In the Shadow of the Extreme Center

Tariq Ali is still searching for socialism with a human face. He sits on the editorial board of the New Left Review and is a regular columnist for The Guardian, CounterPunch and the London Review of Books. He compares Marx with the Prometheus of Greek mythology who stole the heavenly gift of fire from Zeus and brought it to the mortals. What we do with that fire is up to us, he is fond of saying. Tariq Ali was in Delhi recently to deliver the Faiz Ahmed Faiz Memorial Lecture. He had a freewheeling interview with Bharat Bhushan.

When you look at your original homeland, Pakistan, what thoughts come to your mind?

Tariq Ali: A congregation of pain – to quote from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s great poem Aaj ke naam – in Urdu, “dard ki anjuman”. The country has gone from bad to worse. You feel sometimes that things can’t get worse and they do. We first had the effect of military dictatorships on social political life in the country and now we have got a civilian government which is probably the most corrupt government in the entire history of the country. What staggers me is that Zardari is so shameless. On his face you do not read any regret for what he has done and he will carry on doing it till the United States keep him in power. That is the situation in the country today.

You have often said that Pakistan has mostly been ruled by governments which have been US puppets. How and when will Pakistan be government by and for Pakistanis?

The young people want to get a government elected by the people and for the people. Whether Imran Khan will pull it off or not – I do not know. The planks of his programme are friendly, but independent, relations with the United States and moving away from puppet status. He actually says that in his campaigns – about 70 per cent of the population sees the US as its enemy. It used to be India, but now it is the United States.

Your support for Imran Khan has baffled many in Pakistan and elsewhere. What did you mean by writing in the London Reveiew of Books — almost lamenting that there was only one Imran Khan in Pakistan?

What I meant was there is nothing else at the moment as far as politics is concerned. That this guy after working 15 years of building his party, when everyone was laughing at him, is beginning to draw huge support mostly from people who are alienated from politics. So I think one has to react positively. It is not as if he will give Pakistan what I want – fully fledged socialism – but at least he is fighting on the right issues and people are fed up of being ruled by two competing sets of criminals — corporate criminals. Whether it is the Sharif brothers or Zardari – they are both in politics to make money. They do very little else.

But what do you think of Imran Khan’s support for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and obscurantism of all kinds?

He has denied all that sharply in interviews that I have seen with him. He has said that he is not a supporter of the Taliban or the Tehreek-e-Taliban. He feels that the American war in Afghanistan and the drone attacks in Pakistan are increasing support for these people. And he wants to end it. Essentially, he is an enlightened Muslim – probably much more liberal minded than the people who are in power in Egypt and Tunisia today.

What do you say about the Punjabi hegemony in politics and in the military in Pakistan? What does it do to the dream of a federal Pakistan?

That dream died with the formation of Bangladesh after the breakup of Pakistan in 1970-71. That was the end of federal Pakistan. What was left was a country heavily dominated by Punjab by virtue of its population, if nothing else. It is a fact of life. There is nothing we can do about it. The country is now very mixed. Karachi is a city which has Punjabis, Sindhis, the Pushtuns, and descendents of the refugees who went from India. The social composition of the big cities is changing. You see the same thing in Sindh and Balochistan – you have lots of people who are not ethnically from that region. And this happens all over the world. You cannot keep to the ethnic purity which some nationalists seem to demand. “Young people want elected leaders working for them. Whether Imran Khan will pull that off, I do not know. He’s talked of a move away from ‘US puppet’ status.”

Do you see the stranglehold of the army on Pakistan politics and foreign policy diminishing in the near future?

I think there is very little doubt that most people in Pakistan don’t want the army to intervene in politics. They are fed up of it. They know perfectly well what happens at the top; that the process which was started off decades ago of corruption among the top layers of the armed services has continued and when they come to power they become even more corrupt. They get rake offs from deals to buy arms and the top military officials get huge amounts of money officially and legally from the State. They have become the part of the elite. But people don’t like them being in power. I think most people would prefer elected governments though there are times when there is an elected government like the current one, when some people again start saying that perhaps the army was better. But the majority wants elected governments.

You say the people are fed up of the army, but is the army fed up of politics?

The army is not fed up of politics – this is absolutely true because of the role it has played. It sees itself like the Turkish army used to do for a long long time—not just “in the last analysis”, saviour of the country if it was attacked, but as the only force in the country which was organised and disciplined enough to run the country. That is how the many top brass see it and they have run the country. But every time they have done it, it has been a mess. Ayub’s dictatorship led to the breakup of Pakistan. General Zia’s dictatorship saw the country become obscurantist; saw the emergence of jihadi groups funded and supported from the top and we are still trying to deal with the mess that was created. And then we had Musharraf who started off with promises but then picked up a huge fight with the judiciary and had to go out ignominiously having lost the fight to destroy a Chief justice.

When you look at your present home country, Britain, how do you see the condition of the Left in an era of coalition with protracted recession and massive cut in services? What potential do you see for an oppositional, pro-poor force emerging?

I think that mainstream politics not just in Britain but in most advanced countries is essentially about different ways of running the capitalist system and different ways of making money from it for themselves as individuals or for their parties as institutions. Getting corporate money to contest elections has now become an art form in the United States and is now sweeping Europe as well. Whether you are Labour or Conservative in Britain, basically you do the same thing. Tony Blair destroyed the old Labour Party forever and there are still a few handful of good Labour MPs in Parliament. But in my opinion, the majority of the Labour MPs could easily be a part of the coalition that is governing Britain today.

In Scotland you have the Scottish National Party which is social democratic, it is to the left of Labour and they are winning. And they are talking about having a referendum on Independence in 2014 or 2015. Whether they win it or not, I don’t know. But what they will probably win is what they are demanding — Scottish home rule on everything except defence and policing. If the state of Britain as we know it breaks up, then everything will change – because without Scotland, Labour does not have a chance of winning a majority in England and Wales ever again. So one can look at this positively, that some new forces would emerge and this old style of politics would have to go with it. This sort of government that we have at the moment cannot carry on indefinitely. And they know it you feel from the way they talk sometimes.

What do you think of the coming French Presidential election? Why does Sarkozy seem to be in retreat and what do you make of the surge in support for the Trotskyist candidate Jean Luc Melenchon?

Sarkozy is hated by large parts of the country. He was brash and he was too fond of money. He pursued money in a vulgar fashion. The French like to be more sophisticated about these things. He called himself “Le Amercain” – he said the critical press calls me an American because I support them and I am proud of it. So he has set his wares and has moved more and more to the right – attacking immigrants, pandering to the extreme rightwing groups in Frances, desperate to win the election. He has been a disaster on many levels. His socialist opponent, Francois Hollande is bland, promises very little and is unconvincing – though he probably will win. And then suddenly we have seen the emergence of Jean Luc Melenchon, who used to be a Trotskyist in the sixties and the seventies – subsequently he joined the Socialist Party and was a minister in Mitterand’s government. He got fed up and said that this is not a Socialist Party which is going to deliver anything and broke out with his group of supporters, joined with the Communists and the independent Left and set up the Union of the Left. And the last figures for him were of 15 per cent support and he is the most exciting candidate in the country. Even the rightwing press has to say that he is a very effective politician who quotes from Victor Hugo and French literature. People are surprised because they have not seen a politician like that for a very long time. So his effect has been positive and both Sarkozy and Hollande have had to respond obliquely to many of the demands he has raised.

What would be the possible consequences of the implosion of Greece and likely collapse of Spain and Portugal?

If the process goes on and there are more implosions and the bankers running Italy and Greece cannot keep these countries running with the present amount of funds coming from the German Banks, then the core leaders of Europe would have very little recourse but to have a two or even three layer structure of Europe. You will have a core Europe, you might have an extended currency zone and you will have people permanently waiting to enter Europe. That is the organised way of doing it.

But if the crisis hits suddenly, then I think the European Union will come to an end and they will have to have a new discussion on what to do. That would mean huge crisis in Europe because that will mean the end of the Euro which people have got used to but which can no longer do the business – because the effect of being part of the Euro has meant huge rise in prices, property and commodities which for a while seemed good but that’s now unaffordable. So I think, Greece, Spain and Portugal are countries which will have to think very seriously about reverting to their own currencies which would also mean headaches, trouble and pain—but at least they will control it themselves.

You have often talked of a Social Europe and a Bankers’ Europe. Can a Social Europe be rescued from a Bankers’ Europe it has become?

I think it can be salvaged only if countries agree to act on that basis. The Germans are at the moment on a very conservative course and unlikely to act. France is always an unknown. Britain is so deeply attached to the United States that I seriously wonder what the point of Britain being a part of Europe is. It is a part of the Atlantic Bloc and no one in Britain sees themselves as European although technically they are. The attention is focused across the Atlantic. Britain is a vassal state actually on many levels – culturally, politically, militarily, and economically. They will never agree to a Social Europe if the US is opposed to it. The Germans, the French, the Scandinavians who are not in Europe mostly, could move in that direction but they are not going to do so unless and until they are forced to do it either by the electorate or by uprisings.

While pronouncing that social democracy is dead, you say that an “extreme centre” is ruling most countries today? Why do you call it the “extreme centre”?

Because when you have a Centre which encompasses Centre Left, Centre Right and the traditional Centre parties, and this Centre then wages war, defends the occupation of countries, wages war on its own people at home through austerity measures then it is the home for extremism in my opinion. That is why I label it the Extreme Centre. This is the pattern in most parts of Europe. It does not matter who wins, the Centre rules. And it is creating a huge void in democratic accountability. At the level of civil liberties, you have had the case of a young woman who described a dream to a friend on email in which she saw some terrorists carrying out some action. She was arrested and charged for having a dream.

Very Orwellian, don’t you think?

Completely Orwellian. They can now tap into your dreams. Had she not written that mail, she would have been safe. And in the United States, the President for the first time in a normal situation – not in times of war – has the power to order the killing of a US citizen without any recourse to law. If this is the direction in which these countries are going then they have no right to teach lessons to any other parts of the world. They should put their own house in order. Then you have the so called anti-terror laws which allow you to pick up people just on suspicion etc. etc. – it’s a messy situation. If at the same time you do not provide any political and social alternatives to the electorate, democracy itself becomes meaningless. More and more people stop voting unless new alternatives emerge.

What do you think will happen in Syria?

I think the Syrian situation has reached a stage now where it is a stalemate. We have two forces now creating an army against Assad. And these are not the forces which inspire a great deal of confidence – one are the Saudis and the other, the Qataris, people who have no history of any interest in democracy whatsoever. Essentially what has happened is that Syria has become a pawn in the struggle between Wahabi fundamentalism and the Iranian regime. The Americans have clearly decided that they are not going to intervene. And one reason for that may that the Israelis do not want a Muslim Brotherhood coming up in Syria as well and are telling the Americans not to do anything hastily. And once the Americans hold back, the Europeans follow.

My own position on this is very clear that the Baathists under the Assad family were brutal, stupid and corrupt – ruling on the basis of a minority – and had he (Bashar Al Assad) or the people around him, had even a tiny bit of intelligence, they would have taken the deal the Opposition had offered in the first six months of the agitation. They had said nothing will happen to you. We don’t want a Gaddafi-end for you. But you have to share power. Any intelligent Baath leader would have said – OK, let us sit down and talk. I have heard reports of a split within the ranks – that Bashar Assad wanted it but the generals said no because they saw it as the end of their monopoly over the armed forces. In any case, they made a huge mistake and this regime, if it carries on at this stage, can only do so on the basis of repression and there will be further uprisings from within the country. What has made the situation very messy is that the Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks – partially, creating an alternative army which can lead to civil war and a very ugly situation as we have seen in Libya.

Do you think than that the Arab Spring has in fact helped remove repressive but secular Baathist governments and ended up replacing them with Sunni/Wahabi governments? What does this mean for West Asia?

I think that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not Wahabi – it is very important to keep that in mind. They are mainstream Sunni Muslims. They are not too different from Christian Democratic Parties in Western Europe. That is what they remind me of – socially and politically conservative while economically they will most likely accept some kind of neo-liberalism. So the Americans will do business with them. And they are already doing business with them, behind the scenes because they have the majority of the country behind them. It is not my idea of liberation but if this is what the people want and they have voted for, then one can’t blame the people if they don’t see any other alternatives. They will not vote for Mubarak and his gang. The Left is very weak and many people are discredited by working with the regime. So it is a very difficult problem to create new movements. And the Muslim Brotherhood – sometimes it collaborated with the regime, at other times it didn’t, its people were arrested, tortured, killed. People know that and — this is their reward – they voted them in. But if after coming to power they do nothing, then you could have another phase of protests because the most important thing that people have learnt is that if they act collectively they can remove governments. That is a dangerous lesson, as far as the Brotherhood is concerned.

How do you see Iran developing politically — anti-US imperialism but run by Mullahs or do you expect some oppositional movements to grow there?

Well, the Iranians, in my opinion have been ready – the mullahs, I mean — for a big deal with the Americans for a long long time. If you look at it cold bloodedly, without any demagogy, the war and the occupation in Iraq could not have taken place unless the Iranians had given the green light to the US. The war in Afghanistan might have taken place but was certainly helped by the Iranians saying ‘go ahead’ because the Iranians saw Saddam Hussain as their enemy and they saw the Taliban as their enemy – so the enemy of my enemy is my friend, may be temporarily. Essentially they supported those two American wars. They were hoping in return—they really were– that the American President would fly in to Tehran, like Nixon did to Beijing, and they would do a deal and live in peace. They have no big desire to fight the Americans. Now, the Americans, if they had been intelligent, and a lot of intelligent political scientists in the US are arguing that, this is what should have happened.

But what stopped it was the Israeli lobby. And the reason that they are so hostile to Iran is precisely because of the nuclear issue. They want Iran to give a guarantee that it will never ever build a bomb. But you know that guarantees can be broken and if the capacity to do it, why should they not do it? Some of them argue that Pakistan has it, India has it, China has it, American nuclear vessels go round their waters and the Germans are supplying the Israelis special Dolphin submarines which can have nuclear-tipped missiles which can knock out Iran. So they feel the best way of defence is to have it (n-bomb), not use it. People would respect them more if they said that. But now they are saying ‘we have the capacity but we won’t make the bomb’. Well, that is an awkward position for everyone. But I think they are desperate to deal with the US.

Do you think Left ideology is now dead or do you see any green shoots of radical thought and action sprouting anywhere?

I think the collapse of Communism in the nineties was a huge blow — to people on the Left who wanted to search for alternatives, including many people who did not support the Soviet Union. But I think over the last ten years new movements have begun to develop in South America. In other parts of the world things are beginning to happen and people are beginning to feel that they need to mobilise themselves to bring about change; that it is not going to be done for us. And the Arab Spring played a huge part in changing global consciousness of that. So I think I am a bit more optimistic than I was a few years back.

But you dismissed the Occupy Wall Street movement saying that they have no political goals and so they will not achieve anything.

I am saying that it was a virtual movement in some ways — incredibly useful and important because a new layer, a new generation is saying that we don’t like the system. But you know my point to them has been, and said nicely, that it’s not enough to say that because the system can roll over you, destroy you very very quickly – unless you build something which can last a bit longer than your campus terms. So we will see what happens. But I don’t think till now the Occupy movement can be seen as a movement that can lead anywhere. I may be wrong and I would be very happy to be wrong. That is my reading of it. You like them, you admire them for what they are doing but you can’t invest them with too much.

TARIQ ALI’s latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ was published by Verso.

This interview was originally published in Outlook magazine.


Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).