The World Upside Down

By Andrej Mrevlje |
CreditPhotographs by Keystone/Getty Images, Julien Hekimian/Getty Images, Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images, Greg Baker/Getty Images and Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Somehow, for most of my life, I always looked west. I have no idea whether I preferred sunset to sunrise or, young and naive, I felt there was a dark, intimate magic in the dusk.

Looking back, I realize I also traveled in the direction of the West and that all my aspirations–as is reasonable for someone who was born in a socialist country–were reflected the West. Always, for even when I finally decided to set my sights elsewhere, it was because of a brief encounter I had in New York.

I was at the top of the Empire State Building, waiting for an elevator when I saw a large Chinese delegation. They were dressed in Mao’s jackets, and they refused to take the elevator unless all the members of the group would fit into one. What kind of country is like this, I asked myself? The group that moved as one in the homeland of widespread individualism?

This brief event led me to start reading all available material on contemporary China. There was not much at that time, so I decided to set foot there at my first opportunity.

Once in China, I remember that, together with western students and friends, I developed a weird habit of watching the sunrise when we were traveling around the country. I cannot explain why. Was it just to be able to get away from a permanent surveillance of the teachers and officials traveling with us? Was it possible that even my new friends from the west never watched a sunrise? Or were we seeking proof of what we were repeatedly taught, that “The East is Red. The sun is rising. China has brought forth Mao Zedong.”

It is now March 2017 and I sit in an apartment on the top floor of a small residential building in Washington DC. My window faces west, my sight directed there, back to its old friend. My eye travels beyond Capitol Hill, through the forest of American flags on the federal administration buildings, beyond the White House, into neighboring Virginia. My thoughts then fly across the deserts of Utah and Nevada, across narrow California and the Pacific, until passing Japan. And what do I see? The People’s Republic of China.

The world is upside down. In the past, facing west, one would usually see America. This is no longer true. Westward is now a moniker for China with its red sun rising in the mornings, as Mao Zedong was perhaps right to say.

All this, of course, is a game of perspective. It is our geography, geopolitics, upbringing, cultural background that we play against. But not only. Because there is some value in the game of words, we also find ourselves playing with the truth. Just listen to the leaders of the most important countries on this planet, and you too will realize that we no longer live in the world we learned to understand from history, the world we got to know in our life experience. In short, the world we were striving for is no longer there.

Here is how the Foreign Policy describes Trump’s America:

“To address the threats, Trump has put forward an “America First” grand strategy with four key pillars.

The first (part of the strategy) is what White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon proudly calls ‘economic nationalism.’ Trump has signaled a willingness to embrace a protectionist and mercantilist foreign policy more familiar to the 19th and early 20th centuries than to the 21st. In his inaugural address, for example, Trump declared: ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’ ”

I dare not go further. Building the walls of division, bulldozing globalism and forms of international integration like the European Union, dismantling organizations like the United Nations, Trump’s America is trying to create its own identity. Trump and his clan are building a new kind of America and not the one the founding fathers of the country had in mind but a nation in diametric opposition to its principal mandates.

This country is now walking backward, rapidly deconstructing its foundation, while attempting to build a nation that, it seems, the President’s chief advisor would base in feudalism.

America appeared during the passage from feudalism to capitalism in Europe. This, the long process of unification of power, was needed to support the emerging mercantile economy, now the closest paradigm to Bannon’s “economic nationalism.”

So what Trump’s team is trying to invent is similar to the process that led to the formation of the absolute state, which was the only possible form of unification a fragmented feudal society was capable of. The process, taking centuries, was explained in detail by Perry Anderson in his book Lineages of the Absolute State.   It may sound bizarre, but here it is:

The degree of economic exploitation guaranteed by French Absolutism can be judged by the recent calculation that throughout the 17th century, the nobility — 2 percent of the population — appropriated 20 to 30 percent of the total national income. The central machinery of royal power was thus concentrated, rationalized and enlarged without serious aristocratic resistance,”, observed Anderson(page 101), anticipating Trump’s plutocratic regime. Then Anderson tells us how it ended: “The historical collapse of the French Absolute State was tied directly to inflexibility of its feudal formation. The fiscal crisis that detonated the revolution of 1789 was provoked by juridical inability to tax the class which represented. The very rigidity of the nexus between State and nobility ultimately precipitated their common downfall.

As we know, the bloody events during the bourgeois revolution gave birth to the modern republic. But just to be clear, the leader of the most powerful country on this planet does not want a modern republic. Trump’s volition is to reach a social order that precedes America’s contemporary power, some form of an absolute authoritarian state. How crazy can he be?

If the 45th president of the United States loves to perform like an absolute ruler, the leadership in Russia is no better. It was during that embarrassing uprising in Kiev and the later invasion of Crimea that Putin elaborated the theory of Russia being the only country that is still capable of defending the world from the calamity of fascism. As we learned in the past, Vladimir Putin never hesitates to use WWII and Cold War vocabulary to justify his imperial moves, forgetting (or perhaps not) that his words find some fertile ground among the delusional European left only.

But there is a good side to it: if their words are taken for granted, Russian and American leaders will not show open hostilities to each other. As their words indicate, they live in different historical epochs that do not collide or even meet. So, no danger here…?


That leaves us with China. It’s the rising global power, the country that invests more than any other into science and research. Decades ago, with Deng Xiaoping reforms, China defined its national interest and its strategic goals. But as it happens, as series after series of geopolitical events unfolded and the U.S. and Russia sank back into their history, China, the autocratic regime par excellence, stood up as the country that defends the global market and trade integration. Beijing even sent its president Xi Jinping to Davos where he tried to stop the global world from crumbling.

So here we are. First, we have the U.S., after enduring the transition from feudalism to capitalism, giving rebirth to its contemporary version of Louis XIV. Then, according to what Putin is saying when invading, Russia might soon be justifying exportation of its revolution by rehabilitating Trotsky. And since China declared itself ready to guarantee the global order and further integration of the international community, the Asian dragon is getting ready to become a major sponsor of human rights, and will soon knock down its firewall and return to the remaining Maoist peasants their little lots of land so that they may survive.

In the world of post-truth, even history becomes a joke. As far as global values, the balance of power and international order, the world is in free fall. It was such before Trump moved into the White House, but things are escalating and, as the Economist sees it, “For the first time since the second world war, the great and rising powers are simultaneously in thrall to various sorts of chauvinism. Like Mr. Trump, leaders of countries such as Russia, China, and Turkey embrace a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world.”

The dark sun has risen! The magazine then explains why.

“Mr.Trump’s populism is a blow to civic nationalism. Nobody could doubt the patriotism of his post-war predecessors, yet every one of them endorsed America’s universal values and promoted them abroad.”

Mr. Trump threatens to weaken that commitment even as ethnic nationalism is strengthening elsewhere. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has shunned cosmopolitan liberal values for a distinctly Russian mix of Slavic tradition and Orthodox Christianity.

Meanwhile, Chinese nationalism has become so angry and vengeful that the party struggles to control it. True, the country depends upon open markets, embraces some global institutions and wants to be close to America. But from the 1990s onwards, schoolchildren have received a daily dose of “patriotic” education setting out the mission to erase a century of humiliating occupation.

The Economist’s reading of the situation differs from mine. It is different from what Washington DC, Moscow or Beijing may say. But the fact of the matter: next month, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit President Donald Trump at his Floridian estate Mar-a-Lago. Xi wanted to visit Trump away from the public eye and away from formal White House diplomacy.

Coming out of polluted Beijing, Mar-a-Lago will be a pleasant change for a strong Chinese man. He is also bringing some important gifts to his host. Many. Among them are 38 approved Trump brands in China. There might be some further talks on a huge Chinese investment in Jared Kushner’s – Trump son’s in law – real estate business. Trump’s Chinese ties may soon become stronger than his alleged Russian business. But the latter is on the way. We just need to wait for the Trump-Putin summit.

The affairs will reach their fever pitch when the three authoritarians sit together. We will then witness the moment we dodged for long decades. Do you remember Yalta? There will be no Britain. The third man is coming from China, now definitely joining the world elite. You, me and the rest of the world are doomed. At least it takes time to divide the world, but not nearly as much as it took to unify it.

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