Tariq Ali’s The Extreme Centre is a timely polemic against the establishment’s stranglehold on politics, but new energies are beginning to break through, argues Dan Poulton
Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Warning (Verso 2015), 200pp.
The title of Tariq Ali’s latest book is worth the cover price alone. There’s nothing glib about this wordplay however. The ‘extreme centre’ exquisitely captures the contradictions of a strand of political thought that has dominated the mainstream for twenty years or more. The ‘extreme centre’ sobriquet describes the convergence of mainstream political parties in the west onto a centre ground which belies their wholesale inculcation into neoliberal doctrine.
In this process (described by Bill Clinton in the 90s as one of ‘triangulation’) such parties try and win over voters outside of their traditional social base in order to shore up their support. The effect is to narrow the field of political options for the electorate and thus close down the democratic space for delivering meaningful change. This is the democratic deficit that has made Britain’s political landscape so toxic for so long. It has led to a massive decline in voting and a sense that ‘there is no alternative’ to free-market capitalism.
The extreme centre straddles the entire western political landscape: Republicans and Democrats in the US, New Labour and the Tories in Britain, socialists and conservatives in France, assorted coalitions in Germany, a ‘virtually identical’ Scandinavian centre-left/centre-right, all ‘competing in cravenness before the Empire. In almost every case the two/three party system morphed into an effective national government’ (p.93).
The extreme centre was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Post 1989, gone was the need to offer material benefits to western populations to rival the social provisions of the Eastern bloc regimes. The end of the post-war economic boom coupled with Thatcher and Reagan’s dismantling of effective workers’ resistance sets the scene for the dominance of the extreme centre:
‘Unemployment was ruthlessly held above three million for ten years, enabling the Conservatives to push through a programme of social re-engineering – deploying state resources to crush the unions and initiate the privatization of public utilities and housing, in hopes of creating a nation of “property-owners and shareholders” – that transformed the country’ (p.19).
Where the Tories led, (New) Labour followed. But the Thatcher dream of a nation of entrepreneurs and homeowners was not borne out by the figures. A million people had their homes repossessed between 1990 and 1996, and by 2009 nearly one million houses were in negative equity (pp.22-3).
Personal bankruptcies had hit 22,000 a year by 1997 and 30,000 companies had become insolvent since 1990. Unemployment had entered the ‘mainstream’ (p.23). All this echoed the American experience where workers work longer hours than in any western country (an average of 2000 plus a year) and now work more hours than the Japanese (p.24).
The phenomenon of Tony Blair’s rise to prominence (the extreme centre writ large) belied a serious decline in voting:
‘New Labour’s popular vote in 2001 was down by 3 million and less than the 11.5 million won by Neil Kinnock when Labour suffered its defeat in 1992. The 71 per cent turnout that had been considered low even in 1997, now dropped to 59 per cent. Only 24 per cent of the total electorate voted for another Blair government. Unsurprisingly, there were 2.8 million Labour abstentions in Britain’s former industrial heartlands – the metropolitan vastness of Tyne and Wear, Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Clydeside and South Wales. It was traditional Labour supporters who decided that a walk to the ballot box wasn’t worth the exertion’ (p.32).
Mass disenfranchisement had no effective expression in resistance, Ali argues, ‘ritual demonstrations and one-day strikes by trade unions had little or no impact on the government’ (p.35).
The student revolt of 2010 shook things up, but the real revival of popular resistance came from Scotland’s growing independence movement which Ali sees as without precedent over the last fifty years of British politics.
The labour movement
The historic decline of the labour movement is very real. Its organised form, the unions, have taken a battering from a thirty-year storm. But the preponderance of left-wing general secretaries from Christine Blower (NUT) to Mark Serwotka (PCS), Len McClusky (UNITE) and Frances O’Grady (TUC) have to be seen as part of a trend of burgeoning progressive opinion over the last twenty years, in spite of the extreme centre. The NUT's adoption of what has been dubbed social-movement trade unionism has made it an outgoing and effective left-wing trade union that must take credit for the downfall of the hated Michael Gove as education secretary. Unite’s community membership strategy and its early adoption of calls for the Coalition of Resistance and subsequently the People’s Assembly Against Austerity chime with an acknowledgment that multifaceted strategies of resistance will be necessary in the struggles ahead.
The Scottish renaissance
Scotland’s democratic renaissance saw levels of voter registration at their highest since the introduction of universal suffrage, the 85% turnout towering over the relative paltry UK 2010 election turnout of 2010 by twenty points. The 55/45 of No/Yes voters revealed class dynamics. The pre-referendum vote was strongest amongst the poor, Asians and the under forty (especially amongst the 25-34 bracket). The elderly were overwhelmingly for no and amongst women there was a slender majority against leaving the Union. Nonetheless, post-referendum polls reveal a majority in favour of independence once the fog of fear puffed out by the pro-union side had cleared (p.70).
Ali, who was one of the most active and enthusiastic supporters of the Radical Independence Campaign, points out the progressive dynamic amongst most ‘Yes’ campaigners, with a strong focus on social issues, looking towards building an inclusive, alternative society, against Trident, fracking, attacks on workers and, with an eye on the international arena, looking towards ‘the Norwegian model and beyond’ (p.71).
North of the border a new politics of the left was emerging from the gloom of the post-Cold War settlement. ‘Nothing remotely like this exists in England,’ laments Ali, where right-wing Tories can defect to UKIP but there is no equivalent prospect amongst the labour parliamentary left (p.84).
‘England, too, needs a People’s Vow,’ he writes of the Radical Independence Campaign’s manifesto for a progressive Scotland, to ‘campaign for similar policies and challenge the Extreme Centre and the sprouting New Right. Clinging to the fraying coattails of the “labour movement” is a recipe for inaction’ (p.84).
Latin America: Spirit of '45 reddux
The British Labour party has rejected the notion that social provision entailed social ownership, but this was the model that informed Latin America’s progressive new wave (p.96). Ali sees the South American project as a radical alternative to free-market ideology existing within the capitalist system but nonetheless an essential ‘next step’ which somehow needs to be imported into the West whilst acknowledging that progressive victories cannot simply be carbon-copied.
Closer to home, Tariq Ali is critical of the left’s failure to critique the European Union, leaving the right free to monopolise anti-EU sentiment (p.105). At the same time the US was doing its best to dilute any possible greater political/economic federalisation of the continent by facilitating the expansion of EU membership (p.97). The net result has been a Eurozone that has tied half the EU into permanent recession (p.99) and a moribund political consensus (echoed by Syriza) that there is no alternative to the EU, despite its flaws. The left’s fear of appearing parochial or even reactionary by criticising the EU has left it unable to mount an effective challenge to the extreme centre, but Ali hopes the future successes of Syriza and Podemos could open up serious debates about alternatives to the status quo (p.107).
Ali argues that today’s Europe is in hock to US imperialism, quoting former US political advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski: ‘The brutal fact is that Western Europe and increasingly also Central Europe, remains largely an American protectorate, with its allied states reminiscent of ancient vassals and tributaries’ (pp.130-131).
The extreme centre is everywhere subservient to US imperialism. The culmination of this is the NATO outfit which was best described by a one-time advisor to Winston Churchill as aiming to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down (p.110).
The US-led war in the Balkans, rather than a humanitarian intervention (that old chestnut), was in effect an attempt to imprint US military dominance on the emerging post-war world order (p.118). Fast-forward and the US-backed Libyan parliament is forced to meet in a ship on the Mediterranean (p.119) whist the reactionary forces of ISIS tear up the map of the Middle East. A brave new world order had quickly given way to a new world disorder. Britain took its place as a modern day ‘semi- vassal state’ in 1945 and was told in 1956, when it was forced to pull out of Egypt, that unilateral deployments were a no-no. Full ‘vassal state’ status came in 1980 when the Falklands war was won only with American support, backed up by the US-aligned Chile of General Pinochet (p.123).
Ali resists arguments that the US is now in a state of imperial decline, arguing that despite the rise of China economically, the military superiority of America is guaranteed and thus so is its hegemonic role. The view that the US is declining is dismissed as either ‘economic determinism or wishful thinking’ (p.160) and runs the risk of giving up on effective opposition - if the hegemon is dying why interfere with nature’s work? US domestic instability feeds into the violence of its foreign policy (p.126) in a country that has never been able to support its domestic population fully, with social deprivation often running down racial lines. This being said it must be noted that we no longer live in a unipolar world, as the rise of the BRIC countries and increasing military tensions in Europe show. The seminal setback for the US has been the failure of the ‘war on terror’ even on its own terms. Ali cites US economist Joseph Stiglitz’s estimate that the war on terror cost a staggering $2,000 billion, twice the cost of the Vietnam War (pp.128-9).
Inequality is so deeply entrenched Ali finds it hard to envisage the scales being rebalanced without uprisings and revolutions. Despite rapid decline, ‘capitalism will not disappear of its own accord’ (p.135). Capitalism has suffered major ideological defeats and its best defence remains the lack of any plausible alternative (p.139). This is of course a serious weakness should credible alternatives emerge.
Tariq Ali is right to point to the student revolt and the Scottish independence campaign as bright flashes of light in a dark sky. Nonetheless, there are other important stars in the admittedly patchy firmament of British radicalism in the era of the Extreme Centre. One is the anti-war movement (of which Tariq Ali is himself a mainstay). The mass anger against Blair’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq was channelled and consolidated by the Stop the War Coalition and its allies into a formidable body of public opinion causing even Tory journalist Peter Oborne to write:
‘It can be stated with complete fairness that the Stop the War Coalition … has consistently shown far more mature judgment on these great issues of war and peace than Downing Street, the White House or the CIA.’
This hegemonising of anti-establishment opinion by the left on such a crucial issue as foreign policy contributed to the profound rupture between public opinion and extreme-centre views that underwrites the Scottish experience.
In the same way that failure to develop a popular, left critique of the EU gave ground to the right, the radical left’s success in leading anti-war opinion (Ukip’s attempts to join anti-war protests were lacklustre and the overture was roundly rejected) bolstered the relationships between the movements and the Muslim community. The SNP was probably the first British party to reverse the polarity of triangulation and shift their rhetoric (and judging by their recent manifesto a whole host of their policies) to the left. As a result, the fact that the SNP opposed the Iraq war and much of the subsequent terror laws goes a long way to explaining a majority ‘Yes’ sentiment amongst Scottish Asians.
Another bright star to have emerged belatedly into the firmament is the People's Assembly Against Austerity. The left failed to respond in a unified way to the financial crisis of 2008 and those of us committed to building a united front against austerity have had to work hard to play catch-up. Yet the movement has made great strides. The anti-cuts People's Question Time events have drawn huge audiences of a size not seen at progressive events since the high tide of the anti-war movement. Last summer’s People’s Assembly demonstration attracted 50,000 and there’s no reason this year’s ‘End Austerity Now’ demo and festival can’t attract 100,000 or more. Far from ritual protest this would represent a network of community and trade-union campaigners sending a shot across the bow of the extreme centre and its austerity agenda.
The People’s Assembly’s groundswell from below could also potentially feed into the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru anti-austerity alliance floated at the end of 2014. Far from fostering divisions, the anti-Union momentum could feed into a level of unity in action not seen in the UK since the miners’ strike.
Wither the Extreme Centre?
The recent opposition debates could presage the sounding of the death knell for the extreme centre if the left plays its cards right. We’ve seen left-wing conviction politicians striding onto the mainstream political stage for the first time in recent memory in the figures of Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Woods. That two of those politicians are in power in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament respectively, and also openly advocate an end to austerity is a promising sign, however conditional our support for their parties must be. The far left needs to play up to this shift in the mood music and capture some of the populist wave lest it breaks on the rocks of electoral fetishism. This is how we start to turn the tide on the extreme centre.
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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