A turbulent end to a turbulent year (and decade): the World

At the start of 2010, after a decade of post-11 September turmoil, many around the world might have been hoping for a more settled decade where some of the damage was undone. Ten years later, that hope seems more remote than ever before. We look back at the turbulent decade around the world that was the 2010’s.

2010: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labour Party were swept from office by the Conservatives, who with the Nick Clegg led Liberal Democrats formed a centre-right government. In France. Towards the end of the year random sparks in the gun powder barrel of north Africa – the self immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia in late December – would be the catalyst for the 2011 Arab Spring. WikiLeaks releases 250,000 classified documents from American diplomats; its founder Julian Assange goes into exile in Ecuador until 2019. South Africa hosted the 2010 F.I.F.A. World Cup, which was won by Spain.

2011: Festering protests in Tunisia, Libya and other Middle East and African countries boiled over into full scale revolts topping governments in the former countries and rocking regimes in several others. Syria began a bloody down-hill slide into an even bloodier civil war that continues to this day. Whilst their African neighbours revolted on the streets, rebellion against the Euro was building in Europe where Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy found themselves struggling to justify continuance of the Euro, with Greece threatening to go full drachma on everyone. But it might be a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan that triggered a tsunami that killed 15,000 people along the east coast and crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant causing at least one reactor to explode and two more to suffer crippling damage.

2012: Against the backdrop of worsening situation in Syria, the rise of Daesh in the Middle East, the London Olympics – once looked down upon as going to fail – was a true bright spot where several well known athletes were discovered by the world. The Euro currency crisis continued with Greece and France both changing Governments as a result. The cruise liner Costa Concordia sinks off the coast of Italy, with the captain, Franscesco Schettino’s negligence being the primary cause in a sinking that took 32 people to the bottom. Two major massacres in the United States blighted that nation’s year with one happening at a theatre and another at an elementary school.

2013: The year opened with a bang over Chelyabinsk in Russia when a meteorite exploded over the Russian city injuring hundreds and damaging 4,300 buildings. In April the United Nations adopted the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the sale of conventional weapons. In early June, Edward Snowden, a former C.I.A. operative disclosed documents suggesting a massive surveillance programme of media is planned; he flees the country and is granted asylum in Russia. The same month after months of bickering former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd challenges incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a leadership ballot. Mr Rudd wins and Ms Gillard retires from politics; Mr Rudd would be defeated in September at an Australian general election by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott.

2014: The year started with an outbreak of Ebola in Africa that would go on to kill over 11,000 people and hospitalize thousands more. It would last until 2016. In March, in defiance of a United Nations referendum on the sovereignty of the Crimea, Russia annexes the critical Ukrainian territory, immediately triggering sanctions and other diplomatic actions against Russia. In a grim year for Malaysian Airlines MH370 and MH17 crash in separate incidents – the latter being linked to a Russian missile battery deployed in Ukraine, which Russia denies. Justice was served in August on two senior Khmer Rouge commanders who are found guilty of committing crimes against humanity in the K.R.’s bloody reign. Germany swept to victory over hosts Brazil in a 7-1 thrashing at the F.I.F.A. World Cup Semi-Final and won the Final against Argentina a week later.

2015: British Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the legislation enabling a referendum on whether Britain should exit the European Union after the Conservatives were returned to office in the election. The Cricket World Cup is hosted by New Zealand and Australia, with the hosts meeting in the Final. Australia won.  In a year pock-marked by terrorism committed by Islamic militants, major events occur in France, Kuwait, Tunisia, Kenya and Afghanistan. German car maker Volkswagen was accused of having rigged diesel emission tests for 11 million vehicles world wide, resulting in a U.S.$2.8 billion fine. In a hope for disarmament Iran and the United Nations Permanent 5 plus Germany reach an agreement to allow an Iranian nuclear programme if it gives up the elements essential for weapons development, which Israel immediately denounces. The Paris COP15 Climate Change summit resulted in all countries committing to reducing carbon emissions for the first time. Donald Trump, to much derision, announces his candidacy on a Republican ticket for President of the United States.

2016: A year of political shocks reverberate around the world. People thought it was a joke when Britain announced a referendum to exit from the European Union. On 23 June 2016, the joke became reality much to the surprise of the international community. On 8 November 2016, an even bigger shock that produced a myriad of humorous headlines such as W(hy) T(rump) F(lourished), when Mr Trump swept to victory in the United States. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics made for an entertaining and useful diversion as the United Kingdom grappled with the fallout from the Brexit vote.

2017: Donald Trump assumes the White House and relations with other countries immediately begin to deteriorate. Theresa May becomes Prime Minister of Britain after David Cameron resigns – unsure of her mandate, she immediately calls an election; a deadly apartment block fire in Grenfell which exposes flammable cladding on a host of buildings shows her compassion to be sadly lacking. North Korea tests Mr Trump’s mettle, rattling off a series of nuclear weapon and missile tests culminating in a 200+ kiloton test in September. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe resigns after being placed under house arrest by the military – he dies in 2019.

2018: Concerns grow about China’s policy of buying out assets in other nations to grow their influence in those countries with Huawei being given government money to develop its 5G technology. Russia successfully hosts the F.I.F.A. World Cup, drawing considerable admiration. France wins the Final, leading to rioting in Paris. Saudi Arabia, a country not known for its human rights finally allows women to drive, but almost immediately detains several of the leading proponents. The Syrian Civil War continues – most of the rebel held areas have been lost, but Russian and Syrian forces continue to attack Idlib and the few remaining strongholds.

2019: In the year of Greta Thunberg, unprecedented student protest action against climate change draws derision from the political right, but announces a new force in global politics: the teenager. A terrorist attack in New Zealand draws international sympathy, and challenges the global tech companies to show leadership in cracking down on the transmission of hate content on their platforms. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sweeps to victory five months after taking over from Mrs May who had resigned after her Brexit plan stalled amid furious opposition in the House of Commons.

Happy New Decade to you all.

A turbulent end to a turbulent year (and decade): The New Zealand experience

By the time you read this, New Zealand will have about 39 hours left in the 2010’s. It has been a decade that has seen some of New Zealand’s finest moments as a nation and some of its worst. I look at them here.

2010: It started out looking promising, with the economy looking upwards after the global financial crisis, but ended with 29 men missing presumed dead in a mine that exploded. New Zealand’s Parliament had a poignant moment when Maori M.P. Te Ururoa Flavell led a solemn rendition of Whakaaria Mai (How Great Thou Art)shortly after the explosion was announced. Internal politics was rocked by the sacking of the elected Environment Canterbury council by the Government, which replaced the councillors with Commissioners. Then out of the pre dawn darkness on 04 September 2010 came a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that announced a seismic odyssey that would culminate in disaster the following year.

2011: For many New Zealanders – Rugby World Cup victory aside – this year will be remembered for one thing only: a devastating aftershock of the 04 September 2010 earthquake tore through Christchurch on 22 February 2011 at 1251 hours. 185 killed; 6,000 injured and a damage bill totalling U.S.$25 billion. It was followed by powerful aftershocks on 13 June and 23 December 2011. In these darkest of hours New Zealand rallied beautifully – political divides and regional antagonism’s were put aside to enable the disaster response to continue unhindered. Outside of this Prime Minister John Key swept back into office with a resounding thumping of Labour in the polls, only hindered by the shock return of New Zealand First from 3 years in the wilderness.

2012: Christchurch’s recovery continued slowly, but steadily forward, pock marked by contestable decisions made by the Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee who – by any realistic admission – had the devils job. 7,000 homes had been condemned the year before, which brought immense pressure on the rental accommodation market. Better fortune was had at the Olympics as the rowers, Valerie Adams and the cyclists gave us one our best medal tallies since Los Angeles in 1984.

2013: New Zealand’s economy continued to be one of the top performers in the O.E.C.D., to the delight of National, whilst Labour squabbled and the Greens and New Zealand First consolidated their gains. The economy, fuelled by explosive growth in dairy farming continued to rebound following the whammies of the Christchurch earthquakes and the G.F.C. Socially, New Zealand took a giant step forward when Labour M.P. Louisa Wall’s Same Sex Marriage Bill passed through Parliament in a 77-44 conscience vote.

2014: A stormy year both inside and out, with New Zealand having one of its stormiest and wettest autumns in years with some locations having already had 3/4 of their average annual rainfall by May. The storms in the sky were matched by National storming to victory in the September 2014 general election, on the back of economic growth, a hard line on beneficiaries. Somewhere among this, the All Blacks continued their dominance as the best rugby team in the world, the Black Caps began to realise that their current bunch were not bad and had the potential to be something special.

2015: The year began with a cricketing spectacle hosted by New Zealand and Australia in the form of the 2015 Cricket World Cup. This briefly – for five weeks diverted the country’s attention from worsening issues around housing, poverty, living expenses and a deteriorating world scene. The National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key continued to consistently out perform Labour, whose civil war eased just enough to accept Andrew Little as its leader. A Rugby World Cup Final win over Australia was happily lapped up by New Zealand in early November.

2016: After years of explosive growth the dairy farming bubble began to show signs of strain. Although demand was not lessening, New Zealanders were beginning to realise there are limits as to how much of the white gold could be produced before a negative toll on the environment began to undermine it. But it was – following another great Olympics, and overall relatively stellar year for sport – a magnitude 7.8 earthquake inland from Kaikoura that happened just after midnight on 14 November, that catapulted New Zealand on to the world stage again. It was followed 3 weeks later by Prime Minister Key announcing his resignation, clearing the way for Deputy Prime Minister Bill English to take over.

 2017: In January Prime Minister Bill English had every reason in the world – except one – to think that he was going to still be Prime Minister come December. National far out polled Labour, which looked like sitting ducks for another electoral thrashing. But no one saw that Andrew Little would suddenly quit as leader, thrusting his young Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern into the spotlight. It was a master stroke of sorts. Ms Ardern seized the moment. After a quick rebrand began one of the most dizzying stories in New Zealand political history. For decades New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has said he will support the largest party in Parliament, thus giving Mr English reason to think his 56 seats plus N.Z.F.’s 9 were going to form the next Government. Except Mr Peters went with Labour and the Greens to the eternal fury of National.

2018: Perhaps it was a case of being a rabbit caught in the headlights, but for a few months in 2018 the new government had a case of inertia, not quite knowing how to get started. Some Ministers who thought they were fit for purpose quickly began to find out that maybe another three years on the Opposition benches learning might have been useful. The economy continued its slower growth, bounced around by international turbulence as much as uncertainty about the domestic economy. No major policy releases were made on social welfare. Kiwi Build got off to a probably terminally rocky start with only a few homes being built initially. Perhaps the greatest talking point was a decision to phase out oil and gas by 2050.

2019: A year that has been bookended by disaster. On 15 March 2019 in New Zealand’s worst shooting a gun man opened fire in two mosques killing 51 people. The international response – America aside – was hugely sympathetic. But divisions opened up as soon as an amnesty to enable people to hand back high capacity rifles, spare parts and modifications that could enable them to be like the AR-15 used. But it was not all bad news for New Zealand. The Silver Ferns netball team stunned world champions Australia in the 2019 Netball World Cup Final, a match few expected New Zealand to reach, never mind win. The Black Caps cricket team lost to England in the Cricket World Cup Final. In politics though it was a year of missed opportunities for the Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to show her socio-economic policy credentials, with yawning failures on Kiwi Build, poverty and to some extent the economy. With 2019 almost at an end, the onus will be on Labour to deliver on some big promises before the election. But the real news in December 2019 was the sudden eruption of Whakaari (White Island)on the 9th, killing 19 people and leaving dozens suffering horrendous burns and injuries from flying rocks, in a brutal reminder of the dynamic geology under our feet.

Thus comes to an end a turbulent decade in New Zealand. A combination of tragedy and heroism, the exclusive and the inclusive have defined this country in a way that few in 2009 would have even dared to dream.

What will the 2020’s bring us?

Neoliberalism needs to end – Part 3: Why Fukuyama is wrong

In the previous article I examined how the resistance against neoliberalism began and what were the causes of the push back. Now I attempt to show that push back at work, both in terms of nations starting to realize that neoliberalism has failed, and also how just a few companies on the face of the planet are helping to undermine the very economic model that made them possible.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon. Billions of people use their products daily. These are four companies whose very power and reach potentially influences national elections; where privacy rights is a dirty phrase, despite cosmetic efforts to paper over substantial abuses. All four present their own challenges, but I will focus on Google. When Google wants your medical data so it can develop more applications and software, and – most likely – distribute it to third obscure third party users who have no care for your privacy rights, there is a problem. When one company completely dominates the search engine landscape so completely that other substantial companies are mere bit players, there is a problem. When it has an e-mail platform that despite you deleting all of your e-mails, every single one of them is still being held in data storage somewhere, there is a problem.

Although the United States is starting to realise – to its credit – the monsters these companies have turned into, to some extent their law makers are caught in a bind as without doubt all four of them most probably donate substantially to their election campaigns. If they turn on these companies, Google could refuse to publish their ads, stop corporate donations. But they must try for the sake of America, for the sake of the free world. Google needs to be broken up.

But it is much more than just nations beginning to push back against neoliberalism. There are several factors at work to undermine the whole idea, which I will briefly mention:

  • Fukuyama’s idea that the end of history had come was also undermined in part by its monstrous arrogance – a snotty holier than thou belief in western superiority: that if your nation is not a western one it is somehow of irrelevance
  • A sort of expectation that countries would start favouring American ideas about democracy and freedom completely ignored their histories and prior foreign interference
  • It ignored China whose economy and military spending was just beginning a 25 consecutive year period of near double digit growth in both – the result being China is now an order of magnitude more powerful nation than it was in 1989
  • Having seen off the Soviet Union, no one thought to help post-U.S.S.R. Russia establish a democratic system of governance, thus leaving them to witness the rise of Vladimir Putin
  • The geopolitical vacuum left by the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was going to have to be filled by something and – wrong as the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 were – no one should be surprised that a non-conventional, ideological opponent would be that something
  • Russia and China are using their influence to stymie the western geopolitical agenda – good or bad – way of the United Nations veto; propping up despots with poor human rights records such as Iran and North Korea

So, as you enjoy the Christmas presents you got on Wednesday, spare a thought for who made that cellphone you got. Spare a thought for those working in retail over the coming days in New Zealand when the Boxing Day sales will be on.

In the simplistic world of Fukuyama it might have been the right thing, the good thing. But Fukuyama is one human being alone, albeit one whose theorem influenced the likes of President George H.W. Bush. When the global order gets altered in such a way as to have a super power trying to impose in an almost hegemonic manner, its will, one should not only imagine a counter movement, they should expect it. That history and all the problems that came with it, far from finished, is staging a second renaissance. Whether we western people are smart enough to realise Fukuyama’s “End of history” is dead is another point altogether.

Neoliberalism needs to end – Part 2: How the resistance began

In the previous article I mentioned how neoliberalism came about following the End of History paper written by an American political scientist named Francis Fukuyama in 1989. I described how it was encouraged through free trade agreements in New Zealand and elsewhere. Towards the end, I showed how it made the Global Financial Crisis possible and how the world leaders largely ignored the warnings. In this article I show how and why resistance is starting to push back on neoliberalism and why it would not be a bad thing if it succeeded.

Have you ever thought about the factory where your cellphone was made and the conditions that the factory workers worked in – do the female staff have maternity leave; are they paid regular wages; do they get regular rest breaks and a meal break for full time staff? It might not necessarily be so. The economic footprint of the west has been great for countries like China, India, Brazil and others with weak labour laws, where companies trying to avoid having to show legal and moral decency to their staff have set up shop to take advantage of the cheaper labour.

Or what about the mines from which the rare earth elements needed to make the components in the phone? Have you heard about the children working in cobalt mines? A few days ago Google and Apple were named in an American lawsuit brought about after deaths of Congolese children in mines where they were made to work for not even $1 a day.

As human rights N.G.O.’s become aware of such abuses, they are supporting lawsuits  being brought about by families and representatives of the victims. Others include Amnesty International supporting people of the Niger delta in their fight against oil companies who have crippled the environment, causing major health issues, loss of income from the fisheries.

But Governments have been slow to recognize the growing discontent among people in many countries. And indeed some have tried to deflect both the growing body of evidence neoliberalism has failed, but also the many and growing numbers of critics. Why? $$$ Many of the politicians who advocate for corporate socialism – which is what neoliberalism basically is – are bankrolled by wealthy donors who will pull their funding if their demands are not upheld, and scared of the backlash they meekly do as these people want. I am talking about the Koch brothers in America; media mogul Rupert Murdoch in Britain; mining billionaire heiress Gina Rinehart in Australia, but also Chinese billionaires such as Lin Lang.

But in recent months there have been signs of a coming push back in countries that had embraced it. In Chile after years of being held up as the poster child for market economics as a result of the reforms enacted by dictator Augusto Pinochet, impromptu protests erupted on a massive scale across Chilean cities – 800,000 people took to the streets in Santiago; tens of thousands elsewhere, simply tired of watching a very few select people get disproportionate gains in their wealth whilst the average Chilean was made to make do with much less. 16 people were killed by security forces who were taken by surprise at the intensity and the anger being expressed. President Sebastian Pinera has promised reforms, but these are largely cosmetic and do not address the underlying social inequality driving the protests.

But these problems are not restricted to up and coming nations. Even G7 nations are not exempt from the back lash. Similar underlying problems may have fuelled the Gillet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protest movement in France that appeared with little warning after a plan to increase the tax on petrol was announced. Within a matter of days, several hundred thousand people were demonstrating on the streets of Paris day in/day out. Whilst President Emmanuel Macron has announced policy changes in an attempt to woo the protesters and get the violence to stop his centrist government and the conservative wing of French politicians will be looking nervously abroad and hoping that no contagious protest movement springs up any time soon.

In Part 3 I return to explore how Fukuyama’s idea was flawed from the start, and why what  I like to think of as the “Second coming of history” is perhaps more appropriate.


Neoliberalism needs to end – Part 1: The rise of neoliberalism

In 1989 an influential political scientist named Francis Fukuyama released a defining paper called “The End of History and the Last Man” that suggested the end of Communism would clear the way for market-oriented liberal democracies. Nations all around the world would flourish under a market system that removed tariffs and other barriers to economic growth; competition would open up new opportunities for products, goods and services and it would occur in a democratic environment under governments that espoused deregulation. But most of all, everyone would benefit. This would be the final, eternal form of governance in human society.

That was the idea. And for a while it looked like it might work as moderates like British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, United States President Bill Clinton joined conservatives like Australian and British Prime Ministers John Howard and John Major. Big free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement were negotiated and held up as a victory for laissez-faire market economics. Deregulation of markets was the “in” thing to be seen doing – encouraging investors to sink money into new ventures, simplifying or getting rid of pesky legislation was seen as a necessary part of this.

I have mentioned the transition to a market economy that was attempted in New Zealand in other posts – how the Labour Government of David Lange started it and then how it was continued by the National led Government of Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley. Free trade agreements with various countries were touted as the way forward. Particularly high on the agenda were deals with China and the United States. Despite her reputation as a socialist, Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark oversaw the N.Z.-China Free Trade Agreement in 2008; initial negotiations. Ms Clark also did not attempt a buy back of the former Electricity Corporation New Zealand assets that had been sold when E.C.N.Z. was broken up, causing a 100% increase in power prices across ten years.

In 2002 the price of housing began to increase in New Zealand. A property that might have been worth $150,000 in 2001 would increase to $550,000. Investors, realizing the potential for meltdowns overseas were starting to become interested in having a rainy day solution in New Zealand. A property to quickly move to if their existing situation became untenable along with opportunities to invest some of their money and get a return through renters was suddenly not a bad thing to have.

So convinced were many by it that when warnings about the potential for a massive economic depression to rival the 1929 Great Depression sounded, no one wanted to know. Despite years of increasingly dire warnings that the financial markets were about to face a massive and probably violent correction, the thought that institutions like Lehman Bros., Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could fall over in the United States along with smaller ones in New Zealand like Capital Merchant Finance, was dismissed as not being possible. “Too big to fail” was a popular phrase to describe financial establishments that were thought to be indestructible.

This might have been the end of neoliberalism, but it was not. Within two years, the economic and financial commentators appeared to have completely forgotten the purpose of President Barak Obama introducing the Dodd Frank Act. Mr Obama’s legislation was simply seeking to give assurance that Americans could trust their banking sector, that there would not be another major crisis like the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009. He was also seeking to ensure that Americans would be able to trust the financial tools they use to purchase property and their ability to service their finances would not be burned.

But 30 years after Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”, the tide is beginning to turn against the neoliberalism he and others have espoused. And perhaps, what I call the “Second coming of History” is here. Find out more in Part 2.