By Tariq Ali
Over the last 40 years, we have seen huge changes to societies across the globe. The advent of the neo-liberal era brought about the age of greed in which huge profits and perks were bestowed to a corporate class at the expense of the middle and working classes; who, incidentally, have steadily seen their incomes decrease since the mid-1970’s. What we have seen emerge is what Tariq Ali refers to in this book as the “Extreme Centre. ”
“Throughout the heartlands of capital we have witnessed the convergence of political choices: Republicans and Democrats in the United States, New Labour and Tories in Britain, socialists and conservatives in France , the German coalitions the Scandinavian centre right and centre left and so on. In virtually each case the two party system has morphed into and effective national government.”
This new and troubling consensus represents the hollowing out of legitimate electoral choices in favour of a homogenous and amorphous blob of spin-doctored, careerist and opportunistic political operatives who have given way to all principle except for their belief in the supremacy of the market. Ali views this trend as a troubling development that has consumed almost all parts of the globe from Britain, to the United States and across Europe.
The book contains a spirited and acerbic critique of many of the developments that animate this convergence towards the extreme centre. It was originally published in 2015 and comes with a provocative subtitle, fired off as “A Warning.” While there are many aspects of Ali’s critique that still hold true today, the book has lacked the prescience to predict the ensuing political environment let alone the seismic political earthquakes of the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump. The Extreme centre was written three years ago, but a lot in the world has changed since. The core of Ali’s argument: that finance banking and unaccountable power is corrosive to democratic political systems, still holds true, but some of his other points seem to have less acuity. It will undoubtedly be true that if he is ever elected into government Jeremy Corbyn will end up disappointing his supporters when he finds himself in a situation where he will be forced to make one compromise too many. But for the time being at least, Corbyn does seem to be pointing to an alternative that suggests that the extreme centre has been shifted.
Ali begins the book by charting the various changes that have taken place in British society over the past 40 years since the collapse of the post-war consensus. We have witnessed a precipitous decline in public services coupled with spiralling levels of consumer debt. Many of the points are well made but there is little in the commentary that proves to be especially new or insightful. Ali blames parties on both sides of the aisle and is particularly critical of New Labour over its shoddy record in government.
“Few would have believed that Labour had become a party of war and finance capital. Yet New Labour was, as it turned out, little more than a continuation of Thatcherism by the same means.”
While the Extreme Centre thesis could have been a really interesting avenue to advance in detail how the hollowing away of the state has led to the expansion of private markets into public realms, the book does appear a little lazy at points. In the first chapter, Ali decides to break with the narrative and goes on to give a detailed recitation of the various crimes and misdemeanours of members of Tony Blair’s cabinet. He then cuts to an interview with an academic about the NHS before turning to the role of political influence in the BBC. It is all interesting stuff but it does seem seems a bit jarring to break so abruptly from various forms of reporting and narrative in ways that don’t seem entirely clear or continuous.
If Ali senses alarm in the state of the English political parties then he is decidedly more optimistic about politics north of the border in Scotland. However, the tides of Independence has certainly started to ebb away since the Brexit vote two years ago. It could be that now Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP see that Brexit is, for the time being at least, the bigger fish to fry. But there is no doubt that the independence campaign back in 2016 unleashed a new kind of democratic energy into Scottish politics. The Scottish independence campaign was all about advancing socialist ideals and so was thoroughly trounced in the media.
“I think that the movement is now so far advanced that if the Scots continue to feel dissatisfied, which I’m sure they will in a few years’ time there is be a huge demand for another referendum. And this time they will make it.”
But it seems unlikely that the transformative potential and undercurrents that were permeating the 2014 referendum campaign are going to evidence themselves through the SNP, a party that has been rocked firstly by losing a third of its seats at the 2017 election and latterly by a string of accusation of bullying and sexual harassment allegations embroiling, among others, the parties former leader Alex Salmond. When Ali was writing the SNP might have looked like a party ready to break the Westminster parties out of their dogmatic slumbers, these days such a prospect is looking less likely. Before they were the underdogs, now the SNP has become the establishment.
Ali then turns to the global stage to look at the democratic deficiencies of the EU and the undoubted supremacy of the American state as the world’s only true hegemonic power. It is here that the extreme centre narrative begins to lose some of its sharpness except for his more general contention that: “the worship of money and private property remains the determining principle of world politics and culture.” Ali elucidates the standard leftist critique of the EU and the role of the European Central Bank in subjugating peoples and nations within its orbit. He sees the EU as a capitalist club which has brought untold suffering and misery and exercised its power as a bankers union and nothing more. The Troika is continuing to inflict huge damage in Greece and has placed severe restrictions on fiscal economic policy is other EU nation states including Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus. But despite these realities, there is little in Ali’s analysis that seems to preconfigure the Brexit vote. Such a situation would be unforeseeable due to the prized place the Americans take in having access through the UK to the rest of Europe.
“Ironically, it is precisely this status that will make it difficult for any segment of the extreme centre to execute a wholesale withdrawal from Europe. Washington want’s its Trojan Mule in place.”
Ali also not give much credence to the common narrative around a decline in American imperial fortunes. While it has been prophesied for the last couple of decades that we will soon reach a point in which China will overtake American as the world largest economy, American military might still far outweigh its international competitors. If we consider the decisive influence that American continues to enjoy through NATO and the number of American bases stationed in strategic locations across the world, the reach of American military and diplomatic power mean that in Ali’s mind any talk of a retreat from the age of American global dominance is nothing if not premature.
In all the extreme centre is an entertaining book but one in which the strength of its premise is not followed through consistently to present an overarching narrative. The accounts of a warning are still correct on some measures but they land far off base on other accounts. It is worth a read but a fairly scattergun and at times flawed screed.