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.

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’.

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.