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.

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.

Geopolitical balancing in the W/SW Pacific.

Last year the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Solomon Islands signed a bilateral security agreement that includes police training and port visits by Chinese security advisors and naval vessels. This includes training in “crowd control” and protection of Chinese investments in the Solomons and opens the door to the possibility of forward basing of Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets in the archipelago. Needless to say, Western governments, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, reacted negatively to the deal (whose terms have not been entirely released), as have some members of the Pacific Island Forum community.

This year, the Australia, the UK and the US formally signed the AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement whereby Australia would first acquire, then manufacture nuclear powered submarines based on US and British attack submarine designs. The PRC and several Pacific Island Forum (PIF) states reacted negatively to the agreement (which may violate the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga establishing a South Pacific nuclear free zone), although other Western Pacific Rim nations were either muted or supportive in their responses.

Also this year the US and Papua New Guinea (PNG) signed a bilateral security agreement that will allow US forces to operate on and from PNG soil and which includes a significant economic development component as part of the package. More recently, Japan and New Zealand signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement that is focused on joint operations in the South Pacific, initially for humanitarian reasons (such as the recent disaster relief efforts after the volcanic eruption in Tonga, where Japan participated) but opening the possibility of future joint military training and exercises in kinetic operations, especially in the West and SW Pacific maritime security environment. This follows on an intelligence-sharing agreement between Japan and NZ signed last year that allows better Japanese access to the 5 Eyes signals and technical intelligence collection alliance involving the US, UK, Australia and Canada as well as NZ, and which may pave the way for eventual Japanese integration into the alliance. Since intelligence sharing is part of military synergies and interoperability between different armed forces, this sequence of bilateral agreements would seem to be a natural progression in the NZ-Japanese security relationship.

What does all of this have in common? it is part of what might be seen as balance of power gamesmanship between the PRC and various rival powers in the SW Pacific region. Balances of power are, as the name implies, about balancing the power of one or more states against that of other states. These balances involve military, economic and diplomatic power and/or influence projection. Some so-called balances of power are actually not balanced at all and involve the domination by one state of a given strategic arena. This was the case for the US in the greater Pacific basin from WW2 up until recently. Now, with the decline of the US as a unipolar international “hegemon” and the rise of an emerging multipolar world that includes the PRC as a Great Power contender, the Western reaches of the Pacific basin have become a zone of contestation in which US and Chinese influence and power projection compete.

Other balances of power may be between two or more states sometimes operating as partners against common rivals and sometimes operating as sub-sets of a larger arrangement. Most balance of power subsets involve regional subsets of global rivalries.For example, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were European regional balancing vehicles contained within the larger bi-polar balance of power between the US and USSR during the Cold War. The contemporary rivalry between the Sunni Arab oligarchies and the Persian theocratic regime in Iran is a Middle East example of a regional balance of power in which competition for influence and support for armed proxies is part of the balancing game.

In East and Southeast Asia, several states have joined US-led coalitions in order to balance out the increasing PRC military presence in that part of the world. The Philippines, Singapore, Malyasia, Vietnam and Thailand, to say nothing of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, all have bilateral military-security agreements with the US that are specifically designed to help counter Chinese power projection in Western Pacific Rim area of operations (AOR).

A way to think about this multi-tiered/multi-faceted geopolitical balancing is to envision as what economists call a “nested” game, i.e. a game or games played within a larger game or games. The largest game sets the broad contours of what happens within it, with smaller games or subsets focused on specific meso- or micro-aspects of the larger (macro) game and with each level of games reinforcing balancing plays on the others. A less academic way is to think of balance of power games as being akin to a Matryoshka Doll with the largest game holding within it a number of smaller subsets that give internal substance to the overall representation.

The action/reaction dynamic between the PRC and rival powers involves a) the attempt to ring-fence the PRC in terms of its power projection in order to limit its capability to influence, via the threat of coercion or otherwise, regional politics; and b) the attempts by the PRC to break out of the corralling project erected against it. Arguments aside about whether the breakout move or the ring-fencing project came first, that is now a fait accompli. The dynamic is out in the open in the South China Sea, where the PRC has abandoned its insular, land-based strategic perspective and announced its maritime presence with its island-building project in international waters and its increased deployments of armed vessels off the coasts of its littoral neighbours as well as out into the blue waters of the West and Southwestern Pacific.

In return, the US has shifted sixty percent of its naval assets to the Pacific (rather its traditional focus on the Atlantic), and moved significant contingents of long-range bombers and fighter aircraft to bases in Guam, Okinawa and in the near future Australia. It has bolstered troop numbers and rotations in places like the Philippines, South Korea and Australia and increased the tempo of joint exercises with a host of regional partners. Likewise, the French have increased the size of their Pacific army and naval fleets (headquartered in Noumea and Papeete, respectively), as well as the number of exercises with Australian and US forces in the SW Pacific. The ring-fencing versus breakout balancing project, in other words, is well underway.

For a podcast discussion based on this post, please head to “A View from Afar.”

This begs a larger question. Does the PRC have legitimate interests in the Pacific and as a Great Power should those interests be understood and respected? Think of the Belt and Road Initiative and other large Chinese investments in foreign infrastructure development and resource extraction and the great risks that they carry. Accordingly, the PRC has an interest in maintaining access to major sea lanes and potential resource opportunities in the Pacific region. The question is whether it wants to work in accordance with international norms and in concert with the international community on things like freedom of navigation and regulation of seabed mining or does it wish to control sea lanes and set its own rules when it comes to exploiting natural resources in the Western Pacific.

The issue seems to be not about the legitimacy of PRC interests but the way it behaves in pursuit of them. The South China Sea is an example: bullying of neighbors, violating international norms with its island-building projects, the illegitimate extension of sovereignty claims over the whole South China Sea basin, the attempt to claim and control key choke points in international waters like the Taiwan Straits. All of these moves would seem to set a bad precedent for PRC power projection aspirations further South and are therefore the basis for regional concern about its growing presence. Then there is the issue of governance and PRC checkbook/debt diplomacy reinforcing corruption in the PIF states.

All of this suggests that, contrary to expectations two decades ago, the PRC behaves like a bad global/regional “citizen.” It violates norms and the rules based order and ignores established codes of conduct regarding the pursuit of national interests when projecting power and influence abroad. It is militarily and diplomatically aggressive when asserting its claims abroad, and as the pandemic response demonstrates, it is less than transparent and truthful when dealing with the motivations for and consequences of its actions.

To be sure, it is equally true that the “rules-based international order” was made for and by Western Great Powers before and after WW2, and the PRC is correct in noting that when calling for a new global regime that is not dominated by Western interests. Western colonialism and neo-imperialism has much to answer for. But it should also be understood that the setting of international rules by Western powers was as much a form of self-limiting strategy o themselves as it was an imposed (Western dominated) status quo.

That is, the Western great powers agreed to set rules that limited their relative freedom of action in the international sphere as much as it consolidated their dominant positions within it. The reason for this was that by establishing mutually accepted self-limiting rules as codes of conduct in various arenas (say, trade), Western powers reduced the chances that competition could turn into conflict because mediation and arbitration clauses are part of the rules-based order. More than dominate the global South, they wanted to reduce the risk of unfettered competition on any front leading to conflict among them.

One of the assumptions that underpinned inviting the PRC into the WTO and World Bank was that the PRC would understand and accept the self-limiting strategy that was the conceptual basis of the rules-based order. It was assumed that by playing by the rules the PRC could be integrated peacefully as an emerging Great Power into the community of nations. The trouble is that those assumptions proved false and under Xi Jinping the PRC has embarked on a project of individual aggrandizement rather than multinational cooperation. In its military posturing and wolf warrior diplomacy, violation of things like intellectual property and patent rights, use of telecommunication technologies for espionage, violation of resource protection regulations etc., the PRC’s behaviour shows its contempt for the self-limiting premise of the rules-based order.

That could well be what alarms the West as much as any specific instance of Chinese aggression. If the rules-based order can be successfully ignored or challenged, then a turn to a Hobbesian state of nature or international state of anarchy becomes potential reality. Russia has already signalled its rejection of the rules-based order and is in a strategic alliance with the PRC that explicitly claims a need for the establishment of a new world order. Many in the global South, tired of Western imperialism, interventionism and rigging of the trade and diplomatic rules and mores of the current “liberal” internationalist system., have indicated support for a new global regime led by Russia and the PRC. Thus the concern in the West and allied nations is not about any specific action on the part of the PRC but about said actions being a trigger point that not only could lead to military conflict but to a collapse of the international consensus in support of the rules-based order (and of liberal internationalism in general).

The West-led ring-fencing coalition will argue that the matter is not about thwarting PRC ambitions but about getting it to accept the mutual self-limiting logic of the li, rules-based liberal international order. The Chinese will argue that the issue is precisely about thwarting PRC breakout ambitions to national greatness on the world stage.

In the end the argument will be made in Western security circles and amongst their allies that the regional balancing acts going on in the Western Pacific are due to the need for a defensive response to contemporary PRC military-diplomatic belligerency that, along with other authoritarian challenges, attempt to usurp the rules-based liberal international order. The PRC will counter that its breakout policies are designed to overcome years of Western-imposed containment pursuant to claiming its rightful place as a global Great Power leading a revamped multipolar international system. The arguments one way or the other are themselves evidence of geopolitical balancing at work, but the consequences should miscalculations occur or mistakes happen have the potential to make for much more than an imbalance in or rebalancing of relative power projection capabilities in the West and Southwest Pacific. At that point mutual self-limitation as a foreign policy consensus may become a thing of the past.

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Unfinished Projects.

When I left academia in 2011 I was forced to stop two book projects that were in the works. Without institutional support and resourcing it is impossible to conduct in-depth academic research that requires field trips to foreign countries and access to university libraries. The move to private consulting was a necessary but painful part of my transition out of academia, and when I sit in my home office I stare at boxes of documents, transcribed interviews and the other detritus of those works-in-progress. The ideas that motivated their collection are still in my head.

The first book was to be titled “Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal.” In it I sought to explain the differences in the security policies and perspectives of three democracies that literally exist on the periphery of the regions in which they are located–Chile on the Southwest corner of the Western Hemisphere, Portugal on the Southwest corner of Europe and NZ on the Southwest corner of the Pacific. All were/are peripheral to the major security decisions of the last three decades even if they were subject to them and participants in some of the military and intelligence operations that happened because of them. Two of these countries are post-authoritarian democracies (Chile and Portugal) while NZ is a post-colonial democracy. They vary in their social liberalism, political organization and in the influence of past legacies, especially in the field of civil-military relations. Portugal is a member of NATO and the EU, Chile is a member of MERCOSUR and Rio Treaty Alliance; NZ is a non-nuclear non-NATO partner and member of numerous trade blocs.

Chile and Portugal have strategic perspectives with strong maritime orientations. NZ, despite it being an archipelago far removed from any significant land mass, retains an Army-centric military even if it regularly speaks of the maritime threat environment (but has few resources to defend against maritime threats). In terms of intelligence gathering priorities, Chile and Portugal maintain a largely domestic-focused internal protection orientation (even if Chile monitors its neighbors as a matter of course), while NZ has mainly had a more foreign-focused orientation due to its membership in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network (that may be changing as a result of recent domestic security concerns).

One interesting finding of my research was that after 9/11 Chile and Portugal did not re-direct significant resources toward Islamicist terrorist threats. Officials in both countries told me that they had no problems with Islamicists for a variety of reasons, Chile’s being the limited presence of Muslims in the Southern Cone (and hence limited grounds for localized grievances) and limited interaction with Muslim-dominant states, while Portugal cited good relations with the Muslim world in general and the local Muslim community in particular (many of whom are part of the Portuguese post-colonial diaspora). As it turns out, neither country suffered Islamicist attacks in the decades following 9/11.

Conversely, and in spite of its physical distance from the conflicts involving Islamicists in other parts of the world, during the 18 years that followed the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, NZ intelligence shifted its threat detection and assessment almost entirely towards locating and neutralizing domestic jihadists while actively supporting the anti-Islamicist crusade in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. This, despite there being no record of an ideologically-motivated terrorism attack committed by a Muslim in NZ before or after 9/11. As time went on there was a shift towards monitoring wanna-be jihadists heading to the ISIS killing fields in the Middle East, then the return of those who survived and so-called “jihadi brides” to Aotearoa. This anti-Islamicist perspective could well be due more to obligations to or influence by the larger 5 Eyes partners more than the actual threat posed by Islamicists to NZ and its interests.

Then came March 15, 2019 and the domestic focus of the NZ intelligence community reactively shifted to the threat of rightwing/white supremacist extremism along with ongoing counter-intelligence operations directed at hostile States attempting to gain a foothold in NZ (especially the PRC).

These are just a few of the general characteristics of the sample, which is based on a “most-similar” selection criteria where commonalities amongst independent variables are used to group them in order to look for differences at the intervening and dependent variable levels (“most-different” qualitative methodologies do the reverse, using differences to form a sample while looking for commonalities of outcomes. In a way the difference in methodological approach is akin to deductive versus inductive reasoning).

I did field research in Chile and Portugal, where I conducted interviews with active and former military and intelligence officials and retrieved official documents from archives and ministerial libraries. The NZ part of the research was to be the last, but alas I ran into some strife at Auckland University and was forced to abandon what I thought would be the easiest part of the research. As it is, I completed about 15,000 words of a conceptual and methodological introduction and had begun to shop the book prospectus to potential publishers when the axe fell. I may or may not revive and update the project for publication but the same obstacles remain: limited institutional and personal resources to conduct field research properly.

I am aware of country specialists who write about the foreign and security policies of each of the mentioned countries, but none who draw comparative conclusions. To my mind, that is a gap in knowledge that remains to be filled.

In the background during this time and ongoing in my mind since the 1980s has been the desire to write a more theoretical book about consent. Much is now made of the issue of consent in the context of inter-personal (especially sexual) relations and individual-institutional interactions (e.g. the issue of “informed consent” to medical procedures, background checks, school activities, politics searches and the like). The entire social media landscape is about terms and conditions that individuals agree to that basically state that consumers/clients consent to the retrieval and use of their personal data by the immediate platforms and third parties who purchase meta-data and more specific types of data depending on circumstance. Consent has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years but not for the reasons I am particularly interested in.

The subject of consent in personal interactions with people, authorities and corporations is well known and has been the subject of much public discussion by politicians, civil libertarians and security advocates, especially after 9/11 and the emergence of new media technologies that have broken down the previous separation between ‘public” and “private” media as well as the international versus domestic/global versus local division of influence, threats and authority (that is, things are now “intermestic” and “glocal” in nature rather than bifurcated in terms of scope).

My interest in the notion of consent, however, is not about that. It began several decades ago when writing a book about post-authoritarian labor-state relations in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I leaned heavily on the notion of mass contingent consent in the construction and maintenance of democracy, something very much overlooked in recent discussions of liberal democratic decay and “back-sliding.”

That notion of democracy resting on contingent mass consent institutionalized under conditions of electoral uncertainty became a centerpiece of my thought as I worked to dis-aggregate and then re-aggregate the economic, political and social strands of mass contingent consent to popularly elected but time-bounded governments. I found out that democracy rests on institutional, societal and economic pillars, all of which have at their core the concept of mutual contingent consent. After all, consent is not give once, forever, and is not given on just one field of play. In fact, democratic consent is iterative and multifaceted, which in turn spills over or trickles down into other aspects of life in a democratic society such as sexual relations and parental authority over minors as well as notions of economic and social safety nets. Toleration, solidarity, respect for difference, economic fair play–these and many other notions about what constitutes the essence of a democratic society have the concept of contingent consent at their core.

Contingent consent usually must be mutual because it involves two or more parties engaged in a social relationship entering into an agreement on the terms of that relationship. There is such a thing as tacit consent, where the agreement is implied rather than explicit. But even then there is a choice involved. This raises and important aspect of consent: it is not acquiescence. Acquiescence is submission to the imposed will or demands of a stronger, higher or threatening authority, power or individual. It is given reluctantly absent other options. Consent, on the other hand, is given freely, willingly, and actively. It is born of a desire to engage rather than submit to an imposed circumstance or condition. Acquiescence is what authoritarians demand and depend on. Contingent consent is a foundational stone of democracy.

In other words, democracy is not just about free and open elections held at regular intervals. That is a necessary but insufficient condition for democracy to obtain as a regime type, political culture and form of social organization. What makes democracies substantive rather than just procedural (i.e. it is grounded in institutional, societal and economic behaviors and mores rather than just regular elections), is the reproduction of mass contingent consent over time. That is very much a dynamic enterprise that must respond to changing material, ideological, technological and social conditions if it is to survive as an egalitarian form of rule. Otherwise it risks slipping into authoritarianism of one type or another, as unfortunately has been seen in recent years even in very mature advanced liberal democracies as well as relatively immature democracies (the US and Brazil, for example).

My original idea was to link the macro- meso- and micro- aspects of mutual contingent consent in a book length conceptual exegesis. I believed then and believe now that the reinforcement of democratic norms and mores based on mutual contingent consent at the macro (political-institutional) levels filters down into the fabric of society and promotes meso- and micro-cosmic reproductions of mutual contingent consent in all aspects of social life, be it in business relations, churches, sports clubs and particularly amongst individuals (for example, workers consent to certain work requirements in exchange for acceptable wages and health and safety standards). In turn, the reproduction of democratic behaviour at the micro- and peso-levels reinforces the macro aspects of democratic contingent consent, making it a reproducible institutional feature as well as a social practice.

I fully understand that such a view must grapple with the inherent anti-democratic, if not outright authoritarian aspects of capitalism, racism, sexism and other types of bigotry and prejudice (including avarice). That was to be a full chapter or more in the work once I got to it. My guiding principle for envisioning a better democratic future was that even if incremental and slow, the mutually reinforcement of democratic values based on contingent consent would have a generational impact that led to more equitable if not egalitarian societies represented by political elites who shared those values as being intrinsically worthy rather than expedient or opportune for their immediate material and political fortunes.

In the end I managed to write a 7500 word introduction to this book project. It has laid dormant ever since but, just like the peripheral democracy project, it remains in my mind as a reminder of better days when I could think freely and pursue intellectual projects unencumbered by the financial concerns that now shape much of what I do (including the need to be “relevant” in the media news cycle). That was the value of academia to me, as a place where I drew a comfortable salary and which offered institutional support that allowed me to pursue my intellectual interests along with the more mundane duties of teaching and administration required by the job. From my understanding of tertiary affairs today, given the advent of Taylorist education sector management styles, that luxury no longer applies for most academics.

Over the years I have written a number of KP posts that address various aspects of democratic consent, so long-term readers will remember some of them. They are archived for those with an interest in the subject who have not read them. I know that I can always go back to this project because in the end the notion of consent is certainly not going away anytime soon unless religious and secular authoritarians manage to dominate public discourse and popular narratives about “proper” social values and mores, including what constitutes consent and when/where it should be applied in the social realm. More immediately, the issue of consent has been politicised and trivialised by entities and agencies when it comes to female behaviour, male sexual predation, student’s rights, parents rights, “sovereign” citizens and a host of other social interactions. Sadly, the need for consent as a foundation of democratic social interaction appears to have been distorted or lost in recent years even if it may have been a significant consideration before.

That is the crux of the matter: contingent consent at any level is the fundamental basis for all forms of democratic exchange. Just as they saying “love uncertainty and you will love elections” was a clarion cry in the (re-)construction of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America, so too must we remember that respect for mutual contingent consent as an intrinsic good must be the basis for all social interaction in a truly democratic society.

The question now is how to regain a basis for mutual contingent consent and the trust that is required in order to achieve it in an environment increasingly marked by dis- and misinformation purveyed by ideological extremists and facilitated by media outlets and political agents with no understanding of or concern for its importance in practical terms. Therein lies the rub.

In any event, the two book projects sit in boxes and on hard and flash drives, waiting for the moment when they are re-opened and revised. That day may never come but the fact that I am writing here about them is like the thought of re-connecting with a couple of long-lost friends from a better time and a happier place. They may be gone but are certainly not forgotten and with luck, perhaps we will meet again.

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!

When the levee breaks.

The Waitakere coastal settlement where I live will not be the same as a result of Cyclone Gabrielle. Although we were fortunate to not suffer deaths or major injuries, many properties have been destroyed or damaged by slips and many people have been displaced, some permanently. The immediate (dare I say precipitant?) cause of the worst damage were slips caused by sodden hillsides, cliff faces and road verges along ridge lines. The rains in the large storm a couple of weeks ago were diluvial, and although the wind in Gabrielle was worst than in the previous storm, it was buffered by the Waitakere Ranges as it blew counter-clockwise Southeast to Southwest. Yet it brought more than enough rain to overload the saturated earth in a narrow valley with steep inclines and deep hollows and floodplains where tributary streams descend, then converge and empty onto the beach.

My homestead suffered no major damage because we are perched on the top of the valley at the headwaters with the house sited in a carved out North-facing bowl on a relatively flat section of land. We heard pine limbs falling on the roof the night of the storm but other than some erosion and cracks in the footpaths, we emerged unscathed. Below us it was devastation. Our road is cut off by a half a dozen major slips and is closed, with some of those slips covering the entire road width, dozens of meters long and impassable even by foot. We still have no power as poles and lines were downed by those slips and others. We did not have internet or cell phone coverage for over 30 hours because the local cell phone tower lost power and then ran out of backup battery power after 15 hours. Indeed, in their infinite wisdom Spark, who controls the tower, decided against installing a backup generator at the tower and resorted to a cheaper battery supply even though there are day-long+ power outages in this area two/three times per year. Since emergency crews rely on cell phone coverage and because landlines were discontinued by Spark when the wifi receivers/transmitters were installed on the tower a few years ago, the entire area was actually incommunicado and in the dark for those 30+ hours. Needless to say that impeded emergency response/disaster relief efforts.

That gets me to the point of this post. It is now very clear that the climate change chickens have come to roost if for no other reason then that rising sea temperatures create subtropical storm conditions that generate increased rainfall and wind speeds further South than in previous centuries. These storms are generated more frequently and unseasonably when compared to historical records. So Gabrielle is a storm of a new type, if you will, one born off of New Caledonia in summer that headed deep Southeast offshore of New Zealand on its way to the roaring 40s.

The storm rains that hit my valley were not from the Southwest, which is/was the prevailing wind. They were unusual, virtually non-existent, in the two decades that I have lived in the area. But in the last two years there have been several storms that came from the S/SE direction, with the last two being the fiercest.

But this post is just not about the consequences of climate change on coastal communities. It is also about yet more human folly. In the past half decade the population of my valley has quadrupled (at a minimum). What was once a valley sprinkled with hippies, poets, writers, artists, surfers, potheads (covering all of the previous categories) and the occasional celebrity or politician hiding from the public eye, has now become a commuter suburb full of bankers, hedge fund managers, assorted mid-level executives and for-profit wellness gurus who combine crystal gazing and anti-vaccination spiritual discovery with crude money-making schemes in ashrams and healing centres scattered in the bush. Behind the backs of the voting public and in violation of the Waitakere Heritage Protection Act, local council authorities quietly re-zoned parts of my valley so it could be sub-divided into smaller sections. These recently re-zoned areas lie on the floodplains at the bottoms of the valley but also along the upper reaches where people like me live on lifestyle blocks of 10-11 acres. When I bought my place in 1999 no sub-division of any sort was permitted on properties like mine and even the native vegetation was supposed to be regenerated if not being actively used as horse paddock or in silage.

Now, with the “tiny house” trend, the valley is full of container houses and shacks posing as tiny houses. There is supposed to be only one sub-division per property and it must be linked to the main house by a common driveway and have its own septic system. The truth, however, is that some lifestyle blocks now have several small dwellings on them complete with assorted types of plumbing and not always with independent self-contained septic systems (in other words, they are using long drops). This ia problem because the tributary streams that converge towards the bottom cannot cope with the effluent from dodgy septic systems and long drops. Rather than new home owners, these new dwellings are occupied by a legion of renters squeezed out of the Auckland rental market but also, in significant numbers, by AirBnB guests who pay exorbitant amounts for a few nights of “bush experience.” In particular, foreigners are suckers for both the wellness con artists as well as the AirBnB parasites. In any event the result is a proliferation of people way beyond what is ecologically sustainable in the valley. E coli measurements in what used to be pristine parts of the tributary stream system are stark proof of that.

The two roads in and out of the settlement have not been significantly upgraded since 1999 other than pothole and shoulder repairs but the volume of traffic has increased exponentially along with the population growth. Some of the newcomers are decent sorts, but along with them have come meth heads, boy racers and gangsters of various stripes. What once were two isolated roads where horses, runners, cyclists and children could transit peacefully are now at times rally courses, both at day and at night. The days of mellow hippies are loooong gone.

When Cyclone Gabrielle hit she took with her established batches dating back to the 1950s but also some of the new builds on the floodplain and on steep hillsides. This raises the issue of consenting, building inspections and, dare I say it, corruption in the building consent awarding process. I say this because somehow complaints against some of the most egregious violators of land use statutes repeatedly end up with nothing having being done to curb their offending and business being conducted as usual even though almost every honest local knows who the offenders are and what the nature of their offences happen to be. Local politicians are well aware of this offending but cast a blind eye. Many people attribute the proliferation of tiny houses to the need for housing and therefore a legitimate market response to that pressure, but as mentioned, much of the new housing is immediately listed as short term holiday rentals rather than long term accomodation.

I do not mean to imply that corruption is a serious problem here or anywhere else in NZ. But I suspect that it exists and is more prevalent than we acknowledge. I say this in part because I was once part of a Transparency International survey of the NZ intelligence services and military. The questionnaires were extensive and in-depth. I put much effort into my responses. Where the answers were numerical values from 1-5 (1 being bad, 5 being good), I did in fact rate some institutions with 2.5/3 rather than 5s because not everything our security communities do is righteous or correct (for example, I marked the NZSIS down for its misrepresentations and treatment of Ahmed Zaoui and the NZDF down for its slander of Jon Stephenson, something that eventually resulted in it losing a defamation court case with costly consequences for the NZ taxpayers). The numerical value as well as longer response questions covered a wide swathe of institutional practices, so to my mind having a few lower scores in amongst an otherwise positive overall assessment was to be expected, especially given the nature of the institutions under review. In fact, I would have thought it unusual for scores to be uniform across the board.

When the aggregate tabulations were published I was shocked to see that in the final version of the Transparency International report, the agencies that I was asked to evaluate in terms of honesty, transparency, professionalism, etc. were given straight 5s in every category. I asked around of other participants if I was an outlier and my results discarded as such but was told that no, there was at least one other participant who had given varying marks to the categories in the study, sometimes coincident with mine but other times not (we participants did not interact with each other until the report was published in order to preserve the integrity of the process). For whatever reason, Transparency International New Zealand decided to overlook the lower marks and give the NZDF and intelligence agencies the equivalent of straight “A”s.

We must remember that Transparency International is focused on the appearance of integrity, corruption, honesty or dishonesty, not the reality of it. That may be why Singapore and New Zealand always appear on the top of the Transparency International scales when it comes to honest governance when in fact, at least in the case of Singapore, nothing moves in the city-state without someone greasing the palms of the PAP regime. Perhaps in New Zealand we have a variation on the theme. Ours is a white collar or white glove type of corruption conducted by well-heeled and well-connected people in high places, unlike the vulgar street level corruption of officials in small island states and other underdeveloped countries with loose ethics and weak accountability systems that could otherwise serve as checks on personal and professional avarice. Among other actors, the PRC has understood this phenomenon very well and used it to its advantage when seeking political and economic benefit in such places–and perhaps New Zealand as well (reports of Chinese “influence operations” in NZ are well-substantiated and have exposed close ties between PRC-linked donors and various political parties).

The tragedy in all of this is that while storms are an independent variable that is not preventable, human agency serves as an intervening or intermediate variable than can make their impact (the dependent variable) better or worse. Human actions contributed to making things worse when it comes to the storm impact on my small community, but looking afar to the NZ East Coast, perhaps it had a similar impact there as well (think of the debris fields created by forestry “slash” practices, which contributed to the destruction of bridges and roadways as logjams were created by rain-fueled floodwaters and resulted i the death of one child).

I could go on offer a critique of neo-liberalist applications and market driven economics on public welfare at this point, but their negative impact is clear. Whatever the original rational for adopting monetarist fiscal policies and deconstructing the public sector so that private interests could promote “efficiency” in the delivery of formerly public services and the economy in general, we need the State “back in” because it is obvious that human agency is driven by things other than devotion to service and the common good. That has turned out to be sub-optimal from the standpoint of our collective welfare. The pandemic was the first obvious sign that a return to a more interventionist State was needed. The cyclones are now a confirmation of that necessity.

Put another way. The calamity that has befallen my lovely rural beach-focused community is the result of two conditions: human-induced climate change and human institutional and personal failures. Which as a bottom line reminds us of one thing: the levees of society are, for better and worse, man-made.