and unlawful possession of classified material, has now been gifted a lifeline back into the core of the party. He had already announced his candidacy for the presidential elections in 2024 but was in danger of being eclipsed by younger reactionaries like Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Now he is back front and centre in the primary mix, with Congressional GOP support behind him. He will have to be dealt with, and unless he is indicted, on his terms. (The irony of the GOP mainstream and people like DeSantis needing a Democrat-appointed Attorney General and his subordinates in the Department of Justice to kneecap Trump’s 2024 political ambitions is a bit delicious).

It is possible that the Democrat Party will ultimately benefit from the GOP in-fighting and Trump’s political resurrection, especially if he is indicted and charged and the House GOP spend their time wasting taxpayer dollars on investigations into Hunter Biden’s laptop, Benghazi, the “weaponising” of government agencies against conservatives and fighting “wokeness” and other culture wars in federally-funded projects and agencies. None of this political theatre actually improves the lives of their constituents at a time when the Biden administration and then-Democrat House and Senate majorities passed dozens of items of legislation that actually do have a real positive impact on middle and working class voters (like social security payment increases, physical infrastructure projects, technology industry support measures, capping insulin prices and student debt relief). The more the House Republicans fight over incidentals and fail to deliver tangible benefits to society as a whole, the greater the chances of Democrat victories in 2024.

The Republican House majority need to be seen as doing something concrete that serves the interests of their voting base and it is not clear, with a Democrat majority in the Senate and a Democrat president, that they have the intellectual capacity and political ability to do that. At the moment it is all about scratching the “own the Libs” itch and nothing about actually governing. The MAGA caucus and Trump will ensure that continues through the 2024 elections. Expect Republican House chaos for the next two years, to potential Democrat benefit.

This spills over into the external world. Trump may limit his ambitions to the US or see the presidency as his vehicle towards global reification, but there are those in his circle who have global ambitions that transcend Trump. If anything they see him as a vehicle for their ideological aspirations.

Leading that crowd is Trump ally Steve Bannon. Bannon, a primary instigator/ architect of the Jan 6 insurrection now out on bail after being convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to five months imprisonment for not answering a subpoena to testify about his involvement, has been identified as one of the instigators of the Jan 8 insurrection in Brasilia. In fact, one of his henchmen, Jason Miller (a married former Trump advisor who has the distinction of having put an abortifacient in a girlfriend’s drink after she told him that she was pregnant) was detained in a plane waiting on the Brasilia airport tarmac to take off during the insurrection, having spent the previous week working with Bolsonaro’s brother and chief advisor to establish pro-Bolsonaro resistance camps in Brasilia and other major Brazilian cities.

There are many other proven instances of connections between pro-Bolsonaro seditionists and MAGA leaders like Mike Liddell (the pillow magnate), Trump advisors, CPAC (the conservative political action committee led by Matt Schapp, the married traditional family values champion who has just been accused of groping the genitals of a male staffer during a fund-raising trip), and a motley crew of Christian conservatives, anti-communists and white nationalists. The tactics used by the Brazilian mob copied and expanded on the Jan 6 insurrection, broadening the occupation to include all three seats of power while emulating the symbology of the US event (including sitting at the Speaker’s office desk and vandalising artwork and statuary). They may have been abetted by the pro-Bolsonaro governor of the federal district of Brasilia, who, much like Trump’s Acting Secretary of Defense, reportedly ordered the security detachment around the government complex to stand down and use minimum force when faced with crowds trying to force their way into it. (Unlike the Trump glove puppet, he has now been suspended pending an investigation into his actions by the Supreme Court).

Unlike the Jan 6 crowd, the Brazilian insurrectionists made their move on a Sunday when the buildings were unoccupied. That made it easier for security forces to respond when they were eventually summoned because no hostages of any significance could be taken and no crowds of innocent bystanders and tourists were around into which the seditionists could blend into and escape. 1500 were arrested and now wait on charges.

This gets to the heart of the matter. Trump has helped create a global network of rightwing anti-democratic agitators whose main goal is to subvert democracies from within by challenging their legitimacy as a form of governance. He continues to support them (as he did with Bolsonaro, claiming that the Brazilian elections were “rigged”), with Bannon and his cohort serving as the architects for individualised national strategies to pursue that end. Bannon has publicly said that he wants to create a global “nationalist-populist” movement that returns to “traditional” values and social hierarchies. Read into that want you want but in practice it basically stands for white economic and cultural nationalist xenophobic heterosexist patriarchy. (You can find various biographies of him with a simple internet search, the best of which spell out the full extent of his vision).

In NZ anti-government groups on the far Right use Trump/Bannon rhetoric to denounce not only the current government but also the NZ “Deep State.” This was amply seen during the parliament protests, occupation and riot early last year. Platforms like Counterspin and VFF reportedly have funding support from Bannon’s media conglomerate, with people listed as his correspondents misusing press credentials to get close to the Prime Minister in order to harangue her. (The security implications of this are serious and need to be addressed as a priority by those responsible for her protection).

A key tactic in Bannon’s playbook is to take local grievances and turn them and government responses into seemingly existential issues . In NZ pandemic mitigation efforts are framed as government attempts to control–even mind control–the population via quarantines, lockdowns and masking mandates. Efforts to rationalise water purification and distribution are construed as attempts to impose Maori control over water access rights. Initiatives to promote acceptance of transgender rights are seen as usurpations of traditional values while efforts to promote the everyday use of te reo is considered to be an insidious assault on NZ’s European heritage.

For Bannon, as with Trump, the specific issue is not as important as the overall effect. Agitators can slide from issue to issue (as VFF has done now that public health orders and pandemic mitigation mandates have been discontinued), but the objective is to undermine faith in the government (first) and pubic institutions (ultimately). The end goal is subversion of democracy as a political regime and social construct, to be replaced by some imaginary version of libertarian anarchism in which the strong rule over the weak and people behave and organise their lives accordingly.

The key to cauterising the septic spread of the Trump toxin is to confront its physical agents and ideological vectors as the very real subversive threats that they are. The threats are not to just the government of the day, or the police, or the Courts, or bureaucrats in the public service although they re all in the firing line of the more extremist elements in the alt-Right in NZ and elsewhere. The threat is to the democratic organization of society, from the institutional structure of its politics to its social norms and mores to its economic rights and responsibilities. Whatever the libertarian anarchist/nationalist-populist pipe dream may be, it will not bring social order, much less peace, prosperity and stability, and during the transition from the flawed but incrementally perfectible democratic system that we currently have to the imaginary system that the Trump/Bannon perspective cynically offers, there will be destructive chaos.

In fact, it is this “valley of transition” that ultimately gives practical grounds for rejecting the dark utopianism of the nationalist-populist hallucination. Faced with the clear costs of moving abruptly away from the flawed-but-improvable socio-institutional frameworks that currently condition our behaviour and the long-term uncertainties inherent in that move (i.e., will things in fact get better for all if the Trump/Bannon model prevails as a social construct?), the most prudent choice for most people is to work to improve the system from within (which includes pushing the envelope at its margins when it comes to social, economic and political convention).

For the moment that Brazilians have shown that they take the seditious threat seriously by arresting the seditionists and remanding many of them for prompt judicial adjudication while bailing others deemed less involved in the move to attack the government complex. They are also investigating larger networks of security officials and pro-Bolsonaro politicians in order to determine if they have any complicity in the January 8 events. The US has faltered in this regard, with relatively prompt arrest, trial and conviction of various foot soldier insurrectionists but little in the way of prosecution of their intellectual leaders and material sponsors and relatively light sentences for the majority of those convicted so far. NZ has done even worse, working very slowly (if at all) to bring the organisers of the parliamentary protests to justice and reportedly willing to allow at least some of the eventually violent trespassing mob to walk free rather than face the Courts.

That is a terrible precedent to set that will be seen as a victory by the NZ seditionists and will encourage others of similar disposition to try their luck at subversion as well. In that context, it is only a matter of time before someone in Aotearoa gets killed by Trump’s toxic tail.

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.

A Note of Caution.

The repeal of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court is part of a broader “New Conservative” agenda financed by reactionary billionaires like Peter Thiel, Elon Mush, the Kochs and Murdochs (and others), organised by agitators like Steve Bannon and Rodger Stone and legally weaponised by Conservative (often Catholic) judges who are Federalist Society members. The agenda, as Clarence Thomas openly (but partially) stated, is to roll back the rights of women, ethnic and sexual minorities as part of an attempt to re-impose a heteronormative patriarchal Judeo-Christian social order in the US.

Worse, the influence of these forces radiates outwards from the US into places like NZ, where the rhetoric, tactics and funding of rightwing groups increasingly mirrors that of their US counterparts. Although NZ is not as institutionally fragile as the US, such foreign influences are corrosive of basic NZ social values because of their illiberal and inegalitarian beliefs. In fact, they are deliberately seditious in nature and subversive in intent. Thus, if we worry about the impact of PRC influence operations in Aotearoa, then we need to worry equally about these.

In fact, of the two types of foreign interference, the New Conservative threat is more immediate and prone to inciting anti-State and sectarian violence. Having now been established in NZ under the mantle of anti-vax/mask/mandate/”free speech” resistance, it is the 5th Column that needs the most scrutiny by our security authorities.

A word on post-neoliberalism.

I recently read a critique of the market-oriented economic theory known as “neoliberalism” and decided to add some of my thoughts about it in a series of short messages on a social media platform dedicated to providing an outlet for short messaging. I have decided to expand upon those messages and provide a slightly more fleshed out appraisal here.

“Neoliberalism” has gone from being a monetarist theory first mentioned in academic circles about the primacy of finance capital in the pyramid of global capitalism to a school of economic thought based on that theory, to a type of economic policy (via the Washington consensus) promoted by international financial institutions to national governments, to a broad public policy framework grounded in privatisation, low taxation and reduction of public services, to a social philosophy based on reified individualism and decontextualised notions of freedom of choice. Instilled in two generations over the last 35-40 years, it has redefined notions of citizenship, collective and individual rights and responsibilities (and the relationship between them) in liberal democracies, either long-standing or those that emerged from authoritarian rule in the period 1980-2000.

That was Milton Friedman’s ultimate goal: to replace societies of rent-seekers under public sector macro-managing welfare states with a society of self-interested maximizers of opportunities in an environment marked by a greatly reduced state presence and unfettered competition in all social (economic, cultural, political) markets. It may not have been full Ayn Rand in ideological genesis but the social philosophy behind neoliberalism owes a considerable debt to it.

What emerged instead was societies increasingly marked by survivalist alienation rooted in feral capitalism tied to authoritarian-minded (or simply authoritarian) neo-populist politics that pay lip service to but do not provide for the common good–and which do not adhere to the original neoliberal concept in theory or in practice. Survivalist alienation is (however inadvertently) encouraged and compounded by a number of pre- and post-modern identifications and beliefs, including racism, xenophobia, homophobia and social media enabled conspiracy theories regarding the nature of governance and the proper (“traditional” versus non-traditional) social order. This produces what might be called social atomisation, a pathology whereby individuals retreat from horizontal solidarity networks and organisations (like unions and volunteer service and community agencies) in order to improve their material, political and/or cultural lot at the expense of the collective interest. As two sides of neoliberal society, survivalist alienation and social atomisation go hand-in-hand because one is the product of the other.

That is the reality that right-wingers refuse to acknowledge and which the Left must address if it wants to serve the public good. The social malaise that infects NZ and many other formally cohesive democratic societies is more ideological than anything else. It therefore must be treated as such (as the root cause) rather than as a product of the symptoms that it displays (such as gun violence and other anti-social behaviours tied to pathologies of income inequality such as child poverty and homelessness).

As is now clear to most, neoliberalism is dead in any of the permutations mentioned above. And yet NZ is one of the few remaining democratic countries where it is still given any credence. Whether it be out of wilful blindness or cynical opportunism, business elites and their political marionettes continue to blather about the efficiencies of the market even after the Covid pandemic has cruelly exposed the deficiencies and inequalities of global capitalism constructed on such things as “just in time production” and “debt leveraged financing” (when it comes to business practices) and “race to the bottom” when it comes wages (from a labour market perspective).

I shall end this brief by starting at the beginning by way of an anecdote. As I was trying to explain “trickle down” economic theory to an undergraduate class in political economy, a student shouted from the back seats of the lecture hall “from where I sit, it sure sounds more like the “piss on us” theory.

I could not argue with that view then and I can’t argue with it now. Except today things are much worse because the purine taint is not limited to an economic theory that has run its course, but is pervasive in the fabric of post-neoliberal societies. Time for a deep clean.

PS: For those with the inclination, here is something I wrote two decades ago on roughly the same theme but with a different angle. Unfortunately it is paywalled but the first page is open and will allow readers a sense of where I was going with it.

A democratic peace or a feminist peace?

Many years ago when I was in mid academic career, two theoretical strands emerged in the field of international relations and comparative foreign policy. One was the basis for a school of thought that came to be known as feminist international relations theory, which to crudely oversimplify one sub-strand, posited that women have different and less conflictual approaches to politics and therefore, among other things, a world that had more female leaders would likely be a more peaceful one. The second came out of the the democratization literature and, again crudely oversimplified, posited that democracies were less prone to engage in war and therefore a world with more democracies would be a more peaceful one. Although neither strand specifically addressed the possibility, one can infer that if these notions are true a world of women-led democracies would be a Garden of Eden when compared to its present state. 

The two strands have existed in parallel since the early 1990s and continue to be much debated, refined, debunked, reformulated and extended. Arguments over the merits of each continue to this day even though I personally have not contributed to them like I once did (and to be honest I only contributed in an insignificant way to what is known as the democratic peace thesis debate and not the feminist IR debate, which is a minefield for male scholars).

Recently a good friend whose views I hold in high regard sent me an article titled ” The Gender Gap Is Taking Us to Unexpected Places” by Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times (January 12, 2022). Mr. Edsall is an astute reader of politics and his column is well worth following. His article covers a lot of ground and is worth reading in its entirety but what struck me was this discussion of women’s impact on politics. I have quoted the relevant passage.

“Take the argument made in the 2018 paper “The Suffragist Peace” by Joslyn N. Barnhart of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Allan Dafoe at the Center for the Governance of AIElizabeth N. Saunders of Georgetown and Robert F. Trager of U.C.L.A.:

Preferences for conflict and cooperation are systematically different for men and women. At each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options. They are less apt to approve of the use of force and the striking of hard bargains internationally, and more apt to approve of substantial concessions to preserve peace. They impose higher audience costs because they are more approving of leaders who simply remain out of conflicts, but they are also more willing to see their leaders back down than engage in wars.

The increasing incorporation of women into “political decision-making over the last century,” Barnhart and her co-authors write, raises “the question of whether these changes have had effects on the conflict behavior of nations.”

Their answer: “We find that the evidence is consistent with the view that the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.” Put another way, “the divergent preferences of the sexes translate into a pacifying effect when women’s influence on national politics grows” and “suffrage plays a direct and important role in generating more peaceful interstate relations by altering the political calculus of democratic leaders.”

That is a pretty strong claim with important implications for the recruitment of women into political management roles. My friend and I corresponded about the article and I thought that it would provide some food for thought for KP readers if I copied and reprinted some of my commentary to her. It is by no means a scholarly treatise or deeply grounded in the literatures pertinent to the subject, but it addresses the issue of whether women’s participation in politics leads to more peaceful/less conflictual political outcomes. Here is what I had to say (in quotes).

“Interesting thesis (that the enfranchisement of women, not democracy per se, contributes to the democratic peace thesis). Of course there has long been a view that if we only had more women in politics there would be less conflict. Tell that to Maggie Thatcher!

In the late 1980s I supervised student research that analyzed the impact of women in revolutionary movements on post-revolutionary social policy agendas. The cases studied were Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador (two successful revolutions, two peace process-incorporated revolutionary movements so as to allow for proper comparative analysis using a most-similar/most different paired case study design). The results found that the more women participated in combat roles during the revolutionary wars, the more likely that they would be included in post-revolutionary policy decision-making, especially in traditionally female policy areas like family planning, health, education etc. Abortion rights were tied to that as well.

In places where women served as camp followers, concubines, cooks and in other non-combat roles tied to the revolutionary armies, they were excluded from post-revolutionary social policy making, even in traditionally female policy areas. The conclusion my student drew was that men respected women who fought alongside them and took the risks inherent in doing so. In my own experience and study, I have also found that under fire women were/are no more or less cowardly than men, by and large, especially when they received the same guerrilla training, so I accept this view. My student’s research also showed that the reverse was true: men did not respect as equals women who fulfilled “traditional” non-combat roles. 

This translated into very different attitudes towards incorporating women into the leadership cadres once the revolution was over (be they as part of a victorious coalition or when incorporated into post-settlement political parties and governments). That was especially the case for women who showed combat leadership skills under fire, in many cases due to the fact that so many male field-level guerrilla leaders were killed that women were forced step into the breach (sometimes from non-combat roles) in order to sustain the fight.

So basically, if women behaved “like men” in combat, they were accorded respect and inclusion in post-revolutionary policy making, at least in traditionally female policy areas. Or as I used to joke, can you imagine the reaction of these Sandinista sisters coming home from a hard day arguing with their male revolutionary leaders about neonatal and early childhood health care, abortion rights and domestic violence mitigation, only to have their oaf male partners shout out from the sofa that she/they should get him another cerveza? Let’s just say that there would be no “yes, dear” in their responses.

That was an interesting but incomplete conclusion. I am among other things a student of the path-dependency institutionalist school of comparative politics. That is, current institutions are the product of previous choices about those institutions, which in turn set the boundaries for future choices about those institutions. Once a choice is made about the purpose and shape of an agency or institution, it leads down a path of subsequent “bounded” choices–that is, choices made within the framework or confines established by the original choice. I often use Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” or the phrase “a path less chosen” to illustrate the concept. You come to a fork on the trail, and your (hiking) destiny is determined by which route you take. There might be a hungry grizzly on one, and a pristine mountain lake bordering on a serene meadow on the other, but you do not know that at the time you make your decision OR, you know what is ahead and steer accordingly with purposeful intent.

Political institutions are by and large created by and for men. They are masculine in that sense–they arise from the minds of men about how politics should be codified and operationalised. The original choices on institutional configuration and mores were made by and for men, as have most of what followed regardless of regime type. The comment in Edsell’s article about academia being a male domain (up until recently) that channels male competitive urges about status etc. into scholarship is true for political institutions as well (and business, needless to say). Now here is where things get tricky.

For women to do well in these male domains, they must initially “outboy the boys.” Early feminists confronted this in spades, and when they did play hard just like the boys, they were called dykes and worse regardless of their true sexuality. But the problem is deeper than misogynist weirdness and reactions. As the study of revolutionary women showed, they had to adopt male roles and behave as if or just like they were men in order to advance in the organization and achieve ultimate policy goals that were female in orientation. They had to play along in order to not only get along but to move the policy needle in a “feminine” or female-focused direction. But that meant being less feminine in order to prosper. No softness, no weakness (emotional or physical), no “girly” concerns (say, like lipstick or nice clothes) were permissible because that relegated them, IN THE EYES OF MEN, as too fragile and irrational to be respected as peers.

Extending the concept from revolutionary movements to democracies, what that means is that women entering into politics have to conform to the masculine attributes of the institutions that they have entered. Sure, they can change cosmetic things like male-only cigar lounges or dining rooms, but the entire vibe/aura/mana of these institutions is male-centric in everything that they do. Add to that institutional inertia–that is, the tendency of institutions to favor carrying forward past practices and mores (often in the name of “tradition” or “custom and usage”)–and what we get is women who are politically socialized by the institutions that they join to behave in masculine ways, at least when within the institution and carrying out the roles assigned to them by the institution. That makes changing the institution more important than changing the people within it, but that is also why institutions are loath to change (think of resistance to changing the US from a presidential two-party system to a parliamentary MMP-style system). Perhaps the NZ Green Party are onto something with their gender-balanced party caucus selections, but they remain inserted in a larger parliamentary “nested game” with origins and continuities grounded in masculinist behaviour and perceptions.

More broadly, just like we are a product of our upbringings moderated by the passage of time and experience, so too women in politics are institutionally socialized to respond and behave in certain ways. And those ways are masculine, not feminine. If the bounded rationalities of the institutional nested games in which women “play” are male-centric/dominant, then it is unsurprising that women who succeed in them do so because they adopt those rationalities as their own (even if their better angels incline them to more “feminine” approaches to institutional problem-solving). That includes the propensity for conflict and war.

Of course this is not a hard and fast universal rule. Jacinda Ardern is not Helen Clark. But then think of Hillary Clinton as well as Margaret Thatcher. Or Michelle Bachelet. Or Helen Clark if NZ was deliberately attacked in some fashion. I do not think that she would opt for compromise and concession rather than conflict, and I sure as heck do not think that Hillary would turn the other cheek when it comes to Putin invading the Ukraine. But what turned these young idealists into the battle axes they are now? I would suggest that it is their political socialization within masculine institutions.

So, as I mentioned, the franchise of women=less conflict thesis is intriguing but needs more work. Male and female traits and values may be the independent variables and propensity towards or against conflict may be the dependent variable, but the intervening variable is institutions, and more specifically, the bounded rationalities of the nested games that they impose on men and women because of the path-dependent nature of their histories as human agencies. Once we get that figured out and change the masculine nature of pretty much 90 percent of human institutions, then perhaps we will have a chance at a more peaceful world. But with lots of snark.”

Reader’s views are welcome.

The unshackled straitjacket.

In the 1980s the political scientist Jon Elster wrote a book titled Ulysses and the Sirens where he uses the Homeric epic The Odyssey to illustrate the essence of democracy. In book 12 of The Odyssey, the enchantress Circe warns Ulysses of the dangers posed by the mythical Sirens, purportedly half women and half bird but in reality monsters, whose songs were irresistible to men and who endeavored to lure wayfarers to their deaths on the rocky cliff faces of the Siren’s island. Circe advised that only Ulysses should listen to their “honeyed song,” and that his men should plug their ears with beeswax while he be lashed to the mast of his ship after his men plugged their ears, and that even though he cried and begged them to untie him once he came to hear the Siren’s alluring tones, that he only be freed once his ship was far our of reach of the Siren’s voices. So it was, as Ulysses heeded her advice, made safe passage in spite of the temptress’s calls, and he and his crew proceeded on their decade-long voyage home from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca. As it turns out, it did not end well for all, which is a story for another day. (Thanks to Larry Rocke for correcting my initial mistaken read about their fate).

Elster’s use of the story is designed to highlight three related things. First (the minor point, about the false promise of ethereal options), that, as with the Sirens, while there may be many seemingly attractive alternatives to the inefficiencies of democratic governance, the perils imbedded in purported alternatives outweigh the (mythical) rewards that they claim to confer. Second, that a good leader prizes wise counsel and heeds their advice. Third (the major point), that democracy at its essence is a self-limiting (self-binding) form of governance in which incumbents of political decision-making positions deliberately refrain from making full or untrammeled use of the powers vested in them by virtue of the popular vote. The underpinning belief is that political decision-makers will adhere in principle to self-limitation because they understand and share Elster’s view of democratic governance: it is not just about the means of power acquisition and subsequent use once it public office; it is about (self) restraint in the exercise of power in pursuit of the common good. Power is exercised not for personal or partisan again. It is exercised for the benefit of all. And for that to happen, self-restraint is necessary.

Unfortunately, humans are not those most righteous of creatures so in recognition of human fallibility in practice limits are placed on public authority not by voluntary adherence to principle but by institutional mores, norms, laws and conventions. Constitutions are the highest expression of that enforced restraint in the exercise of power, and systems of checks and balances between different branches of government are the means by which self-restraint is imposed and enforced. The key to adherence is that all actors accept the importance of self-limitation in the first place and understand that the constitutional/institutional rules are designed to encourage collective compliance in the face of temptations to pursue individual or partisan agendas and policies inimical to the common good.

I call this the “straitjacket” theory of democratic politics. Politicians voluntarily accept the limitations on their powers imposed by systems of checks and balances when assuming public office. The understand why self-restraint is the essence of democracy, along with consent and compromise in the pursuit of second-best solutions that, if not satisfying everyone all of the time, satisfy enough people most pf the time so that the political system because self-reproducing (and re-generating!) on its own terms. There is a material as well as social-cultural component to this grand contingent compromise (i.e. expectations have to be met in order for collective consent to continue to be given), but the combination of universal laws and institutional norms and mores promote a type of political socialization in which self-restraint is seen and promoted as a civic virtue, not a weakness, because it promotes exactly that type of compromise when it comes to policy outcomes.

The rule of self-restraint applies to all political actors in a democracy, local and national, in government or in Opposition. The temporal boundaries of electoral cycles means that all actors get to compete again at some pre-determined and relatively short-term date. That means that losers today can become winners in the near future, and that current winners need to deliver on their promises if they are to win again. The implicit bargain is clear: governments do not press full advantage even if widely popular and Oppositions do not go full contrarian on every government initiative. That encourages moderation in debate and policy outcomes because adopting extreme, polarized positions violates the law of self-restraint and in so doing inhibits compromise on collective outcomes. If sides go for broke today when it comes to policy, they may find themselves on the receiving end of equally extreme counter-measures down the road, with the vicious cycle continuing from there. Recognition of this fact–that today’s political behavior casts a shadow on the future for better or worse–is another contributor to the adoption of self-limiting strategies by political actors. This is not just a matter of principle. It is a matter of pragmatism for those committed to operating under democratic governance paradigms.

From a cynically Marxist perspective, the need for political self-restraint in pursuit of contingent compromises rests on the fact that otherwise the rapacious and undemocratic nature of capitalism would be exposed by the zero-sum politics of its political puppets. Over the long term that augers poorly for capitalist political control and the social and institutional advantages that go along with it, so moderation and self-restraint under democratic institutions are, as Lenin noted, the best “political shell” for capitalism. The idea is to not get too greedy or partisan when it comes to profit-taking and political competition and to macro-manage the economy consensually so that profit-driven or partisan avarice is constrained. That way capitalist hegemony can be disguised and maintained rather than exposed and challenged. Someone who appreciated this fact in a non-Marxist way was John Maynard Keynes, and the phrase “Keynesian compromise” is often used describe his approach to political economy.

Whatever the interpretation, for today’s liberal democracies and a few of the newer experiments in that political form, this has been the unwritten political understanding that overlaps the social compact between governed and governors. There are always exception to the rule and moments in which principle falls hard on the sword of hypocrisy, opportunism and privilege, but in the main the enduring feature of democracy has been that those in positions of power do not take full advantage of the authority vested in them. In may not always be a matter of voluntary choice for them, but they understand why the straitjacket must be worn.

Those days are over. In the US but also in other parts of the world where US-style politics has leached like a cancer onto local democratic politics (think Brazil, but even places like Chile, the UK or Italy), politicians not only do not adhere to self-binding strategies but no longer accept the straitjacket premise. Whether a matter of principle or pragmatism, the shadow of the democratic future holds no sway over them and so self-restraint or limitation in the use of their authority is no longer considered a virtue. Instead, they work hard to use procedural, institutional and legal maneuver, aided and abetted by external forces such as direct pressure and gaslighting campaigns channeled via lobbyists, partisan and social media, to undermine and subvert the system from within—in other words, to unshackle the straitjacket, political Houdini-style in order to impose their partisan and personal preferences on society.

Hence the rise of a phenomenon known as the “constitutional coup” whereby disloyal Oppositions attempt to impeach government incumbents on false or flimsy grounds (again, Brazil is a sad example). Now there has appeared something known as the “procedural coup” where one (or two) branches of government attempt to usurp and override the decisions of another, effectively voiding the balance-of-power premise inherent in constitutional systems such as the US. And it was exactly that goal that motivated Trump and his supporters on January 6—to usurp the power of Congress to declare a winner in last year’s presidential race.

That has been laid out in gory detail by the investigations into the January 6 insurrection-turned-coup attempt in the US, where it has been revealed that there were orchestrated links between the White House, Republicans in Congress and insurrectionists to violently impede the certification of the Biden presidential victory. It is seen in Republican attempts to stack state election offices with partisans and to gerrymander and engage in voter suppression programs that skew elections in their favor. It is seen in GOP and rightwing activist groups coercively attempting to gain control of local government offices and school boards via impeachment and recall campaigns waged against serving incumbents. It is seen in the insanity of GOP House members spouting Qanon and other MAGA extremist beliefs in and outside the debating chamber, including threats of physical harm to Democrat colleagues. None of this is an exercise in self-restraint and clearly is an attempt to loosen the fetters of institutional noms and practices.

The US is the exemplar of democratic corrosion but it is not alone. Already the same type of tactics—cries of election fraud before elections are held in places like Brazil and Chile; instigation of civil, including militia resistance to duly constituted government mandates such as in Australia; attempts to delegitimize government with calls to arrest, try, imprison or execute public officials because of their use of public health orders to impose pandemic control measures, all with a wink and nod from opposition politicians, such as in Aotearoa–the very edifice of global democratic governance is being shaken from without and within.

It is the latter threat that is the concern here because a stable democracy is impervious to seditious conspiracies. In contrast, unstable or fragile democracies whose political leadership is ridden with ideological extremists, charlatans, grifters, profiteers and other unscrupulous self-interested maximizers of egotistic opportunities, in which the fundamental law of self-restraint no longer applies, is fertile ground for authoritarian usurpation from within or without.

It is quite possible that the US is too far gone down this path to avoid a civil war. But if democracy is going to be saved there as well as elsewhere, then we must return to the foundational principles upon which that political edifice rests: that those in public office practice self-restraint in the use of their authority and abide by the the imposed limits placed upon that authority by the system of checks and balances inherent in the tripartite division of government powers. Only then can we return to the type of horizontal as well as vertical accountability that a political system built on self- or imposed restraint can uniquely offer the society that it governs.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” year-end review.

Selwyn Manning and I wrapped up this year’s “A View from Afar” podcasts with a review of the past year and some speculation about what is to come. We meander a bit but the themes are clear. You can find the show here.

Chinese influence and American hate diffusion.

Over the last decade concerns have been raised about Chinese “influence operations” in NZ and elsewhere. Run by CCP-controlled “United Front” organisations, influence operations are designed to promote PRC interests and pro-PRC views within the economic and political elites of the targeted country as well as Chinese diaspora communities. The means of doing so is transactional and convertible by cash. United Front organisations put money and operatives into the local political system exploiting loopholes or laxities in political finance laws and candidate selection processes, and buy majority ownership of or board membership in strategically placed local firms. This greases the skids for more “Chinese-friendly” perspectives in economic and political decision-making circles.

In parallel, local Chinese language media (both Mandarin and Cantonese) are purchased and their editorial orientation turned towards the CCP party line. This ensures that dissenting opinions are eliminated from outlets that cater to newer Chinese language immigrants, something that, for example, is evident in the coverage of Hong Kong over the last few years. Along with outright intimidation campaigns directed at critics, dissidents and so-called malcontents, this ensures that what is presented to local native and expat populations about China is what the CCP wants it to be. With large scale (now temporarily suspended due to Covid restrictions) immigration of CCP-approved or affiliated mainlanders on student and business visas and the emergence of ethnic Chinese lobbying groups, this ensures that pro-PRC narratives come to dominate how it is spoken about in targeted countries.

The practical goal is to present homogenous and uniform pro-CCP views among expat communities and to re-orient local elite perspectives and material interests towards a more China-friendly position, both in terms of international affairs as well as Chinese domestic politics. The broader strategy is to use the “Achilles Heel” of liberal democracy–freedoms of expression, association and movement–to subvert democratic societies from within. The approach is top-down and largely elite-focused, but has trickle down effects throughout the targeted society. Most importantly, it works. One only has to look at the wedding of NZ political and economic elite interests to those of Chinese agents and entities to understand why. Think Don Brash, John Key and Jenny Shipley as poster children for that type of unholy union, but Labour has, shall we say, some baggage of its own in this regard.

However, there is another malign foreign influence operating in NZ as well as places like Brazil and Italy. It arrives as a type of cultural or ideological diffusion and it is propagated by US-based non-state political actors like Steve Bannon and his Counterspin media channel as well as the Qanon conspiracy network, Alex Jones and Infowars plus assorted other alt-Right and neo-fascist outlets channeling anti-government and anti- “Deep State” views of the likes of the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters. Rather than the top-down and elite-centric approach adopted by Chinese influence operators, US cultural-ideological diffusers use “alternative media,” direct marketing (such as by distributing leaflets and cold calling with false information) and social media (including using political blogs, fake websites, plus trolls and bots on large platforms) to exploit pre-existing social fault lines and amplify newer divisions in a targeted society. In doing so they copy and adapt Russian (and now Chinese) psychological operations models of disinformation, misinformation and false-flagging. They prey on gullibility, ignorance and/or hate and their currency is rage: rage born of frustration with life opportunities or personal grievance; rage against institutions and processes (i.e. the “system”), rage against past injustices and/or modern offences or slights; rage against assorted ‘others” challenging status and privilege; outrage at offences big and small–the sources of rage are both individual and collective and with enough coaching and channeling can be marshalled into a powerful force for good or evil. Cultural-Ideological diffusers such as Bannon travel on the dark side.

The approach is bottom-up and grassroots in orientation, and works along what Gramsci called the trenches of civil society to push a counter-hegemonic notion of “good sense” against the hegemonic conception of “common sense” purveyed by the mainstream (elite-controlled) media. These trenches include social movements as well as social institutions in which historical and contemporary grievances can be combined into a civil resistance front.

In the contemporary NZ context, that means uniting anti-vaccination/mask/lockdown sentiment with anti-tax, anti-environmental, anti-1080, Christian conservative, libertarian, gun-rights and assorted other rightwing views as well as outliers like Maori sovereignty proponents. To cultivate grassroots resistance it uses local activists as well as “Astroturf” entities such as the purportedly farmer-led group known as the “Groundswell Movement,” which in fact is a creation of the urban rightwing (and National Party-aligned) Taxpayers Union. The rhetoric of cultural-ideological diffusion protests is imported to a large extent and at times seemingly at odds with local issues: witness the proliferation of Trump and MAGA-supportive references amongst current anti-government demonstrators. More worryingly, unlike most of the NZ protest movements of the past, the rhetoric and actions of local protestors influenced by cultural-ideological US agitators is tinged with overt hints of violent punishment, retribution and revenge against the government, “liberals,” and even the mainstream media (which if anything has shown itself to be largely uncritical and mild Fourth Estate that is mainly interested in generating clicks or viewership based on controversies-of-the-day and scandal). References to NZ authorities as Nazis deserving of Nuremburg-style trials lend an ominous tone to the recent exercises in civil rights, to which can be added the open displays of racist, misogynist and neo-fascist sentiment among those involved. That may be a more “natural” form of discourse for a deeply polarised country like the US with a long record of political violence, but it has no organic roots in NZ’s otherwise vigorous culture of civil disobedience and public protest.

Less the smorgasbord approach to forming anti-government movements seem hopeless as a political strategy or praxis (and hence dismissible), the key to its success is to use cultural-ideological diffusion tactics to create a temporary coalition of convenience, not a long-term alliance. It’s immediate purpose is to sabotage the government from without, not undermine it from within. It uses contemporary political conflicts such as the debate about pandemic mitigation to sow social and political division while exploring the same Achilles Heel as do the Chinese influence operators (the freedoms of speech and protest in particular). Ultimately, its long-term end is similar: to undermine public faith in the liberal democratic system as given in order to impose a more authoritarian order of some sort. But for the time being, the focus is on the short-term: sow unrest, promote sedition and usurp authority using social media to import US-sourced cultural-ideological framing of “wedge” issues in order to do so.

Gramsci of course wrote thinking about Left political praxis in Mussolini’s Italy, so there is a certain irony in the adoption of his thought by the likes of Steve Bannon. But that is part of why Bannon is an evil genius: he knows what works and does not care from where good strategic ideas come from.

Not surprisingly local security “experts” have jumped up to state the obvious that things might get violent if the anti-government rhetoric continues to escalate along the lines mentioned above. Raising public consciousness of this possibility is a good thing. More helpfully, the NZ intelligence community has warned that a terrorist attack is possible within a year or so and that it will likely come in the form of a “lone wolf” emerging out of the anti-vaxx/mask/lockdown movement (although the process of radicalisation and likely profile of such an individual has not been specified). The media is covering itself as a target of extremists because some of its members have been threatened by anti-government bullies, and politicians, with good reason, are increasingly concerned about their security given the vitriol directed at (some of) them. While it is laudable to focus attention on the security threat angle implicit in recent protests, a deeper understanding of the methodology and mechanics of cross-border non-State cultural-ideological diffusion is in order, especially when it is subversive in intent. Unless one understands what the likes of Bannon want to do when directing their malevolent gaze on Aotearoa and who are the most susceptible to the entreaties of their perverse siren song, then all that can be done is to react to rather than pre-empt whatever harm is headed our way.

Our security authorities need to be cognisant of this fact, but as a stable and largely peaceful society, so do we.