US protester being arrested during anti-draft protest demonstration at Berkeley University in 1960s. Source: News Limited
THE Baby Boomers failed to deliver their vision of a more peaceful world and the spirit of the 60s and 70s seemed to skip generation X altogether but those on the left now feel radicalism could live on in our youngest voters.
Even at 71 years old, Britain’s leading radical Tariq Ali has not lost the idealism that saw him emerge as a Marxist icon in the 1960s who forged friendships with singer John Lennon and battled with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
But reflecting on his generation, he agrees that it had failed to deliver a more peaceful, equitable world.
“I think we were defeated, it wasn’t just that we failed, our enemies proved more intelligent in some cases and more brutal in others, so we lost that battle and that battle is now being resumed,” Ali told broadcaster Jon Faine on ABC.
The left was left limping after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1992, which heralded a “triumphalist capitalist storm” and saw many abandon social democracy, Ali writes in his book The Extreme Centre: A Warning.
But after years in the wilderness, the left could yet see salvation in its youngest voters.
In the search for new leaders, Faine suggested to Ali that perhaps that the left should “skip a generation” and turn towards people in their 20s and 30s to take on leadership roles.
Ali agreed and said that it was young people like 20-year-old Scottish politician Mhairi Black, who were now inspiring others.
Black became a social media sensation this year when she delivered a scathing attack on the UK’s Conservative Government during her maiden speech. She was the youngest member to sit in the House of Commons and her address, highlighting the hypocrisy of housing benefits, went viral and has been watched more than 10 million times.
“(Mhairi Black) enters parliament and makes a speech which has the whole country enthralled,” Ali said.
“Scotland is now inspiring young people in England,” he said, adding that suddenly large numbers of people, both young and old, were coming out to support Labour Party leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, a self-described democratic socialist with left-leaning ideas that were once considered outdated.
“This hasn’t happened in English politics for a very long time,” Ali said.
He said the lack of engagement in politics was one reason why he thought people were often whipped up into a frenzy on social media over the latest social injustice.
“Politics … for a large amount of people has become identity politics, so it’s almost as if gender change, which is effectively an individual thing, is more important than social change, which is a collective thing,” he said.
“Then people who are either not in favour of marriage equality, which I am and we all are, but how this issue has become the central issue in western politics is precisely because there is a vacuum and a lack of politics. People cling on to anything they can.”
Instead, Ali believes politicians should provide voters with a genuine choice, argue for social reforms and take people with them, rather than sticking to the safe “extreme centre” position, which was more about retaining power than creating a fairer society.
“If it means losing one, two elections, you lose them and carry on trying to build a movement and a party which actually believes in something,” he said.
There are hopes that the rise of Black may point to a new generation of young people who are politically engaged and could deliver a genuine challenge to the capitalist dominance.
This year Scotland formally lowered its voting age to give 16 and 17 year olds the ability to take part in general elections after about 75 per cent of them turned out to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. This was much more than the 54 per cent of 18-24 year olds who turned out.
“One of the most encouraging things which I observed in Scotland was because they reduced the vote to 16 year olds, everyone was talking politics,” Ali said.
“Everyone on the streets, on the buses, in the schools were debating, they didn’t all agree with each other as we know but that debate politicised the entire country, that didn’t happen elsewhere.”
It is a political fervour that Ali is hoping will catch on after decades of government being dominated by the “extreme centre”.
Ali told news.com.au that there was too much complacency in the white western world and there was a danger that democracy could die.
“When it comes down to it there is no fundamental difference between the (major political) parties,” Ali said.
“Whether they are centre left or right, they offer very little choice.”
It is this lack of choice, which Ali explores in his book and which he argues has failed to deliver a fair or economically stable society.
“In the US it’s impossible to become president unless you get the support of corporations and raise millions … it’s a clear case when everything is decided by money,” he said.
He explains in this book that the rise of capitalism had overseen the rise of “confected politicians” on both sides of politics who were very similar and placed “capital above the needs of citizens and uphold corporate power”.
“Since political differences are minimal, power becomes an end in itself and a means to acquiring money and well-paid consultancies after leaving office,” he writes.
In a system dominated by the “extreme centre”, the most mundane differences are seized upon during election campaigns.
“Often the debates are so trivial, they are about what the leaders is wearing or what they are seen eating,” he told news.com.au.
“Since Gough Whitlam there has not been any party that has challenged the establishment (in Australia) in any way.”
Even the Greens party in Australia was now being led by a leader, Richard Di Natale, who Ali said seemed “very mainstream”.
“The danger is democracy could die,” he said.
Even economically, Ali believes conditions are getting worse for the majority in the UK, as markets remain volatile, and there is a decline in education and health services.
“As pointed out by countless observers, while the earnings of the average employed person are either static or declining, the salaries and bonus options of the 1 per cent continue to rise.”
In the US, productivity in the last 25 years has grown by less than half of its average rate of increase, compared to the previous century.
“The United States is the only major capitalist country where workers have actually had to increase the average number of hours they work each year, to above 2000.
“We are told the US economy is flourishing, this is true, but only for the well-off.”
Ali believes that reversing the decline of democracy will require more than parliamentary rule changes.
“It requires mass mobilisation, popular assemblies, to create new movements and parties,” he suggests in his book.
Radical politics, he hopes, may not be dead yet.