Crisis from Pakistan to Motown

Against the Current, No. 140, May/June 2009

interview with Tariq Ali

TARIQ ALI IS the author of numerous political books and essays, as well as a filmmaker and novelist currently working on the fifth and final work of his “Islam Quintet,” which will focus on the end of the Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus civilization in Spain. (The most recent of these novels is A Sultan in Palermo.) In March he spent three weeks as a visiting professor and lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint. On March 14, he spoke with David Finkel and Dianne Feeley from the ATC editorial board.

Although living in Britain, Tariq Ali was born in Pakistan and was a prominent political militant there in the 1960s, so we began by asking his views on the crisis in his native country. Our discussion took place just one day before the stunning victory of the democratic lawyers’ struggle for the reinstatement of the Supreme Court judges who were sacked by the former military dictator Musharraf. This was also his first visit to Detroit and Flint, so we wanted to get his impressions of the industrial ruins he witnessed after a tour of the former Motor City.

Pakistan’s Permanent Crisis

TARIQ ALI:  Unfortunately there appears only one way the crisis in Pakistan can go — toward another military takeover. In the past 60 years we have had this cycle of politics in Pakistan — military takeover, mass unrest followed by elections, then civilian government which is usually so corrupt that people get fed up and the military takes over again.

This time around the timing seems to be telescoped, in that the current regime is so corrupt, so incompetent, incapable of defending its own people or asserting its monopoly of violence, that it’s very unlikely that it will last too long.

The United States of course plays a key role — it’s very amusing to see Richard Holbrooke offering instructions to the government to make a deal with the opposition but not to reinstate the Chief Justice Iftikar Muhammad Choudhry, who was sacked by the previous dictatorship, and who was very popular in Pakistan but hated by the United States. He defended civil liberties and ordered that detainees be produced in court. [It appears that U.S. policy changed as the mass movement led by the lawyers threatened to bring down Pakistan president Ali Zardari’s government — ed.]

Choudhry had accepted a legal appeal from the steelworkers’ union protesting the privatization of the industry. Pakistan has never had anything remotely like this. The Chief Justice became the only figure who was trusted in the country. The latest mass movement into the streets is a demand for his reinstatement. This would be a tremendous democratic victory.

But behind all this crisis of course is the war in Afghanistan and the fact that the United States is now mired there, and that the Obama administration doesn’t appear to have any exit strategy. Sending troops to secure the roads in Afghanistan is itself an indication that they cannot win this war, and they know it. So what they will do is an open question, but the longer they stay the worse for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At this point, how long the United States will stand behind Ali Zardari remains to be seen. If the law and order situation gets totally out of control, the military will say to Washington, these guys can’t handle it and we need a green light to take over — and the United States will probably agree, although reluctantly.

I don’t think Obama has all that much time. When they met before Obama became president, Zardari — who’s a brainless business type — kept referring to him as “Senator Osama.”

ATC: What’s the present situation with the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with its history of sponsoring the Taliban? And what do you make of the situation in the Swat Valley where control has largely been ceded to pro-Taliban forces?

TA: The ISI is totally under the control of the military, I think. They have a few toxic assets in the shape of some paramilitaries who are out of control.

The Afghanistan war has radicalized the insurgent elements in the Swat Valley. They cross the Afghan border at will. It’s always been an artificial border set up by the British, who never really tried to control it — if you were wearing Pashtun tribal clothes you could cross without showing a passport. Only under the Russians did the border begin to be taken more seriously.

A lot will depend on what happens in Afghanistan. If the Pakistani military is forced to participate, there’s a serious danger that the military will split.

As for the nuclear weapons, those are under the control of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Some people say that there’s even a U.S. mechanism in place that can immobilize the weapons if there’s any threat of their being used, although there’s no confirmation of that. It’s not discussed openly, but we understand that this guarantee has been made to Israel. Whether the Pakistani military has secreted nuclear-armed missiles in some secret facility, unknown to anyone, no one knows…

All this is aside from the issue of Kashmir. That is another story, a long one.

The Ruins of Detroit

ATC: What is your reaction to your first view of our devastated industrial zone in Flint and Detroit?

TA: Well, that’s just what it is. I was really quite shocked to see a First World city in this condition — I’ve read about it of course, but seeing it is something else. The factories just lie wrecked, not even preserved in a few reservations as they did with the Native Americans after the genocide…. Seeing Detroit and Flint gives you a sense of the devastation that capitalism wreaked on cities and lives as it shifted from one mode to another.

The Diego Rivera mural (at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicting the Ford Rouge plant) is a stark reminder of what this area used to be like, a very strong industrial city with a powerful industrial work force, even the memory of which post-1980s capitalism is trying to wipe out. The elites in this area seem to be as visionless as those in Third World countries, lining their pockets with no concern for the people. You can really see it here.

In Flint they’ve more or less cemented over the history of the town. I asked some people, where are the factories where the 1930s sit-ins were? They took me and said, that’s where it used to be. The only memory left standing is the bar where workers used to go for a drink after work.

Someone told me about a movie about the famous Women’s Auxiliary (“With Babies and Banners,” featuring among others Genora Johnson Dollinger — ed.) and I understand there are oral histories of those struggles. This world in which we live, created by capitalism since the late 1980s, has made great assaults on history — we see this quite strongly in the academy with the postmodernist argument that “there is no valid historical narrative” and anyone can have their own history. This always angered me, but to see this (loss of memory) in a town like Flint is really quite disturbing.

By comparison I was once in Weimar, Germany where they had a huge exhibition in the center of the town, showing the entire history of the (post-World War I) Weimar Republic including images of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. One lesson is that the U.S. labor movement has no strong political voice, no political party. The fact that this does exist in Europe really does affect the culture.

I can also see at the University of Michigan at Flint, in a town that is 80-85% African American, but there’s virtually no reflection of that at the university. The number of African Americans on the campus is very low. I’ve also heard reports from professors about students who work 60 hours a week and can barely keep awake in class — what the hell is going on, they say, this place isn’t functioning like a real university.

Political Impact of the Crisis

It’s a big crisis of perspective for the capitalist and neoliberal parties of Europe. And all the social-democratic parties of Europe, which had become neoliberal parties and defended the Washington consensus quite openly, are now in severe crisis. The British Labour Party, “New Labour,” to begin with is completely bankrupt, like the economy it’s been promoting for the past 12 years.

Labour’s first response to the financial meltdown was to blame the United States, saying “it’s all Wall Street’s fault” — but people responded, “what about the City of London?” My colleague Peter Gowan had a very funny response: The City of London (British financial district — ed.) was the Guantanamo of Wall Street capitalism, because every kind of abuse was permitted.

The problem we face in terms of the Labour Party is that there was such a clean sweep by (Tony) Blair and (Gordon) Brown that they effectively destroyed it as a political party. They changed its structure, so that everything is top-down almost like a Stalinist sect. There’s no internal life, they’ve lost tens of thousands of members, the trade unions have put up no serious fight. It’s a big mess, and the only people who have benefited are the Conservatives, who are positioning themselves as more human than Labour, sometimes even attacking from the left.

The left as a whole in Britain is incredibly weak. In the rest of Europe it’s somewhat uneven. In France the unions weren’t defeated or smashed, the public sector unions put up a big fight, and Sarkozy couldn’t put through all the neoliberal reforms he wanted. When asked about it, he said “I don’t forget what country I’m living in. The people who smile today at me and my beautiful wife can set up street barricades tomorrow.”

In France the largest far-left group (Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, LCR) has set up a new anti-capitalist party. It hasn’t yet attracted many other groups, but in many towns quite a number of people have joined from the anti-globalization movement and from the Communist Party. The new party’s leader Olivier Besancenot has a higher popularity rating than the official leader of the Socialist Party. This is an interesting phenomenon.

In Germany you have the most significant party to the left of social democracy, Die Linke. It’s now doing well in the west (i.e. beyond the eastern base of the former PDS) — it got a good vote in Hamburg and other cities. It has a major leader from the Social Democrats, Oskar Lafontaine, a left socialist who’s given the party enormous credibility in western Germany. This party strongly opposes the U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan; they demand an independent foreign policy.

The biggest German bank, Deutschebank, was heavily entangled in the whole subprime mess; but the state banks are severely regulated and reasonably healthy, so the Germans haven’t suffered to the same degree as others. Even Angela Merkel said, thank god we didn’t go down the Anglo-Saxon road.

So there’s a lot of support in Europe for state control. But the biggest problem is the weakness of the left on a Continental level, despite the better situations in France and Germany.

ATC 140, May-June 2009