Hey, mainstream media! Here are some pointers for doing your job

Dear Journalists of the Mainstream Media,

It is fair to say that, pretty much exactly as in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you have failed once again to fulfil your professional mandate and live up to even the minimal standards of journalism. For the most part, you have simply repeated the ridiculous speculations and hysterical statements of politicians, without any rigorous questioning or adequate investigation into their veracity. I know you work in a 24-7 news environment in which you feel like you don’t always have the time to find whether the things that officials say are not nonsense, and that most of you belong to a few large media conglomerates which impose a strict editorial line. But, come on! I know you can do better than ” Islamic state is an apocalyptic death cult and we’re all going to die! Launch the bombers now!” In the process of being so pathetically uncritical in the past few weeks, you have fuelled the moral panic that currently surrounds Islamic State, created an atmosphere of fear and Islamophobia, and offered almost no critical analysis of the patently pointless and counterproductive decision to bomb Iraq for the umpteenth time. As a consequence, you have utterly failed to provide a check on the politicians who are determined to roll back civil liberties, restrict protest and dissent, surveille the whole world, torture people and ironically, muzzle the freedom of the press. Yes, you didn’t even notice until it was too late that their plan to fight the purported existential threat of Islamic State included further restricting the activities of the press.

As a consequence of this pathetic failure, it is my duty to suggest a series of fairly simple and obvious questions which you, as professional journalists, can ask politicians and security officials during press conferences, or radio or television interviews on the subject of Islamic State, terrorism and/or bombing Muslim countries. Trust me, these will really help you to do your job properly, and may in the long run, bring back a little credibility to your profession. On the other hand, they may also get you banned from official press conferences or shunned by the hacks who are happy to act as paid government mouthpieces. In any case, by asking these questions, you’ll definitely feel better, reduce the shame you must feel for how you got sucked in again, and perhaps get a little bit of your dignity back.

So these are a few basic, random questions you might ask politicians. I’m sure you can simplify them further, as politicians are not always that bright:

  • How many plots have there actually been, and how many people have actually died in Western countries from terrorism by the Islamic State? And does zero actually constitute an existential threat, especially when in Australia, more people have been killed by kangaroos? Isn’t ebola, for example, an actual, real threat which ought to command more effort and resources than Islamic State?
  • Why are you saying that Islamic State is a major threat to Western countries when US intelligence officials (and scholarly experts) are saying that it’s not even clear that IS even wants to attack Western countries or has the capabilities to do so?
  • What evidence are you basing your assessment on that returned fighters will pose a terrorism threat? What examples can you give of any of the thousands of returned fighters from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria over the past four decades who have successfully launched terrorist attacks? What do you say to this study, this article, this article, and this article, which say that such a risk is really, really, small and certainly doesn’t represent an existential risk requiring throwing out our civil liberties? And what do you say to this article which suggests that IS doesn’t want foreign fighters to return home at all, and doesn’t want to conquer foreign lands but establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria?
  • What evidence do you have that bombing Iraq will help to defeat terrorism and bring peace and security after it failed from 2003 to 2010, and arguably failed from 1991 – 2003 when coalition forces bombed Iraq relentlessly? Why will it work now, when all the evidence (see here too) suggests that aerial bombing campaigns don’t actually work?
  • What do you say to all the evidence – including this study, and this study – which says that bombing Muslim countries creates more terrorists than it kills, as it is already doing with IS, and is likely to produce more attacks just like the Madrid, London, Fort Hood, Times Square and Boston attacks? Why do you think that bombing will make us safer, when all the evidence suggests it will make us more of a target?
  • Why do you insist that jihadist terrorism is driven by religious extremism when all the evidence suggests it is driven by political grievance over Western actions in the Middle East? Aren’t you giving people in the Middle East more reasons to hate us and try and attack us?
  • Given that the very same people who told us Saddam had WMD, and who failed to predict the invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9/11 attacks, and who gave the wrong intelligence which led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Kosovo campaign, and who arrested hundreds of innocent people and sent them to Guantanamo, and who have consistently provided intelligence which has lead to the bombing of wedding parties in Pakistan, and who said that Iraqis would welcome their Western liberators with open arms, are the same ones now telling us about the threat of Islamic State, why should we take it at face value? Why should we print your claims when you’ve told so many porkies, and provided so much misinformation, in the past?
  • What actual evidence do you have that mass surveillance actually works to reduce terrorism? (Hint: there is no actual evidence. It’s a huge invasion of privacy and waste of time for no measureable or logical benefit. In fact, the masses of data produced is actually an obstacle to finding useable intelligence.)
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that any of the measures currently being enacted – restrictions on the travel of foreign fighters, extended powers to hold people without charge, mass surveillance, enhanced interrogation, bombing – actually work or will have any effect at all on the risk of terrorism?
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that this bombing campaign won’t go on for years and draw us into a ground war with the same ineffectual and disastrous results as the ground wars we fought in for years in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • Can you please demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis you did which shows that spending the billions of dollars which will be required for this war would not have saved more lives and been better spent on other things like health, domestic violence prevention, health and safety, diplomacy, etc?
  • Can you please explain exactly how the bombing campaign and other drastic measures you have recently enacted represent a final last resort after all other peaceful and more effective alternatives have been tried?
  • Can you please explain the legal basis for going to war on Iraq again?

So, there you have it. Not so hard, just a few simple questions we as a society definitely need some answers to, and which will help to restore your professional credibility. Now get out and do it on every available occasion. I feel annoyed that I have to help you like this, but given how mad everyone has gone in recent weeks, seemingly with no memory at all of what happened when it was Saddam’s WMD that he was going to launch in 45 minutes, I felt I better do something. Anyway, good luck. Do a better job. I’m counting on you.

Posted in Counter-terrorism, The War on Terrorism, War | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

How not to tackle Islamic State

The current hysteria shown by both politicians and the mainstream media about Islamic State (IS) is so devoid of reason and factual evidence that it is difficult to know where to start in formulating a corrective. As a researcher who has studied terrorism and political violence since 1987, I can say with some confidence that virtually every single statement about the purported threat posed by IS, or the reasons why a small number of Muslims in Western countries want to travel to Iraq to fight with them, is mostly, if not completely, incorrect. More importantly, based on years of research, I can say with confidence that the recent actions taken by Western countries in response to the purported threat – particularly the decision to bomb IS and to arm groups opposed to it, as well as the decision to try and ban individuals from travelling to Iraq – will at best completely fail to bring peace and security to the region; at worst, these policies will lead directly to more terrorism and violence, worsen the situation greatly and create a predictable self-fulfilling prophesy.

In fact, any intelligent observer of events in the Middle East can work out that the rise of IS is, in the first instance, the direct result of years of reckless Western military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The invasion of Iraq, particularly the disbanding of the Iraqi army and Western support for the corrupt and brutal al-Maliki government, lead directly to the formation of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). For its part, over the years of brutal internecine conflict and insurgency in Iraq since 2003, AQI has more recently morphed into IS. At the same time, the West and its Gulf allies have covertly supported anti-Assad rebels in Syria with weapons and training funneled through Turkey. Some of these groups have now defected to IS. In effect, short-sighted, ill-informed Western policy has contributed directly to the political and strategic conditions that have allowed IS to grow into the force it is today. This is called ‘blowback’ in intelligence circles.

As if this disastrous recent history was not enough, the longer history of Western air campaigns shows that it is quite ineffective in winning wars or creating the conditions for peace, especially against rebel movements like IS. The truth is, bombing has an almost zero chance of defeating IS, as six weeks of intensive bombing already shows. In other words, Western countries have decided to adopt a strategy that has virtually no chance of succeeding, and which in the very recent past helped to create the very problem it is now trying to solve. If the definition of insanity, as Einstein put it, is undertaking the same action over and over again while expecting a different result, then the decision to bomb Iraq for the third time in three decades is a perfect example of insanity.

In addition to ignoring recent history and evidence in relation to the perils of military intervention in the region, Western countries have also decided that IS poses a direct threat to them, and have banned individuals from travelling to Iraq to fight for them. The logic here is that foreign fighters will be radicalized by IS and will return home to wage jihad on their home countries. This is more than a little ridiculous: if individuals have decided to make the dangerous journey to Iraq where they have a high chance of being killed in a brutal war, they are already well-radicalized. In fact, preventing potential fighters from going overseas risks aspiring jihadists turning their attention to targets closer to home. If a thwarted fighter launches an attack on London or Sydney in the next few months, it will be nothing more a completely predictable self-fulfilling prophesy.

In fact, the ignorance and short-sightedness of this policy is highlighted by the fact that out of the many thousands who have travelled to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, Syria and Iraq over previous decades, less than a handful of returned fighters have subsequently become engaged in terrorist activities. Instead, as Denmark is currently finding, many returned fighters are traumatized and disillusioned by their experiences. In effect, they have been de-radicalised after finding that the noble cause they thought they were fighting for was lost in the squalid brutality of internecine war. In other words, according to the best academic evidence available, the threat posed by returning fighters is extremely low. It certainly does not warrant the hysterical response we are currently seeing in the United Kingdom and other European countries. The Australian government’s reaction is particularly over-the-top: restricting press freedoms, confiscating passports and whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria will do nothing except create social conflict and disorder.

On the other hand, every major terrorist attack on Western targets since 2001, including the attacks in Bali, Madrid, London and Boston, has been claimed by the perpetrators to be revenge for Western military intervention in the Middle East. Even the beheadings of Western hostages were justified by IS captors as a response to US bombing. In fact, every major academic study of the past ten years has confirmed that Western military intervention and its policies in the Middle East, including support for the state of Israel, is the primary motivation for anti-Western terrorist attacks. In 1996, a major study by the CATO Institute concluded that U.S. military intervention overseas was the primary driver of anti-American terrorism. The Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism has drawn the same fundamental conclusion. In other words, the greater risk of terrorism comes not from returning fighters, but from the decision to bomb Iraq once again.

There is no doubt that IS is a brutal insurgent group. However, it is far from the worst such group we have seen in recent decades, and the current measures designed to tackle it will achieve nothing but further blowback. New Zealand has thus far not succumbed to the overreaction and hysteria of Australia, the UK, the US and other European countries. In considering whether to respond to IS, the New Zealand government would be well advised to pay due attention to the academic evidence, rather than ill-informed, knee-jerk reactions and ignorant media speculation. There is plenty of good research and information which could help to make reasonable and effective policies. However, the media and politicians need to take the time to consult it, instead of rushing headlong into another completely pointless and self-defeating war.

This article was originally published as an op-ed in the Otago Daily Times on Wednesday 1 October 2014. Originally, I had entitled it, ‘The Insanity of Western Foreign Policy’, but I presumed it would not get published under that heading.

Posted in Counter-terrorism, Terrorism and Extremism | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

How many corpses does it take to debunk the myth of violence?

I couldn’t help but notice that James Foley, as he was about to be horrifically executed, was dressed in an orange jump suit. Guantanamo Bay in the desert. And the masked executioner stated that he was killing James Foley because the US had bombed ISIS, and would kill another journalist if they didn’t stop attacking them. President Obama stated that ISIS was a cancer that needed to be excised from the world. It’ll most likely lead to a new round of Western bombing and intervention in the region, followed no doubt by ISIS revenge killings and further terrorism. Then the cycle will start again when some other group which grew out of this current round of violence commits another horrific act of violence. At least, this is how it’s been going for decades now: remember how al Qaeda grew out of the US-backed Afghan insurgency? And how ISIS grew out of the invasion of Iraq and the war in Syria? And how Hamas grew out of the occupation of Palestine? And so on, and so on.

Seeing all this, I can’t help but feel deeply saddened and depressed. Killing is everywhere, it seems, and mass violence seems to be the main dish on today’s news menu. But what depresses me the most is that no one appears to be asking the kind of questions which you’d think this news would provoke. Instead, it seems like there is an unquestioning acceptance that violence is taking place, therefore some kind of violent response is necessary. This seems to be the logic: if a man pulls a knife and threatens violence, then we need to simply shoot him to death. If a Palestinian fires a rocket, then we need to violently kill him and as many of the people around him as possible. If ISIS murders a journalist then we need to violently bomb his bases and send arms to surrounding armies so they can invade and kill him and all his kind. Simple. Logical, apparently.

But my question is: How many corpses does it take until we know that responding to violence with more violence doesn’t lead to peace but simply to even more violence further down the road? How many corpses does it take until we know that sending more weapons to the Middle East won’t make it any safer or more peaceful, but will in fact fuel further violence somewhere in the future? How many corpses will it take until we know that torturing people in Guantanamo, invading Iraq, the war on terror and Western foreign policy in the Middle East generally has been both deeply immoral and deeply disasterous, and is the root cause of the current round of violence we see today? How many corposes does it take until we start to question the violence-is-the-only-answer-to-violence policy reaction? And it obviously doesn’t end ‘over there’: How many corpses does it take until we know that going overseas to kill people leads directly to coming home and killing people – that a global war on terror will eventually come back to be a domestic war on terror in which militarised, shoot-to-kill policing is the natural order of the day?

In other words, how much evidence by way of corpses do we need to know that violence is a morally bankrupt, politically self-defeating, stupid and toxic policy option? How much evidence do we need until the idiots who recommend arms transfers or bombing or invasions or torture are viewed as naive and dangerous loonatics in need of locking up, while the pacifists and the peacemakers are held up as reasonable and wise because they can see that every act of violence just makes things worse? How much evidence do we need that realism is a stupid self-fulfilling prophesy that should be considered a dangerous idealism only fit for fools, and that pacifism ought to be the primary political philosophy we draw upon to figure out how to live in security and peace? How much evidence do we need until academics and politicians who advocate violent policies get booed and jeered for being destructive dick-heads, while peacemakers and pacifists get cheered for trying to find nonviolent ways of dealing with conflict? How much evidence do we need until arms manufacturers get prosecuted and shut down, while arms protesters get parades and statues instead of arrest and prosecution?

It is a simple question which I can’t see anyone asking: how many corpses does it take until we abandon the patently false idea that violence can be a useful policy tool and we start instead to use our intelligence to find the more realistic and morally consistent nonviolent alternatives? To be honest, I’m sick of being told I’m a naive, unrealistic idiot because I’m a pacifist when it is the belief that organised forms of violence and killing can bring peace and security which is clearly the naively delusional position. In fact, the belief that good can come out violence, or that evil can best be fought with violence, is the most dangerous, and most stupid, ideological belief in the world today. Every single day of my life to date, the news has proved this, but no more so than today.

Posted in Pacifism and nonviolence | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

How I Came to Support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign against Israel

The current appalling slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza with no regard for the lives of Palestinians, and in violation of international law, makes BDS an absolute necessity and an ethical obligation for anyone who is claims to be a decent human being. It’s time to stop tolerating this outlaw behaviour.


When I was a teenager, I believed that the boycott of South Africa was the wrong way to oppose apartheid. I thought it would hurt the wrong people, close down dialogue and result in a siege mentality that would prolong the conflict. My mind changed, in good part, after hitch-hiking around the country in 1984, meeting a wide array of people, and experiencing the inhumanity of the system first-hand. The day a very tired and elderly African lady coming home from a long day at work was ordered by the bus driver to vacate her seat for me, a young man perfectly capable of standing, was a potent experience. Ashamed of how I benefited from the system (and simultaneously harmed another) simply by virtue of looking Caucasian was a transformative, radicalizing moment. Hearing from activists and ordinary Africans that they supported the boycott, even though they knew they would suffer…

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Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Gaza and the Lonely Death of Just War Theory

Just war theory is arguably at the heart of both the international normative and legal order, and Western political thought about the justified use of military force. Certainly, just war theory is woven into the UN Charter, humanitarian law and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) particularly. In recent years, there were vigorous just war-based discussions over the legitimacy of the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, and the bombing of Libya, among others. It is something of a surprise therefore, that there is currently no similar vigorous discussion over whether the present attack on Gaza meets the criteria of a just war. Such a discussion is clearly in order, and has important implications for international politics.

Just war comes in various forms, but at its core it is based on seven key principles. These principles state that in order for a war to be just,

1. The war must be fought for a just cause.
2. The war must be declared by a lawful authority.
3. It must be fought for a right intention.
4. It must be a last resort after peaceful alternatives have been tried.
5. It must have a reasonable chance of success to avoid prolonging suffering.
6. The force used must be proportionate.
7. Innocent civilians should not be harmed.

In short, wars should be fought only for a just or legitimate cause, and the war itself must be conducted in a just manner. The argument is that in order for a war to be considered just (or legitimate), it should adhere to all of these seven principles. If we apply these criteria to the current attack on Gaza, it is clear that it does not come close to meeting the criteria of a just war. In fact, it is probably fair to suggest that it is one of the most unjust or least legitimate wars fought in recent years, as every single one of the seven principles of just war is either utterly violated or at least highly questionable.

First, it is questionable whether this war is being fought for what most would recognise as a just cause. There is enough evidence to suggest that it is a war of revenge for the kidnap and deaths of the Israeli teenagers, and/or an attempt to disrupt the unity agreement between Hamas and the PA in order to delay further talks on substantive issues surrounding the occupation and a two-state solution. It can also be argued that it is being fought for largely domestic political reasons, rather than for the achievement of genuine long-term peace and security. This is certainly a valid conclusion given that the attack has failed to stop Hamas rockets (as the previous operation in 2012 also failed to do) and its utterly predictable outcome will be to strengthen Hamas leadership and control of Gaza. However, I am willing to concede that on this point Israel could potentially argue that it is attacking in national self-defence which would be a just cause under current international law. At the same time, there are clearly moral and legal limits to the national defence justification. Israel could not legitimately drop nuclear bombs on its neighbours simply by claiming the necessity of self-defence, for example.

Second, in the current international system, it is normally expected that the UN Security Council is the primary legitimate authority for authorising the use of force. In this case, as in previous cases, Israel has ignored the UN and acted unilaterally. States that unilaterally go to war are usually sanctioned in some way. Russia, for example, is currently being sanctioned for using force in the Ukraine. Again, however, I am willing to concede that this could be an arguable point and Israel does have the right to decide by itself when it goes to war – a right the US also claimed in the war on terror. However, if states are free to choose when to go to war themselves without UN authorisation, this has serious implications for the international order and undermines the role of the UN Security Council in maintaining international peace and security.

Third, just war theory states that wars must be fought for the right intention, meaning that they are fought out of a genuine desire for peace, justice and the good of all. Saint Augustine, the original just war theorist, argued that just wars should be fought with love. There is very little evidence, particularly in the light of both the actions and the attitudes of Israeli leaders and many sections of the Israeli public, that this is anything else but ‘mowing the lawn’, revenge, collective punishment and blood-letting, most likely for continued Palestinian resistance to settlements and the illegal and disproportionate siege of Gaza. Once again, however, I am willing to give the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt on this particular principle and not assert that they are necessarily fighting this war with malign intentions.

On the fourth and one of the most important principles, however, there is no doubt that Israel is in violation of just war precepts. In no way, shape or form can Israel claim that this was the last resort after peaceful means had been attempted. Gaza is completely surrounded and contained, and Hamas and the Arab League have in the past and more recently offered a basis for talks. Israel could have easily re-started serious negotiations, especially after the unity pact between Hamas and the PA eliminated one of the last objections Israel had previously made to re-starting the peace talks. Hamas has offered a ten-year truce if Israel would ease the blockade of Gaza. At the very least, this could have been the basis for serious talks, which if after a few months of honest negotiations had failed, then Israel might have been able to argue that this war was a last resort. Given what we know about the lead-up to, and the context of, this war, no one can seriously argue that it meets the condition of last resort.

The attack on Gaza also fails the fifth principle of just war, namely, that it should have a reasonable chance of success to avoid prolonging suffering. In fact, we know with a very high degree of certainty that this war will fail to destroy Hamas, and fail to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israel in the future. We know this because not only does Hamas continue to manage to fire off hundreds of rockets, despite weeks of Israeli bombing, but an identical attack on Gaza in 2012 failed to stop Hamas rockets. It is likely that, as in 2012, the day before this attack ends, Hamas will again fire off a number of rockets just to prove it hasn’t been beaten yet. Not only that, as in 2012, at the end of this war, when thousands are dead and Gaza city is nothing but rubble, we all know that Hamas will be stronger than ever. In sum, this war is producing untold suffering for no discernable strategic success, and therefore cannot meet the principle of reasonable success.

On the sixth principle of just war – proportionality – there is again no doubt that Israel is acting unjustly. This is obvious from the daily images of destruction and the hourly casualty figures, and in the comparison of military capabilities between Israel and Hamas. Hamas has managed to fire around 2,500 rockets towards Israel, which has resulted in 3 Israeli civilian casualties. As tragic as these deaths are, in response, Israel has killed well over a thousand Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes, as well as mosques, schools, hospitals, the power station and other vital infrastructure, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. This amounts to killing more than 300 Palestinians for every Israeli killed, and has resulted in untold amounts of suffering. No one can possibly suggest it is a proportionate use of force.

Finally, just war principles prioritise the non-targeting of civilians. Once again, in no possible interpretation of the current situation could Israel claim to be making an effort to avoid civilian targets. As its own defence spokesperson claimed, Israel’s drone and satellite surveillance systems are so sophisticated they were able to detect the make of guns carried by Hamas militants disguised as Israeli soldiers. Given this, it is inconceivable that they can’t see when they are blowing up children playing football on a beach, or in a school yard. With the most sophisticated surveillance system in the world, we are apparently meant to believe that Israel has nonetheless accidentally killed over a thousand civilians, or worse, that they somehow deserved their horrible death. In addition, we only need to observe the indiscriminate anti-personnel weapons being used by Israeli forces in the densely populated areas of Gaza to see that this principle is being violated every hour. And the broader strategy of blowing up thousands of buildings in one of the most densely populated areas of the world where people have nowhere else to flee also guarantees a high civilian body count. And the argument that all these civilian deaths are because Hamas is using human shields is no longer credible.

In sum, it is plainly obvious that this is far from a just war. It violates four of the seven principles of just war outright, and may also arguably violate the other three. The only reasonable assessment is that this in fact, a deeply unjust war, a disproportionate massacre of a largely defenceless people. It is exactly the kind of war of aggression that just war theory was designed to prevent or mitigate, and by engaging in it, Israel is behaving like a rogue state. By its actions, Israel is saying that it does not hold to just war and does not care to be bound by just war principles in its use of force. Moreover, the Israeli government knows this all too well, which is why they have gone into high gear to try and shape public debate and media coverage about the attack. The point is that on this assessment, supporters of just war – such as many of the world’s Christians, the R2P proponents, most Western leaders, the UN, the EU – have a duty to condemn this war and point out that it violates the normative international order which we have been trying to establish since WWII. They ought to stop aiding and abetting such illegitimate, rogue behaviour and instead impose sanctions like they did (albeit reluctantly) in South Africa in the 1980s. It is a double standard and it undermines the international normative order when our leaders insist that they support the principles of just war and the legitimate use of force, but then remain silently complicit or openly supportive when Israel fights an obviously unjust, illegitimate war.

Of course, as critics will point out, just war is more of an aspirational wish-list than anything else, and few wars ever conform to it. My point however, is that just war theory has been vigorously used to defend other wars as recently as during NATO’s bombing of Libya, and it forms the normative basis for R2P, humanitarian law, and other aspects of the international legal order. It is also used as a rallying call for imposing sanctions on states like Russia, who it is argued, are engaging in an unjust war. The fact that no Western leader, and few IR scholars or pundits are discussing the Israeli attack on Gaza in terms of just war theory suggests that they have given up on it, or that they believe it only applies to some states and not others. The project of making just war the normative heart of international politics, it seems, is dead. By not speaking out on Gaza, we have quietly given up on the project of a rule-based international system.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the smashing of Gaza is a painful reminder that we no longer truly believe in universal human rights, rule of law, or justice. That is what the actions of our leaders and sometimes our fellow citizens tell us, because if we truly believed in these values, we wouldn’t allow our leaders to remain silently complicit. I’m beginning to wonder if we ever did truly believe in those values, and where we go from here. If our leaders and societies are no longer committed to just war principles, what does this say about us, and where do those of us working for a just and peaceful international order look to find ways of limiting violence and war? Are we headed for another era in which civilians are once again considered fair game in war? How do we stop the mass killing of civilians from being normalised once again? Answers on a postcard, please…

Posted in Israel/Palestine | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Case Against Voting

I want to make it clear that I am not against voting per se. Under the right circumstances, and in certain contexts, voting can be an effective and meaningful form of democratic participation or collective decision-making. Rather, my argument is that at this present historical juncture – in this time and place, right here and now in New Zealand (and likely many other countries) – voting is largely a pointless activity. I suggest two main reasons for such a depressing conclusion.

The first main reason is that, as any reasonable assessment demonstrates, voting is no longer fit for purpose given the challenges currently facing us. That is, voting and the broader context of electoral politics is incapable of generating the kinds of deep and profound political and social change we need in order to deal with our generation’s challenges, and has largely lost its democratic content. In particular, I would argue that electoral politics can no longer deal with the deeply interrelated challenges of global climate change and wealth inequality. These two issues threaten our economy, our society, our social values and way of life, and indeed, our long-term viable existence on this planet. More importantly, they are highly complex problems that in order to meet adequately will require multiple, long-term coordinated actions (including sustained cross-party, and inter-state political cooperation), replacing the profit motive and perpetual economic growth as the central principles of capitalism, and either re-nationalising the banks, the energy sector, transport, and the like, or at the very least, regulating these sectors into compliance with an entirely new set of social, economic and political priorities.

So why can’t voting and the electoral system function effectively to meet these challenges? There are several rather obvious reasons. First, the structure and culture of electoral politics now prevents the kind of politics we actually need to meet these challenges. This is because, among other things, the electoral cycle creates incentives for presentism and buck-passing; democracies are ‘systematically biased in favour of the present’, as some pundits argue. It also creates incentives towards ignoring lessons and the rejection of evidence-based policy in favour of short-term electoral calculations. More importantly, the electoral system promotes centrism and ideological conformity, as witnessed by the broad acceptance of neoliberalism by virtually every single major political party in the Western world. In truth, the similarities between parties now outweigh and outnumber the differences between them, and electoral choice today is largely confined to either accelerated neoliberalism or a slightly slower, gentler neoliberalism (no party is offering to reverse or abandon neoliberalism for something else, for example). Another problem is that electoral politics is permeated by a culture of adversarialism, which is more than simply a sociological condition but is a direct consequence of the embedded pay-off structures in the system. Related to this, and more specifically, the process required to pass legislation can never go beyond dealing with single issues. As a consequence of all these characteristics, electoral politics is today only capable of the most minimalist reformism, which is actually more than simply irritating; it is harmful because it leaves the root problems intact to continue injuring people.

A second key problem, and one I need not labour here, is the well-known democratic deficit engendered by successive generations of de-regulation and privatisation. The consequence of this is that electoral politics is now structurally limited in its ability to control markets, capital and other special interests. Today, most parliaments probably could not act decisively in some crucial areas because they have ceded control to capital, markets, and other interests.

A third problem with the current political system lies in the influence of special interests on politics, which is itself a direct result of wealth inequality. Apart from the almost weekly media reports we read in New Zealand about ministers meeting with special economic interests behind closed doors, party donations scandals, and all the professional lobbyists among the 63 approved visitors with direct access to the Beehive, the international evidence gathered by Thomas Picketty and the Princeton Study on voter preferences – among others – shows that the political system responds to the preferences of the wealthy far more than to those of the less well off. It is in fact, more of an oligarchy than a democracy; political institutions have largely been captured by the wealthy. In conjunction with the democratic deficit caused by de-regulation, the kindest way to put this is to say that democratic institutions have lost control of capitalism, and are now in fact, controlled by capitalism. This perhaps explains why even a modest tax increase on the wealthy is so difficult for a major party to suggest.

A final key problem with the current political system is the increasingly unrepresentative nature of politicians: earning a minimum of $141,000 per year, MPs in New Zealand are in the top 2% of earners (70% of New Zealanders earn less than $43,000 per year; 50% less than $24,000). In addition, the rise of the professional political class has created a set of embedded interests which may not be the same interests as society (or the planet). This is a well-observed sociological phenomenon: once a professional class arises, its core interests lie in ensuring continued employment, career progress, and maintaining the conditions of its privilege. The same holds true for political parties. What this means is that the central driving purpose of the electoral and wider political system is now to maintain the overall arrangements and perpetuate its own survival as an institution and its place in the social hierarchy.

In the end, these are very serious, structurally-embedded problems which cannot be fixed merely by voting for the right politicians. The reality we must now face is that in functionalist terms, the electoral system is not just structurally incapable of dealing with certain challenges, but is part of the architecture by which the current system is maintained. Through reformism, minor adjustments and a legitimising ideological function, periodic voting ensures that neoliberal capitalism and its accompanying inequities and damage to the planet continues without serious challenge. Given that neoliberal capitalism created the problems of inequality and climate change in the first place, this suggests we cannot now look to it for solutions – at least in its present form.

To paraphrase Naomi Klein, at a moment in history when we need a collective approach to solve a series of interlocking collective problems, we are lumbered with an electoral system that promotes individualism, isolation and self-interest. At a moment when we need controls over corporate power and the regulation of capital, we are burdened with an electoral system in which ‘regulation’ is a dirty word and corporate power and the power of the market is greater than political power – and when we most require strong, determined and flexible political action, we find our politicians are tied down by the apparatus of ‘free trade’ and deregulation. At a moment when we need politicians to build public institutions and empower local communities, we find ourselves ruled by a political class who only seem to know how to dismantle and starve public institutions.

At a moment when we need politicians to work together in holistic, comprehensive and interlinked ways, we find we are stuck with an anachronistic, adversarial politics which can only deal with one issue at a time. At a moment when we need to move from a system based on individual consumerism to one based on sustainable communalism, we are forced to participate in individualistic electoral consumerism. At a moment when we need to adopt a long-term horizon, we find ourselves trapped in short-term electoral cycles. At a moment in history when we need a revolution in the way we live and produce material goods and make social decisions, we are stuck with a system capable only of more of the same old way of doing things.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I want to suggest a second reason for pessimism, namely, that not only is voting no longer fit for purpose, voting is bad for you. Once again, there are a number of reasons for this. First, voting legitimises the status quo and a system in which the role of ordinary people is actually to endorse rule by the wealthy and for the wealthy. It is, in effect, allowing ourselves to be used as a means of elite rule and elite legitimisation. Second, as a method, voting is ambiguous and far too blunt an instrument of preference communication to be useful: you can’t really signal which issue you are voting on, but politicians can use your vote to justify policies which you might, in fact, actually oppose. Related to this, voting today creates cynicism and disillusionment, in large part because the system means that politicians have to promise so much to so many, knowing that they will be unable to fulfil them, and knowing that they will introduce policies they failed to mention during the election.

Third, I would argue that voting is ultimately assimilating and pacifying of citizens, and it socialises the voter into a belief system in which the act of voting represents democratic participation and a political system where their doubts and ideals are shaped into narrowly prescribed, consensus generating forms. In this respect, voting promotes a collective illusion, namely, that ticking a ballot form is a meaningful form of democratic participation, that voting is democratisation, and that voting involves the exercise of real influence. The reality is the opposite: voting is ultimately both disempowering and a mechanism for engendering psychological compliance with the current system. It is in fact, antithetical to the real promise of democracy, which is to enhance the capacity of people to exercise autonomy and control over their own lives and communities.

Fourth, voting is in many ways disempowering and de-politicising: it is both a formal and symbolic way of giving up our individual autonomy and responsibility to others. As such, it reinforces a culture of learned helplessness and dependency on a select group of (elite) others to run our lives. Voting reinforces the message that we cannot, we need not, and we should not be involved in important decision-making or building a better society for ourselves and our communities.

Fifth, voting reinforces the logic and basis of atomised liberal subjects by requiring us to make individual votes based on self-interest: it is a temporary, self-interested transaction in which we sell our votes to those who promise to give us something we want in return. This is simply the selfish, commodified logic of capitalist social relations in the political sphere, and is the same logic that has caused our current crises. Voting constitutes us as separate, atomised, individual (political) consumers, and reinforces the individual’s sense of self in terms of commodified social relations. More significantly, electoral politics divides and fractures local communities by competitively appealing to individuals and their interests, and by introducing winner-take-all contests into groups. Electoral politics reinforces the adversarial and individualistic logic of capitalism, as I’ve noted, at a moment in history when consensus and communalism would be more beneficial.

In the end, more than just substituting the form of democracy for the substance of democracy, it can be argued that voting actually impedes progress by legitimising the existing system, encouraging politicians to believe that they have a mandate and support from the people, reinforcing the alienation of individuals, and constricting the space for an alternative politics. In other words, voting just encourages them to more of the same!

Of course, this leaves us with some difficult questions: Can the electoral system be reformed? Are there alternatives to voting? I would argue that it is unlikely that the electoral system can be reformed in the short-term, or at least in time to deal with the current crises. Its problems are structurally embedded in the system. However, there are a number of positive reforms which would potentially improve the current system of electoral politics in New Zealand, including: institutionalising and enabling the right of recall and no confidence, especially in cases of broken promises; binding referenda on issues of national importance, including the economy, the environment, social welfare, education, health and the arts; alternative voting systems such as STV and the end of closed party lists; linking MP wages to the median wage; placing limits on how many terms politicians can serve; and prohibiting private donations to political parties and restricting lobbyists. A nation-wide direct consultation (a National Dialogue) in which citizens could participate, and from which binding recommendations on issues of national importance could come, would be another possible avenue for enhancing democratic participation, and a kind of extra-parliamentary form of democratic participation.

However, these are mostly reformist approaches which would likely do very little to make the current system truly democratic and effective. I want to tentatively suggest that there are undoubtedly other forms of everyday, subaltern political agency which are potentially more meaningful, and potentially more effective and empowering than electoral politics, and which may start to generate the kind of innovative, radical politics which could make a real difference. Part of the problem, however, is that neoliberalism and electoral politics have shrivelled our political imaginations and limited our horizon of possibilities. This makes is extremely difficult to think about alternatives to what currently exists. The following are just some initial thoughts about the directions we might take.

In the first place, we need a revolution of everyday life through the infusion of politics into the everyday – what James Scott calls ‘infra-politics’ – as an alternative to the current moribund national politics. Such everyday resistance and activism by citizens can sometimes lead to large-scale ‘refusal’ and eventual larger forms of political mobilisation. The value of practising everyday democracy is that it actually helps to create new forms of subjectivity in citizens. We should also think about the need to contest the idea of the state being the exclusive site of the political, and the need to construct autonomous movements, organisations and political spaces in order to re-situate democratic participation. This is what Abensour calls ‘insurgent democracy’. It is an idea defintiely worth exploring.

In the end, there’s no simple answer to the deep hole we find ourselves in as we think about the forthcoming election. It’s a long-term project of ‘reinventing democracy’ which begins by honestly facing up to the structural weaknesses of the current system. The key point is that we will never discover a better democracy while we cling to the old, broken democratic system.

In conclusion, as I mentioned at the start, I am not against voting per se, and I am not suggesting you shouldn’t vote in the upcoming election. You can vote if you like, but just recognise that it is little more than a rather pointless, symbolic gesture which won’t have any substantial effect – except more intensive neo-liberal capitalism if one particular party gets in, and slightly less intensive neo-liberal capitalism if the other one wins. Also recognise that it will function to reinforce the current status quo and will therefore probably do more harm than good – to you, to our society, to the planet, to the possibilities of real, individual democratic participation.

In other words, if you do decide to vote, please don’t just vote. Don’t stop at the polling booth: go and do something else as well. Do anything else that involves your active engagement with political issues – start a reading group to educate yourself, form a cooperative, join a union and volunteer to be on its leadership, launch a creative protest against consumerism, do some guerrilla gardening, launch an independent media centre, create a temporary autonomous zone in a squat, join or start an activist group – anything! I believe that it is only when we start to think and act outside of the narrow confines of electoral politics that we will find meaningful ways to expand the democratic space, discover new solutions and achieve a more meaningful political agency for ourselves and our societies. Sadly, but realistically, it is only outside of the current electoral political system – and outside the confines of the state – that individuals and communities can reclaim a genuine sense of democratic citizenship and perhaps start to deal with the serious challenges facing our generation.

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The Problem with Gaza

The problem with Gaza is that when we see its suffering, we know that our commitment to human rights stops at the Israeli border; it hurries past the apartheid wall. We do not, it seems, believe in universal human rights after all.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see its dead, dust-covered children, we know that our belief in the rule of law and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is nothing more than fancy talk designed to seduce and distract from the ethical vacuum at the heart of our legal ethics.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see the crushed wheelchairs of the disabled, too slow to get out with a one minute warning, we know that we consider some lives to be value-less, expendable, ungrievable. The Gazan dead are collateral damage, the responsibility of the terrorists, unfortunate accidents, deserving of their deaths because of their government; there are a million reasons to discount lives, to dismiss suffering.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see its hospitals crowded with the weeping wounded, waiting for vital medicines to be allowed in by Israeli border officials, we realise that we do not consider that all people have the right to live in freedom and dignity. We have learned to accept the imprisonment of an entire people behind walls; we accept that some can enjoy the freedoms we possess while others must possess subjugation, injustice, humiliation.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see family homes, hospitals, mosques and cultural centres reduced to rubble, we know that our commitment to international law and justice is little more than political expediency, a rhetorical flourish concealing a cynical calculus.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see people running about helplessly behind the walls, desperate to escape the screaming, searching bombs, we know that we accept an international order in which the powerful terrify and debase the weak, the oppressed are denied the right to resist, and in which military might trumps morality and reason.

The problem with Gaza is that it is a mirror to the moral vacuum that is ‘civilised, Western values’. It taunts us, mocking our deeply-held beliefs, our delusional self-confessed identity as civilised, democratic, advanced. We think our politicians, our institutions and our societies really do cherish human rights, democracy, rule of law and a compassionate, humane international order. We believe our media tell the truth. But when we look at what Israel does to Gaza, to the Palestinians across the colonised territories, day after day and year after year, we know that none of this is really true. Suddenly, brutally, we know that we are hypocrites, our leaders are hypocrites, our purported values are nothing but vapours; they vanish with the first breeze of a US-made Israeli attack helicopter.

The problem with Gaza is that it reminds us that our governments send arms to Israel, accept its nuclear arsenal without protest, maintain full diplomatic relations with it, allow its representatives to speak unchallenged in our media, make excuses for its illegal, immoral behaviour, and block UN resolutions which criticise its walls, its blockades, its annexation of land, its excessive violence. It reminds us that we continue to vote for politicians and political parties who refuse to speak or act on behalf of the oppressed, despite their fine rhetoric about freedom and human rights. It reminds us that we allow Israel to act with impunity by our silence, our cooperation, our normalised relations. It reminds us that we have chosen a side, and it is not the side of justice and freedom.

The problem with Gaza is that it reminds us that we are all complicit in its suffering if we do nothing.

Posted in Israel/Palestine | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments