Further thoughts about a couple of things near and far.

My son is back home recovering well. There are some more serious sequels to come, but for the moment we will enjoy the end of year respite and welcome in what we hope is a better 2024 even with the knowledge that he is not out of the woods yet.

I remain unhappy with much of the coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict in NZ, so threw some thoughts together on the consultancy social media account. They are just sketches designed as food for thought rather than deep analysis. I have fleshed them out a bit here.

First. What does it take for Israel to be labelled a “pariah State” and subjected to international sanctions? North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have all been branded as such and sanctioned because of their behavior (seeking nukes, human rights abuses). So what is the threshold for Israel? Or is it because it is “of” or backed by the West (specifically, the US) that it gets a longer definitional rope? I realise that there is not specific criteria for why and when a State is designated as a pariah and sanctions invoked (which themselves are not uniform or standard in nature), but surely Israel has moved into that territory. Or not?

On the other side, when it comes to those who attacked Israel on October 7, note their differences. Islamic Jihad is a religious extremist movement that pursues holy war against non-believers, Jews in particular. Hamas are an ethno-nationalist movement with some religious extremist elements that seeks to reclaim traditional lands lost to Israel. Their alliance is tactical more than strategic because their objectives overlap over the short-term but differ over the long term. They have common patrons (Iran/Russia), allies (Hezbollah/Houthis/Iraqi militias/Syria) and enemies (Israel/US/ West/Sunni oligarchies) but should not be seen as being a single entity.

The difference is important because Western corporate media tend to treat islamic Jihad and Hamas as a single organization, which implies a unified command, control, communications and intelligence-gathering (C3I) hierarchy. Although there is certainly a degree of coordination of weapons and intelligence transfers between them and their allies and integration of operational units such as what occurred on October 7, the leadership structures of the organisations differ as well as their long term objectives. More specifically, it is my read that Islamic Jihad desires a holy war and the establishment of a Caliphate in the Levant and larger Middle East, whereas Hamas wishes to reclaim what has historically been known as Palestine (hence the phrase “from the river to the sea,” demarcating the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean from the Lebanese/Israel/Syria border to the Red Sea). This well-known map shows the area of claim and what has happened to it since 1946.

The fact that Islamic Jihad and Hamas have different long-term objectives means that they are potentially divisible when it comes to both military approaches as well as diplomatic negotiating strategies.They and their patrons will resist the latter as a divide and conquer approach, and they will be correct in interpreting the situation as such. But for the larger set of interlocutors trying to achieve a solution to the current status quo impasse and endless cycle of violence, separating the approach to Islamic Jihad from that towards Hamas makes sense. Remember that Hamas wants to replace the Palestinian Authority as the main agent of the Palestinian people and has strong support in the West Bank in that regard (the Palestinian Authority is headquartered in the West Bank but is totally subject to Israeli edicts and controls). Islamic Jihad would prefer to see the current conflict broaden into a regional war out of which a new Caliphate will emerge from the ashes. The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Shiite militia attacks on US bases in Iraq are part of that effort.

Remember that Islamic Jihad and its allies do not need to win any major war in order to prevail (they militarily cannot). But their efforts have already caught the attention of the Arab “street,” where restive populations see the indifference or complicity of their oligarchical leaders when it comes to Israel as further proof that they are Western puppets. The idea is to expose who the real Masters are, undermine their Arab servants and promote jihad on a regional, grassroots level. it may seem like a pipe dream to those of us far from the streets of places like Cairo, Amman, Tangiers or Riyadh, but if and when anger takes to the streets of such places, then the outcomes are by no means certain when it comes to regime status quo stability.

It does not appear that Islamic Jihad will accept territorial concessions in order to achieve peace, as its project is larger than removing Israel and Jews from the Levant. Hamas, on the other hand, is arguably more nationalist than religious in nature, which means that the ideological focus is on specific ancestral territory rather than on religious orientation (even if Jews make for convenient historical scapegoats). It is also something that is obliquely seen in the fact that although Palestinians are largely Sunni Muslim in religious identification, Hamas’s main support come from Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite Iran and the Shiite Alawite (Assad) regime in Syria. These patrons and allies well understand that the Palestinians are much like the Kurds further to the East, claiming ancestral homelands that have long since been carved up by foreign occupiers (not just European colonialists) and who for many historical reasons are reviled by their co-religious neighbours (hence the refusal to grant or cede territory for either a Kurdish or Palestinian homeland by Sunni-majority regional neighbours or the acceptance of Palestinian refugee flows from the current conflict by these same States).

We must also factor in that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have factions within them, including political and military wings, (comparatively) moderates and militants, pragmatists versus “idealists” in their ranks. Islamic Jihad has a more unified political-military command (which makes it vulnerable) even when using a decentralised guerrilla military strategy), while Hamas has separated its political and military wings while trying to professionalize its fighters. In any case, harder or easier, these divides can be exploited if the will is there. Conversely, if the divisions are self-recognised and there is a unity of spirit against an immediate foe n face of the odds, they can be mitigated even under the stresses of overwhelming kinetic assault.

In the end, Islamic Jihad is an existential threat to the Middle Eastern status quo because it, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, want to overthrow the established order even if its current capability to do so is minimal and dependent on the help of others. Hamas is a stronger irregular warfare actor as well as an ideological movement in the local and international imagination because of its territorial focus, so does not pose as much a threat to the broader regional order other than the fact that it’s success could encourage similar insurrectionary movements in the near elsewhere.

Many difficulties exist on the other side of the road to elusive peace in Palestine. Israel will have to cede occupied territory for Hamas to even be approachable regarding negotiations, but what with the combination of recent orthodox Jewish immigrants from the US, Russia and elsewhere fuelling the settler movement, and with the Netanyahu government leaning hard right as a result of the conservative religious extremists in his cabinet, leading to the Israeli government arming of settlers and protecting them with military units, that is clearly not an option any time soon if ever. Israelis are hinting at the Sinai Peninsula as a place to re-settle Palestinians, but Egypt wants no part of that, nor for that matter do the Palestinians themselves. So the first thing that will need to happen is for the Israeli government to change and for it to abandon its settler policies. Again, this seems like a very high mountain to climb.

Another obstacle is that Netanyahu and his supporters may see the situation as a window of opportunity. They may liken the move to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and drive its population out of the Strip as being akin to the Six Day 1967 War in which Israel stripped Jordan of the West Bank, Syria of the Golan Heights and Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Moreover, given the surprise of the October 7 Hamas attack this year, it is clear that Netanyahu does not want to be seen as Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur (or Ramandan) War of 1973, when Israel was caught unprepared for an attack on October 6 by Egypt and Syria, leading to large early losses for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Even though Israel ultimately won that war in 20 days, Prime Minister Meir was castigated for the lack of preparedness or forewarning and her coalition lost a majority in the legislative election the next year, resulting in her resignation. Netanyahu is acutely aware of her fate as well of the actions he took that helped facilitate Hamas launching its attack (like ignoring intelligence warnings and re-deploying active duty troops from the Gaza border to protect illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank). He knows that politically he is a dead man walking unless he comes up with something spectacular.

In his mind and that of his supporters and colleagues, seizing Gaza may be just that. Since there is no credible international deterrent levelled against Israel and a lack of enforcement capacity to stop its prosecution of the war even if there was a consensus that it has gone too far with its collective punishment/ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza, Netanyahu makes the plight of the Gazans a UN refugee problem while the IDF consolidates its physical control of the territory. That allows him to “eliminate” Hamas (and many innocents) as a physical entity in the Strip, opening the door for Israeli occupation and settlement. If that is the case, he may well overcome domestic anger at his pre-war actions and seeming disregard for Israeli hostages and instead ride a wave of nationalist sentiment to another term in office.

Should that happen, the shrinking map of Palestine shown above will have to updated yet again.

Turn to nasty.

From its first actions as government, it seems that the National-ACT-NZ First (NACT1st) coalition is basing its approach to policy-making on utu (they would prefer to say revenge), racism and repaying their donors and supporters with aggressive repeals of legislation passed under the previous Labour government. The approach is brutish, brazen and nasty, but unsurprisingly was not something that they campaigned on during the general election. It seems that they knew how unpopular their retribution would be so they just winked and nodded to their silent partners (like the tobacco and fossil fuel lobbies) while yammering about crime, housing costs, foreign home buyers and tax cuts. They successfully used a compliant clickbait-obsessed corporate media to platform them and highlight personal peccadillos in the Labour caucus in order to undermine faith in the Labou-led government while avoiding answering hard questions about their real agenda.

Now in office, they demonstrate a complete disregard for democratic procedures and processes. For all the talk from the Right about the “Stalinist” bent of the Ardern government during the pandemic, the fact is that Labour spent much (often fruitless) time in public consultations and parliamentary committee hearings hashing out the pros and cons of a number of important policy issues. The actually listened to the public and to the Opposition on important matters even if not ultimately agreeing with them. The NACT1st approach, in contrast, has been to pass under urgency, without any public consultation, repeals of major pieces of legislation like the Smokefree Act, Fair Pay Agreements, Ute Fuel Tax and Clean Energy Rebates. They seek to abolish the use of Te Reo in official communications and review the Treaty of Waitangi (how they propose to do is a matter of conjecture at this point).They cancelled major infrastructure projects already underway. They want to reduce the number of ministries, specifically those having to do with Pacifika and Maori affairs. They propose to deregulate a host of commercial activities, open Conservation lands to mining and renew oil and natural gas leases.They want to privatise parts of the public health service, permit Charter schools and military-style boot camps for adolescents, and in general adhere to long since discredited neoliberal prescriptions for economic management.

In other words, they have adopted a retrograde scorched earth approach to Labour policy measures that appears to be taken out of a book written by Argentine president and “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei, the self-denominated tantric sex guru who consults his cloned Mastiffs for policy advice (I am not making this up). Milei has reduced the size of his cabinet from 18 to 9 ministers and has threatened to remove 100,000 public servants from the federal payroll (Argentina is a federal republic with a presidential-dominant democratic system, unlike NZ’s parliamentary democracy). The ministries of education, labor, employment, social development and social security have been absorbed into a new uber Ministry of Human Capital, and the ministries of transportation, women and gender, environment, and culture were eliminated outright.

Milei wants to close the Central Bank and “dollarize” the economy, although his more centrist advisors convinced him to hold off on that while other measures are implemented. Instead they have devalued the Argentine peso by 54 percent overnight last week, basically halving the income of anyone who did not have significant dollar reserves in personal accounts or who is paid in US dollars (one can imagine who the lucky ones might be). The fact is that most Argentines do not get paid in dollars and do not have bank accounts holding them in any significant quantity.

To top things off, Milei, who has a penchant for hurling misogynistic insults at female critics, has publicly stated that “blue eyed” people are intellectually superior (he himself is blue-eyed in a country of brown-eyed people), and proposes to repeal abortion rights and legal protections for non-binary individuals. Truth be told, Milei is a freak both personally and ideologically, a merkin elected out of desperation by just over half of the voting population tired of the corrupt politics as usual but who ignored the fact that he is not the lesser of the many evils that they are saddled with. He is no panacea for what ails the country.

Given the tone of NACT1st statements in recent days, could this be a path that it will chose to follow? Members of its coalition have voiced support for Milei and his project, so it is not a reach to think that they might want to emulate at least some of his policy ‘reforms.” Certainly the attacks on Maori seem to come from a “blue eyed” perspective.

There is something profoundly ugly about this, yet it is an approach to governing that is celebrated by rightwing groups like the Tax Payers and Free Speech “Unions,” assorted rightwing bloggers and, now that Elon Mush has opened the lid on the septic tank, a bunch of reactionary, racist, misogynistic and gay- and trans-phobic social media trolls, to say nothing of the reactionaries on platforms like Counterspin, The Platform and Reality Check Radio. It as if NACT1st has ripped a scab off the NZ body politic and out has oozed the pustulence of rightwing authoritarian-minded intolerance, greed and bigotry.

The good news is that the combination of narcissistic egos and incompetence that is the hallmark of the new government may well be their undoing.They are simply too stupid, too myopic, too crass, craven and venal to understand the subtitles and nuances involved in crafting lasting policy for the betterment of the commonweal. Or perhaps that has never been their intention.

To put it in a vulgar way more in line with the thrust of NACT1st’s approach, if Milei is a merkin, then Luxon is the bell-end on an onanist policy-making caucus.

It will be interesting to see what the public reaction to the razor gang approach will be. In Argentina Milei has already used Executive Powers to repress public demonstrations against his edicts. But Argentine civil society is often raucous and its union movement is staunch and not averse to street violence to make its case. Most of the Argentine public service is unionised, so the move to mass redundancies is going to encounter fierce resistance. Since the security forces are working class people whose families will be negatively impacted by Milei’s cutbacks on welfare, health and education services, it remains to be seen if they will stay loyal to him and follow his orders if people hit the streets in protest. Whatever happens, the next few months will be tumultuous at best.

In NZ the political culture is not as violent as that of Argentina but it does have limits of toleration. The Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy like NZ does not have the Executive discretion available to Milei. But the NZ union movement is nowhere as staunch or as important to the productive apparatus as is its Argentine counterparts, being more of the compromise- rather than confrontation-oriented persuasion (some might call it the lapdog approach to employment relations where getting along with employers and surviving as a collective agent is more important than defending the interests of the rank and file, but I will leave it for others to decide if the characterisation fits). Whatever the case, the moment of truth has arrived for Kiwi society when it comes to responding to these assaults on hard-won social gains. Will Kiwis bend a knee in submission or stand up and fight? If they fight (even if just symbolically with acts of political theatre and perhaps episodic property damage), will the police stand against or with them? Will the NACT1st government try to resort to Emergency Powers in the face of civil unrest?

The larger issue is how NACT1st sees democracy. As readers might remember from previous posts on the subject, one can perceive democracy in two different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as having intrinsic worth or being an intrinsic good in that it is the best possible (albeit flawed) method of giving voice to the people and substantively protecting the interests of all via a system of contingent compromises on major social, political and economic issues. It has its problems but is universally better than its alternatives when considering the heterogenous diversity of the social fabric and the need for achieving some sort of balance or equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands in the political, social and economic marketplaces.

On the other hand democracy can be seen instrumentally, that is, as a means to an end or a tool to achieve power or partisan, sectoral or personal gain. Javier Milei has this perspective and it appears that NACT1st does as well. There is nothing intrinsically good about democracy in this view. For those who see democracy instrumentally, authoritarianism would be a better choice but it is too obvious in its bias. Instead, democracy’s worth is that it gives a veneer of representation and voice to the self-serving actions of winners of electoral contests, who then proceed to award themselves, their supporters and patrons with the spoils of governance. As Lenin put it, democracy is capitalism’s “best possible political shell.” There still may be checks and balances on the government, but those come from formal institutions like the judiciary rather than civil society itself. The latter must seek recourse in the street as well as if not more than formal channels and processes because the deck of officialdom is stacked against them when democratic instrumentalists hold the reins.

All of which is to say that the next six months should be interesting for both Argentina and NZ. Under their version of the social contract the new rightwing governments are hellbent on rolling back the clock when it comes to rights and obligations. They want to downsize the State when it comes to the provision of public goods and services, and they want to return to a social hierarchy more akin to the 1950s than the present era. Unfortunately for them, those days are long gone and both Argentine and Kiwi society cannot be remade in that nostalgic image.

In the end the fate of their regressive projects rests on whether civil society will go along with or organise against them. Because the bottom line of democratic governance is mass contingent consent to the political authorities and projects of the day, and on that score it remains to be seen if the Milei or NACT1st governments will enjoy that bottom line for any significant amount of time.

My reckon is that they will not, but that Argentines will be far less complacent than Kiwis when defending their interests.

A handful of observations.

I have opined regularly about the Hamas-Israel war over on the social media platform owned by that reactionary billionaire, but other than the preceding post have opted to not address the subject directly here at KP. However, the amount of misunderstanding, disinformation and misinformation circulating around that unhappy state of affairs prompts me to write here to offer some clarifications.

First: Asymmetric warfare is not just military conflict between unequally matched armed belligerents. It involves ideological, political, economic and cultural asymmetries as well. Stronger actors emphasise their immediate “hard” advantages, weaker actors emphasise soft long-term tools.Stronger actors focus on the immediate battlefield impact of kinetic mass in order to set the stage for favourable conflict resolution. Weaker actors focus on attrition of the enemy’s will and its broader support base in order to shape public opinion about a prolonged stalemate.

Second: War crimes and crimes against humanity are not defined by method of injury (knife, gun, missile, bomb, rape, torture) or the proximity of perpetrators to victims at the moment those crimes are committed. They are defined by who is targeted, collectively and individually. After that, the scope and scale of the crimes are measured by the amount of victims involved, remembering that war crimes and crimes against humanity can be committed against individuals and small groups.

Third: Seeing fault on both sides of the Hamas-Israel conflict means not excusing criminal behaviour by either. Nor does it ignore historical grievances and injustices involving each side that led to the current conflict. Focus on the comparative scale of atrocities does not alter the underlying reality of crimes against humanity committed by both sides. We must recognise historical and current wrongs before conflict resolution can be achieved, and compromises from each party will be required for a durable peace to be secured.

Fourth: Stating the obvious yet again. One can support Israel without being a Zionist. One can support Palestinians without supporting Hamas. One can see merit in the arguments of both sides with regard to the historical record. But one can never justify or condone the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by either side for any reason. Doing so is morally bankrupt. Doing so to score political points against partisan rivals in places like NZ, US, UK or OZ is reprehensible.

Fifth: The Hamas-Israel conflict ripped a scab and the pus of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia has oozed out on global scale. Bigots and racists on both sides see it as an opportunity to vent primordial hatreds in order to widen the divide between communities instead of pursuing peace.

Sixth: Proposing that the Palestinian Authority (PA) take control of Gaza once the IDF “cleansing” has ended is unrealistic. The PA (and its dominant Fatah Party) is a corrupt lapdog of the Israelis and their Western patrons that lost a fair election to Hamas in 2006 and then refused to accept the results. Hamas has ruled Gaza since ousting Fatah in an armed conflict after the 2006 elections. Both Hamas and Fatah have political and military wings. Fatah is secular and Hamas is Islamicist. Hamas is authoritarian but provides public goods and services to Gazans in exchange for public acceptance of their rule. The PA is a semi-authoritarian gerontocracy that is not supported by many Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. Making it the replacement for Hamas will just prolong the conflict, not end it. For that to happen Hamas must be accepted as a legitimate representative of Palestinian interests, upon which a focus on its political wing can help bring them to a bargaining table with the PA and other interested parties. Refusing to acknowledge Hamas is short-sighted and plays to their militant armed wing, not peace. This is called “dealing with reality.” Hamas may be unpleasant, just like the Kim regime in North Korea or the Netanyahu govt in Israel, but it is a participant in Palestinian politics and beyond. It will not go away even if its armed wing is decimated. The PA cannot replace it.

Seventh: Hamas’s tactics have so far worked: Sucker the IDF into over-reacting to the initial Hamas attacks by collectively punishing all Gazans, thereby swaying global opinion against Israel; establish itself as the primary defender of Palestinian interests rather than the toothless Palestinian Authority; broaden the conflict into multiple fronts involving a number of supportive actors (eg. Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria) that will test the will of Israeli allies to escalate further; foment unrest on the Arab street. None of this justifies its crimes against humanity, but speaks to how the framing of the conflict has moved from a largely pro-Israel to a pro-Palestinian response even in countries with strong official ties to Israel. Whatever the immediate military outcome, there appears to be a potential for a redrawing of geopolitical fault lines as a result, something that Israel, the US and other Western states may see as being in their favour but which in reality could well be not. In particular, the post-colonial Global South is not following the Western lead. That opens space for other actors–the PRC, Russia, Iran and other anti-Western govts–to exercise influence and leverage on the South as a result. Israel and its patrons need to look at the bigger long term play as they calculate their short-term responses.

Eighth: Given the role of armed guerrilla group Irgun and its then leader Menachem Begin (later Israeli Prime Minister) in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (91 dead), the killing of 254 Palestinians in the village of Dir Yassin and establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (where the Irgun was integrated into the Israeli Defense Forces), it is rich of Israel to label Hamas as an illegal “terrorist organization” when it knows that Hamas has political and military wings that copy what Irgun did 75 years ago. No moral superiority here. To be clear: this is about hypocrisy when framing the conflict. It does not absolve Hamas or Israel for war crime/crimes against humanity, but it does point to the commonalities between their origins as political movements that use terrorism as a tactic in sectarian war.

Ninth: In exchange for Hamas’s release of 50 women and children hostages, Israel will release 150 women and children prisoners from detention centres (under the 1:3 exchange ratio). Most of these women and children have been arrested and detained without charge in the West Bank after October 7 while resisting Israeli security forces and settler efforts to displace them from their homes and lands. That shows cynical deliberation on Israel’s part. The exchange, in other words, it is a straight hostage swap.

There are more comments along these lines on that social media platform but these seem to be the ones that, in my mind at least, help frame the objective reality of what is going on. readers are welcome to (politely) disagree or add to the discussion.

Media Link: The Hamas-Israel War as a Global Catalyst.

Readers will recall that I have been writing about the transition from unipolarity to multipolarity in international affairs since the inception of this blog. Although still in progress, that realignment has pretty much proven true but not in the way I and others assumed that it would. Rather than a move to a system dominated by several Great Powers balancing each other on specific policy issues within a common institutional framework, what is emerging is two competing constellations of States joined by non-State actors such as high technology firms and various ideological proxies and surrogates. These blocs are not formal alliances but instead are loose networks of actors that share perspectives and values on the world order. One defends the current status quo, the other does not.

The one that does not represents the post-colonial Global “South.” The one that does represents the liberal internationalist order created by and for imperialist/colonial and neo-imperialist/post-colonial Northern powers beginning in the 17th and continuing well into the late 20th century. The Global South bloc is led by Russia and China, who beyond their Northern locations trade on their revolutionary legacies of the 1950s through to the 1990s, when they supported resistance and liberation movements against colonialism and imperialism across the globe. The Global South bloc includes other members of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa), to which will be added Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen next year.

The intention of this emerging constellation, which also has North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and several Sub-Saharan African States as potential members, is not so much to push a Southern Hemisphere outlook on world affairs but to create a parallel institutional edifice that will eventually replace liberal internationalist institutions as the main conduits of international exchange. Things like the Belt and Road Initiative, growth of the China Development Bank as a rival to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the move to use the Chinese Yuan as a reserve international currency rather than the US dollar when providing loans to infrastructure development projects, as well as the proposed move to create a BRICS currency that will rival the Euro and US dollar, all are part of replacing the Western-centric institutional framework with a more “South”-centric organisational apparatus.

In this week’s A View from Afar podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss how the Hamas-Israel war is a precipitant for the consolidation of this new type of bipolarism–two multipolar constellations competing with each other on numerous geopolitical fronts. Although it is still too early to see the final configurations of these blocs and whether they will translate into rival security alliances down the road (with all the dangers that entails), we try to explain how shifting perceptions on the global “street” (as opposed to between governments) are laying the foundations for a fundamental shift to the new systemic alignment.

Authoritarian Realism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Link: “A View from Afar” returns to discuss Hamas/Israel.

After the hiatus that also forced me to suspend KP posts for a while, Selwyn Manning and I have resumed the “AVFA” podcast series. In the restart episode we dip our toes into turbulent waters by talking about the first order dynamics and potential second and third order consequences/repercussions of the Hamas/Israel conflict.

It is an emotion-laden subject but we do our best to be dispassionate. You can find the show here.

Bully Pulpits and the Politics of Nastiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Trump politics 101, and it is nasty.

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

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

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

Things could get nasty.

Media Link: The geopolitics behind the reaction to the Fukushima wastewater release.

I did an interview with Radio New Zealand Pacific on the reaction to the controlled release of wastewater from the decommissioned Fukushima nuclear energy plant in Japan. Let’s just say that geopolitics outweighs science when it comes to how some people and States have reacted to the release. Link here.

“Second image” issues in NZ foreign policy.

The term “second image” in international relations theory refers to an argument about the domestic sources of a nation-state’s foreign policy. The argument posits that it is the nature of those domestic sources that determines the way in which nation-states perceive and approach foreign policy. Conversely, the phrase “second image reversed” refers to the international/foreign influences on domestic politics in individual nation-states, arguing that the type and extent of foreign influence in a nation-state has a strong impact on the nature of its domestic politics. These notions have been offered in order to explain the differences between authoritarian versus democratic foreign policy-making as well as the impact of power differentials, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation on public perceptions of foreign events as well as on the very nature of political life in targeted countries (such as is claimed to be the case with Chinese influence campaigns in places like NZ). One side sees domestic politics shaping the broad contours of foreign policy; the other sees international events and influences framing the nature and conduct of domestic politics and local approaches to foreign policy.

Both views can be true and co-exist at the same time. The way in which domestic politics influences foreign policy-making can in turn be informed by foreign influence and intervention in domestic politics. Again, the way Chinese interests have influenced political and economic elites in NZ (covertly or overtly) has had a clear impact on the way NZ has approached the PRC as a foreign interlocutor. Academic Anne-Marie Brady has written extensively about PRC use of “magic weapons” such as influence campaigns in NZ and elsewhere, but one only need think of former politicians like Jenny Shipley, Don Brash and John Key sitting on the boards of a Chinese bank and companies with NZ interests to understand how reversed second imagery works.

The second image aspect of foreign policy-making is particularly noteworthy in NZ because of its one-sidedness. As mentioned above, there is plenty to suggest that there are numerous foreign influences helping shape NZ foreign policy-making. Some are legitimate and open in their presence, such as NZ membership in various NGOs, treaties and conventions with binding rules governing standards of behaviour by members, as well as in NZ’s abiding by international norms and conventions when it comes to things like domestic labour laws, environmental regulations, intellectual property and patent rights, emissions trading schemes, various health, welfare and safety standards and the like. Others, such as PRC “sharp power” direct influence campaigns, are more opaque in nature and often unrecognised or unacknowledged by those on the receiving end of them. Whatever form it may take, it is widely recognised that in NZ the reversed second image is very present when it comes to foreign policy-making.

Less so is the second image itself. The NZ foreign policy community is small, with a select number of academic and private sector actors joining government officials in shaping the country’s approach to the outside world. Public involvement in foreign policy is minimal and the political class treat it as if it was rare earth. Not surprisingly, in this year’s election campaigns discussion of foreign policy has been conspicuous by its absence. With some exceptions noted in outlets like Newsroom, the Spinoff, 36th-Parallel.com and the works of people like Matt Nippert, Gordon Campbell, Selwyn Manning and David Fisher, much of this is due to the corporate media’s focus on controversy and gotcha moments rather than on in-depth analysis of substantive issues of any sort, much less those involving foreign relations. NZ based academics like Robert Patman, Rueben Steff and Van Jackson all write thoughtfully about foreign policy matters, to include aspects of NZ foreign policy, but their contributions in the media are (often self-) limited and do not inform campaign or political party policy coverage (as far as I know).

Political parties are not saying much either. Except National, parties have offered short–sometimes very short-– manifestos (thanks to The Spinoff for collating them), and interestingly the Greens have the must robust policy platform, even if in a touchy-feely, tree-hugging, climate-centric sort of way. For its part ACT just wants to increase defense spending and buy more ships, planes and guns because that is what the BIG BOY ALLIES DO, while NZ First as well as ACT want to ignore/withdraw from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ACT says ignore, NZ First says withdraw, so it is a matter of conjecture as to whether ignoring is better than withdrawing from a legally non-binding Declaration that NZ initially opposed but eventually signed up to).

Te Pati Maori are all about increasing support for Pacifika leaders and not much else, while Labour is pretty much all about trade, trade, more trade, more trade involving Maori and the derivative issues from trade (such a patent and intellectual property rights). Focusing on the blue rinse plate special, Winston and his motley crew of racists (increasingly shared with ACT), anti-vaxxers and QAnon believers want to move the Naval base from Devonport to Marsden Point. The Greens oppose AUKUS, South Pacific militarisation and support using the military for climate change mitigation purposes. Te Pati Maori have nothing much to say about Defence, nor for that matter does Labour in its campaign documents (as much as I have seen of them). Interestingly, no party speaks about intelligence issues in spite of the recently released reports advocating for intelligence community reform in the wake of March 15 and the rise of domestic white supremacist and other forms of seditious extremism. National is especially distinguished because it has nothing much to say on any foreign policy position, but if I was to hazard a guess as to what it may be, I reckon that it would be “more of the same” with a “please be nicer to the PRC” spin added to it. (NOTE: I stand to be corrected if Labour and National have put out comprehensive foreign policy platforms but so far I have not found any when doing cursory searches).

To recap: foreign policy is woefully underrepresented in the current election campaign, much as it was in previous elections. While NZ gets the second image reversed treatment in spades, the domestic sources of foreign policy are limited to a handful of foreign policy elites who in large measure appear to be unchecked by and do not receive significant policy directives from the government and political class of the day. Instead, it is the other way around.

Although foreign policy has always been the province of elites in most countries due to the requirements of educational backgrounds, international knowledge and experience, added to the necessities of maintaining consistent diplomatic relations across home and foreign governments over time, in NZ this is worrisome because the public has virtually no input, via civil society organisations, lobbies or political parties themselves, into foreign policy perspectives and decision-making processes. For example, much is said about (and I have argued against) the notion that NZ has an ‘independent” foreign policy. But how is that informed by domestic agents and interests? Certainly not by public referenda or informed consent voiced in elections. Certainly not by academic debates about the theoretical and practical meanings of the term “independence” in foreign policy. Certainly not by community public hall forums. Certainly not by journalistic challenges to the official line.

Economic elites may have an inside track in foreign policy-making and even work hand-in-glove with Foreign Ministry officials to ensure that trade-centric policies are the core of NZ’s international position regardless of who is in government and what NZ proclaims on other matters, but who else gets a look in? Academics? Perhaps a chosen few (certainly not this ex-professor). Consultants? (Likely more than a few, usually retired diplomats or military officials, and again, certainly not this one). Lobbies (certainly, but in very limited and exclusive numbers). Religious organisations? Unions? Environmental Groups? Human Rights Organisations? Sadly, although these latter groups may have a presence on the home front, their input into the foreign policy process can be considered to be largely negligible.

The hard truth is that foreign policy making in NZ is made by a relatively small group of bureaucrats and well-connected, self-interested private sector insiders and interest groups largely unchecked by the political elite, much less public opinion. They have little accountability of a vertical sort, and even less on a horizontal level (i.e. accountability to their political overseers’ and the public, on the one hand, and to other State bureaucracies on the other). That poses a problem because horizontal and vertical accountability of public agencies is considered a hallmark of liberal democracies. They answer to the public, to politicians and to each other. Unfortunately, in NZ the foreign policy elite largely do not.

This is problematic because of the syllogism involved. If we accept a) that in NZ the second image reversed phenomenon is very real, with foreign influences having a significant impact on foreign policy elite perspectives and decision-making; and b) that little second image input goes into NZ foreign policy-making outside of a small group of overlapped and interconnected elites that are largely unaccountable to anyone but themselves; then c) NZ’s foreign policy is shaped more by foreign-influenced elite perceptions and interests than those of the voting public at large. In an autocracy this would be the normal state of affairs, but for a liberal democracy it is a concerning issue, to say the least.

Perhaps as the election campaign moves closer to decision day there will be more robust discussion of foreign policy issues, including those related to intelligence, defense and international security. Perhaps there will be debate on whether NZ is truly independent or not, whether the trade-centric focus is still fit for purpose, and what NZ’s approach to Great Power competition should be in an era of increased multipolarity and broadening of areas of contestation in regions such as the South Pacific that were once thought to be “benign” strategic environments. But as things stand that seems unlikely, and instead we will be treated to an endless series of stories and debates about which party and candidate sent out the meanest tweet, who got caught out telling porkies and who dog-whistled the most in order get media click-bait coverage.

If so, that is not good enough.

Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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