The end of the American Century: Why Stephen Kinnock is wrong to line up against China.

The post that follows was written yesterday. Before President Trump threatened to deploy troops to America streets and called for Governors to “dominate” them so they did not “look like jerks” with a thinly veiled call for the sort of right wing militias that have been demonstrating against lockdown to mobilise in defence of “Second Amendment rights”. Before a peaceful demonstration outside the White House was suddenly set upon by a close range volley of tear gas and a baton charge to give Trump a counterpoint image to his photo opp’ standing outside a church holding up a Bible – as though he were testifying. Before one of the men in black smashing windows in Minneapolis was filmed and exposed as an undercover cop. A lot can change in a day. An excellent analysis of why this latest in a long series of racist murders has led to such a widespread rebellion can be read here.

In some ways, Stephen Kinnock reminds me of my paternal grandmother. All through my childhood, my Nan would turn up wearing one of those moulded felt hats that were terribly fashionable in her youth in the twenties and thirties. This was completely authentic and acted as a generational marker. Old lady hats. There were a lot of them in the High Street. Kinnock is the same, but with a world view.

His statement on China on May 17th – presented as significant hardening of Labour’s policy stance – along with Keir Starmer’s announcement that Labour would not be pushing for an extension to the EU transition period – is part of a process whereby Labour is being driven to make peace with the Johnson government’s aim to align the UK with the US as a framework for attacks on UK labour and environmental standards. This can’t come without buying into the USAs intensifying new cold war confrontation with China. This will both make resistance to the domestic impact of this far more difficult and is a worrying sign of how far the current Labour leadership is willing to abandon doing so; and is also entirely the wrong global choice.

It is an old script. From Suez to Reagan, the Labour right tended to see the USA as a more modern, dynamic and democratic version of capitalism than that represented by the British old school tie establishment. After the Reagan – Thatcher alignment this view lost ground to Europhilia, but Atlanticism remained a default faith on the right that was always far more fundamental. Tony Blair’s position was to straddle both – to act as a conduit and agent for US interests in the EU; which he always described as being a”bridge”. This was consistent, even as the Blair-Clinton bromance made way for the more openly abusive relationship with George W “Yo Blair!” Bush; in which Blair’s role as willing hewer of wood, drawer of water and purveyor of messages for the State Department became humiliatingly apparent. His instruction to his Washington ambassador to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there” sums up the quality of this relationship; which led us inexorably to Afghanistan and Iraq; and the consequent hollowing out of the “New Labour” project.

An overtly Atlanticist stance – even without the intensifying subordination that would follow a trade deal – remains default UK foreign policy. The branding of the “special relationship” is a self soothing and delusionary cover for the inability of the UK ruling class to defend its global interests on its own. It follows therefore that if Labour is seeking to be a statespersonlike “Party of Power” – that seeks to manage the interests of the people who own the country, rather then challenge them on behalf of the majority of people who live in it – it has to follow suit as part of a “national consensus” that cannot be challenged. This may be grudgingly held in parts of the Party, but even the view that, although the USA is not a very good example – its sheer power makes accommodating to it unavoidable – is as out of date as my Nan’s hats in the period of Donald Trump.

There is an increasing disconnect between the ideas that justify this Atlanticism and the reality of the world around us. First the reality, then the ideas.

Trump’s “America First” policy has replaced raw power mediated through multilateral institutions which massaged the egos of subordinated allies, with raw power nakedly exposed and increasingly an overt threat to others; including traditional allies who might have previously considered themselves sheltered by proximity. This is not a personal quirk of Trump’s – or even an expression of the real estate/fossil fuel nexus that he represents.

We are in the twilight of the American Century. The triumphalist “unipolar moment”thirty years ago, the “End of History” moment after the implosion of the Soviet Union, which brought with it a near universal presumption that the future of the world was to become a gigantic American suburb, is long gone. For the first time in over 100 years, the USA is not the world’s largest economy. This is a big deal. Even at its strongest, the Soviet economy was never larger than one seventh of the USA; and technically less sophisticated almost across the board. Although it remains the world’s largest rich economy and by far the world’s dominant military power – with as much spending on its armed forces as everyone else combined, bases all round the globe and continuous military interventions to keep it well oiled and ready to go, its economy is now smaller than that of China; and every day that passes makes the gap bigger. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which China contained and the US is failing to, has dramatically sped this up. The IMF projects that the US economy will barely have grown in the next two years, while China’s will be over 10% bigger. This makes it likely that the US will do more drastic things under greater pressure; which makes it a very dangerous moment in world history.

This presents a contradiction for people on the right of the Labour Party whose notion of “global leadership” is that the United States is the only country that can provide it. Calls for global co-operation fall into the vacu’um created by “America First” and are increasingly unhinged from what’s actually going on. Lisa Nandy says that “no global problem can be solved without input from China” but poses relations with it as a firmly subordinated member of a set of US alliances, even as the US itself trashes them. This is also a dangerous dynamic for Labour.

Even without the impact of the Coronavirus crisis the US faced a strategic choice of either accommodating and seeking collaborative peaceful solutions to the huge challenges facing humanity (what the Chinese call a “win-win” approach) – or to rage against the dying of the light of “full spectrum dominance” and hitting out to stop it. It is the tragedy of our time that the entire US establishment favours the latter. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was author of the “tilt to the Pacific” – an attempt to concentrate US power on containing and disrupting China. Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign this year has tried to outdo Trump in Sinophobia. This is a real threat to the world.

If you look at the most fundamental challenges facing humanity now,

  • the inability of neo liberal capitalism to offer a safe and prosperous future,
  • the climate crisis,
  • coronavirus

all of them have dramatically increased the pace at which the United States is ceasing to be “the one indispensable nation” or model for anyone’s future – even its own. The riots currently erupting across the country sparked by racist police brutality means that the “shining city on a hill is burning.” China, by contrast, is still pulling its people out of poverty while investing massively in green technology. China is committed to the Paris Agreement and international co-operation to avert climate breakdown. The US has pulled out and is organising others to sabotage it, threatening the survival of human civilisation. Perhaps Stephen Kinnock could reflect on which of these courses is preferable?

The slow burning chronic conditions of the first two challenges is dramatised now by the third acute crisis.

Put very simply. China, after an initial fumble by local officials, rapidly worked out what the virus is, shared the information with the international community through the WHO, took swift and dramatic action at significant cost to their domestic economy as soon as they realised how dangerous it is and eliminated domestic infections within 6 weeks of the Wuhan lockdown; shutting it in and closing it down.

This has saved up to 11.5 million lives in China and goodness knows how many outside had they fumbled it.  The continuous efforts by right wing politicians and media pundits to divert blame for their own failure to act on the warnings they were given – in January lets not forget – by concentrating obsessively on that initial fumble, is entirely shameless.

The United States, by contrast, has acted like a failed rogue state; and the UK has acted – as it so often does – as its Ruritanian echo.

The US was the epicentre of the Coronavirus pandemic for over a month, with between a quarter and a third of global deaths every day; only in the last week being eclipsed by Trump’s Brazilian acolyte helping push Latin America into the charnel house.

There have now been more deaths in the USA than there were cases in China; and with the current chaotic re-openings in so many states this has a long way to run. The death toll can only rise.

The Trump administration has been chaotic, brash, swaggering, ignorant. Trump denied the significance of the virus, thought it could be containable by stopping Chinese people from visiting, opined that it would all just “go away” like “a miracle”, made a big thing about not wearing a mask and provided covering fire by Tweet for Alt Right militias who demonstrated against State lockdowns carrying automatic weapons. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of Wall Street Journal editorials calling for the economy to come first was echoed over here by Dominic Cummings’s remark that UK government strategy was “herd immunity to protect the economy and if some pensioners die too bad.”

The failure of the US Health Care system to cope is clear. As Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci said to the Senate “We’re not set up for this.”

The failure to provide PPE and the allocation of ventilators by bidding on the open market rather than on a needs first basis has become a scandal. “Why can’t a country that can equip its police so they look like soldiers, equip its doctors so they look like doctors?”

-Underlying this, the number of inpatient beds in US hospitals declined by 39% between 1981 and 1999, to achieve a profit maximising occupancy ratio of 90%: which has meant that hospitals are unable to cope with epidemics and medical emergencies. The 2009 and 2018 flu seasons overwhelmed hospitals, showing how “just in time” practices are vulnerable to anything even slightly beyond normal.

– Local and State Health Departments have 25% fewer staff than before the 2008 crash and the CDCs budget has been cut by 10%.

– Trump deepened this by cutting the White House Pandemic Office and the pandemic PREDICT project – which had identified 1 000 potentially dangerous viruses – at the end of last year.

– The private sector does not do this work. Of the 18 largest Pharmaceutical companies, only three are researching antivirals and new antibiotics – because Heart medication, addictive tranquilizers and male impotence treatments are infinitely more profitable. (1)

45% of the US workforce is not eligible for statutory sick pay and one off grant of $1 200 meant to cover them was described by investment banker and Secretary to the Treasury Steve Mnuchin as sufficient to last for “about ten weeks”. $120 a week. Just $17 a day. Mnuchin, who has a “net worth” of $3-400 million, is paid $210,700 a year; $677 a day.

-The Coronavirus relief package meanwhile provides relief primarily to those that don’t need it. 95% of the people who benefit from an $82 billion tax relief earn over $200 000 a year. Meanwhile, over 40 million workers now have no job and therefore have lost the health insurance that goes with them. As one dying man in New York put it just before he was put on a ventilator, “Who is going to pay for this?”

The failure to eliminate the virus domestically that follows from this mixture of privatised, profit driven provision and chaotic political leadership, is a threat to every other country with which the USA does business – particularly those in the developing world with a weak health infrastructure.

Even worse, internationally, they have pulled funding from the WHO and tried to discredit it, hampering global co-ordination. They have maintained and intensified medical sanctions on countries they disapprove of like Iran; aiming to use a medical disaster for geo political advantage. They have gazumped and diverted PPE supplies destined for other countries.

And their President has suggested that we might like to mainline Dettol or use inappropriate lupus medication (in which he holds shares) while we wait for a vaccine which, for him, should be patented for America First and which – if developed by a private company – should not allow generic copies so the company is rewarded for its investment to the cost of those who can’t afford to buy it.

On the other hand, China is now aiding 150 other countries (thats more than three quarters of every country in the world)- and some US States directly, bypassing the Federal government; and the Cubans – of course – are sending Doctors everywhere they can. Again, Stephen Kinnock might like to reflect on who has handled this better and why and what this means about what global leadership looks like.

Kinnock, in order to disguise this obvious contrast and its far reaching implications, reframes the reality inside a set of cliches which disguise more than they illuminate.

Kinnock argues that, because the UK has a trade deficit with China, China must be “taking us for a ride.” On this logic, so are all the countries in the EU, which also sell more to the UK than they buy from it, while countries like Switzerland, Australia and Brazil, which buy more from the UK than they sell to it, must be being “taken for a ride” by the UK. This way of posing the swings and roundabouts of international trade as zero sum us vs them rhetoric is an intentional echo of Trump’s trade war rhetoric and measures and Boris Johnson’s fantasies of manufacturing “self sufficiency” as a requirement of “national security” – as though there is sufficient capital that could be profitable invested in reconstructing, say cement plants. It makes no sense but it helps to pose things in a hostile framework.

China is “authoritarian”. The US and UK are “democracies”. There is at least a negative tension in this, because whatever people’s view of China, there is less and less traction in the view that the US is any kind of democratic model worth following or allying with, and the current upsurge of protest at yet another killing of a black citizen by the police is as good a definition of “authoritarian’ as any. This wave of police brutality and riots has not attracted the same sort of cross Party condemnation in Westminster and calls to reset our economic and diplomatic relationship with the USA; nor any reflection on what these events reflect of the essence of the USA as a state, as the conflict in Hong Kong has vis a vis China. No suggestion from Jacob Rees Mogg to set up a USA Research Group.

When it comes to supporting authoritarian regimes, or staging coups to install them, the USA is in a league of its own, but its stock in trade internationally is to claim that movements it supports, often trains and finances, are the representatives of “human rights” against regimes of which it disapproves. This is accompanied by wildly exaggerated narratives. The most extreme of these in relation to China, also cited by Kinnock, is Xinjiang. The claims that “up to” 2 million Uighurs are kept in concentration camps gets wide circulation in the developed world and is taken as good coin in the media here; though sensitive souls in the Guardian slip in weasel words like “alleged”. The US narrative is not believed at all in the developing world and denied by every significant Muslim country, Iran, Pakistan, even close US ally Saudi Arabia; and for good reason. Such a vast penitentiary system would be visible from satellites and plenty of photos would be available. Such that exist are of relatively small complexes completely compatible with the Chinese explanation that they have 14 000 people in re-education centres as part of a strategy to suppress a Jihadist separatist movement which has carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks up to three years ago and that these centres are run with more attention to human rights than US internment camps like Guantanamo Bay. (2) If you were to look at an aerial photo of the now demolished H Blocks that held Loyalist and Republican prisoners during the “troubles” in the North of Ireland, they look as though they could hold vast numbers of prisoners. In fact they never held more than 1800 at any one time – so we should beware of “crateology” (the label given to the confident assertions made by US Intelligence at the time of the run up to the Iraq war that they could tell what was inside a crate just by looking at it).

The irony of this is that the USA itself holds over 2 million people in its prisons. A quarter of the entire world’s prison population is held in the USA. As neo liberal economic policies took hold there was an exponential increase in numbers incarcerated, from 200 000 in 1972 to 2.1 million today. Truly “the Land of the Free” is a “world leader in incarceration.” (3)

Your chances of being shot dead in the streets by the police is also far greater in the USA than in China. From 2017 to the end of 2019, 2 987 people were killed in US streets by the police. The figure for China was 3. I was going to do a graph, but it would look silly.

The USA is undoubtedly the best democracy that money can buy. Despite the tensions now running through the Democrat Party, with the Bernie Sanders campaigns reflecting the growing popular support for socialist solutions like Medicare for all, the USA is not so much a one party state as a state with two parties that are so similar on fundamentals that the election of either makes no fundamental difference to the wealth and power of the 1% who own the country.

The current President was elected on a minority of the popular vote, as was George W Bush in 2000; thanks to the peculiarities of the Electoral College, The Senate gives greater weight to small rural states than large urban ones. As US comedian Bill Maher put it, “why do we need two Dakotas?” Presidential, Congressional and State level elections are bought wholesale by corporate PACS set up by billionaires, so there is no risk that anyone elected might challenge their interests. Election Districts at local level are gerrymandered because the State governments in power get to redraw them every ten years.

China has a different system. The Chinese Communist Party is not a secret cabal. It has 90 million members, 1 person in every 15 in the entire population and more people than live in Germany. This is a mass Party organising and embedded at every level in Chinese society and communication is not just top down. It has an enormous standing and support among the population at large and this is not the transactional thin veneer hoped for by hostile western commentators. This has been dramatically reinforced since it has so successfully eliminated domestic infections of COVID19. Anyone who knows anyone in China is reporting that people there are looking at the complete shit show in the West in horror. (4) There is a huge and lively debate on social media and a definite left, which overwhelmingly supports the CCP even if its not in it. The widespread criticism on social media of the initial failings in Wuhan and the rapid response to it support neither the narrative of a cowed population not that of a sclerotic leadership. Quite the opposite.

By “authoritarian” Kinnock is also having a jab at something he – and the rest of the labour movement – should be aspiring to. The private sector, although it exists and is a significant force, is not in charge in China. The Party and the state are. The state uses its authority to keep capital at heel. That is why China has continued to grow, providing a trade boost to many other countries, continued to improve the living standards of its population and to invest in renewable energy on a scale that gives the rest of the world some hope we can deal with climate change without a total economic collapse. Whatever critique can be made of this or that aspect of Chinese policy or practice, that central fact should be salient for everyone on the left. It is very much up front for people on the right, who want to overturn it. They were prepared to go along with increased trade and other relations with China, so long as that carried with it the prospect of increasing alignment with “western norms.” In other words, that China should adopt the same sort of policies on investment and economic orthodoxy that has led the “West’ to stagnation, austerity for most, and the mind boggling concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals and corporations.

An argument has to be had across the Labour movement, to oppose this drift to line up behind the USA in its cold war offensive. The issues are concrete. Economic recovery requires massive state investment. Global recovery requires an end to destabilising US interventions. Dealing with climate change requires doubling down on the Paris process and deepening it. Labour should be on the correct side of all these issues.

1. Figures from Mike Davis. The Monster Enters. New Left Review 122. March- April 2020




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