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.