Skip to main content
Festival of Ideas

The Extreme Centre: A Warning Tariq Ali

Share this

Tariq Ali asks 'What is the point of elections?'

The result is always the same: a victory for the Extreme Centre. Since 1989, politics has become a contest to see who can best serve the needs of the market, a competition now fringed by unstable populist movements. The same catastrophe has taken place in the US, Britain, Continental Europe and Australia.

Ali looks at the people and the events that have informed this moment of political suicide: corruption in Westminster; the failures of the EU and NATO; the soft power of the American Empire that dominates the world stage uncontested. He goes in search of alternative futures, finding promise in the Bolivarian revolutions of Latin America and at the edges of Europe. Emerging parties in Scotland, Greece and Spain, formed out of the 2008 crisis, are offering new hope for democracy.

Photo: Nina Subin

Audience Member Reviews

Written by Isaac Kneebone-Hopkins

When I heard that Tariq Ali was coming to Bristol, I was incredibly excited. He is a man who has been at the forefront of left-wing activism for decades, and has met with legendary figures such as Malcolm X and John Lennon. To a young activist like myself, he is – and excuse the lack of intellectual language here – an absolute badass. Not just for the causes he champions, but also in the intelligent but understandable and articulate manner with which he puts across his ideas. On the topic of badassness I must also mention a story that can be found on his Wikipedia page. Even though I got to briefly talk to him after the event, I refused to fact check this as it is too good to let something like the truth hinder it: While in Bolivia in the 1967, Ali was accused of being a Cuban revolutionary and said to the authorities: “If you torture me the whole night and I can speak Spanish in the morning I’ll be grateful to you for the rest of my life.”

The talk itself was very engaging but polarising for the audience. Ali spoke without notes, but with no sense of hesitation, reflecting his passion and knowledge on the topic. The main topic of discussion was themes discussed in his book The Extreme Centre: A Warning, which focuses on the rise of the neo-liberal agenda in the last 30 years, and how the main political parties have centralised, giving very little alternative for voters. Ali suggested this may represent the ‘death of democracy’ and stated he ‘couldn’t in good conscience tell someone to vote Labour’. The latter statement riled some of the old lefties in the room as with one questioner asking ‘what if conservatives get to power, or worse, UKIP?’ But Ali stood his ground, stating that as far as he was concerned ‘Labour [were] now right wing’ which, I think, is the most damning criticisms you can get from an old school lefty.

Also discussed was Scottish independence (no, he was not treading the easy ground) and how Westminster, big business, and the media had conspired against the independence movement, using heavy handed scare tactics to maintain the union and prevent a possible swing to the left within British borders. The breaking of the promises made by Westminster before the referendum has, he stated, led to a ‘breaking of tribal loyalties’ within Scotland with lifelong voters now abandoning Labour to find alternatives and ‘if it can happen in Scotland it can happen in England’.

Even the EU didn’t avoid scrutiny. Ali described it as the right idea being carried out in the wrong way, criticising Germany for ignoring the democratic remit of countries like Greece with their enforced austerity and criticising the fact that major decisions are made by the unelected European Commission.

Overall, unlike many political talks, it wasn’t just a speaker preaching to the converted – the audience was at times challenged with ideas with which they may not necessarily agree – but was always thought provoking. It was incredibly inspiring to see a man who has been so long at the political grindstone still talk with such passion and hope for change.

Written by Kevin McGough

Ahead of what promises to be another closely fought, and probably inconclusive election this May, Tariq Ali questions what it would take for the left to stay true to its political convictions rather than capitulating to fear.

Since the early 1990s and the collapse of Soviet Russia, the Neo-Liberalist agenda has been in a virtually unopposed ascendency across the world. From Blair to Obama, Santiago to Singapore, the markets and their political allies have monopolised power and influence in ever smaller cliques, with the central manifesto being the complete surrender of governments to big business (privatisation of utilities, public transport, health care, etc.) and a virtual purgatory for the poor. What had promised to be a new dawn in politics instead turned out to be merely an extension of the Thatcher & Regan administrations policies of the 1980s.

The aspect of these developments that makes this whole debacle so galling in Ali’s eyes though is the fact that many of the perpetrators of these draconian and elitist programmes have not been the traditional right but rather parties who had formerly been at the opposite end of the political spectrum. The rise of New Labour and its efforts to cast aside its social democratic past in favour of privatisation and diminished regulation is emblematic of the real failure of politics today – the move to the ‘extreme centre’. With the extinction of social democracy there is simply no longer any viable alternative to these Neo Liberal oligarchs. ‘It’s now just a fight over which Clinton or Bush will run things,’ he believes.

As the political ‘trough’, as he puts it, becomes increasingly overcrowded with politicians fighting over the scraps thrown to it by corporations the ‘symbiosis between big money and minimalist politics has now reached fever pitch’ and what remains of the publics confidence in their leaders has been ground down to dust by back handers and apathy.

Taking the financial collapse and failure of the EU over the past decade as an example, he suggests that we are slipping into a cyclical, dogmatic vortex that will continue to repeat itself over and over in coming years if nothing is done. How would a coalition government of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have treated the good years that Blair-Brown enjoyed leading up to the financial crisis or vice-versa for that matter? Not an awful lot differently, he suggests, and how can that benefit anyone other than the incumbent social hierarchy?

So what are the alternatives to this almost inevitable spiral into constitutional oblivion? Ali suggests that we needn’t look far for inspiration, as he casts his eyes enviously north at our Scottish brethren to see how the fight back could be fought. With the SNP now threatening to throw the three major parties out entirely of Scotland he theorises that when people are offered a well constructed alternative to the dominant forces there remains a real appetite for more radical dogmas.’90% of people in this country want to nationalise the railways; these are populist, not extremist policies,’ he explains. ‘This isn’t football,’ he continues.’You don’t have to be blindly “loyal” to your team.’

When push comes to shove on election day though one must wonder whether the ballot box will again show that people prefer the devil they know.

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update