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.

” A View from Afar” returns.

On Thursday May 11, 2023 at 12PM (noon) NZ time/8PM Wed 10th May US East Coast time/1AM Thursday London time/8 AM Thursday Singapore time and 10AM Thursday Sydney time, the A View from Afar podcast will resume broadcasting. Selwyn Manning and I will discuss the AUKUS agreement and its implications for New Zealand and the fallout from the Discord classified material leaks as well as global affairs from a South Pacific perspective.

The show is interactive so tune in and join us!

The zero-sum logic of rightwing culture wars.

Many years ago a sister-in-law of mine and I were debating about gay marriage. I have no issue with it but she did. When I asked her what the problem was, she said something to the effect that “giving gays the right to marry diminishes the sanctity of my (straight) marriage.” I found that logic to be very odd. Why would gay folk marrying in any way take away from or diminish straight marriage? If anything it would reinforce the normative preeminence of marriage as an institution over common law partnerships of any orientation, and would give additional legal protection to both the couple and any children that they raise (especially when it comes to travel and foreign residence because some States, among other things, require people to be married for spousal benefits, work permits and child visas. Singapore and several Latin American countries have such requirements).

Over the years my sister-in-law mellowed on gay rights because of exposure to gay people in her wider family, at work and amongst friends. Good on her. But the flaw in her earlier logic has stuck with me and been reemphasised in my mind by the current wave of cultural wars unleashed, Russian invasion-style (and with Russia’s actual involvement) by Western right-wingers. The premise remains the same: granting rights to gays, transgendered, intersexuals, historically oppressed communities, linguistic and religious minorities, schoolchildren (when it comes to what they can read and see in class), etc. comes at the direct expense of someone else, particularly straight white religious adults. Universalizing human rights is seen as usurping the rights of parents, business owners, religious authorities, and in fact, the “natural” patriarchical, racial, sexual and other social hierarchies of previous eras. The “natural” order is seen to be under existential threat and hence all-out war must be waged against those who, consciously or not, adopt Gramsci’s concept of a “war of position” in order to infiltrate “traditional” social, economic and political institutions with subversive intent.

Which makes me remember that foot-binding was once part of the “natural” order in China, and beating of wives and children permissible in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia–to say nothing of much of the Anglo-Saxon world. Bullying very much remains a cultural trait in Aotearoa. Not all tradition is worth preserving.

Much is written about the role of fear in rightwing perspectives. Fear of the “other” specifically. But fear needs to be analytically disaggregated as a concept and social construct. That is to say, fear has its own logic, sometimes rational and sometimes not. What is feared is less important than why it is feared. What fear is rests on two things: uncertainty and a particular perspective on how costs and benefits are distributed. This involves basic notions of loss and gain, particularly who gains and who losses in any social interaction. It is perversely transactional in nature. For example, cuddling an alligator may make him friendly, Or not. How one weighs the balance of odds in that interaction is what determines whether they fear the ‘gator or not. On the other hand, those who go to war know that death is a very likely fate. They know that, they internalize that (because of military socialization), and they get on with the job.

Civil society does (or at least should) not operate that way. It is about the limits of communal tolerance, not the requirements of war. This makes the cultural war references all the more disingenuous and destructive because, quite frankly, one (granting rights to previously marginalized groups) is not like the other.

The type of analytic logic where one rejects the extension of rights to others is known as “zero-sum:” one actor’s gain comes in inverse proportion to another actor’s loss. Expansion of rights for some is seen as a loss of rights for others. Coexistence is impossible under those circumstances because one group wins directly at the expense of another. This is the root perspective underlying prejudice among those who are not stupid (with the idiots more susceptible to the mean-spirited manipulation of non-stupid bigots and authoritarians).

Continuing the game-theoretic angle, the reality is that rather than zero-sum, the likely outcome of the culture wars is either (on the positive side), even–sum (both sides neither win or lose), positive-sum (both sides win) or (on the negative side) negative-sum (both sides lose). Either the bigots abandon the zero sum logic and the rights franchise is expanded to marginal communities without discernable loss of rights to historically dominant groups, with potential benefits accruing to binary and non-binary people resulting from the exchange, or both sides lose as the culture wars deepen, become more divisive, leading to broad scale violence and social rupture as all sides begin to see the conflict as existential. To be sure, I would prefer to see even-sum or positive-sum outcomes prevail but truth be told, many of the transphobes and their rightwing fellow travelers and enablers already see the “struggle” as existential–or an opportunity to stir up contrived controversy.

The last point is worth noting. Some of the arguments against the extension of rights to marginalized groups and individuals indicate that those making them know that they are specious. Claiming that drag queens and transgender people (transsexuals and Democrats!) are pedophiles and “groomers” betrays a moral and ethical dishonesty or gross ignorance. Claiming that transgender people using female bathrooms are a sexual assault threat to biological females (aka females at birth) is grotesque given the gender orientation and self-identity of the non-binary individuals. It may be true that heterosexual male sexual predators have sometimes dressed as women in order to gain access to female-only facilities with evil intent, but the instances of this have been extremely rare and, even rarer yet, are the instances of transgender women using their non-binary status to commit sexual assaults on heterosexual women. Plus, the root problem of such exceptionally rare assaults are different. A heterosexual male posing as a female in order to commit sexual assaults on biological females in female-only spaces is not the same problem as transgender females assaulting other females. The motivations–a question of the mind rather than simply driven by biology–are different even if violence and coercion are the method. As any specialist on transgender violence will explain, the more common issue is one of violence against rather than perpetrated by transgender folk.

Then there is this. Given the percentage of people world wide who are genuinely transgender, the odds of them constituting a significant number of sexual predators anywhere is mathematically low even if all of them were of evil disposition. Which is clearly not the case. When and where transgender initiated violence occurs is a product of personal and social circumstance given the specific context in which a person is situated. Again, the confluence of circumstances that lead to a transgender person lurking in bathrooms or grooming children is exceptional and the arguments that they are common occurrences is risible.

Pablo and his first son in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, 1987. The poodle is a dude.

I am no expert on the subject, but believing that gender difference is defined purely by genitalia is reductio ad absurdem logic at its worse given the presence of non-gender type conforming (third sex) people throughout history. In fact, several non-Western cultures, including those in India and Polynesia, accept the existence of non-binary people and see them as a separate category rather than as either male or female. Their social roles are not those of males or females, and the culture accepts them for who they are. The history of these human beings has been largely non-violent. The trouble is that in Western societies issues of gender/sex have traditionally been treated as either/or rather than a socially acceptable inflection point on the continuum of human difference. The opprobrium historically assigned to transgender people in the West can therefore be seen as part of a larger pathology grounded in conservative Christian repression when it comes to sexuality and “proper” gender/sexual roles. That is weird. To put it vulgarly by paraphrasing the Tool song title, a “hooker with a penis” may be just that regardless of gender identification (thanks Maynard).

It seems to me that although transphobia is the prejudice d’jour, it follows a long history of bigotry that is marked by the zero-sum approach to social relations. It is simply an extension of earlier and repeated attempts to limit the rights of designated “others” who are seen, hypocritically or out of ignorance, as a threat to the “normal” way of life and social order.That this zero-sum perspective is shared and megaphoned by conservative churches, politicians, lobbying groups and media whose network connections cross international borders makes for a more dangerous and troubling future for those who believe in and have a preference for democracy, human rights and the benefits of egalitarian societies.

Then there is the issue of “wokeness.” In 25 years in academia and the subsequent years doing consulting, I have never once been bothered or infringed upon by “woke” anything. I say this even after having lost an academic job after false accusations of being racist by a foreign (female) student and her coterie of “progressive” supporters annoyed by my stance on some controversial international issues (like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Even after that, “wokeness” is simply not an impediment to me leading my life. Personal anecdote aside, I think I know the reason for this. I assume that being “woke” means being attentive to the needs and concerns of others, especially the traditionally oppressed, exploited, subordinated and marginalised. I assume that it means paying attention to one’s words and deeds so as to not cause psychological, emotional or physical harm to others. It means calling out and confronting dog whistling, gaslighting and overt racists, xenophobes, bullies and bigots. If I am correct about what it means to be “woke” then I have no reason to be concerned and instead can be counted in as a “woke” snowflake. And if it means pointing out the analytic flaws in the zero-sum logics of bigots (should the bigots try to be analytic rather than emotive in their reasoning), then I am waaaay woke. Shoot, I just might be a closet gay dude who has not consciously realised it yet! My wife sure is gonna be surprised when she finds out.

Also, if any side is behaving as (anti) woke snowflakes, it is the Right. If they watch their mouths and refrain from bleating hateful rhetoric, no one will “cancel” them. Instead, all they do is complain and whine about socialist/communist/liberal/progressive wokeness and cancel culture and the attack on (insert traditional values and “freedom” shibolleths here). They see everything as an assault on their social superiority, entitlements and privilege That includes the extension of rights to those they traditionally dominated. They are the ultimate “Karens.”

More on point, this is not about cancel culture and stifling free speech. People are merely denouncing hate-mongering and calling out arbitrary privileges assigned by class, race, birthplace or gender. Some of it may boisterous but much of it is justified and non-violent. More broadly, if one cannot understand that individual and collective rights come with responsibilities and that rights end when they infringe, deny or impede on those of others, then one is anything but democratic in social orientation, an ignoramus, or both. In fact, many of those pushing back at the extension of rights to previously excluded groups are outright authoritarian and socially hierarchical in perspective, be they racists, transphobes or Islamicists. Put it this way, if you believe that human society is akin to lobster society where the male with the largest claw gets the best feeding and mating grounds, then you need to go back to high school biology 101 and stop with the cross-species analogies. This is not about alpha and betas, predators and prey, hunters and gatherers and the “natural” social hierarchies. It is about fairness, equality and social justice.

The good news, if any, is that more and more of them are now out in the open, so they can be confronted more readily across many platforms and venues. The bad news is that they also have broad support, including from the institutions mentioned above.

In the end one either wants to see people treated equally so long as they obey basic and broadly shared social mores and principles, or you do not. As far as I can tell Drag Queens reading children’s stories in school and libraries is in line with the first view. Inciting and enabling hatred towards and threatening violence towards marginalized people is not.

This is not “just” about conforming to the gender identity and social roles that genitalia assigns us at birth. It is about much more. It is about who we are as human communities.

Reality check.

There are some wellness, crystal-gazing, holistic spiritual guidance types in my disaster-hit coastal community who insist that the power of positive thinking will overcome the physical and material damages incurred by the community. They object to restrictions on road travel even though the damages caused by slips and water run-off is extensive and as of yet only stop-gap repaired. Heck, we do not even have traffic controls on our one lane muddy slip-ridden exit and entryways!

Although these self-absorbed navel gazers are a distinct minority they are very loud and bullying, with some using their historic roots in this neck of the woods as justification for shouting down everyone else. Apparently tenure (as in multigenerational living in this place as opposed to “newcomers” like me who have been here 24 years) means that they know best for all residents and their views are not be challenged. A few of these wunderkind have rarely left this isolated valley except for local forays or limited ventures further outside their co coons, giving them a somewhat limited perspective on the big bad world out there–and how to cope with unfamiliarity and difference of perspective and thought. And then there are the few that are associated with or support anti-vaccination and conspiracy theory weirdness.

However, because some are very adept at doing things like community volunteerism in between their yoga sessions and self-realization seminars, they feel they have the authority to speak over everyone else about almost everything. Democratic notions of compromise and consensus in decision-making are ignored in favor of a “our way or the highway” approach with plenty of vitriol added into the mix (which belies the “positive psychology” facade). They speak of serving the collective good–and some of them do–but they are not interested in collective input into their closed circle decision-making. There is a certain provincialism to their leadership claims and their refusal to listen to different opinions, much less opposing views. Trouble is, some also happen to well placed as cogs in our civil defense and resilience networks.

As the saying goes, times of crisis brings out the best and worst in people as well as expose the Peter Principle when it comes to levels of incompetence in public agencies. To this can be added, unfortunately, the fact that one particular skillset does not always translate easily into other fields of endeavor. In this case that fact appears to have been lost on the provincial know-it-all crowd and it now seems that these folk have crossed a line of toleration vis a vis the larger whanau with some of their obstructive and self-serving antics. This is dividing the community just as we are finally getting a semblance of normality to some parts of it (other than the roads and ruined homes). It is disappointing and discouraging because it has caused simmering divisions amongst people torn between family and friendship ties with the know-it-alls and the practical realities of the wider community’s real pressing needs..

That is where the know-it-all appeals to positive psychology fall flat. They want us to stay calm, bite our tongues and carry on following their pop psychological wellness healing Tik Tok-depth advice. In other words, everyone should think good thoughts, the contagion effect will apply, and everything will be alright.

To which I have one response.

The promise of positive psychology ends where the laws of physics begin.

Like on dangerous roads.

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.

Media Link: “AVFA” on electoral politics in Brazil, US and Israel.

This week Selwyn Manning and I do a post-mortem on Brazil’s election and a preview of the US midterms under the general banner of “it is about the movement, not the man,” then turn to the tactical and existential issues surrounding Israel’s latest (and increasingly rightwing-leaning) elections. You can draw your conclusions by linking here.

Media Link: The Era of Restive Politics.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.

This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.