The Extreme Centre: A Warning

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Tariq Ali is a serious figure on the left and has been since the 1960s. His new book skewers mainstream politics and its purveyors where “centre-left and centre-right collude to preserve the status quo”. Ali calls it “a dictatorship of capital that has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead” — quite right.

He focuses on Britain, where, “We live in a country without an opposition.” He writes, “Nowhere in Western Europe did a social democratic party capitulate so willingly and completely to the needs of a deregulated capitalism and imperial wars as the Labour Party.” The book is withering on “Blair’s kitsch project”, noting that by the time Blair stood down he “was universally loathed except by a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party”.

“The Westminster gang are one,” he insists. “It is important to stress this fact as an election approaches.” Ali celebrates the radicalisation around the independence referendum in Scotland. There are chapters on the eurozone, the NHS, and an essay on Nato and imperialism which summarises Britain’s relationship with Washington as “a dog-like coital lock”.

Turning to the US, Ali dismisses “false optimism about the US’s imminent decline” as “a combination of economic determinism and wishful thinking”. He questions the extent of China’s military challenge to the US, suggesting, “There is no evidence [for] the propulsion of China towards proto-imperial status” and notes that “the course of a powerful empire cannot be diverted without huge political convulsions at home or a serious challenge from abroad.”

The crash of 2008 and events since “have laid bare the weaknesses of the system, exposed its bald patches”, he writes, “but there has been no irretrievable breakdown… The economic situation in the US and Europe is serious but not terminal.”

So what to do? Ali wirtes that “the contradiction between the dense concentration of capital and the needs of a majority of the population is becoming explosive.” He rightly adds, “Capitalism will not disappear of its own accord.” The first task is to shed “all illusions about the capacity of the rulers of the world to reform”. He looks to “mass mobilisations, popular assemblies, to create new movements and parties”, arguing, “Movements from below are a necessary starting point for any change.”

Unfortunately, he sees the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a product of “the peculiar conditions of Tsarist Russia” and without explanation puts it on a par with the Cuban Revolution of 1959 when in fact, whatever the superficial similarities, these revolutions were quite different. Ali appears to write off workers’ potential to change things, arguing that deindustrialisation “broke the spinal cord of the old working class” so that, “Defeated and demoralised, the official trade unions, linked to a segment of the extreme centre, capitulated to neoliberalism.”

He sees the Bolivarian governments and movements of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador as reigniting hope, without analysing the current situation of these movements. He looks to Syriza and Podemos in Europe and celebrates the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland, arguing, “The success of radical European parties may lead to serious discussion of an alternative economics.” Ali writes, “The South American model — state ownership of utilities and heavy regulation of capital — is an essential first step.” But he notes: “This will not be easy in Europe… Any such development will be hindered by each and every structure of the EU.”

The book is a mix of analysis, reportage and résumé, suffused with wit. It’s engaging but ultimately frustrating. In the final few lines Ali writes, “The attempts to roll back neoliberalism are gathering momentum, but what to put in its place and by what means remain matters of debate.”

He quotes Lenin in 1913: “It is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way.” Then he concludes, “We live in a very different world on many levels, but what the Russian Revolutionary wrote…remains apposite.” Ali goes no further, failing to address the question which appears as a sub-head on the book’s back cover and echoes Lenin in 1902: “What is to be done?”

Ali has a memorable turn of phrase, so I approached the book with pleasure. Yet I wonder who it’s for. It is available as a cheap paperback, but I doubt it will reach a wide layer of those new to political activity who are more likely to look to Russell Brand. That is a shame because the left could do with a Tariq Ali on fire.

The Extreme Centre: A Warning by Tariq Ali is published by Verso at £7.99