Authoritarian Realism.

In International relations, realism refers to the view that States have interests and use relative power capabilities to pursue those interests in an anarchic world order lacking a superordinate power or Leviathan (that is, a condition that Hobbes referred to as the “state of nature’). Conversely, idealism refers to the better angels and perfectibility of humankind, seeing a desire for cooperation as being equally as strong as the urge to enter into conflict with others. Constructivism tries to bridge the gap between realism and idealism by positing that the creation and expansion of international institutions designed to foster cooperation and diminish conflict is a means to constrain anarchy in world affairs. International systems analysis serves as a meta-theory that sees the world order in quasi-organic terms, as an evolving entity that is more than the sum of its aggregate parts and which has an unconscious logic and process of its own that is a collective response to the machinations of individual States and other non-State actors, thereby mirroring the invisible hand of the economic market when it comes to determining efficiency at a systemic level.

Classic realism dates back to Otto von Bismarck and has it most recent exponents in Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Idealism draws its inspiration from Woodrow Wilson, and constructivism owes its reputation to Alexander Wendt. International systems theory is the brainchild of Morton Kaplan. The works of these authors and others such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz continue to be the guideposts for current practitioners throughout the West (the list is illustrative only, as the number of authors involved in International relations theorising is great).

Realism posits that States have core and secondary interests; that threats are existential, imminent, or incidental; that States may have allies and enemies but do not have friends because interest, not affection is what defines their relationships; that wars are defensive or offensive in nature and are fought for existential and imminent reasons that can lead to pre-emptive strikes against existential and imminent threats as well as preventative attacks to reduce the possibility of an adversary reaching imminent threat status. Wars of opportunity are discouraged because they can lead to uncertain and unexpected outcomes and do not involve existential or imminent threats or core interests; wars of necessity are fought because they have to be, as they involve core interests and are fought against existential or imminent threats.

The current world moment has seen another development, one that is less salubrious in part because it originates from within authoritarian regimes like those governing Russia, the PRC, DPRK, Turkey, Iran and other contemporary dictatorships. The basic premise of this school of thought, which I will call “authoritarian realism” is that a new world order must be created that replaces the Western-centric liberal international order that has been present in world affairs for the last sixty or so years and which has dominated the landscape of international relations since the end of the Cold War. The latter is the system that we see in the form of the UN and other international organisations like the ILO, WTO, WHO, IMF, EU, OAS, OAU, PIF, SPC, NATO, SEATO, UNITAS, ASEAN, IADB, World Bank and a word salad of other regional and multilateral organisations.

For authoritarian realists, these organisations constitute an institutional straitjacket that constrains their freedom of manoeuvre on the global stage as well as that of most of what is now known as the “Global South:” post-colonial societies locked into subordinate positions as a consequence of Western imperialism and neo-imperialism. For authoritarian realists, the supposed ideals that liberal international institutions espouse and what they were constructed to pursue were done for and by Western colonial and neo-colonial powers seeking to establish an undisputed hierarchical status quo when it comes to how international affairs and foreign policy is conducted. More pointedly, in authoritarian realist eyes now is the time for that hierarchy to be challenged because the balance of power between the liberal democratic West and emerging non-Western contenders has shifted away from the former and towards the latter.

That is due to the fact that in the transitional period after the US lost its status as sole superpower “hegemon” in world affairs (stemming from 9/11, its ill-advised invasion of Iraq, long-term and futile engagement in Afghanistan and other conflict zones as well as it mounting internal divisions), the world has been moving to a new order in which other Great Powers compete for prominence, and in which the norms and rules-based liberal internationalist system has been replaced by norm erosion, norm violations and conflict on the part of uncooperative nation-States and non-State actors pursuing their goals outside of established institutional parameters.

This is, in other words, the state of nature or anarchy that Hobbes wrote about on which realists are most focused upon. Liberal rules and norms are no longer universally binding so the default option is to use national power capabilities to pursue individual and collective interests unfettered by self-binding adherence to dysfunctional and biased global institutions.

In realist views power is relative rather than absolute and covers a host of material and ideological dimensions–economic base, diplomatic acumen, military might, internal political and social stability and ideological consensus, and so forth. Adversaries must calibrate their responses to others based on their assessments of relative aggregate power vis a vis each other as well as other States and international actors. For authoritarian realists it is clear that the West is in decline on most power dimensions, especially morally, culturally and politically as exemplified by the US in the last decade. The West still has economic, military and diplomatic power, but the rise of the PRC, India (nominally democratic but increasingly authoritarian in practice), Russia, Turkey, Iran and lesser dictatorships, coupled with an rightwing authoritarian shift in places like Hungary, the US, Italy and France, demonstrates that the halcyon days of liberal democracy are now past. All talk of climate change, work-life balance, LBGTQ rights and indigenous voice notwithstanding, progressivism (either class-or identity-based) is not making significant gains on the world stage, at least in the eyes of realists in both the West as well as the South and East.

Most fundamentally, what separates the democratic and authoritarian realists is not power per se, but values. For authoritarian realists the liberal democratic West is in decline, overcome by its own excesses, degeneracy, corruption, inefficiencies, vacilliatory leaders and other affronts to the “natural” or “traditional” order of things. In contrast, modern authoritarians (including those in the West) value hierarchy, efficiency, unity of purpose, the demographic superiority of their dominant in-groups, decisive leadership and strength of resolve. Freedoms of speech, association and features such as judicial independence from political authority are seen by authoritarians as easily exploitable Achilles Heels through which division and disunity can be fomented in liberal democracies using disinformation, misinformation, graft and other influence campaigns. Liberal democrats are egalitarian “betas.” Authoritarian realists are self-identified “Alphas.” Consequently, the current word moment is seen as a window of opportunity for authoritarian realists to press their relative (Alpha) advantage in order to re-draw the global geopolitical map and its institutional superstructure. This redrawing project can be considered the authoritarian (neo) version of constructivism on the world stage.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel are examples of how Russia practices authoritarian realism directly and indirectly. The idea in the first instance was to redraw the map of Europe via direct aggression on a former vassal state, assuming that NATO and the EU were too divided and weak after BREXIT and Trump when it came to a collective response. That would impede military support for Ukraine, thereby facilitating a Russian victory on Europe’s southeaster flank, something that would further divide and weaken European resolve to confront Russia, leading in turn to more Russian “assertiveness” along its Western Front. Although that assumption proved false and in fact has backfired at least for the moment, the original concept of exploiting perceived Western weakness was and is clearly at play given ongoing divisions within Western nations about if and how to continue supporting the Ukrainian military effort. The end game of that conflict has yet to be written and could well play into Russia’s favour if extended indefinitely until Western electorates tire of supporting governments that continue to direct resources towards someone else’s war.

Hamas’s attack on Israel came after long-term planning, training and equipping involving its two major sponsors: Iran and Russia (who are military partners). Here the goal is to use the attack and the expected Israeli over-reaction (collective punishment of Gazan civilians for Hamas’s crimes) to sow discord within the Arab world and beyond. Although the official response from most Western governments and corporate media is (at times jingoistically) pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the world have laid bare the broader social-political divisions aggregated around the conflict. Moreover, other than the US and UK, no major power is offering military support to Israel, and China and Russia have both condemned the Israeli response without mentioning Hamas in their pronouncements (and in fact are silent partners with Iran in supplying war materiel to Shiite militias like Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and the al-Sadr brigades in Iraq, even while both maintain strong economic ties to Israel). Although a NATO member and a quiet security partner of Israel’s, Turkey has been silent on the matter and allows Hamas to maintain a presence on its territory. Normally a strong supporter of Israel, India has gone very muted in its response to the violent tit-for-tat now taking place. It is as if authoritarian realists see the broader realignment taking shape before them and do not want to be caught off-side.

Sunni Arab governments such as those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have worked to normalise relations with Israel, have now had to backtrack in the face of unrest emanating from the Arab street, and the prospects of the conflict expanding to several fronts in Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights and West Bank and even spilling over into a major regional war involving Syria, Iran and their patrons cannot be discounted. All of which will help redefine the geopolitics of the Middle East as well as its relationship to extra-regional interlocutors regardless of the specific outcome of this latest iteration of what has become a perpetual war.

In the South and East China Seas, the Sino-Indian border and the borderlands of Tibet and Bhutan, the PRC has engaged in aggressive military diplomacy, using force to annex foreign territories and present a new territorial status quo to its neighbours. As with the Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, these usurpations have been declared unlawful by international courts and condemned by international organisations like the UN. And yet, because of alack of enforcement power–and will–on the part of the International community as currently represented by its institutional edifice of regional bodies and international organisations, these moves have been only lightly challenged, gone largely unpunished and certainly have not been reversed. The result is a new status quo in East Asia in which PRC sovereignty is claimed and de facto accepted well to the West of its recognised interior land borders and far to the South of its littoral seas.

In the authoritarian realist mindset, moves to take advantage of the current moment in order to redraw the international geopolitical order, including its institutional foundations, are critical to their survival as independent powers. The PRC is driven by a desire to finally achieve its rightful place as a Great Power after centuries of humiliation by foreign powers. For Russia it is about re-claiming its place as an Empire. For lesser dictatorships it is about using national power to move unconstrained in the global arena, unencumbered by the protocols, norms and niceties of the liberal internationalist order. For all of these authoritarians, marshalling their resources in a common effort to undermine and replace Western institutions is a giant step towards real freedom of action in which relative power is the sole determinant of what a nation-State can and cannot do when it comes to foreign relations. If one is charitable, there might even be a bit of idealism attached to these various projects, as authoritarian realists use soft power applications in order to help the Global South out from under the yoke of Western post-colonial imperialism once and for all even as they empower themselves by doing so.

Some of this is evident in projects like the PRC Belt and Road Initiative, which is a global developmental project that is designed to challenge and replace Western developmental assistance and cement the PRC’s position as the foremost provider of infrastructure investment and financial aid to the Global South. In parallel, both Russia and China have expanded their military alliance networks in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa while courting more engagement with Latin American and Central Asia countries (India and Pakistan, respectively). Russia and the PRC have quietly revived and assumed stewardship of the so-called BRICS bloc of nations, including expanding its membership to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2024. On both economic and military fronts, authoritarian realists are constructing an alternative to the liberal international order.

All of this manoeuvring has added a new twist to the long transitional moment that the international system is undergoing and in fact has altered the way in which the emerging systemic realignment is being shaped. Rather than the anticipated move from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a multipolar world in which the US shared space as a Great Power with emerging and re-emerging Great Powers like the PRC, India, Russia, Japan and perhaps Brazil and/or others, what is coming into shape is a new bipolar world made up of competing constellations or networks of like-minded nation-States, to which are being added non-State technology actors looking for economic opportunity in increasingly loose regulatory environments brought about by the erosion of international rules and norms in the field of transnational commerce.

There is some time to go before the full shape of the new bipolar “constellation” order is confirmed. Authoritarian realists will retain their own nation-centric views even if their interests overlap in the bipolar constellation format. Western nations will need to revise their approaches to world affairs and in particular their positions vis a vis the post-colonial Global South given the competition for the South’s attention provided by the authoritarian realists. All of this makes for uncertain and fluid times in which the best hedge is multi-level power multiplication with focused application by the emerging constellations of competing States and associated non-State actors. How the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza turn out will give us a relatively short-term glimpse into what the geopolitical order will look like by the end of the decade because technology, will and multinational commitment are now being put to the test in both new and old ways in those arenas.

Two things are worth noting. At this critical juncture it is by no means assured which side of the emergent bipolar constellation balance of power will be favoured over the long term. What is certain is that only one side is actively working to re-make the world order in that image, Those are the authoritarian realists.

Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the US presidency given the position that the country occupied in world affairs. He saw it as a tremendous platform for promoting political, diplomatic, social and economic interests and agendas. Over time the phrase has been broadened to include a wider range of positions of authority and institutional platforms from which to amplify and project views and projects on a range of public and private policy issues. This can include people and agencies involved in popular culture as well as politics and business affairs, sometimes in overlapped fashion (think Elon Musk).

In years past I discounted the weight of the US presidential bully pulpit. I saw it as being more relevant to US domestic politics than foreign policy and international affairs. As a child of Latin America I did not see its influence on my daily life nor on the behaviour of local politicians even if the US was the elephant in the room when it came to Latin American politics in general and economic and security affairs in particular. Even after moving to NZ as an adult, the bully pulpit of the US presidency was to my mind more of a historical anachronism or abstract than a reality of contemporary diplomatic relations or social exchange. For all the US talk about being a “leader of the free world,” “shining house on the hill,” “world’s greatest democracy” and all that other blather, I never got the impression that a US president could use the office to project his particular vision or brand onto the international, multicultural stage. That includes charismatic presidents like Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan (as much as I hated that guy).

To be sure, the US has interests that it projects onto the world stage, but the notion that a US president could use his office to promote a global vision beyond the usual rhetoric of freedom and democracy seemed far-fetched because if nothing else, most of those type of platitudes fell on cynical if not deaf ears. For me, the bully pulpit was just a domestic soapbox.

This notwithstanding, the US has always been a bastion of cultural as well political imperialism, exporting its culture and social mores world-wide along with its economic interests, be it from Coca Cola and KFC to rap, death metal and jazz music. The synergies of economic, political and cultural imperialism are well known so nothing else need be said here other than that I used to teach about this phenomenon, noting how local societies incorporate, adopt and adapt cultural artefacts in their own style according to their native mores and narratives, often with a dominant group versus subordinate group (often ethnic minority) twist added to the mix (e.g., people of colour in the developing world have adopted rap while European descendents have adopted pop-rock, among other things). One only need think of NZ’s hip hop scene to see the process at work.

Now, I see bully pulpit and cultural imperialism being combined in a most pernicious way as manifested in the person of Donald Trump. Trump embodies what I call the politics of nastiness, and he has used the US presidency as a bully pulpit to project his vulgar full spectrum neo-fascist bigotry world-wide. At first I thought of Trump as someone who tore the scab off of racism, xenophobia and crude low brow money-grubbing in the US. But after four years of his presidency and the sequels to it, I realise that his long moment in public life has served as an invitation to and license for others around the world to follow his approach to political and social discourse. The core of this approach is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the basest of terms, seeking to appeal to the darkest of instincts and deepest ignorance extant in a given political community. This is the politics of nastiness, and the nasty has reached NZ.

It is well known that National has been for some time looking to US rightwing spin doctors for campaign guidance and narratives (crime! waste! taxes!), but now Winston First and ACT’s David Seymour have decided to go full US conspiracy theory (Winston: globalists! mandates!) and pseudo-libertarian racist (David: free speech! bureaucrats! Treaty separatists!). The tone of politics in NZ has gotten cruder (see: Chris Bishop, Judith Collins) and more personal (e.g. treatment of Kiri Allen). The corporate media has clearly decided to go full Murdoch in approach (with a few exceptions duly noted) by stirring partisan and racial division and polemics, focusing on personal foibles and conflicts rather than platforms/proposals and going for “gotcha” moments rather than offering dispassion analyses of the policy platforms of the respective parties.

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

NZ is not alone in this. From Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Dutarte in the Philippines, to Orban In Hungary, to Milei in Argentina to Modi in India, rightwing populists have adopted nasty politics as the core weapon in their political quiver, demonising competitors and personalising attacks on their opponents in order to get them to capitulate rather than concede and to be destroyed rather than defeated. Besides their embrace of nasty politics, what binds them together and to Trump is that they all profess to be defending “traditional” values and social structures against the supposed (and imaginary) threats posed by “progressivism,” “woke” politics and the growing presence of long suppressed (and oppressed) groups in their respective societies.

In NZ it is not only mainstream politicians who have seen the opportunity of emulating Trump. The Wellington protest riots saw a number of Trump, MAGA and Confederacy references amongst the agitators. The likes of Sue Grey, Liz Gunn, Brian Tamaki and Leighton Baker openly spout conspiracist lunacy and self-serving opportunist populist tropes. The overall effect is that the scab has truly been ripped off and the extremist infection has now spread throughout NZ’s political culture. There is a violent element in it that NZ security authorities continue to be reluctant to fully address, and it is the tail that wags the rightwing minor party dogs, if not National itself.

In summary: Trump is a cultural imperialist phenomenon that has used the US presidential bully pulpit to export his style of nasty politics world-wide. For all their talk about centrism, it is evident that the right side of NZ’s political spectrum has been heavily influenced by the Trump effect. Voters need to be cognisant of that not only when deciding who to elect, but when considering the prospects of how the potential “coalition of chaos” (ACT, National, NZ First) will approach governing once installed. Mutatis mutandis, the model for that approach could well be Trump.

Things could get nasty.

Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

Over the years here at KP I have episodically written about the impact of ideology on social order and the debates that revolve on what constitutes the “proper” way in which to organise society. In that light I have mentioned the subject of social engineering, that is, social reform projects initiated by both Right and Left-leaning governments that use public policy to influence social behaviour in pursuit of specific collective outcomes. Here I shall return to the subject, with particular reference to how it has an impact on the upcoming NZ general election.

Some readers may recall my writing about the social engineering aspects of the neoliberal projects of the 1980s-2000s in NZ and elsewhere. To recap, the practical success of neoliberalism as an ideological construct went something like this: neoliberalism started out as a Chicago School approach to macroeconomics that was premised on the belief that finance capital was the leading edge of capitalism and could therefore guide societies towards the most efficient material outcomes. Known as “monetarism” as advocated by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, it was given practical application in the authoritarian laboratory known as Pinochet’s Chile and, in less draconian fashion, NZ under the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (as some will recall, Douglas and Richardson even copied some of Pinochet’s labour laws as part of their NZ reforms).

The operating premise behind the turn to monetarism was that the Keynesian welfare state had exhausted its natural limits and outlived its usefulness, leading to parasitic rent-seeking behaviours on the part of interest groups tied to bloated public bureaucracies represented by corrupt unions that also were more interested in feeding at the public trough rather than pursing the common good. In order to break the grip of this perverse alliance of leeches, a dramatic structural reform project needed to be undertaken in which the State sector was reduced in size, public good provision was privatised, union power was constrained and people were forced to look to the private sector for their immediate and long term needs (and perhaps the wants of a fortunate few).

Note that this was purely a structural project, that is, a macroeconomic effort to reshape national economies in ways that would promote efficiency and reduce waste. Rather than State managers in places like Central Banks, Ministries of Finance or Economy, investment led by international finance capital would determine those areas in the national economy into which resources were directed using neo-Ricardian principles of comparative and competitive advantage. Codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus” adopted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had severe dislocating effects on the populations in which it was applied, something that required authoritarian imposition in places like the Southern Cone of Latin America but also serious reductions in collective rights in democracies like NZ, the UK and the US.

It turns out that in order to create the “laboratory” in which neoliberal prescriptions could work as theorised by the Chicago Boys, the human subjects needed to be denied their rights via repression (state terror in the case of the Southern Cone experiments) or drastic reductions in their collective rights in the marketplace (in places like NZ). Legally speaking, both in terms of what workers/employees could address as well as with regard to their modes of representation, the overall impact of neoliberalism was a diminution of wage earner’s ability to defend their interests in the labour market (albeit without the repression in NZ that was deemed necessary in less complacent societies like Chile).

The broader idea was to use structural reform projects to break the welfare statist mould and replace it with a stripped down and leaner State focused on core areas such as defense and security while the private sector assumed de facto control of macroeconomic policy via the appointment of its representatives to State economic oversight, management and regulatory agencies. Having done so, behavioural changes in society would inevitably follow because the state-centric mindsets of the welfare state era would give way to more market-influenced approaches by both individuals and groups. What those changes in concrete terms might be mattered less so long as they conformed to market-driven logics.

In this view monetarist structural reforms would lead to market-dominated social logics. Everyone would become a self-interested maximiser of opportunities within the rational limits of their individual choices given the market conditions in which they operate, with the overall aggregate of choices leading to market clearance at a societal level. Reproduced over time and across generations, market-oriented public perceptions of the “proper” society would become self-fulfilling. Those who accepted the premise would succeed in life and those who refused to accept or could not cope with the individualistic focus and atomising impact of a more market-driven social order would be left behind in its wake. Eventually the societal market would clear based on the sum total of the interactions between people acting as homo economicus in the first instance, to which then could be added the ascriptive (non-material) aspects of human endeavour.

This market-oriented project has certainly succeeded in NZ, even if not by original design. The architects of the early structural reforms were focused on institutions and public policy involved in economic matters, not specifically on social behaviour. But as the influence of those reforms seeped deeper into society, accompanying cultural reforms began to be proposed. To the structural reforms of the first phase of the neoliberal project were attached superstructural addenda that helped cement its ideological grip on public perceptions and behaviour. Remember that ideology is a social construction, that is, an idea about how things should and should not be. Ideologies exist in concrete material conditions with their own historical circumstances and legacies as well as their immediate contexts. In that light, ideology specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real and the preferred path between them (which among other things raises the notion of the perfectibility of humankind). Neoliberals have an ideological bias in favour of the individual rights and freedoms; Leftists have a bias in favour of collective responsibilities and the public good.

Neoliberals are morally agnostic when it comes to social behaviour in market societies, limiting their preferences to broader freedoms of choice for individuals in such circumstances. Leftists have a normative preference for collectively beneficial social dynamics in which individual rights and responsibilities are equitably balanced with the common good.

In that light, at the superstructural level neoliberalism is an ideology that purports to demonstrate the proper way in which human societies should be organised and how people should interact within them using unfettered property and individual rights as cornerstones of the social contract. There can be no doubt that when compared to the early 1980s pre-neoliberal period, NZ society today is largely governed by market-driven principles and market-oriented institutions. And as a result, NZ social behaviour has changed.

Rather than discussing neoliberalism and market-oriented social engineering any further, let me simply point out that it started out as a conscious structural reform project that morphed into a a way of looking at the world. That in turn led to changes in society as the impact of the structural reforms took hold and deepened over the years. Market-oriented social engineering was a product and consequence of the structural reforms rather than something that was specifically envisioned from the onset. In a sense, the social engineering aspect of neoliberalism, insofar as producing behavioural changes in society, came as a bottom-up, spontaneous response to structural reform rather than as a top-down, deliberately thought-out project that extended beyond issues of political economy.

Think of it this way. Once the nature of the game is altered (say, from cricket to basketball), so too the rules of the game change, followed by changes in who plays and the way they play the new game. It may even determine who is more likely to win. But even then, the way in which the new game is played by those favored and disfavored by the new rules may be unanticipated by those who changed it in the first place. That is the essence of the social engineering consequences of the shift from welfare statism to neoliberalism in places like NZ. They were not preordained or foretold. They just happened as a “natural” consequence or response to the market-oriented structural changes undertaken. Neoliberals are comfortable with that alone, figuring that things like the balance between comfort and security will be sorted out by the interplay of social market forces.

That is where Left social engineering projects differ, and often fail. Unlike the neoliberal approach, which focused on structural (macroeconomic) reform that eventually bubbled up through the layers of the social division of labour in civil society to become new social norms and modes of behaviour, Left social engineering projects are consciously top-down in nature. Unlike market-driven social engineering projects, which focus on the downsizing reform of State institutions and regulations in order to free up policy decision-making space and freedom of manoeuver for private interests, here the primary focus is on changing collective and individual behaviour using the regulatory State as the agent of reform.

Left-leaning social engineering is what economists call “nudging” projects, but on steroids. In this context “nudging” are efforts to make discrete policy adjustments that encourage changes in social behavior, for example, by painting hopscotch, tic-tac-toe or even rainbow arcs on staircases in transportation hubs in order to encourage healthy stair climbing rather than indolent escalator riding. However, the thrust of Left social engineering projects is large rather than small, macro rather than micro, overt rather than discrete. It is “nudging” on a grand scale, or if one were to view such projects negatively, “shoving” the body politic in a particular behavioural direction.

Leftist social engineering involves “think big” projects like the recent “Zero Road Toll” land transportation campaigns or the move to replace automobile lanes with cycle and bus lanes in urban centres (where Left-governed councils use funding from the Labour-led government to make changes to local roading systems that discourage the use of cars and encourage substitute modes like bicycles, buses and trains). They focus on inducing big behavioural changes such as the lowering of smoking rates via high taxation of cigarettes or the switch to electric cars via increased taxation on diesel and petrol cars levied in tandem with rebates on new electric car purchases. The focus is on changing behaviours, not underlying structures, in a reverse of the neoliberal approach.

What these top-down Left social engineering projects do not do is alter the macroeconomic system as given, nor fully account for the microeconomic and unanticipated non-economic behavioural responses to their initiatives. The premise is that if policy-makers use State powers to constrain or frame certain types of human activity or behaviour via taxation, regulation, re-organisation and persuasion, then they will elicit specific types of responses. Rather than morally agnostic when it comes to outcomes, they are normatively-driven (aka biased) towards producing preferred collective outcomes. For example, if you narrow city streets by installing bike and busways and prohibit surface parking without increasing off-street parking spaces, the assumption is that people will abandon their cars and seek alternative modes of transportation whether they live in urban centres or commute to them. Vehicle congestion will be lowered, airborne particulate and street wastewater pollution will fall and people will get healthier by walking more and cycling.

The problem is that this does not account for the universe of car usage, to include the need to transport children and household supplies, the limited availability of disabled transportation access or presence of health issues that make cycling or access public transport difficult, the need for private vehicles for work, lack of transportation alternatives in satellite communities connected to urban employment centres, etc.

In other words, no major structural reforms are adopted, and no hedge is made against unanticipated responses to the implementation of grandiose projects. Market-led capitalism remains untouched as the core of the national economy, with modifications in tax policy nibbling around the margin of the macroeconomic model and broader behavioural changes in society encouraged–some would say imposed–by State fiat. This is the reverse of the neoliberal project, which focused on immediate structural changes and consequences and did not indulge in offering preferences when it came to longer-term social behaviours.

The results for the Left (such as it is in NZ) are often disappointing: With insufficient police resources to enforce road safety policies that are designed to reduce the road death and injury toll, the toll remains static in spite of millions spent on advertising campaigns. In places like West Auckland, ambitious traffic reduction schemes are implemented in places originally designed to attract rather than discourage car usage (e.g. around the Henderson mall and adjacent shopping areas), thereby resulting in gridlock, anger, protests, large-scale violations of the new traffic guidelines and eventual abandonment of the project altogether in the face of community resistance to the change and at a cost of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.

The same can be said about recent approaches to water provision. The Three Waters project is designed to rationalise water rights, quality and supply by centralising managerial authority in a reduced number of districts while providing better voice for indigenous partners. However, rather than be welcome as an improvement in public good provision, what it received by way of response was both a racist backlash against improved Maori representation as stakeholders and pushback from those who see the removal of decentralised decision-making (however incompetent or inefficient it may be) as an erosion of democratic rights to self-governance when it comes to local water management.

The top-down approach to social engineering is based on one of two logics: that people will respond as required given what they have been legislatively told is in their best collective interest; or people will willingly comply with what they perceive as beneficial for the common good. The catch is that with atomising, individualistic neoliberal perspectives and logics deeply embedded throughout society in NZ, the former will be resisted or ignored and the latter will be met with non-compliance. Given the ideological influence of “legacy” market-oriented social perspectives in contemporary NZ, their impact on general acceptance of 6th Labour government social engineering projects has been deleterious to say the least.

This was seen in the reaction by NZ anti-vaccination, anti-masking and anti-mandate campaigns to the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, where world-leading prevention, containment and mitigation strategies developed by public health professionals and epidemiologists faced concerted resistance from the business community, conspiracy theorists, rightwing political opportunists, media figures and assorted tinfoil hat “cookers” that culminated in the Parliamentary protests and riot of 2022, and which continue to percolate and be mainstreamed today. In that case a declared national emergency demanded a rapid social engineering response in the face of an immediate existential threat, and yet even then it was repeatedly challenged as an authoritarian over-reach and infringement on basic freedoms. If ever there was concrete proof that the neoliberal ideological championing of the primacy of individual choice was firmly embedded in NZ society, it was in this type of response to what was otherwise a clear case of the State acting on behalf of and defending the collective interest (specifically, public health and welfare) against a common threat.

The point of this rumination is to help understand why the current government may lose the October election. Although it objectively has had more successes than failures during very trying times, it is the combination of market-dominated macroeconomic logics, deeply rooted neoliberal social perspectives and resentment against “top-down” approaches to social engineering that has swayed public opinion against it. That, more than unearthed scandals, media “gotcha” moments or the policies of the parties themselves, seems to be the root cause behind the apparent electorate desire to replace the current government with a Right coalition in which the racist, extremist tail will wag the vacuous “moderate” dog.

That is of concern not only because it threatens to undo some of the good work of the 6th Labour government, but mostly because not all Right social engineering projects are of the bottom-up variety to begin with and all of them require a turn to some form of authoritarianism in their initial stages (as the turn to neoliberalism in NZ in the 80s demonstrates). With ACT being the ideological/dog-whistling tail on the National dog, the turn rightwards will be top-down and harsh.

Media Link: “AVFA” on regional realignment in the Sahel.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss regional realignment in the Sahel region of Africa. Subjects include the Nigerian coup, the new dictatorship belt stretching from Sudan to Guinea (Red Sea to the Atlantic) through Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, Russian influence and historical legacies, the decline of Western influence and the emergence of the Wagner PMC as the new East India Trading Company with military, diplomatic and economic roles to play in the pro-Russian tilt currently underway in that geographic transition zone between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. There was much ground to cover so have a look/listen here.

Benign Strategic Nostalgia.

It has been interesting to observe reactions to the release of a cluster of national security-related documents by the NZ government last week. They include threat assessments and forecasts, defense capabilities and priorities, and areas requiring upgrades and reform, and much more. Among the issues being considered is one that I have discussed here before, the question of whether NZ, if it is invited to participate, should join “Pillar 2” of the AUKUS agreement between the US, UK and Australia on submarine and related high technology transfers. NZ is not part of the submarine (Pillar 1) component, where the US and UK will begin to rotate nuclear attack submarines through HMAS Sterling outside of Perth in a few years, then help Australia acquire and eventually build nuclear-propelled attack submarines based on US and UK models now in service. Given its non-nuclear status, NZ is not party to that aspect of the agreement although it will eventually benefit from AUKUS submarine patrols off of its Eastern seaboard and EEZ as well as from the improved signals intelligence collection streams these platforms provide to the 5 Eyes intelligence network that NZ is part of through the GCSB electronic intelligence agency.

Pillar 2 is about establishing local high technology defense industry hubs in Australian locations and perhaps NZ. These would focus on developing indigenous and shared quantum computing, cyber security, artificial intelligence and an assortment of signals and technical intelligence capabilities relevant but not limited to submarine warfare and intelligence collection and which could have trickle-down benefits for commercial and other non-military enterprises. These technologies may not be available from other countries, as they a are part of high security collaboration between close military allies. The Australian federal government has already apportioned billions of dollars to several states so that they can engage in Pillar 2-related industrial development, promising to create thousands of jobs and spin-off business opportunities by doing so. Although I do not see why Australian business interests and local governments would want to share the employment and the short-term as well as trickle-down profit benefits of the Pillar 2 pie with non-nuclear NZ, NZ authorities and businesses have expressed an interest in being included in the non-nuclear aspects of the deal.

That is where the reaction in NZ has gotten interesting. Although the specific details of any participation in Pillar 2 have yet to be announced (in fact, everything so far has consisted of vague declarations of interest on the part of the NZ Defense, Intelligence and Security Minister, Andrew Little), there has been a strong pushback from certain sectors of the foreign policy community, including Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and prominent academics such as Robert Patman. They all think that it is a bad idea, and while they offer a variety of reasons, their arguments against NZ participation in AUKUS Phase 2 appear to boil down to three beliefs: 1) trade dependence makes it dangerous to annoy the PRC because of the risk of economic retaliation (since AUKUS is clearly designed to counter Chinese military expansion and influence in the Southern Pacific and beyond); 2) there is moral equivalence between the PRC and US or the PRC is seen as a benign actor when compared to Western imperialists; 3) NZ must remain neutral when it comes to Great Power competition in order to remain “independent” in foreign affairs. All of these assumptions should be tested in any debate about NZ’s potential role in AUKUS Phase 2 (should it eventuate).

Until the specifics of any invitation for NZ to participate in Pillar 2 are outlined in detail, I remain agnostic on the proposition. I can see the benefits but also remain concerned that the nuclear propulsion component of Pillar 1 of the agreement is a violation of the 1997 Treat of Rarotonga that declares the South Pacific to be a nuclear free zone. Contrary to what some may think, the Treaty prohibits not only nuclear weapons but the presence of nuclear power and storage facilities on land as well. That means that AUKUS nuclear maintenance facilities, should they be constructed at HMAS Sterling, will likely be in violation of the Treaty. It appears that by basing the AUKUS subs on an island outside of Perth in Indian Ocean waters, the AUKUS signatories believe that they have circumvented that prohibition, but if one looks at the original maps that are attached to the Treaty declaration one will see that the coastal waters of Western Australia are in it. That means that practically speaking, AUKUS provides a precedent for the forward basing of other nuclear-powered naval vessels in the region, including from the PLAN (e.g. the PRC Navy, but others as well). That augers poorly for the Pacific remaining nuclear-free even if we acknowledge that nuclear submarines, including those that carry nuclear weapons, in all likelihood already transit Southern Pacific waters on a regular basis.

Although arguments by knowledgeable and reasonable people such as Patman are couched in neutral, objective language, there is also an internal political aspect to the discussion. Helen Clark was the PM when NZ signed the first Western bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the PRC, which many NZ trade advocates consider to be the “gold standard” of NZ FTA’s. Clark has a personal stake in that agreement, which was expanded by her successor John Key, so she certainly does not want to see her government’s crowning foreign policy achievement undermined by subsequent Labour governments with different perceptions on international security affairs and the role of the PRC within it. Remember that Clark was very much on the Left of the Labour Party before pragmatic centralism pushed her rightwards once she became PM. Remember also that she eliminated the air combat wing entirely when her government renegaded on the purchase of second-hand F-16s from Pakistan that would have replaced the obsolescent A-4 Skyhawk squadron. At first her government starved the NZDF of resources and delayed replacement of ageing equipment (although it accepted delivery of the completely oversized purchase of 105 LAV wheeled armoured vehicles signed by the previous National government, which then were largely kept in storage, deployed in small numbers and/or damaged in accidents and in operations until recent on-sales to Chile. There are still a few dozen left, most surplus to requirements). In fact, in the early days of her stint as PM, she downplayed the need for robust military forces because, in her infamous words, NZ existed in a “benign strategic environment.” That was before 9/11.

Then things changed. After 9/11 the Clark government saw the opportunity to ingratiate itself to the US (after the freeze in security relations occasioned by the 1984 non-nuclear declaration that ended ANZUS) by offering support for the so-called “War on Terror.” Along with disgraced former SIS Director Richard Wood (now still feeding at the public trough as Chair of the NZ Environmental Management Risk Management Authority (ERMA). He is also Chair of the NZ/France Friendship Fund, a nice sinecure for a former ambassador to Paris and Algiers), Clark was front and centre in orchestrating the malicious framing and railroading of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui as an al-Qaeda linked terrorist. Although Zaoui was less dangerous to NZ that any number of Christchurch skinheads, he was imprisoned in a maximum security prison for several years until a team of dedicated advocacy lawyers proved his innocence, including that the SIS under Woods’s direction and at the Clark government’s behalf had lied and produced false evidence of his alleged crimes (the Vietnam “scouting” trip video being the most ludicrous of them). She also ordered the NZ intelligence community to focus its resources on the anti-jihadist crusade in Aotearoa and elsewhere (which may well have included NZSIS complicity in the US extraordinary rendition and black site operations against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists and supporters, the details of which remain suppressed), and to top things off attempted to use the newly-minted powers of the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) to arrest and jail the so-called Urewera 18 band of leftists and Maori sovereignty activists (charges were dropped against all but four defendants, and the remaining were convicted of minor weapons charges after years of costly litigation, as had been the case with Zaoui).

Terrorism became the foil for Clark’s turn to security toughness even if the jihadist threat, both before and after 9/11, has been more talk than walk (no Muslim has been involved in an ideologically-motivated violent attack in NZ before or after 9/11. The 2021 supermarket stabber was, as I have written before, a lonely and homesick mentally ill person with a blade fetish and no effective counselling support, not an ideologically committed extremist). Sensing the tenor of the times, Clark dropped her progressivism on both domestic and foreign policy issues and turned rightwards out of political expediency (remember her opposition to cannabis legalisation while in office? She now supports it), thereby setting the stage for a change in NZ’s security perspective and assessment of threats.

At the same time she was polishing her anti-jihadist bonafides on the back of an innocent man and settling scores with pesky activists, she authorised NZDF deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq (even while not formally supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003). Not all of those deployed, shall we say, were NZDF engineers, and those deployments turned into a longer-term engagement in both countries that did not end until the end of the 2010s/early 2020s. In the end both countries reverted to form once the NZDF vacated the premises, leaving as a result 10 dead soldiers, several more wounded, credible accusations of war crimes and a cost of millions of dollars.

The turn towards revitalising ties with Western security partners began with her government. Under her watch NZ negotiated the core of the bilateral Wellington and Washington Agreements on US-NZ defense cooperation (later signed into force by her successors). NZ also deepened its ties within the 5 Eyes signals-technical intelligence network involving Anglophone partners. That makes it pretty rich of her to now claim that NZ has become too ensnared in the 5 Eyes “vice” and has adopted too much of a Western-centric security perspective. In fact, it appears that beyond her obvious hypocrisy, Clark has returned in retirement to her lefty roots in order to burnish her tarnished progressive credentials with certain domestic and foreign audiences. But that does not make her right when it comes to NZ’s national security and contradicts her actions on the security front while in office.

Beyond her personal foibles, the Clark interjections in current NZ security debates is evidence that she clearly is out of the loop when it comes to current NZ intelligence and defence threat assessments, but more importantly, is more proof of a significant fracture within Labour Party circles (the domestic aspects concerning tax policy and other issues having already become public). For example, Foreign Minister Mahuta has been demoted within Cabinet and appears increasingly confined to ceremonial roles rather than substantive engagement with foreign policy formulation. Minister Little has clearly assumed a dominant role in foreign policy decision-making as well as in security affairs, having repeatedly stated that NZ “no longer operates in a benign strategic environment” in a pointed message for Clark to pull her head in (and to be sure, the rightward drift in Labour after Jacinda Ardern’s tenure as PM is palpable this election year).

He, of course, is objectively correct on that score. NZ has to adapt its strategic posture to the times, and these times are not those extant during Clark’s tenure as PM. She and like-minded others need to stop living in the past, clinging to outdated notions of foreign policy “independence,” and treating the PRC as a benign global actor. As I have written before, NZ operates with bounded autonomy in our foreign affairs, something that gives it flexibility but which does not allow it complete freedom of choice or action when it comes to things like Great Power competition. But for NZ to be flexible in light of existing constraints, it must clear-eyed about what is and what is not in its medium to long-term interests. That is because in these fluid transitional times re-shaping the increasingly multipolar global order, trade opportunism is just a short-term solution, especially when it runs counter to longer-term international security trends.

If I were to be charitable, I would simply say that Clark and her fellow travellers need to understand that the PRC of 2008, when the FTA was negotiated, no longer exists. Gone is the relative openness and transparency of the CCP regime led by Hu Jintao and in its wake has risen the repressive and expansionist regime led by Xi Jinping. Clark and others may wax nostalgic for a past where the PRC would adopt liberal internationalist principles when it comes to foreign affairs and join the community of nations as a democratising Great Power, but that sadly has not happened. Instead, Xi has consolidated his grip on power, increased authoritarian powers against civil society, moved to culturally extinguish restive minorities like the Uyghurs, and de facto annexed Hong Kong while sabre-rattling against Taiwan and usurping the maritime territory of its littoral neighbours around the South China Sea. All while expanding its military capabilities (including its nuclear arsenal) and conducting global political influence (United Front) and espionage campaigns that include large-scale as well as focused cyber intrusions, intimidation of diaspora populations and industrial-size patent and copyright theft. That in turn has reconfigured the threat environment in which NZ is situated. The recently released package of NZ security documents pointedly make reference to these facts, among other things.

Even if we agree that rising Great Powers like the PRC have to do what they have to do when it comes to expanding their power, and recognising that Western countries have done similar things and worse well up to the recent past, it is nevertheless clear that the PRC is not operating as good international partner on all fronts, and that its behaviour is very much inimical to the rules-based order that NZ professes to uphold in the international system. In fact, the PRC under President Xi explicitly rejects the premise of liberal internationalism citing, perhaps at least partially correctly, that the international institutional status quo was built by and for Western imperial and neo-imperial powers and their allies, not for the Global South.

In that light AUKUS may not be the solution to the changes in the South Pacific strategic landscape and in fact it might make things worse if it serves as a precedent for the erosion of its non-nuclear status and catalyst for further militarisation of the region. But resorting to knee-jerk objections based on a rosy vision of some ethereal past does not help advance the debate about where should NZ situate itself in the equation and what moral, ethical, and practical utility AUKUS rests upon, especially since as far as the AUKUS partners are concerned, it is a fait accompli whether NZ is involved or not.

In that light, assessments and arguments based on nostalgia for a benign strategic past where issue-linkage could be abandoned and trade and security could be decoupled now seems naive at best and foolhardy at worst. But then again, I do not have skin in the game when it comes to past foreign policy decisions that have, in a path-dependent way, led us to where we are today.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on “democratic backsliding.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the concept of “democratic backsliding” and why it is a troublesome development world wide. To do so we disaggregate the political, institutional and societal manifestations of backsliding in a democracy as well as the reasons for it. You can find the show here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on NZ-PRC trade and Prigozhin’s “pronouncement.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I decided to do a “near-far” sequence and look at the recent NZ trade mission to the PRC in broader context before turning our attention a discussion of what the Wagner Group incursion into Russia means in the short and medium terms. Short answer: Who knows? You can find the podcast here.

When a “coup” is not a coup.

In the wake of the short-lived Wagner Group incursion into Russia I decided to tweet some basic definitions of various irregular collective action taken against political regimes and ruling elites. That was in due in no small measure to my frustration with mindless media in NZ and elsewhere originally labelling the event as a “coup” (as in coup d’├ętat) before settling on “mutiny” after the fact. I figured that I would flesh out the tweets and publish them here.

A coup d’├ętat (French, a strike against the State) or “golpe” (Spanish, golpe de Estado or blow to or against the State) is an armed intervention by the military and other elites against a civilian regime. A putsch (German, a violent attempt to overthrow) is a failed armed intervention by the military and civilian factions in order to produce a coup (I am indebted to Ian Morrison for correcting my initial characterisation). A mutiny is an armed protest by elements in the military against other units and/or their superiors.It does not involve civilians and tends to focus on internal, institutional grievances. A Rebellion/Revolt is an armed uprising by sectors of society against political elites, sometimes with military support. The difference between the two terms is due to the size and scale of the armed collective action–rebellions are larger than revolts and span a broader set of grievances. An insurrection is an armed uprising by elements of civil society against the ruling regime, sometimes with military support. A revolution is a grassroots act of mass collective violence against a regime followed by parametric (political, economic and social) change of that regime and in society. A pronunciamento Spanish, a pronouncement or declaration) is an armed ultimatum or statement of intent and claim by elements of the military, paramilitary militias or armed elements of civil society. It is designed to convey a message and a seriousness of purpose to targeted elites regarding their handling of certain grievances held by those making the pronouncement. It is not designed to provoke regime change per se but instead seeks to force an outcome favourable to those making the demands (my thanks to Adam Przeworski for bringing this to my attention).

Note that under certain conditions one type of event can lead to another in a cascade effect, e.g. a pronouncement leading to a rebellion leading to an insurrection that results in revolution. We also must distinguish between armed inter-elite quarrels (coups, putsches, some pronouncements), mutinies and civil society uprisings.

As for the Wagner foray into Southwestern Russia and the outer Moscow region, my impression is that it was a testing of the waters taken in order to gauge what support Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has within the Russian military and public. Remember that Prigozhin did not target Putin himself, just his High Command. In fact, for a year now Prigozhin has used his media platforms to call for the removal of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has labeled them cowardly and corrupt, noted that their children live the lives of pampered princelings and princesses in places like Dubai, and holds them responsible for command failures and the needless deaths of thousands of ordinary Russian soldiers. He has even called for their execution. But he has said nothing about Putin, who grew up in his hometown of Saint Petersburg.

In my opinion, Prigozhin wants to lead the MoD, not remove Putin. In fact, allowing Putin to remain as president might make it easier for Prigozhin to exercise real power from the Ministry of Defense as well as direct the prosecution of the war. We also must remember that there are other private military corporation (PMCs) operating in Russia, the largest being the one controlled by GASPROM, the state oil and gas monopoly. Prigozhin is well aware of their capabilities and presumably would like to consolidate them under an umbrella organization with global reach. Wagner fits that bill.

Having seen the lukewarm military/public response to his pronouncement, he decided that now was not the time to storm Moscow. Instead, he cut a deal with Putin that allowed he and his men to re-locate to Belarus and eventually elsewhere (since Wagner has a significant presence in many places a bit more hospitable than Belarus and where he would be less vulnerable to Russian retaliation). Even if he did not enter Moscow Prigozhin damaged Putin’s strongman image and may have fatally weakened Shoigu and Gerasimov’s positions. After all, Russian oligarchs and attendant economic elites may now see a reason to hedge their bets when it comes to the possibility of victory in the Ukraine and the durability in power of Putin and his coterie.That means exploring post-Putin options (which to be fair are as of yet invisible and which are likely to be just as authoritarian as the current ruling crowd). The Russian public is also more aware of elite fractures within the regime, so this move may be just the first salvo in a more prolonged power struggle within Russia. In fact, Prigoshin has made comparisons between the current situation in Russia and the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution, so even if he is not conceptually clear on what the purpose of his move was (other than the preposterous “march for justice” he claimed it was), he clearly sees Russia in a pre-revolutionary light.

Anglophone media bobbleheads and opinionators went to their stock analogies of poisoned teas and open high rise windows to characterise Prigoshin’s future. I disagree with them because Prigozhin has an insurance policy. Prigozhin’s insurance policy is, most immediately, that Putin needs Wagner if he is going to get any positive military result in Ukraine. If he kills Prigozhin, Wagner will quit the fight or suffer big defections and Russia will lose in Ukraine. That would likely spell the end of Putin. More broadly in terms of insurance against retaliation, Wagner also serves as a foreign ambassador and liaison between the Russian government and a number of state and non-state entities in the rougher parts of the world. It makes billions of dollars by offering protection to Chinese and other diamond and gold mining investors in Africa (a percentage of which goes to Russian state coffers), and provides military advice and personal protection to a rogues gallery of despots in Africa and the Middle East. It is a de facto (grey area) arm of the Russian state in many places where official relations are lacking or where the Russians believe that there is a need for them to be hidden from public view. Heck, Wagner are even rumoured to have some sort of operation in the Chatham Islands!

The Wagner Group may be known for its use of conscripts and brutality but in true mercenary fashion it has a senior cadre of hardened, smart and cunning military strategists drawn from around the world, including several Western countries. They are paid well and their families are well looked after. They are loyal to Prigozhin, so if he goes (one way or the other) then they go, And because Wagner operates in many different places, has its hands in many pies and delves into a broad array of endeavours (including signals intelligence, psychological operations and cyber crime), it has leverage on Putin. That is why Putin must allow Prigozhin to live, as least for the moment or until the war with Ukraine comes to an end. He needs Wagner in the fight (which makes Prigozhin’s current decision to withdraw his troops from Ukraine an additional pressure point on Putin and his military command).

In any event what Prigozhin did with his advance on Moscow was not a coup, or a putsch, or even a mutiny (since his troops are not part of the Russian military even while fighting alongside it). It might plausibly been called a revolt or a rebellion if it had garnered more popular support, but it did not reach the level of insurrection or revolution–at least not yet. So I am left with “pronouncement” as the best way of characterising the move because if nothing else, this pronouncement could well be a prelude of things to come.

The dirty power of culture wars.

A few decades ago I wrote an essay about the impact of state terror on Argentine society. One of my points was that terrorism was used by the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso” not because it was particularly effective at ferreting out subversives but because it worked as an atomising agent in Argentine society. That is, it used pervasive fear of institutionalised terrorism as a means to “infantilize” people and increasing isolate and alienate them as individuals, which served to destroy the horizontal social bonds that were the basis of collective solidarity among the groups targeted by the dictatorship. That in turn eased the way for the imposition of so-called neoliberal economic policies that redistributed income downwards for the majority, significantly curtailed the State role in economic management and provision of basic public services, destroyed social welfare, health and education safety nets and pauperised the population in general while increasing the material fortunes of the elites associated with the regime.

State terror created a culture of fear that atomised and isolated people in the public space, thereby paving the way for their infantilisation as social subjects and eventual dependency on and subjugation by their dictatorial masters. What is less known is that the so-called “Dirty War” waged by the dictatorship known as the “Proceso” (Process) was justified not on economic but on cultural grounds, as a defense of “traditional (Catholic) values” placed under siege by immoral, degenerate, atheistic Communist subversion in the guise of liberalism, feminism, secularism, homosexuality, youthful rebellion and other depraved foreign ideologies that had no “natural” place in the patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist social status quo that dominated Argentina at the time. Now, in the contemporary era, a variant on this theme has been introduced into socio-political narratives in the liberal democratic West as well as elsewhere: Culture Wars.

In recent years conservative authoritarians have moved to using electoral facades rather than coups as a means of gaining and maintaining government office. Their weapon of choice is no longer terror imposed by or on behalf of the State but a defense of traditional values against attempts by progressives to undermine the moral fabric of society. Similarly, authoritarians out of office no longer seek to use guerrilla war as a main vehicle for conquering power but instead embark on crusades against “wokeness,” “political correctness” and perceived (and mostly imaginary) attacks on “free speech” by liberal-progressive-socialist-communists. In both cases the strategic move has been from a physical war of manoeuvre to a cultural war of position in which the battle is over values and identities, not necessarily (although ultimately involving) government offices, economic policies or physical terrain. In other words, the social backdrop to political competition and conflict is now increasingly dominated by Culture Wars.

That is notable because the Culture Wars approach rejects or replaces the most basic axiom in politics: that people vote with their wallets. Think of it this way. The MAGA crowd voted against its economic interests when it voted for Trump (even if Trump’s “America First” economic pipe dream was sold to them as feasible). More recently, both Vladimir Putin and Recap Erdogan in Russia and Turkey diverted popular attention from their disastrous economic policies and corruption towards a defense of “traditional” values, in Putin’s case “traditional” Christian values (supported by the Russian orthodox hierarchy) and in Erdogan’s case “traditional” Muslim values (again, supported by conservative clerics). They both railed against the depravity of the West and the corrosive impact the importation of Western mores and ideas has had on their respective societies. In fact, Putin went so far as to order the invasion of Ukraine because of its “degenerate” liberal (when not Nazi) leadership’s threat to the ethnic Russian part of the Ukrainian population. The point is that when Culture Wars are used as an electoral strategy in order to outweigh objective economic realities, they often are successful.

The emphasis on Culture Wars is understandable when conservative authoritarians have no economic legs to stand on. That is where the parallel between US and NZ conservatives come in. Neither the GOP in the US or National/Act in NZ have economic platforms that are remotely close to practicable, sustainable or deserving of popular support. They are in fact elitist in construction and elitist in benefit. So, rather than modify their economic policy platforms away from their exhausted and discredited neoliberal/market-driven trickle-down policies, these conservatives turn to inciting Culture Wars as a means of diverting attention towards superstructural and often artificial fault lines in their respective democratic societies. In the US things like gun rights and opposition to racial, gender and sexual equality may be an “organic” product of American Christian repression and its record of historical conquest, but in NZ the notion of unrestricted gun ownership rights and opposition to transgender rights (on the slanderous grounds that the latter are “groomers” and pedophiles) are foreign imports that have no “organic” or native origins in NZ society. However, the attacks on co-governance frameworks in NZ is indeed rooted in deep-seated Pakeha racism against Maori, so the fusion of foreign imported ideologies and local regressive perspectives on race mesh easily into a divide and conquer (so they think) Culture War strategy on the part of the NZ Right.

More broadly, the assault on gender and sexual identity minorities, immigrants and various types of non-traditional non-conformity that defy the traditional narrative about what the “proper” society should look and behave like is rife throughout the Western liberal democratic world even where gun rights are restricted in the interests of public safety (seen, not unreasonably, as a public good rather than an infringement on individual liberty), where racism is not a historical stain or contemporary problem or where economic policies have popular support. It is major a stock in trade of elected authoritarians like Victor Orban in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland and former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as well as a host of demagogic political and social figures throughout the world, to say nothing of outright autocrats like Putin, Erdogan and a swathe of Middle Eastern and African oligarchs and strongmen.

The important thing to bear in mind is that like state terror as a social atomising agent, Culture Wars work. Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban rode them to victory in democratic executive branch elections, Putin and Erdogan used them to rally support for their unpopular regimes (with Erdogan likely to win a run-off election next weekend in spite of his disastrous economic policies and Putin holding onto power like a (rat-trapped) rat on cheese despite Russia’s futile war on Ukraine). Wanna-be’s like Luxon, Peters and Seymour in NZ seem to believe that their best bet is to copy at least some aspects of the Culture Wars strategy and adapt them to Aotearoa’s particular circumstances in the run up to this year’s general election. Given the media attention devoted to co-governance, transgender rights (or better said, their mere presence), vaccinations and the use of Te Reo in public discourse, there may in fact be grounds for traction in that angle of approach. That makes it more imperative that people push back at the introduction of retrograde ideological arguments in the NZ context. They are largely not from here and have no place in Aotearoa.

The pushback is necessary for a simple reason. Culture Wars work as a socio-political strategy because they are based on a dirty little secret: that fear is a great perception and behaviour modifier. Culture warriors traffic in the promotion of fear, both real and imagined, rational and irrational. This fear is of targeted “others,” those who can be readily identified and easily scapegoated while also be made into seemingly malevolent Leviathans who must be struck back by common, sensible, “traditional values”-holding people–the silent majority, as it were. Although it is helpful to the Culture Was projects if the “others” look different, worship different Gods, have different customary practices or engage in non-heteronormative sexual behaviour, it matters less what the “others” actually do than that they are identified as threats to traditional values and mores. The use of disinformation and misinformation is helpful in this regard because fear is a tool whether the basis for it is true or not–and it is most often not true or grounded in reality. What matters is achieving the objective, not the truth. The objective, in turn, is to restore a previous societal status quo in the face of pressures to make it more equitable, inclusive and responsive to the needs of those marginalised.and voiceless under the “traditional” scheme of things.

Complacency is the ally of the Culture Warriors because silence allows them to megaphone their messages of fear and hate through corporate and social media unimpeded by fact checkers, truth-speakers or coherent ripostes. Decent people may believe that Culture Wars are just a side-circus show that does not in fact distract from bread and butter and other serious issues of the day when people make their political and social preference choices. But as the likes of Brian Tamaki and various conservative media talking heads have shown, they do in fact have an impact on public perceptions when not challenged by more tolerant and open-minded arguments. Their fear-mongering gains ground in the measure that complacency cedes them rhetorical space in the pubic discourse.

All of which is to say that although there may be considerable distance in practice between Argentine (or Chilean or Guatemalan or Salvadorean, etc.) state terrorism and the Culture Wars in contemporary democracies, they are on a continuum where fear (manufactured or real) is exploited for political and social advantage above and beyond the economic projects that may underpin them. As Bernard de Voto noted (paraphrased here), “a person’s eyes and ears and the fulcrum of his/her judgement supplies his/her capability for action.” The fulcrum of fear is made up of orchestrated “Othering” in which contending perceptions of norms, mores and acceptable behaviours, that is, the conflict between between traditional and “progressive” values, is focused on particular subjects and groups. The purpose of Culture Wars is to warp the ideological fulcrum on which social consensus rests in order to obtain political, social and often material advantage whether it be based in the truth or not.

As a bottom line culture warriors play dirty with the truth just as much as the Argentine Dirty War ignored international norms and strictures against the torture and killing of civilians. Much like the logic of the “Proceso” when defending its actions, the ends of the culture warrior justifiy the means, and in a world in which the value of tradition is increasingly under question and often challenge, warping of the ideological fulcrum in order to promote manipulable fear in the body politic is just as useful as the pliers, branding irons, cow-prods and battery clamps used by the Latin American torturers of yore.

To which I say now as I said back then, mutatis mutandis: “Nunca Mas!”

PS: For those who may be interested in the essay linked to above, please email me (pablo@kiwipolitico.com) and I will send you a copy of the entire essay as an attachment in my reply.