New Zealand

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New Zealand’s Feeble Attempt to Curb Sky-High Housing Prices

New Zealand, awfully late in the game, is trying to Do Something about insane housing prices.

Israel’s Racist Persecution of Black Jews

I’m not surprised that the Blairites in the Labour party had Tony Greenstein thrown out as an anti-Semite in their vile witch-hunt, and the Zionist Jewish establishment hates him with a passion. He’s that most dangerous creature, you see, a self-respecting, passionately socialist and anti-racist Jew, who loathes Zionism as a Jewish form of Fascism. And with a wealth of documented fact at his fingertips, he is more than able to cut through the hasbara – the official Jewish propaganda – and prove it. His articles, frequently reprinting and commenting on stories of persecution and atrocity reported in the Jewish press, convict Zionism as an ideology and the Israeli military and political establishment again and again of crimes against humanity.

He is, like the mighty Jackie Walker, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Ilan Pappe, the ‘wrong kind of Jew’, who must be silenced and persecuted at all costs. Just like the western mainstream media really doesn’t want you to hear such dissident Jewish voices, whether from liberals and the left, or from the extremely traditional. The latter include the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, who reject modern Israel out of their belief, rooted in the Talmud and the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, that Israel can only be restored and her people redeemed by divine action through the Mashiach, the Messiah. This was also the view of some members of Britain’s Jewish establishment. He has quoted a former Chief Rabbi, who also rejected the Israeli state for the same reason. This reverend gentleman believed that not only should and would Israel be redeemed in this way by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the removal of the Palestinians from the newly restored nation would be done through peaceful negotiation and agreement. Israel has done neither. He has also quoted other prominent figures from Britain’s Jewish community, who hated Zionism as a Jewish version of the anti-Semitism they had so staunchly fought against in gentiles. Zionism seemed to these men to be a concession to the prejudiced view that there were profound racial difference between Jew and gentile and the two could never mix. Thus, according to the anti-Semites, they should be kept apart. The ultimate development of this idea was that Jews should be given their own state, to which diaspora Jews should be encouraged or forced to emigrate.

In his latest piece, posted on Saturday, Tony posts and comments on an article by Gavin Lewis, a mixed-race Black British writer, who chillingly describes Israel’s racist persecution of Black Jews. Lewis discusses Israel’s refusal to allowance entry to a Black American Jewish mother, Idit Malka and her son, when they tried to visit the country. They were detained for 10 hours before being deported. Before her departure, an Israeli woman screamed at her that Israel was no country for ‘Cushim’, an Israeli term of abuse for Blacks. In 2013, Haaretz and The Times of Israel reported that over 130,000 Black Jews had been forcibly sterilised by the Israeli authorities, a policy that evokes Nazi eugenics. YTNews in 2009 reported that some Israeli neighbourhoods, such as Ashkelon, who maintained a Whites only police. The Daily Beast also reported in 2017 that Israeli kindergartens also had a policy of segregation, separating White and Black toddlers. The Israeli state has also rejected blood donations from Blacks as ‘unclean’. The San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper also reported in 2016 that racial discrimination against Blacks in Israel was so appalling, that 300 Black Jews had declared their intention not to report for reserve service because of official racism against Ethiopian Jews.

The article also discusses the theft of babies born to Yemeni parents, who were sold to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, because of the racist belief that Yemeni Jewish culture was so inferior that it was an unsuitable environment for raising Jewish children. Just as shocking was that many of these innocents had been given an experimental treatment. The hearts of some of the dead babies were surgically removed for study by American doctors curious about the absence of heart disease in Yemen. He also talks about the massive racial hatred against Palestinians and Arabs, including the incident where two Chechen players were hounded out of Beitar Jerusalem football club.

Lewis states unequivocally that Israel is an apartheid state, as Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter has said, but the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has ruled that it is anti-Semitic to compare it to Nazism, even though this is clearly warranted by some of its policies. He also describes how Israeli racism is routinely covered up by western politicians. In Britain, Labour’s odious leader, Keir Starmer, sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from his team after she correctly pointed out that the choke-hold that killed George Floyd had been taught to the police by the Israelis. His action may not be un-adjacent to the fact that Starmer had received a £62,000 donation from a pro-Israeli lobbyist.

The second-class status of Black Britons is also shown in the differences in treatment between them and members of Britain’s gay community regarding visits to potentially hostile countries and regions. In 2016 the British government and media warned gay, bi and trans people not to visit North Carolina. But neither Starmer nor the rest of the political and media class have taken it upon themselves to warn Black Brits of the dangers of visiting the parts of Israel that are off the tourist itineraries.

Over the other side of the pond, America’s politicos and media have thrown their weight behind Israel. CNN even sacked one of their reporters, a Black American, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, because he publicly sided with the Palestinians. Although he was an American, Hill was considered inferior to the interests of Israel, a foreign country, because of his colour.

In his afterword, Lewis compares contemporary Israel to the White settler societies of the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia, and their respective systems of apartheid, segregation and/ or official policies of limiting or banning non-White immigration. He concludes

Yet, in twenty-first-century, in the form of Israel, Black and Indigenous peoples of the world are expected to put up with variants of these traditional white-settler offenses. And, alarmingly, even parts of the left are threatened into exempting Zionism from the sort of critique and anticolonial resistance leveled against other white-settler societies.

Tony’s introduction to the piece is also worth reading, as he argues that it is a mistake to see Israeli racism purely in terms of White supremacy. It’s a Jewish supremacist state, in which only Jews can be citizens and enjoy full civil rights. He also describes how the Mizrahi Jews, who were Arabic in culture and language, were so maltreated that the once formed a Black Panthers organisation of their own in solidarity with the Black American group. Since then, the Mizrahim have become even more fanatically anti-Arab than the Ashkenazim who founded Israel, who then supported Menachim Begin. At the same time Ethiopian Jews in Israeli have no sympathy for the Palestinians, but wish instead to have racial equality with White Jews of European, or White American descent. Nevertheless, colour prejudice is a major factor. Yemeni Jews were tested to see if they had ‘Negro’ blood, and a group of Ugandan Jews were refused Jewish citizenship because of their colour.

See: Tony Greenstein’s Blog: A racist endeavor: Zionist Israel’s Black Jewish victims of color (azvsas.blogspot.com)

This is horrific stuff, and it’s an indictment of mainstream western politicos and the media that this is not reported and condemned over here. Or if it is, it’s done very half-heartedly. The theft and infanticide of the Yemeni babies is comparable to the Nazi theft of blonde children from Slav parents, such as the Poles, to be brought up by approved, ‘Aryan’, German parents. The Nazis considered these children to be the product of German bloodline amongst conquered, ‘subhuman’ Slavs.

It also bears a horrible similarity to one of the crimes of the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland. These were homes run by the Roman Catholic church for unmarried mothers. These unfortunate women had their babies removed to be sold for adoption to rich Americans while their mothers were forced to work as laundrywomen. But only strong, bonny babies had this good fortune. The weak were left to perish in ‘dying rooms’. Incidentally, when a leading member of the Irish feminist organisation, The Countess Didn’t Fight For This, revealed this during a discussion with Graham Linehan and his conversationalists, Helen Staniland and Arty Morty it reduced the latter to tears. Linehan and his allies have been terribly reviled for their opposition to the transgender craze and accused of transphobia. I believe this to be profoundly wrong – they are moved instead by the great harm transgender ideology is doing to the vulnerable, especially girls and young women. But like Posie Parker, they certainly do not wish to see transpeople themselves assaulted or murdered. Morty is a gay Canadian, deeply immersed in his community. His unostentatious tears over the deaths of children left to die in Eire to me amply demonstrate that he, Linehan and Staniland very definitely do not wish harm on anyone. If the Nazi-like experimentation and mass deaths of the Yemeni children had been performed by a gentile organisation, like the Roman Catholic Church, it would eventually have been exposed across the world. There has been a film about one woman’s experiences of it, Philomena, which I believe stars Steve Coogan as the British reporter who uncovers the heroine and her story. It’s a testament to the institutional power of the Roman Catholic church in Eira that this horrific policy continued until the ’90s. But it was eventually exposed, along with the systematic abuse of children in the Roman Catholic and other churches, including my own, the Anglican Church, across the world. Would the media and politicians have allowed the story to get out if it were instead an Israeli organisation preying on Jews? I somehow doubt it.

Tony’s and Lewis’ articles amply demonstrate that Israel is a profoundly racist state. But anyone who tells the truth about this in the lamestream media or politics over here will be viciously attacked and hounded on the grounds that they are ‘anti-Semitic’. Even if they are decent, self-respecting men and women, who had suffered anti-Semitic abuse and assault themselves, or, if gentiles, because they dared support Jews, Blacks and Asians to live in peace, equality and dignity.

‘Except by Chance’: The Christchurch Inquiry

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 25/02/2021 - 9:25am in

Extending and recapitulating the War on Terror

In December last year, a New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) presented in an extensive report the findings of its investigation into the ‘March 15th terrorist attacks’ on two Christchurch mosques. Led by a Supreme Court judge and a former New Zealand diplomat and ambassador, the inquiry had been originally tasked with determining the conditions and causes of the attacks, and examining the events and activities leading up to them—those that revolved around the life of the perpetrator, as well as those that concerned the actions (or inaction) of ‘relevant Public sector agencies’. Costing $17 million, spanning almost two years, and drawing on a broad range of material—from the investigation of the various agencies, to the engagement of international experts, to consultation with Muslim communities and organisations—the report is the state’s final say on the matter of the attacks. It is as if, in seeking to produce a conclusive account of the event, the inquiry aspired to bring it to closure.

Shaped by a tortuous and halting process, and marred by various complications as well as several extensions to its deadline, the final report has met with uncertainty. While New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern expressed immediate and enthusiastic support for the inquiry’s findings and officially agreed, in principle, to all of its recommendations, others quickly pointed to its limitations and failures. In particular, the inquiry has been criticised for its exceptional lack of transparency and its eschewing of any open consultation procedures, including in the framing of its terms of reference, in the compiling of evidence and submissions, and in the release of its findings. This has resulted in a very limited mandate, which from the outset foreclosed any possibility of prosecution or even determination of liability. In addition, hearings and interviews with state agencies and actors were, notably, conducted in private, and precluded any contestation of evidence from the individuals or groups engaged by these bodies. Most egregious, however, is the issuing of suppression orders on information gathered in the process, which will only become available to the public after thirty years. This includes over 70,000 pages of evidence and submissions, detailing interviews with hundreds of Crown, government and public-sector agencies. 

For many in Muslim and left communities, the ineffectiveness of the inquiry was a foregone conclusion well before the release of the report. Given the limitations set by the terms of reference in particular, it was clear early on that the question of ‘accountability’ was one unlikely to be resolved. However, this call for accountability resonated to begin with, and continues to do so, with good reason, even as it continues to meet with disappointment. As the relationship between the state and organised white supremacy in Western plutocracies becomes increasingly characterised by outright and unapologetic collaboration, more recently spectacularised at Capitol Hill, accounting for violence and loss of life becomes a site of cruel optimism: an insistent if precarious appeal to justice with little hope of its attainment. Thus it is worth considering not so much what the inquiry failed to do per se but what it achieved in its failure, as well as what it revealed in its lack of disclosure. To cite Sara Ahmed’s well-known description for things that work because they fail to deliver what they promise: what is the ‘nonperformative’ of the inquiry and its report? 

At the very least, we might consider how, with unerring though likely unwitting proficiency, the report essentially acts as an endorsement of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Over perhaps the last decade, CVE has emerged as the most significant and widely circulating development in counterterrorism policy, its tenets easily proliferating across the globe and readily adopted by governments and policymakers as well as a variety of ‘stakeholders’. This last term carries the kind of ambiguity appropriate to the mandate and work of CVE. As a program that ostensibly strives for a ‘holistic’ approach to counterterrorism, it incorporates and mixes various discourses, techniques and technologies from public and private as well as civil sectors. From outreach and engagement, to capacity building and education, to public relations and development aid, to joint surveillance partnerships between policing and non-policing institutions, the expansive range of strategies used in the CVE framework reflected a novel development in the techno-politics of the War on Terror, the result of which has been a form of counterterrorism that appears less like a set of government policies and more like an industry. 

Here in Aotearoa, CVE first made its appearance in academia in recent years, where it brought together a range of institutions including the university, psychology, police, corrections, the Human Rights Commission and Muslim community organisations in a fledgling attempt to establish a foothold. Given its stated aim as a ‘preventative’ rather than ‘reactionary’ measure, the lack of anything resembling organised or historical forms of ‘extremism’ does little to diminish CVE’s entitlement to institutional presence. Organised around an anticipatory and future-oriented logic, the program’s legitimacy is mandated retroactively, the projected possibility of future violence having always already been established. Now, with this possibility having been realised, the presence of CVE has not only been ideologically vindicated but also acquired quasi-formal approval by the RCI’s final report. 

A glossary reading of the report’s recommendations is enough to appreciate the robust nature of this mandate. From a list of forty-four recommendations, almost half centre on counterterrorism and the expansion of its existing apparatus, while the remaining set is unevenly distributed between sections on ‘firearms licensing’ and ‘social cohesion and diversity’—with only a meagre three dedicated to the needs and well-being of survivors and affected families. Alongside establishing a new national intelligence and security agency that is ‘well-resourced’, the report explicitly recommends ‘developing a counter-terrorism strategy which includes countering violent extremism’. Part of this would be a significantly expanded framework for ‘information sharing’ between various agencies and the provision of ‘horizon scanning supported by deep expertise’, as well as establishing a new advisory group on counterterrorism, alongside an elaborate funding program for research on violent extremism and terrorism. 

In the executive summary of the report, the authors insist that ‘full implementation of our recommendations will result in a better organised counterterrorism effort with enhanced capacity and capability and a less restrictive legislative framework’. The ominous naivete of such an expression of intent is carried further when they continue: ‘we wish to see discussion about counter-terrorism normalised’. As they elaborate, the full scope as well as duplicity of what has recently been described in critical scholarship as ‘CVE mania’ is placed on display: 

Since 2015, successive governments have been reluctant to proceed with a public-facing counter-terrorism strategy. One reason for this was to avoid stigmatising Muslim communities further. But, had such a strategy been shared with the public and also incorporated a ‘see something, say something’ policy, it is possible that aspects of the individual’s planning and preparation may have been reported to counter-terrorism agencies. With the benefit of hindsight, such reporting would have provided the best chance of disrupting the terrorist attack.

A remarkable passage, which through an astounding turn of historical amnesia posits an entirely fictional concern with ‘stigmatising Muslim communities’ as evidence of the need for an even more expansive regime of surveillance—a regime that in all likelihood would result in the stigmatisation and policing of vulnerable and racialised communities, Muslims included. 

Here the implications of a post-9/11 governmentality that yokes together securitisation and a ‘post-racial’ common sense are palpable enough, and it is taken to its logical conclusion in a set of recommendations that repeats the call to ‘normalise’ counterterrorism discourse and, more astonishingly, makes an explicit appeal to enlist the general population for the purposes and prerogatives of CVE. For instance, one of the report’s recommendations enjoins the government to create opportunities for ongoing public discussions of counterterrorism, and to do so in part by ‘supporting the public to understand how to respond when they recognise the concerning behaviours and incidents that may demonstrate a person’s potential for engaging in violent extremism and terrorism’. The generalisation and socialisation of policing and surveillance is thus sanctioned as a pedagogical exercise and a mark of the state’s benevolence and responsibility towards the public. 

Put simply, this is a report that condenses and recapitulates the full gamut of martial presuppositions bequeathed by the last two decades, extending the War on Terror’s ideological license at precisely the historical moment when its expiry might have been expedited. As noted by advocates and scholars critical of CVE, the recent discursive shifts whereby counterterrorism seems no longer exclusively focused on the threat of ‘Islamic’ extremism, and whereby such policies also encompass in their framing an ascendant far Right and organised white supremacy, do not necessarily entail a diminution of the apparatus of racial policing and surveillance, or a curtailment of the state’s capacity and orientation in this regard. The RCI’s report is a testament to this observation and, indeed, through its racial variegation of distinct categories of extremism, it furnishes grounds for this apparatus’s virtual inviolability as well as its expansion.

It has been noted by some on the Left that the inquiry essentially ‘whitewashes’ security and intelligence by failing to hold the agencies to account. For all intents and purposes, this is true. But if we are to get a sense of the internal logic of the RCI and what its conclusions can tell us about the regime it legitimises, it is worth giving a little more attention to its findings. The terms of reference required the RCI to determine whether the relevant public-sector agencies received information that could have alerted them in the lead-up to the attack; to determine whether there was a failure in information sharing between the agencies; whether there was a failure to meet any relevant standards or criteria of operation; and whether there was a failure to anticipate the planned attack because of an ‘inappropriate concentration of resources or priorities on other terrorism threats’. The report absolves the Security and Intelligence Services (SIS) on all counts, but it is the last one that seems to have been instrumental in the making of this decision. 

Next to the investigation of the ‘individual’ perpetrator, the examination of the SIS is perhaps the most elaborate, and in the findings there is a lengthy explanation of the SIS, its capacities, its prerogatives and its recent history. It is noted that the question of a maldistribution of resources and attention was the ‘most pointed’ for the inquiry, and what follows is a thoroughly considered set of exonerations, including the notes that the SIS had ‘comparatively little social licence’ and ‘limited capability and capacity’, and that until recently the institution had been in ‘a fragile state’. The authors then explain that during the operational period that came under their assessment, there indeed was a ‘primary, but not exclusive, focus of the counter-terrorism resources on what was seen as the presenting threat of Islamist extremist terrorism’, but that the ‘inappropriate concentration of resources’ was not ‘why the individual’s planning and preparation for his terrorist attack was not detected’. Of course, the report does not go on to elaborate an alternative causality, since it is not required to do so. Instead, it simply insists on delinking and bracketing the failures of the SIS as a potential cause, and it does so precisely by reiterating the agency’s lack of capacity and capability—limitations no doubt due to the very ‘inappropriate concentration of resources’ explicitly stated in its account. 

To give a clearer picture of this tortured logic, it is worth briefly recounting some of the steps through which it unfolds. First, it is noted that the main period of assessment, between 2016 and 2019, finds a focus of resources on Islamist extremism. It is then noted that in 2016 the SIS sought to establish a baseline picture of other emerging threats but would do so when it had capacity. The contradiction is already apparent, but the explanation continues undeterred. The reason for concentrating resources on one category of terrorism was, according to the report, due to a lack of a ‘comparative risk analysis’, as well as a lack of an ‘informed system-wide decision’ that could have been made ‘with the knowledge that there were other potential threats of terrorism that were not well understood’. This eventually leads to the conclusion that ‘given the operational security that the individual maintained, the legislative authorising environment in which the counter-terrorism effort operates and the limited capability and capacity of the counter-terrorism agencies, there was no plausible way he could have been detected except by chance’. Through an inversion worthy of the crudest formulations of ideology, it is concluded that an institution entrusted with the detection and prevention of terrorism was not failed by its own miscalculations but by the vagaries of chance itself. 

Of course, in such a determination it is the very categorisation of particular ‘types’ of terrorism that enable this logic. Highlighting the ‘presenting threat of Islamist extremism’ as the primary cause of error leads the investigation along a peculiar and tortuous rationale that arrives at an interesting proposition: that what counts most is not the incontrovertible fact of an institution’s failure to prevent an act of violence or the clearly systemic aspects of this failure but the fact that the act of violence, in retrospect, did not appear in the form in which it was anticipated by the institution. In this way, the SIS is not held to account by the terms of the real world in which things happen, or indeed by the terms of the mandate by which it was established as an institution responsible for guaranteeing ‘national security’ and the public’s safety. Instead, it is held to account by the terms it, as an institution, had set itself. Accordingly, its operational basis is redeemed, even as its failures are recorded: in a sense, the report’s archiving of the agency’s failure is a way of absolving it, and in an additionally strange twist, the consistency of the institution’s practice with a racial logic comes to vindicate it in the context of the racial violence that is its lethal consequence. 

This is an astonishing set of findings, to be sure, but one that is consistent with the track record of the RCI as a Crown-mandated practice. Historians and legal scholars have noted, in various capacities and contexts, the extent to which inquiries and inquests have historically functioned to protect the Crown and the state, and to render these entities and their institutions immune to criminal proceedings and liability. These accounts have also amply documented the extent to which such investigations have in the process been conditioned by the structural relations of class, gender and race. More importantly, and in the context of settler-colonial societies where they have had a markedly long history, inquiries and inquests have faithfully acted as part of the political management of marginalised and, in particular, Indigenous groups. In this regard, and more tellingly, these processes have shown themselves to be informed by a logic orienting them, beyond their specific contexts and terms of reference, towards the determination of what Sherene Razack called the ‘timeliness of death’. If some bodies are, structurally speaking, considered as always already dead, or as more dead than others, then can any individual or institution be held accountable? Can there be negligence or failure where particular forms of life are seen as dispensable or perishable anyway?

Such questions acquire greater salience as the possibility of an official coronial inquest looms on the horizon. But they are questions that also become pressing in the wider national and global politics of viral catastrophe. As many have variously noted since the early days of its onset, the pandemic has appeared as a crise révélatrice: an apocalyptic moment of revelation whereby the convergence of various crises becomes illuminated in a flash of history. Characterising a year that began with devastating infernos on one side of the globe and ended with a white-supremacist ‘insurrection’ on the other, COVID-19 has become for many a metonymic lens telescoping the bigger picture in which we see the deeper transformations of a planet on the verge of mass extinction. As well as the outright and devastating loss of life wrought by it, and its instrumentalisation by political and economic elites to expand the infrastructures of extraction, exploitation, incarceration, deportation and militarisation, the pandemic seems to have galvanised those who now personify the Capitalocene, and who are well aware of the unprecedented transformations for which they are disproportionately responsible. It has also consolidated the calculus through which their reign, and its planetary toll, is exacted. 

This calculus, as Dionne Brand recently put it, is one of life and death, the narrative means by which their distribution and organisation find sanction, and the discursive means by which their various futurities may be anticipated and regulated through market-like logics of speculation. As we have just seen, these logics acquire an increasingly hegemonic hold, presiding as they do over the minutest determinations and measurements of life, life’s loss, and quantifiable forms of death. An inquiry charged with identifying ‘changes that could prevent such terrorist attacks in the future’ can only do so with the presupposition of further and imminent violence, which, moreover, can be categorised and in the process of such categorisation anticipated on the basis of ‘its having already happened’. To this extent, ‘horizon scanning’ is geared not so much to instantiating unknowns or unknowables but to securing against them, mapping out the future on the basis of what is already known and recognisable—which is nothing more than cynical resignation to the systematicity of institutional failure, the unavoidability of violence and the value-coding of aggregate forms of life, in accordance with the dictates of race, class or speciesism. Of course, the eventuation of violence, crisis and catastrophe acts as surety of the speculative logic, retroactively vindicating its anticipation of disaster, and furnishing grounds for its expansion as an information-, data- and knowledge-harvesting algorithm. Formed by an imaginary that replicates that of finance, this is a calculus that turns future or potential losses into sites of present accumulation. 

What has become more evident than ever in the age of COVID-19 is what has been active for some time prior: the work of differential valuations of life and the calculability of aggregate forms of death at the core of (post)-neoliberal regimes. If it is difficult to understand the peculiar findings of the RCI outside of this logic, it is equally difficult to imagine a political climate more conducive to its technocratic normalisation than that of New Zealand’s. Under Ardern’s leadership, the Labour-led government has stayed a steady course directly down the centre, helming a ship that has remained afloat due to a kind of post-political disaster populism. From the mosque attacks, to the Whakaari/White Island eruption, to the pandemic, Ardern’s government has presided over successive crises, all of which have been deftly navigated in part through the prime minister’s personal popularity combined with a political strategy outwardly branded as ‘kindness’ and ‘consensus building’. Yet this configuration is hardly reducible to the contingencies of crisis, and at its centre is a more fundamental political reality. At every significant juncture during its term, from the passing of the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019, where it needlessly pursued bipartisan consensus, to the contested site at Ihumātao, where its inaction necessitated the intercession of Māori king Tūheitia, Ardern’s government has consistently eschewed any direct or meaningful political stance. At best, it has consigned itself to the role of a brutally competent manager of crises, whose tenure is dependent on the only certainty afforded by today’s calculus of power: what Lauren Berlant described as ‘crisis ordinariness’. 

In the October election, after having proven itself in the face of another crisis, and both it and the population under its care having emerged relatively unscathed, the Labour Party campaign slogan read ‘Let’s keep moving’. As one political commentator pithily noted, this slogan roughly translates as ‘Well, we’re still alive, aren’t we?’. Ardern’s brand, aptly so called, of politics is often juxtaposed to that which seems to have the rest of the Western world in a firm grip: an ascendant fascism. However, what it shares with these is a populism that turns on the reduction of politics to bare life—to the distribution of life chances and the calculated management thereof in a time of mass extinction. If it has anything to say about this situation, the RCI’s report begs the question of chance. Namely, it leaves us with this question: as aggregate forms of life and death are submitted to an ever-expanding and increasingly autonomous regime of codes and algorithms, what, and who, is left up to chance?

Look What I Got!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/01/2021 - 3:23am in

In New Zealand — the nearly Covid-free country where a lot of us wish we were right now — they have instituted a novel, laughably simple approach to get people to sort their recycling. They put gold stars on the bins of folks who properly sort their cans and bottles. It works — the amount of material able to be recycled has gone up from 48 percent to 80 percent

The effort started when Christchurch was having a problem getting folks to sort their recyclables correctly, forcing the city to send these materials to the landfill. It turns out it’s too expensive to hire people to go through it all and sort it properly, and mixed up material “contaminates” the rest of the batch. It’s a pain in the ass on top of everything else.

The Guardian reported that Ross Trotter, a city council member, had an idea: rather than penalize those who didn’t sort their recyclables, the city would reward those who did — but not with cash. It was decided that the positive incentive would be a gold star stuck on the bins of folks who were doing their sorting correctly. It didn’t really cost the city anything, but it has had the desired effect.

Non-monetary incentives

It turns out Trotter’s idea is not unique — there are other instances of non-monetary incentives working better than cash to induce pro-social behavior.

Strathcona County, the area next to Edmonton, Alberta, does something very similar — and they added another public layer: neighbors can nominate one another for gold stars. Their stars aren’t as pretty as the ones in Christchurch, but it’s working. 

recyclingA recycling bin in Strathcona County, Alberta. Photo courtesy Strathcona County

Erez Yoeli, a research scientist at MIT who studies how altruism works, detailed examples of these types of awards succeeding in 2018 TED Talk. For instance, a power company wanted its customers to conserve electricity, so it sent them letters asking them to sign up for its energy saving program. But the response was not so great. So Yoeli suggested the company post the sign-up sheets in its customers’ building lobbies instead, where everyone could see the names of who had signed up. This tripled the response. 

Another electrical company showed customers on their bills how much electricity their neighbors were conserving, which had the effect of tamping down excess consumption. 

And when a get-out-the-vote organization added this sentence to their outreach materials: “You may be called after the election to discuss your experience at the polls,” voter turnout among recipients increased by 50 percent!

These types of social incentives often work even better than cash incentives. A survey of employees at 34 U.S. organizations, such as Universal Studios and the Postal Service, revealed that employees view monetary rewards simply as compensation — cash for the work they did, not as an incentive to change their behavior. 

This would seem to conflict with classical economics, which says that a rational person would prefer money to a “worthless” gold star. Well, it turns out, just like when a teacher gives out gold stars in kindergarten class, the effect is social — the status of the recipient is elevated in the eyes of the group. Pretty soon, as with many of the New Zealand neighbors, everyone wants one, and strives to be worthy of the “reward.”

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“A common thing is for people to postpone paying their taxes, and if you put a website up with their names, suddenly they’re real quick to pay their taxes,” says Yoeli. He says that people genuinely want to be SEEN as being good upstanding citizens, and if their good (or bad) behavior can be witnessed by others then it has a huge effect. “If you honor blood donors in a local newsletter, then they’re more likely to go back and give blood more often. It’s a pretty robust finding, and we often say it’s the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to motivating pro-social behaviors.”

Of course, there were folks in Christchurch who never managed to sort their recyclables properly — their sorting bins were eventually removed after numerous failures and their stuff automatically went to the landfill. Not everyone cares what other people think. Maybe that’s okay.

Cash perverts values

Over the years, studies have found that monetary rewards alone have only a short-term impact, and can even lead to a lust for more money, an increase in pay dissatisfaction and eventual unhappiness at work. 

I read a book a while back called The Moral Economy by Samuel Bowles. In his behavioral experiments he found that people will, by default, behave in a pro-social way in many cases… and that cash rewards and incentives can actually diminish good behavior, leading people to see themselves and others as solely self interested (ye olde classic rational economic human). In a nutshell, Bowles sees people as having civic virtues, but warns that these can be perverted — in his words, “crowded out” — when their behaviors are made to be transactional. 

He relates an experiment that Daniel Kahneman mentions in Thinking, Fast and Slow. An Israeli daycare center was annoyed by parents who showed up late to pick up their kids. It decided to fine the latecomers. Rather than decreasing tardiness, however, these small fines had the opposite effect — lateness actually increased as folks saw payment of the fines as permission to show up late. 

In an interview with RTBC, Yoeli suggests that public cooperation has enabled the very success of the human race: “There are anthropologists who have documented that this is a key distinguishing feature between humans and other primates and why humans are able to cooperate at such a large scale while other primates can’t.”

I’m not sure I agree that animals are not also cooperative, but I do agree that cooperation is often nudged by social status and public observability, which makes it a mighty lever.

This brings us to the mutual aid theories of Peter Kropotkin, a multi-hyphenate who died in 1921. 

Peter Kropotkin in a photo taken circa 1900. Credit: Wikipedia

His story is long, strange and fascinating. He spent some formative years in Siberia, observing the wildlife and Indigenous People in that harsh environment. He came to the conclusion that there were behavioral and evolutionary forces at work that defied “social darwinism,” the theory that life is a ruthless game of survival of the fittest. Kropotkin observed what he called mutual aid, in which Indigenous People and animals helped one another to survive. They engaged in cooperation rather than competition red in tooth and claw. This led him to believe we have an evolved tendency to work together…an aspect of Darwin’s theory that had been often overlooked.

This informed Kropotkin’s opinion that people don’t need big governments to work together. For these anarchist views he was arrested in Russia and France. (In Russia he escaped from prison with the help of a friend and they went to a fancy restaurant: “They’ll never think to look for me here.”) He eventually spent time in England, becoming a friend of George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. He was not a Marxist — he believed that labor should be viewed as more than a mere commodity. I certainly don’t subscribe to all his views — he’s a bit of a rebellious revolutionary anarchist wild card — but I suspect he might like the gold star approach.

Additional reporting by Eric Krebs

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