Article of the day: A new view on war

Today’s article is about soldier and military theorist Emile Simpson. Simpson is making waves in military theory by proposing a new theory of war, one that makes sense of modern conflicts in a way that von Clauswitz can’t.

His main insight is that modern wars are different to the state vs state wars of the recent past. In modern wars, “the ultimate object of combat is to convey a message; and to ensure that the message is understood, one has to understand the audience for which it is intended”. In Simpson’s view, conflict is about ‘strategic narratives’ and ‘strategic audiences’. He places understanding of narrative and culture at the centre of conflict; something that should strongly with the post-modern Left.

An interesting read throughout, with applications to politics in general.

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Excerpt: “Popular support can no longer be taken for granted. “The people” are no longer homogeneous and the enemy is no longer a single entity. Further, “the enemy” is no longer the only actor to be taken into account. The information revolution means every incident of the conflict can be  broadcast and received by anyone with access to the internet; including the men in foxholes.”

And: “Simpson follows Clausewitz in seeing war as “a continuation of politics with an admixture of other means”, but he divides wars into two categories: those fought “to establish military conditions for a political solution” and those that “directly seek political, as opposed to military, outcomes”.”

“The first are the traditional bipolar conflicts in which all operations are directed to defeating the enemy armed forces and compelling his government to accept our political terms. The second – those in which the British armed forces have been largely engaged for the past half-century – are those where operations themselves are intended to create the necessary political conditions. […] In the latter, operations are themselves political tools, used to undermine the adversary, deprive him of political support and if possible to convert him. The people firing on you today may be vital associates tomorrow.”

And: “The genius of Winston Churchill in 1940 was to devise a strategic narrative that not only inspired his own people, but enlisted the support of the United States: indeed, most of British military operations in the early years of the war were planned with an eye on that strategic audience. The great shortcoming of Hitler’s strategy was his failure to create a strategic narrative that appealed to anyone apart from his own people – and a rapidly decreasing number of them.”

Another great article courtesy of




Micro-solidarity: mental health in unkind systems

Today, a person close to me had a mental health emergency. I was at work, trying to draft important papers for important people. I was told to relax and get back to work. The deadlines could not be extended. Dead-lines: what a word!

The whole ‘they’re-fine-get-back-to-work’ thing didn’t impress me, especially since I’ve just returned from three weeks stress leave (unpaid). The person who gave the command is, I think, basically a good person. But this person (and the two above them) are all careerists, and careerists keep the callous systems running. By trying to thrive in the systems, they uphold them. When careerists choose work over people because they want a more prestigious job title, vulnerable people are crushed.

We live in a world of systems that reduce us to job titles. These roles isolate us and break down human relationships. This alienates people with mental health concerns (i.e., an awful lot of us).

The market system works best when we work to maximise profit. Bureaucratic systems (like government departments or schools) want us to follow The Processes and deliver our Outputs and Deliverables. In a sense, it’s worse in bureaucratic systems because they’ve drunk the market kool-aid and try to run like businesses. We sometimes forget these systems are made up by people (Habermas talked about this).

These systems surround us and try to turn us into cogs. We even compete to be jammed into these roles! We don’t interact as people, we interact as people performing roles. When I line up at the checkout, I don’t interact with the cashier as a person, I interact as a customer. We make appropriately shallow chit-chat.

These roles isolate us and block meaningful human relationships that can help us when we’re in trouble. Human communities are inefficient, isolation keeps the systems running. If someone is struggling, our systems don’t stop. We keep playing our roles and we suffer quietly. When we break, we are put aside to be repaired. If we can’t be repaired, we are replaced.

I am one of the repaired cogs. I returned from stress leave dosed to the eyeballs. But here’s the thing: when people heard about my health issues, they confided in me. A disturbing amount of people around me have been through the same thing. They also quietly medicate themselves to make it through the day.

Sanity is a form of hegemony. The deeply unwell are quarantined and the moderately unwell are dosed. If you are one of the dosed, you probably keep it quiet and reap the benefits of a system that privileges the healthy while alienating the rest. I want the benefits that come from being mentally healthy so I ‘play it sane’, even though the system hurts me. Heterosexuality and masculinity are similar. I want the benefits that come from looking like a regular straight guy, so I keep my preferences private. I have that privilege.

Destroying hegemonic structures is tough. Doing something about the isolation and absence of human community is easy. Community is the answer. When my mental health deteriorated and I could no longer work, my union representative negotiated on my behalf. I could trust her to represent my interests because we are part of a community based on values, and values can be trusted. A community based on values is the enemy of isolating destructive systems.

Join a union, if only for the fact that they will defend you if you break down. Speak past your role when you’re next at the checkout, if you feel comfortable. Ask how the cashier’s shift is going. Make excuses to get to know your neighbours. They might have different political views, but when times get tough they will be more likely to help you. Don’t take part in tribal groupthink politics; it only divides people. Get closer to your family, if you can. Blood is thicker than water, which makes it great for clogging up a callous system. Interact as humans, not roles prescribed by whatever system you‘re in. Practice micro-solidarity.

Which reminds me, I need to text my friend to make sure they are ok.

EDIT: My friend was not ok. Get well soon, buddy.

Angry white men and legal highs

The election may be over, but the Left can still influence policy. The fight for progressive change is not always glamorous, so (as I’ve previously argued) it’s time to weigh in on mundane but important government consultations. This week there a few of interest to lefties.

One to watch this week is the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)’s request for submissions on “property rules that don’t make sense”. This is not a joke. MBIE wants to hear from “property owners, builders, tradespeople and businesses who have experienced the issues created by irrelevant or unnecessary regulations”. These (National voting?) people “can now report these to a Rules Reduction Taskforce which will identify pedantic and unnecessary rules that frustrate and hinder.”
I imagine that environmental rules will be a popular one here, so definitely worth a submission. The Taskforce will “consider submissions and ultimately recommend any necessary changes.” This one will attract a few angry white men, so get in there if you care about the planet.

This week the Ministry of Primary Industries is consulting on two new fisheries reserves near Timaru. The reserves will be “traditional fishing grounds… established for the purpose of customary food gathering”. Another one that will probably attract a few angry blokes, so worth a submission in favour.

Auckland City Council is currently consulting on a number of issues, and is inviting people to participate in the ‘People’s panel’, a pool of citizens who can “have their say on Auckland Council’s plans, activities and services by taking part in short surveys … [on issues] ranging from waste collection, libraries services, to events and the environment.”
One such issue is the sale of legal highs. People on the Left probably have a range of views on this, but drug law is always important so make sure you have your say. For me, I think legal and medical regimes should be proportionate to proven safety. So I’m not a big fan of untested synthetic highs, or cannabis prohibition.

Worksafe New Zealand is currently consulting on a ‘workplace exposure standard for diesel particulates’. The document is not very accessible, so abandon hope all ye who enter there. There be science. Basically it’s about acceptable levels of diesel fumes for workers, so it should interest greens and reds.

Some of the consultations from last week are still open, including Standards New Zealand’s ‘standard for gender and sexual diversity in employment’ and the Productivity Commission’s consultation on provision of social services.

Weigh in! If enough submissions go through you could make a difference.

Article of the day: Religion does not poison everything

When it comes to Richard Dawkins and atheism, I live by the words of The Dude. “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.” Being right and being good are very different things.

With that in mind, here is a review of the latest Karen Armstrong book. The book argues religion does not poison everything. Rather, religion is poisoned by power. Power corrupts, and successful religions convert those with power. Armstrong, a former nun, has a unique view of religion, and her thoughts are consistently interesting.

Excerpts: “‘Religion causes all the wars.’ It’s an odd thing to say. Among the many causes advanced for the Great War, I have never heard religion mentioned. Same with the second world war. The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians were perpetrated by secular nationalists.”

And: “All terrorism is now routinely attributed to religious intoxication. Richard Dawkins tells us that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’. But Armstrong points out that suicide bombing was more or less invented by the Tamil Tigers, ‘a nationalist separatist group with no time for religion’.”

And: “The sad truth is that religions are corrupted by success. The more popular they become, the closer they are drawn into the ambit of state power, the more their practice and doctrine have to be remodelled to suit their new overlords.”

The quiet privileges

Like any good leftie, I spend a lot of time reflecting on all the ways that I’m privileged.

I am male, therefore I get the ‘patriarchal dividend’ (benefits that come to men, unsought). I am white. If you don’t think whiteness is a huge leg-up in life, then Louis CK thinks ‘you are an asshole‘. I seem straight, so people don’t make my life difficult in a range of shitty ways. But if I tell my fellow lefties I’m bisexual/pansexual, I get awesome leftie points. No downside. Yusssssss.

I am slim and able-bodied. My job pays well. I don’t follow a religion that people hate and fear. I was lucky to be born in a developed country that is relatively well-governed (Labour and National governments aside).

That’s usually where the privilege checking ends, or at least trails off. But of course privilege doesn’t end there. If we are committed to looking at how we are structurally advantaged, we need to look at the quieter privileges, the ones we rarely discuss. Privilege is a fascinating and infuriatingly complex thing, so for the purposes of simplicity I’m mostly referring to one or more of the following:

  • financial privilege (greater access to/possession of income or wealth)
  • political privilege (greater access to/possession of political power)
  • cultural privilege (greater access to/possession of social value or status)

So here are five quiet privileges that I benefit from:

Literacy and fluency
The highest levels of financial, political and (somewhat) cultural power are almost exclusively reserved for those who speak and read their dominant national language. In New Zealand, this is English. People disadvantaged by this include non-native English speakers, disabled people, and less-educated people. Lack of literacy and fluency maps closely with class; poorer people are less likely to be highly fluent and literate. Many people on the Left love big words, but we should remember that jargon is an exercise in privilege. And so is being a ‘grammar nazi’.

Our society and economy value knowledge gained in universities over other sources (like work and culture). The heads of major companies and political parties are overwhelmingly educated people. Educated people are more likely to get higher paying jobs, and healthier jobs. Educated people rarely have to lift heavy things into their 60s just to get by.

This is a land of many cultures, but some are privileged more than others. Being fluent in western/pākehā culture grants you easier access to jobs, relationships, and support networks. Our institutions (especially university) are very culturally western. Socially and financially speaking, western culture is overwhelmingly dominant. And despite the odd mihimihi and pōwhiri our political institutions are still very western.

We western lefties can be pretty vocal about the outrages in other cultures. A lot of leftists want to deny that we have a culture (especially a white culture) because acknowledging one exists allows bigots to celebrate it. If you think we don’t have a culture, you probably haven’t lived outside of it. Culture shapes us immensely. When we deny that our values are often highly culturally specific, we universalise them and colonise others. There is a pākehā culture, and it dominates all others in New Zealand.

In our society, post-adolescent adults and middle-aged people are financially and politically privileged. Young adults and the elderly are routinely discriminated against for perceived lack of ability. Teens and young adults are relatively culturally privileged. In contrast, the very young and the very old are amongst our most vulnerable people. But I don’t often hear the Left talk about discrimination against the elderly. Older people are not very ‘intersectional’, which may be why so few lefties cared when Labour suggested raising the retirement age. It was odd to see so many lefties suddenly become fiscally conservative.

As Salient columnist Penny Gault recently observed, it’s an extrovert’s world. It’s harder to achieve financial and political success if you find interacting with strangers oppressive. Financially, extroverts’ perceived confidence is mistaken for ability and helps them gain better positions and better pay. Politically, the theatre of national level politics is built for the outspoken. Doing lots of public speaking is not ideal for introverts. Similarly, cultural success is easier to gain if you are comfortable with the attention of a lot of people. And it’s not like introverts are just left to their introversion. Instead, introversion is often taken as rudeness, haughtiness, cowardice, and lack of self-esteem.

I’m not saying that we on the Left need to go to war with these privileges in the same way we fight sexism, racism, and homophobia. At least not now. But if we want a more equal society (and not be total hypocrites), we should know our privileges before we shout at others about theirs.

That wasn’t a comprehensive list, by any means. Please feel free to comment on any privileges that you think are important to check, or hit me up on twitter at @aaronincognito.

Article of the day: Stripping, capitalism, and fracking boomtowns

Another excellent piece via, this time about North Dakota’s fracking gold rush.

The author, a stripper, argues that “[n]othing is more emblematic of the American dream than chaotic mining and drilling towns such as Williston, North Dakota, and the people who flock to them in search of fortune. And no one knows better how these communities work — and don’t — than the traveling topless dancer.”

Another: “Capitalism’s inherent gamble plays out on a small stage with a chrome pole while lessons in second chances and knowing when to cut your losses are there to take to heart or ignore. It’s more America than anywhere I’ve been.”

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Well worth a read for anyone interested in feminism, green politics, or just high quality writing.

The long march through the consultations

Increasingly, figures from the Left are looking outside political parties to bring about political change. This is unsurprising when we look at the state of our parties: one was destroyed (MANA), one is deeply structurally damaged (Labour), and the other can’t achieve much with Labour (Greens). But hey, political parties were always an imperfect means to progressive ends.

The next election is years away, so it’s time to turn our attention to governance processes and civil society action. Here, we can bring about good change (or at least block bad change).

The Government is pretty much always consulting or seeking submissions on something, including a lot of issues that concern the Left.

Compared to the hurly-burly of the hustings and the theatre of the House, the actual machinery of government is pretty boring. Cabinet papers, Select Committees, and consultation periods are not very sexy, but they are important. Political power hides in a thicket of arcane processes, but if we are willing to cut a path then we march through the institutions.

If you think dry policy documents don’t matter, then take a look at the Treasury briefings for the incoming government in the Rogernomics era. Immense power hid behind tepid phrases like “Greater flexibility may mean that the real wage for some groups in the labour market will fall“. Roger Douglas might have been a believer, but he was nothing without those papers from Treasury.

The Fourth Labour government, with Phil Goff at the head of the table. NEVER FORGET.

The Fourth Labour government, with Phil Goff at the head of the table. NEVER FORGET.

The bureaucracy has always had a lot of power. In a sense, elections are fought for control of the public service and their boring papers. The executive can’t do much without the skills, networks, and knowledge of the bureaucracy.

Let me repeat, bureaucracy is boring. But don’t let that stop you from weighing in. Select Committees will open soon, and there are currently a few consultations of interest to leftists, especially greens:
1- Standards New Zealand, an autonomous crown entity, is consulting on ‘a standard for gender and sexual diversity in employment‘ until 17 November.
2- Wellington City Council is consulting on its natural resources plan until 30 November.
3- The Productivity Commission is consulting on provision of social services until 18 November.
4- Land Information New Zealand is consulting on changing place names in New Zealand until 17 November. From what it looks like, they are shifting to more accurate te reo place names, which will likely draw submissions from cranky racists.

The Left needs to be active outside party politics. Partly because Labour (and maybe the whole electoral left) is in trouble on a deep structural level. But also because there’s opportunity for us to bring about good change.

We on the Left have immense energy and good social media mobilisation. National has a majority, but they still need to consult and take submissions at Select Committees. Let’s make sure our voices are heard wherever we can.