30 Sep

Tariq Ali’s coming to town, the posters are everywhere. He’s a star, there are professionally designed, printed flyers alongside the usual Trot neo-constructivist photocopies. The theme is Obama, change we can believe in? Well we can believe in change but if you think voting changes anything except the day’s government you’re dreamin’.

Ah the Dream….


The Dream. The Grand March Forward as Milan Kundera correctly categorized it. Everyone except conservatives believes in the Grand March. There’s only arguments about which road to take. These can be vicious:


That’s Russia, not Germany. Ali is married to the editor of the New Left Review, His writing has long had a sizable market unlike mine at this point. His leftist pedigree is impeccable, legendary. Just look at the first photo: how brave, how noble and free they are: the Prince of Lahore and the impeccably Anglopatrician thespian, standing together. Against the Man.


I can’t remember ever reading Ali’s books. I probably read something, I’ve done his bits in The Guardian. I remember an inevitable year of Chomsky and Said. Becoming ‘aware’ as they say. Aware of what? That the Empire didn’t go away, that it just changed hands and methodology? Well d’uh. Any John Le Carré novel can tell you that. It’s Grade 11 Modern History, or used to be. People privileged by Empire wander around their short lifespans paying strict attention to what they want oblivious to the lives of those that make all the stuff they buy. Who’d a thought.

Mr Ali says ‘We live, after all, in a world where illusions are sacred and truth profane’ as if it’s some fresh evil aloose upon the world. The truth is we have always done so, we begin the process of lying to ourselves very early. We can’t hack the truth. We’re not strong enough. I tend to agree with the Trot picture of the world. I’ve seen some of these places and I pay attention to the regular Imperial warfare waged by America and its allies. I know that the economic prosperity of the West is not simply a matter of the wages of a free markets and liberal democratic governance. That the freedom to trade is granted but the freedom not to trade is not.

Harsh fact of the world: Democracies breed imperial adventurism, it’s true. The great avatar of Greek democracy Pericles gave a famous speech at funeral once upon a time. This speech is a classic piece of rhetoric that outlines the virtues of democratic governance with its open culture and prosperity based on the freedom to trade. Any student of politics unfamiliar with it is a victim of inadequate curriculum. It’s well known in the US Establishment graduate schools. What’s less discussed is that Pericles gave the speech to garner support for a war. This war was not a simple struggle between Athenian liberty and Spartan authoritarianism. It was a struggle for resources. A struggle by Athens to maintain its empire, its hegemony over trade routes and access to the natural resources that labour converts to products that can be sold.

In a democracy the government is compelled to listen to its citizens and those citizens are mostly concerned with their material well-being. Unfortunately, then as now, monkeys were greedy. Making ends meet is a concept relative to the lifestyle to which one is accustomed. Democracies tend to be wealthy because the property rights that help guarantee them mean that people are free to trade and this always produces riches. But fortune still goes up and down and people, walk-of-life regardless, are not known to accept the down-slope gracefully.

In 1980 Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan went head-to-head in a contest to run the richest and more powerful state the world has yet known. Carter was mired in humiliation and strife. Vietnam, Watergate and years of economic sluggishness had tarnished the Yankee shine on life. In Iran a revolution against the ruling Shah had seen the US embassy staff taken hostage. The cruel, plutocratic Shah having been instituted decades before by the CIA because the Iranians had decided to elect the wrong government. The new Iranian government was eager to turn the screws on America hard.

Domestically, Americans were now dependent on Arabian oil. According to the laws of realpolitik Carter revoked a clause of an agreement made between the House of Saud and Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 in which the US promised never to occupy territory in Arabia. Without oil America would collapse. What could he do? If Iran interfered with the oil supply, America could crash. Saudi Arabia was, like Iran, ruled by repressive self-indulgent lushes high on the Texas Tea gravy train. Their people suffered, pressed down by the butt of the American arms industry. Another revolution was a possibility. Forces were deployed. And with US assistance Iraq waged bloody warfare against Iran for 8 years. The head of state of Iraq was a US ally, as you probably know, his name was Saddam Hussein. Elsewhere the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the US threw resources into the insurgency. The war that followed would destroy the Soviet Union and create the Taliban. It’s where Usama bin Laden got his ideas.

Carter and Reagan. Carter always saw long term problems. He knew that America’s economy was structurally unsound but he had no real idea why. And he was always personally helpless in the face of fortune. He just wasn’t up to the job. Reagan knew what his people needed, less red tape and more hype. Carter told them the truth: that their schtick was obsolete, that they’d grown too fat on foreign oil, that they needed to tighten their belts. He mixed this with his hippie-era brand of New Liberal Christianity. He didn’t realize the hippie era was over: short hair and ties were back in. Reagan told them their favourite lie: that they were a great nation entitled to the life of hogs in the fathouse forever.

Guess which one they bought? Indeed, illusions are sacred and America is more than a country, it is a holy idea.

I’m sure that the undergrads that crowd into Mr Ali’s speech will scoff at the hypocrisy. They’ll gather in the taverns afterward and plot tabletop revolution, engaging in the arguments over minor theological points traditional since 12th century Paris. Automatically they’ll check their text messages but probably won’t know that these gadgets require capacitors to function, that refined columbite–tantalite is used to manufacture these components.

They might know something about what happens in the (ha ha) Democratic Republic of Congo where the stuff is found. The trucks hired by mining executives, 20 guys on the back strapped with Mikhail Kalashnikov’s toys off to find some troublesome village that’s making a fuss that Nokia employees enjoy free dental whilst their kids have to kick around a soccer ball made of bundled rags. They’ll have read No Logo and’ve absorbed the connections between the Reebok trainers on their feet and Chinese peasants getting paid 20 cents a day to make 100 of ’em. They can all congratulate themselves on their ideology which has ’em all standing aloof from that. But there’s an inconvenient rub here. More than one.

Look at the first photo. The noble crusaders against injustice. Look at the second. That’s what happened in Russia after the Ultimate Crusade Against Injustice. A crusade that Ms Redgrave and Mr Ali are very passionate about. Being followers of Leon Trotsky they believe they can stand aloof from the aftermath. Scrap this democratic capitalism they say. But look at their alternative. Only in a democracy can you slag the government off and get paid for it. If Ali was in Pakistan he might very well be in prison.

The only thing voting changes is the government. Yes. And if you can change the government, if you can fire them, then they must toe a certain line. They aren’t known to cart large slabs of the population off to prison. The government is required to act in your interests. And if those interests mean permanent bases in Saudi Arabia so you can afford to drive the car to work and if that means creating new enemies, well?

We could have a revolution. That works doesn’t it? Oh that’s right, piles of bodies. Damn. We could not buy their mobile phones and stand aloof from the mining industry in Congo. We could grow our own vegetables and stand aloof from the economy all together. The crops might fail. The kids might starve. But it’s for the fight against Evil so I’m sure their mother won’t mind. Or we could get active: form groups, have discussions, organize protests, give lectures, write books and sign them at Borders.

Or instead we could write glib posts on blogs expressing world-weary cynicism. This allows us to evade accusations of lackeyism, justifies our apathy and lets us stand aloof from it all especially if one concludes with ironic self-parody.


2 Responses to “TARIQ ALI’S COMIN’ TO TOWN”

  1. Philomena September 30, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    Yeah. You’re a rightwing blowhard who sells advertising.

    No wonder you’re bitter.

    • AC Stewart October 1, 2010 at 3:20 am #

      I’m an anarchist that used to write advertising Phil. But anyway…

      Bitter? Pot, kettle, argument. 🙂

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