A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on “democratic backsliding.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the concept of “democratic backsliding” and why it is a troublesome development world wide. To do so we disaggregate the political, institutional and societal manifestations of backsliding in a democracy as well as the reasons for it. You can find the show here.

The dirty power of culture wars.

A few decades ago I wrote an essay about the impact of state terror on Argentine society. One of my points was that terrorism was used by the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso” not because it was particularly effective at ferreting out subversives but because it worked as an atomising agent in Argentine society. That is, it used pervasive fear of institutionalised terrorism as a means to “infantilize” people and increasing isolate and alienate them as individuals, which served to destroy the horizontal social bonds that were the basis of collective solidarity among the groups targeted by the dictatorship. That in turn eased the way for the imposition of so-called neoliberal economic policies that redistributed income downwards for the majority, significantly curtailed the State role in economic management and provision of basic public services, destroyed social welfare, health and education safety nets and pauperised the population in general while increasing the material fortunes of the elites associated with the regime.

State terror created a culture of fear that atomised and isolated people in the public space, thereby paving the way for their infantilisation as social subjects and eventual dependency on and subjugation by their dictatorial masters. What is less known is that the so-called “Dirty War” waged by the dictatorship known as the “Proceso” (Process) was justified not on economic but on cultural grounds, as a defense of “traditional (Catholic) values” placed under siege by immoral, degenerate, atheistic Communist subversion in the guise of liberalism, feminism, secularism, homosexuality, youthful rebellion and other depraved foreign ideologies that had no “natural” place in the patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist social status quo that dominated Argentina at the time. Now, in the contemporary era, a variant on this theme has been introduced into socio-political narratives in the liberal democratic West as well as elsewhere: Culture Wars.

In recent years conservative authoritarians have moved to using electoral facades rather than coups as a means of gaining and maintaining government office. Their weapon of choice is no longer terror imposed by or on behalf of the State but a defense of traditional values against attempts by progressives to undermine the moral fabric of society. Similarly, authoritarians out of office no longer seek to use guerrilla war as a main vehicle for conquering power but instead embark on crusades against “wokeness,” “political correctness” and perceived (and mostly imaginary) attacks on “free speech” by liberal-progressive-socialist-communists. In both cases the strategic move has been from a physical war of manoeuvre to a cultural war of position in which the battle is over values and identities, not necessarily (although ultimately involving) government offices, economic policies or physical terrain. In other words, the social backdrop to political competition and conflict is now increasingly dominated by Culture Wars.

That is notable because the Culture Wars approach rejects or replaces the most basic axiom in politics: that people vote with their wallets. Think of it this way. The MAGA crowd voted against its economic interests when it voted for Trump (even if Trump’s “America First” economic pipe dream was sold to them as feasible). More recently, both Vladimir Putin and Recap Erdogan in Russia and Turkey diverted popular attention from their disastrous economic policies and corruption towards a defense of “traditional” values, in Putin’s case “traditional” Christian values (supported by the Russian orthodox hierarchy) and in Erdogan’s case “traditional” Muslim values (again, supported by conservative clerics). They both railed against the depravity of the West and the corrosive impact the importation of Western mores and ideas has had on their respective societies. In fact, Putin went so far as to order the invasion of Ukraine because of its “degenerate” liberal (when not Nazi) leadership’s threat to the ethnic Russian part of the Ukrainian population. The point is that when Culture Wars are used as an electoral strategy in order to outweigh objective economic realities, they often are successful.

The emphasis on Culture Wars is understandable when conservative authoritarians have no economic legs to stand on. That is where the parallel between US and NZ conservatives come in. Neither the GOP in the US or National/Act in NZ have economic platforms that are remotely close to practicable, sustainable or deserving of popular support. They are in fact elitist in construction and elitist in benefit. So, rather than modify their economic policy platforms away from their exhausted and discredited neoliberal/market-driven trickle-down policies, these conservatives turn to inciting Culture Wars as a means of diverting attention towards superstructural and often artificial fault lines in their respective democratic societies. In the US things like gun rights and opposition to racial, gender and sexual equality may be an “organic” product of American Christian repression and its record of historical conquest, but in NZ the notion of unrestricted gun ownership rights and opposition to transgender rights (on the slanderous grounds that the latter are “groomers” and pedophiles) are foreign imports that have no “organic” or native origins in NZ society. However, the attacks on co-governance frameworks in NZ is indeed rooted in deep-seated Pakeha racism against Maori, so the fusion of foreign imported ideologies and local regressive perspectives on race mesh easily into a divide and conquer (so they think) Culture War strategy on the part of the NZ Right.

More broadly, the assault on gender and sexual identity minorities, immigrants and various types of non-traditional non-conformity that defy the traditional narrative about what the “proper” society should look and behave like is rife throughout the Western liberal democratic world even where gun rights are restricted in the interests of public safety (seen, not unreasonably, as a public good rather than an infringement on individual liberty), where racism is not a historical stain or contemporary problem or where economic policies have popular support. It is major a stock in trade of elected authoritarians like Victor Orban in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland and former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as well as a host of demagogic political and social figures throughout the world, to say nothing of outright autocrats like Putin, Erdogan and a swathe of Middle Eastern and African oligarchs and strongmen.

The important thing to bear in mind is that like state terror as a social atomising agent, Culture Wars work. Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban rode them to victory in democratic executive branch elections, Putin and Erdogan used them to rally support for their unpopular regimes (with Erdogan likely to win a run-off election next weekend in spite of his disastrous economic policies and Putin holding onto power like a (rat-trapped) rat on cheese despite Russia’s futile war on Ukraine). Wanna-be’s like Luxon, Peters and Seymour in NZ seem to believe that their best bet is to copy at least some aspects of the Culture Wars strategy and adapt them to Aotearoa’s particular circumstances in the run up to this year’s general election. Given the media attention devoted to co-governance, transgender rights (or better said, their mere presence), vaccinations and the use of Te Reo in public discourse, there may in fact be grounds for traction in that angle of approach. That makes it more imperative that people push back at the introduction of retrograde ideological arguments in the NZ context. They are largely not from here and have no place in Aotearoa.

The pushback is necessary for a simple reason. Culture Wars work as a socio-political strategy because they are based on a dirty little secret: that fear is a great perception and behaviour modifier. Culture warriors traffic in the promotion of fear, both real and imagined, rational and irrational. This fear is of targeted “others,” those who can be readily identified and easily scapegoated while also be made into seemingly malevolent Leviathans who must be struck back by common, sensible, “traditional values”-holding people–the silent majority, as it were. Although it is helpful to the Culture Was projects if the “others” look different, worship different Gods, have different customary practices or engage in non-heteronormative sexual behaviour, it matters less what the “others” actually do than that they are identified as threats to traditional values and mores. The use of disinformation and misinformation is helpful in this regard because fear is a tool whether the basis for it is true or not–and it is most often not true or grounded in reality. What matters is achieving the objective, not the truth. The objective, in turn, is to restore a previous societal status quo in the face of pressures to make it more equitable, inclusive and responsive to the needs of those marginalised.and voiceless under the “traditional” scheme of things.

Complacency is the ally of the Culture Warriors because silence allows them to megaphone their messages of fear and hate through corporate and social media unimpeded by fact checkers, truth-speakers or coherent ripostes. Decent people may believe that Culture Wars are just a side-circus show that does not in fact distract from bread and butter and other serious issues of the day when people make their political and social preference choices. But as the likes of Brian Tamaki and various conservative media talking heads have shown, they do in fact have an impact on public perceptions when not challenged by more tolerant and open-minded arguments. Their fear-mongering gains ground in the measure that complacency cedes them rhetorical space in the pubic discourse.

All of which is to say that although there may be considerable distance in practice between Argentine (or Chilean or Guatemalan or Salvadorean, etc.) state terrorism and the Culture Wars in contemporary democracies, they are on a continuum where fear (manufactured or real) is exploited for political and social advantage above and beyond the economic projects that may underpin them. As Bernard de Voto noted (paraphrased here), “a person’s eyes and ears and the fulcrum of his/her judgement supplies his/her capability for action.” The fulcrum of fear is made up of orchestrated “Othering” in which contending perceptions of norms, mores and acceptable behaviours, that is, the conflict between between traditional and “progressive” values, is focused on particular subjects and groups. The purpose of Culture Wars is to warp the ideological fulcrum on which social consensus rests in order to obtain political, social and often material advantage whether it be based in the truth or not.

As a bottom line culture warriors play dirty with the truth just as much as the Argentine Dirty War ignored international norms and strictures against the torture and killing of civilians. Much like the logic of the “Proceso” when defending its actions, the ends of the culture warrior justifiy the means, and in a world in which the value of tradition is increasingly under question and often challenge, warping of the ideological fulcrum in order to promote manipulable fear in the body politic is just as useful as the pliers, branding irons, cow-prods and battery clamps used by the Latin American torturers of yore.

To which I say now as I said back then, mutatis mutandis: “Nunca Mas!”

PS: For those who may be interested in the essay linked to above, please email me (pablo@kiwipolitico.com) and I will send you a copy of the entire essay as an attachment in my reply.

Gamers, terrorists and spies.

For the better part of the last decade analysts have warned about the use of online interactive action games as a recruiting ground for white supremacists and neo-nazis (and to a lesser extent jihadists). The use of Crusader and modern Western military imagery in battles with dark skinned enemies facilitated the recruitment pitch, which given the subject material is mostly targeted at teenaged and young adult men. The policy implication of these warnings is that intelligence agencies, specifically signals and technical intelligence agencies such as those grouped in the Anglophone 5 Eyes network, need to devote resources to monitoring online gaming communities for signs of extremists and their attempts at expanding their ranks via the internet as well as formulating actual online plots to commit acts of violence.

Unfortunately most of these warnings went unheeded and continue to largely be ignored. Government intelligence agencies such as those grouped in the 5 Eyes have myriad threats and many other priorities to address besides online extremists using gaming as a recruitment portal. This has left a gap in their coverage of what is now a full fledged digital community of hate. This community does not just have gaming as a vehicle. It also includes chat and noticeboards like 4Chan and 8Chan, Reddit, Discord and other on-line communities that under the mantle of “free speech” cater to extremist viewpoints. Sadly, that attracts advertising revenue from those seeking to profit from hate and violence, be it via the sale of “hunting” weapons, uniforms, military insignia, survival gear and other para-military outfitters or publications and entities that promote ideological agendas that dovetail with the views of these types of online communities (think Voice for Freedom or Counterspin Media as NZ examples). Equally sadly, in spite of the efforts of the Christchurch Call and various advocacy groups, a majority of technology companies are loathe to self-police when it comes to issues of “free speech,” much less provide client data to security agencies in all but the most dire and pressing of circumstances.

This brings us to the subject of the recent leaks of highly classified US intelligence reports by a Massachusetts Air National Guard service member serving as an enlisted cyber transport system journeyman. In that capacity, 21 year old Airman First Class (E-3) Jack Teixeira of the 102nd Intelligence Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard headquartered at Joint Base Cape Cod on the site of Otis Air Field was responsible for maintaining cyber security for the Wing. In order to discharge his duties Airman Teixeira very likely was granted a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) security clearance that allowed him untrammelled access to what is known as a “SCIF,” a tightly secured room or building in which both paper and digital records are stored. He also had authority to visit off-station secure sites such as the Special Operations Command and other military intelligence units as part of his official duties. The US government refuses to comment on the matter of his clearances and how he obtained them pending his trial.

Using his access, as early as February 2022 Airman Teixeira began to transcribe and leak information from highly classified documents to a group of about 50 online gaming enthusiasts that were grouped in a Discord channel called “Thug Shaker Central.” He also is reported to have leaked to a larger Discord group and to forums on 4Chan and Reddit. Among these groups were a number of foreign nationals, including Russians. Two common aspects of the channels he leaked to is that they had weapons, uniform and military paraphernalia fetishes and trafficked in white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racist and misogynist narratives, with Teixeira himself now being exposed as adhering to those beliefs. The only thing missing from the profile of the gamer guys Teixeira consorted with is the label “Incel,” as in iInvoluntarily celibate. I am not sure about the others but Teixeira certainly seems to fit that bill.

At first his transcribed leaks received a lukewarm response from his (mostly younger) audience because they were pages long and covered a broad range of subjects, from details on the Russian-Ukranian War, Chinese satellite warfare plans, Taiwanese defence preparedness, Egypt’s flirtation with selling arms to the Russians, US eavesdropping on South Korean communications and much, much more. After a while, when he realised that many of the group members he was trying to impress were simply not reading his “nuggets,” he began to photograph and download the documents themselves. The would prove to be his undoing.

Transcribing the documents gave him plausible deniability because the decontextualised words (i.e., no identifying markings) could have been sourced by many people from many SCIFS. But his associates were all young male gamers who are highly visual in their information-processing, so paragraphs of words without pictures soon turned boring for them. Hence, in order to keep their attention spans focused on his “nuggets” and therefore affirm his status as leader of the Thug Shaker Central group, Teixeira needed to go digital. Once he did and the documents appeared on-line with official markings like TS/SCI and NOFORN (“No Foreign” distribution), then the counter-espionage crowd in military intelligence, the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) could get to work tracking him down. However, there was a twist to his uncovering. As it turns out it was the New York Times digital investigations team that first saw the documents online. Then the Washington Post was alerted to their presence. After tracing their IP addresses and social media accounts linked to them, these outlets contacted members of the Thug Shaker Command, who confirmed the legitimacy of the documents and how they came to be online. At that point the journalists contacted the US government for comment and the hunt was on. Teixeira was captured within a couple of weeks and is now awaiting trial. He faces a lengthy prison sentence and possibly a death sentence under federal espionage and treason laws. Others might find themselves arrested as well. As it stands, two commanders of the 102nd Intelligence Wing have been stood down over the breach.

Several questions have been raised as to how and why he could have been granted a high level security clearance and given so much access to sensitive information. There are also questions raised about why the chat rooms he was involved with were not being monitored by the relevant authorities and why a seemingly obscure Joint Base at an otherwise relatively quiet tourist destination be a place where deep secrets of all sorts are stored. Allow me to answer at least some of them and draw some comparisons with my own experience.

Because of the nature of his job, Teixeira required high level clearances. He comes from a Portuguese-American military family and was two years out of high school when he joined the Guard. This mitigated in his favour because it appears that he was security vetted by a contractor working for but not by a US government agency. Edward Snowden underwent the same process and we have seen how that turned out. In this case the Discord leaks are far more serious both in terms of the breadth of the subjects covered–there are more than 500 documents in the tranche realised so far- and the depth of the exposure, which includes revelation of “sources and methods.” It is not surprising that the US government has gotten rigorously quiet on the matter. Moreover, Snowden gave his purloined data files to investigative journalists and perhaps the Russian government. Teixeira put them online, where they spread from closed groups to open forums.

His family background growing up in a well-established middle class Portuguese-American community (many of the people in that part of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are descendants of Cape Verdean whalers) and his young age would have suggested to his security vettors that he had no “baggage” that could compromise national security. If they were contractors as I believe they were, he likely wouldn’t have undergone the background checks that I underwent in the 1990s by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which included polygraphs, interviews with family, friends from Argentina all the way to that current moment, work colleagues, undergraduate and graduate student peers, even my ex-wife (not surprisingly, she had little good to say about me). I was asked about my sexual preferences, political beliefs (especially whether I had ever been a member of a Communist Party), vices (gambling, alcohol, drugs, prostitutes), financial situation (especially debt) and numerous other deeply personal matters. The main concern then was two-fold: whether I could be trusted with sensitive material, and whether I could be blackmailed. My ex-wife’s opinion notwithstanding, it turns out I was pretty milquetoast as far as applicants go.

It is unlikely that a contractor would go to such lengths to establish Teixeira’s background given his age and personal life, although the apparent ignorance of his gaming activity and the fraternity of gamers that he associated with was a major lapse on the part of both the vettors as well as US signals and military intelligence agencies. However, even if he had undergone the more rigorous DIA background checks (which still exist), it would have been unlikely that, other than the gaming angle, there would have been anything alarming on his record unless he had been arrested on felony charges. He had not been. From the contractor’s point of view it made sense to go lightly on his background check, using police and FBI records and perhaps some interviews with family and friends. Since neither US intelligence agencies or the military looked into his social media and gaming profiles, there were no red flags to which the vettors could have been alerted, and they clearly did not do that sort of due diligence themselves.

The use of security vetting contractors became common place after 9/11 as the US sought to expand its intelligence networks and analyses against non-State global irregular warfare actors as well as “traditional” adversaries (and friends!). The DIA and smaller intelligence and security vetting units simply could not handle the volume of security checks required by the thousands of new hires in the intelligence-security field. There are now over 1.5 million people in the US with “Top Secret” security clearance and another 3 million with “Secret’ clearances. The solution to the overwhelming demand for background checks was to farm out the vetting to private firms with experience in the field, such as private investigation agencies or firms specifically set up by former security officials to do security vetting as their bread and butter. However, the profit motive often leads to cost-cutting when it comes to the more laborious features of the vetting process, so many firms took the cheaper way and cut corners in that regards. Investigation into the Snowden leaks uncovered that the process by which he was granted high level clearances was flawed and incomplete. It looks like the same may have happened with Airman Teixeira.

Remember that the military is a young person’s business. They do most of the killing and they are the ones who mostly die. Gaining security clearances at a young age is quite common in the US military, especially for specialised units and more so for intelligence units. Teixeira’s age was therefore not a disqualifying factor per se and again, was likely seen as a good justification for quick granting of his clearances.

What about the unit to which he was assigned? Why would it have access to such a broad array of highly classified information? The answer is that the 102nd Intelligence Wing is a renown unit with many important responsibilities. Among them, Teixera’s assigned subordinate unit, the 102nd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, processes signals and technical intelligence from U-2 spy planes, RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper drones and supports the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (from which satellite data is collected). These platforms conduct operations all over the world but specifically over Ukraine in support of the Kiev regime. Some are reported to deploy from Otis Air Field. That means that the SCIF at Joint Base Cape Cod is an integral component of US global intelligence collection activities and the US effort to support Ukraine, which justifies the presence of highly sensitive intelligence in it.

Teixeira also travelled to other SCIF sites and had opportunity to copy classified intelligence from them as well as from his home base. If he did it obviously violates his secrecy oath and sets him up for a number of serious charges. The question is whether he did so just to impress his gamer friends, or for money, or for some ideological reason. The answer is as of yet unclear. The dominant train of thought is that he is an immature young man trying to impress other younger immature men with his “insider” status as one of those who know secrets. He clearly did not do so for money. But his darker comments about race, aspects of US government policy and Russia, much of it in line with the MAGA/QAnon narrative, could point to an ideological motive. Whether that be hatred of the Deep State and Democrats or support for Russia has yet to seen.

I should point out that in my case I was sworn to not only never divulge the TS/SCI material that I handled, but also to not talking or writing without prior authorisation about the classified aspects of my government jobs for twenty years after I left public service. Anything that I did want to write or talk about in my post-government career needed to be cleared by the Defense Department, DIA or intelligence agencies that I worked with, and I was informed that anything that involved ongoing operations or assets still alive or in service would be redacted from any material I wanted to use. There were serious penalties for removing classified material from the SCIFs that I worked in (Unauthorised removal of Classified Material), and much worse, for deliberately removing classified materials in order to hand them to a third party, whomever that may be (Espionage). It will be hard for Airman Teixeira to argue that his actions were unintentional rather than deliberate, and given who were among the groups that he leaked to, it might find him facing espionage charges. The situation does not look good for him.

Whereas what attention has been brought to the online gaming community by the security agencies has focused on rightwing extremism and terrorism, it is clear that the espionage and counter-espionage aspects of interactive digital forums needs to be factored in as well. To that expansion in the scope of cyber-intelligence operations must come a thorough re-appraisal of how security background checks are conducted on people applying for high-level security clearances. This is not just a US problem. There have been enough lapses in NZ security background checks to warrant a review of current SIS procedures and processes for vetting applicants, with or without the help of consultants. Currently non-citizens can get a high level clearance if they pass the SIS checks, but here too at least some of the vetting has been contracted out to private firms (including one that was led by Michelle Boag, of all people). The issue of citizenship aside, there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the SIS (as the lead agency when it comes to security clearance vetting and background checks) might be wise to commission an independent review of its vetting procedures and operations.

Some may remember the case of the Walter Mitty-type fraudster named Stephen Wilce, the guy who claimed to have been a member of the British Olympic bobsledding team and a former SAS trooper who served as Head of the NZ Defence Technology Agency and Chief Defence Scientist from 2005 until he was exposed in 2010. He held very high level security clearances, handled very sensitive defence information and yet was vetted by an outside firm hired by the SIS. One would have thought that they might have looked up the roster of the British bobsledding team in the 1980s when he claimed to be on it, but apparently that was too much to ask. Makes one wonder where Mr. Wilce is now.

I mention this anecdote because the cyber world has opened up a whole new frontier when it comes to security and intelligence. Preventing breaches and leaks has become both easier and more difficult. Easier because the technological means to detect early online threats is greater than in previous decades. Harder because security threats have multiplied along with advancing technologies. What is needed is a proactive strategy of cyber-vigilance in conjunction with tightened requirements for background checks on those handling classified information, including monitoring social media for evidence of online extremism. Although much has been said about how the NZ Police and intelligence community are dedicating significant resources to doing so, it is telling that the Police Commissioner admitted that his agency was caught off-guard by the online planning of the Parliamentary protests last year, and in fact were unaware of the convoys that were organised via various well-known messaging applications to descend on Wellington. By the time the Police realised the size of the protest, the protestors were already setting up camp on the lawns and streets surrounding the Beehive.

Meanwhile, with that note of caution out of the way, can we all say “AI?”

The zero-sum logic of rightwing culture wars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the levee breaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Link: AVFA on protests in China and Iran.

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.

Media Link: The Era of Restive Politics.

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

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

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.