Review of Tariq Ali’s The Extreme Centre

51TAmyTGmWL._AC_US218_

Ali, Tariq, The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.71-2.

The Extreme Centre: A Warning

Tariq Ali

London and New York, NY: Verso, 2015

ISBN: 9781784782627

200 pp.

I do admire Tariq Ali for his work as editor of the New Left Review, his novels, his media appearances and the air of magisterial outrage he is able to pull off while doing so, together with some of his other books. He makes admirably clear his rejection of colonialism and imperialism in all its forms and is able to articulate the damage that adventurist foreign policy is doing to the world and is just as trenchant in dealing with domestic politics. Both of these arenas are deployed in The Extreme Centre, in which Ali has joined together examinations of life in the contemporary UK, USA and elsewhere to provide a warning about his understanding of the state of the world today. True to Gramsci’s dictum advising the employment of pessimism of the intellect, it is fair to conclude that he does not think things are going very well.

The unifying concept is that of the extreme centre, which is a way of describing the current neoliberal political settlement and the seemingly unbreakable chokehold the forces of the bourgeois establishment have on the levers of power and the national coffers. As things stand, there is no difference between the principal political parties and, in the concluding chapter, he looks to the emerging political movements of Spain and Greece for inspiration. Of course, the book was written before the disastrous Brexit debacle and it would have been interesting to see how he would have incorporated that into his analysis. Both principal political parties in the current USA presidential election cycle have witnessed considerable success by candidates running as anti-establishment outsiders (under false pretences in one case) and the current understanding of the Brexit vote is being cast in the same light. This rather suggests that it is possible at the least to mobilise large numbers of people to protest against the extreme centre and, perhaps, even bring about some meaningful concessions.

The book is organized in six chapters, with an introduction and, as an appendix, includes a poem by Ian Birchall entitled ‘The Seven Ages of a Labour MP.’ The first chapter on ‘English Questions’ and the second on ‘Scottish Answers’ stick to the concept of the extreme centre, although the construction of these chapters is a little strange. He begins with the principal argument:

“We live in a country without an opposition. Westminster is in the grip of an extreme centre, a trilateral monolith, made up of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition plus Labour: yes to austerity, yes to imperial wars, yes to a failing EU, yes to increased security measures, and yes to shoring up the broken model of neoliberalism (p.17).”

This is then supported by a jeremiad principally based on New Labour and its failings and followed by 18 pages of descriptions of some former ministers who have subsequently been employed by companies which they might once have regulated through what Private Eye and others call the ‘revolving door,’ as well as the transcript of an interview with a professor of public health research and policy about the future of the NHS. It is easy to criticize the administrations of Blair and Brown, of course but telling the full story would acknowledge the good work that was done in those years, which often had to be accomplished more or less by stealth because of the relentless hostility of the majority of mainstream media in the UK. Polly Toynbee and David Walker (2001, 2005, 2011) have written a series of books aiming to provide a more nuanced approach by itemizing all the different policies, campaigns and initiatives that were taken to try to improve life for the people of Britain and to try to determine which would have taken place anyway and those which did not have the intended primary effect or suffered from unintended secondary effects. They are cautiously positive about the results and their explanations are persuasive. Tariq Ali sees nothing positive about the Labour government and, in the following chapters, sees little benefit from Labour’s previous electoral supremacy in Scotland and its replacement by the Scottish Nationalist Party and its People’s Vows. I might have expected him to take more of an internationalist perspective.

The next chapters deal with the European Union, NATO and the USA. In these chapters, the extreme centre concept is dropped (it is reintroduced in the final chapter) and the author is free to rail at familiar enemies:

“If unelected bankers are deciding upon the needs of people in a number of European countries, as they are, how can this move things forward? But this is not something understood today by the uncritical defenders of Europe. For them, there’s nothing wrong, Europe is great, it’s a great idea, don’t do anything to it (p.104).”

These chapters are somewhat unevenly written and some sections, at least, give the impression that they have been imported from other projects. The analysis can be quite superficial, as is notably the case with the treatment of the rise of China, which rests upon an inadequate set of readings. The book’s final chapter, ‘Alternatives,’ allows the purveyors of new political movements in continental Europe to describe their progress in their own terms rather than providing objective analysis of the possibility of such groups actually being able to take power and bring about meaningful change. Then, as previously mentioned, there is the concluding poem, which is really not very good.

I began this review by noting that I do admire Tariq Ali and his work and I will be happy to read others of his books, both fiction and non-fiction. However, this is not his most successful effort.

References

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2001). Did things get better? An audit of success and failures (London: Granta).

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2005). Better or worse? Has Labour delivered? (London: Granta).

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2011). The verdict: did Labour change Britain? (London: Granta).

Review of Charles Stross’s Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
London: Pan Macmillan, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4472-4539-2
331 pp.

I first came across the work of Charles Stross through his Merchant Princes series, which postulated a parallel earth (and, subsequently, a number of different earths) and a small group of people who could travel between them by some sort of magic-like technology. The parallel earth is medieval in technology and society and its leaders want rapid economic development, largely so as to reinforce their own power. Consequently, they organize a large-scale organized trade in illegal drugs, which eventually brings about their downfall in a hail of nuclear bombs. All of this is revealed at the beginning of the current book so do not qualify as spoilers. It is the political and, particularly, the economic elements of the story that drew praise and support from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.

After the six episodes of the Merchant Princes, Stross moved on to other ideas. There were some one off space adventures, as I recall, which were OK and then the development of his Laundry series. This series combined Lovecraftian horror with British satire. Although it has been extremely popular, I never really took to it and, indeed, stopped buying the books some years ago. As a result, I hadn’t read any Stross for a number of years. So, it was a bit of a surprise to see Empire Games prominently displayed in Taipei’s Son Min bookshop and representing itself as a return to the Merchant Princes storyline and, also, a delight.

Considering the ending of the previous series and bearing in mind the author’s penchant for writing multi-novel storylines (unless it is the preference of the publisher or his agent), it is not surprising that this first novel does quite a lot to set up the series for development over the next few years. The book begins with an explanation of the world as we now know it, which means it would be possible to start the series without having read the previous one, although to do so would be a willful denial of pleasure. There are four main timelines presented. One of these is the nuked Gruinmarkt, which is unlikely to play a large part of the narrative for the foreseeable future. There is our own timeline, which of course has the history of the previous interactions with the Clan of world-walkers. The third timeline is the one discovered by Miriam, the principal protagonist of the first series but less significant so far here. That world sees confrontation between the British and French empires, which dominate the world. This is the place where the remnants of the Clan have taken refuge and from which Miriam is plotting a series of urgent technological great leaps forward to protect themselves from the inevitable discovery by the America of our world. Alas, we still have President Rumsfeld in charge and his USA contains all the dangerous poison of racism and intolerance that is evident under the real-life incumbent. A secret war between the two worlds has, in effect, been declared but the Americans are hampered by lack of world-walking ability. This is where our new principal protagonist, Rita, enters the scene. It is discovered by the Homeland Security spooks that Rita, daughter of a Miriam she has never known, can be made into their own stars and stripes world-walker. Hence, the action unfurls from these initial premises.

This is a great return to form, in my opinion. The character of Rita is engaging enough and the action scenes taut and gripping. The dialogue is as good as might be found in any fantasy or science fiction genre (the book could be placed in either of these sections in bookshops that distinguish books in this way). Above all, there is a sense of inherent doom in the fourth timeline, which is currently gripped by an ice age, where the mysterious forerunners have left behind powerful technologies, perhaps because of some terrible disaster.

Stross writes superior fiction because of his willingness to engage in the political implications of the worlds about which he writes. His revolutions are believable and his portrayal of the masses, who are given sufficient walk-on parts to make sure the reader is aware of their presence. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier to swallow as a result.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the forthcoming episodes.