‘The reassertion of the political’- an interview with Tariq Ali on the future of European citizenship

The reassertion of the political

Tariq Ali is a novelist, journalist and political campaigner whose most recent books include Protocols of the Elders of Sodom and Other Essays (2009), Night of the Golden Butterfly (2010) and The Obama Syndrome (2010). In May 2012 he spoke at the Zagreb Subversive Forum, where he was interviewed by Nick Holdstock.

N.H.:    Maybe we should talk about what’s happening right now. Do you think the recent successes of the left in the European elections are just protest votes against the governments or can we see these as grounds for more general hope?

T.A.:    Well, I think it varies from country to country.  In France I think what we are seeing is the traditional anger of the electorate against incumbents.  It doesn’t matter who is in power over the last few years, the story has been a bad one and the electorate decides OK, let’s vote them out.  This happened in Britain when New Labour were voted out. It has happened in Greece, where PASOK was aware that New Democracy deliberately called an election because they wanted to be voted out, and it has happened in France where Sarkozy has narrowly been voted out, so these are sort of normal things that happen now in the European Union, where the extreme centre rules, in my opinion, and encompasses both centre left and centre right; so when people are fed up with centre right they vote centre left and vice versa.  What is happening in Greece, however, is very different in character - it’s an attempt to break through this stranglehold of the extreme centre on politics and actually to reflect the will of the people. Hence, you see the collapse of the two major parties. Not a total collapse, but in the case of PASOK a very big collapse. And the emergence of SYRIZA, the small political organisation which has now got a huge electoral following. If there is an election in June - which I hope there will be - and they increase their following in formal government, that will be the first modest breakthrough for the left as such in European politics. And then if the Greeks default, that will be a huge business. If they default on the loan and implement parts of their programme. So that is, I think, the most significant thing because that also offers hope to other countries in similar positions, like Spain, like Portugal, like Ireland. They will think if the Greeks can do it, we can do it.  We don’t need to be crushed by the EU monolith.  And so it’s a very interesting development. 

N.H.:    Following on from that, I wonder if we can see what is happening in Greece and other places as many people reassessing what it means to be a citizen of a European country. A shift towards active citizenship, if you like.

T.A.:    Well, I think the European Union promised a great deal and delivered very little.  Voting rights seem to have become totally irrelevant because whoever you elected, it didn’t matter which party, they were carrying out the same elite policies. Greece has made a difference and this will inspire people.  But in order for that to happen you do need to have political instruments and political parties.  It can’t just happen by occupying public spaces.  You know, you need politics for that. And so what we are witnessing in Greece is, in a way, the reassertion of the political and I think that will be extremely important in saying ‘yes, we are citizens; we don’t just have, you know, basic rights.  We have political rights and we want to exercise these political rights and link them to social and economic rights.’ 

N.H.:    That answers my question in terms of being a citizen of a nation state, but then when you shift it to asking what it means to be a citizen of a nation state that is part of Europe, being, if you like, a European citizen, I wonder how that reassessment sort of follows.

T.A.:    Well, I honestly think that over the last years, with the Europeans more or less carrying out the Wall Street economic policies in their homelands, the question of European citizenship has receded.  I think that many people are very cynical about it, and in every country now there has been a reassertion, sometimes healthy, sometimes unhealthy, of national rights.  And that we are basically citizens of Greece, citizens of France, citizens of Germany, citizens of Britain, not citizens of Europe.  The only place in Europe where this sort of European citizenship means something in an exaggerated form is in the Balkans, because of the civil war and because they have absolutely nothing else.  Their own elites are hopelessly corrupt, mired in corruption of one sort of another.  Some of the states are actually sort of criminal states, and so here European citizenship makes them feel good.  It is essentially part of the feel-good factor – it doesn’t actually do anything concretely.  And they are not immune from what is happening in Greece, but they feel that being part of Europe is a big breakthrough.  How long this will last I don’t know.

N.H.:    We were talking in the panels yesterday about alternative Europes and there was a general kind of negative feeling towards even the notion of Europe amongst some people. Some people said that it was purely a geographical entity and that it was this thing that had no resonance for ordinary people.  It was sort of an elite level discourse, if you like.  But then there were others who, of course, stressed the idea of the difference between the institutions of the EU and the idea of some sort of European project, with values and preserving peace and that kind of thing.  I wonder, what is your idea on the necessity and even the possibility of some other, better Europe?

T.A.:    Well, I think there is a necessity for it, but I don’t think it is going to be made possible very rapidly.  The original idea of Europe as proposed by Jean Monet was a very different Europe.  He wanted, effectively, a social democratic Europe, if the truth be told, which was non-aligned to either the United States or the Soviet Union because the idea of Europe emerged after the war, where they wanted to be neutral between the power blocs, like Yugoslavia was.  That was the idea of Europe which would never be fulfilled.  The closest that they came to it was Gaullist France. There was no way the Americans were going to let the Germans go in that direction, it was, after all, an occupied country lacking its own sovereignty.  And De Gaulle on his own couldn’t do it.  Though De Gaulle was very sensible in one sense.  He said that if you want to build a Europe like that, we have to exclude Britain, because this is a country so close to the United States it is essentially an Atlanticist state.

N.H.:    And they did exclude it for a while.

T.A.:    Yes, they did, but they could never actually construct the Europe they wanted.  And I think this was largely because Germany was so heavily involved in the Cold War against the DDR that it was semi-utopian to think of a Europe which would be neutral between the two states.  I mean, there is no way the German bourgeoisie was going to go along with that till the German question was sorted out.  Interestingly enough, this shows some of these right-wing leaders can be pretty far sighted.  Adenauer said to De Gaulle when they first met to talk – he said, of course we have the small problem of a divided Germany, but this is very temporary.  This was said in the fifties. They never saw that Germany could be kept divided for too long a time, and how right they were.  So, ironically enough, those sort of problems have gone, the Cold War is over.  Technically speaking, Europe could be, in my opinion, a political entity which is very different from the United States, but the European elites have totally caved into the wave of triumphalism that spread through the world after the death of the Soviet Union and that old structure.  They thought America is now too powerful and we have to go along with it, and it is our protector in this unstable world because the Cold War certainties were now finished and they needed US protection.  So that made Europe apolitical, if you like, and concentrating exclusively as being part of an economic union.  And Britain coming in, of course, made the whole of Europe move further in that direction, though they were already convinced about it.  And now we see, with the crisis, a sort of semi-collapse of that notion.  What could fill its place?  I’ve been thinking, increasingly, that the way to reform a European Union might be by creating strong regional blocks within Europe. 

For instance, were Scotland to go independent, a Scottish/Irish/Scandinavian block – you know, an economic, political collaborative block would be interesting.  That’s one possibility.  The Balkan problem could begin to be reconfigured, though not by trying to reconstruct the old Yugoslavia – it’s not going to happen.  It was created in very specific times in a very definite period during the Second World War. But by a larger Balkan confederation of republics, a Balkan republic, Greece, all the former Yugoslav states and Bulgaria. Then you have the Scandinavian/Northern European Confederation, in which England can be a part if it wants to.  I don’t know what they want.

N.H.:    I don’t think we know.

T.A.:    Then you have a Balkan Confederation, and then you can have an Iberian link-up, you know, which is sort of very normal and natural between Spain and Portugal, and in other words, develop regional entities like this which are at least able to challenge the will of the strong states of Europe – Germany, France, Britain – and say, ‘OK, we’re not alone, we’re not teeny little states, we speak.  This is our territory.’  That, I think, could be a possible way back to creating a different Europe. Ideally, the notion of a European parliament with real powers – I like that, but I think it is now utopian, given the scale of the crisis.  I think that if a European parliament had been created in the 70s or 80s with real powers to enforce policy, you could have had a social Europe, a social democratic Europe, against the neo-liberals.  At least there would have been a huge fight, which would have politicised the populations of Europe, and they would have participated in it.  And the other thing we could have prevented was the break-up of Yugoslavia.  I do hold the European Union responsible, largely.  I know there were internal factors, but there were external factors, too, in the break-up of this entity, and they were largely, in my opinion, the Germans.  They were very responsible for that, for which they haven’t accepted blame, but they should at some stage, because it is horrific, what happened here.

N.H.:    That isn’t really part of the conventional narrative yet, is it?

T.A.:    It isn’t. After the collapse of the economy, or its collapsing, in the Soviet Union, the Germans thought ‘a quick move here and we can reconfigure – so break Slovenia and hive Croatia off.’  And at the same time, the Serbs were going in for a sort of unpleasant type of nationalism, so it all came together, but if the European Union had decided we should keep this state together, all they had to do was offer money.  Two billion would have done the trick, and actually rebuilt the economies. They could have said ‘OK, no one country is going to be dominant, the Federation has got to work in a particular way.  The basis is there and this is what needs to be done.’  The elites here, or the emerging elites, could have been bought.  They didn’t do it, so we have had a lot of problems, given the way the European Union functions.  But I would say that a Europe of the regions, with strong regional entities, could create a basis for something else in years to come.  But whether this will happen I don’t know.  I mean, at the moment the situation is pretty bleak because the large bulk of the European citizens see the European Union completely under the control of banking elites and politicians linked to them. In Britain, they don’t think about Europe, full stop, as you know.

N.H.:    There are a few blank spots on the map, obviously not just in Europe, for the British media, where it almost doesn’t matter what’s happening.

T.A.:    Except in the US, which is covered endlessly on television.  It is as if we were participating in the politics of the US.

N.H.:    However big the supra-national boundary is, whether it is regional or continental or even global, I wonder if there is a conflict between getting people to think of themselves in these different roles as citizens of these different levels.  You can know rationally that it is all connected, but at the same time, you live at a local level.

T.A.:    It’s true, but what is interesting to me is that this globalised phase of capitalism is a sort of turbo-charged system that has made capital very international, but it has actually provincialised its constituencies.  And that is so noticeable because throughout the Cold War period people were far more engaged in what was happening in different parts of the world.  Both the press and citizens.  People, you know, had a rough idea.  Today, certainly in the United States, they have no idea – if you say to them, what is the capital of, you know, a Latin American state, they would know Venezuela because they hate Chavez. The enemies they know, but for countries not close to them, they have no idea at all. This deep provincialisation can be broken, I don’t think it’s insurmountable.  But it is only broken in times of crisis, like the whole of Europe now is focused on Greece, thinking about Greece, what is going to happen in Greece.  People know the names of Greek political parties, etc., but it is in times of war and crisis that people get de-provincialised and, you know, in the former Yugoslavia – and there were many – nonetheless, there was a feeling that they were citizens of Yugoslavia.  The ethnic inter-marriages … I was a bit surprised to find out – someone said that only ten per cent were inter-marriages, which I wonder if it is accurate, but then half of these people were in Bosnia. I don’t know what the real figures are, but they were low, but nonetheless there was a sense of being Yugoslav. And the fact that this was a neutral state between the Cold War blocs gave it a huge prestige in the Third World. Yugoslav citizens travelled widely to Asia, to Africa, you know, taking expertise.  Technical, economic expertise, helping set up companies, etc.  So it depends – it is not simply a function of the people who live in small countries.  It is also a function of the world in which they are placed, that creates the provincialism.  I don’t think it is a permanent thing.  I think it can be broken through.  It is not easy now, but it can be done.

N.H.:    It seems that we have a kind of 19th / early 20th century form of politics, which is territorial, yet power and capital are so unrooted. How do you get the political systems of the nation states to catch up to how things work?  It seems like a big jump.

T.A.:    Especially nowadays, when capital isn’t industrial capital in Europe.  It’s financial capital.  One press of a button and you can transfer two billion from Montenegro to a bank in Switzerland.  No one knows how it happens, you know.  There is no transparency at all, which creates a deep sense of alienation and people cling to what they’ve got, which is not very much.  Their nationality and sometimes their religion.

N.H.:    Going back to the Balkans, what kind of consequences do you think that the current Euro zone crisis is likely to have in the western Balkans, especially the countries that are part of the EU accession process.  Are we going to see cold feet, or an internal debate about joining?

T.A.:    Well, it’s a question now also, not about what these countries want to do, but about what the big states in the EU want them to do. Given what they have gone through with Greece, do they want to bring in other new states, with even lesser populations than Greece, into the business and experience a similar thing down the road in 4 or 5 years time? It would be a very rash leadership of the EU in Germany and France which would go along with that, but they might do it because they sometimes can be blind. 

N.H.:    They were wilfully blind with Greece.  I was listening to ‘This American Life’ on NPR where they interviewed some of the diplomats who were in charge of Greece’s entry into the Euro. One of the negotiators said ‘You know, we knew the Greek diplomats were lying to us about pretty much everything; we knew this was a lie, we knew those figures could not possibly be true, that there would be these problems, but in international diplomacy you don’t call someone a liar.’

T.A.:    It’s just total nonsense.  Basically, they gobbled up as much as they could in the European Union to expand it.  The Greeks weren’t the only people who lied – the Italians did, you know.  And they were so determined to expand the Union very, very quickly.  Hence the deals with Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, etc.  This is why everyone is very cynical because, you know, the entire criteria were barely fulfilled.  You can even argue whether the French were totally honest, but in any event, I think basically the European Union is confronting a huge crisis – a crisis, an economic one, we know, but it is also a crisis of so-called European ideology.  You know, what is Europe?  Whose Europe is it and how is this Europe going to function?  Then you have two related structural problems. What sort of Europe are you building, which can expand and take in all these little states but which excludes Russia and Turkey?  How can you exclude Russia?  It doesn’t have Asia attached to it, or not too much of it.  It is essentially a European state, and I think the Russians have stopped bleating on about it, but they certainly used to say ‘why can’t we be in NATO and the European Union?’ So it has been quite a deformed Europe that was created in a way, and the choices are limited.  Either they revert to a core Europe and a very clear, two-tier structure, or they have to expand and take in Russia and Turkey, and that completely changes the relationship of forces within Europe which, funnily enough, might benefit smaller states like the Balkan states, the Western Balkan states.  But who knows?  At the moment they seem to be stuck in a crisis which they can’t pull out of and to which they are closing their eyes.

I think there is a debate now beginning in Germany and the Atlanticist Germans, the Social Democrats and the Greens, are thinking – you know, not openly, but certainly privately, that maybe the European thing as is, isn’t such a good idea.  We have to be Atlanticist first and Germany is growing too powerful within the structures of the EU.  Because if you look at last week’s Der Spiegel there is a huge article saying that of course the Greeks should ditch the Euro, when the entire elite are saying ‘no, no, no,’ so privately, obviously that is the view of the Social Democrats – or some of the Social Democratic Party leadership. A number of German intellectuals are saying this is a very dangerous situation.  We are in a post-democratic situation now and it is dangerous for Europe.  So I think Germany will have a social democratic/ green coalition. Which direction they will take in Germany remains to be seen.  If they carry on just like her they will get isolated.  So they might go for something a bit more adventurous, but it’s difficult to see what.  The United States, of course, always wanted to expand Europe to such a degree that it became an irrelevance.  Make it an economic union – money, money, money – don’t allow it to develop anything political.  And they’ve done that.

N.H.:    Pretty well. 

T.A.:    They’ve done very well, which is why they are giggling – you know, some of their columnists are giggling at the mess that Europe has found itself in- both Krugman and Stiglitz saying ‘even here we haven’t done enough, but at least there is some stimulus from the Europeans’.

N.H.:    Last night, Saskia Sassen was talking about the politics of occupying urban spaces.  I was wondering how the presence of thousands of protestors on the streets of most European cities over the last few years is affecting the relationship between citizens and their states.  Is it a temporary thing or does it actually shift or qualitatively affect that relationship?

T.A.:    Well, the way I would put it is that the occupation of public spaces can only be a temporary thing and that unless the people involved in occupying public spaces go on to occupy a political space in society at large, I think it will be temporary.  And that is the big challenge facing them.  Otherwise the indignatos coming out a year after the first occupation of the Puerta Del Sol in Madrid and saying ‘we are observing the anniversary of our big occupation’, it becomes a ritual.

The other thing which they should be marking is the election of a pretty nasty, right-wing government in Spain which followed that occupation.  So I think that unless they re-assert the political, and the right to be political, and have a different political agenda and fight for it, they will be marginalised.  I mean, in Britain – in England - it has been very weak anyway. The occupy movement in Italy, it barely exists.  In Germany it barely exists.  Spain has been the one country where it has been huge and in the United States it has been uneven.  So I don’t think one should exaggerate its import too much.

N.H.:    To shift outside Europe – even in Egypt, there was an incredible mobilisation of people, but there was nothing political for it to translate into, and so all those people just got marginalised.

T.A.:    Exactly.  And then imagining that somehow, out of thin air, a political party or a movement or something would emerge which they could all join – you have to create these things.  And so I am not at all surprised that in both Tunisia and Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has won.  Because what else are people going to vote for?  They didn’t want to vote for the regime.  These movements, despite all their other weaknesses, had been victimised, their militants tortured, brutalised etc.  So they voted for them.  It didn’t surprise me at all.  And so this is a big weakness of the Occupy movement in Spain and in the United States, and it has to be circumvented, otherwise you have developments like the German development of the Pirate party. What they say we can all agree with.  We need transparent government, all the decisions should be made in front of the people.  Fine.  Then what? You will say you don’t agree with them.  Fine.  Then how will you challenge them because if transparency is there - in fact the system, horrific though it is, is pretty transparent.  Everyone does know what is going on, but OK, they want more transparency.  Fine.  But then, are you going to create something to challenge what is happening or are you just satisfied with the transparency?  So, it is sort of – the Pirates are a form of attempt, I feel, to institutionalise the depoliticisation which exists among certain layers of society, and not very positive, from that point of view.  I mean, you know, the best of luck to them to get their transparency, but it is just not sufficient. 

N.H.:    We are all so obsessed with the Euro question and the Euro crisis at the moment, and I wonder if our focus is being too narrow about what really matters here. Maybe the economic and social fate of Europe isn’t really going to be decided in Europe.  Let’s even leave America out of this. We were talking yesterday about Germany’s economic power relying on exports and manufacturing, and in ten, fifteen years time, maybe everything they export is going to be made in China anyway, so I wonder if we are missing the long view here.

T.A.:    Well, I think this is a sort of general failing in Europe.  It’s not just that its constituent parts are provincialised.  I think Europe itself has become very provincialised, though there are clearly people within the European elites who do think globally.  My own feeling is that the future of Europe will be determined by international developments, just as what is happening in Europe now was determined by the fall of Communism and the Washington Consensus, and the decision to accept the Wall Street system as a system for Europe.  It didn’t emerge from Europe, on the contrary. Europe had a slightly different idea, but they accepted that.  So, what the effect of Chinese growth will be on the German economy is a very good question.  I mean, I think they can wipe the Germans out if they wanted to.  That also raises other questions on how viable is the Chinese economy.  Might it not go through its own crises?  Will the heavy presence of the state in the Chinese economy – will that be able to prevent economic crisis?  If so, how. So far it has avoided all of this.  But the telltale signs are there.  And then, having a state in which there is virtually no accountability on any level for the rulers is a dangerous business.  It can get out of control, as shown by Chinese history – the pre-Communist history of a sort of warlord-ist regionalism, which I almost felt I was seeing a repeat of when Bo Xilai was removed. Here was a local, economic warlord who had done some things without permission, though other things he had done as they are all doing, such as getting rich.  But some things he had done without getting the permission of the Emperor, which is the Politbureau, and the Emperor crushed him.  So it is very interesting - I wish we had more stuff coming out of China and being published in the Western press and even in learned journals.  But I think there are lots of unpredictables there.  Then the other question is this fear that the Greek elite has sort of created in the nation that without the Euro we are finished, as if nothing existed before it. And again, as if the Germans are the only power in the land.  There is absolutely no doubt that relations between the Greeks and the Russians have been quite close. The Russians and the Chinese are totally capable of coming to the rescue if asked to do so. 

N.H.:    I think people are scared of imagining anything else.

T.A.:    I know.  It is a real climate of fear.  And that exists here too, the idea that without the Euro we are finished.  It is accepting this notion that in the Balkans we are primitive people, that we will start killing each other unless there is an outside force to protect us.  Under the Ottoman Empire we didn’t do too much, or the Austro-Hungarians and so now the European Union becomes a sort of – well, you know it is really nonsensical stuff which is doing the rounds. I find it really depressing, discovering these old monarchs, because they have to go beyond their immediate past.  King Nikola in Montenegro and the early kings who presided over a tiny Croatian entity and the Serbs have their own mythical figures in the battle against the Muslims – God, and it just grows. 

N.H.:    And the real story, the real un-glamorous story of different peoples mixing together and getting on fine in a place like Salonica. You look at the story of that place and it tells the story of how there wasn’t this heavy, oppressive regime holding it together.  It was just trade.

T.A.:    I agree with you.


Pictures by Robert Crc.