This week in “A View from Afar” Selwyn Manning and I try to provide a conceptual/analytic backdrop to the protests in the PRC and Iran. The thrust is that although there are similarities as well as differences between them, each confrontation involves a strategic game between the protestors and regime elites, who in turn can be respectively divided into different camps based on their objectives and approaches (ideological versus material goals on the part of militants and moderates in the Opposition, reforms or repression on the part of soft-liners versus hard-liners in the regime). Hybrid strategies involving carrot and stick approaches and immediate versus longer-term objectives are also considered. The episode is here.
In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.
This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.
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.
Many years ago when I was in mid academic career, two theoretical strands emerged in the field of international relations and comparative foreign policy. One was the basis for a school of thought that came to be known as feminist international relations theory, which to crudely oversimplify one sub-strand, posited that women have different and less conflictual approaches to politics and therefore, among other things, a world that had more female leaders would likely be a more peaceful one. The second came out of the the democratization literature and, again crudely oversimplified, posited that democracies were less prone to engage in war and therefore a world with more democracies would be a more peaceful one. Although neither strand specifically addressed the possibility, one can infer that if these notions are true a world of women-led democracies would be a Garden of Eden when compared to its present state.
The two strands have existed in parallel since the early 1990s and continue to be much debated, refined, debunked, reformulated and extended. Arguments over the merits of each continue to this day even though I personally have not contributed to them like I once did (and to be honest I only contributed in an insignificant way to what is known as the democratic peace thesis debate and not the feminist IR debate, which is a minefield for male scholars).
Recently a good friend whose views I hold in high regard sent me an article titled ” The Gender Gap Is Taking Us to Unexpected Places” by Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times (January 12, 2022). Mr. Edsall is an astute reader of politics and his column is well worth following. His article covers a lot of ground and is worth reading in its entirety but what struck me was this discussion of women’s impact on politics. I have quoted the relevant passage.
“Take the argument made in the 2018 paper “The Suffragist Peace” by Joslyn N. Barnhart of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Allan Dafoe at the Center for the Governance of AI, Elizabeth N. Saunders of Georgetown and Robert F. Trager of U.C.L.A.:
Preferences for conflict and cooperation are systematically different for men and women. At each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options. They are less apt to approve of the use of force and the striking of hard bargains internationally, and more apt to approve of substantial concessions to preserve peace. They impose higher audience costs because they are more approving of leaders who simply remain out of conflicts, but they are also more willing to see their leaders back down than engage in wars.
The increasing incorporation of women into “political decision-making over the last century,” Barnhart and her co-authors write, raises “the question of whether these changes have had effects on the conflict behavior of nations.”
Their answer: “We find that the evidence is consistent with the view that the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.” Put another way, “the divergent preferences of the sexes translate into a pacifying effect when women’s influence on national politics grows” and “suffrage plays a direct and important role in generating more peaceful interstate relations by altering the political calculus of democratic leaders.”
That is a pretty strong claim with important implications for the recruitment of women into political management roles. My friend and I corresponded about the article and I thought that it would provide some food for thought for KP readers if I copied and reprinted some of my commentary to her. It is by no means a scholarly treatise or deeply grounded in the literatures pertinent to the subject, but it addresses the issue of whether women’s participation in politics leads to more peaceful/less conflictual political outcomes. Here is what I had to say (in quotes).
“Interesting thesis (that the enfranchisement of women, not democracy per se, contributes to the democratic peace thesis). Of course there has long been a view that if we only had more women in politics there would be less conflict. Tell that to Maggie Thatcher!
In the late 1980s I supervised student research that analyzed the impact of women in revolutionary movements on post-revolutionary social policy agendas. The cases studied were Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador (two successful revolutions, two peace process-incorporated revolutionary movements so as to allow for proper comparative analysis using a most-similar/most different paired case study design). The results found that the more women participated in combat roles during the revolutionary wars, the more likely that they would be included in post-revolutionary policy decision-making, especially in traditionally female policy areas like family planning, health, education etc. Abortion rights were tied to that as well.
In places where women served as camp followers, concubines, cooks and in other non-combat roles tied to the revolutionary armies, they were excluded from post-revolutionary social policy making, even in traditionally female policy areas. The conclusion my student drew was that men respected women who fought alongside them and took the risks inherent in doing so. In my own experience and study, I have also found that under fire women were/are no more or less cowardly than men, by and large, especially when they received the same guerrilla training, so I accept this view. My student’s research also showed that the reverse was true: men did not respect as equals women who fulfilled “traditional” non-combat roles.
This translated into very different attitudes towards incorporating women into the leadership cadres once the revolution was over (be they as part of a victorious coalition or when incorporated into post-settlement political parties and governments). That was especially the case for women who showed combat leadership skills under fire, in many cases due to the fact that so many male field-level guerrilla leaders were killed that women were forced step into the breach (sometimes from non-combat roles) in order to sustain the fight.
So basically, if women behaved “like men” in combat, they were accorded respect and inclusion in post-revolutionary policy making, at least in traditionally female policy areas. Or as I used to joke, can you imagine the reaction of these Sandinista sisters coming home from a hard day arguing with their male revolutionary leaders about neonatal and early childhood health care, abortion rights and domestic violence mitigation, only to have their oaf male partners shout out from the sofa that she/they should get him another cerveza? Let’s just say that there would be no “yes, dear” in their responses.
That was an interesting but incomplete conclusion. I am among other things a student of the path-dependency institutionalist school of comparative politics. That is, current institutions are the product of previous choices about those institutions, which in turn set the boundaries for future choices about those institutions. Once a choice is made about the purpose and shape of an agency or institution, it leads down a path of subsequent “bounded” choices–that is, choices made within the framework or confines established by the original choice. I often use Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” or the phrase “a path less chosen” to illustrate the concept. You come to a fork on the trail, and your (hiking) destiny is determined by which route you take. There might be a hungry grizzly on one, and a pristine mountain lake bordering on a serene meadow on the other, but you do not know that at the time you make your decision OR, you know what is ahead and steer accordingly with purposeful intent.
Political institutions are by and large created by and for men. They are masculine in that sense–they arise from the minds of men about how politics should be codified and operationalised. The original choices on institutional configuration and mores were made by and for men, as have most of what followed regardless of regime type. The comment in Edsell’s article about academia being a male domain (up until recently) that channels male competitive urges about status etc. into scholarship is true for political institutions as well (and business, needless to say). Now here is where things get tricky.
For women to do well in these male domains, they must initially “outboy the boys.” Early feminists confronted this in spades, and when they did play hard just like the boys, they were called dykes and worse regardless of their true sexuality. But the problem is deeper than misogynist weirdness and reactions. As the study of revolutionary women showed, they had to adopt male roles and behave as if or just like they were men in order to advance in the organization and achieve ultimate policy goals that were female in orientation. They had to play along in order to not only get along but to move the policy needle in a “feminine” or female-focused direction. But that meant being less feminine in order to prosper. No softness, no weakness (emotional or physical), no “girly” concerns (say, like lipstick or nice clothes) were permissible because that relegated them, IN THE EYES OF MEN, as too fragile and irrational to be respected as peers.
Extending the concept from revolutionary movements to democracies, what that means is that women entering into politics have to conform to the masculine attributes of the institutions that they have entered. Sure, they can change cosmetic things like male-only cigar lounges or dining rooms, but the entire vibe/aura/mana of these institutions is male-centric in everything that they do. Add to that institutional inertia–that is, the tendency of institutions to favor carrying forward past practices and mores (often in the name of “tradition” or “custom and usage”)–and what we get is women who are politically socialized by the institutions that they join to behave in masculine ways, at least when within the institution and carrying out the roles assigned to them by the institution. That makes changing the institution more important than changing the people within it, but that is also why institutions are loath to change (think of resistance to changing the US from a presidential two-party system to a parliamentary MMP-style system). Perhaps the NZ Green Party are onto something with their gender-balanced party caucus selections, but they remain inserted in a larger parliamentary “nested game” with origins and continuities grounded in masculinist behaviour and perceptions.
More broadly, just like we are a product of our upbringings moderated by the passage of time and experience, so too women in politics are institutionally socialized to respond and behave in certain ways. And those ways are masculine, not feminine. If the bounded rationalities of the institutional nested games in which women “play” are male-centric/dominant, then it is unsurprising that women who succeed in them do so because they adopt those rationalities as their own (even if their better angels incline them to more “feminine” approaches to institutional problem-solving). That includes the propensity for conflict and war.
Of course this is not a hard and fast universal rule. Jacinda Ardern is not Helen Clark. But then think of Hillary Clinton as well as Margaret Thatcher. Or Michelle Bachelet. Or Helen Clark if NZ was deliberately attacked in some fashion. I do not think that she would opt for compromise and concession rather than conflict, and I sure as heck do not think that Hillary would turn the other cheek when it comes to Putin invading the Ukraine. But what turned these young idealists into the battle axes they are now? I would suggest that it is their political socialization within masculine institutions.
So, as I mentioned, the franchise of women=less conflict thesis is intriguing but needs more work. Male and female traits and values may be the independent variables and propensity towards or against conflict may be the dependent variable, but the intervening variable is institutions, and more specifically, the bounded rationalities of the nested games that they impose on men and women because of the path-dependent nature of their histories as human agencies. Once we get that figured out and change the masculine nature of pretty much 90 percent of human institutions, then perhaps we will have a chance at a more peaceful world. But with lots of snark.”
Reader’s views are welcome.
Selwyn Manning and I wrapped up this year’s “A View from Afar” podcasts with a review of the past year and some speculation about what is to come. We meander a bit but the themes are clear. You can find the show here.
One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.
The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.
The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.
That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.
That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.
Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.
The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.
In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.
Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”
In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.
The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”
Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.
The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.
This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.
All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?
As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.
The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.
In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?
This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.
Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.
At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.
This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.
Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.
In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.
In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.
What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).
This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.
Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/
I have not had much time to blog in recent weeks but continue the weekly series of podcasts with Selwyn Manning. This week we discussed efforts to develop a comprehensive national security strategy for New Zealand that goes beyond Defense White Papers and annual reports from various security agencies, then turned to recent elections in South America as an indicator that neoliberalism is well and truly dead as an economic policy approach and, perhaps more importantly, as a social theory. You can find the episode here.
New Zealand coverage of the attempt to overturn the results of Samoa’s national elections in April, when the opposition FAST Party won a one seat majority in parliament thanks to support from an independent MP, has largely been mindlessly anodyne. Take for example the unfortunate choice of words in the RNZ report (re-published in the NZ Herald) on the contested election: “the FAST party of Fiame Naomi Mataafa was expected to secure a majority of seats, overthrowing the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party and making Fiame Samoa’s first female prime minister.”
There is no “overthrowing” going on in Samoa, at least not by FAST. That would be a coup, putsch or “golpe,” and that would involve a violent blocking of the constitutionally legitimate and electorally validated political succession process.
Instead, what has happened so far is a (yet unfinished)) constitutional and therefore legal rotation or succession in elected government between the defeated incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the victorious former opposition, a splinter break-off from the long ruling government of Mr. Malielegaoi (the irony of the party name will be ignored here). After dominating Samoan politics since 1982 and with the last 23 years in power in its present form (where it continuously placed legal obstacles to the formation of competing political parties), the HRPP and PM Malielegaoi are a lame duck caretaker administration until the new parliament is convened and the FAST government installed. After a series of legal challenges by HRPP involving a provision that 10 percent of parliament be female (which would mean adding one more appointed female seat to parliament and create a 26-26 MP deadlock that forces a new election), the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposition that no new seat need be created and validated the results of the April 9 polls, opening the way for the sitting of a new parliament no more than 45 days after the election. That was to happen today.
Instead, the Malielegaoi government has blocked the move to sit a new parliament as per the Court’s order.
This is a troublesome move. Blocking rotation in government after a legitimate election is a very real attempt to overthrow the voter’s mandate. On Saturday Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi, the Head of State appointed by the Malielegaoi government in 2017, declared that parliament would not re-open today. He stated the reasons for his decision would be given â€œin due courseâ€ and left Apia for his home village several hours drive away. On Sunday the Samoan Supreme Court heard an emergency challenge to the Head of State’s proclamation and found it to be unlawful. The Samoan Attorney General, representing the caretaker administration, walked out on the proceedings. Because it was held on a Sunday, PM Malielegaoi claimed that it contravened â€œGod’s willâ€ and was therefore illegal (there is no constitutional provision against holding court hearings on Sundays). The Supreme Court rejected the accusations of irregularity and reiterated that the new parliament should be seated on the basis of the April 9 results. Instead, the Speaker of the House, a member of the HRPP, shuttered the doors of the Maota Fono, claiming that he follows the orders of the Head of State, not the Supreme Court. Coincidentally or not, the website for the Samoan Observer, the country’s main media outlet, has gone off-line. The stage is set for an authoritarian usurpation.
To be clear: political democracy is based on the principle that election losers accept adverse results in exchange for getting to compete again at pre-set intervals under fair conditions. Rotation in government is considered to be an intrinsic part of democratic governance and intrinsically good because it allows opposition parties to learn how to govern and allows former government parties to refresh and gain perspective when in opposition, all while vying for electorate support. That competitive pressure is considered to be what keeps the political process healthy if not entirely honest.
In other words, either one accepts the principle of the honest loss or one is anti-democratic. The April elections were honest and the HRPP lost–by a very small margin, but it lost nevertheless. Hence, for the HRPP the choice today is to be democratic or dictatorial. Unhappily, what is appears to be going on in Samoa is not an attempted coup by the FAST party after its victories in the April election and in the Supreme Court. Instead, it is a variation on an (attempted) “constitutional” coup carried out by the defeated HRPP.
That brings up the issue of force and outside intervention. The Samoan Police have surrounded the parliament grounds (where FAST are staging a sit-in), but it remains unclear as to who they are are loyal to. Perhaps under the circumstances we should be thankful that Samoa does not have a military. But if the Police are loyal to the Head of State (who is a former police officer as well as an ordained minister) rather than the Samoan Constitution, then the authoritarian “auto-coup” could be successful.
There is more. Under the terms of the 1962 Friendship Treaty signed between Samoa and New Zealand, NZ is duty-bound to come to Samoa’s aid in a time of crisis. As unpalatable that may be given NZ’s history with Samoa and however unforeseen this particular crisis may be, it falls within the scope of the Treaty. But its invocation depends on an official request from Samoa so the issue is who has the legal right to issue that request should they deem it necessary to do so.
Given the circumstances, a legal request can only come from the legitimately elected government that has Samoan Supreme Court sanction. That would be a FAST-led coalition. But it runs the risk of provoking large scale unrest between political factions if the Samoan Police side with HRPP and people decide to take matters into their own hands with street violence. That then raises the question of the nature of any NZ intervention if the Friendship Treaty is invoked. Given NZ-Samoan history, a minimal amount of force should be used, with the NZDF (if need be) only used in a support role for NZ Police intervention units.
Most importantly (and pressingly), diplomacy can avoid invocation of the Treaty and thereby help avert intervention. MFAT needs to be on the case now because it is quite possible that other foreign actors with vested interests in Samoa seize the opportunity to extend their influence in it by favouring one side or another in the impasse. So diplomatic urgency is required for three compelling reasons: 1) to avoid invocation of the Friendship Treaty as a means of resolving a political dispute; 2) to preserve Samoan democracy in the face of authoritarian resistance from within; and 3) to prevent extra-regional (and non-democratic) actors to influence how the political process plays out.
The Samoan diaspora can help in this regard by signalling support for democracy. Although Samoan expats cannot vote in their home elections (thanks to Tess Newton Cain for the head’s up), it would be helpful if expats voiced support for the political system rather than a partisan preference given a contentious outcome. That could assist in easing partisan and social conflict in their homeland.
At the end of today the new FAST majority was sworn into office by the Supreme Court in the Supreme Court building rather than parliament because they were locked out of the Folo by the Clerk and Speaker of the House, both HRPP minions. The farce–some say typical of recent Samoan politics– is now about symbolism rather than the substance of political change, as if the location of the investiture ceremony and who gets to sit where when it comes to exercising governmental authority matters for the exercise of elected sovereign power. To his credit, the sitting Police Commissioner has taken an agnostic stance about the political shenanigans and seems disposed to adhere to constitutional edicts and respect for the rule of law. If that is the case, no foreign intervention is necessary and Samoan bureaucrats do not need to look to a particular building for their instructions when it comes to the continuity of State business. All that is needed now for a peaceful transition that reaffirms Samoans commitment to democracy is for foreign governments to recognize the realty of the situation. Word to the wise: It is all over but the HRPP shouting, and the sooner that they shut up or are ignored, the better for Samoa things will be.
As is often said: time to move on. The next days will tell if Samoa takes a political step forward or backwards. Best then, to illuminate and encourage the path ahead.
Recently I was approached by a major media platform to help them develop story lines and questions on some terrorism related topics. These focused on the SIS Report of the Internal Review conducted in the wake of the March 15 terrorist attacks and news that a younger generation of extremists are being radicalised on-line. I ended up spending an entire afternoon talking and corresponding with two reporters and a producer about possible leads, only to find out that my research and work (about four hours worth) would not be compensated and instead would be used to frame interviews with and guide questions to others.
In my opinion, this is not acceptable. Sure, there are plenty of people who will jump at the chance to have their faces on TV or voices on radio for free. There are those in salaried positions who can afford to offer free commentary as a sidebar to their “real” jobs. But that is not me. I am not an academic who can share expertise as a form of community outreach that looks good on my performance reviews. I am not a member of a interest group that may have a cause to promote. I am not a charity. I am a political risk and strategic analysis consultant, which means that I have to earn a living based on my supposed expertise in various fields, which I use to engage in targeted research and analysis based on client interests and needs. When I get called by someone asking for advice or comment, I take it as a professional call, not a courtesy. In this instance I should have known better but I decided to help out anyway and in the end was reminded that wasting four hours of my time on a subject that is not billable is just that–a waste of time and energy.
Think of it this way: if someone has a plumbing problem that s/he cannot fix on their own, they call a plumber. Do they expect the plumber to do the fix for free? If not, then why, lacking in-house expertise, would a media outlet call a subject expert and ask him to stop his own work, address their subject of interest, help them develop story lines or questions for interviews about that subject, offer the possibility of appearing in person to explain the topic, but then take his responses, cancel the interview and act surprised when payment is mentioned? Beyond the matter of compensation for services rendered, there are issues of journalistic ethics at play as well.
In any event, I decided to collect the analyses that I worked on and organise them into a blog post. The first part deals with the SIS Internal Review. The second part address the issue of younger people being radicalised on-line, in particular the impact of gaming on extremist recruitment and radicalisation.
I. The Immediate Past.
The SIS released a heavily redacted version of the internal review of its systems and processes in the lead up to the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The Review, whose Executive Summary was released last year, parallels that of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Christchurch attacks but is limited to the SIS itself. Unsurprisingly, there is much commonality and overlap between the two Reports, which also share the attribute of not holding any agency or individual to account for anything–be it acts of commission or omission–that happened in the lead-up to the attacks. Apparently everything worked as it was supposed to given the operational parameters then in place, but the operational parameters were disoriented. There were no institutional failures because all systems worked fine. It was just that the institutional gaze was fixed in such a way that the attacks could not have been prevented.
The findings are as we already know: the components of the SIS worked as they were supposed to under the pre-March 15 system but the system as a whole was set up and focused in a way that made impossible detection and prevention of an attack of the sort carried out in Christchurch (by a self-radicalised lone wolf from the ideological right-wing). It recommends various reforms and overhauls, including more emphasis on strategic analysis because the SIS was/is too focused on immediate operational (monitoring and collection) tasks given the then identified and established agency priorities. This prevents the SIS from seeing more long-term, broader and “weak signal” threats emerging before they materialise, including those emanating from domestic rather than distant shores. For an agency that has domestic human espionage as one of its three main areas of responsibility (along with counter-espionage and foreign human espionage) that is a telling admission. In fact it is worth some serious inter-textual analysis because sometimes what is left unsaid is worth more than what is said.
The Report specifically says that there was a lack of information and data sharing with other agencies, particularly the Police. The SIS and Police both have domestic counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering functions but they apparently do not coordinate operations or share information and data (in fact, the SIS is not able to access 2 of 9 government data bases, both of those under the control of the Police). In stating that, the SIS implies that the Police might have known about or had the Christchurch killer on its radarscope during the course of its investigations, but its emphasis on “criminality” rather than ideology and the siloed nature of its intelligence operations meant that anything it might have known about the killer and other violent white supremacists was kept to itself. The SIS goes on to say that even with better data and intelligence sharing they still might not have been able to connect the dots enough to detect and prevent the terrorist from acting, but the implication is two fold: other agencies with more contacts “on the ground” might/could have known about him if their priorities were different; when it came to counter-terrorism, even after eight years of white extremist mass murders dating back to the Norway killings in 2011 and repeated warnings about the rising use of the internet as a conduit for radicalisation of all types (be it jihadist or white supremacist), the NZ security apparatus discounted, ignored or simply did not care to invest more than rhetorical resources on the non-jihadist menace emerging from within.
The Report also recommends that the SIS increase its proactive role in identifying and preventing threats, especially so-called “weak signal” or low-level rumblings that could eventuate into real dangers. As a “leads-based” monitoring and collection (as opposed to enforcement) agency under the pre-March 15 “business model,” it acted reactively to known threats within the assessment parameters of the day. That means that it did not look, much less think outside of the box or look over the immediate and accepted (status quo) threat horizon when it came to the domestic threat landscape. In other words, it saw what it wanted to see and ignored what it did not want to see or hear (such as the repeated warning by Islamic organisations they they were being targeted for individual and collective harassment, including violent threats and assaults) based on the threat scenario assumptions in vogue after 9/11.
The recommendations also suggest that the SIS work with the Police to promote legislation that criminalises a range of terrorist preparatory activity (say, explosive precursor purchases, weapons and ammunition stockpiling, social media postings etc–all of these based on the Australian counter-terrorism approach) so that the Police and SIS authorities have legal grounds to engage in preventative or pre-emptive actions currently not allowed under the law. This may eventually include designating neo-fascist groups as terrorist entities if advocating or inciting violence is included along with committing violence in future anti-terrorist legislation.
There is a lot more in the report if you read as much between the lines as you do the lines themselves. IP addresses noted but eventually not followed up on that turned out to be those of the killer (making racist comments and buying ammunition in bulk, among other things). Hints at resistance to and obstruction of the former Inspector General’s attempts at tightening oversight, transparency and accountability. Reports of his use of a drone to surveil the mosques, again not followed up on in any significant measure. Prolonged travel to conflict zones amid tourist spots by a resident foreigner with no job. And yet no organisational failures–that is, of people, processes, procedures or perspective–were found. The system worked as it was supposed to. That is troubling.
Seen through cynical eyes, the SIS Report is a way to engage in some polite fence painting and rear-end covering while discretely shifting blame onto the Police (who have yet to issue their Report, if there is any). After all, if all of their systems worked as they were supposed to be and no one is at fault in the SIS for failing to detect and prevent the massacre under the organisational priorities of the day, then the ball must have been dropped by some other agency or the entire domestic security community. The latter would be an admission of institutional incompetence or myopia on grand scale. More pointedly, if we consider that the only other agency with domestic counter-terrorism functions is the Police, then the onus appears to be on them. However, as the RCI Report noted, the Police focus on criminality, not on ideological extremism. That means that, hypothetically speaking, even if they in fact stumbled upon some skinheads talking about attacking a mosque during the course of a drugs investigation, it is possible that they failed to pass on that information to the SIS because a) that was not their operational concern; and b) they were “siloed” in their approach to information and data sharing in any event. As for other agencies helping the SIS detect extremists in a partnership role (say, Immigration) they too were siloed and silent when it came to this particular type of terrorist threat.
The major take-aways from the Report are the failure of the SIS to be proactive and failure to two-way information share with other domestic security agencies under a individual and collective “business” model that simply was not cognisant of, much less focused on emerging threats from the extremist Right even eight years and dozens of right-wing mass murder events subsequent to the 2011 attacks in Norway (which were the inspiration for all of the white supremacist mass murders that followed, including March 15). Left unknown are all of the redacted parts of the report (other than the killer’s hidden name) and who, exactly, the “independent” reviewer was (I may have overlooked this so if anyone can point me to his or her identity that would be helpful).
II. The Immediate Future.
Recent assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and various European intelligence shops point to the growing trend of young people, including teenagers, becoming radicalised on-line. What used to be problem with regard to would-be jihadists appears to now have morphed into a problem of white supremacy and/or neo-Nazi ideology. The bottom line is that the issue of younger (mostly male) people being inclined towards ideological extremism and/or recruited into extremist groups is very real. But there is a good and a bad side to the phenomenon.
On the bad side, younger people are being desensitised and drawn into using violence as a means of conflict resolution via an increasingly sophisticated and interactive gaming world. Virtual reality (VR) interactive games not only involve multiple players but increasingly contain highly sophisticated graphics of combat and other violent scenes, many very dark in nature (including grotesque violence against women). Players can choose their villians and heros, putting themselves in one camp or the other in highly realistic real-time action scenarios that are often as ideological as they are gory. All of this can be done as if in person. One can be a modern Crusader slaughtering jihadists or vice versa. One can be a US Gi wiping out Japanese troops in WW2. One can be a torturer, prison guard, mass murderer or violent criminal targeting women of color. One can be the Christchurch terrorist streaming his murders to a live audience. And so forth–the range of violence and characters is limited only by the player’s and game creator’s imaginations. To this can be added violent pornography, again often with explicit misogynistic imagery.
Advances in personal telecommunications technologies–mobile phones, apps, etc.–have made it easier for younger people to access all aspects of the internet. While they are a feature of modern life and a symbol of the conveniences afforded to modern societies, they also bring with them readily accessible pathways into the darkness of violence and hate. In the measure younger people are afforded access to these instruments and recognizing the tremendous benefits that they bring, avoidance of or exposure to the dark side of the web is now a feature of teenage life. Add in the natural attraction of realistic games in virtual settings, and the stage is set for youth radicalisation via gaming even in places where they are not subject to socio-economic deprivation and political oppression.
It can be argued that people attracted to highly realistic and hyper-violent on-line gaming and porn already exhibit psychopathic and sociopathic personality traits. We are not talking about FIFA2020-style sports games here. We are talking about mayhem and degradation. These types of forums now attract millions of players, some of whom may be working off stress but others who may be descending into dark violent fantasies. That includes so-called “Incels,” as in “involuntarily celibate:” men who cannot find or hold physical relationships with women and who in many instances believe themselves to be too pure or righteous to pay for sex. This leaves them very sexually frustrated and very angry, often violently so. More generally, abuse of female players is a well-known pathology in the gaming community. On VR interactive gaming platforms people with these tendencies and/or other anger issues intersect and engage with racists, bigots, violent psychopaths, animal abusers and assorted other degenerates, leading to what we might call a “nexus of hate.” It is there where white supremacist recruiters, as was the case with jihadists before them, are now regularly launching their appeals to increasingly younger audiences.
It is bad enough that younger generations of (again, mostly male) people are using violent interactive games as a form of entertainment, stress relief and fantasy fulfilment. It is worrisome that the age threshold of these people, as well as those who habitually use extreme porn, appears to be lowering. These forums can be highly addictive for certain personalities, and the obsession can be detrimental to the individual as well as those around him. Some obsessions become political and ideological–fixations on who is to blame for one’s personal ills as well as the world’s problems; and on how to fix them. Now we must factor into account that both jihadists and white supremacists (and others) use interactive gaming as a recruiting device, luring people to be more extreme in their character stereotyping and urging them to carry over their on-line personas into real life. This is, to say the least, not good when imparted on impressionable teenage minds (or anyone else, for that matter, but it is the young who most often get sucked into the vortex). From there it is a short leap onto extremist forums like 4 Chan or 8Chan (and others), and from there the pathways to the dark web and serious planning of violence are just steps away–yet discoverable when one has interactive skills and some coded advice on how to get there. One can only hope that intelligence agencies know how to get there as well.
Like many other social media platforms and content providers, the gaming industry is reluctant to move beyond basic guidelines for usage such as R18 warning labels. It zealously guards the privacy of its customers. Like the porn industry it is an early adopter of new audiovisual technologies, including VR and AI, in the construction of its consumer ranges. That puts it ahead of security-intelligence agencies, which like the old military adage notes, are playing technological catch-up while preparing to fight last century’s wars with mid-century (however updated, such as with 3rd generation warfare) tactics. As I have written in more professional settings, the problem of institutional lag is very real in the NZ intelligence community (see part I above), but also world-wide in specific areas of concern such as on-line right-wing extremism.
The problem of younger people getting radicalised into extremism online and acting violently as a result is indisputably real. Other forms of radicalisation remain (say, in churches or via criminal gangs, drug networks, etc.), but these are increasingly superseded by the on-line process because the latter does not expose the recruiter or recruitee to outside scrutiny. The interaction (or what might be called the dialectic of radicalisation) occurs in a bedroom or a basement rather than a church or a private clubhouse even though the latter remain as physical spaces for the larger community and therefore may include people of more extreme persuasions within them. But physical space is more and more a secondary site for extremist radicalisation and recruitment. Gaming is the most recent but not the only source of on-line radicalisation and recruitment, which also occurs in discussion groups, political fora, video channels, twitter threads and any number of other social media.
The good news is that the young are by and large easier to catch, particularly so with this TikTok/Instagram generation. That is because teens and twenty-somethings like to boast and be recognised as a form of affirmation and self-worth validation. This makes them careless on-line as well as in person, which in turn helps security authorities to distinguish between those who talk and those who act, those who are doers and those who are not, those who are leaders and those who are followers. There are plenty of psychological profiles in the intelligence community with which to develop individual and collective threat assessments from what is canvassed on-line.
In effect, the younger they get, the more likely ideological extremists will trip up and be discovered because they are psychologically unable to maintain the level of security required to carry out successful irregular warfare operations such as terrorist attacks. This is not 100 percent the case but the odds in favor of their pre-emptive detection by security authorities increases dramatically when compared to say, a 35 year old ex-military veteran with 10 years of service and knowledge of weapons and explosives, a serious grudge against somebody (be it a group or government agency), on-line masking skills, knowledge of basic operational security, tight lips, few friends and a murderous eye on a mall or transportation hub. THAT is a real and palpable threat.
So there is a silver lining in the move towards younger extremists, but only if security authorities are literally on top of their games. Given what the SIS Internal Review discovered, that appears to be far from being the case.
One theme in the literature dedicated to democratic theory is the notion of a “tyranny of the minority.” This is where the desire to protect the interests of and give voice to electoral minorities leads to a tail wagging the dog syndrome whereby minorities wind up having disproportionate influence in debates about policy. The minorities in question may be political, ethnic, religious, racial, cultural or identified by other characteristics, but the commonality is in their (previous) relative disenfranchisement when compared to dominant electoral groups, again defined by various criteria. For example, white, straight, christian males have traditionally been an electorally dominant group in the US; transgender gay afro-asian atheists have not.
In democratic practice the issue is one of striking a fair and equitable balance between the rights of the (electoral) majority and the rights of minorities. This has been attempted via re-districting and voter enrolment schemes that allow for more minority representation in politics at all levels, affirmative action initiatives and regulations that preferentially promote minorities in fields and institutions in which they are traditionally underrepresented, advancement of historical accounts and alternative artistic expressions that reflect the experiences of the subaltern, exploited and dispossessed, etc. The objective is to level the playing field across the gamut of social endeavour, thereby leading to more democratic outcomes in politics and society.
The push to democratise has by now gone well beyond politics and deep into the fabric of social life. Old notions of what is permissible even in the sanctum of family life have been challenged and redrawn away from traditional heterosexist patriarchal hierarchies. Private firms can no longer ignore gender bias or subtle racism in their ranks. Children no longer fear the teacher’s rod or strap.
All of this is good. Historical injustices have been addressed and authoritarian social structures have been reformed as a result of democratisation efforts world-wide. The fear now, in some quarters at least, is about an over-reaction to previous ills when it comes to democratising society. It also has prompted a backlash by reactionaries, who in earlier decades whined about “political correctness” and “culture wars” and who now whinge about “triggered” “wokeism,” “cancel culture,” “snowflakes” and limits on “free speech” (when what they actually mean is restrictions on public expressions of various forms of racism, bigotry and other intolerance).
At its core the argument against economic, social and political democratisation is about over-compensation and giving a few people too much just because they were done wrong somewhere down the road. To wit: unencumbered by traditional forms of discipline, children will run roughshod over their parents. Students will have rights without responsibilities. Wives and teenagers will mouth off with impunity and people of color will expect and demand equal treatment by law enforcement. Once tradition goes, chaos will rule.
Of course none of the above is true and fears grounded in such beliefs lack substantive foundation. But the concern that minority rights might eventually supercede majority rights is a real one for more than political scientists, and has become what is known (in very simple terms) as the tyranny of the minority.
The backlash to economic, political and social democratisation was to be expected because the backlash comes from those who benefitted from the majoritarian electoral status quo before the political, economic and social rights of minorities was even allowed, much less considered as part of the democratic equation. But now the backlash has taken a particularly sinister turn in the form of the dissemination of disinformation and false narratives under the banner of democratic “balance” when it comes to minority voice.
As a lead in, let’s consider the CNN approach to political debates on its opinion shows. In the interest of being “balanced,” CNN shows regularly feature paid Republican shills (reportedly on a retainer of US$150,00/year) who with increased frequency over the years have blatantly lied, denied, denigrated, insulted, engaged in specious false comparisons and “whataboutism,” and generally acted like the a-holes that they truly are. Rick Santorum, Kayleigh Mcenany, Paris Dennard, Kelly-Ann Conway, Jason Miller and assorted others were given a huge platform from which to dispense their bulls**t, and some even managed to use the CNN enhanced profiles to step into White House jobs in the Orange Merkin administration (Dennard and Miller were caught up in sex scandals so are now relegated to talking to the converted on Fox News).
Given their disinterest in honest debate and fair play and their use of the CNN platforms to push fake news and disinformation, why on earth were they given that privilege? What was CNN thinking? Did it do so out of a naive belief that these people would behave with a modicum of grace and decorum? Or did it feature them out of some mistaken belief in “balance?” What objective balance can exist between an honest and neutral commentator and a dishonest partisan spin-scammer? Why would one even try to “balance” objective truth with rabid lies?
That is the crux of the tyranny of the minority today. Because of the advent of social media and (successful) practice of sowing deliberate disinformation and fake news, everyone who has an opinion is not only entitled to one but has equal weight in the debates of the moment. Take the anti-vaccination crowd. Even though a thousand scientific journal articles and books by leading epidemiology and vaccinology experts have been written about the effectiveness of vaccines, even though polio and other diseases were essentially eradicated within a few years of immunization campaigns being introduced against them, some celebrity chef or other uninformed ignoramus will find one medical practitioner and a few tinfoil quacks who claim that vaccines cause autism, rabies, droopy eye syndrome and alien reproductive parasitism in humans and use that as a counter-argument against vaccines. Rather than ignore these fools, some other internet-schooled morons seize upon the minority opinion to show “proof” that the counter-narrative is true.
Many will embellish the original stupidity with talk about Big Brother Deep State social control schemes, and before long the internet is festooned with anti-vax screeds vying for attention with real scientific publications. Because scientific publications are hidden behind paywalls or in university libraries and use technical language in order to be understood, the “my kid has autism because of a measles shot” scientifically uneducated crowd have the upper hand in the democratic space that is the unregulated social media market. So much for being blinded by science (apologies to Thomas Dolby).
When confronted by the utter inanity of their claims, the anti-vaxxers will respond with something along the lines of “you may have your truth but I have MY truth.” The false equivalence between them then becomes not a matter of fact versus fiction but a matter of disputed (selective) facts. Everyone not only has an opinion and places to publicise them. They now have their own set of cherry picked facts to back up their views (“links please”). At that point the slippery slope toward full blown conspiracy theories begins.
That is where we are today. Conspiracy theories vie with objective reporting as preferred narratives on social issues. The latest conspiracy gem from Q Anon involves fake snow in Texas rather than the real blizzard-caused sub-zero snow and ice that killed over 50 people and left that state without power water for days. One can only conclude, charitably, that those who subscribe to such views do not live in the Longhorn State.
However absurd all of this is, real damage has been done. Well before the January 6 conspiracy-motivated assault on the US Capitol, the pervasive echoing of political and social conspiracies permeated rightwing media, whether out of a sense of sincere conviction or opportunistic political gain. Faith in government at all levels has been consistently undermined by the promulgation of minority extremist ideological views that in a truly fair and confident society would never see the light of day but which now are given equal space with fact-based reporting. In an effort to democratise social and political discourse, the field has been given away to the tyranny of an often deranged or evil-minded ideological minority.
The truth is that not all opinions are equal. Not all views are worth considering. Not all “facts” are empirical, falsifiable or objectively measured. Some thing should simply not be considered because they are not worth the time or energy to do so. But here we are, with Plan B (non-expert) academic fools in NZ disputing the expert scientific approaches to pandemic mitigation and me arguing with anti-vax housewives in the primary school parking lot.
I blame post-modernism, including cultural relativism and other forms of inter-textual subjectivity, for greasing the slippery slope into the tyranny of the ideological minority. I do so even as I recognise the contributions that modes of critical inquiry like subaltern studies have made to the study of humanity and the advances to the human condition pushed by non-binary interpretations of what constitutes personhood. But the descent to the “all truth is subjective and therefore all views are equal” syndrome that has led to the popular rise of pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as alternative truth and conspiracy theories as counterfactuals to reality-based narratives lies in the notion that one can transpose an alternative methodology designed to interpret human social behaviour onto “hard” scientific inquiry or the lived and experienced reality of the people in question.
In reality, Pizzagate did not happen. The Democratic leadership demonstrably does not run a pedophile ring. It has been repeatedly verified that US election results were not stolen, in any State. On the other hand, fake snow in Texas and Jewish space lasers setting fires to California forests for profit are not objectively provable and yet are peddled (by Republican politicians even!) as if they were empirical fact. The commonality among them is the all of these views share space in the rightwing conspiracy ecosystem that is by design focused on countering observable and verifiable information provided by objective reporting in various media.
In other words, it is not what you know and the basis for how you know it. It is about how you interpret things based on what you are told, whether it is verifiable or not.
In a weird way, the path towards democratising stupidity is proof that human social evolution is dialectical, not progressive (in the sense of progressing from lower to a higher forms of knowledge, consciousness or material well-being). The push for economic, political and social democratisation, which through much trial and error and while still a work in progress, has yielded significant gains for populations previously denied agency in their lives and in society in general, has also eventually led to the spectre of the tyranny of the minority. As a result, much effort has been put into ensuring that democratisation efforts do not result in the “tail wagging the dog” effect mentioned at the beginning of this essay, and much pushback has been levelled at that effort by those who fear the effects of democratisation on the traditional socio-economic and political hierarchies that constituted the previous era.
This all is evidence that human societies do not always progress from more simple to more complex. But the dialectical progression is most clearly seen in the democratisation of social discourse to the point that idiots and evil-doers are given equal opportunity and space to vent their irrational, mean-spirited and unreal views as if they were truth, and where a minority of ideological retrogrades can manipulate the digital media space to dissemination lies, falsehoods and disinformation unimpeded by reality-based filters or objective facts.
Before, the fear was that democratisation of electoral and social opportunity would lead to a tyranny of people denied voice because of who they are by the previous systems in place, and who would use the new, more open institutional structures to impose their minority preferences on the majority. Now the threat is posed by ideological minorities who in a rational world would be laughed off stage but who now, with the democratisation of telecommunications, have global media platforms on which to spew hatred and ignorance unencumbered by a grounding in objective knowledge and notions of honesty, civility and fair play.
If Hegel could see us now, I wonder what he would say.