Tariq Ali: “We are witnessing the twilight of democracy”
Instead of worrying too much about the extreme left and right, we should focus more on the extreme center, says writer Tariq Ali, author of The Extreme Centre: A Warning. He spoke to Creston Davis in The European about the decline of democracy and German hegemony in Europe.
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Creston Davis: Mr. Ali, with regards to your most recent book, The Extreme Center: A Warning, what are the characteristics that define extremism in your opinion?
Tariq Ali: For one, continuous wars—which we have now had since 2001—starting with Afghanistan, continuing on to Iraq. And even since Iraq, it’s been more or less continuous. The appalling war in Libya, which has wrecked that country and wrecked that part of the world, and which isn’t over by any means. The indirect Western intervention in Syria, which has created new monsters. These are policies, which if carried out by any individual government, would be considered extremist. Now, they’re being carried out collectively by the United States, backed by some of the countries of the European Union. So that is the first extremism. The second extremism is the unremitting assault on ordinary people, citizens inside European and North American states, by a capitalist system which is rapacious, blind, and concerned with only one thing: making money and enhancing the profits of the 1%. So I would say that these two are the central pillars of the extreme center. Add to that the level of surveillance and new laws which have been put on the statute books of most countries: the imprisonment of people without trial for long periods, torture, its justification, etc.
Davis: Normally we think of extremes on the far right and the far left. In this case, you are articulating an extreme of the center. How did you arrive at that analysis?
Ali: Well, I was giving a talk and in response to a question on the extreme left and the extreme right, I said that while these forces exist, they’re not very strong—through the extreme right is getting stronger. I observed that the reason the extreme right is getting stronger is because of the extreme center, and then I explained it. So that’s how the idea developed. The people at the talk were interested, and so I developed it further and thought about it over the next months. Many people were intrigued by it, and so I sat down and wrote this little book.
Davis: The book also addresses the “suicide of Western politics.” What are the basic elements of that?
Ali: It’s not just politics. Basically, we are witnessing the twilight of democracy. I’m not the first to say it, and I won’t be the last. Others have dealt with the issue. Peter Mair—alas no longer with us—who used to teach at the European University, wrote a book for instance which was published posthumously. Also the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, who has been mapping what has been happening to democracy in the European Union and elsewhere. I’ve developed from some of these people’s writings the idea that the extreme center is the political expression of the neoliberal state. That economics and politics are so intertwined and interlinked that politics now, mainstream politics, extreme center politics, are little else but a version of concentrated economics. And this means that any alternative—alternative capitalism, left Keynesianism, intervention by the state to help the poor, rolling back the privatizations—becomes a huge issue. The entire weight of the extreme center and its media is turned against it, which in reality now is beginning to harm democracy.
Davis: Do you think there is hope in the rise of Syriza, Podemos, Sinn Féin and other Left political parties?
Ali: Well, I think Syriza and Podemos are very, very different from Sinn Féin in many ways, and so I wouldn’t put all three together. I would say that Syriza and Podemos are movements which have come out of mass struggles. In the case of Podemos, directly out of huge mass movements in Spain, which started with the occupation of the square. In Greece, as a response to what the EU was doing there, punishing it endlessly, for the sins of its ruling elite. And so the response of the people was finally to elect the Syriza government to take on the Troika and set them up with a new alternative. Its future will depend very much on whether they’re able to do so or not.
Davis: Do you think they will?
Ali: At the moment we have a critical situation in Greece. Even as we speak, where there is an open attempt by the EU to destroy Syriza by splitting it. There is a German obstinacy and utter refusal to seriously consider an alternative. The reason isn’t even a lack of money, because money swims around the EU coffers endlessly, and they could write off the debt tomorrow if they wanted. But they don’t want to do so, because of the election of a left-wing government. They want to punish Syriza in public, to humiliate it so that this model doesn’t go any further than Greece. We are seeing a struggle between the Syriza government and the Troika—as well as the American side, the IMF—with very little room for any compromise. In my opinion, Syriza has already gone too far.
Davis: What would the latter choice look like?
Ali: They could just say, “No, this is not a debt which has been incurred by the Greek people. This is a debt incurred by the elite, and the reason this debt has mounted is because our books were not in order when we were let into the Euro currency, and the Germans knew that. The whole of Europe knew that.” They could refuse to pay and chart a new course. Whether they can do this on their own without the support of the Greek people is a moot point.
Davis: How has the idea of economics hijacking politics played out in the European Union more generally?
Ali: The European Union is a union of the extreme center. It’s a banker’s union. You see how they operate in country after country, appointing technocrats to take over and run countries for long periods. They did it in Greece; they did it in Italy; they considered it in other parts of Europe. So it’s effectively a union dominated by the German political and economic elite. Its main function is to serve as a nucleus for financial capitalism and to ease the road for that capitalism. The other functions just irritate everyone: it’s undemocratic; decisions are not made by parliament; the European Parliament is not sovereign. How could it be when Europe is divided into so many different states? The decisions are all made by the representatives of the different members of the European Union, i.e. the governments of Europe, which are extreme center governments in most cases. And so, the European Union has lost virtually all of its credibility amongst large swaths of the European population. In recent election in Britain for instance, the big point of debate—among a few others—between the Labour and Conservative parties was whether or not to have a referendum on Europe, whether or not to allow people to state their choice, to vote on how they feel in relation to Europe.
Davis: And in other parts of Europe?
Ali: Effectively, the EU is a very powerful bureaucracy, dominated now by the German elite, which is backed by the rest of the European Union members. If you go to former Yugoslav states, the Balkan states, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, the situation is dire. Not to mention Bosnia, which is just run like a colony. The way they used to stand up and sing hymns to President Tito, they now salute the EU flag. It’s a very strange transition that we’re witnessing in most of Europe, and I don’t think it’s going to work. I think another crisis, which is being predicted now and which will be worse than what we saw in 2008, could bring the European Union down unless there are huge reforms from within to democratize, to give more power to the regions, etc. If this doesn’t happen, the European Union will fall.
Davis: Many intellectuals here in Athens agree with you that the EU is backed by the German elite. Some even go as far as to say that it’s Germany trying to take control of Europe once again.
Ali: I know this argument. It’s not invisible. It’s there for everyone to see. But I think to compare it to the Third Reich is utterly ludicrous. Germany is a capitalist state nurtured carefully and brought back to prosperity by the United States, and it is very loyal to the United States. I don’t even think the Germans enjoy full sovereignty. There are some things which they cannot do if the United States doesn’t wish them to do it. So, one cannot discuss Europe without understanding US imperial hegemony, both globally and certainly in Europe as it stands. It’s an alliance that the Americans control, in which the EU of course has a great deal of autonomy, but in which it still is very dependent on the United States, especially militarily, but not only in that respect. So to blame the Germans for everything is an easy way out for some of those suffering in Europe today. At the time of German Reunification, it was no secret that Germany would soon become the strongest political entity in the European Union. And that has happened.
Davis: So it was inevitable that Germany would act this way?
Ali: Any country in that position would exert its authority. The real problem is the total capitulation of German social democracy to capitalism, reflected and symbolized by actual extreme center coalition governments in Germany, which have been in power for a long time and still are even as we speak. That is the real problem: that there is no serious opposition in Germany at all. And the Left party is divided. There are huge political problems in that country, but German economic power is something which was bound to happen. The way out of this situation is through the further democratization of the European Union and a changing of its structures. The current Eurozone is obviously dysfunctional. And serious people within Germany and elsewhere know this to be the case and know things cannot function this way forever. If there is a Greek exit from the Eurozone, I think the German elite will be quite pleased that they can then use that to restructure the Eurozone and make it a zone where only strong countries are allowed in. There would then be two tiers within the European Union, which is in fact already happening. But you cannot simply get rid of German control by raising the specter of the Third Reich. That’s ahistorical.
- This interview was first published on The European.