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An Interview with Tariq Ali

"The Real Threat is from Imperial Fundamentalism"

by MARCUS DAM

Writer and political activistTariq Alidescribes himself as a "person of the Left." In a recent interview in Kolkata, he talked about his concerns over an Asia which is "politically undetermined and economically over-determined," and of an Indian political leadership "obsessed with money and markets."

Dam: You were initiated into political activism during the Vietnam War and have been engaged in it ever since. How has the world changed since the late sixties? What has become of the human condition and the dignity of man?

Ali: We are living in a different epoch than we were 40 years ago. There has been a sea change since then. We have seen a big triumph of global capitalism, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have collapsed, and China is today the most dynamic capitalist state in the world. What we are seeing now are problems of a different sort and a growing opposition in some parts of the world to the American Empire… History never progresses in a straight line, it moves forward, backwards, it zig-zags, and there is no guarantee of progress; it has to be fought for and maintained.

What we are beginning to see at last in a continent that the United States used to regard as its backyard; Latin America; is a growing movement against the neo-liberal economics of the Washington Consensus and against Washington domination. What we are seeing is the survival of Cuba, the changes in Venezuela, the victory of a popular movement in Bolivia, and possibly a change in Peru in a few months time… All this tends to once again shift the relation of forces in favour of popular movements. We have waited a long time; nearly 25 years for this; and it is now beginning to happen.

Dam: And what about closer home?

Ali: Asia is very different. Whereas in the sixties the Vietnamese struggle dominated everything, today Asia is politically underdetermined, weak, and economically over-determined.

You see a big, big shift within the Indian elite in terms of what its priorities are. Something in politicians, the way they abase themselves before the United States, is quite shocking; if you remember that it was India which had pioneered non-alignment and independent foreign policies. Things change; but there is no surety that what the United States has managed to hegemonise is going to remain.

Dam: Do you see Latin America being an inspiration to the rest of the developing world in the search for alternative strategies to the Washington Consensus?

Ali: The Washington Consensus has received its first serious challenge from within Latin America; which was a continent the United States had used as its laboratory. All the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the U.S. Trade Department, the World Trade Organisation, were imposed there before even in other parts of the world. So it is only fitting that the reply should come first from Latin America. And it has come initially in the shape of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela which is a democratic revolution and a democratic upheaval… And [Hugo] Chavez has shown how it is possible to defy the Washington Consensus if you have the will and the popular support to do so even though the Venezuelan elite is squealing.

Dam: Is the elite elsewhere in the world any more comfortable?

Ali: What people are desperate for are political leaders who promote social justice, speak for the interests of the people. At that moment it is happening in Latin America but there is no guarantee for the United States that it won’t happen in any other part of the world.

Dam: Do you see a coalition of like-minded forces emerging in the international arena, a global movement against the hegemony of a single superpower?

Ali: The key countries in this regard are China and India. If their leaders and elites understood that it is in their own countries’ interests to act collectively because their economies are very complementary and deal with the United States as a bloc instead of competing with each other that would make a big difference.

But at the moment there is no sign of this happening. Because, specially in Asia, we have a very weak political leadership. China’s foreign policy is difficult to understand, India’s tragically very pro-American. The Japanese are not allowed a foreign policy of their own. And the rest of the Asian continent stumbles along.

Dam: What do you perceive is the role of the Left leadership in India and the challenges it faces?

Ali: We have to understand the constrictions on the Left which can win power in the provinces but not the Centre. But what the governments in the provinces where it is in power can do is to use their limited resources at least to create some examples of what can be done elsewhere.

There have been land reforms in places like the West Bengal countryside which is why the CPI (M) is returned to power regularly which is very positive. Not so in terms of the big cities like Kolkata where there seems to be no planning; where on the one side you have massive shopping malls being constructed for the elite and at the same time grinding poverty which is not a very good example for the rest of the country. So Left Governments need to work in however limited a way on social justice projects aimed at raising the level of the poor in the provinces where they hold power.

Dam: You have talked of India jettisoning its non-aligned foreign policy. What sort of pressure is it under that might have led it to do so?

From a country which supported the Arab countries in 1956 when Pakistan supported the West, India now is a nation with a visionless leadership obsessed with money and markets and that no longer thinks neither of the stature of the country in the world nor the future of its people. So that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was a lot of space to play an independent role in world politics, it basically gave all that up and became an avid, fervent supporter of the Washington Consensus.

The Congress coalition Government, I’m afraid is going the same direction of the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government which had brought India closer to the United States and Israel. On social, economic, and foreign policy there is no basic difference between the two.

Ali: Would you give your views on the much-talked-about subject of the spawning of Islamic fundamentalism and about the threat it poses?

We have two different problems; one, the rise of religious extremism; both in the Islamic and non-Islamic world which we should not forget; a fusion of religion and politics in many parts of the world including India. Interestingly, most Islamic fundamentalist groups are creations of the United States… but to imagine that Al-Qaeda, with the most exaggerated intelligences estimates giving it between 6,000 and 10,000 members, is a serious threat is ridiculous. It is an irritant and a nuisance but can’t be regarded as anything remotely resembling the threat once posed by an alternative world, a Socialist world.

The real threat comes from a different form of fundamentalism; imperial fundamentalism; where an imperial power believes that since it is the only imperial power in the world it has the right to shape the world as it sees fit using the stupidity and the provocations of groups like the Al-Qaeda as an excuse.

This interview originally appeared in the Hindu.