A version of this article appeared in The Scoop, Windsor’s alternative newspaper:
By: Paul Chislett
Having Tariq Ali speak here was certainly a coup for the Humanities Research Group at the University of Windsor, as he is a major voice for the international Left. The jacket blurb of the book, Conversations with Tariq Ali: Speaking of Empire and Resistance, describes Ali as a “novelist, a playwright, a filmmaker, and … author of more than a dozen books… “. He is also an editor of The New Left Review.
Speaking to an overflow crowd in the Assumption University Chapel, on October 2, Ali summed up his talk with a simple sentence: “Killing people doesn’t solve problems.” Ali spoke as an intellectual clearly in touch with high policy decisions made by elite leaders while remaining vitally aware of the crippling effects these decisions have on an average citizen. He contextualized broad issues such as the war in Iraq, Western democracies as oligarchies, and de-regulated capitalism, as necessary components of American imperialism. He urged the audience to view ignored elections in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, as resistance to the Washington Consensus. Citizens in those countries have fought back against neo-liberalism at the ballot box and won. They can teach us something of democracy here in Canada.
Ali used the controversial term Washington Consensus (WC) to describe the coming together of the neo-liberal push to lure countries into accepting increased foreign investment, privatization, deregulation and increased property rights, after the collapse of Communism. He describes the post-Communist world as a time when Left intellectuals went silent, or became sycophants to neo-liberal, global elites. With the Left silenced, and the communist ‘menace’ vanquished, global capitalism with the United States at the forefront was unleashed on an unsuspecting global population. For the true believers of the WC, social democracy, unions and, as Windsorites are painfully aware, meaningful jobs, have became passé.
Venezuela has been most prominent in the news – mostly with neo-liberal tirades against Hugo Chavez. To be sure the bombastic and macho Chavez makes an easy target. However, as Ali points out, he has been democratically elected several times in elections shown as fair and open. The corporate elites cannot stand his ‘outrageous’ behaviour. His crime? Using the oil wealth of Venezuela to pay for public services and reduce poverty. For the working class, that is common sense; for neo-liberals that’s radical. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the mainly indigenous populations have also democratically elected left-wing governments and in Bolivia’s case, Evo Morales is the first indigenous leader of a country in both North and South America. In the case of Bolivia the corporate efforts to privatize water finally pushed people to act and take a stand against corporate plundering.
Ali stated that it is public engagement that will stop the theft of our rights. Just because we have material wealth does not mean we live in a democratic country. He pointed out that the China of today – a capitalist dictatorship – is like Europe 300 years ago. He reached back to the English Chartists (1837-54) who linked economic problems with political representation.[i] Although never to attain their goals, Chartist influence extended to socialism and by extension, to the struggles waged in Central and South America today.
Ali was emphatic; our role as citizens is to resist consumerism, and advance social justice so all citizens can share in the wealth of the world. He knows that we in the West must pay attention to what peaceful mobilization at the ballot box can achieve and he used Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador as examples. Ali claimed that the history someday written of the 21st century will describe a time of panic in the U.S. and the West in general over the economic rise of China and the Far East; a panic which led to war over oil. It is heartening to contemplate the power we have to change the world – Ali’s basic message – and horrific to think we won’t use it.
[i] Chartism “was the first attempt to build an independent political party representing the interests of the labouring sections of the nation.” ( A Dictionary of British History. Ed. John Cannon. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Windsor. 5 October 2007