Tariq Ali: The Time Is Right for a Palace Revolution
By Chris Hedges/ Truthdig/ March 1, 2015
PRINCETON, N.J.—Tariq Ali is part of the royalty of the left. His more than 20 books on politics and history, his seven novels, his screenplays and plays and his journalism in the Black Dwarf newspaper, the New Left Review and other publications have made him one of the most trenchant critics of corporate capitalism. He hurls rhetorical thunderbolts and searing critiques at the oily speculators and corporate oligarchs who manipulate global finance and the useful idiots in the press, the political system and the academy who support them. The history of the late part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century has proved Ali, an Oxford-educated intellectual and longtime gadfly who once stood as a Trotskyist candidate for Parliament in Britain, to be stunningly prophetic.
The Pakistani-born Ali, who holds Pakistani and British citizenships, was already an icon of the left during the convulsions of the 1960s. Mick Jagger is said to have written “Street Fighting Man”after he attended an anti-war rally in Grosvenor Square on March 17, 1968, led by Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and others outside the U.S. Embassy in London. Some 8,000 protesters hurled mud, stones and smoke bombs at riot police. Mounted police charged the crowd. Over 200 people were arrested.
Ali, when we met last week shortly before he delivered the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at Princeton University, praised the street clashes and open, sustained protests against the state that erupted during the Vietnam War. He lamented the loss of the radicalism that was nurtured by the 1960s counterculture, saying it was “unprecedented in imperial history” and produced the “most hopeful period” in the United States, “intellectually, culturally and politically.”
“I cannot think of an example of any other imperial war in history, and not just in the history of the American empire but in the history of the British and French empires, where you had tens of thousands of former GIs and sometimes serving GIs marching outside the Pentagon and saying they wanted the Vietnamese to win,” he said. “That is a unique event in the annals of empire. That is what frightened and scared the living daylights out of them [those in power]. If the heart of our apparatus is becoming infected, [they asked] what the hell are we going to do?”
This defiance found expression even within the halls of the Establishment. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the Vietnam War openly challenged and defied those who were orchestrating the bloodshed. “The way that questioning was conducted educated a large segment of the population,” Ali said of the hearings, led by liberals such as J. William Fulbright. Ali then added sadly that “such hearings could never happen again.”
“That [spirit is what the ruling elite] had to roll back, and that they did quite successfully,” he said. “That rollback was completed by the implosion of the Soviet Union. They sat down and said, ‘Great, now we can do whatever we want. There is nothing abroad, and what we have at home—kids protesting about South America and Nicaragua and the contras—is peanuts. Gradually the dissent decreased.” By the start of the Iraq War, demonstrations, although large, were usually “one-day affairs.”
“It was an attempt to stop a war. Once they couldn’t stop it, that was the end,” he said about the marches opposing the Iraq War. “It was a spasm. They [authorities] made people feel there was nothing they could do; that whatever people did, those in power would do what they wanted. It was the first realization that democracy itself had been weakened and was under threat.”
The devolution of the political system through the infusion of corporate money, the rewriting of laws and regulations to remove checks on corporate power, the seizure of the press, especially the electronic press, by a handful of corporations to silence dissent, and the rise of the wholesale security and surveillance state have led to “the death of the party system” and the emergence of what Ali called “an extreme center.” Working people are being ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit—a scenario dramatically on display in Greece. And there is no mechanism or institution left within the structures of the capitalist system to halt or mitigate the reconfiguration of the global economy into merciless neofeudalism, a world of masters and serfs.
“This extreme center, it does not matter which party it is, effectively acts in collusion with the giant corporations, sorts out their interests and makes wars all over the world,” Ali said. “This extreme center extends throughout the Western world. This is why more and more young people are washing their hands of the democratic system as it exists. All this is a direct result of saying to people after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘There is no alternative.’ ”
The battle between popular will and the demands of corporate oligarchs, as they plunge greater and greater numbers of people around the globe into poverty and despair, is becoming increasingly volatile. Ali noted that even those leaders with an understanding of the destructive force of unfettered capitalism—such as the new, left-wing prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras—remain intimidated by the economic and military power at the disposal of the corporate elites. This is largely why Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, bowed to the demands of European banks for a four-month extension of the current $272 billion bailout for Greece. The Greek leaders were forced to promise to commit to more punishing economic reforms and to walk back from the pre-election promise of Tsipras’ ruling Syriza party to write off a large part of Greece’s sovereign debt. Greece’s debt is 175 percent of its GDP. This four-month deal, as Ali pointed out, is a delaying tactic, one that threatens to weaken widespread Greek support for Syriza. Greece cannot sustain its debt obligations. Greece and European authorities will have to collide. And this collision could trigger a financial meltdown in Greece, see it break free from the eurozone, and spawn popular upheavals in Spain, Portugal and Italy.
The cost of open defiance, which, Ali pointed out, is our only escape route from corporate tyranny, will at least at first be painful. Our corporate masters do not intend to release their death grip without a brutal fight.
Ali recalled that even his late friend Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist president of Venezuela, was not untouched by intimidation from Establishment forces. “I remember talking to Chavez many times and saying, ‘Comandante, why do you stop there?’ ” Ali said. “He said it is not realistic to do it at the present time. We can regulate them, make life difficult for capitalism, use oil money for the poor, but we can’t topple the system.”
Ali added, “The Greeks and the Spanish are saying the same.”
“I don’t know what Syriza thought,” he said. “If it thought we can divide the European elite, we can make a big propaganda campaign in Europe and they will be forced to make concessions, that was foolish. This European elite, led by the Germans, doesn’t crack easily. They have walked all over the Greeks. The Greek leaders should have said to their own people, ‘We are going to try and get the best possible conditions—if not we will report to you what has happened and what we need to do.’ Instead, they fell into the European trap. The Europeans made virtually no concessions that mattered.”
The clash between the Greeks and the corporate elites that dominate Europe, Ali said, is “not economic.”
The European Union is “prepared to pour billions into fighting Russians in the Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not a question of the money. They can throw away the bloody money, as they are preparing to do and are doing in the Ukraine. With the Greeks they pretend it is economic, but it’s political. They are fearful that if the Greeks pull it off, the disease will spread. There are elections in December in Spain. If Podemos [Spain’s left-wing party] wins with Greece already having won and proceeding, however modestly, on a different path, the Spanish will say the Greeks have done it. And then there is the Irish waiting patiently with their progressive parties, saying, ‘Why can’t we do what Syriza has done? Why can’t we unite and take on our extreme center?’ ”
Ali said he was “shocked and angry about all the hopes that were invested in Obama by the left.” He lambasted what he called the American “obsession with identity.” Barack Obama, he said, “is an imperial president and behaves like one, regardless of the color of his skin.” Ali despaired of the gender politics that are fueling a possible run for the White House by Hillary Clinton, who would be the first woman president.
“My reply is, ‘So bloody what?’ ” he said. “If she is going to bomb countries and put drones over whole continents, what difference does her gender make if her politics are the same? That is the key. The political has been devalued and debased under neoliberalism. People retreat into religion or identity. It’s disastrous. I wonder if it is even possible to create something on a national scale in the United States. I wonder if it would be better to concentrate on big cities and states to develop some movements where they can have an influence in Los Angeles, New York or in states such as Vermont. It may be wiser to concentrate on three or four things to show that it can be done. I can’t see the old way of reproducing a political party of the left, modeled on the Republican and Democratic structures, as working. These people only work with money. They do not even speak with very many ordinary people. It is credit-card democracy. The left cannot and should not emulate this. America is the hardest nut to crack, but unless it is cracked we are doomed.”
Ali said he fears that should Americans become politically conscious and resist, the corporate state will impose naked forms of militarized repression. Government’s reaction to the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon stunned him. Authorities “closed down an entire city with the support of the population.” He said that the virtual declaration of martial law in Boston was “a dress rehearsal.”
“If they can do it in Boston they can do it in other cities,” he said. “They needed to try it on in Boston to see if it would work. That frightened me.”