Friday, February 13, 2015

Global March of the Gurus (2005)

Book Review from the January 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. By Francis Wheen, Fourth Estate, 2004.

A few years ago Wheen had a critically and commercially successful biography of Karl Marx. This survey – A Short History of Modern Delusions, as the book’s subtitle puts it – takes 1979 as the decisive year. In that year two key events occurred that shaped the modern world: Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and Ayatollah Khomeini returned to dominate Iran.

The link between the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is uncontroversial. The Shah of Iran was a stooge of western governments, there to guarantee oil supplies. The ideology used to remove him therefore took the form of an anti-western Islam. This ideology then spread through the Middle East and beyond. But Wheen’s interpretation of Thatcher’s rise and the global spread of free market fundamentalism is less convincing. In Wheen’s account, the old status quo (which he clearly favours) was overthrown by New Right zealots spouting mumbo-jumbo. Or put another way, the post-war consensus on the mixed economy, guided by government intervention and Keynesian economics, was supplanted by monetarism, privatisation and the worship of market forces. Of course these facts are not in dispute and Thatcherite/Blairite ideology is mumbo-jumbo dressed-up as common sense (“we are all ‘Thatcherite’ now,” said Peter Mandelson, Labour MP, in 2002). However, what Wheen fails to appreciate is why the post-war consensus was so easily swept away. In the 1970s the long post-war boom had come to an end and the Keynesian status quo was perceived to be a failure in dealing with recession and high unemployment. Hence the spread of free market mumbo-jumbo.

Wheen sets great store by the Enlightenment values of reason and progress. This book is far more wide ranging than space here permits us to discuss. Cults, gurus, irrational panics and post-modernists are all subject to a withering criticism very much in the style of George Orwell. Despite the reservations above, this is a superb piece of work and it will be an invaluable resource for socialists.
Lew Higgins

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