Tariq Ali on “The Uses and the Abuses of History”

Scholar and author Tariq Ali addresses “The Uses and the Abuses of History” in a January 2012 lecture. He eloquently speaks to the power that comes with a knowledge of history, as well as to the danger that comes with an ignorance of it, while naturally also addressing and reflecting on important issues we face today.

Summaries and quotations of what I find to be his most important points follow below.



“The question again which is raised by [the Great Recession], or should be raised by this, is, if the state can be used to bail out the rich, why shouldn’t it be used to bail out the poor?

But to even ask this question is to provoke huge discussions and anger amongst the rulers of this world. And the interesting thing is that it’s precisely because they face no challenge, no serious challenge, from below or from within, that they carry on as if nothing really has happened.

Whereas all the world’s top economists are arguing that this is sticking plaster, at the best, and it’s going to fall apart, and blood will flow again, as far as the economy is concerned, if you carry on like this.”
(19:08)

“The lessons of history are forgotten; they have been forgotten. Because one reason people can’t come up with any alternatives … is because many of the younger generations have no idea what these were.”
(19:59)

“It was accepted. Might is right, and might is also civilization. Which is why I’ve always liked that reply by Gandhi, to an American journalist … who was interviewing him in the late ’30s, before the Second World War, and she said ‘Mahatma Gandhi, what is your view of Western civilization?’ and he said ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ I mean very simply stated, but very understandable, because the people who suffered under it didn’t see it as a ‘civilized’ empire.

And, you know, it’s very fashionable now, to be very pro-imperial interventions and -imperial occupations, and saying ‘We’re doing it for the good’–all these arguments have been used before.”
(35:03)

After 150 years of British rule in India, when they finally left, 95% of the population was illiterate. 95%. Had they educated the population, they would have been chucked out long ago–which is why they didn’t.”
(36:50)

According to the book, Britain’s Empire, Resistance, Revolt, Repression,
As long as the British empire existed, virtually every week, there was an uprising or an expression of discontent, somewhere or the other, where this empire was.”
(38:06)

“Contrary to some aphorisms, coined by great philosophers in the past, in fact, history very rarely repeats itself. It doesn’t repeat itself; it echoes. And these historical echoes are extremely important.”
(39:14)

We live in “a unique situation that has never existed in the world at any time, since humanity began, which is the domination of the world militarily by one single power. That has never happened before.”
(40:11)

The United States’ imperial reach has never actually favored that [direct] model, if one is being, you know, just factually accurate. They preferred to rule not directly, but through indirect relays–whether it is the military in one country, whether it is a group of politicians aligned to them in another country–that is traditionally the way in which the United States has ruled its part of the world–I mean, very brutally in times.”
(42:25)

The British empire was the most powerful in the latter half of the 19th and the former half of the 20th centuries. The U.S. empire has been the most powerful empire since the latter half of the 20th century.

The British empire based its empire on control of the world’s waters; the US has based its empire on control of the world’s airspace.

The 21st century is not the same as the 20th century. Recolonization, which does take place, takes place economically, and only rarely through the use of military power.
(46:16)

“Many people say that the reason for the war in Iraq was Iraqi oil, and I’ve always said no because, technically speaking, Iraqi oil was never denied. … I thought that the war in Iraq was essentially a question of asserting US hegemony and a shot across the powers to the Chinese.”
(46:30)

“That is the big development of the 21st century, the fact that China today is the industrial workshop of the world, and occupies a place that Britain did in the 19th century, more or less. But the big difference is the Chinese still now have shown absolutely no interest in building an empire.” This is consistent with its ancient history of exclusion and isolationism (e.g., the Great Wall, etc.).
(47:04)

“One reason the Soviet Union collapsed, in my opinion, is because of their crazy military spending, which went totally out of control during the Reagan years, the early Reagan years, and the late Carter years, and they wanted to compete with the United States and thought that they could do it. And they couldn’t.”
(48:13)

History told us that the great empires of the European world collapsed when they fought each other. They didn’t collapse of their own accord. They fought each other; they weakened each other; and the United States became a player in the world only during the First World War. And that’s when it began its descent, watching slowly as the European empires bled to death.”
(49:05)

It’s not a very productive way of learning geography when you find your country has gone to war and occupied another country and people wake up and say ‘Where the hell is Iraq on the map?’
(53:20)

Politicians and corporations live for today. They don’t think about the future because that is not what their interest is. But some of us have to think about the future. And this future cannot be secured with the present system. … The planet will not be able to take it, and will implode at some point in the future, unless things are done to stop it, and that means planning of some sort on a global scale.”
(55:04)