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Can democracy be salvaged?

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In the late 1970s, several years before Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the remaking of civic nationalism in Scotland was underway.

The country’s northernmost region – still a stateless nation seeking desperately to achieve sovereignty amidst grotesquely uneven economic development – had yet to feel the emphatic turn towards neoliberalism, ushered in at the end of the decade by the politico-economic orthodoxy of market fundamentalism. It would eviscerate the working classes, severely weaken social programmes and influence new forms of resistance.

The discovery of North Sea oil, for instance, and the subsequent arrival of multinational corporations ensured Scotland would receive nothing as part of the United Kingdom. During the February 1974 General Election, “It’s Scotland’s oil” became an official slogan of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and MPs like Tam Dalyell, but it was not to be. An historical tradition of economic subordination continues today.

The anecdote is instructive. On May 7, 2015, the date of the latest General Election, the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon secured 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. Its coherent economic platform, one that is decidedly anti-nuclear and rejects austerity, spurred a movement of self-determination that had since delivered 1.6 million ‘Yes’ votes during the independence referendum eight months before. Next to the smoldering wreckage of Labour and a defeated Ed Miliband, the SNP looked the most progressive ideology and platform in the United Kingdom. It continues to gain momentum.

Scottish nationalism is, of course, a reaction to the failure of democracy across Europe and much of the Western world. Today, as in the 1970s, there is great hostility toward a consensus that places market fundamentalism ahead of social democratic reform, defends mass surveillance as absolutely necessary to defeat terrorism and embraces sterile political homogeneity as a unifying morality.

This is the system of the extreme centre, a breed of democracy “in which centre-left and centre-right collude to preserve the status quo; a dictatorship of capital that has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead.”

How did we get here?

It’s a worthwhile question, one that writer and journalist Tariq Ali attempts to answer at length in The Extreme Centre: A Warning, his newest book analyzing the sordid state of democracy in Britain (and abroad), the author’s home for over half a century.

The narrative is one that generalizes across the Western world: each year, fewer people vote. Official politics is, by and large, a contest between competing brands to determine which might best serve the dictates of the free market. Elections are fuelled by corporate cash. Politicians ensure little more than a continuation of austerity, deficit reduction, public sector cuts and a general retreat from areas of social concern and provision. Populist movements, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly attacked. Meaningful dissent and civil disobedience is criminalized, and ‘left’ politics are pushed further to the margins of acceptable opinion.

To Ali, the period from 1994-2010, that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour, marked the total capitulation of Britain’s so-called ‘Left’. The wholesale adoption of market economics coupled with a subservient relationship to Washington and its illegal march to war in Iraq in 2003 were its defining characteristics. The same policies now dominate continental Europe and the NATO alliance.

“The culture of New Labour was not simply to maintain the status quo,” Ali writes, “but to defend it as an achievement of the free market and insist that there was no conflict between corporate interests and those of working people… What is needed is a complete turnaround, preceded by a public admission that the Wall Street system could not and did not work and has to be abandoned.”

New Labour largely betrayed working people and consigned a legacy of Thatcher-era policies to a young generation ill-equipped to deal with them. Its obsession with spin and media management replaced policy with rhetoric – the government failed to fulfill its promise to renationalize British railways in 1997; opened the door to public-private partnerships which today threaten the National Health Service (NHS); and sustained a foreign policy that played second fiddle to the United States in Kosovo and Iraq.

The Brown-Blair consensus infected British Labour profoundly. The party lost the trust of the public and today is largely indistinguishable from the Conservatives. This has popularized fledgling nationalist parties of the far left and right – the SNP and UKIP, respectively – among sectors of the working class disillusioned by generations of stagnation and neglect.

Meanwhile, US hegemony remains inviolable and unassailable. Despite showing signs of decline, most of which Ali says are overstated, American soft power and imperialism continues to destabilize the Muslim world and create ever monstrous branches of extremist violence.

What are the alternatives? Ali looks beyond the United Kingdom, but not necessarily the SNP, for solutions. In Greece, it is Alexis Tsipras and Syriza whose standoff with the Troika (European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund) signals a nascent, continent-wide mass movement against austerity. In unemployment-riddled Spain, Pablo Iglesias and Podemos are mounting a struggle to restore working-class politics as a tool in the hands of the people. Such Bolivarian ideals – both Tsipras and Iglesias consider Hugo Chávez a profound influence – are connected, however, only by their potential for mass mobilization, Ali argues. The South American model might be headed to Europe, but there are doubts surrounding its potential to shake the capitalist system at its foundations.

The chain of electoral victories in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia provide the greatest hope for systemic reform. The nationalization of fossil fuels, an authentic reconstruction of the welfare state and anti-war platforms challenge the neoliberal order and a century of hemispheric dominance by the United States. Under ubiquitous external threats and provocations, however, such ideas are never permitted to blossom independently.

The Extreme Centre is a valuable update on the troubled state of democracy. Ali writes with a focused intensity that is at once polemic and deeply lucid. Despite skirting any mention of the environment and how climate change might alter comprehensively the prospects for revolutionary change in the middle of the twenty-first century, there is an inspiring optimism in these pages. The lessons, too, for social movement activists are plenty (“Politics, not sociology is the need of the decade”) particularly in the lead up to crucial elections in Canada (19 October) and Spain (20 December) later this year.

The Extreme Centre: A Warning is available from Verso Books. You can purchase it here.

Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.

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