Review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

Among members of the Socialist Party, Francis Wheen is certainly most widely known as the author of an excellent biography of Karl Marx. Equally worth reading is his latest work, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.

The thesis for this is simple: the 1979 revolution in Iran which instigated a theocracy in that country and the simultaneous victory of Thatcher in the British General Election were two events that signalled a break from Enlightenment values, in which debate focussed on an attempt to discover scientific and rational reasons behind all phenomena (in the natural sciences, human behaviour, economics etc.), and a turn towards an alternative, and opposing, worldview based on dogma, faith, tradition and emotion.

Appropriately enough, the first chapter deals with ‘Reaganomics’, the ideological gloss given to economic practice of Reagan, Thatcher and their followers. This, strengthened by the fall of the USSR in 1991, incorporated beliefs that there is no alternative system to the market for the distribution of wealth in societies, that flexible labour markets and low wages are positive and ‘in the national interest’ and that low taxes on the rich leads to benefits for society as a whole.

Constructions by right-wing economists, such as the ‘Laffer Curve’ (a restatement of the ‘trickle down theory’) were intended to provide a pseudo-scientific basis for such policies. That this theory is nonsense goes without saying: Paul Krugman, a leading liberal pro-capitalist economist, has (elsewhere) accurately described advocates of such theories as ‘cranks’. Laffer, Von Hayek, Milton Freedman and other precursors and supporters of Reaganomics, all of whom opposed any attempt to limit the level of exploitation as ‘destructive of the whole economy’ or even as inevitably leading to totalitarianism have a familiar ring to them.

Marxists can read the first volume of Capital to discover similar characters in the mid nineteenth century (such as Nassau Senior, J.B. Say, and A. Ure), and should then compare the flimsy basis on which they built their theories (all of which were designed to benefit the ruling class and excuse their exploitation of the working class) to Marx’s persuasive and enlightening analysis of wages and surplus value (i.e. profit, rent and interest).

But, with the new counter-enlightenment, such nonsense theories proved popular. A belief in self-enrichment and a flurry of self-improvement books promising great wealth ranging from the banal to the weird, and suggesting that anyone could make money, dominated the 1980s. Wheen celebrates the correction to this delusion; 19 October 1987, when internationally stock markets collapsed. He relates how many businessmen heroes of that decade became merely notorious fraudsters a few years later. However, Wheen notes that such delusions still have power, charting Enron’s rise through dishonest accounting and its subsequent collapse. It goes without saying that most world leaders, for example Tony Blair, still believe in Reaganomics.

Wheen then generalises these lessons in other chapters. A new ‘relativism’ becomes pervasive since the early 1980s; Tony Blair and Al Gore are able to defend the teaching of Creationism in biology lessons on the basis that such rubbish is good for ‘diversity’ in the school system. Despite the rise of the Christian right (much of which fused spirituality with getting rich), there is a simultaneous rise of simpler superstition around astrology and Feng Shui and other similar beliefs.

Ronald Reagan and Tony and Cherie Blair manage to combine an ostentatious Christianity with such nonsense as healing crystals and star gazing. The Bible itself is seen to contain many and varied codes. Worldwide, people study Nostradamus’ so-called prophecies and become involved in strange offshoots of religions such as Aum Shinrikyo. These all tend to look towards an impending apocalypse (the latter try to hasten it through the use of chemical weapons on the Tokyo underground). All of this has no basis in reality; for some this is the attraction.

Other aspects of the present counter-enlightenment are shown to be even more dangerous. Samuel Huntington’s thesis, that history will be dominated by ‘a clash of civilisations’ is excellently dissected by Wheen, and its obvious shortcomings shown up. Huntington’s principle divisions are seen as arbitrary and probably meaningless. All other divisions; class, gender, language, internal divisions within religions (Sunni-Shia or Catholic-Protestant) and the vast cultural gap between Western Europe and the USA (both part of ‘the West’) are ignored. However, his theory is becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy which echoes the vision of Bush and Bin Ladin. This pseudo-scientific doctrine provides excellent cover for both Al-Queda operations and Bush’s imperialist actions in the Islamic world.

But the Left has no reason to be smug. Those calling themselves progressive have often rejected scientific analysis (and Marxism’s strength is its nature as scientific socialism) for a relativism equally as pernicious as that of those on the right (including the self-proclaimed ‘apolitical’). Theories such as structuralism and deconstructionism (though in themselves not without validity) have led to a suggestion that there are no verifiable facts, merely alternative viewpoints. Anyone disagreeing is labelled sexist, racist, imperialist or ignorant.

Wheen notes that this is not only rubbish (if you kick a stone, your foot hurts) but comes close to supporting the agenda of holocaust deniers such as David Irving (if there is no ‘fact’ then how can such denial be ‘wrong’) and those who wish to see theocratic states established (it is seen as Western chauvinism to claim that Muslims do not want to be stoned or have limbs amputated). The Socialist Party is certainly correct in emphasising, as an internationalist organisation that those in non-Western countries should not suffer from oppression based on traditions or the reading of religious texts. This cannot be said about certain other ‘left’ groups.

Wheen further criticises much structuralist and deconstructionist writing as being absolutely incomprehensible, at least to those outsiders. Marx’s famous statement that it is the job of the philosopher to interpret the world, the point is to change it, seems apt in relation to this. He contrasts this with genuine socialists such as Alan Sokal and Terry Eagleton, who are shown in a far more favourable light as those who have contributed to human knowledge and understanding.

Although Wheen does not conclude in this way, good historical parallels can be found to assist in the explanation as to how mumbo-jumbo conquered the world, and what the results will be. Following the French revolution and the subsequent wars, the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in France in 1815 saw an attempt to undo the changes that the revolution had achieved. Catholicism was entrenched again into the governance of the state, and the state introduced draconian blasphemy laws. Jesuit priests gained political influence. The restored monarchy regained much of the power it had, competing with only a weak parliament elected by a tiny section of the population. The press was shackled. Compensation for seized estates was secured. The ruling class thus attempted to turn its back on the very enlightenment doctrines that are rejected again today. And in 1830, political revolution overthrew this reaction.

Wheen’s book is essential reading for all Marxists. It shows the shallowness and class basis of many features of the current counter-enlightenment. It shows that it is not arrogant to fight for truth and rationality against absolute nonsense. What it does not show specifically is a path away from this reaction. By inference, however, the political theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels must be this path.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen. London, Fourth Estate, £16.99

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May 2004