It’s intriguing sitting here in Berlin as the euro goes to the wall, as the US economy continues to tank and as it starts approaching big players like Australia and Burma to support them. Things are so desperate, Hilary Clinton is begging China to keep buying US government bonds and Mr Sarkozy himself phoned up the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in order to rattle the can. Hu said, ‘bugger off; we’re not buying your junk bonds’. Or as Wang Yiming, from China’s National Development and Reform Commission explains, ‘Europe’s manufacturers are what would most interest us, with their technology and their strong experience’. But not quite just yet, since ‘the euro zone crisis has not entirely played out and asset prices are very volatile. They haven’t found their floor’. Some reckon the euro has about a week, since the run on the banks has begun, maybe a little more. Can’t wait for the Chinese to start snapping up bargains at the European and US garage sale.

Many people in that strange country between Canada and Mexico like to deride their national rail line, Amtrak. But having crossed four of the six continents on the globe that you can cross by train, Amtrak stands up bloody well. It’s relatively cheap, comfortable and efficient. And probably to best way to see the country. On this crossing it was the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago, and then the Lakeshore Limited on to Boston.

As slow as a Romanian train on a bad day, rolling over wooden sleepers and rocking rails, by canyons and mesas, the ghosts of cannibals and their victims at in the Sierra Nevada, Butch Cassidy territory, Mormons and their harems, masses of divorcees in divorce-friendly Reno and the national cowboy poetry festival in Elko (Nevada) – the California Zephyr took us through some of the most spectacular landscape of the USA. The first and perhaps still most famous of the cross-continental railway lines, completed in 1869, the Zephyr traverses towering ranges, 3000 metre mountain passes, glaciers, wide deserts and lush plains. The Lakeshore Limited is a popular service, skirting the great lakes, through the maples and hippies of up-state New York and then into that other USA, Massachusetts.

A few pictures (click on each to see a larger version):

I have come across a magnificent piece by Domenico Losurdo, called ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’. Here Losurdo deploys Lenin’s critique of colonialism and Western’ democracy’ to devastating effect. Let me pick out some of the more salient points.

To begin with, in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we find that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘those in the maturity of their faculties’. As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. (This is precisely the sentiment of Aristotle in relation to ethics and democracy.) In other words, liberal ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are inseparable from oppression and dispossession; one relies on the other to function.

Losurdo moves on to consider a paradox in the heart of today’s beacon of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty': liberal democracy developed in the white community in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples. ‘For thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the United States’ life, slave-owners held the presidency, and they were the ones who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’. Indeed, one cannot understand ‘American liberty’ without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other. As a further example, during the so-called ‘Progressive Age’, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous ‘democratic’ reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret vote, primaries, referenda etc. They all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to deprive indigenous people of their residual lands and assimilate them. So also with the treatment of ‘rogues’ or ‘pariahs’ outside the USA (‘rogue’ was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an ‘R’ to signify their status): once declared a ‘rogue’ or ‘pariah’ state, the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ (Clinton) and ‘model for the world’ (Bush) can crush these ‘barbarians’ (Mill) in order to bolster ‘freedom and democracy’.

One might also compare Israel, suggests Losurdo, supposedly the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East, where ‘freedom of expression and association’ exist. But that can be maintained only by ignoring a macroscopic detail: ‘government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity downtrodden and humiliated daily’.

And then in a new twist, when fading colonial powers are losing their grip, they suddenly happen upon self-determination for valuable sections of the former colony (which have themselves been ethnically, culturally and religiously engineered). Thus, when England finally had to give Hong Kong back to China, the last governer, Chris Patten, ‘had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thereby remaining within the orbit of the British Empire’. One might say the same about claims for Tibet’s independence.

Finally, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for ‘human rights’, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ amount? Losurdo deploys Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: ‘philanthropy + 5 per cent’, where ‘philanthropy’ is synomous with ‘human rights’ and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of ‘human rights’.

Many of these details are reasonably well-known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they don’t live up to their ideals. But Losurdo, developing Lenin, has a much sharper point. The very possibility of bourgeois ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority – and vice versa.

I have just returned from one of the best conferences I have attended, at the Renmin University Summer Institute on Theology and the Humanities in Beijing. More on that later, especially since I will be spending a good deal of time in China over the next few years. But as I was there, the USA showed another sign of unravelling (I never thought I would see its actual decline), the riots broke out in London and then across the UK (social unrest is always a sign of profound economic shifts), the Eurozone finally showed that it is on the brink. Meanwhile, the planned economy of China is motoring ahead.

Lenin was not always averse to the USA, admiring the deep radical tradition there, drawing upon an occasional revolutionary slogan:

It reminds one of the American saying: “If you steal a loaf of bread you’ll surely go to jail, but if you steal a railroad you’ll be made a senator.”

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 17, p. 136

No need to look for alternative universes in a distant galaxy, for one exists across the Pacific in that weird and paranoid place between Canada and Mexico known as the USA. Apart from seeing the rest of the word as full of baby-killers and communists and Islam, it appears that communism has infiltrated the USA as well.

How? Through Sesame Street.

Yes, that blandly liberal show for kiddies is really a ‘vehicle for spreading the radical agenda of the left side of the political spectrum’. So says the fair and balanced Ben Shapiro in his new book, Primetime Propaganda, tellingly subtitled, The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Apparently, Sesame Street and shows like it have ‘secret, political messages’ that have shaped the social, economic and foreign policy of the United States. News to me, since every time I hear about US foreign policy or watch TV, I come across ever more right-wing crap. Alternative universe is the only viable explanation for such an idiotic argument.

(ht er’s father)

Once one has tasted Marxist criticism, all ideological hogwash forever becomes repulsive (Ernst Bloch, Literarische Aufsätze, p. 137)

I was reminded of this great  quotation by Benjamin Korstvedt’s odd book on Bloch’s philosophy of music, a book that should be subtitled: How to Pussyfoot Around Bloch’s Marxism. It makes me wonder whether a neo-McCarthyist era is unfolding in the USA, from where Korstvedt hails (with all the bullshit about healthcare and socialism and the t-shirts that put Obama in line with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao).

A brief comment in the midst of the overflowing analysis of the US midterm elections. Sadly (maybe not!) the cynics among have been proven right after the ‘Change we can’ election of 2008: things seem to be even more fucked up in 2010. However, opinion is divided over whether it is more of the same, with poor working class voters systematically excluded from election processes while two parties of managers,owners and professionals fight it out – so an insightful analyis from Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb. Similarly, but from a more specifically economic angle, Rick Wolf identifies a long-term from the 1970s in which things have been very, very good for the small group of owners of capital while wages have flatlined since then. (That confirms my own anecdotal experience of the USA as a country comprised of islands of extreme privilege surrounded by an ocean of systemic poverty, backed up by Ken Surin’s analysis of the US as a third world country that ‘succeeded’.) But both analyses suggest another possibility, namely the politics of decline. Deep down, the gut sense seems to be that the everyday situation is progressively, slowly, inexorably getting worse for most people. So you get Obama back in 2008 capturing a desire to recover a fading dream, the Tea Party seeking to recover ‘America for Americans’ and so on. A backward-looking utopia is also deeply reactionary. Not only do they clearly indicate a sense that the Golden Age is past (however contructed it might be), but their persistent failure and bitter disappointment is also part of the package.

Actually, I’m suprised someone hasn’t decided to blame the Soviet Union. Not for secretly implanting Obama in the White House, but for getting itself dismantled. Those were the good old days, two superpowers threatening each other, the USA the leader of the West etc etc. Damn the fucking USSR: now they are gone, the US has lost its way.

What makes a place sensual? Is it topless bars or erotic dancing? Is it a dubious reputation, like Paris or Rio? Is it golden sunsets, beaches and fine wine – the sort you see only on tourist advertisements? Is it, as Annie Sprinkle once opined concerning porn and erotica, the whole chicken or a feather?

For me the criteria are very subtle, concerned above all the carriage of the body. Learned through a long, supple and largely sub-conscious apprenticeship by children and teenagers, the way we carry your body involves posture, shape and movement. For example, it concerns the way one stands, turns or tilts one’s head, holds one’s shoulders just so, positions one’s body in relation to others, interacts on the street, uses eyes and mouth, or moves one’s hands – in short, the way we are present in and with our bodies.

Reading such bodies requires a little intuition and much patience, but it’s deeply satisfying. So what are the most sensual places on earth?

Top of the list must be Ukraine. Ukraine!? Through a mix of fortunate genetics and excellent upbringing, Ukrainian women and men would have to be among the most sensuous on the planet. The way they amble among a crowd, the unconscious ability to move a thigh or slide perfectly shaped buttocks in a long stride is simply amazing. As is the turn-and-look movement while talking, the carriage of the head and the inquisitive eyes.

Russia is comparable to Ukraine, since they were part of the same country for many years, but some subtle differences soon show up. Ukrainians are more up front in their assessment of you, but not Russians, at least the ones I have met. Walk down a street and none of the Russian beauties looks at you. Or at least it seems as though they don’t look at you. No matter how surreptitiously you try to glance at someone passing, you never catch any one so much as flicking a look in your direction. And yet you get the distinct feeling that you are constantly being checked, surveyed, and assessed in the most sensuous manner possible.

Serbia wins a spot here since it is the historical point where many ethnic groups have fought, razed the city and then rebuilt. The result is a mongrel people, and mongrels are by far the strongest, healthiest and have the most positive outlook on life. As a result, Belgrade women have the smoothest, olive skin, taking every opportunity to show off as much of it as they can (at least in summer), long dark hair, lithe flowing bodies and the challenge of a direct and sustained look.

I can’t leave Denmark off the list, especially Copenhagen. The key here is the blending of bicycles and people. Flowing hair, long thighs descending into high-heeled boots, baskets overflowing with beer or bread or clothes, all moving in a slow, sensuous rhythm along every city street.

Greenland: an unexpected entry on this list, but Greenlandic people are stunning. Meet a tall, well-endowed Greenlander on the street, with jet-black hair and the tough eyes of one who has seen far more than you will ever hope to see, and you will be smitten.

Last for now is China, although this is a very subtle one. Initially I simply didn’t get it: Chinese people in China were, it seemed to me, as missing in sensuality as the many I had met in Australia. The men wore their pants impossibly high (amazingly avoiding the squeak I constantly expected) and the women were reserved, if not withdrawn. But then, after some time in China, the subtlety began to dawn on me: a fold of clothing at a metro stop, a surreptitious glance on the street, a careful move of a hip.

I can’t leave this discussion without pondering the most un-sensual places on earth.

USA: sorry, but you just don’t have it. Brash and awkward and botox ain’t sensual.

England: ditto, but worse. Everything doesn’t work here – posture, movement, carriage. A turn-off.

Germany: Big, clumsy and rough. For some, that may mean sensual, but not for me.

Latvia: curious one here, since the military-like precision of their manner may do it for some. Not me.

Norway: sorry about this Norway, but you are slick, glossy and a little obscene. Too much money and simply no sensuality; even in high-heels, you look awkward and ungainly. Go to Ukraine to find out how to do it. And running or riding about town in yet another expensive sports outfit is not sexy.

France gets a thumbs-down as well. I know many will be surprised at this, but France is just too self-absorbed, too convinced of its own sensuality that it’s like one great wank. Not much fun for anyone else.