I can say that while teaching in China I am enjoying the process of setting young and active minds on the correct path. To that end, I tell them:

1. The United States is a very strange country, unlike any other. For that reason, they should not generalise from the USA.

2. Europe is a very barbaric place, full of petty tribalisms.

3. Bourgeois (liberal) democracy is a dreadful system, best avoided (actually, they know this already).

4. Australia is neither a Western nor an Eastern country, since it is in the South.

5. Kangaroo meat is very good for you.

Since many of my students will be future government leaders and officials, I hope these items and more will have some effect.

However, I have also learnt a few things from them:

1. Communism is not a rational ideal that you then try to actualise.

2. Communism is not singular but multiple.

3. They work very hard and know much more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China.

4. One’s stomach is the best guide for travelling to different places.

5. Office hours mean I buy them lunch and we talk for more than four hours – about everything.

‘What is this? Brown water?’ He said with a look of disgust after sipping from his cup.

‘Isn’t it supposed to be coffee?’ I said.

‘Americans make such bad coffee it barely deserves to be called coffee at all,’ he said. ‘I once spilled a cup on my lap. After it dried, there was nothing, no stain. Coffee is supposed to leave a decent, black stain’.

We were on a long haul train journey across the USA (Amtrak is one of the great hidden gems here), having breakfast somewhere between Colorado and New Mexico. Our meal companions were a couple of young Chinese men who had been sent to Kansas from Tokyo for a year by their employer. Apart from getting used to the culture shock of such a move and the absence of public transport, they found they had to come to terms with the dreadful coffee.

It is difficult not to agree. Only in the USA can Starbucks seem like good coffee. Elsewhere it might universally be regarded as dreadful coffee, but in the USA it seems like a good drink. Less watery, with a trace of taste, and an effort at socially responsible business practices – Starbucks at least tries. Or I should say it used to try. Now they have succumbed to the status quo. Gone are the individually ground cups of coffee; gone are the bang, twist, hiss and gurgle of a something that might resemble coffee. Instead, they now have computerised machines that require a mere press of a button. A trickle of brown water flows into a cup and that is it.

Watery, tasteless, lukewarm. Making such bad coffee is not laziness. It requires dedicated attention over many years to come up with that formula.

Is coffee in the USA a metaphor for the failure of neoliberal economic policies that have been pursued here with such energy? Possibly. Travel by train through the back yard of the country. Stop a while in a trailerized town, witness the sea of poverty all around, and realize that the propaganda of the American dream applies only to a privileged few. Islands of privilege in a sea of poverty. The economic ‘benefits’ are for the majority barely that at all: watered down, tasteless, lukewarm. You are better off without it.

Yet what astounds me is the way such an economic approach can in any way be touted as the model for others. How can this approach to economic life be regarded as anything but a failure? Why would anyone in the right mind think that it should be copied anywhere else?

We’ve just completed three days by train across the strangest country in the world, the USA. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then the Capitol Limited runs onto Washington (and a local train takes you to Baltimore). Three days in all, through deserts, prairies, forests and mountains. On a train such as this, you get the best, worst, and weirdest of the USA. Amtrak is a great network, and thankfully more people hereabouts have begun to realise that. It’s cheap, efficient and pretty comprehensive. When Americans set their mind to something, they can do a bloody good job. The problem is that they rarely put their minds to anything worthwhile.

But the most intriguing part would have to be the dining car. Here is the USA in all its daily glory. Community seating is the rule in the dining car, where the food is included in the very reasonably priced tickets. Over three days we met and talked with 80-something newlyweds with dodgy legs, New Mexico artists, a couple of giggling grandmothers, a disconcertingly in-bred couple who growled about ‘them environmentalists’ and said an elaborate prayer before eating, disciples of Obama with a love of hiking and speaking so loudly our ears were ringing, and – the highlight of the journey – a charming man who told us in detail of Abraham Lincoln’s beginnings as a lawyer when he won a huge case for the new railways. He finished his discourse by peering out of the window and observing simply, ‘I’m looking for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. He was serious.

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Sometimes you stumble on a real piece of tripe – to wit, this supposedly challenging piece from the ‘Open Democracy’ bunch called ‘Is China More Democratic than Russia‘. They trot out some stunners, such as: if an alien landed on earth today with a political science degree (as aliens do), they would mistakenly assume Russia is democratic and China not. Ah yes, the universality of ‘democracy’. Always dangerous when the qualifier drops away – bourgeois democracy. I also like this one: the Russians are faking democracy while the Chinese are faking communism …

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, the five points suggested, but replace ‘Russia’ with USA, as in ‘Is China more democratic than the USA’.

1. Rotation of power: The United States (or Australia, or Germany …) clearly has elections, but no rotation of power … the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it.

2. Listening to the people: The United States’ rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.

3. Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent. Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement … If you compare the USA and China, you will see that in USA there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask the president to resign. But while Capitol Hill broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it.

4. Recruitment of elites. First, the great majority of the American elites went to a few Universities. Second, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known a leading politician. In short, the United States is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense: most of these people have not had proper careers, but have simply ended in this ruling group.

5. Experimentation. My last point comparing these two systems is to emphasise the way in which the Chinese and Americans  totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in the United States: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there. They are not experimenting in the process of trying to build a governable state.

Then again, honour to whom honour is due: when read in this way, in China the government rotates power, listens to the people, tolerates opposition, recruits not merely elites but across the board, and experiments. That makes it a whole lot more democratic than the USA, or Australia, or Germany …

An external observer of the farce in the USA called the ‘elections’ on the last couple of occasions can’t help noticing a politics of nostalgia. Each candidate offers a slightly different version of restoring a slipping greatness, tapping into a widespread sense that the mythical ‘golden age’ is in the past.  It also shows up in terms of a closing of the mind and borders. While once foreigners were welcomed and wanted to come, now they are viewed with suspicion and shunned. A small gesture, a stare, a muttered comment – these operate at an everyday level. More noticeably, visa requirements become tighter and the mood is one of threat: all these swarms wanting to overrun the borders and steal what little wealth is left. You see it in the USA, but also in Western Europe. There, ‘customs’ officers and police on many borders now check trains and cars, targetting people whose skin happens not to be white. The open borders of the EU are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Once dominant countries never seem to be able to decline with grace; instead they do so angrily.

So it is finally about to happen – some citizens of the USA will get to vote over the minimal differences between two men who want to run that fading superpower. Thankfully the whole sordid show will be over soon, the shining example of ‘liberal democracy’ in action, for all to emulate. Of course, the desperate and overdone efforts to represent them as sharply opposed to one another betray the truth: they offer minor variations within a one-party state. I hardly need to point out what that party is, with factions such as the Republicans and Democrats.

Apparently, there are far, far more people in prison in the USA today than there were at any time when Joseph (man of steel) Stalin was general secretary of the Russian communist party.

I remember some time back in 2003 or thereabouts, pundits were wondering whether a renewed and united Europe might challenge US dominance, acting as a counter-weight to the last one standing after the Cold War. The drive to unity seemed strong, eastern European countries were joining in the grand project, the constitution was being bounced around, economic figures seemed promising. How quaint all that discussion now seems. The truth is that ever since 1945, Europe has been the US’s tart. While the USA enjoyed global economic power, it could buy it’s tart (one of many) fancy clothes, nice cars, penthouse apartments, in exchange for a few ‘services’. And Europe could pretend that it was doing reasonably well on its own, that it was a respectable dame, to the extent of thinking it might go out on its own. But now that the pimp has begun to find cash a little short, to realise that its control of the streets is slipping, the tart has found that the good life really is over. All that the rolling crisis since 2008 has done is strip off the baubles, repossess the fine cars and evict the tenant from the penthouse.  (Here it is worth remembering that as soon as a major power needs to use military force, it has already begun the long slide downhill; the reason is that use of force is a signal that others dare to challenge it. That would mean the decline of the USA began in the 1970s).

The problem is that it is taking a while to realise this. Like passengers on a ship who refuse to believe that the alarming tilt of the ship is more than a roll, people assert that the ‘euro will not collapse’, that ‘they will do something’. Might be worth going up on deck to see what is going on. Or, to shift the metaphor, all that the EU managers are left with is trying to emulate God at the moment of creation: merely saying that the crisis will be averted, that the Euro will be saved, that Europe will survive, is somehow regarded as enough to make it actually happen.

I would suggest that the Greek situation (or indeed Spanish or …) is part of this larger picture. Rather than some short-circuit that may revive Europe, it is better seen as a clear indication of the marginalisation (or peripheralisation) of Europe on the world stage. Why? The problem is not Greece but Europe as a whole, which is pretty much cactus – as any time spent there soon reveals. Further, the possibility that there may be a revolution in Greece, even if it is crushed initially, signals precisely that marginalisation. Recall that all of the successful communist revolutions have happened on the global peripheries thus far. But rather than make the most of this situation, a goodly number on the Left remain residual Eurocentrics. Having given up on other parts of the globe as the locus of any progressive promise, they hold vainly onto the belief that Europe will lead the way. Better to embrace the marginalisation and go hell for revolutionary leather.

It takes a little more than a national health scheme … (ht sk)

Occasionally news filters over here concerning the Republican primaries in that strange country between Canada and Mexico. As someone pointed out recently, watching those primaries is a bit like watching a funnel-web spider walking across the floor of your living room. You know you should either get some poison-proof specialist to put it back in its natural environment, or squash it before it leaps in the air, sinks it fangs into you and puts you out of your misery. But you watch all the same.

Anyway, recently one of my sons, who is becoming quite politically aware, spent a few weeks in the USA. Early in his visit, he found himself talking to a local about local politics.

‘Have you heard of them progressives?’ The man asked.

‘Progressives?’ Said Tom.

‘Yeah, like Obama or Bush …’

‘Bush?’ Said Tom. ‘You’re kidding’.

‘Bush was too nice to them Muslims. Deep down, he was really just a rich liberal. And Obama, you see, he’s deliberately destroying this country. His father was a Muslim terrorist and he’s here as an agent of Al Qaida. Everything he’s doing is designed to bring America to its knees’.

After this enlightening political lesson, Tom said to me after he came home, ‘That place is really f&#cked’.