With increasing news that US border bureaucrats are asking travellers to hand over electronic devices and provide access (passwords etc.), so they can check your social media, email and so on, it is time either to give the USA a miss (there are better places to visit) or to leave all devices at home. A simple ‘dumb’ or ‘burner’ phone, with a couple of numbers on it may be all that you want to bring with you. Then again, you may be denied entry with these as well, since they may be a signal you are trying to hide something.

In all this, the one I like best is that one may be subject to ‘ideological’ questioning upon arrival at the border.

Advertisements

Obviously, I am referring to Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections, which I risked suggesting back in July he would win. I refer not to the parts of the world that relied on the myth of pax americana. I mean the many parts of the world that have been bullied by the USA for too long. Trump’s turn will clearly be inward, retreating from US efforts to dominate many parts of the world where it had no business whatsoever. To be sure, declining empires never decline gracefully. They do so angrily, lashing out. But the decline is all the more clear.

So what to make of all this?

To begin with, the working class has expressed itself in an unexpected way. Given the narrow options within bourgeois democracy, this is one of the few paths open to the working class. Like Brexit.

Second, the old methods of opinion polling are no longer valid within bourgeois democracies. They are simply unable to track the way people actually feel. I discussed this with some fellow travellers on my recent journey by train across North America – the last of my trans-continental crossings that needed to be done. They were profoundly suspicious of what the polls were saying,

Third, Trump has reaped what Obama has sown. That may sound like a strange observation. But US politics has been predicated on a sense of decline. Think of Obama’s ‘hope’ campaign, with the implicit message of restoring a lost golden age. Trump simply claimed to ‘make America great again’, thereby signalling as clearly as possible that greatness was in the past. By contrast, Clinton’s claim that the USA is great but that it simply needs to be made ‘whole again’ did not cut it.

Fourth, Trump embodies the truth of US style bourgeois democracy. Anyone watching from outside is saying, ‘if that is bourgeois democracy, then no thanks’.

Do not get me wrong, I am not a supporter of Trump, nor of Clinton. In fact, I am not a supporter of bourgeois democracy. It is a terrible system. And Trump reveals how bad it really is.

 

 

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.

???????????????????????????????

 

IMG_2962 (2)a

 

IMG_3044 (2)a

 

IMG_2983 (2)a

 

IMG_2991 (2)a

 

IMG_2992 (2)a

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.