The Extreme Centre, by Tariq Ali

Extreme CentreI first saw Tariq Ali on an episode of ABC TV’s Q & A (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4277313.htm).

After that I found his name his name coming up in a variety of places, until this book came to my attention.

I was interested to see what perspective he could give on the current political climate in Britain considering he seemed to be addressing an issue that has often been applied to Australian politics: the sameness of the outcomes delivered no matter which party was in power.

Overall I didn’t find the book to be as enlightening as I’d hoped, but there were several interesting sections spread throughout. One such section spoke of the financial cost of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that are basically being paid for on credit – amassing huge national debts that continue to accumulate and compound.

The main thesis addressed in the book is that a particular economic and political outlook has been adopted across the board in America, Britain, Europe and throughout “the West”, to facilitate a broad US hegemony (which seems to be one of Ali’s favourite words) or what could be termed a United States Empire.
It’s the kind of argument I’ve seen elsewhere in maybe more subtle ways, showing how one-time fringe economic doctrines have become mainstream practice: the shrinking of government responsibility (and resulting removal of welfare services), the transfer of public assets and infrastructure to private ownership, and the reduction of taxes on high incomes.

At times I felt Ali came across as a grumpy old man (maybe it takes one to know one? 🙂 ) and that impression tended to weaken what he was saying, using at times emotionally charged terminology that undermined any hoped for appearance of objectivity. Such as:

“What the whole world knows to be false is proclaimed by the United States to be the truth, with media networks, vassals and acolytes obediently in tow. The triumph of crude force is portrayed as a mark of intelligence or courage; criminal arrogance is described as moral energy.”

and

“Since British economic and foreign policies are now in tandem with those of its imperial master…”

While there could be some truth within statements like these, the WAY the ideas are expressed is NOT conducive to presenting a persuasive argument. At best they merely preach to the choir, at worst they could antagonise and alienate readers who may have been convinced through a more reasoned, less openly partisan approach.

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No Logo (postscript)

An example of the continuing relevance of Naomi Klein’s No Logo appeared in the Sydney newspaper, the Sun Herald on Sunday.

back to school

Major Australian retailers Kmart and Target have come under fire for selling $2 school uniforms while factory workers are paid below levels that can cover basic living expenses.

The $2 polo shirts that are the focus of Target’s national “Back to School” campaign are produced in Bangladeshi factories where wages can be as low as $97 a month.

This national minimum wage is up to 45 per cent below the “living wage” that allows workers to pay for basic food, water, shelter, clothing, and transport, according to Oxfam and international workers unions

see article an video here:

http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/target-and-kmart-sell-2-school-uniforms-but-at-what-cost-20160112-gm4n1y.html

No Logo, by Naomi Klein

no logoNaomi Klein’s No Logo is now around 16 years old and its content ought to be out-dated, but apart from some minor details it’s no less relevant now than the day it was written.

The political and commercial situations she describes are still familiar. If anything they have become too familiar, to the point of being seen as “normality”: that it’s normal and therefore acceptable to outsource manufacturing to sweatshops in less regulated parts of the world, where practically non-existent safety regulations and ridiculously low paid workers help increase the profits of Western brands and lower the price for western buyers.

This is the reality that is barely considered by most western consumers who expect the “right” to a decent wage, but don’t want to pay what is required for people elsewhere to have that same right.

The relevance of Klein’s book remains because we in the west continue to turn a blind eye to what goes on behind the scenes of our favoured brands.

No Logo shows the extent of the exploitative business practices used by major western companies. The exposé is so comprehensive that the strength of the quantity of evidence could also become the book’s weakness. There is so much to take in, and its easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. What could we do to bring equitable change when the problem is so widespread? The exploitative corporate practices being highlighted seem to spread completely across the board, leaving no acceptable alternatives to favour and therefore few (if any) viable options of boycotting offending brand owners.

So what can be done to work towards a workable, equitable solution?
I don’t see that Klein offers one. She describes the actions of diverse groups trying to make a difference in a variety of ways, but most of them seem (at best) naively optimistic.

The best options try to raise awareness and stir public opinion towards a desire for change; but success is conditional upon the majority actually being moved enough to insist on changes that are likely to have a personal cost. The possibility of stirring that desire rests upon the assumption of the majority having an innate sense of fairness to drive them to demand justice for others who could otherwise be kept “out of sight, out of mind”.

But even IF a majority did have that motivating sense of fairness there would be the problem of HOW to respond in a constructive and focused way that would lead massively profitable companies to change their ways.

I’d like to be optimistic, but…

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

golden ageI read this over two days during my Christmas break and I’d love to write something that could express how much I enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want my own expressive shortcomings to diminish anyone’s impression of the book through any “review” I wrote.

The story is set in the early 1970s during the civil war that led to Bangladesh winning independence from Pakistan. A brief glimpse of that time and its human cost is given through the experiences of the Haque family (mother, daughter and son) and their neighbours.
It’s a period of history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, apart from remembering that George Harrison had arranged a benefit concert and album on behalf of Bangladesh when I was a young teen.

I found the book had a slight similarity to the work of Nadeem Aslam, one of my favourite writers, exploring political ambiguities and occasional brutality in a vividly poetic way through an intimate human story.

My disappointment at coming to the end of the book and leaving the lives of the Haques has been tempered by the knowledge that the family story continues in another book The Good Moslem.

The final part of what I’ve heard is intended to be a trilogy has yet to be released.

The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

empire

This is a book of essays by Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy.

Some of the essays are spoken about in The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile, the book of interviews addressed in my previous post.

Roy’s views are both insightful and scathing. She pulls no punches when writing about the effects of the political ideologies driving the United States and other western governments.

As she starts one of the essays (first presented as a speech to the Riverside Church in Harlem), she says:

Some of you will think it bad manners for a person like me, officially entered into the Big Book of Modern Nations as an ‘Indian citizen’, to come here and criticise the US government. Speaking for myself, I’m no flag-waver, no patriot, and I’m fully aware that venality, brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that tonight I speak as a subject of the American Empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticise her king.

I’ve enjoyed both of Roy’s books that have marked the beginning of my reading for this year, however this one would be my personal preference, being an example of Roy’s own writings, where her observations and ideas are considered and crafted in a way that the book of interviews could not be.

I’d recommend both, but if it came to choosing between the two I’d go for The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.

Below are links to:

1) an hour long video of Arundhati Roy’s speech: “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy”, included as an essay in the book. (note, patience may be needed, the video can be slow to load)

http://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2003/10/24/instant_mix_imperial_democracy_buy_one

And also the title essay can be found here, as a magazine article:

http://inthesetimes.com/article/579/the_ordinary_persons_guide_to_empire

The Chequebook & the Cruise-Missile

chqbook cruise

A collection of interviews with Arundhati Roy, conducted by David Barsamian between 2001 and 2003.

Topics discussed include the political influence of big business; the uncompensated displacement of 1000s due to the building of dams in India; the continuing effects and influences of Imperialism in its multiple forms; and the role played by the media.

A few excerpts:

I’m still taken aback at the extent of indoctrination and propaganda in the United States. It is as if people there are being reared in a sort of altered reality…

Osama Bin Laden and George Bush are both terrorists. They are both building international networks that perpetrate terror and devastate people’s lives. Bush with the Pentagon, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. Bin Laden with Al Qaeda. The difference is that nobody elected Bin Laden. Bush was elected ( in a manner of speaking), so U.S. citizens are more responsible for his actions than Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam Hussein or Afghans are for the Taliban. And yet hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed, either by economic sanctions or cruise missiles, and we are told that these deaths are the result of “just wars”.

Terrorism has become te excuse for states to do just what they please in the name of protecting citizens against terrorism. Hundreds of people are being held in prisons under the antiterrorism law in India. Many of them are poor people, Dalits and Adivasis, who are protesting against “development projects” that deprive them of their lands and livelihoods. Poverty and protest are being conflated with terrorism.

Referring to the timing of the Iraq war, a Bush administration spokesperson said, “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August”. They were asking themselves, what’s the best season to introduce this new product? When should you start the ad campaign? When should you actually launch it? Today, the crossover between Hollywood and the U.S. military is getting more and more promiscuous.

War is also an economic necessity now. A significant section of the U.S. economy depends on the sale and manufacture of weapons. There has to be a turnover. You can’t have cruise missiles lying around on the factory floor. The economies of Europe and the United States depend on the sale and manufacture of weapons. This is a huge imperative to go to war.