PRINT December 2016

Tariq Ali

THE STUNNING RISE OF NATIONALISM, populism, and fundamentalism has roiled the world. It is tempting to imagine that we are witnessing just another rotation of political modernity’s cycle of progress and backlash. But we can situate the undoing of the demos in democracy’s longue durée while rejecting the false comfort of the idea that what’s happening is not new, that we’ve seen it all before. How did we get here? How did we create the conditions for Trump, for Brexit, for Mosul, for a daily sequence of devastating events, whether shootings or strikes? Is shock, that quintessentially modernist avant-garde strategy of instigating mass perceptual—and therefore political—change, somehow more prevalent than ever, albeit in radically transformed ways? Does shock, in fact, go hand in hand with apathy and desensitization?
Art must confront these shifts in experience and form. And so Artforum asked curator HELEN MOLESWORTH, activist TARIQ ALI, and political theorist WENDY BROWN to reflect on the year in shock: on the sudden reaction, the surprise turn, the violent wake.

Al Khazar refugee camps, Hassan Sham, Iraq, October 26, 2016. Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters.

IN THE RUN-UP to the Brexit referendum in the UK, the Remain campaign looked certain to prevail. I personally thought that that would be the outcome. They had the bulk of the liberal media on their side, the BBC. And then seventeen million people voted to quit. I was astonished by that. But it happened. And of course, as it turned out, that was mere prelude to a far bigger, even cataclysmic, shock.

Trump demonstrated his capacity to surprise early on. For him to oppose NAFTA was astonishing. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama would repudiate the treaty, and Hillary Clinton surely wouldn’t have either, because it’s very beneficial to the rich and to big corporations. Trump comes out and says he’s opposed to it, and then he denounces the Iraq War quite savagely (though he supported it in the past) and says to Jeb Bush, “Your family is part and parcel of this war,” and Bush is reduced to a gibbering wreck, because he can’t reply. Yet, despite the regularity of such startling pronouncements, Trump’s victory is simply dumbfounding.

More broadly, what strikes me as unexpected is the speed with which this right-wing recrudescence has taken place. Suddenly, in every major European country, you have right-wing groups developing along anti-immigration lines, saying, “We’ve got too many foreigners in our country,” trying to unite voters around populist xenophobia. Of course, most of the politicians and ideologues who deal in such rhetoric, in all of these European nations, forget the many immigrants their countries bequeathed to the New World. One finds the same hypocrisy, inverted, among American xenophobes, who forget that they descend from immigrants themselves.

If the speed of these developments has surprised me, however, the developments themselves have not. The predisposing factors were there to see, the historical patterns well established, even if a convenient amnesia often occludes them. When people are fed up, when they have no work and no income, when they’re subjected to wars, they flee. This has always been the case in times of crisis, throughout world history. If we think in terms of a shorter durée, then we confront the fact that the US and its EU allies uprooted these populations in the first place. When you bomb Arab cities and Arab countries, reduce them to penury, destroy their social infrastructures, and effectively create a vacuum in which religious fundamentalists come to the fore, it is not surprising that millions of people want to run away.

In both Europe and the US, the reaction to the influx of immigrants has been out of control. And naturally, instability and precarity play a role here, too. Had we been living in a time of, let’s say, plentiful social democracy, the response would have been different. It’s when people feel that things are not working out for them, that their earnings are meager and that the level of inequality is too high, that they come to feel: Given how bad things are, why should we share what little we have with anyone?

On the other side of the political spectrum, we witnessed two white-haired guys who maybe don’t look all that brilliant on TV or Twitter—Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US—mobilizing hundreds of thousands of young people, all looking for something different. Corbyn won his bid to be elected Labour leader, while Sanders of course did not become the Democratic presidential nominee, but the sociological analogies are very interesting. Both Sanders and Corbyn endorsed social democracy—only in the tiniest doses, but still, in the world in which we live, even that seems quite startling. During a meeting a few months ago, Corbyn told me that when he was campaigning, he’d said, “If I win we’re going to have free higher education again, like we used to,” and that large numbers of young people came up to him and asked, “Was there really a time when there was free higher education?” They had no memory of it at all, because of the ascendance of what I’ve called the extreme center. That rubric is intended to highlight the fact that the mainstream political parties of North America and Europe—Democrat and Republican, Labour and Conservative, and their respective Continental analogues—in fact work side by side in the service of a single radical neoliberal agenda. And the speed with which this system wipes out memory is incredible. There’s no narrative account of history anymore in our culture, so people have no perspective on their own circumstances.

That, in turn, makes it easier to maintain specious certainties: that we now live in a completely capitalist world and we’ve got to play along with it, support it, strengthen it, etc. Blair as prime minister espoused those ideas rather persuasively, and his successors in Labour’s right wing aren’t prepared to break from the truisms of the extreme center, which is why they’ve responded to Corbyn with total hatred.

Nigel Farage celebrates the result of the Brexit referendum outside the Houses of Parliament, London, June 24, 2016. Photo: Toby Melville/ Reuters.

MANY OF US ON THE LEFT were in a quandary about Brexit. “What are we going to do?” At one stage, I thought I would definitely abstain from the vote, because the pro-Brexit campaign was dominated by the Right. Quite a few other people on the Left, for instance trade-union leaders and a few politicians, said, “We should vote to leave, because after all we can’t defend the EU after what it’s done, in the name of ‘austerity,’ to Greece in particular but also to Spain, Italy, and Portugal.” Corbyn was for staying in and fighting within Europe, although he was very critical of the EU throughout his campaigning. We waged a left-wing campaign called Lexit, Left Exit from Europe, which was very small and had limited impact, but our position certainly did chime with the views of a number of people we talked to on the streets, etc., who said that the country was wrecked and that staying in the EU would prevent us from doing anything to fix it.

Brexit was far from the only recent instance in which far Left and Right have found unlikely common ground. Many contemporary right-wing leaders actually offer a curious mélange of positions, some of them borrowed from the Left. Marine Le Pen, the French postfascist leader, as she calls herself, is a right-wing nationalist, very hostile to Muslims, very hostile to immigration, a great believer in French purity. Yet her social program—I don’t think that she would follow through on it, but on paper—rests on deprivatization, massive use of the state apparatus to help the poor, etc. That’s why she has such large working-class support in France, the Communist Party having surrendered its own working-class support just shamefully, abjectly. For the same reason, the Italian Communist Party has lost much of its support to the Five Star Movement, which is a mixed bag of liberals and right-wingers. No one can quite work it out.

Trump’s own, let’s say, eccentric array of positions defies traditional Left-Right divisions in the same way. Thomas Frank argued this quite well in The Guardian in March, a period when most of what people were talking about was Trump’s appeal to racists. Frank attributed much of Trump’s success to working-class voters’ understanding that “neoliberalism has well and truly failed.” These people really are ignored by mainstream politicians. Similarly, while hostility to immigrants played a role in the Brexit result, what many voters were objecting to was all the cheap labor that corporations import from Eastern Europe. Under EU laws, no one can stop them. That was not a racially based concern, it was economic, a fact downplayed by the media.

I wish I could say that I think the extreme center has been put on notice by the past year’s turmoil and by Trump’s election, that new prospects for the Left and for direct democracy have opened up in the wake of Corbyn’s and Sanders’s campaigns. Unfortunately, I can’t. In the 1960s and ’70s, there was a great deal of optimism. There were few victories, but the defeats weren’t of such a nature that we thought they were going to be permanent or semipermanent. We live in bad times, I feel—the worst through which I’ve ever lived. There was a ray of hope during the height of the Bolívarian experiment in South America, where Chávez’s incredibly moving idea to unite the continent against the empires was very heartening. His death and the dramatic drop in the price of oil have of course brought Venezuela to a dire state. While Ecuador and Bolivia are doing somewhat better, people feel that we are going to be defeated there. And then, with the economic changes that the United States wants in Cuba, one is wondering how long it will be before Cuba becomes a US brothel again. I hope that doesn’t happen. But if it does, I won’t be surprised.

Given the state of the world, I’ve been revived somewhat by working on a new book for the centenary of the Russian Revolution next year, The Dilemmas of Lenin. Lenin was a visionary inspired by utopian dreams, a man of practical action and ruthless realism. Rereading him and related works has been a real treat, so much so that my dedication is actually quite optimistic. “For those who will come after: The road to the future can only be unlocked by the past.”

—As told to Elizabeth Schambelan

Tariq Ali is a radical activist and the editor of the New Left Review, and the author, most recently, of The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (Verso, May 2017).