[This report is based on Tariq Ali’s speech at Marxism 2012 on the ‘extreme centre’]
Since the early 90s, and particularly since the financial crisis, there has been a noticeable tendency for social democratic parties in the face of globalisation to shift to the right, a tendency most clearly seen with the rise of New Labour and the German Social Democrats’ Agenda 2010. Adopting programmes of neoliberal reforms intended to ‘restructure’ the workforce and move towards more deregulated ‘competitive’ markets has been the focus of governments both right and (nominally) left.
Tariq Ali, radical author and journalist, spoke about this at Marxism 2012 held early in July.
Ali described the phenomenon as politics of the ‘extreme centre’, pointing out that in denying choice and opportunities for opposition to neoliberalism, it represents a crisis of capitalist democracy.
Indeed, in Britain, the process began with Margaret Thatcher at the start of the 1980s, with the intention of destroying the institutions of the left – most notably, the trade unions, where membership has halved since 1980 to just 6.5m members today – still a significant force, but much weakened.
Tariq Ali makes clear however that this process has not been opposed by successive Labour governments – ‘we do not see any basic discontinuities from Thatcher, to Blair, to Brown and now Cameron’.
The sad irony of the Blair years is, for Ali, that even John Major, Conservative Prime Minister from 1992-97, was to the left of the ’97 Labour government, an opinion held not just by Tariq Ali but by John Major himself, a comment made while giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.
The decimation of the organised working-class by neoliberal restructuring has resulted in the ability of workers to exercise pressure from below to be significantly curtailed. ‘All the rights that were won…we’re all rights that were fought for from below’. The social democratic gains of the post-war era were, then, concessions, major though they were.
But such concessions are now a thing of the past – after the 1990s, the ‘ruling class’ said ‘no more concessions’. As such, social democratic parties as well as Conservative parties have embraced the ‘extreme centre’.
It is, though, since the financial crisis in Europe that the extreme centre has been universally embraced by mainstream parties, exemplified by the austerity packages of Pasok, Greece’s moderate ‘left’ party, and elsewhere by incumbent social-democratic governments in Spain and Portugal.
Ali outlines the rise of radical left parties, such as Syriza in Greece, in reaction to this anti-democratic merging of political ideology, but at the same time chastises the extremist purism of the KKE who ‘aimed 70% of their attacks on Syriza’ instead of the pro-austerity parties. Syriza, for Tariq, represent a real process of building the alternative to austerity in Europe.
Most shocking however, is not the behaviour of the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, but of the ruling class in Europe as a whole. This is exemplified for Ali by the German edition of the Financial Times just a day before the Greek election, demanding Greeks embrace the discredited pro-austerity parties. The editorial was published in German, and alongside it, Greek.
Working-class politics is under attack not just by the political elite but by a more frightening development – the rise of fascist parties, particularly Golden Dawn in Greece and the anti-Romany Jobbik party in Hungary.
The rise of the extreme centre in the 1990s and fascist parties since the financial crisis has however, as the case of Syriza shows, opened up opportunities for radical left-wing politics to re-emerge. ‘Fascist parties call themselves post-Fascist now. Let’s not be post-socialist.’
That, for Tariq Ali, is the appropriate response then – the clear communication of socialist ideas which put the blame for the financial crisis not on immigrants but on the bankers and speculators who have ruined Europe’s economy. In this, the big question is not which socialist party you belong to, ‘the big question is, what are your politics!’