Pirates of the Caribbean, by Tariq Ali

Spin on the axis of hope
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The Independent Culture

Lucky old Tariq Ali. When the communist world collapsed, and many of his fellow revolutionaries ("turncoats"; "soft-spoken, snivelling journalists and academics", and "bandwagon careerists") jumped ship and embraced the neo-liberal Washington Consensus (which Ali, with touching toilet humour, calls the WC), Ali stuck to his anti-imperial guns. He honed his metaphors, further acidified his bile, and then the bad old empire engaged in the most craven war of all, in Iraq. He could fire off those anti-imperialist salvoes again.

Ali is thus in the curious position of being both a smug and a grumpy old man. While the "voluntary converts to the imperial cause" were stewing in their own hypocritical juices, Ali has been able to push forward his career and keep his principles to boot. Now the search for an "axis of hope" has taken him, with inexorable subtlety, to Latin America. He rightly sees the governments of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia as offering progressive alternatives to the neo-liberals; there is nothing novel in this thesis, widely held in anti-American circles.

Given the genocide, slavery, racism and seigneurial oppression that characterises the history of much of Latin America's governance, the way in which Chávez and Morales break the mould is indeed marvellous. If, as Charles C Mann suggests in his brilliant Ancient Americans (Granta), as much as 95 per cent of the indigenous population was eradicated by the "discovery" of America, the election of the first indigenous Bolivian as President is to be celebrated. A book that laid out the many achievements of Chávez and Morales not only through statistics, but by interviewing ordinary Venezuelans and Bolivians and seeing the effects of their social programmes, would indeed have been a worthy one, revealing genuine alternatives to the current consumptive/ destructive consensus. Unfortunately, this is not the book that Ali has written.

Instead, Pirates of the Caribbean is a hotchpotch of rehashed statistics and political and historical summaries. The first 60 pages (40 per cent of Ali's own offering) are given over to a hilarious rant against "the West and its journalists" cosying up to the WC. Page-long footnotes denounce "toadies", sell-outs and hypocrites, none of whom has anything to do with the subject. These asides may be hugely entertaining, but they are often grossly unfair, as when Ali chides the "second-rate surrogate" Alma Guillermoprieto's articles on Chávez in the New York Review of Books for their critical tone. Can these be the same articles in which Guillermoprieto went to talk to beneficiaries of Chávez's programmes (which Ali singularly fails to do)?

Just as Ali's critiques of others are simplistic, so are his views of history and politics. In the case of Chile, he characterises this June's student strikes as "effectively challenging neo-liberal orthodoxy", when the main protest related to the right to concessionary transport fares.

He laments the inability of the new President, Michelle Bachelet, to challenge the "WC", without noticing the social progress revealed by the election of the first female president in Chile's history - a step which, in such a conservative and chauvinist culture, is of equal significance to events in Caracas and La Paz. Bachelet has installed a cabinet with an equal ration of women to men; but the old Trot in Ali cannot see that female emancipation in Latin America is just as pressing as the need for the South to liberate itself from the North.

The best thing in the book is the transcript of a speech given by Chávez to the UN, a model of concision, eloquence and measured condemnation. Sadly, his remarkable programme has here been used as a vehicle to settle old scores and propagate old dogmas. It is not a pretty sight.

Given Ali's track-record of denouncing those he perceives as having lower moral stature than himself, perhaps I ought to feel worried in case he has a look at anything I have written. Surely he will take this review in the lickspittle, careerist, vitriolic spirit in which it is intended.

Toby Green's book on the Inquisition appears next June from Macmillan