The World Today with Tariq Ali
Though Marxists have been responsible for some of the most arresting and powerful art and design of the last century and beyond, the current state of aesthetics within Marxist circles and the revolutionary left is dismal. Partly because of a lack of resources and skill and partly because of an attachment to motifs and styles that seem as ossified as a Geocities website, left groups tend not to put their best face forward in their propaganda materials. No wonder that Jacobin has been able to distinguish itself from the Monthly Reviews of the world simply by cultivating eye candy as much as––if not more than––their serious reporting. It doesn’t look like something only activists and Marxist scholars used to poring over utilitarian journal articles would read.
The World Today With Tariq Ali is another case of a left media outlet that pays serious attention to presentation. Produced for the Venezuelan television service teleSUR, it’s a one hour weekly news and commentary program that recently wrapped up its first season. All of its episodes are available online for free without commercials, and they include a variety of programming. Most weeks the hour includes an interview or monologue featuring Ali, a feature on the arts, an ideological analysis of some bourgeois media outlet or news item, and an animated short sequence featuring “Larry the Llama.” We’ll do a quick review of the typical format and tone for each these segments before wrapping up in an analysis of what the program does well and where it fails as a discussion space for leftist viewpoints.
- Global Empire: This segment is always hosted by Ali himself, consisting of either a topical monologue or an interview with a (usually European) scholar or leftist figure. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, Greek SYRIZA figure Stathis Kouvelakis, and Marxist geographer David Harvey have all appeared, and lectures have discussed the British elections, the Vietnam War, the International Monetary Fund, and other topics. Ali’s alignment seems rooted in the Trotskyist corner of the New Left, and he is on the editorial board of the New Left Review. Since the show operates through teleSUR, it is no surprise that one of Ali’s most frequent talking points is the left electoral revival in South America and Venezuela in particular.
- Media Review: Contrasting with the scholarly tone of Global Empire, this segment usually delivers information with an acidic and bitter sense of humour. Usually hosted by former SWP member Richard Seymour, it either reviews the history and politics of a particular publication like Al Jazeera or The Washington Post or it offers a snapshot review of the bourgeois media’s coverage of a particular event like the rise of ISIS or the SYRIZA government’s rise to power in Greece. The format takes cues from comedy news shows like The Daily Show but concentrates on exposés and leaves out most of the jokes. Production values are simple and unobtrusive: a flat table, a modestly-dressed host, cuts to screenshots of news articles.
- Rear Window: By far the most varied and inconsistent program, this one takes on subjects ranging from the Surrealist movement to oppositional art produced in Palestine to reviews of the work of major world filmmakers. As one could guess from that list of examples coverage focuses on art with a particularly leftist edge, whether it be embedded in the social realist aesthetics of the Dardenne brothers or the revolutionary-psychoanalytical pretensions of the Surrealists. The format varies from retrospectives to interviews to art criticism to poetry readings.
- Llama Time: Rounding out each episode is a short visit from Larry the Llama. Unlike the rest of the regular cast of the show, this opinionated pack animal is characterized as an American. Voiced and written by English comedian and actor Andy de la Tour, the character speaks in an accent that, to me, vaguely resembles a New York accent. This urban feel is further reinforced by the ambient sounds of cars rushing by pumped into the background, which has a strange effect when paired with the abstract backdrops and the fact that the character is a South American animal not usually known for prowling the streets of NYC. Whether the choice of animal was influenced by the South American production of the show (though it’s not from an Andean country in any case) is unknown. The character draws on the traits one would associate with an “everyman” and of the shows the tone here is at its most casual and loose. Larry even makes reference to fictional, unseen characters with whom he has had conversations as a way to transition into the topic of the day.
Befitting its production location in London, the majority of the voices heard and issues addressed are European or North American. Ali’s program positions itself as broadly supportive of building mass movements and using electoral tactics to achieve social progress in Europe. Despite its position under the teleSUR umbrella, it rarely talks about Venezuela directly, and never registers significant criticism of left-y figures in South America, usually being content to expose Western hypocrisy and intrigues on the continent. That much is to be expected, as this English-language program is, like Jacobin, a socialist program that seemingly aims at bringing in left liberals and those dissatisfied with the quality of commercial news programming. It also provides an English-language platform for representatives of the anti-austerity left in Europe––indeed, anti-austerity politics are probably its most pervasive concern. In that role, I find it mostly effective despite not sharing the politics of any of its editorial staff or talent.
If there is anything I have to say against the likes of The World Today or Jacobin, other than their being wedded to a trade unionism and electoralism I would deem ineffective in a North American context, is that they do no original investigative reporting of their own. If the Left is going to stay in its traditional “comfort zone” of political commentary and criticism, we’re not going to make much headway in the media. Left media outlets should dedicate more of their resources to the task of creating our own news, despite the expenses and difficulty that entails. Considering the high ambition for social change the revolutionary and Marxist left is supposed to embody, I feel we are lacking a real presence in the journalistic sphere, at least in North America.
One Final Note:
As far as the aesthetics of the website and the show itself, the most fascinating aspect of the whole package is the show’s appropriation of Russian Constructivism. The early years of the Soviet Union saw the flowering of a particularly vibrant and fragile avant-garde. It’s curious that Ali’s program, which has rarely every even mentioned the Soviet Union in its programming and avoids mentioning Marx or Marxism in any of its self-description, takes this particular historical style to define itself. It’s aspirational, to be sure, but I would have preferred an attempt to define a unique visual identity in the opening titles rather than a hollow echo of a style with which the show itself has little connection.