Western democracy is being “hollowed out”. Don’t rely on political leaders to do your thinking for you. Default on your country’s, or even your city’s, debts if you have to.
These were the themes of Tariq Ali’s 65-minute review of the planet’s problems on Tuesday night. Of Barack Obama, his ostensible subject, the audience heard little. “I tend not to talk about personalities but the circumstances in which they make policies,” he said, seeming to take for granted that the US President will be elected to a second term in the White House (because the Republican opposition is “so nutty it can’t be taken seriously.”)
Obama’s 2008 victory had been “a historic step forward”, but the hopes it raised -- particularly amongst the young -- had been forgotten “within months”. Little on the level of civil or foreign policy had improved. He had been “visionless” on the economic crisis, remaining “loyal to Wall Street”, and broken his promises to shut Guantanamo and protect government whistleblowers. In Afghanistan, he’d failed to extricate the US from an unwinnable revenge war “now completely out of control”.
For Ali, this failure to break with the past is set within a larger context: the emergence in western politics of an “extreme centre, where right and left parties behave in much the same way”. Austerity at home, aggression abroad. “What’s the difference between Blair and Cameron?” he asked. “I don’t know. Virtually none. Which is why the young have switched off to politics.”
In Europe, this had led to “a huge democratic deficit”, with “governments led by bankers, who were responsible for the crisis, put there as cops to make sure the austerity measures are put through”. “What would you do?” Ali was asked at another literature festival, in Greece. “Default, I said. “Let the Greek elite pay the price. Re-establish the drachma. You’ll be flooded with tourists!”
The audience might have liked Ali to allow more time for questions. And to have heard more about his closing, chopped-off thought that "the ecology is under serious threat, which can only be stopped with global planning, not by the market". They might even have liked a few insights about Obama.