Monday, October 20, 2014

Hawks enjoy back-to-back flagwaving

Not much posting lately, for which I apologise. Three month old firstborn child, you understand. Not that much of long term interest has been happening in Australian politics lately. It's been all terrorism this, war that. YAWN! It is all entirely predictable, and plays perfectly into Tony Abbott's obvious desire to pick up right where John Howard left off. In keeping with the Abbott era's complete lack of originality, the war is even in the same place.

The war hawks have been dominating the media just like the Hawthorn Hawks dominated the AFL grand final, mainly because in both cases the opposition just didn't show up. Bill Shorten did not have any wiggle room, because the polls were always going to favour the PM at the start of a war. Shorten has to bide his time and rely on the inexorable turning of public opinion once the grim realities of war become apparent, as they always do eventually to shame the chickenhawk granny bloc into changing their minds. At the moment, Shorten is playing Ryan Schoenmakers to Abbott's Tom Hawkins, and ISIS keep bombing the ball long to the square for the Speedo-clad Tomahawk to grab easily and bang through for goal after goal. Would Anthony Albanese have been the Brian Lake equivalent, a more capable operator who can take on the gorillas and nullify the threat? The supply from midfield is too great at the moment. (I think I've waterboarded that analogy enough now.)

As with the Schoenmakers situation at my beloved Hawthorn, the only emotion I have in watching Abbott strut about the national stage saying stupid things and not being punished for them is exasperation at how easy it all is for him. The beheadings are horrible, yes, but it's just way too simplistic to use them as an excuse for jingoistic nationalism as a pretext for war. Bill Clinton was never seriously punished electorally for his Kosovo bombing campaign under somewhat similar circumstances, because the troop losses were minimal and the war only lasted a handful of months; can the current coalition get as lucky? The facts are different in this case, as this one won't be over quickly, the world is paying much more attention, and it's a different era where YouTube is as much an instrument of militarism as RPGs. Even if there aren't a heap of body bags containing Western soldiers, a My Lai situation is more likely in this theatre.

The timing is wrong for Abbott on this one. By the time the next Australian federal election rolls around, the Iraqi quagmire will have had a good two years to drag him into it. Interestingly, it will probably coincide with the 2016 presidential election in America, with the looming Hillary Clinton era promising a war hawk wonderland. Will Obama be able to wrap up the ISIS bombings before the voters in the Western coalition get disenchanted, like Bill Clinton did for Kosovo? I doubt it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Caliph shot the sheriff


John Quiggin has a thread on the ISIS/ISIL/IS/Iznogoud mess in Iraq, which produced a cracking comment from someone called Rabee.
The question for Obama must have been if it is in America’s interest for a civil war to start in Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure about the possible outcomes of such a civil war, but I don’t think any good can come from it. So Obama decides that it is in the national interest that the US tries to defeat IS in Iraq before things get bad in Saudi Arabia.I don’t have a firm opinion on this new war, but I’m not hopeful that anything good will come from it. I do think that this almost exclusively a Saudi problem and the Saudi’s must find their own longterm solution to it. To my mind this should trying to resuscitate parliamentary democracy in Egypt.
I have nowhere near the impressive insight of Rabee, but a few things seem clear.

IS is is not a modern guerilla force, just plain old-fashioned infantry, thus air (and I guess sea?) attack is pretty pain-free in terms of soldier lives (albeit costly in dollar terms). Rows of longbowmen would be effective against these throwback chuckleheads, that's how antediluvian they are.

And yes, IS are a product of the Saudis, right down to the vorpal methods. The fact that the Saudis are scared of them doesn't mean they aren't ultimately responsible. The Kingdom could do with some Guy Fawkeses, given they are as suspiciously vicious to their non-chosen citizens as IS. If getting rid of Saddam was a Good Thing Regardless, how much utilitarian worth is there in ridding ourselves of the original cancer, the creators of Al Qaida and ISIS plus whatever comes next? How many more wars is the West supposed to fight to prop up these pretenders? How much worse could the next Caliph-instead-of-the-Caliph be?

Of course, the answer to that last question is probably what he's talking about when he says no good would come of a Saudi civil war. The fear of an actual Caliphate is the new 1950s communist domino theory; reds-under-the-bed replaced by caliph-shot-the-sheriff, and it's fuelled three Iraq wars in twenty years and cost millions of lives. Iz no goud.

I don't see how shipping more ordnance will fix the situation, that will only make it worse. Disarmament is the ultimate answer, as it was in the Cold War to the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. Unfortunately this isn't as simple as John Howard's gun amnesty. It's monstrously difficult to stop the flow of weapons into the Middle East.

Speaking of the Cold War, does anyone else suspect that the West is being beaten economically like Russia was in the 1980s when they were tricked into pouring billions they didn't have into useless military spending? Or at least, that was the trajectory that George W. Bush had America on, as part of his undeniable legacy as the worst president that country has ever had.

All of this has me looking at Tony Abbott spending $250 million per year to send a token force to support the reluctant Americans and wonder what good it will do. How many lives will it save, and how many will it cost? And what about the budget emerhahahaHAHAHAHAAA... sorry, couldn't finish that thought.

No, if you're wondering, I wouldn't send troops to Iraq, even if they were just flying air support. It's the Saud family's problem, they have enough money and troops, they should deal with it. I'm sick of my countrymen dying for Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz. Put up the dukes and stick up for yourself, old cock.

UPDATE: Thomas Friedman, of all people, says it better than I did.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Roof caves in on Gillard reno troofers


If this was the sort of poliblog that was in the live cattle business - carving up fresh meat for a ready audience of like-minded noddie merchants who want to have their prejudices confirmed in tasty fashion on a daily basis - I would probably spend a lot of time making fun of Michael Smith, whose career has gone seriously downhill in the last two years since being sacked from Fairfax for smearing Julia Gillard. His post yesterday about Gillard's appearance at the Trade Union Royal Commission had it all: emotion-based reportage, incredulity in the face of stark facts, conspiracy theorising, empty posturing, flailing aggro, and a comment thread full of hilariously butt-hurt insanity.

While a dispassionate observer might wonder what all the fuss is about, the truthers can not be swayed from their conviction that Gillard is guilty of the most heinous crimes. Witnesses have been leaned on, lawyers are protecting one of their own, the commish has been nobbled... it's all straight out of a Jon Grisham movie. The ultimate theory put forward by Smith, and taken up with desperation in the comments, is that the Royal Commission is merely a sideshow, a fishing expedition, to fuel the ongoing investigation into the AWU WRA by the Victorian Fraud Squad.

I would remind the court of public opinion that the AWU scandal is over the sum of $400,000 (admittedly in mid-1990s dollars, so that's about $680,000 in 2013 money according to the RBA inflation calculator). The TURC is budgeted at $53.5 million. Add that to the cost of all those detectives from the Fraud Squad swarming all over this cold case for years with precisely zero to show for it after all this time. At this point, the person most likely to face charges is Kathy Jackson, the right's favourite "whistleblower" and friend of the H.R. Nicholls Society.

Today is also the 40th anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon, which lead one US blogger to reminisce that it was the last time that the system worked. This is not technically true. Since Nixon (and in Australia, since the Dismissal), time and again the right has subsumed its guilty conscience and used the system against the left despite no crimes having been committed - Bill Clinton's faults were a private matter, and Gillard has evidently done nothing to warrant charges. It "works" to the extent that it provides a taxpayer-funded platform for the right to smear the left for years on end, with no accountability. The system continues to fail when it comes to right-wing leaders: witness the lack of a need for a pardon for any LNP politician involved in the AWB wheat-for-oil scandal, which involved over $220 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime.

One mustn't get too cynical about these things, nonetheless. That's what being a truther is ultimately about: feeling like you and your mates are the only ones possessing the True Vision of reality, and the rest are sheep who don't accept your blinding insight. False consciousness is a powerful but ultimately futile distraction.

Hate to the left of me, haters to the right


Reading this WaPo piece on exactly how Americans hate the Republican Party, it put me in mind of similar polls on Obamacare, which also enjoys poor ratings. In both cases, while the headline number is rather low, when you break it down to opposition from the left and opposition from the right, a more interesting picture emerges.
"Not all of the opposition to the health care law comes from the right," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Thirty-eight percent say they oppose the law because it's too liberal, but 17% say they oppose it because it's not liberal enough. That means more than half the public either favors Obamacare, or opposes it because it doesn't go far enough."
The WaPo points out that the same effect for right-wing politics implies that the GOP still has a comfortable set of "fundamentals" for the 2014 mid-term elections in America, since those who hate the Republicans from the right are presumably still going to vote for them. This is the reason why every poll analyst who includes fundamentals in their poll model, which is pretty much everyone except Sam Wang, still forecasts control of the US Senate shifting to the GOP despite the raw polls saying otherwise.

This sort of granularity in polling is sadly rare in Australian polling, with the likes of Essential and Newspoll not doing enough in this area - but at least they're still going, unlike Nielsen which Fairfax just cut. I suspect that Bill Shorten's low popularity has a significant hate-from-the-left component: Essential puts his dissatisfaction rating at 16% of Labor voters, compared to 9% disapproval of Abbott by LNP voters. How would the election of Anthony Albanese as Labor leader have changed this dynamic? The left would have been much happier with him, and I don't think he would have done much different in policy terms than Shorten is doing now. Albo might even have raised some objections to the folly of war.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Post-liberalism in Australia?


As a poliblogosphere, Australians probably pay less attention than is warranted to British politics and too much to American politics when it comes to detecting long term trends that will affect our politics. While there are links between the Democrats and Labour and the Republicans and the Liberals which are useful perhaps more for practical matters - e.g. Obama's start of the art campaign management and GOTV machines, and the Tea Party's ability to suck money out of billionaires - it is the Old Dart where our federal politicians most often look for ideological inspiration.

In this vein, former Bill Shorten staffer Nick Dyrenfurth had a screed published in the Fairfax press on the weekend extolling the virtues of something called post-liberalism (the Chifley Research Centre published a non-edited full version). The premise of it as an ideology is hard to define, which is why articles on it tend to call it a "disposition" rather than a coherent creed. Its very elusiveness is part of its construction at this point. The final paragraph of a Financial Times article from May 2012 from one of its architects from the Demos think tank perhaps summed it up best:
The story of British politics since Margaret Thatcher has been described as the right winning the economic argument and the left winning the cultural one. Starting from where we are today the reverse would make better post-liberal sense and, if the current fiscal orthodoxy fails, it may be the only way to unstick British politics.
The following are the core tenets of post-liberalism, that I can figure out. Thatcher and Reagan, with Francis Fukuyama as their John the Baptist, were supposed to have heralded the end of history by establishing economic and cultural liberalism as the omega point for civilisation, after which no improvement could be made. This has led to the left and right sides of two-party systems in western democracies losing their competitive edge, as they both adhere to this liberal orthodoxy with only minor disagreement as to the details of its execution. The GFC has shot this orthodoxy to pieces by proving that a system based almost exclusively on personal freedom, individual rights and open markets can still fail disastrously and cause the global depression we now know as secular stagnation. The GFC culminated in the bail-outs, which went against everything that liberalism stood for and, to make matters worse... they worked. Nevertheless, the status quo's hold on political elites is so strong that nothing new has been able to get any sunlight to grow past these withered old vines, and the crisis that started in 2008 shows no signs of abating for most of the 99%.

So far, so good. I'm with the post-liberals on this critique, all the way. It's a tough situation to solve with just one ideology. I'm glad someone is stepping up to the crease to swing for the fences.

So, what is this solution we're all waiting for? Post-liberalism sets up some oppositions.

  • Instead of liberalism's tendency towards centralised government, post-liberalism seeks to devolve decision making on policy for public institutions away from bureaucracies and towards professional guilds, community groups and other smaller local bodies;
  • Instead of liberalism's ambivalence towards capitalism's historical predilection for accreting national oligopolies, post-liberalism foresees the establishment of regional banks and various measures to encourage easier money at a local level; mandated appointment of employees to corporate boards to break up the old boys club; and something called the "mutualisation of markets", which is rather nebulous but indirectly suggests a carbon price;
  • Instead of liberalism's reification of the openness of markets as a secular end in itself, post-liberalism seeks to reapply a moral framework over discussion of economic issues, with - undeniably - a strong Christian element, specifically Catholic;
  • Instead of liberalism's emphasis on open borders to encourage free movement of labour, post-liberalism would cut immigration but also focus on building "social housing" for those immigrants they do let through;
  • Instead of liberalism's attacks on entitlements to social security and unemployment benefits, post-liberalism emphasises the "contributory element of the welfare system", which means a higher pension or dole for those who have paid into the system previously, but denying benefits to recent immigrants or the young;
  • Instead of liberalism's attacks on the minimum wage, post-liberalism encourages companies to set their own "living wage" at much higher than the official minimum wage, as KPMG does with its staff in London with apparently net-positive results.

There is much for either side of the political divide to like and plenty to hate, which is no doubt why the ideology remains fodder for meaningless seminars at the fringes of both the Conservative and Labour movements in Britain. Dyrenfurth claims Tony Blair's Third Way as an antecedent, but it also shares a communitarian focus with the Big Society concept which fuelled David Cameron's landslide Tory victory in 2010, and has since been accused of being a cloak for mindlessly slashing the state, especially since Cameron has since cut even Big Society programs deeply as part of his liberal commitment to economic austerity.

Dyrenfurth commits a drive-by criticism of focus group politics, which is no doubt a dig at Zombie Bruce Hawker and Rudd-era obsessions. Post-liberalism as described by disaffected Poms feels a bit like the sort of bubble-and-squeak ideology a British focus group would come up with, though. Take Blair's Third Way and combine it with Cameron's Big Society, add in a few reactionary anti-immigrant elements to please the UKIP-voting recalcitrants, chuck in some sops for the grey power vote about how those lazy young people don't deserve the dole, throw the poor a bone by saying you'll have a non-binding word to multinational corporations about their pay packets... and just a pinch of Catholic brimstone. Lovely jubbly!

It is no wonder that Dyrenfurth references the Accord in his article, since to pull off such a radical transformation of society as is detailed in post-liberalism would necessitate the construction of a consensus as strong as Bob Hawke worked so hard to achieve in 1983, so a campaign like this really is in Labor's DNA as he says. The only problem is that the Accord was actually the mechanism to implement the Thatcher/Reagan liberal hegemony in Australia, so we're a bit once-bitten-twice-shy around here about that sort of thing.

Even with an Accord 2.0 to bring in the full post-liberalism platform driven by as talented a politician as Hawke, could it ever work? Can you imagine the AMA and/or nurses union having final say on policy in a privatised health system? How would the vice-chancellors committee and/or teachers union maintain control over a decentralised education industry? Can we trust the banks to police themselves? (Hint on that last one: no.)

Post-liberalism correctly identifies a disconnect between the populace and political elites, which is why modern politics is a war between populists and elitists. Its solution is to wave hands in magical fashion to imagine an agreement between the populace and the elites, whereby the elites promise to be good and the populace have to accept their word. Post-liberalism requires the removal of the coercive power of the state to fix public institutions. This is a very English construction: expecting the peerage, OBEs and GCMGs to act on behalf of the people, without any direct accountability apart from public shaming. I would have thought this line of thinking was laughable ever since Yes Minister, because political elites have lost pretty much all of the shame they once had. That might not quite be true in Britain even at this late stage as their elites still maintain some vestige of knightly commitment to service, but the trends are not good and one should not base a political philosophy on it.

A lot of what post-liberalism has to say is about the failings of economic liberalism, and fair enough, but it skates over the implications of rolling back social liberalism. There are mentions of re-capturing nationalism, presumably from the likes of UKIP. While they don't come out and say it in the open, post-liberals would put a price on carbon as a part of applying a moral aspect to markets. What does post-liberalism have to say about abortion, or free speech, or affirmative action, or multiculturalism? These issues are finessed, when they are mentioned at all.

There are too many spinning plates in post-liberalism for me, and not enough responsiveness to democratic will. A resurgence in Catholic control over government is precisely not what is needed, or wanted given societal trends. The proponents of this Aristotelian utopia seem to me to want to be the chosen few in the old Greek's characterisation of authority residing in "the one, the few or the many", making their credo just another anti-democratic repudiation of the Magna Carta which conveniently forgets to include democracy as a key component. This article makes that explicit, by also invoking Edmund Burke to raise the prospect of "virtuous elites" acting as mediaries between institutions and the populace. A crusading coalition of Catholic Cromwells! Saints preserve us.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The doctrine of the Stupid Shit Funnel


Lest I be accused of running a hate site against Club Troppo after my previous article criticising aspects of their wonkery, today's Troppo joint on the West's reaction to ISIS is excellent.
Whose going to win if the West gets entangled in this maelstrom? Well for a while it will be our fearless leaders as their chest thumping arrests their slide in the polls and simplistic News Corp pundits who love a good war, but in the end the West will once again waste blood and treasure.
And the winners? Well I bet Vladimir Putin reckons he’ll be a winner as the West gets distracted and weakened in the Middle East – but no we’ll feel the need to have a go at Putin after this one.  Our last hurrah quite possibly
No I think It’s pretty clear that when all is said and done the winner will be the nation who best absorbs a lesson from  Sun Tzu’s Art Of War.  “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”  That nation, appropriately will be China.
This Rex Ringschott piece is of a piece with this other piece in the Atlantic detailing the always-wrong perma-hawks who dominate US media, and when you piece them together it forms a jigsaw of G.W. Bush era recidivism, where no lessons from the failed Iraq and Afghanistan forays have been learned at all.

Having said all that, I am not going to connect the dots and narrow down the focus to Halliburton, Blackwater and crony capitalism in the military industrial complex. I acknowledge that there is a genuine philosophical underpinning to the neo-con thought process on this one. It is, as Ringschott mentions, the "simplistic moral argument" of the sanctity of human life. The slaughtering of Western journalists is a terrible thing (albeit that Muslim journalists were slaughtered in exactly the same way weeks before and the West ignored it). It reminds us that ISIS is committing atrocities on innocents, as Saddam Hussein did, the Taliban did and Al Qaida did. Opposing these people seems like a "good" thing to do, even if you don't want to touch the concept of them being "evil". Lives can be saved; not just Christian lives but Muslims and those of many other faiths and races.

I am on record as having some sympathy with that viewpoint, as in the asylum seeker debate. One should always pay respect to a credo which has as its foundation the primacy of human existence. In the case of asylum seekers, the figures are in and the deterrent, while individually abhorrent, has been shown to work to prevent the rush of asylum seekers by boat, and remove the prospect of hundreds of horrific deaths at sea. It seems rather mercenary to balance one poor bastard getting septicemia or shot in a prison riot with hundreds of corpses in the Arafura Sea, but that's the equation we're faced with and I'm prepared to accept the utilitarian argument from the right on this issue.

In the case of war in the Middle East - and in most other regions where rival superpowers funnel weapons to opposing sides and let them fight it out as proxies for their imperial ambitions - the figures are also in, and the effect of starting the Iraq war was to destabilise the region and cause more deaths than it would have saved. Specifically, the rise of ISIS is everything to do with George W. Bush's decision to remove Iraq's power structure, ship tonnes of ordnance to the Iraqi theatre and then leave all that firepower in the hands of underprepared locals who have mostly abandoned their posts or been mown down.

The lives that Australia and other Western nations have saved directly through combat boots on the ground were then forfeited when they left. Ah, the right might say, so it's Obama's fault for withdrawing troops? First off, that was a withdrawal signed off by Bush before Obama came to office, as part of setting up an independent Iraq. Second, how long is the West supposed to occupy Iraq for? Are we actually there to "liberate", or is the right's paternal instinct too strong to let the kids leave home?

Funnelling arms to Iraq has only caused more bloodshed, not less. It's as if the right wants to go against Obama's "don't do stupid shit" doctrine by doing all the stupid shit it can, but funnelling that shit into foreign war zones where their ideological beliefs can be tested in experiments using other people's lives. The Stupid Shit Funnel has been poised over Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time, raining down a steady stream of weaponry and armoured vehicles, and now it's also making detours to Ukraine.

Ringschott's conclusion - that the winners would be those who don't play, China in particular - dovetails nicely into my conclusion from my discussion with Noah Smith. Winners don't do war.

PS: I am seeing that "blood and treasure" phrase around a hell of a lot lately. It's 2014's version of "known unknowns" in trendy military jargon that pundits use to make them seem like insiders. Also, the word "wus" is not spelled correctly; it's either "woos" or "wuss". This concludes today's instalment of Slang Nitpickery!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Whoa! Reality Based Community on Facebook

I have had the idea to start one of those Facebook pages to bring together some disparate blog sources, since a group blog structure might not work for everybody. All are welcome to apply to become mods if you have suitable blog posts of your own to contribute and disseminate. The theme is not leftism, as in the recently departed Larvatus Prodeo, or centrism as in Club Troppo, or any flavour of rightism. It will not be a collection of "hate sites", as Homer Paxton references. It is called Reality Based Community, referencing a quote from an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (allegedly Karl Rove).
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Bush's reign coincided with the Matrix films, bringing the theories of Jean Baudrillard to CGI life. Baudrillard rejected the Matrix's treatment of his concept of the desert of the real, where the crude map crafted by humans becomes the new reality, regardless of the actual arrangement of rocks and plants that the map is supposed to describe: that the map as composed then becomes imposed. The Matrix's interpretation was that the system would incorporate the efforts of anyone who tried to change or break it; Baudrillard's rejoinder is that the Matrix films are a "symptom" of the system, invoking Agent Smith's monologue about humanity as a virus.
The pseudo-Freud who speaks at the film’s conclusion puts it well: at a certain moment, we reprogrammed the matrix in order to integrate anomalies into the equation. And you, the resistors, comprise a part of it. Thus we are, it seems, within a total virtual circuit without an exterior. Here again I am in theoretical disagreement (laughter). The Matrix paints the picture of a monopolistic superpower, like we see today, and then collaborates in its refraction. Basically, its dissemination on a world scale is complicit with the film itself. On this point it is worth recalling Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. The message of The Matrix is its own diffusion by an uncontrollable and proliferating contamination.
Baudrillard's contention is that the more the system evolves towards perfection, the closer it is to destruction. He would no doubt get along famously with Thomas Piketty, whose theory of r > g (the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth) suggests that the endpoint of capitalism is also inevitable (or at least subject to periodic collapse). And of course, a dinner party with these two would also welcome Karl Marx, another whose theory is that capitalism already carries within itself the seeds of own mortality.

The 21st century has been a live Baudrillardian experiment. Is it possible that Rove was correct, and neocons rewriting the map with their post facto justifications caused a quantum smooshing to produce a post-fact cosmos? Are we all Schrodinger's cat in a box, and is Karl the observer who collapses the waveform to decide reality?

Perhaps it is unfair to single out neoliberal capitalism for criticism in this way. From the perspective of environmentalism, any kind of economic creed which does not put sustainability at its core dooms humanity, because sooner or later the earth is going to run out of free lunches. The command economy in China is currently doing a slap up job of polluting its way to disaster. Thus there is room in the RBC for critiques from both left and right of politics, or from the supposedly dispassionate eye of plain old science.

Is it going to be inequality that is the revenant reality that bursts the Dubbya-era bubble universe, or will it be climate change that washes away this egghead post-modern decadence... or another world war between 0.01%er elites fighting over lebensraum that isn't covered in oil slicks? Hopefully, we'll learn a bit about it through the Reality Based Community.