The Criminal Injustice System: Beyond Platitudes and Bleeding Hearts

Standard

Abc1

Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a lot of serious problems. Neoliberal reforms have been imposed against the will of the people here and it is only our pride and our racially informed sense of kinship with imperial power that keeps us from recognising that we are a neocolony – a privileged neocolony perhaps, but a neocolony nonetheless.

Recent decades have been an affront to our sovereignty and our progressive and socialist history. We were the first country with a 40 hour working week, the first to allow women to vote, the second to have a comprehensive public health system, and the first welfare state. It cuts against the grain, therefore, that in 30 years we have gone from a country with no poverty or unemployment and near the worst income inequality in the OECD (7th worst in 2014). With relatively low wages and one of the highest costs of living in the world, neoliberalism is ripping apart our social fabric. We have a housing crisis that is worse than those hitting the US, UK, Australia and Canada, but it is even more of a shock because 30 years ago the idea of homelessness and of people begging in the streets was simply alien to us.

Make no mistake, neoliberalism has fucked this country, and I do blame the US and the UK along with those traitor scum politicians who serve the empire and not their own people. But in one key respect, neoliberalism was pushing against an open door. Neoliberalism seeks to shrink the social support offered by the state but it also seeks to grow the coercive powers of the state – the police and the prisons. The latter harmonises much more easily with traditional Aotearoan values. We are a punitive people. We are not ruled by fear of malefactors to the extent that the US seems to be, but we still have a strong attraction to “law-and-order”.

Our prison population has traditionally been high, but as incarceration rates have grown in other countries we have kept our place in the leading pack (excluding the US which is in a league of its own). We imprison people at nearly twice the rate of Canada; 45% higher than England and Wales and 30% higher than Australia.

The punitive culture in Aotearoa is partly the product of settler-colonial relations. The nature of colonialism is to obliterate autonomy. In Aotearoa the British achieved this in the same manner in which they did in India. First is the process of dividing the locals, using diplomatic trickery, and co-opting collaborators. The second is military conquest, which is only achievable because of native forces. The third is the realm of police, judges, truancy officers, land surveyors, bureaucrats, and lawyers. It is a telling part of our history that the reputed “last gasp” of the decades-long New Zealand Wars was when a column of 120 armed men was sent to arrest a leader, Hone Toia, who refused to pay a dog tax. The judge who imprisoned Hone Toia made it clear that he was demonstrating the reach and power of the government.

The story thereafter will be familiar to other settler colonial societies, Compulsory schooling became the mechanism for literally beating and torturing the language and culture from Māori children. There was a school-to-borstal pipeline, particularly for Māori boys. This was the beginning of a self-sustaining circle of institutional racism. The result is that even though Māori are only 15% of the total population, they make up more than 50% of the prison population. Even Al Jazeera has made a documentary about the “Locked-Up Warriors” of our country.

However, at the risk of weakening the sense of crisis (which is very real in absolute terms) I feel obliged to point out that in proportion to indigenous populations Aotearoa actually has a lower indigenous incarceration rate than Australia and Canada. Australian aboriginals are the most imprisoned people in the world, ahead of US African-Americans. None of this should detract from the significance of Māori imprisonment here, where indigenous people make up a much larger part of the total population.

The prison is clearly being used as an ongoing tool of colonial control, even if it is only the momentum of the past that keeps it so. Yet I would argue that treating this as a race issue alone will not help. The racism of the system show that it is an unjust system, but getting rid of the race element will not fix the injustice. We have a massive social problem with Māori incarceration, but if we fix the racism inherent in the system will it really fix a system that is so open to racism? Where would that leave us with regards to class and poverty? In this day and age can do we really think we can address a racial disparity if we don’t also address inequality?

 

Native Affairs

Māori TV is a gift to all Aotearoans because it is our only public service mandated TV broadcaster. They produce some very good television – albeit at the cheap end of the spectrum. Yet I was sceptical of the Native Affairs episode on “Locking Up Māori”. I had the strange feeling that they would acknowledge the role of racism and poverty but then circle back around to the normal mindless position of showing stories of individual prisoners finding redemption with the help of guitar-toting redeemers.

Well, colour me un-fucking-surprised.

Of course, there is something to be said for reminding people that structural and personal racism are real factors behind imprisonment rates. When Marama Fox recently dared to use the term “racism” as a cause of Māori incarceration in The Spinoff’s “Great Debate”, the audience guffawed in incredulity. Clearly some people out there need a bit of educating. Therefore it might seem like a good deed to highlight the structural racism and social drivers that lead to high rate among Māori, but viewers of Native Affairs are probably not the ones that need telling. If you are not familiar with Native Affairs, it is just what it sounds like – a current affairs programme dealing with issues relating to Māori. The name is an ironic reference to the Ministry of Native Affairs – an historic institution of racial paternalism, land theft, and ethnocide.

Marama Fox flippin

Marama Fox (Māori Party Co-Leader) was quite expressive in the “Great Debate”

Given their viewership, it is less significant that Native Affairs addressed structural issues, so neglected in the mainstream, than that they took that as a starting point for a narrative that herded people back into alignment with mainstream thinking – like a sheepdog ensuring our wayward brains don’t wander too far from safe pastures.

First they identified the empirically proven drivers of incarceration as being poverty and poor education. Crucially they assert, without the same evidential backing, that “in Aotearoa cultural disconnection is a third factor.” They may or may not be correct in this. As I will discuss later it is not whether the latter is true or not that is at issue, but rather the way in which adding the element of cultural alienation sets up a narrative centred on the individual offender. It is a path back to old habits of thinking; the modern equivalent of the 19th century Samaritan’s self-righteous efforts to save the souls of the benighted sinners who have fallen from the Godly path of lawfulness.

Soon after this introduction the programme also broaches the subject of structural racism in the justice system. Māori are more likely to be stopped by police. Under the same circumstances they are more likely to be charged. If convicted they receive harsher sentences and are more likely to be imprisoned. Cumulatively it is this layered racism that is probably the biggest factor in Māori imprisonment.

So if poverty, under-education, and racism among police and judiciary are the best known significant drivers of Māori imprisonment then a documentary should surely focus on changing social policy, ending structural and personal racism in education, reforming the police and judiciary. The prisoners (referred to constantly in the programme as “these people”) are not the real authors of their fate in this regard. Yet instead of having the intellect and the guts to embrace what the statistics tell us, the participants cleave to facile moralism – depicting the narratives of each prisoner as being driven by transgression and the consequences that follow from it.

The social science shows clearly that focusing on changing prisoners is stupid. It tells us unambiguously that we are not being honest about what acts do or do not deserve punishment and why we expect prisoners to embrace guilt, remorse, and the need to change themselves. People are married to the fictional reductionism of crime stories in books, TV, and cinema. Through constant sensationalism in the news people are made overly fearful of the capacity for violence among convicted criminals, feeling safer if they think that people are being locked away. This is a heuristic error that vastly exaggerates the ability of any prison system to enact what is called “specific incapacitation” by isolating the offenders from society. It also fails to account for the ability of the prison system to engender violence.

Native Affairs should have shown the efforts to reform those in authority, and highlighted where such efforts do not exist. The onus should have been on police, politicians, teachers and judges. We should have seen them struggling to overcome their racism and their moral and intellectual failings. Exemplars should have described their journey of overcoming their unthinking abuse. In the documentary we meet the victim of a cruel self-righteous and almost certainly racist judge. This judge ruined a young man’s life. He caused immense harm and pain. but where was that judge or one like him talking about their journey to redemption – complete with guilt and remorse for destroying futures, for ripping apart social bonds, and for wasting inordinate amounts of taxpayers money?

I am aware that our prejudices are deep. It is easy to see a tattoo-covered ill-spoken prisoner as a wrongdoer, but few people can envision the judge as being a dangerous and vicious parasite, profiting from suffering that they help perpetuate. Yet if you strip away our personal fears and our social prejudices; if you judge the judges on the fruits of their actions rather than their benevolent rhetoric and evinced good intentions, it is authorities such as these that need fixing, not our prison population. So, dear reader, I am going to walk you through some things. I am going to show you that incarceration and criminality are not strongly linked; and I am going to help you learn to fear and loathe the genteel. Regardless of the existence of individual dangerous prisoners, collectively those in prison are the victims of violent injustice, not the other way around.

 

Lipstick on a Pig

TOPadOn the surface, The Opportunities Party has an admirably progressive criminal justice policy. They aim to reduce our prison population to half the projected number in 2027. There are two problems with this: arrogance and reductionism. The arrogance comes from presenting evidence already widely understood and proclaiming that other politicians are too stupid to get it. The reductionism is in reducing a complete socio-political problem to a single track of statistics without any sort of critical self-awareness. I don’t want to be unfair to TOP, who do link criminal justice to broader issues of poverty and inequality, but even that is a very narrow way of looking at a much more profound questions of guilt and innocence; justice and injustice; transgression and obedience. The weakness of their position is easily demonstrated with a question: if it is so stupid and counterproductive to lock up 10,000 people, why do you want to keep 6000 people in prison?

 

 

TOP are trying to solve a “problem” without asking why it arose initially. Why are we so punitive? I have suggested that some of it comes from our colonial past, but it has a contemporary and historical scaffolding that exists independently of that. We blame our populist right-wing politicians fear-mongering at election time andemotive pressure groups like the Sensible Sentencing Trust; we blame talkback radio and racist muddle-Nu Zillind, but it takes two to tango.

Our politics are not shaped by one side of a political divide, they are shaped by the way our political discourse divides issues into two vested camps and creates a static establishment orthodoxy that serves both.

While Hegel, followed by Marx and Engels, proposed that social forces create a dynamic “dialectic”, it is far more common in our time for “opposing” ideologies to become entwined in mutually sustaining inertia. Arrayed against the self-righteous sadists who demand that convicts must suffer are an equally facile bunch of liberal journalists, left-liberal politicians and NGO do-gooders who (by choice or by constraint) are mainly about looking as saintly as possible without really rocking the boat.

Our problems run much deeper than the attitudes of right-wing people. The rituals that surround our criminal justice system should be a clue that something is wrong. Rationality does not need to don special robes and use dead languages to give itself gravity. The system itself is not a measured and enlightened social institution, it is a quasi-religious instrument of authority. On close examination it maintains a strange irrational pretence of omniscience and still functions as if the court and the judges within it were touched with divine power.

Fixing our criminal justice system will require much more that a white-hatted technocrat Sheriff riding in on his high-horse to tell all us dumbshit yokels how to live our lives. The problem with people like Gareth Morgan is that their disdain for the intellects of others makes them incredibly naïve about social institutions. Just because a given institution purports to serve a given function that does not mean that that is it’s sole function, or main function, or even a real function. Some social institutions do the opposite of their pretended function. To put it another way, Gareth Morgan wants to put “evidence-based” lipstick on a pig that he is too stupid to smell.

 

Controlling and Punishing Social Inferiors

Our institutions have multiple historical roots but the tendency to echo the past (even when we can see clearly how inhumane and unjust the past was) has to be explained in contemporary terms. We are not so different than our cruel, stupid, superstitious and hypocritical forebears and much that we think of as the cast is actually still as much with us as it has ever been.

To begin with there is the religious and pseudo-religious moral impulse to view matters of criminality as an expression of sin – a form of moral transgression. This comes from the belief that the law is a moral framework and even when it fails to be so obedience to the law is a moral imperative in itself. This is an authoritarian viewpoint that is not actually morally sound. It is an irrational impulse and you do not have to delve too far into history to see that morality and obedience to the law are distinct and may be at complete odds with each other. By consensus we now recognise many laws from different places and times as immoral – for example, race and gender legislation that make chattels of racial groups, wives and daughters; apartheid laws; or the Third Reich’s racial laws.

Then there are the politicians, bureaucrats and social workers who see their jobs as being the imposition of their will on the behaviour of others. At base any attempt to change an individual or group of individuals is an attempt to to control those persons through the exercise of one’s own will. This may be both a personal inclination that attracts people into positions of such power and a situational product of our institutions of power. Our society hands people in these situations hammers and instructs them to treat certain individuals as nails. For example, social workers may as a group lobby for social change, but their day-to-day hour-to-hour activity is to try and change individual people however futile that may ultimately be in the bigger picture. By contrast, some politicians have a clear pre-disposed inclination to enjoy exercising power over others. Bill English was recently asked what cause he would take to the streets to march for, and he responded that he would march for the right to govern us. This is just a small glimpse into the state of derangement that veteran senior politicians fall into. They do not see governance as the exercise of shaping institutions in order to allow the will of the people to rule, but rather see governance as creating and using institutions to control and “govern” the people. To them that is what governing is, and they see no contradiction between that and what they refer to as “democracy”.

Billmarchi

These contemporary controlling impulses find rich and fertile soil to flourish in our inherited criminal justice system. Centuries of penal reform have changed the sharp brutality of sadistic 18th century barbarism, into the duller grinding inhumanity of today. The criminal justice system that we have today may be the most gleamingly polished turd in human history, but underneath it is still an inherited institution of class warfare (repurposed to serve also as an instrument of racial oppression).

When the historian George Rudé examined early 19th century English “criminal justice” system, he found an institution devoted to perpetuating the social order of class and ethnic division, not an institution of “justice”. This was occurring at a time that saw an increasing conflation of poverty and criminality. The enclosure of common land and the loss of small-holdings, along with agricultural reform and industrialisation, had seen a growth of poverty in England and a breakdown in the medieval “Poor Laws”. Not coincidentally, this era saw the creation of the first professional police force. Many of the lower classes were transported first to North America and then to Australia and there was not a great deal of distinction between committing a criminal act and being criminalised and punished due purely to indigence.

The end of the transportation era saw the rise of a three-part system of prisons, debtor’s prisons, and workhouses. The workhouses were cruel and exploitative. The clear, if irrational, ideological foundation was that the poor must be made to suffer if they were to receive sustenance. The moralism of the era demanded that they redeem themselves through suffering, tinged by Calvinist beliefs that poverty was a sign of sinfulness and God’s disfavour.

 

Trapped in the “Safety Net”

Social reformers worked to end this inhumanity, and seemingly they succeeded. Yet they did not succeed as well as they might have hoped. Decades after the abolition of workhouses George Orwell lived the “down and out” life in England and what he found was a new form of cruelty and a new way of trapping people in poverty. Those who sought shelter and nourishment were forced to prove that they were not merely lazy scroungers living the high life at the expense of their betters. Thus they were forced to remain imprisoned in locked cells for their shelter and then forced by law to walk many hours to get shelter for another night. Needless to say they could not work and could not have social or family connections. With no way of earning money their attire, and particularly footwear, was appallingly poor for those who had to spend each and ever day walking and exposed to the elements:

“One could not, in fact, invent a more futile routine than walking from prison to prison, spending perhaps eighteen hours a day in the cell and on the road. There must be at the least several tens of thousands of tramps in England. Each day they expend innumerable foot-pounds of energy – enough to plough thousands of acres, build miles of road, put up dozens of houses – in mere, useless walking. Each day they waste between them possibly ten years of time in staring at cell walls.”

It was an expensive and self-defeating exercise. The sadism of it was less newsworthy (or Dickensworthy) than the workhouses, but was it really much better? Things may have improved now, but maybe not as much as people think. In many ways we are slipping back. Poverty and its effects are intensifying and incidents of people trapped in implacable cycles of futility and suffering are on the increase.

We have never gotten over the idea that those who need help can and should be controlled. We think it acceptable that unemployed beneficiaries should be drug tested (and sanctioned for failing) and an overzealous campaign against “contamination” has seen many people lose tenancy in social housing due to traces of methamphetamine being found. Effectively that means that the less fortunate in society have a greater degree of state control in their lives than the more fortunate.

Many people undoubtedly think that it is beneficial for the unfortunate to have the guiding hand of a benevolent state to guard them from their own self-destructive impulses. It is for their own good, after all. In reality that is as much of a self-righteous delusion as the Victorian missionary’s belief in reforming the sinner. There is an increasing recognition that the neoliberal state systematically produces homelessness and that forcing special conditions on recipients of housing or other welfare acts to reproduce the vicious circle enforced on tramps in Orwell’s time.

One response to the structural injustice created by neoliberalism is the movement known as Housing First. Even PM Bill English proudly claims credit for “Housing First” initiatives. Unfortunately English is about as capable of grasping the essence of Housing First as Vlad the Impaler would be capable of grasping Nonviolent Communication. In theory, though not as it is widely practised, Housing First is supposed to provide unconditional tenure. Yet under 3 terms of National Party government, with English as leader or deputy, the government’s own social housing agency has been going in the opposite direction.

Neoliberalism reproduces the trap enforced on Orwell and his down-and-out compatriots, but with a much greater masquerade of benevolence. It actively encourages the underlying cause of social ills through deregulation, austerity, erosion of worker conditions and the devaluation of labour in relation to capital. Neoliberalism helps poverty, precarity and socio-economic exclusion to flourish, encouraging the disease but making a show of treating the symptoms. The long walks and the cold cells of 1930s England are replaced by the equally futile system of grants and supplements, constantly exposing people to a capricious and arbitrary system where they must pointlessly engage in a bureaucratic struggle to gain the money and service required to live in a system that is designed to give minimal support. The basic “safety net” support is insufficient in itself and yet is still contingent on conditions and impositions that can be extremely difficult for destitute people to live up to.

On the Native Affairs programme they revealed that the Howard League works to get inmates their driver’s licenses. This is a crucial and worthy effort, but it is a piecemeal step. The need for drivers license is a symptom of poverty, social exclusion and racism in the education system. It is not the only barrier affecting inmates and if they have to keep reaching out for help over each thing the process itself becomes demoralising and debilitating.

We have begun to have real conversations about the reality facing those on benefits today, and with luck that will continue, but for the last 40 years the gravitational pull has been to become ever more and more aligned with the US. By withdrawing support from the most needy due to infringements of a pseudo-moral code of behaviour we risk following the US footsteps of creating a criminalised underclass, a “school-to-prison pipeline” and a racial caste system. In many aspects the US is already in a Dickensian state. For example Eric Garner, who was killed by NYPD, was a career criminal who lived by breaking the law – he sold loose untaxed cigarettes and lived off the meagre profit margin. He wasn’t selling them at the time of his killing. He wasn’t even on his normal turf and was doing nothing wrong, but a cop recognised him from his own neighbourhood. Garner got angry at being harassed when minding his own business, and the police reacted with brutal and escalating violence that intensified when Garner was struggling for his life.

It feels as if we are not far away from the point where we too will tolerate the life and death of our own Eric Garner, seeing both the “criminal” and the poor person as somehow less human, lot worthy of a right to a dignified life and ultimately not even worthy of a guaranteed right to life of any sort. In the NZ Herald Paul Little has recently asked how Dickensian we have become:

Under the so-called three strikes law, Raven Campbell, a prison inmate who pinched a guard on the buttocks – his third offence – was sentenced, as that law required him to be, to the maximum term of seven years jail.

Social housing agency Tamaki Housing issued an eviction notice to the five children of Mabel Pe just weeks after her death. They were given three weeks to vacate the home where they had lived for 10 years.

Housing New Zealand issued an eviction notice to a family of seven, including two blind children, after their grandmother died. [3 of the children also suffer PTSD after losing a mother to cancer and a father to suicide shortly thereafter.]

In the last quarter of 2016, the number of people applying to Work and Income for hardship grants to buy food was 112,000 – an increase of 14 per cent over the equivalent period in the previous year.

Wendy Shoebridge, who was discovered dead in her home the day after she was told she faced charges over benefit fraud, was later found not to have committed any fraud, according to evidence presented at the inquest into her death.

We are seeing the rise of conditions of ever greater social division, a restructure in the relations of capital to labour and a massive upward redistribution of wealth. The transformation is akin to that of the mid-19th century, described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation, and the response of our welfare and criminal justice systems is the same. It is not to ameliorate the conditions of those who are suffering the most under the change, but to preserve the social order. In effect this usually means inflicting greater suffering, hence the rising prison populations and the growing precariousness of those on benefits. If we don’t face up to those facts, how can we hope to make things better with our evidence-based culturally-sensitive “progressive reforms”. Quite apart from the fact that much of the “reform” only seeks to get incarceration rates back to where they were decades ago we cannot hope to effect positive change if we do not face up to the in-built malevolence and injustice in the system.

 

Crime Rates and Imprisonment Rates are not the Same Thing

To return to Native Affairs: Almost immediately after having established that Māori are imprisoned at rates disproportionate to their offending, without skipping a beat the narrator of “Locking Up Māori” reverts to the mindless conflation of imprisonment and crime rates, almost as if the journalist is incapable of processing the meaning of what is coming out of her own mouth.

The disconnect between crime and punishment is something that we as a society are not dealing with at all. It is far greater than the disparity in offending rates and imprisonment rate between Māori and Pākehā because there is also a massive class dimension that reinforces the racial dimension. Everything about our notions of crime is freighted with class disparity.

To begin with there is a much larger problem of prejudicial enforcement than merely who gets stopped by police more when driving or walking. Whole sectors of society are virtually invisible to law enforcement when it comes to certain sorts of crime. Most notably, bourgeois and wealthy people can reliably get away with committing drug offences. Many politicians have used illegal drugs, but few of those oppose prohibition. They are not volunteering to be punished themselves, but they are happy for others to be punished for doing the same thing they were not punished for.

The system is incorrigibly unequal and unjust. Ironically, many prisoners are victims in childhood or adolescence of serious criminal offences against them. Many, as we now know, were abused while in state care. Repeated offences of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse against vulnerable children in one’s care are amongst the most serious crimes we can imagine, yet those who perpetrated such heinous offences are afforded effective impunity while the victims often end up imprisoned for far less grave crimes.

Our need to see certain infractors punished is shaped far more by our sense of social order and hierarchy than it is by legally defined criminality. Researcher Emily Baxter conducted research for a project she called “We Are All Criminals”. In interviews with people she draws out the crimes they have committed and maybe spared little thought for because they suffered no consequences. She then gets them to reflect on how their lives might have been different had they been apprehended and reflect on the role that class and race play in making the difference between what might have been a youthful adventure for them, but could be the start of a descent into social exclusion for others.

The fact is that we are all criminals. Only a miniscule number of people have not committed crimes that individually or cumulatively could bring about a custodial sentence. If you think you are one of the rare innocents, then you probably need to interrogate you memory more vigorously.

There are also crimes which are hard to detect and prosecute. Nobody disputes that rape is a very serious crime, but the great majority of rapists a will never see the inside of a court, let alone a prison. We accept that reality because we cannot change it, yet it is hard to say how it can be just to imprison a minor thief or a cannabis user when rapists walk free far more often than not.

Further still there is the massive disparity in prosecution and even in the legal status of equivalent crimes that corresponds with differences in socio-economic status and power. The most obvious example at the moment is the disparity between those who commit tax evasion and those who commit benefit fraud. Tax evasion costs the government 33 times as much as benefit fraud, but the response is the inverse of what should be rational. Academic Lisa Marriott gives us these points:

  • We investigate a higher rate of welfare recipients than taxpayers. Around 5 percent of welfare recipients are investigated in an average year, compared to around 0.01 percent of taxpayers.

  • We have greater numbers of criminal prosecutions of welfare fraudsters than tax evaders. In a typical year, there are 600–900 prosecutions of welfare fraudsters and 60–80 prosecutions of tax evaders.

  • A higher proportion of prison sentences are given to welfare fraudsters, for a lower level of offending, compared to tax evaders. For an average level of offending of $76,000, 67 percent of welfare fraudsters received a prison sentence. For an average level of offending of $229,000, 18 percent of tax evaders received a prison sentence.

Marriott also compares two cases: “To summarise: welfare fraud of $3.4 million, where all was repaid (and more[$6.7 million was paid]), resulted in 10 years in prison — while white-collar crime of $4.3 million, where none was repaid, resulted in less than two years in prison.”

Another disparity is in the treatment of employers who steal from employees and vice versa. “Theft as a servant” is considered very serious because it is a breach of trust. Stealing from your employees, though, is a different story. I guess the logic is that because employees don’t have a choice to entrust their wages to their employer there is no breach of trust when the employer steals from them. Wage theft is commonplace in Aotearoa yet criminal penalties such as imprisonment, home detention or even community service are unknown. There is a push to impose criminal penalties such as prison on offenders, but not because we treat all other thieves in this manner, but because the offending is now reaching such a level of exploitation that it is linked with enslavement – yes enslavement, another thing we could not have imagined happening here even ten years ago.

Stealing hundreds of thousands from people poorer than you, who have no choice but to trust you, and whose labour is the source of your own wealth isn’t even treated as criminal. That is how fucked and how biased the system is.

And then there are those who more or less get to decide for themselves what the law is and whether or not they are allowed to steal from others without penalty. Meteria Turei, co-leader of the Green Party, bravely admitted to having lied about having flatmates in order not to lose some of the benefit she received while she was a single mother studying law. This was to raise awareness of poverty and precarity. She was hounded by the media relentlessly and felt compelled to resign just a week and a half after Andrew Little’s resignation (another party leader resigned the next week, by the way, just to keep the journalists on their toes). People asked why Turei had to go for taking a small amount so that she could afford to raise a child, while our wealthy PM Bill English took much more by deception. A “fact-check” assured people that Turei was naughty, because she broke the law, while English did not. Simon Wilson then he “sense-checked” the fact-checkers comparing the crimes of Metiria Turei with the perfectly legal acts of PM Bill English who claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars as a member of Parliament in order to cover the cost of living in a place he clearly did not live. Some of Wilson’s conclusions:

  1. Bill English must have known that he and his family did not live in Southland. But the system allowed him to pretend that they did, and he took advantage of that.

  2. He got away with it by arguing that his lawyers had told him it was OK.

  3. When he was found out, the system continued to protect him.

In fact, as Wilson further explains, the legality of the acts was not actually tested strongly: “He denied he had broken the law and the auditor general agreed. She appears to have been particularly persuaded by the fact he had relied on legal advice that his position was tenable.”

But wait, there’s more! Because ultimately the most criminally guilty people in the world don’t just go free, they are rewarded for their crimes. The worst criminal bankers on Wall St and in the City of London are not jailed, they are paid handsomely to retire, to stay on, or to work in government. Corporations can become a law unto themselves, causing thousands of deaths in Third World countries though pollution or using government forces to massacred those who stand between them and profit. From the days of United Fruit in Guatemala, to Shell’s involvement in the slaughter of people in the Niger Delta. No criminal charges.

Nor are there charges for murders carried out by the CIA, let alone other crimes. The whole existence of the clandestine action arms of agencies such as the CIA is based on lawbreaking. One old pre-digital estimate suggested that the CIA was committing crimes at a rate of 80,000 per day, dwarfing any non-governmental organised crime outfit. With computerised surveillance there is a near unlimited potential for individual crimes to be happening a dizzying speed.

Then there are the mass murderers. Since the death of Stalin, those with the most blood on their hands have mostly been Western political leaders. Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger – even Ford and Carter – Brzezinski, Reagan, Thatcher, Bush(es), Clinton, Blair. It is estimated that 20 million have been killed due to US-led aggression since World War II, frequently with crucial UK participation. They also have high levels of involvement in other acts of mass-murder. They backed the slaughter of 1 million in Indonesia and the subsequent genocide in East Timor. They gave diplomatic cover to the genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). They trained and backed those carrying out the genocide in Guatemala. Third world dictators cannot even compare in terms of the number of dead they have caused. Yet Henry Kissinger, perhaps the biggest murderer of them all, is a fêted elder statesman, treated like a rockstar guru by the political elite. These people are by any reasoned standard more despicable and fearful than the very worst of our prison population.

So, when you see the stats that show that social forces such as racism and poverty are the main causes of imprisonment, do not immediately think, yeah, but people need to be held accountable for their actions. The worst people in the world are not held accountable for their actions. Normal people are not held accountable in the way that those who fall foul of the criminal justice system are. It is a capricious system full of racial and class prejudice and rampant injustice

Argument from Consequences

As mentioned, the Native Affairs programme that fulfilled my low expectations of journalistic endeavour included “cultural disconnection” as an unproven third factor driving Māori incarceration. How much it is true that “cultural disconnection” causes imprisonment is definitely an interesting topic, but in the programme it becomes the central factor – the focus of the programmes call to action. Without seeming to be aware of what they were doing, the makers of the programme use the topic of “cultural disconnection” to leave poverty and poor education as background factors in a narrative driven by notions of individual reform.

There is certainly something quite powerful in the question by one prisoner who asked why it took coming to prison for him to find out about his own identity. The colonial system literally stole the sense of self from many Māori and it is heartbreaking that it might take imprisonment for some of those to benefit from reconnecting. But now the viewers have been taken back into their comfort zone, the place where no one can see the forest because they are too busy looking at all the trees. Unlike those factors of class and race which allow for the actions of others to be a cause of imprisonment, “cultural disconnection” can only be interpreted as a cause of criminality in the prisoner themselves. The notion leads us back to the belief that it is still their criminal transgression that drives their fate and what we really need to do is to help them to stop being so angry and naughty.

It is as if the journalists are programmed by cliché. They will always find a way back into the comfort of tinkering reformism that maximises the sense of doing good but minimises any real clash with the status quo. In this case, cultural disconnection brings the focus right back to criminal acts by prisoners. It is actually a little bit ridiculous, because as wonderful as it may be for Māori inmates to connect with tikanga Māori, it is not why they are in prison and nor should they be penalised if they do not want to embrace Māoritanga. When you get right down to it, they are suggesting that you can fix a racist system by getting the victims of racism to change, not the racists. There is an obvious parallel here to those who think that the way to prevent rape is for the potential victims to alter their appearance and behaviour.

Yet people seem to find it impossible to let go of the notion that prisoners have personal responsibility for their fate. To be reformed they must go through the ritual of penitence and agree that it is they that must transform. It is true that, apart from those wrongly accused, they must have contributed at least one “wilful” criminal act to find themselves behind bars, but between the disparities in policing and sentencing we can see that in most ways the criminal act is not the greatest factor contributing to the imprisonment.

It is tempting at this point to separate violent from non-violent offenders. Then, in pragmatic terms, we could abolish drug prohibition and end custodial sentences for non-violent crime. That would lower prison populations and instantly curb the worst injustices coming out of the racial biases of the criminal justice system. But as much as I feel that drug prohibition is morally insupportable (and that too is a conversation that needs to be dealt with in full) I also think that blunting the worst excesses of an unjust system still leaves an unjust system.

The fact is that even in committing a criminal act an offender is acting as a product of circumstances beyond their control. People resist understanding this, but it is abundantly clear in the statistics. In violent offending, the unchosen circumstances of birth and upbringing are clear predictors. Growing up exposed to and especially victim to violence does not always mean that a person will become violent, but it is such a strong statistical association that it cannot be ignored. And there are other factors such as sensory deprivation in infancy, exposure to lead and other toxins, traumatic brain injury or other neurological conditions. The more we study the factors that influence behaviour the more we must admit that we are all products of circumstances that we do not control.

It is not just the social sciences that problematise our punitive understanding of criminality. While many philosophers still try to justify the existence of free will, neuroscientists are increasingly able to pinpoint the chemical processes of decision-making. If someone spikes you with a drug it will affect your decision-making. If someone controls the information you receive, it will affect your decision making. If you are abused as a child, it will affect your decision-making. Free will is a delusion. Even our current understanding of physics suggests that the universe is shaped by stochastic (individually random and unpredictable) subatomic events. Because these shape the real world and ultimately affect our lives it is impossible to reconcile the nature of the universe with free will.

Free will was an excusable explanation for a complex phenomenon in the same way that explaining lightning as bolts cast by a god was excusable before the process was properly understood. It makes sense that we would feel that free will exists even without proof, but it is a religious concept not a rational concept. Basing criminal justice decisions of the concept of free will ultimately makes no more sense than treating criminality as demonic possession. Yet the concept of free will underpins our notions of criminal culpability.

We cling on to a model of individual guilt and just punishment because it works so well with our emotions and social conventions. When bad things happen we want a sense of reciprocity and we also want to feel protected from those who might threaten us. On the more sinister side, we also have a tendency to persecute those who are perceived as alien, defective, diseased, or just a burden to our social collective. This is nothing to do with justice. On the contrary, it is one of the ways our evolution has sowed within us conflicts between compassion and brutality; xenophobia and solidarity; inclusion and exclusion.

Our sense of reciprocity, however, is perhaps the greatest impediment to a more enlightened approach because this innate tendency is bolstered and magnified by the narratives in which we constantly immerse our consciousnesses. I refer here to books, film, TV and so forth. In our stories transgressions seldom go unpunished, guilt is seldom in doubt to the reader or viewer, and there is almost always the implication that somehow the punishment ends the narrative arc, tying up the story with a nice little bow. However, this is not just true in fictional narratives, it is also the structure used almost exclusively in news reporting and documentary.

In reality neither safety nor reciprocity can be achieved through the criminal justice system and social exclusion is both undesirable and harmful. Despite this, they are powerful desires and the reason we cling to the idea of free-will is that without free-will we cannot have individual criminal culpability. Without that sense of culpability, we cannot package reciprocity, safety and social exclusion as a function of “justice”.

We cling to the idea of wilful individual responsibility when logic and evidence both tell us it is a delusion. We do not want to deal with the consequences of not having the ability to pronounce guilt because it would deprive us of our ability to see the criminal justice system as having inherently positive outcomes.

Ritual Sacrifice

There is something disturbing about the way we as a society created a sudden and new official Truth once a judge or jury has pronounced guilt. Suddenly doubt is officially banished, facts are certain.

There is a time between the verdict and the sentencing when the convict becomes a species of outlaw. Their penalty and path back to citizenship is undetermined and actions which are not crimes may affect their penalty as much, or more, than the actually criminal act(s). This outlaw status, by some mysterious rationale, becomes retroactive. Everyone has a right to deny charges against them without penalty, but once they are found guilty a magic time machine allows judges to reward “early guilty pleas” because the special powers they have make everything fair (and apparently there is no contradiction at all in discriminating in favour of those who admit guilt because it is not the same as discriminating against those who maintain their innocence).

It is just as problematic that once guilt is established there is an expectation that the convict must now align themselves with the official Truth and make a ritual obeisance before the court by admitting guilt and expressing remorse. This is not a rehabilitative process and it is not a parole hearing, this is part of the sentencing, so it is actually quite difficult to say, in terms of justice, why remorse at the time of sentencing is so important. The practical effect of coercing a show of remorse from a convict is that it forces that person, and often their supporters, to readjust their narrative and to reify the Truth established by the court.

One of the strangest parts of the ritual, from my perspective at least, is the breadth which judges give themselves in rendering judgements. At this point in the proceedings there can be no objections or arguments. It is pure soliloquy. It is quite normal for judges to tell those found guilty what their motives were, what they were thinking, and what they feel currently, as if the judge were some form of omniscient telepath.

As with everything here, I do not have to delve deep into the past to find exemplars. A case I find problematic is that of Gustav Sanft who killed his 2 year-old daughter. At sentencing just a few days ago as I write his wife pleaded: “I know people want to see Gustav punished for this accident, I see it everyday in him that he punishes himself. All I can ask is have mercy on Gustav. Our babies need their daddy at home, that is where he belongs.” The judge, however, decided that Sanft was not experiencing real remorse but rather “self-pity”. He sentenced him to 4 years and 4 months imprisonment.

The judge said: “Your denial you pulled the trigger is something you have latched onto, perhaps to help explain to yourself, and others, the terrible consequences of that morning.” This leaves us with two unpalatable options. One is that the judge, despite feeling at liberty to characterise the mental states of others, is so ignorant that he is unaware of the effect of adrenaline on short-term memory. If Sanft did pull the trigger there is no reason at all to expect that he would remember doing so. The other option is that the judge doesn’t actually care what Sanft believes. Either way, the emphasis on this detail is disturbing. The prosecution did not rely on his having pulled the trigger and the jury’s verdict does not confirm the fact.

If Sanft were more calculating and cold-blooded he might simply have told the judge what he thought the judge wanted to hear. Ultimately he cannot be considered more guilty of the original crime because he refuses to admit to something he may not even remember. I cannot say what sentence might have been given if Sanft had admitted the act, but the judge himself has made it seem that a very important factor in sentencing is submission to the judgement of the court. It is hard not to feel that what is required of Sanft is not completely different to an auto-da-fé – the public penance required and coerced from those condemned by the Inquisition which reinforced to onlookers the righteousness and honesty of the convictions and subsequent punishments.

Michel Foucault opens Disclipline et Punir with the horrifying theatrical spectacle of the public execution by torture of an attempted regicide. Foucault made the case that the theatrics of power did not disappear with penological reform, they just became more regular and less overtly objectionable. In that much, at least, he is correct. Much of this ritualised display is a show of power designed to maintain and reproduce the power that is exercised.

The Disconnect

We understand that the outcomes of our criminal justice system are measurably and demonstrably bad. The individual stories of those caught in the system, though most people are blissfully ignorant of them, can be extremely harrowing. People’s punishment may lead to much greater suffering than the crime they committed. In most cases the family of prisoners suffer despite not having committed a crime, and the cost to the taxpayer is excessive – stealing from the sort of spending that might be genuinely helpful to people.

We acknowledge these harms yet we seem to think that the basic system doesn’t need fixing. It has been more than 250 years since Cesare Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishments, and yet in many ways we have not yet lived up to his vision of a humane system in which punishments served rational utilitarian purposes. Perhaps it is an impossibility; punishment and humane rationality may not be not reconcilable.

We need to end the vestiges of noxious feudalism within our court system, but to do that we may have to go further. We need to end the fictions of guilt and innocence and the even more dangerous fiction that we can safely create an absolute Truth and justly act as if doubt does not persist. We need to move beyond our primitive senses of vengeance and reciprocity and recognise that punishment is never just.

We need to abolish prisons. It may be that some people must be specifically prevented from harming others, but in the vast majority of cases we know that imprisoning some people is not a way to prevent harm.

Even in a case of “preventive detention”, which aims at the specific incapacitation of those who are deemed an unavoidable danger to others, we have seen recently that the criminal justice system may enable crime instead of preventing it. In another NZ case that was in the headlines just days ago, a man who had been sentenced to preventive detention after having been convicted of raping (on separate occasions) a woman and a girl was found to have subsequently raped three cellmates. One was repeatedly raped for a week. Another was knocked unconscious and then raped. The man threatened to kill his victims and told them he had nothing to lose because he was a “lifer” due to his preventive detention sentence. In other words the attempt at incapacitation seems to have actually become a factor leading to the violence.

The double-bunking that facilitated these rapes was introduced under Minister Judith Collins who dismissed concerns over rape, then later made a prison rape joke (as did the PM of the time John Key). These details reveal that the most “law and order” minded people are ultimately, if unconsciously, concerned about social order, not justice. The very reason that they are so assured in their “tough on crime” stances is that they have a Manichean view of Us “good” people and Them “bad” people. Such people often commit crimes, quite serious ones, but they don’t consider themselves to be criminals. Criminals are the racial and class Other. The baddies from the cop shows.

Prisons are a mechanisms of social control, one of the ways that the neoliberal state is keeping lower class people in their place as the system begins to fail them. You might think that if we get rid of prisons, change the court system, and if we stop singling out some as the officially Guilty, then we will have a sense of broad impunity that will lead to a lawless orgy. It is a challenge, true. Yet we are almost all criminals, and we accept as a matter of course that those who have committed the most heinous acts must continue to live among us. Some, particularly rapists, will never even have to talk to a policeman. So may be acquitted because of reasonable doubt rather than innocence. Some will have been convicted, but apart from a very small number who die in prison, those people will still be part of society. Prisons can’t change that. They can and do make things worse in a number of ways.

The problems of the criminal justice system, and the politics and power behind the discourse of criminal justice, are absolutely pervasive. I can almost take exemplars from the headlines of any day on which I am which I write on the issue, and indeed I did so. There is no cherry-picking here, this gross injustice is the daily reality of our society and it needs to change.

This has been my idiosyncratic argument for abolition; born of my frustration at the half-arsed bullshit that journalists keep spouting; born of my frustration at all the things never talked about, the assumptions and the complacency. I hope it adds new dimensions, but I should also point out to readers that there are far more developed views out there. Abolitionism has a very long history with many renowned proponents such as Emma Goldman, Nils Christie, Ruth Morris and Angela Davis. I urge readers to engage with the prison abolition movement, including People Against Prisons Aotearoa. The costs of not abolishing prisons are growing.

Advertisements

The Empire Paradox: More Power is More Weakness

Standard

neolibs

In response to my recent article on US imperial wars some people objected to my characterisation of the US empire. I wrote: “In global terms the US has never been more powerful” and some were quick to point out that the US empire is very weak. To those people I want to say that we are both right, but the weaknesses of the US empire do not generally affect its functioning. One day these weakness will become very, very important, but we cannot predict when that will be. In the meantime, critics of US empire undermine themselves by their focus on weakness, which often leads to millenarian predictions of immanent collapse.

To explain, I will begin by giving shape to the empire’s dynamic of power and weakness. There is nothing new in suggesting that empires can become victims of their own success. “Imperial overreach” is a common enough term and it is clearly worrying at least one imperialist (Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom I will discuss further at a later point). However, while the established language of “stretch”, “overextension” and “centrifugal forces” evoke 2 dimensions, I want to suggest that we visualise the empire in 3 dimensions.

2-dimensional metaphors of imperium are cartographic in origin. They reflect the logistical, strategic and tactical concerns of an empire of military, bureaucratic and economic control. The irony is that the imperial quest to conquer and tame geography is also a process of transcending geography with institutions and communications which erase differences and distances. Geography is still important in many respects, but I think we need to visualise the totality of empire in an abstract way, because in some important ways it has become a post-geographic empire wherein many important connections exist without physical proximity. This changes some facts of empire, even if others remain the same.

For example, the British had to worry about the “agency problem” in India which could be epitomised by, say, an East Indian company employee marrying a local woman and setting up in business with his new in-laws. This was very common, and the response from the Empire was to create a segregationist and anti-miscegenation racial discourse (and to ship young British women to India in bulk consignments). In contrast, the US can send agents to any country without such worry due to transnationalisation and global mobility. Though there is still a bias towards people of European descent, diplomats, spies, contractors, investors, missionaries, and garrisoning troops are ever more likely to be people of colour. Far from needing to keep its people separate, the US empire is benefiting from its ability to send agents who have ethnic origins and family ties to the neocolony in question. Meanwhile comprador oligarchs (especially in the Western hemisphere) are educated in the US and may have residences and business concerns in the US. The nationality on your birth certificate might limit your power at the highest levels (unless Trump and the “birthers” are correct), but there is still an international imperial elite including many non-US nationals who wield great power.

My proposal for an abstract 3-dimensional model of imperial power is a foam of conjoined bubbles. Each bubble represents a discrete institution of imperial power relations has the properties which we associate with metaphorical bubble such as a price bubble.

Imperial power relations are bubbles because the empire is a structure which puts power into the hands of the few. As Antonio Gramsci famously observed there must be “Consent” to domination, and as Gandhi noted: “We in India may in moment realize that one hundred thousand Englishmen need not frighten three hundred million human beings.” This sets up a dynamic that necessarily inclines towards an increasing but individually unsustainable concentration of power with the necessary increase of coercive power being a threat to the “hegemony” that maintains the consent of the governed.

Not every aspect of imperial power replicates the dynamics of an economic bubble, but I think that enough do to make the generalisation valid. In the resulting imperial spume each bubble; such as petrochemical hegemony, financial hegemony, or entertainment media hegemony, must individually expand or die, but the conjoined bubbles can artificially prevent a bubble burst, or may at other times simply fill the space so that the imperial mass continues with little diminishment. But as the bubbles continue a general trend of expansion there will be an increasing number of bubbles large enough that the bursting will set off a chain reaction. Theoretically there will come a point where the increasingly dominant and powerful empire will be susceptible to complete collapse from the tiniest pin-prick.

The problem is that the system is too complex for us to predict. We don’t know where we are at. The empire has responsive institutions, so vulnerabilities that are predictable are compensated for. This itself feeds the processes of inflation. To use another analogy, perhaps the future will bring a giant iceberg of imperial weakness which is foreseen, but cannot be avoided. It is possible, but the empire is constantly steering among icebergs. I think it is more likely that one day an unforeseen fault will cause a cascade failure, destroying the ability to steer. After that we can spend all the time we want arguing whether it was the unforeseen fault or the giant and obvious iceberg which is to blame (or praise) for the empire’s collapse.

Because of this unpredictability, the weaknesses of the US empire are significant potentialities, but they have little relevance in actuality. For those who oppose empire there is little to be gained fro focussing on imperial weakness.

I count myself among those who has a bias towards perceiving the inherent weakness, contradiction and self-defeat built into imperial expansion. We do not want to think of the empire as a “success” in any terms. We do not want to think that the mass-murderers of Washington DC might go to their graves believing that they have been on the side of the angels. We do not even really want to admit war and genocide can be used successfully to advance the interests of US empire. We want people to understand that nobody truly benefits from the cruel crimes of empire.

I do not want to believe that the US empire “wins” all the time, but I know that that is the real nature of empire. With very few exceptions it will always leverage from its superior power and will win every conflict eventually. Every time the US empire seems to be handed a defeat, it is only a matter of time before it becomes a US victory. In 1950 the US was worried about an independent Viet Nam becoming an industrialised socialist regional hegemon. Now Viet Nam is a poor neoliberal source of cheap labour that has signed the TPP and lets US warships use Cam Ranh bay and Haiphong harbour. The Phillippines evicted the US military in 1992, to much acclaim, but they were back a decade later and have been increasing their presence ever since (including announcing of 5 new bases in recent months).

They are also hard to stop when they decide to go to war. 3 years ago, after protest had prevented US bombing of Syria, I wrote “Though apparently thwarted in its efforts to justify action against Syria, the US is likely to continue looking for cracks in the wall of opposition and will exploit any opportunity to act, relying on its well established impunity.” Sure enough, in time the US began bombing Syria, having found a completely different rationale that coincidently meant they needed to bomb the country they had wanted to bomb for unrelated reasons just months before.

In Latin America, just a few years ago it seemed that the tide had turned decisively and enduringly against Usanian dominance, but now: Dilma Rouseff has been ousted; Venezuela is nearing collapse under the strain of US economic warfare and sabotage; Mauricio Macri plunged Argentina back into the deepest depths of neoliberalism; post-coup Honduras is rife with right-wing death squads; Rafael Correa will not be standing in the upcoming Ecuadoran election; and the historic peace-deal in Colombia has actually given a platform and relevance to mass-murderer Alvaro “I did it because it was a necessity” Uribe who is leading the right-wing campaign against peace (50 years of killing is apparently not enough).

In Europe, NATO has expanded to Russia’s borders in numerous places. India is now clearly in the US camp, a factor that should not be underestimated. Under AFRICOM (established 2002) the US military is now deeply entrenched and highly active throughout most of Africa. US military capabilities on the borders of rivals and enemies become ever more menacing with deployments such as the THAAD missiles in ROK, and ABM missiles in Romania and Poland.

The US remains the largest arms exporter and provider of military “aid”, but there has been a qualitative shift that increases the dependency of its clients. US weapons systems, and the insistence on “interoperability” amongst allies and clients, are now such that many military activities require US contractor or military personnel for maintenance. This gives the an unprecedented lever of control that supplements the military aid and training programmes that ensure that officers in the neocolonies are loyal to the empire. In direct terms the US can also, under circumstances decided by itself, take control of the massive and well armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Moreover, though its sidekick the UK has dropped from 2nd to 5th in military spending, it is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world.

The US has been proliferating missile defence systems which are designed to prevent retaliation from Russia after a massive US nuclear attack. This alone is causing dangerous instability, but the US is also trying to blur the lines between nuclear and conventional weapons to make them more “thinkable. Complementing this is a very expensive nuclear modernisation programme that includes many smaller “tactical” munitions.

In conventional terms the US also has excessive and peerless firepower. The US has 10 massive “supercarriers” currently in service. There total displacement is close enough to be called a megaton (1,000,000 tons). In contrast, adding all other countries aircraft carriers together you get under 200,000 tons of displacement (one fifth of the US strength). Total US naval size is 4 times that of its nearest rival (Russia): quote “the U.S. war fleet displaces nearly as much as all other warships in the world’s navies, combined.” Given that is also has the highest nuclear and conventional payloads, and the greatest technological sophistication, it is fair to say that the US Navy is considerably more powerful than all other navies combined.

In military terms the US is unquestionably a greater power now that it was in the past, and it is the greatest military power in world history.

The US has also gone from strength to strength in being able to impose economic control and in coercing and bribing governments into signing over economic sovereignty to the empire’s corporate arm. Once again it seems that the US empire never has to concede defeat, it merely bides its time and finds a new way forward when checked. The anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s seemed spell the end of the march of neoliberalism. Indeed the Doha round of WTO negotiations, which started in 2002 and still continue, were hijacked by notions of development and welfare. Undeterred, the US has turned to bilateral and regional multilateral deals which further US hegemony and neoliberal governance. Now it gets to exploit the synergies that result from having its fingers in so many pies. The TPPA and TTIP, for example, also function to isolate China and Russia. We may still be holding a good fight against the TPPA, but the fact that the US could muscle in on someone else’s trade deal and then pervert in entirely to their own cause and then get the government’s concerned to sign the deal. Now many believe that TTIP is dead in the water. I would caution that there was a period when the TPPA also seemed dead (some say it is now), but stalled is not the same as dead.

The forces wanting these agreements are not going anywhere and no one is actually dismantling the process to this point. With the TPPA in particular, even if ratification becomes indefinitely delayed popular outrage, we don’t have a realistic way of getting the deal off the table altogether. This is a ratchet system, it can only go one way and it moves that way every time public pressure is relaxed or confounded.

Even if we defeat TPPA and TTIP, then there is already the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) which “imposes unprecedented restrictions on SOEs and will force majority owned SOEs to operate like private sector businesses.” As George Monbiot writes: “TTIP has been booed off the stage but another treaty, whose probable impacts are almost identical, is waiting in the wings. And this one is more advanced, wanting only final approval. If this happens before Britain leaves the EU, we are likely to be stuck with it for 20 years.”

We seem to have no means of reversing the progressive loss of economic sovereignty. Each individual country knows that they will be hammered if they take the first step. Thus in those periods where a country might be lucky enough to have a government that has a level of benevolent intent, they are constrained to trying to beautify our prison cells with some flowers and maybe (if we are really lucky) a comfortable vermin-free mattress. They provide insufficient and, above all, precarious well-being in a world where inequality has become a rampant cancer, as dangerous as it is obscene and surreal. Billionaires now own over $US7 trillion in wealth.

The empire can think up new ways of robbing and enslaving the people of the world because it owns our governments, it owns our bureaucrats, it owns our spooks, it owns our generals. As for multinational corporate interests (and their legions of lawyers and lobbyists and PR hacks), well the empire owns them and they own the empire (or is that the other way around?)

At the launch of a left-wing think tank author and academic Nick Srnicek said: “Neoliberalism is dead, and we have an opening to produce something new.” He is right, but wrong. His diagnosis is no different from what was said by people like him after the Asian Financial crisis 20 years ago. We must build intellectually robust counterarguments to neoliberalism, but we should realise it does not actually need to be intellectually valid to continue. You cannot kill that which does not live. Likewise, it is wrong to think that the rise of right-wing populism means an end to neoliberalism. It is a scam, and you don’t have to believe in the lies to perpetuate them or use them. Srnicek thinks that Trump is anti-neoliberal, which is what a lot of Argentinians thought about Mauricio Macri. Macri (who laid off 100,000 public sector workers in his first 3 months and deregulated labour laws for the benefit of employers) has just announced an end to energy subsidies which will cause a 400% rise in gas prices. Combined with Macri’s earlier move to raise wholesale electricity prices this will mean increases in power bills of up to 700%.

I think it is great, wonderful and necessary that we use the term “neoliberalism” as a catch-all term. It helps us draw links between the policies of our own governments and the international trends, and now people are grasping the fact that it has an authoritarian side. But I would caution against treating it as deriving its coherence from an ideology. As David Harvey pointed out in A Brief History of Neoliberalism neoliberals do not play by the rules they espouse.

Neoliberalism isn’t really particularly neo, it is just a new bottle for the old sour wine of market fundamentalism (as Fred Block explains in this interview). In practical terms, for example, Herbert Hoover was indistinguishable from a neoliberal except that he was less slick. In reality, the final nail in the intellectual coffin of market fundamentalism came before neoliberialism even existed. It was the work of economic historian Karl Polanyi whose unrefuted 1944 book The Great Transformation showed that market fundamentalism always was a bunch of crap going right back to its first policy applications in the 19th century. Polanyi also found exactly the same double standards in 19th century British laissez-faire that Harvey found in its modern incarnation, quoting a US Treasury Secretary who complained that the British Empire’s policy was “do as we say, don’t do as we do”.

Thus, neoliberalism always was an undead ideology of Zombie Economics. Personally I find it hard to believe that people take something like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom seriously but clearly, like Ayn Rand, he is tapping into the hidden desire for absolution that obviously afflicts the wealthy and the bourgeois. It must be something like that, because it is a really pathetic book. First Churchill and then Thatcher had tens of thousands of copies distributed free to the Conservative Party faithful like it was the Tory Bible, or Little Red Book.

The thing about zombies is that, however shambling, they are hard to stop. There have been few sour notes in the orchestrated global advance of neoliberal imperialism. There have been thorns in the sides of the US – nation-states that just won’t play ball – but the empire has the time and expanse to quarantine such naughty countries until such time as they can crushed. People call the US weak, but they are destroying Syria now at no real cost to themselves. Syria was on a list, as was Libya. People point to Libya and call the intervention a failure, but Libya is fucked and it hasn’t hurt the empire in any way. Mission accomplished, surely? And then there is Iraq. Iraq, which would be an incredibly rich nation without intervention, is barely holding together. It is so divided that any powerful outsider (not just the US) can destabilise it. This is a clear win for the US, and they used the Iraq invasion to give $US19 billion of Iraq’s money to US contractors like Halliburton. Iraq now spends billions in oil money each year to buy US weapons and is completely dependent on US support to keep its government in one piece.

neoliberal-power-supply

Picture: power supply in Iraq embodying the “logic” of neoliberalism

After what the US has done to Iraq, no one should think that Iraqis want the US there, but people still call the 20-year genocide a “failure” and a “tragic error”. It is an evil master-stroke, not a mistake. The empire is only threatened by such action in that eventually it may over-reach, so each success carries the germ of potential disaster. As I mentioned at the beginning though increased power and increased fragility go hand in hand. Maybe a collapse of the empire will come, but until that time the empire’s power is an actuality, but its weakness is only a potential.

People who develop the habit of announcing the immanent demise, or even just the weakness of the US will eventually find themselves in the same position as those cultists who have to sheepishly keep pushing back the date of the apocalypse as each predicted end-time passes without the end actually happening. Historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko spent decades emphasising US weakness in foreign policy, beginning during the US war in Indochina. At each point, over the decades of writing, it seemed valid to highlight this supposed weakness, but if you trace their work through time that aspect of the work becomes ridiculous, which in turn brings into question their very understanding of the empire. Sun Tzu advised: “When you are strong, appear weak”, and US officials love nothing more than whingeing about their vulnerability and impotence. The Kolkos let themselves be misdirected. They let their desire for a more just world lead them astray.

The empire’s weaknesses are its contradictions, which is another way of saying what I wrote in the title: more power is more weakness. But the potential weakness only affects the empire in the here-and-now inasmuch as it causes imperialists to become circumspect and modest. That is not happening. We know it is not because there is an exception to the rule, and that is Zbigniew Brzezinski. He wrote an article this year calling for caution and realignment. However, he is claiming that the US empire is already dead (which could be seen as disingenuous) and that a global realignment has to occur in which Russia and/or China are incorporated. He is basically advocating a global carve-up of the world and his can even be read as an appeal to take substantive control of China and Russia in order to dominate parts of the globe through them (in the same manner that occupied post-WWII Japan was used as a sub-hegemon in East Asia).

Brzezinski is clearly not being 100% honest either. He makes a transparently fake denunciation of “the current inclination of the Saudi government still to foster Wahhabi fanaticism”. Once the obvious lie is removed he is clearly saying that SA (which used to just buy US weapons and not use them) should continue in its new-found warmongering role.

Perhaps Brzezinski is genuinely worried about continued unipolar expansion, and that is what makes him an exception, but his answer is to a problem of empire is more imperialism: a controlled US dominated delegation of power to subordinates: “the United States must take the lead in realigning the global power architecture”. Nevertheless Mike Whitney seized on Brzezinski’s article with glee at the arch-imperialist giving up on empire, and I think he represents a broader tendency to want to see the empire as crumbling. But even if one imperialist did give up on empire, it isn’t much to get excited about it. Moreover, if “giving up on empire” comes in the form of saying that the US should create an new New-World-Order, then I would hate to see what expansionism looks like.

Besides all of that, none of this is new for Brzezinski, and a veteran like Mike Whitney should have remembered that this echoes Brzezinski’s stance from 2006, especially since Whitney quoted him in 2007: “American power may be greater in 2006 than in 1991, (but) the country’s capacity to mobilize, inspire, point in a shared direction and thus shape global realities has significantly declined. Fifteen years after its coronation as global leader, America is becoming a fearful and lonely democracy in a politically antagonistic world.” In fact Brzezinski had much the same stance in 2000 when he published The Geostrategic Triad advocating “The progressive inclusion of Russia in the expanding Transatlantic”. He wanted the US to rule in conjunction with partners dominated by it. The details in his latest article are different (China promoted, Europe demoted, Russia matured), but the essence is the same, a unilateral imperialism that calls itself multilateral and pretends to be pragmatic by being thoroughly overtly repugnant in the name of realism.Having seen many excited tweets about Brzezinski’s putative turn against empire, I think it is a good case study on which to end. It shows how we fool ourselves, seeking the easiest signs of hope and progress when the outlook is actually daunting and scary. We cannot see what lies ahead. We could be on the cusp of something great or something horrific or a long hard slow battle which we might not win. At the moment we have little control over such things. Any attempt to take a shortcut because of some will-o-the-wisp is counterproductive. We have been dealt a crappy hand, but that is what we have to live with because the masses are unreachable and will remain so until dissidents can offer a coherent comprehensive alternative to empire. That is why Srnicek was correct in his prescription, even if his diagnosis was a bit off.

To paraphrase Gramsci, what we need is accuracy of the intellect and sufficiency of the will, in that order.