Berfrois

The Neoliberal Syndrome: Berfrois Interviews Tariq Ali

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Ali,-Tariq-(credit-Nina-Subin)
Tariq Ali. Photograph by Nina Subin.

by Russell Bennetts

Tariq Ali a writer, filmmaker and legendary activist. I spoke to him recently about his latest book, The Extreme Centre: A Warning (Verso, 2015).

Berfrois

What is the extreme centre?

Tariq Ali

The extreme centre is a form of government that arose out of neoliberal economics and exists today in virtually the whole of Europe, North America and Australia. It consists of a bloc of the centre right, the centre and the centre left effectively acting on behalf of financial capital. It may rule in different countries under different names, but it is essentially the same thing, the politics they defend and the basic policies they implement are the same. It really doesn’t matter whether the Conservatives or Labour are in power in the United Kingdom, or, say, the UMP or the Socialists in France. They may differ on some minor issues, but on all the key themes such as America’s wars, austerity, the defence of the financial system, they’re in agreement. And that is what I call the extreme centre.

Berfrois

And would you say that centre-left parties moved towards the extreme centre in the 1990s?

Ali

Well, it began at different phases in different countries. In Germany, you’ve always had this centre, more or less since the Second World War. People got used to coalition governments between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. Germany established it first under a Keynesian system and now they’re carrying it on under a neoliberal system. In this country, it began with Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997, when he decided very consciously to remove all social democratic traces from inside the Labour party.

Berfrois

Would you say then that Blair signalled the end of Labour as a progressive force?

Ali

Today, I don’t see Labour as a progressive force at all. That is why, in the part of the UK where Labour was born, where its first leaders were produced, where its manifestos were written, the party is most unpopular. A majority of the working class support the demand for Scottish independence and will probably vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP). So Labour’s hegemony in its historic base has been shattered.

Whatever happens after the general elections in May, if the opinion polls in Scotland are right, the UK will never be the same again. We’ll need a constitutional conference and it’s better if progressives take the advantage on this rather than the forces associated with the extreme centre of the state. Something will have to be done.

But, no, for me the Labour Party isn’t progressive. And to pretend that Ed Balls will be better than George Osborne is utterly ridiculous. They’ve got all the same policies, they’re both cemented to the City of London and they will do what it needs.

Berfrois

One chapter in your book emphasises how much money is swilling around the UK’s National Health Service  (NHS). Many New Labour politicians have left office and landed jobs as consultants to big health firms.

Ali

It’s not just health, it’s in many other industries as well, including defence. If someone wanted to write a whole book starting with Blair and going downwards then there’s more than enough material. In fact, The Daily Mail has been serialising Blair Inc: The Man Behind The Mask (2015) by Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan. The book is extremely revealing and backs up what I’ve written, in their own way, very sharply. And Jack Straw was reprimanded not so long ago after being set up in a sting operation. Which means this behaviour becomes part of their mental universe, where making money through politics is a totally acceptable thing to do. They’re not that ashamed of it, either.

Berfrois

Do you think this indicates the continued privatisation of the NHS?

Ali

It looks like it. Labour started it, the Tories are carrying it on and the experts in the field, like Allyson Pollock, are totally convinced that within the next two years the NHS as we know it will have ceased to exist. It will be a two-tier system. People with money will be able to get very quick services, but for the rest it’ll be queues and God knows what sort of treatment. People within the health service, doctors, nurses, professionals, are very depressed.

Berfrois

We’ve just heard Nigel Farage encouraging middle and upper class people to quit using the NHS in order, I imagine, to hasten about its demise.

Ali

Farage is effectively a right-wing Tory. He’s hostile to the European Union, but otherwise he’s a Thatcherite Tory. He’s a racist, as is the bulk of his party, so I have no time for these people. That the wider media is giving them so much attention rather than the Greens, or even giving the Greens equal time, is extremely disturbing. Whether UKIP will win many seats in May is an open question.

Berfrois

In relation to the 2010 student protests, your book mentions how the “cries of ‘Tory scum’ once again rent the air.” I was there myself and it was exciting to see lots of young people, presumably, on their first protest. Do you think there’s a chance they’ll remain radicalised? Or do you think they’ll be a drift back towards the extreme centre?

Ali

Well, I think that they might not be active, but I think they will have learnt something and I doubt whether most of them will vote for the parties of the extreme centre. In that part of the book, I wrote that the shouts of “Tory scum” were fine, but they seem to have forgotten that it was Labour who brought these policies in. John Major had refused to introduce tuition fees. Quite amazing! He said that he didn’t feel that people should be charged for higher education. And he turned the proposal down. Repeatedly.

Blair came and did it, really to show that New Labour is tough and can do what Thatcher did and more. So there should have been more protests at that time with students chanting “New Labour scum” and suchlike. It’s very interesting, that in the 2010 protest, Young Labour, the bulk of them, were not involved at all.

Really, I can’t see many of today’s young choosing to vote for the extreme centre.

Berfrois

Certainly not the Liberal Democrats. Many feel burnt by their lies.

Ali

I think a lot will vote Green. I mean, the rise in the membership of the Green Party is quite astonishing.

Berfrois

Your book details some of your trips to Scotland during the campaign for independence, trips you clearly enjoyed.

Ali

Yes I did, I thought it was one of the most exciting things that had happened in these islands since the 1970s. The most encouraging thing was how the entire country was politicised. This is because the Scottish Parliament allowed 16 year olds to vote, something that politicised the schools. Big debates were taking place, from the schools upwards, and it was a wonderful sight to behold. They were real debates, with people thinking through various arguments. I didn’t think the independence people would win and we now know why they didn’t, because the elderly in particular, who compose a sizable section, were scared. They were frightened by the propaganda.

Berfrois

Project Fear.

Ali

Project Fear, yes. But I think now, if Scotland ditches Labour in the May election, it will be the most significant indication that the next time there’s a vote for Scottish independence it will indeed get through.

Berfrois

We’ve seen Labour drift towards the extreme centre, do you think this will happen with the SNP? Is it an inevitability?

Ali

Well, no, it doesn’t have to be. Until now the Scots have been holding out on the NHS and, to a certain extent, on education and social welfare. The speech recently made by Nicola Sturgeon in London puts the party to the left of Labour, that’s where they’re situated.

Berfrois

Is that opportunistic at all?

Ali

I don’t think so. I think a lot of their members agree with that positioning. Asking for Trident to be removed from Scotland is a hugely popular demand in that country.

Berfrois

Since the publication of your book, Syriza have won the election in Greece. Do you think that Podemos can do the same in Spain?

Ali

I think they can, but I think before they do it’s going to be very important how the Syriza leaders handle the bullying and intimidation they’re getting from the European elites. Today we heard that the Troika has forbidden Syriza from implementing its anti-poverty programme, saying they will not accept that and that if Syriza stick to their election promises they’ll be cut off from further funds.

This sort of thing is going to go on for the next few months and I think, I hope, the Syriza leadership will tell the Europeans where to get off. Greece should then go for their own currency, impose capital controls, not let any money leave and start rebuilding the country. It’ll be painful, but it’s painful now. So I hope they go that way and if they do, the fact that they’ve taken on the EU, with the support of their people, that will have a big impact in Spain as well.

Berfrois

In your previous books you’ve looked at the Bolivarian parties in South America. Is there a lot we can learn from them here in Europe?

Ali

The one thing we can learn from them is that changes happen when you build movements against neoliberalism. All the Bolivarian victories are due to mass movements and it’s interesting that Syriza and Podemos were both centrally involved in mass organisations, huge mass movements against the injunctions of the Troika, against neoliberal politics, against corruption. So the similarities are very clear. It’s not going to happen if you sit on your backside, as people on the left in England tend to do and say, “Oh well, you know, there’s no alternative, we’ll vote Labour again.” That doesn’t take you anywhere. You have got to be active and do something.

Berfrois

More street protests, things like that?

Ali

I would say not simply protests, that’s not enough and protests don’t last that long. I’ve been arguing for a grand remonstrance by the people of England against neoliberalism on the grounds that parliament doesn’t reflect their will. Recent opinion polls show that a majority are in favour of the renationalisation of the railways, stopping the privatisation of the health service and taking the utilities back. And I think that if, in different cities big and small, people set up groups for this grand remonstrance with a clear charter of aims, my feeling is that within seven to eight months we will have collected a million signatures, if not more. And with these million signatures, you then march and present these demands to parliament, regardless of which of the centre extreme parties are in power and that then gives you a base for organising something.

Berfrois

Reading the New Left Review, I’ve always found your essays, and Perry Anderson’s, particularly useful at informing British readers about thinking in US foreign policy circles. Who would you say is the most influential out there at the moment? Where does America see itself in this century?

Ali

I think Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger are still quite influential in policy making circles. They’re both right wing realists, they both try to tell their people to avoid mistakes. Brzezinski on Russia recently has been totally hawkish and they’ve got a network of people parroting their views. Robert Kagan is another of them.

Perry deals with quite a lot of these people in his excellent new book, America’s Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, that is now creating a debate in the United States itself. It’s a very sharp, no holds barred critique of American foreign policy right from the word go. It’s a book that cuts across all this nonsense of imagining that the extreme centre parties are different from each other in the United States.

Berfrois

Finally, you used to know Ralph Miliband.

Ali

Very well. Yes, he was a very dear and close friend.

Berfrois

How much of his Marxism has rubbed off on his son?

Ali

None whatsoever.

 

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