Expats, Expatriots and Utopia

The run-up to election 2020 tested the patriotic nerves of many who deem themselves progressive-minded citizens, vowing to leave the country if Trump were re-elected and permitted to wreak more illiberal havoc on the nation. A similar sentiment circulated before the 2004 election, though the fear of what George Bush 2 would bring seems delusory now when stacked against Trump’s transgressions. These disaffected legions were ready to export themselves elsewhere, become expatriates (expats).

Most politically driven expats—as opposed to financially secure seekers of leisure—tend to be pulled by perceptions that other cultures will compensate for the lacks pushing them from the homeland. They want to seed their visions of a better society on new soil. Like in the aftermath of WWI when many aspiring writers, artists, and intellectuals bolted to bohemian Paris to experience cultural feasts that could later be transported back here to revitalize this culture. The motivations now are not exactly comparable to what propelled that migration. They’re mostly political and driven by the feeling that the country has entered a period of decline whose structural flaws no one partisan grouping can change.

Consider the findings of the newest Social Progress Index published by the Social Progress Imperative. This is a global non-profit organization based in Washington DC that compares all countries annually—163 in the recent analysis—using fifty metrics of well-being: nutrition, safety, freedom, environment, health, education, inclusiveness, and equality, among others. The US ranks 28th on the hierarchy, down from 19th in 2011 when the research began. In fact, the US, Brazil and Hungary are the only countries worse off when compared to this original year. The countries at the top are virtually all in northern Europe. Norway is the most desirable, followed by Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. Those at the bottom are virtually all in the south or northern regions of the southern hemisphere: South Sudan, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, Niger, Angola, the Congo, etc. (socialprogress.org)

Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and the chair of the advisory panel for the Index, claims that this new data suggests the US is becoming a third world country. He offers some striking anomalies. The US ranks first in quality of universities, but 91st in access to quality basic education. Kids here get roughly the same education as those in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. We lead the world in medical technology yet we’re 97th in access to quality health care, our health stats similar to those in Chile, Jordan and Albania. So, it’s no surprise that our longevity rate has slipped below 30th (Nicholas Kristof, “’We’re No. 28! And Dropping!’” New York Times, 9/9/2020).

A telling truth is that we have high levels of early marriage, which surely reflect the increase of inequality and the consequent decrease in mobility, many young people trying to compensate for their chaotic family lives—to a great extent the product of the country’s decline—and achieve a greater sense of belonging to help cope with them by starting one of their own.

Since this decline has been evident for some time, predating the Trump years but exacerbated by them and especially the mismanagement of the pandemic, there’s no quick fix in the offing. Biden toppled Trump but not Trumpism, unable to spearhead a blue wave in Congress. And his policy agenda glimpsed through snips of rhetoric and his cabinet selections suggests we can expect little more than a tweak of neoliberalism in the coming months. The Trump-Biden battle itself is a symptom of the refusal to face our fundamental structural problems. Trump would’ve surely continued to hawk his mythic MAGA for the next four years, while Biden appears set to reprise the Obama vision of attempted greatness whose flaws in practice spawned Trump. The Democrats’ major flaw of course was the weak representation of the lower and working classes across racial and ethnic lines.

So, it would seem to be a good time to split for brighter horizons. Perhaps we’re in the advanced stages of imperial decline that Chalmers Johnson predicted in The Sorrows of Empire, abiding time amid the shift in influence from a global reorganization of power. Like getting into a rent-stabilized inner-city community ahead of the gentrifiers, we should find that special domicile in a country yet to inflate into the next empire.

But then maybe we’re living in a long transitional moment that’s full of contradictory influences preventing us from seeing our way clear of it. Progress and decline are always dialectically related. The repression of the people’s interests can only continue until the old guard gives way to a new generation which could be on the rise. The progressives have been silenced by the ministrations of the Democratic machine but only temporarily, and the scope of extra-legislative groups and movements at work to pressure the establishment saboteurs is impressive (see Jeffrey St. Clair’s list, “The Real Resistance Begins Now,” CounterPunch, 12/14/2020). These are having an impact on thinking about how to replace neoliberalism, and even about how to modify or replace capitalism. But this pressure needs to continue. More aspiring citizens must get involved to make the system more responsive. Change is never produced solely from within the system.

The Civil Rights era offers a valuable guide. It was the refusal of Congress—swayed by the voting bloc of the southern Democrats—to redress the effects of racism that energized outsider activists to form the Civil Rights Movement. From the mid-1950s into the early-1960s they demonstrated their case, dramatized their superiority through nonviolence, galvanizing the support of ordinary citizens, and were finally successful at breaking Congress’s resistance. The times now are notably different, representatives more influenced by special interests and big money. Plus, the profusion of jerrymandered districts has protected incumbents from challenge.

This appears to be a daunting task even if you only consider the issues that need fixing to restore the relative stability that once existed prior to the rise of neoliberalism when there was at least a sizable middle class and a relatively functional working class, let alone cultivating a progressive or socialist alternative. Reversing course will require the extrication of the institutions, laws, judgeships and any other deep seedings of neoliberal success compounded over the years.

The confluence of a Biden at the helm and a sufficiently conservative Congress bent on refusing him anything that smacks of a liberal gain is not going to catalyze even the kind of incremental change that might inaugurate the cancelation of this damage.

This dismal outlook supports the position of many on the left who quietly preferred that Trump win the election so that progressives and the far left would continue to fight for fundamental change, even force the system into further dysfunction in the hope that a better one could be constructed from the ruins. In other words, Biden’s lesser-of-evil defaulted victory will mostly solidify the status quo’s consensus drift, repelling reformist initiatives, helping to reproduce our entrenched institutions with greater ease and efficiency. A real alternative must be institutionalized to kickstart the reversal.

Ursula Le Guin published an engaging allegory in 1974 titled, “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which crystallizes this dilemma. Omelas is a fictional community/country that she constructs as utopian. Literally. Like a painter engrossed in the aesthetics of the Happening, she subjunctively sketches options for the reader to ponder about a perfect society as she narrates. These are juxtaposed to the existing institutions of American society in 1974, one governed by materialist values, stock market greed, war, technological dehumanization, corrupt religious denominations, etc. Her utopia reverses most of this, conjuring a stressless, equal communitarian experiment beyond sectarian limits. A spiritual collective devoid of religious hang-ups; a prosperous grouping that lacks the obsession with more.

Unfortunately, this society is not perfect. Which fits nicely since the very idea of utopia refers to a state that doesn’t exist. The striving toward perfection is the point, not the attainment of a permanently perfect condition beyond history. So, Le Guin introduces a surprise in her sketch. Despite all this perfection there’s a child held prisoner in a closet somewhere in the city, forced to live in the most degrading conditions, barely a human being, illiterate, un-socialized. Allegorically, this child is a stand-in for the lower classes, those excluded from the striving-to-be-perfect society. But they’re necessary. Without them there can be no utopia as sketched.

In other words, the valued input of the excluded subsidizes those who experience the fruits of the utopia. Someone has to lose in every society, even if it is one that provides so many ideal advantages to so many. There’s a kind of trade-off at work, a conflict between parties that prevents the fully-idealist scenario from emerging where everyone wins. It’s shaped by a kind of social contract negotiated through unequal power blocs. At that point in history and under the most propitious conditions, complete perfection is illusory. No social contracts have been devised to expunge this flaw. In fact, the utopian genre from Plato forward through Thomas More and H. G. Wells and the early twentieth century writers—at the very moment when the dystopian formula will govern—is already plotted with pessimism. Le Guin’s novel from 1974. The Dispossessed, presses this issue, having the closeted culture break free from a planet which practices the equivalent of American capitalism to one of its moons, where it strives to perfect an alternative, but failing.

In the story Le Guin shows that even though most everyone knows the child is there, that an underclass exists, many citizens play clever mind games with themselves, disavowing the process—in the sense of turning a relatively blind eye toward something, pretending you do not notice it because you should do something about it but don’t want to. They’re invested in the way it works and this secures conformity, preventing change. They know there’s a flaw, a structural limitation, but they suppress this knowledge because should the system be exposed then all the good that it has generated will be lost. Some, however, can’t fully suppress the existence of the child and inherit a sense of guilt, deciding to walk away from this experiment, become ex-patriots, destined to wander alone among the atomizing conditions that provoked it.

Not many would label the US a utopia, though its property-owning top tier likely believe they’re awfully close to living in one. They’re the beneficiaries of a political orchestration that matches the country’s mythic ideals with practical results. However elusive this match is for the vast majority of citizens, the effort to extend these quality ideals and forge a new social contract would seem to be worth it in the long run. But this will mean marshaling the critical sense to expose the disavowal of structural flaws that has prevented progress, permitted the country’s 3rd world slide. Pressured by the mass of dissenters, the elite will have to finally acknowledge that the closeting of so many to produce their excesses is patently unacceptable, that this has consequences that threaten our democratic institutions and eventually its power and wealth. This will have to go beyond the rooting out of neoliberalism and face the limits of what preceded it. The current pandemic itself is proof enough that government is not the problem, that reliance on markets to solve social issues merely proliferates them.

However transformative the fiscal policies of the post-WWII era were in stabilizing the system and especially in building a relatively sizable middle class, the state’s role in the economy in the late 1960s was a compromise of Keynes which spawned the defaulted turn to Friedman in the early 1970s. The convergence of special interests around the Vietnam War effort, particularly from the military and the weapons industry, placed inflated demands on public financing and led to colossal budget deficits and the retarding of economic growth. And the political will didn’t exist to absorb them through the kind of progressive tax structure that fueled the post-War era, the rate for the top tier dropping from 91% to 70% under the Kennedy administration, and continuing until it was reduced to 30% early in the Reagan administration. Plus, the forces of financial speculation that will shape the neoliberal counter to Keynes gear up at this juncture, arguing against fiscal policy and deficit financing and for monetarism and the austerity obsession. Support was growing for these alternatives when Nixon was elected.

An uncompromising Keynesianism can’t exist without a revised social contract that permits more democratic control and distribution of capital and especially the standing to resist the deferral to private power that tends to gird every administration’s policies. This deferral has damaging consequences in giving the top tier absolute power and authority. Social problems are “solved” by letting corporations—underwritten by weak regulatory bodies—attend to them through the logic of the profit motive since they’ve demonstrated their superiority as successful aggregates of private power. The outcomes of their actions are likely to be suboptimal and of benefit to selected interests versus the majority public, however, but this is disavowed as is their receipt of endless tax breaks because what they do allegedly has the potential to improve the whole, filter-down advantages to the rest that are shaped by them. Hence the response to national emergencies conforms to the schedules dictated by corporate planners. As we’re seeing, the Covid vaccine is trickling down through the customary distribution networks, in many cases stockpiled in warehouses awaiting those who may soon become a statistic, versus being processed more quickly and efficiently through the auspices of the Defense Authorization Act.

The valuation of private power is a fetish that subsumes us, blinds us to the complexity of its social relations. We’re meant to see only a superior force whose wielders benefit the rest. They perform in a zone perceived to be independent from other sectors of society, especially the lower ones. They supposedly prosper because of their inherent ingenuity. Soaring profits have nothing to do with subsistence wages. The difference between the value the workers get and what they put into the process is obscured and deemed a benevolent grant from above, not a subsidy. The conditions of the children in the closet are justified; they can die, as can all those at high risk from Covid.

In fact, we need billboards where the calibrated deaths from the deferral to private power can be thrust in our faces like a garish neon sign. Perhaps tuition-free degrees can be supported to recruit the young and unemployed to do this kind of numbers-crunching, patriotic work! They could calculate how many lives would be saved per dollar spent on the just-passed Defense Bill if part of its $740 billion were invested now in a collapsing economy and health care system (regarding the latter, for years it’s been estimated that roughly 45,000 people die prematurely every year from the lack of health care). They could trace the effects of repeated tax breaks for the rich in the radically-restricted options for many in the lower sectors, consequences that often lead to slow but persistent deaths.

If those living a utopia at the top finally admitted their privileged access to private power closeted large numbers of innocent victims then it would dissolve in its current form, something they are not likely to do any time soon. But if the burden of a social contract that demands blind conformity to the unfair repression of some citizens could be scrapped, the conditions that develop a semblance of utopia for a larger segment of the population could be generated. The very concept of utopia of course presents perfection as a desired goal that is never reached, but if capital is efficiently and fairly socialized the volume of wealth the system is capable of producing should sufficiently upgrade the status of the mass to prevent an exodus.

You could argue that this very logic has been absorbed into the systems of those at the top of the Social Progress Index. So, a sojourn—as opposed to a permanent exile—to one of these places by increasing numbers of the disaffected might prepare them to reassess the homeland and kickstart the process of re-achieving something close to 1st world status. The irony is that these places, particularly those with high literacy rates, stable political systems, favorable exchange rates with the dollar, excellent weather and a welcome receptivity to speaking English to temper the transition, are hard to get into.

Weather excepted, the northern EU countries which are at the top of the list are a natural choice.

Consider Germany. As an American citizen you can enter the country easy enough for short-term stays but acquiring a permanent settlement permit is not. The country’s priority is for skilled professionals with qualifications to perform jobs that the natives don’t, and clearly not for non-skilled labor (strong unions have protected natives but also contributed to the upgrade and skilling of workers). To get the settlement permit you need to have held a residence permit for four years, obtainable through an employment contract issued by a German employer; provide proof of support without use of public funds; have paid at least 48 months of mandatory or voluntary contributions to the statutory pension insurance fund; be employed at a job that adequately matches your qualifications; possess sufficient knowledge of the German language as well as its social and legal order through passing the “Life in Germany” test; and demonstrate that you have adequate living space for yourself and family members (ec.europa.eu).

Greece is a little lower on this list but is highly attractive because of the weather, low crime rate, receptivity to English speakers, very favorable exchange rate with the dollar, and longer life expectancy than the US (not to mention much lower incidence of Covid, thanks to their universal healthcare system). Plus, it’s a vibrant, multi-party democracy with a high level of literacy, appropriate for the site where western democracy was birthed. Yet like all EU countries, Greece has strict rules for entry.

It became more difficult after the 2008 world-wide financial crisis which severely impacted Greece because of its relatively less productive economy compared to those in the north. An austerity regime emerged in the EU to rigidly police member states to balance their budgets, similar to how states in the US were legally forced to do so. They were forced to sell off public assets, reduce pensions and wages, generally submit to an IMF-type purging used for 3rd world countries. Unemployment is quite high in Greece so it is not easy to secure work (non-skilled jobs, therefore, not exactly plentiful for foreigners). And the average yearly income is under 10,000 euros (1.2 exchange with the dollar).

To get the equivalent of a settlement permit in Greece you have to be able to purchase property for a minimum of 250,000 euros before entry, or document that you have at least 2000 euros per month for expenses guaranteed until you are able to secure full citizenship after 10 years. You also have to prove you have private insurance since the state healthcare system only covers citizens (Dafni I. Siopi, “Residence in Greece.” www.siopi-law.gr).

Perhaps a process will soon develop in these favorable countries granting refugee status to all of the propertyless patriots here who suffered through the various stages of the Trump era…

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class