Category Archives: Public services

A word on post-neoliberalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Retweets: Pandemic mitigation.

Introduction.

I have recently seen a trend whereby people turn their twitter ruminations into op eds and even semi-scholarly essays such as those featured on Spinoff, Patreon or The Conversation. It makes sense to develop ideas from threads and maximise publication opportunities in the process, especially for academics operating in a clickbait environment that has now crept into scholarly journals. I am not immune from the thread-to-essay temptation, although I have tended to do that on my work page and stick to subjects more pertinent to my work because the twitter account I use is a business rather than personal one.

With that in mind and because I have not posted here for a while, I thought it opportune to edit and repurpose some twitter thoughts that I have shared on the subject of what might be called the security politics of Covid mitigation in New Zealand. Below I have selected, cut and pasted some salient edited tweets along that analytic line.

Security aspects of pandemic politics.

There are traditional national security threats like armed physical attack by external/internal enemies. There are non-traditional national security threats like rising sea levels and disasters. Anti-vaxxers are a non-traditional national security threat that must be confronted.

Social media is where state and non-state actors (criminal organisations, extremist groups) link with local agitators in order to combine resources for common purpose. Viral dis-/misinformation and influence campaigns designed to socially destabilise and politically undermine public faith in and support for liberal democracies like NZ are an example of such hand-in-glove collaboration. If left unchecked it can lead to mass public disorder even when seemingly disorganised (e.g. by using “leaderless resistance” tactics). This growing “intermestic” or “glocal” threat needs to be prioritised by the NZ intel community because otherwise social cohesion is at risk. On-line seditious saboteurs must be identified, uncovered and confronted ASAP. That includes “outing” the foreign-local nexus, to include state and non-state actor connections.

If people are going to complain about Chinese influence operations in NZ, then they would do good to complain about US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations in NZ as well. Especially when the latter is manifested in the streets as anti-vac/anti-mask protests. The difference between them? PRC influence operations attempt to alter the NZ political system from within. US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations seek to subvert it from without. Both are authoritarian threats to NZ’s liberal democracy.

In the war against a mutating virus initially of foreign origin NZ has a 5th column: anti-vax/maskers, religious charlatans, Deep State and other conspiracy theorists, economic maximisers, venal/opportunistic politicians, disinformation peddlers and various selfish/stupid jerks. Their subversion of a remarkably effective pandemic mitigation effort should be repudiated and sanctioned as strongly as the law permits. Zero tolerance of what are basically traitors to the community is now a practical necessity (along with a 90% vaccination rate). Plus, as a US-NZ dual citizen who had his NZ citizenship application opposed by some hater, I would like to know who let in the rightwing Yank nutters now fomenting unrest over masks/vaxes/lockdowns/mandates etc. They clearly do not meet the good character test.

A counter-terrorism axiom is that the more remote the chances of achieving an ideological goal, the more heinous will be the terrorist act. Anti-vax and conspiracy theorists using Nazi/holocaust analogies to subvert democratic pandemic mitigation strategies are akin to that.

Long-term community well-being requires commitment to collective responsibility and acceptance of individual inconvenience in the face of a serious public health threat. It is part of the democratic social contract and should not be usurped for partisan or personal gain. Elephant in the room: when cultural mores contradict and undermine public health scientific advice but for political reasons cannot be identified as such. If true, partisan-focused approaches to Covid is not just an Opposition sin. The virus does not see culture or tradition. Anti-vax/mask views are no excuse to violate public health orders. Likewise economic interest, leisure pursuits, religious or secular beliefs no matter how deeply held. Ergo, cultural practice cannot override the public good. Collective responsibility is a democratic obligation.

Those that set the terms of debate tend to win the debate. In politics, those that frame the narrative on a subject, tend to win the debates about it. By announcing a “Freedom Day” the govt has conceded the debate about pandemic mitigation. The issue is not about human freedom. It is about managing public health risk in pursuit of the common good. Using “freedom” rhetoric injects ideology into what should be an objective debate about prudent lockdown levels given uneven vaccination rates, compliance concerns, mental health and economic issues. Bad move.

When the blind lead the blind.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has been released and the verdict is mixed. Some are pleased that systemic failures were identified and acknowledged while others are disappointed that no single person or agency was held to account for those failures. The Muslim community, although given a prominent place in the RCI investigations and Report and offered direct apologies by the Prime Minister and heads of Police and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), remains unsatisfied with the outcome even if it accepts the recommendations that derive from the Report (as does the government).

Under its terms of reference, the RCI investigation was very broad and very shallow. Because of its scope it eventually had to be extended a year beyond its original six month mandate and have its budget doubled. It was broad in the sense that it had to address the terrorist and his activities, the impact his actions had on the targeted community, the actions and inaction of State security agencies (not just those involved in counter-terrorism (CT) efforts) that contributed to the event and a host of extraneous factors considered relevant to the investigation (for example, European and US experiences with rightwing terrorism).

It was shallow in the sense that, even though it could have availed itself of powers of compulsion under oath under the Inquiries Act, it chose not to. Instead, the RCI engaged in a self-limiting investigatory approach where it was dependent on the voluntary cooperation of State entities and officials when it came to evidence provision and testimony. Because of concerns about national security, no government officials (other than agency heads) identified during the course of the investigation were publicly named and their testimony is to remain sealed for thirty years. Although available to security authorities, the terrorist’s evidence is permanently suppressed in order to avoid copy-cat behaviour. 

One view is that this was done to encourage honesty and candor on the part of witnesses with potential liability exposure, but it also meant that in terms of transparency and public accountability, the RCI was hamstrung from the start. A more cynical view has it that this covers up culpability and whitewashes the truth while absolving the guilty.

Others have written about the before and after-effects of the attacks on New Zealand’s Muslim community as well as the history of local white supremacists and rightwing extremists. The work of the RCI has been amply scrutinised. The Report itself has been dissected at length. Given that, here the focus is on the institutional deficiencies within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) that were uncovered by the RCI.

If one phrase sums up the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks, it is “systemic failure.” The failure was institutional and individual, within and across New Zealand’s borders and involved errors of commission and omission.

The most salient finding is that there was a pervasive obsession with Islamic extremists within the NZ Counter-Terrorism community dating to 9/11. This myopic focus was shared by collection (operational) agencies, analytic agencies, oversight and coordination agencies, foreign partners, the governments and most politicians of the day. The media and the public, while largely unconcerned about the possibility of domestic terrorism, accepted the official line that after 9/11 and given events in the Middle East, Islamic extremism was the most likely threat to the Kiwi way of life.

The problem with this perspective is its lack of grounding in fact. Before and after 9/11, no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of any act of ideologically-motivated violence in Aotearoa. A couple of people have been arrested and imprisoned for possessing jihadist materials, a few have been detained for objectionable social media posts, some have been sent into de-radicalisation diversion programs and some have had their passports cancelled based upon fears that they would travel to the Middle East to join ISIS or al-Qaeda. Two have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East and one is languishing in a Syrian opposition jail. Back at home, at any given time, 30-35 people are monitored by the intelligence services because of their perceived jihadist sympathies. They may be inclined towards violence but as of yet none have decisively acted on their impulses. When it comes to contemplating acts of terrorist violence on NZ soil, would-be jihadists have been relatively few and far between, and all talk and no lethal action.

During the same timeframe, right-wing extremism world-wide grew bolder in terms of violent acts and larger in terms of numbers, starting with the mass murders perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Oslo in 2011 and accelerating after 2015 with murderous attacks in places like the US, UK and Germany as Daesh was defeated in Iraq and Syria and refugee flows increased from the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe. On-line white supremacist forums proliferated, as did the number of self-radicalised “lone wolves” who populated discussion groups focused on who, when and how to commit violence against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays, Arabs, Africans, and other perceived undesirables.

Groups like Atomwaffen Division, English Defense League, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois moved from their keyboards to the streets. NZ was not immune to this phenomenon, with groups such as the Dominion Movement, Northern Front, National Front, White Defense League, New Order, Right Wing Resistance, and more recent off-shoots like Western Guard and European Students Association waxing and waning before becoming more visible and vitriolic over the last ten years (other violently-inclined groups have formed after March 15, including Action Zealandia). 

This suggests that post-2011 NZ counter-terrorism (CT) threat assessments should have incorporated the rising global trend of irregular right-wing violence. Yet in the period 2010-2019 right-wing extremism was mentioned only a handful of times in CT reports, most in reference to terrorist attacks overseas. When and where the possibility of a right-wing terrorist attack in NZ was mentioned, such as in a 2011 Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) report that the Oslo attack was a model for copycats and that New Zealand’s firearms regimes allowed for the legal purchase of military-style weapons with that intent, it was ignored by other agencies. Bureaucratic rivalries may have contributed to that.

The organization of the NZIC and the business model used by front line collection agencies made detection of non-Islamicist terrorist threats difficult. Collection agencies like the NZSIS and NZ Police operate on a “lead-based” and “customer” focused business model, in which the agencies react to tips about suspicious behaviour and frame their operations and analyses according to the perceived needs of their sponsors and patrons—primarily the government and foreign partners. The decentralised and siloed nature of the NZIC is another contributing factor to the failure to detect terrorist plots, whereby the alphabet soup of intelligence shops in areas like Customs, Immigration, MBIE and coordinating and analytic agencies like CTAG, the National Assessments Bureau (NAB), Security and Intelligence Board (SIB), Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee (CTCC) and a number of others compartamentalise and narrowly share classified information on a “need to know” basis.

There are no strong hierarchies in the chains of command linking the functionally-differentiated agencies within the NZIC, with various intelligence units answering to different ministers and seldom to each other. This led to duplication of functions and tunnel vision within the community. Although the NAB ostensibly serves as the lead agency in the decentralised NZIC organizational pyramid, vertical as well as horizontal accountability between NZIC members was and is limited.

Then there was the issue of emphasis. In terms of overall organizational focus, domestic terrorism was a secondary concern for the NZ security community in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks. Only 20 mentions of domestic terrorism were made during that period. The bulk of those referred to home-grown and returning jihadists.

The dysfunctional organizational arrangement and myopic mindset was compounded by the fact that there is little proactive or “over the horizon,” futures-forecasting strategic analysis within the NZIC’s component parts. Under extant funding models and given the security orientation of political masters and foreign partners, there was little incentive for intelligence shops to expend resources on discerning distant threats via strategic analysis or convincing political funders that the CT focus needed to be expanded in light of an emerging global right-wing extremist movement that uses the internet as a recruiting, radicalisation and irregular warfare tutorial platform.

This was obviously short-sighted and (still) leads to institutional lag when confronting the threat environment (whereby agencies play steep learning curve catch-up because their focus is on the last and not the next major threat). It also violates the basic professional requirement that threat landscapes be divided according to an objectively-determined differentiation between possible, probable, proximate, immediate and imminent threats upon which preventive measures can be predicated.

The Report repeatedly references Police and SIS complaints that they were under-resourced during the decade prior to the attacks, something that contributed to their inability to monitor right-wing extremism. The SIS reported that it had 225 personnel in 2013-14, of which 35-50 percent were engaged in security vetting and the rest in domestic and foreign espionage and counter-espionage functions, with only 4.5 full time equivalent staff dedicated to terrorism investigations. By 2019 the total staff had increased to 328 full time equivalents but the functional distribution remained the same. During the same period the SIS budget increased 245 percent, from $33,751,000 in 2007-08 to $82,843,000 in 2018-19. This does not include at least one dedicated cash injection of over $175 million provided by the National government in 2016-17 to the NZIC and excludes any “black budget” expenditures (most intelligence agencies carry off-the-books “black budgets” for particularly sensitive operations).

The nearly $50 million operational budget increase and 100 staff added during the half decade leading to the attacks was not reflected in SIS CT operations, so the question begs as to whether it was not so much the lack of resources that impeded improvement in that operational area but a maldistribution of resources within it that contributed to the SIS failure to detect the threat emerging from the extremist Right. After all, it dedicated between a third and half of its staff to vetting security clearance applications. Assuming that clerical staff occupy five-ten percent of personnel numbers, then the amount of people dedicated to domestic espionage (including CT), foreign espionage and counter-espionage within the SIS is remarkably low for a front-line intelligence agency. The political priority given to counter-terrorism efforts by governments during the years after 9/11 and emergence of ISIS in Europe make it hard to fathom that only 4.5 equivalent full time staff were dedicated to CT efforts in 2014, and that the same distribution of personnel continued even with the 50 percent increase in staff by mid-2019.

The NZ Police also claim to have struggled with resources for intelligence work in general and CT work in particular. Citing shortfalls, the Police stopped investigating right-wing extremism in 2014 and no reports on the subject were issued until 2019 (after the attacks). The intelligence wings of the Police were said to be lightly staffed and spread over a number of issue areas that went well beyond CT concerns. Both the National Security Group (NSG)  and Security and Intelligence Group (SITG) claimed to not have enough resources to engage in the type of strategic intelligence assessments that would have made early detection of right-wing extremists easier. In 2010 the National Intelligence Centre employed 53 staff out of a total complement of 11,890, then 63 in 2012 and 52 in 2013 with similar total numbers, while in 2018 “International and National Security” functions employed 357 out of 12,467 staff (organizational changes made for different staffing statistic categories in Annual Reports after 2017). 

Even with the changes in statistics measurements that incorporated other liaison and analysis duties, it is clear that staffing of Police intelligence operations remained fairly constant and even rose slightly towards the end of the period covered by the RCI Report. It was therefore not a major impediment to CT operations per se. Instead, it appears that the allocations of resources within the intelligence branch were directed to areas other than CT, again, consistently throughout the years and paralleling the operational priorities of the SIS. Funding for additional CT staff at the national level was approved in 2018, but the problem remained that, to quote the Report, the “New Zealand Police had generally viewed right-wing extremism as more of a public order issue than a potential terrorist threat” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 30).

There is no mention in the Report of whether Police intelligence received information about violent right-wing extremists during the course of undercover operations targeting criminal gang activities such as drugs or weapons dealing (so-called “street crimes”). Yet, although no information on right-wing extremists was reported at the national level after 2014, “(w)e (the RCI) were also provided examples from the National Security Investigations Team of leads related to right-wing extremism that met the risk threshold and were pursued.” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 36). In other words, there were leads coming from somewhere about right-wing extremists and they were pursued, but nothing more is known about them (at least as far as the public record is concerned).

The “lack of interest” problem regarding right-wing extremism was compounded by the fact that tactical intelligence leads are mostly developed by each Police District, and during the time period in which the killer was planning and preparing apparently no leads on violent right-wing extremists were developed by the intelligence shops based in Dunedin and Christchurch, much less elsewhere. Instead, at both the district and national levels, in terms of strategic as well as tactical assessments, the NZ Police focused CT efforts on detecting and disrupting the plans of Islamicists (and had some success with that).

Even so, the NZ Police did allocate intelligence resources to monitoring some non-Islamicist groups. During the period covered by the Review, which came in the wake of the infamous Urewera Raids, the Police followed intelligence leads and conducted operations against environmental, animal rights and anti-1080 activists along with the ‘normal” business of providing intelligence for non-ideologically motivated criminal investigations. This is worth noting because terrorism involving lethal mass attacks is most likely to be ideologically rather than criminally motivated (following the logic that criminal activity is a form of commercial rather than advocacy enterprise and public violence is generally bad for business). Amongst ideological activists in NZ, environmental and other Leftist groups are less prone to supporting terrorism to advance their goals than either aspiring jihadists or right-wing extremists (including so-called “eco-fascists” involved in anti-1080 campaigns). And yet they received more attention from the intelligence services than neo-Nazis did, and CT efforts remained focused on would-be jihadists.

It was therefore not just a lack of resources allocated to CT efforts within the Police, SIS and other agencies that impeded the detection of right-wing terrorist threats. Instead, it was the lack of priority given to them that contributed to the systemic intelligence failure. Intelligence work done by the Police and the SIS involve at their core human intelligence collection. That essentially means boots on and ears to the ground, which in turn is an issue of trained staff dedicated to the task on the one hand, and objective threat recognition on the other. In spite of the evolving threat landscape in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks, CT staffing numbers remained small and steady, with low emphasis placed on non-Islamicist threats. When they were, the objects of scrutiny were not from the extremist Right.

The GCSB was exonerated of any culpability in enabling the attacks. That is because, according to the Report, it basically serves as a foreign signals intelligence agency and only engages in domestic espionage when tasked to do so under warrant by a NZ partner agency. In the decade before March 15 it was never tasked by the SIS, Police or other security agencies to monitor right-wing extremists.

Although it exposes the disorganization and biases of the NZ intelligence apparatus when it came to CT prior to March 15, the Report claims that these systemic failures did not contribute to the attacks because the killer’s operational security made discovering him a matter of “chance.” That, in spite of reports about his peculiar behaviour at a gun club, his social media rants and use of IP addresses associated with extremist views and weapons purchases, his drone surveillance of the al-Noor mosque and his stockpiling of military-style weapons and ammunition (which are attributed to deficiencies of the firearms licensing regime and failures by vetting authorities to discharge their duties properly). The dots were there to be connected but, according to the RCI, only by chance could they have been.

That has the makings of a Tui ad.

What is clear is that foreign intelligence partners and domestic intelligence agencies saw right-wing extremism as a low priority local law enforcement issue, not a pressing national security threat. In spite of some brief warnings and occasional mentions, the NZ Police and SIS did not see violent right-wing extremism as posing an imminent danger to society and other frontline agencies did not screen for it in their threat assessments. Instead, the security community prioritized the domestic aspects of  the so-called “War on Terror” (sic). Local politicians supported and funded that approach, which was generally given low priority because domestic terrorism was, in spite of the anti-jihadist fear-mongering of the Key government, a secondary concern in the NZIC collective assessment  of NZ’s threat landscape.

With the overall likelihood of domestic terrorism downplayed and jihadist threats over-emphasized within potential domestic terrorism scenarios, when it came to local right-wing terrorism the NZIC was not just looking the wrong way—it was not looking at all. Instead, for political and operational reasons the CT focus could and would not see terrorist threats beyond those rooted in Islam. Even though the domestic terrorist threat landscape changed in the years after 9/11, the NZIC was disinclined to move beyond threat assessment parameters that supported the anti-jihadist narrative. That is why the it failed to see the danger coming from the extreme Right.

More than “chance,” it was these institutional deficiencies, both in outlook and organization, that wound up costing people’s lives.

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Spinoff, December 15, 2020.

The military is no quarantine panacea.

A word of caution: the military is not a quarantine panacea.

At least 60 NZDF personnel have been on quarantine patrol duties since April 1, and yet breaches of the restrictions on physical contact occurred. What is more, the NZDF presumably has its own testing regime in place (for its personnel, primarily–there were at least 7 NZDF cases reported by April–but also as part of the overall quarantine testing regime) and yet no NZDF tests were administered at quarantine sites as far as I can tell. In addition, the NZDF record on transparency is poor. It has a record of coverups and whitewashes (e.g Operation Burnham). So yes, it has the legal authority (under the Epidemic Notice and National Transition Period legislation, which invoke assistance clauses in the Defense Act and/or Section 66 of the Civil Defense Emergency Management Act ) and logistical capacity to improve quarantine restriction enforcement, but it is an open question as to whether it will perform better or report honestly on its mission given its track record. It is folly to simply punt the task of enforcing the quarantine to the NZDF and expect things to automatically get better.

There also seems to be more to the move than meets the eye. In retrospect, it now seems plausible that the Navy crowd control exercise undertaken last week was oriented towards more than overseas deployments (as should be expected and as I had suggested earlier) and raises the possibility that the government knew that things were amiss in the quarantine regime well before the breaches were made public, and yet suppressed that information. There is much to unpack here.

Let’s leave aside what the Health Ministry may or may not have known about quarantine breaches, where in the chain of command did the failures to effectively enforce the quarantine restrictions occur, who made compassionate exemptions without testing, and why anyone in a position of authority would cover up the possibility that a lethal disease had escaped isolation. Instead, given that the quarantine regime is now under military control, questions should be asked as to why that step was needed. For example, why are the police not being used to enforce these quarantine restrictions on freedom of movement of NZ citizens, residents and visitors? Are they understaffed?

This is what the government says that the new quarantine boss, Assistant Defense Force Chief Air Commodore Darren “Digby” Webb, will undertake and what his powers include. First, a”start-to-finish audit” of the existing systems and written protocols at the border. To do so he will have access to the country’s military logistics and operational expertise. Then, if required, he can bring in military personnel to help run the facilities, and make any changes to further strengthen border defences. That is quite a broad mandate.

It also raises more questions. First, Air Commodore Webb replaced former Police Commissioner Mike Bush a few weeks ago as quarantine czar and was in charge when two women who later tested positive for CV-19 were granted leave from quarantine without being tested. Will granting him more authority improve his decision-making or was he hamstrung from the start by MoH officialdom and/or protocols? Second, if 60 NZDF personnel could not stop breaches of the quarantine regime, how many more will be needed to do so? Third, what is Air Commodore Webb’s relationship vis a vis the Health Minister and Director General of Health in light of the above? Can he pull rank on them or is he, and his handling of the health cordon, bound by civilian Human Resources regulations and other non-military protocols when it comes to non-military personnel under his control and supervision? Fourth, even with emergency legislation enabling the deputisation of the military in this instance, is the military bound by the Human Rights Act and other provisions protecting the rights of those detained, or are those quarantined to fall under military law or a mix of military and civilian law under the emergency powers conferred to it?

Normally, when the military is assigned a mission, it develops in advance of deployment an operational plan that includes specific targets and objectives, then marshals resources, prepares logistics, musters personnel, and stages in wait of the order to proceed. In this instance none of that appears to have happened other than the Navy crowd control exercise (if indeed that had a quarantine-related aspect). Instead, Air Commodore Webb will undertake a “comprehensive” audit of quarantine protocols and procedures. Given that he has been on the job for a while, it is surprising that that review did not begin immediately after he replaced former Commissioner Bush. It also means that any military response is still in the making unless planning and preparations have been done unannounced and unnoticed.

There may be simple answers to these questions that clarify the chain of command and rules of engagement in the revamped quarantine regime, and I welcome any clarifications to that effect.

I shall ignore the sideline whinging and bleating coming from the opposition and rightwing commentators. This was the crowd that after initially welcoming the “go early, go hard” approach to the pandemic, started to yelp about lifting the lockdown and re-opening the economy by the end of April. The fools includes university charlatans like the Auckland University VC, who initially claimed that prohibitions on returning students from China were due to “racism,” and more recently cried economic dependence on foreign tuition as an excuse to let them back in, only to have China now enveloped in a second wave of infections–including in the capital city. This, from a guy who is supposedly the leader of a university from which many of the epidemiologists who advise the government come from! Perhaps he should take his golden parachute, fade back into the vapour and leave authoritative talking to others.

Having said that, we cannot dismiss the fact that the two ladies who were allowed out of quarantine on compassionate grounds may be the tip of an infectious iceberg. Something went wrong and it is possible that several people were involved and errors were made throughout the Health Ministry hierarchy that contributed to it. That needs addressing and remedying. Responsibility must be assumed, and if merited disciplinary action must be taken. One easy step would be to offer the resignation of the hapless Health Minister as a sop to the braying Opposition donkeys while moving someone competent into the role (admitting that David Parker may be still in his job because he is instrumental in the DHB re-structuring project).

Whatever the case, it is not entirely clear that a knee jerk move to “bring in the military” is going to rectify whatever went wrong. It might, but the specific ways in which having uniforms lead and run the quarantine regime are a matter of observable action, not blind faith.

Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

Arguments by religious folk that they are being discriminated against under the Level 2 pandemic restrictions in NZ, which limit church services to ten people or less when schools, restaurants, malls and other service outlets are allowed to host many more people under voluntary self-distancing protocols, got me to think about whether people understand the rationale behind the government approach as well as the role of religion in society and particularly in a liberal democracy such as NZ. I wrote a tweet outlining my general view and it elicited some contrary responses from people who are either religious and/or dislike the current government. I will not dwell on their responses but I will below string together in fuller scope my side of the discussion.

I began with the first tweet:

“Liberal democracies are secular regimes where church and state are separate and the state treats all religions neutrally and equally while having superordinate authority over material (as opposed to spiritual) issues, including public health. Churches need to respect that.” That began a back and forth with the contrary minded readers, which elicited the following responses from me:

“Stage (sic) 2 is based on opening up commerce, with some social restrictions still in place. Education is critical for commerce in several ways. Services are critical to economic well-being. Religion is a social construct based on belief that is not economically essential. Big diff.

In medicine, the environment, engineering, economics, threat assessment, even political forecasting, among so many other material things, science must and will trump belief. With CV-19 science must prevail over belief. There is nothing “illiberal” about the govt response.”

The last sentence came in response to a commentator’s remark that NZ is an illiberal democracy because of the restriction on religious gatherings, among other things. The author went on to speak of a difference in values between the government and people like him when it comes to family and society. I replied:

“A secular democratic regime can, should and most often does value families and society, and its social policies demonstrate this. The level 2 re-opening is business driven because NZ is a capitalist country, and everyone’s welfare depends on capitalist survival, not churches.

So long as the economic imperatives of a capitalist society remain a paramount concern of govt, then commercial concerns will supersede (much variegated) spiritual ones. Hence the pro-business incrementalism of the govt approach. They respond to structural necessity, not values.”

And that is the bottom line. NZ is a capitalist society. It is a capitalist society because the means of production are mostly in private hands and subject to market-oriented logics, because the relations in and of production reproduce the material hierarchy on which the economic system rests, because it is inserted in a global capitalist system of production, consumption and exchange, and because the social division of labour that emerges out of it reinforces the hierarchical relations between the ultimate producers of wealth and the owners of productive assets in NZ and elsewhere. Most of all, NZ is a capitalist society because the welfare of everyone directly or indirectly depends on the welfare and investment of capitalists–if they do not prosper, no one does.

Regular readers know the I am not a fan of laissez fare capitalism or the various market-driven experiments of the last forty years. Nor am I entirely pleased with how the current government defers to capitalist logics rather than fully embrace the entire policy spectrum involved in well-being budgeting. I am just saying: when it comes to the economic motor of NZ society, it is what it is.

NZ has just faced and continues to be threatened by a deadly global pandemic. The initial government response was a public health campaign marshalled on scientific grounds that was mitigated by an unprecedented economic relief package designed to help people weather the financial storm caused by the disruption of economic activity. Capitalists and workers were included in the relief measures. This response was vetted by a pandemic emergency response committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and communicated in daily press conferences by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, along with other officials. That is far from being the makings of a totalitarian police state that a fair few believe it to be.

Once the lockdown/quarantine phase of the restrictions was lifted (after six weeks), the government announced that its level 3 and 2 approaches were designed to get businesses back to work. This employed a type of pragmatic incrementalism where restrictions on commercial activity were slowly lifted in piecemeal, sectorial and graduated fashion over what is now going on 3 weeks. The government explicitly stated that this was not a social opening and that pre-pandemic social activities that do not have a commercial orientation were very consciously excluded from the stage 3 and 2 re-opening measures.

That is why churches are not allowed to resume pre-pandemic activities, indulging religious services, in the measure that they did before March 23. Note that they can still host church services and other activities but that they must adhere to the “fewer than 10” rule when doing so. No one has restricted their freedom of worship. Only group size when worshipping has been limited, and that is because churches are not considered to be businesses.

If churches want to claim that they are a type of commercial enterprise, then they have reason to feel discriminated against and by all means should air their grievances along those lines. But that might open questions about their tax-free status, real estate holdings, tithing practices and other non-spiritual aspects of their mission. So it is unlikely that we will hear this argument aired in public or as a defence of a church’s right to host large gatherings for religious purposes.

In any case, the “blame” for not including churches in the Level 3 and 2 re-openings is not the fault of government values when it comes to family and society. If anything, blame comes simply from the fact that NZ is a capitalist nation and the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Spirituality is fine but it does not pay the bills, unless of course it is of the “prosperity doctrine” persuasion where the Lord commands that we should enrich ourselves before all others.

Speaking of which: why the heck was that charlatan fraudster Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church minions allowed to defy the level 2 restrictions without punitive sanction? Were the police worried about a confrontation with a large crowd? Even if that was the case, if the letter of the public health order cannot be enforced even with enabling legislation conferring extraordinary enforcement powers on the police, what is the point of having them? Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?

We might call that a type of reverse discrimination.

A matter of definition.

Recent reports have surfaced that hospital officials in some US localities are inflating the CV-19 death count by classifying anyone who dies in their care who is not the victim of an accident or other obvious non-viral cause as a CV-19 victim. Apparently this is because the US public health scheme, Medicaid, pays hospitals USD$5000 per non CV-19 death versus USD$13,000 for CV-19 related deaths. Most hospitals in the US are private, for profit entities so the hospital administrators (not doctors) who do the paperwork submissions to the federal government for Medicaid death reimbursements have financial incentive to falsify the real causes of death.

There is no independent body above hospital administrations regularly overseeing how cause of death in hospitals is classified unless some gross error comes to the attention of local and state authorities, and there is no way for the federal government to unilaterally challenge the legitimacy of CV-19 death claims. Moreover, since local coroners are swamped by an influx of CV-19 dead and Medicaid is stretched to the breaking point by the upsurge in (legitimate) CV-19 claims, there is little way to hold the dishonest hospital administrators to account unless a whistleblower from within a hospital provides concrete proof of institutional malfeasance.

In contrast, official Russian statistics show that there are over 263,000 cases in the country, with nearly 2.500 deaths and new cases exceeding 10,000 per day. That death count has raised eyebrows outside of Russia, as it is remarkably low when compared to other countries given the number of cases and rate of infection.

Russian officials counter the skeptics by claiming that their definition of a CV-19 death refers only to those that can be directly attributed to the pathogen. They deliberately exclude other causes that are exacerbated by CV-19 contagion, such as heart failures and smoking-related pulmonary embolisms, liver failures etc. Because of this the Russian CV-19 mortality rate is not only very low but also does not disproportionately affect the elderly, whose deaths are most often attributed to the underlying condition rather than to CV-19.

These differences in reporting remind me of an incident that happened to me when conducting research in Brazil in 1987. I had an interest in national health administration because I had worked on that subject when conducting Ph.D. dissertation research in Argentina earlier in the decade, I lived in Rio at the time and had experienced Carnaval in February, when thousands of sex tourists of every persuasion descended on the city in the middle of what was clearly an AIDS epidemic (in a cultural context where men refused to use condoms because that was considered “unmanly” and in which many (usually) straight men used Carnaval as an excuse to enjoy gay sex). Around that time I had to donate blood for my then-wife to use in a blood transfusion after she picked up a water-carried blood infection while cleaning vegetables and because we were told that most of the blood supplies in Rio were infected with both AIDS and syphilis, so I was acutely interested in how health authorities dealt with the convergence of viral calamities.

I managed to arrange an interview with a senior official in the Health Ministry in Brasilia, one who just happened to be involved in infectious disease mitigation. As part of our conversation I asked him how many AIDS cases there were in Brazil. He said “100.” I laughed and said “no, seriously, how many cases are there because I just came from Rio during Carnaval and it was a 24/7 bacchanal of unprotected sex, drug use, drinking, dancing and other assorted debauchery, plus I am told than the blood banks are unreliable because the supplies are infected with AIDS and syphilis.”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair for a moment, and then said “you see, that is where my country and your country are different. In this country a person gets the AIDS virus, loses immune system efficiency, and eventually succumbs to an infectious tropical disease such as malaria or dengue fever. We put the cause of death as the tropical disease, not AIDS. In your country a person gets AIDS and eventually dies of a degenerative disease such as a rare thyroid or other soft tissue cancer. Since they otherwise would not have likely had that cancer, your health authorities list the cause of death as AIDS. For us, the methodology for defining cause of death is not only a means of keeping the official AIDS count low. It also keeps the foreign tourist numbers up because visitors are not fearful of contracting AIDS and have much less fear of malaria or dengue because those are preventable.” I asked him what he thought about those tourists who did contract AIDS while in Brazil on holiday. He replied “that is a problem for their home authorities and how those authorities define their cause of death.”

I recount this story because it seems that we have entered a phase in the CV-19 pandemic where definition of what is and what is not has become a bit of a hair-splitting exercise that has increasing levels of political spin attached to it. It opens a Pandora’s box of questions: Is the lockdown approach overkill? Is the re-opening too soon? Are the overall US CV-19 death figures inflated because of the structural imperatives layered into their health system? Are the Russian figures underestimated because of their politics or because of their accounting methods? Has the PRC lied all along about the extent of the disease before and after it left its borders (in part by assigning different causes of death than CV-19)? At what point do honest medical professionals assign primary cause of death to CV-19 rather than an underlying condition?

There is one thing that I am fairly certain about. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, I have little doubt that the rationale I heard in 1987 is still the rationale being used today, except that now it is CV-19 rather than AIDS that is the scourge that cannot be named.

Between push and shove.

The NZ government’s handling of the CV-19 pandemic has won international praise for its decisiveness and effectiveness. It is hard to argue with a response that has reduced the number of daily reported transmissions to near zero and the death toll to less than two dozen out of 1500 total cases. Not bad.

But as could have been expected, there are those who are not happy with how the government has comported itself on the matter. There has been much whinging about restrictions on movement during the stage 4 lockdown, and now there is much moaning about ambiguous rules governing shopping, “bubble” expansion and easing of travel restrictions. It seems that some people will simply never be satisfied even if the international community stands in awe of what NZ has accomplished.

There appear to be three types of complainants. The first are the serial whiners. These sorry folk just like to bitch and moan about anything. They do so more as trolls rather than out of partisan spite or informed concern and are best seen as losers. They shall be ignored in this discussion.

The second group are the public health advocates. These include medical professionals, educators, some service sector providers and others who feel the government is moving a little too quickly when lifting the quarantine restrictions on commerce. They believe that the disease must be eradicated or at least its transmission reduced completely before the lockdown is lifted. For them, the current Level 3 restrictions are an invitation to transgression and indeed, that is what has happened in many instances. Some people simply ignore the fact that Level 3 is not about social movement but about gradually getting businesses going again in a limited way. Hence beaches and parks, trails etc. swelled in the days after the move to Level 3 with mindless or selfish opportunists who either ignored or did not understand that Level 3 was not supposed to be an invitation to resume the party.

Public health advocates push for the continuation of restrictions and hence are dissatisfied with the government’s liberal easing of the lockdown after just a month. They want a longer and more complete quarantine as per Levels 3-4, with no imminent move to Level 2. For them, the matter is a public health issue first and foremost, with all economic considerations secondary to that fact.

On the other side are what can be called the profit over people crowd. They are those who demand that the restrictions be lifted yesterday and that the country get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Level 2 cannot come too fast for them and the sooner that NZ gets back to Level 1 normality the better as far as they are concerned, no matter how many get sick or die. They whine about jack-booted government intrusion on their liberties and rights and, while happy to take emergency funds from the government when it suits them, also decry its meddling and interference in their economic affairs. These type of complainants include most of the political opposition and assorted commentators who have been provided media platforms well above their intellectual station. Among this crowd utilitarian logics and lifeboat ethics 101 abound, but the selfish is also strong, as is the self-servingly stupid.

Whatever the specific reason, here economic security comes before public health concerns.

It is understandable that small businesses fear that a prolonged suspension of trade will destroy their livelihoods, and I do not include them in this dichotomy. But the hypocrisy of big corporate players and their political and media acolytes is shameful. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but the overall attitude of many NZ capitalists appears borne of self-interest rather than solidarity. And unlike the public health advocates, who span a range of political persuasions, the profit over people folk are clearly of the rightwing persuasion. That is not surprising.

I admit that these are very crude categorisations and that I have painted things in broad strokes. That was done as a preface to my larger point, which is to note that, because it is unable to satisfy either the public health advocates or the profit over people crowd in the measure that each wants, the government is actually doing the right thing. It is striking a pretty fine balance between the two sides, and its pragmatic incrementalism demonstrates a good understanding of the scientific, economic and political realities in which it operates.

In the end, NZ’s response has been quintessentially democratic. Not because the pandemic emergency response committee is chaired, at the government’s behest, by the Leader of the Opposition. Not because it has allowed for full throated criticism of its actions and used its emergency (coercive) powers very selectively and discretely. Not because it put science above partisanship and politics when addressing the threat. Not because the Prime Minister and Director General of Health fronted daily press briefings for over a month and answered in clear, honest and humane fashion everything that was pitched their way, including inane questions with little relevance to the NZ situation (such as whether it was advisable to ingest disinfectant as a cure). Mostly, because its balancing approach encapsulates the essence of democracy as a social contract: it is not about everyone getting everything they want all of the time, but about everyone getting some of what they want some of the time. In other words, it is about settling for mutual second-best options.

That may not be always the case in NZ and democracies elsewhere. But it is what has been done in this instance. Beyond the positive statistics of the policy response itself, that is the most significant and enduring achievement to come out of this crisis: a reaffirmation of democracy as a contingent sectorial compromise on a grand scale.

A pandemic Peter Principle.

In 1968 Canadian sociologist Laurence Peter coined the phrase “Peter Principle” as a contribution to the sociology of organisations. It explains that in complex organizations people rise to the level of their own incompetence. That is, they get promoted so long as they meet or exceed the specified criteria for and skill set required of a particular position until they eventually reach positions for which they do not have the aptitude, skills or qualifications to continue advancing. Hence a floor manager in a retail outlet may advance to warehouse manager and perhaps regional supply supervisor but then meets the ceiling of his/her competence in handling more complex tasks required for further advancement up the managerial chain of command.

Because Peter was interested in organisational efficiency, he advised training programs for individuals as they progressed upwards. This raised the “ceiling” of their incompetence, which he believed promoted efficiency in corporate decision-making. His views have been very instrumental in organisational sociology and have been applied in numerous contexts beyond the corporate world.

One thing that is relatively under-studied is the specific factors that reveal incompetence. Because the Principle is offered as a broad theory it assumes that at certain points a level of incompetence will be reached, but does not address the specifics of what conditions, duties, responsibilities and other criteria comprise the “ceiling” or end point at which the level of incompetence is reached in given instances. This is an undervalued aspect of the Principle because different organisations and management levels have different responsibilities and skill set requirements as well as criteria for advancement. Moreover, the Principle may, depending on context, be influenced more by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. The tired “Mad Men” era joke about choosing between two secretaries, the one in which the more attractive individual is chosen regardless of qualifications, illustrates the point. The broader question is what factors contribute to determining a level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle? In this essay I extend that thought to the impact of CV-19 on global management responses.

In short, what the pandemic has done is to expose managerial incompetence at a global level. To be sure there are instances of competency is handling the disease, but what is most striking is the sheer number of and decisional sites in which incompetence has been exposed.

Let’s start with the easily identified fiascos. The US leads by negative example, but the UK and Brazil run a close second when it comes to turning a public health threat into an omnishambles of preventable deaths. Italy and Spain have a lot to answer for in this regard, and the Morrison government in Australia is not immune from the incompetency virus. This is different than in places where inadequate resources, human, technological and medical, prevent adequate responses to the infectious spread. In such instances people know what to do but simply do not have the tools with which to do it.

Then there are the sub-national and non-governmental Peter Principled. Around the globe church leaders demand that they be allowed to congregate their flocks within their houses of worship. This may well be a form of divine intervention in which a specific type of Darwin Award candidates are culled from the population, but it seems to me that as a human enterprise this is up there on the incompetence scale. Likewise and closer to home, the responses of Auckland universities has been a blinder. The VC of the more famous one wrote an op ed shortly before global infection numbers exploded saying that any quarantine or border control efforts was discriminatory against Asian students, then demanded a government bailout for the lost tuition revenues generated by those students (so it was not about discrimination or student health after all). This ethics-challenged Einstein is one of NZ’s highest paid “public servants.” Go figure.

The lesser known institution cancelled its classes near the mid-term break and decided, thanks to the advice of an “education theorist” who apparently has never taught a real class, to start all over and move to an on-line “block” teaching format in which students lost all of the work they had completed until then and in spite of the fact that the technological capacity of the university to host mass on-line distance learning was sketchy at best and in many instances unavailable to lower income students with limited access to on-line services. Then, after much hue and cry, the university reversed its decision two weeks into the lockdown and after having its teaching staff drop their original course preparations and quickly devise block style on-line presentations. Not only did this undo all of the staff effort put into ginning up block style courses, it left different faculties with a smorgasbord of half-competed courses and missing assignments that cannot be fully recovered. Yet the genius who thought up the block “surprise” and the VC who ordered it into effect (then not) continue to hold their jobs.

Similarly, the Trust monopoly in West Auckland reduced the number of stores where liquor can be purchased, as well as the number of hours that the stores are open and the number of items (six) that can be purchased at any one time. What it did not do was remove distilled spirits from the shelves, something that was problematic because all hard liquor outlets outside of the Trusts jurisdiction in West Auckland are closed and supermarkets are forbidden from selling anything other than wine and beer. With the “one out, one in” entry policy in place, this was a recipe for disaster as hundreds of out-of-zone punters showed up to buy hard liquor in Trust stores, causing huge crowds who, to say the least, are not always adhering to safe distance guidelines. The efforts to take names and addresses at the doors was an exercise in futility that only added to the waits. After more than a week of complaints, hard liquor was pulled from Trust shelves, and the “one out, one in” policy has been modified so that store employees gather items for customers waiting at the till. The long queues remain.

In short: in the face of pandemic restrictions the Trust leaders decided to limit stores, hours and purchasable quantities but invited an increase in customers from outside the Trusts monopoly zone by neglecting to consider the spill-over effect of hard liquor outlets closures in the rest of the city. Win!

At a more individual level, there is the case of NZ Heath Minister David Clark, who breached the quarantine in order to take his family to a beach, and then use his branded electorate van to take his mountain bike to a popular trailhead before going on a ride. One could argue that this is another example of political Darwin Award aspirations, except for the fact that Clark has no background in medicine or health matters and was actually a Presbyterian minister who held assorted public service jobs before entering parliament. Yet somehow he got bumped up the chain to the Health portfolio, only to fail to understand a cardinal rule of ministerial politics: optics are more important than actual knowledge of the policy area being managed. In any event, it appears that the Peter Principle should have applied earlier in Mr. Clark’s political career, but for some reason the Labour Party decided to extend his shelf life until he became an embarrassment. That was an avoidable mistake.

There is the US Navy response to a plea from the commanding officer of one of its Pacific-based carriers to help off-load CV-19 stricken sailors in Guam (there were more than 150 cases among the 4800 sailors on board when he made his plea). The CO resorted to writing a letter to 20-30 senior uniformed officers in and outside his chain of command when he could not secure the cooperation of his immediate superior (a Rear Admiral who still is the Strike Force Commander of the seven ship carrier group) or of the Pacific Fleet commander (another Admiral) to quickly off-load the sick personnel. Apparently, these superiors and the civilians staffing the highest ranks of the Navy Department were more concerned about disclosing operational details (that the ship was in port with a pandemic in it rather than at sea in the Western Pacific) then in protecting the health and welfare of the sailors on board the carrier. The end result was that the Acting Navy Secretary, a Trump appointee, relieved the CO of his duties (a career ender for a much decorated and loved officer, who has been diagnosed with CV-19 himself) saying that he had compromised national security by sending the letter out over an insecure email system (the .mil system). He then flew, at a cost of over US$250,000, out to the carrier, got on the CO’s bridge microphone rather than address the sailors directly, and proceed to insult and disparage the CO as “naive” and “stupid.” He used a number of profanities while doing so, including a few F bombs for good measure. He then returned to DC, was summoned by Congressional Armed Service committees to explain his actions, initially stonewalled, then played the victim of a media beat-up, only to eventually apologise and resign. All in the space of 5 days.

There is an irony in this particular Peter Principle at work. Having the strongest symbol of US military power, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, crippled from within and idled in port pleading on deaf bureaucratic ears for relief for its sailors, is symptomatic of a much broader malaise in US military and political society. In the past five years the US Navy has seen two negligence-caused fatal ship crashes, accusations of war crimes against its elite commandos, the Fat Leonard corruption scandal involving dozens of senior officers, a number of high profile sex scandals amongst flag ranked officers and delays and irregularities in procurement and commissioning of the next generation of warships. And yet, besides some convenient scapegoats forced into retirement or court-martialled, zero institutional changes have been made to the way in which it operates, especially with regards to promotions into leadership positions. It is as if there is a Peter Principle pandemic at work throughout US Navy leadership circles!

There are many, many more instances of the Peter Principle at play throughout the world. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brasil could have an entire encyclopaedia written about his dumbassery and recklessness, including denying that CV-19 is anything more than a seasonal flu that his political opponents (including those who have previously supported him) have exaggerated for partisan reasons, and urging his followers at mass rallies to to ignore local quarantines and congregate in churches to pray for immunity (there again, you have that religious/idiocy nexus, now floating up to national level politics). He is not alone but the point should be clear: there is a whole lot of incompetence being exposed by this pandemic.

One can argue that what I have described is not so much the application of the Peter Principle on a global scale thanks to the pandemic, but instead mere stupidity, evil, venality and opportunism brought onto display by it–and that is not just confined to Trump. It can also be argued that the Peter Principle cannot be applied to politicians who are elected on things other than merit, or (in the case of authoritarians) for purposes other than the common good. These are reasonable counterpoints but what is different, I think, is that the pandemic has unveiled the gross incompetence of so many “captains” of industry, government and civil society, be they in transportation, logistics, sports, education, local politics, the military and a host of other endeavours.

One can only hope that once the pandemic subsides, there will be a clearing house effect on managerial elites throughout the world, preferably in concert with a return to sustainable economies and environmental protection efforts that, as I mentioned in an earlier post, allow us to live equitably within our means as members of local, national, regional and global societies.

But even then the question will remain: can such a transition remove the Peter Principle as an organisational feature in the future? Methinks not.

A test of civil society.

The CV-19 (COVID) pandemic has seen the imposition of a government ordered national quarantine and the promulgation of a series of measures designed to spread the burden of pain and soften the economic blow on the most strategically important and most vulnerable sectors of society. The national narrative is framed as a public health versus economic well-being argument, with the logic of infectious disease experts being that we need to accept short term pain in the form of social deprivation and loss of income in order to achieve long term societal gain once the infection has run it course. However, some business leaders argue that a prolonged shut-down of the productive apparatus will cause irreparable harm to the national economy out of proportion to the health risks posed by the pandemic, and thereby set back the country’s development by twenty years or more.

The lockdown is a classic test of the age old philosophical question behind the notion of the “tragedy of the commons:” Should we pursue the collective good by accepting self-sacrifice in the face of an invisible threat and uncertain common pay-off, or do we pursue immediate self-interest and opportunism rather than accept material and lifestyle losses amid the same uncertainties and invisible rewards? Needless to say, it is not a straight dichotomy of choice, but the poles of the dilemma are clear.

Another thing to consider is a principle that will have to be invoked if the disease spreads beyond the ability of the national health system to handle it by exceeding bed and ventilator capacity as well as the required amount of medical personnel due to CV-19 related attrition: lifeboat ethics. If the pandemic surpasses that threshold, then life and death decisions will have to be made using a triage system. Who lives and who dies will then become a public policy as well as moral-ethical issue, and it is doubtful that either government officials or medical professionals want to be placed in a position of deciding who gets pitched out of the boat. So, in a very real sense, the decisions made with regard to the tragedy of the commons have serious follow up effects on society as a whole.

One thing that has not been mentioned too much in discussions about the pandemic and the responses to it is the serious strain that it is placing on civil society. Much is said about “resilience” and being nice to each other in these times of “social distancing” (again, a misnomer given that it is a physical distancing of individuals in pursuit of a common social good). But there are enough instances of hoarding, price-gouging, profiteering–including by major supermarket chains–and selfish lifestyle behaviour to question whether the horizontal solidarity bonds that are considered to be the fabric of democratic civil society are in fact as strongly woven as was once assumed.

There is also the impact of thirty years of market economics on the social division of labour that is the structural foundation of civil society. Along with the mass entrance of women into the workforce came the need for nanny, baby-sitter and daycare networks, some of which were corporatised but many of which were not. Many of these have been disrupted by the self-isolation edict, to which can be added the shuttering of social and sports clubs, arts and reading societies, political and cultural organisations and most all other forms of voluntary social organisation. Critical services that rely on volunteers remain so rural fire parties, search and rescue teams, the coastguard and some surf lifesaving clubs are allowed to respond to callouts and maintain training standards. But by and large the major seams of civil society have been pulled apart by the lockdown order.

This is not intentional. The government wants the public to resume normal activities once the all clear is given. It simply does not know when that may be and it simply cannot spend resources on sustaining much of civil society’s infrastructure when there are more pressing concerns in play. The question is whether civil society in NZ and other liberal democracies is self-reproducing under conditions of temporary yet medium-termed isolation. The Italians hold concerts from their balconies, the Brazilians bang pots in protest against their demagogic populist leader, Argentines serenade medical and emergency workers from rooftops and windows. There is a range of solidarity gestures being expressed throughout the world but the deeper issue is whether, beneath the surface solidarity, civil society can survive under the strain of social atomisation.

I use the last term very guardedly. The reason is because during the state terror experiments to which I was exposed in Latin America, the goal of the terrorist state was to atomise the collective subject, reducing people to self-isolating, inwards-looking individuals who stripped themselves of their horizontal social bonds and collective identities in order to reduce the chances that they became victims of the terrorists in uniforms and grey suits. The operative term was “no te metas” (do not get involved), and it became a characteristic of society during those times. At its peak, this led to what the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell labeled the “infantilisation” of society, whereby atomised and subjugated individuals lived with very real fears and nightmares in circumstances that were beyond their control. Their retreat into isolation was a defence against the evil that surrounded them. Today, the threat may not be evil but it is real and pervasive, as is the turn towards isolation.

I am not suggesting that there is any strong parallel between state terrorism in Latin America and the lockdown impositions of democratic governments in the present age. The motivations of the former were punitive, disciplinary and murderous. The motivations of the latter are protective and prophylactic.

What I am saying, however, is that the consequences for civil society may be roughly comparable. Many Latin American societies took years to reconstitute civil society networks after the dictatorial interludes, although it is clear that, at least when compared to advanced liberal democracies, the strength of democratic norms and values was relatively weak in pretty much all of them with the exception of Uruguay and Costa Rica. Yet, in places like NZ, democratic norms and values have been steadily eroded over the last thirty years, particularly in their collective, horizontal dimension.

The reason is ideological: after three decades of imposed transmission, market-driven logics vulgarly lumped together as “neoliberalism” are now a dominant normative as well as structural trait in NZ society. The country has many, if not more hyper-individualistic self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the population as it does those with a commonweal solidarity orientation. Lumpenproletarians populate both the socioeconomic elite as much as they do the subaltern, marginalised classes. Greed is seen by many as a virtue, not a vice, and empathy is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

The ideological strength of the market-oriented outlook is seen in business responses to the pandemic. In NZ many want bailouts from a government that they otherwise despise. Many are attempting to opportunistically gain from shortages and desperation, in what has become known as “disaster capitalism.” Some try to cheat workers out of their government-provided wage relief allowances, while others simply show staff the door. Arguments about keeping the economy afloat with State subsides compete with arguments about infectious disease spread even though objectively the situation at hand is first a public health problem and secondly a private financial concern.

The importance of civil society for democracy is outlined by another political scientist, Robert Putnam, in a 2000 book titled “Bowling Alone.” In it he uses the loss of civic virtue in the US (in the 1990s) as a negative example of why civil society provides the substantive underpinning of the political-institutional superstructure of liberal democracies. Putnam argues that decreases in membership in voluntary societies, community associations , fraternal organisations, etc. is directly related to lower voter turnouts, public apathy, political disenchantment and increased alienation and anomaly in society. This loss of what he calls “social capital” is also more a product of the hyper-individualisation of leisure pursuits via television, the internet (before smart phones!) and “virtual reality helmets” (gaming) rather than demographic changes such as suburbanisation, casualisation of work, extension of working hours and the general constraints on “disposable” time that would be otherwise given to civic activities as a result of all of the above.

The danger posed by the loss of social capital and civic virtue is that it removes the rich tapestry of community norms, more and practices that provide the social foundation of democratic governance. Absent a robust civil society as a sounding board and feedback mechanism that checks politician’s baser impulses, democratic governance begins to incrementally “harden” towards authoritarianism driven by technocratic solutions to efficiency- rather than equality-based objectives.

The current government appears to be aware of this and has incrementally tried to recover some of the empathy and solidarity in NZ society with its focus on well-being as a policy and social objective. But it could not have foreseen what the pandemic would require in terms of response, especially not the disruptive impact of self-isolation on the fabric of civil society.

It is here where the test of civil society takes place. Either it is self-reproducing as an ideological construct based on norms and values rooted in collective empathy and solidarity, or it will wither and die as a material construct without that ideological underpinning. When confronting this test, the question for NZ and other liberal democracies is simple: is civil society truly the core of the social order or is it a hollow shell?

Given the divided responses to this particular tragedy of the commons, it is hard for me to tell.