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’.

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