Democracy in the west is groaning under the weight of greed, inequality and political self-interest. Unfortunately Tariq Ali doesn’t have the answers
If Tariq Ali is a leading figure on the British left, as the Guardian describes him, then the prospects for socialism are bleaker than is commonly supposed. One of the first things which strikes the reader about The Extreme Centre is the staleness of the prose and the way in which the same turns of phrase – ‘stifling neo-liberal consensus’, ‘imperial wars’ and ‘Thatcherism’ – are deployed on page after page until they lose their meaning.
Ali isn’t alone in this respect; however the arguments in the book lack freshness too, and this is probably reflected in the prose. The tone veers between that of a cantankerous uncle who bores the family at Christmas with dreary speeches on the ‘state of the world’, and a man grasping desperately at ‘alternatives’ like a dog chasing a piece of tin foil in the wind.
The Extreme Centre need not have turned out this way. There is something nauseating about the way our truncated western democracy often means little more than a choice between “Tweedledee and Tweedledum”, as Ali puts it. For all the glib and simplistic pronunciations of the Economist and City AM, capitalism is able to function perfectly well without democracy, and in those parts of the world where the ballot box has threatened the powerful the former has been quickly cauterised in the name of ‘the markets’ (see: the bankers).
But as with so many left-wing writers, Ali is better when he is damning the present system than when offering an alternative to the status quo. Lamenting the ‘propaganda’ and ‘corporate bias’ of the British media is commonsensical, but Ali has little interest in why the right-wing media has such a firm grip on information in the first place. In reality the press in Britain will only change when left-wing papers exist which large numbers of people actually want to read.
Unwise in a book dedicated to the promotion of ‘genuine democracy’ is the praise it contains for the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The blurb on the back of Ali’s book – ‘What is the point of elections? The result is always the same?’ – is in fact similar to things I have heard said by Cuban friends over the years, only with a very different meaning. A grim irony like this fails to register with Ali, who is more comfortable making arguments about the costs and benefits of historical experiments from a safe distance.
Ali dedicates the nearly 200 pages of the book to ‘Hugo Chavez, the first leader of a movement that defeated the extreme centre’. Again, when Ali holds up the ‘Bolivarians of South America’ in a chapter entitled ‘Alternatives’, he resembles the French fellow travellers Arthur Koestler described as peeping toms, peering through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves. Blanket statements (with a sprinkling of the usual ideological buzzwords) replace objective analysis, with the hollowing out of Venezuelan democracy by Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro either ignored or laid at the door of the ‘US Empire’.
Fans of Ali’s other works will be pleased to note that the writer’s penchant for ‘national liberation’, which saw him embrace various cultish Maoist movements in the 1960s, is alive and well in his flirtation with the nationalist cause in Scotland. Just as affluent leftists like Ali abandoned the treacherous British working class for the paddy fields of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, so today “dreary old England” – where the workers have let coddled aristocrats like Tariq Ali down by voting for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – is contrasted with “intellectually liberating” Scotland, where nationalism isn’t really nationalism at all, but a social democratic movement whose “gaze is fixed on the Norwegian model”. Never mind that Scotland under the SNP has slashed away at corporation tax and mooted a welfare cap.
For a self-proclaimed Marxist, Ali at times reaches some very un-Marxist conclusions. One is that the problem faced by underdeveloped Africa is too much rather than too little capitalism (disinterest in Africa is a bigger problem than resource grab). On the other hand, Ali praises the Chinese for their efforts at poverty reduction – partly the result of pro-market reforms pushed through in the 1980s.
As the book goes on, one gets the awful feeling that posturing is of greater importance to the author than genuine democratic change. Lamenting Labour and the Conservatives for being ‘the same’ is after all easier when you are yourself sheltered from the ravages of Conservative rule. Even the most ideologically blinkered Tory would recognise that the NHS was rescued by previous Labour governments, yet for Ali the NHS was “crippled by Blair and Brown”. It was presumably foolishness of this sort which led Ali to vote Liberal Democrat at the 2005 General Election and abstain in 2010.
Overall this is an unsatisfactory book, and not simply because of the inspiration it appears to draw from autocratic governments in Latin America. Democracy in the west is groaning under the weight of greed, inequality and political self-interest. Yet in seeking a way out, The Extreme Centre couches rotten political solutions in hackneyed and stale terminology; both of which, if this work is anything to go by, still hang like an albatross round the neck of the ‘radical’ left.
This piece was first published at Left Foot Forward on 16 March 2015