2000s >> 2006 >> no-1224-august-2006

Book Reviews


Wolfgang Sperlich: Noam Chomsky.
Reaktion £10.95.

  This is a volume in the Critical Lives series, so it opens with a brief biographical sketch of Chomsky, noting that he was influenced by writers such as Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. It’s good to learn that by his early teens Chomsky was not just opposed to Stalinism but was also “a pretty committed anti-Leninist”. Then comes a chapter on his contributions to linguistics and philosophy, though to be honest you’d need to have some prior idea of his views here to make much sense of Sperlich’s presentation.

 The main chapter is entitled ‘Political Activist’, and it presents Chomsky’s writings on various political issues, concentrating on his exposures of US foreign policy.  This is a decent guide to Chomsky’s attacks on the US government, military and establishment, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, the Middle East to the aftermath of 9/11.

 Unfortunately there’s little attempt at elaborating Chomsky’s own views on how societyshould be organised, other than labelling him variously as an anarcho-syndicalist and a libertarian socialist. He’s quoted at one point as saying, “capitalist relations of production, wage labor, competitiveness, the ideology of ‘possessive individualism’ – all must be regarded as fundamentally antihuman.”

 Also that a consistent anarchist must oppose wage slavery and private ownership of the means of production. Chomsky has often expressed his support for ‘left wing’ governments in the developing world. With regard to the president of Brazil, Sperlich writes, “I ask Chomsky if Lula da Silva shouldn’t have abolished the state of Brazil by now and introduced council communism or anarcho syndicalist freedom. Chomsky answers that it’s easy for us to say such things because we do not have to live with the consequences – Lula da Silva has to.” Perhaps Chomsky should have said that it was a bloody stupid question, based on the assumption that a political leader can introduce a new social system.

 The last chapter summarises Chomsky’s work on the mass media as a tool for suppressing the truth and presenting a pro -capitalist view of the world, for (in the title of one of Chomsky’s books) ‘Manufacturing Consent’.

 So this is a useful if unexciting guide to Chomsky’s ideas. And until I read Sperlich I didn’t know there is a radio station called Radio Chomsky, even if it is in New Zealand (see http://www.radiochomsky.com/ ).



Phil Rees: Dining with Terrorists. Pan, £7.99.

  When I listen to BBC correspondents talking about ‘Marxists’, which they frequently find in remote jungles and other desolate places on the planet, I am tempted to think of Cyril.

Cyril and I were young together; he was academically bright, knowledgeable and had even what is now called ‘street cred’, virtues which earned him considerable grudging respect among us, his peers. His virtues became past tense, however. one summer’s evening when four of us, coincidentally apprentices in Irish ‘terrorism’, were sitting around an open fire where we were camping outside the coastal village of Cushendall in County Antrim.

 Probably the subject led to it, I don’t remember exactly, but Cyril announced with profound authority that he not only believed in fairies but that he had actually seen and heard fairies! It cost him his credibility; all his intellectual capability was eclipsed by that single absurdity.

 The author of Dining with Terrorists, Phil Rees, was, and maybe still is, a BBC journalist who has worked on Correspondent and Newsnight and who has spent gruelling spells in many of the world’s trouble spots. He has dined with people who have killed their political enemies or who have – rather like Bush and Blair – set in train such killings and who for so doing or allegedly doing have become known to us through the media as ‘terrorists’.

 From his experiences he gives us graphic word pictures of fearsome characters and to his credit he tries to tell their story within the context of what we have been told about them by the western media.

 Indeed that is the raison d’etre of Rees’s work. It is his effort to define in ‘moral’ terms the meaning of the word ‘terrorist’ in light of the awesome legal violence used by and in the control of the modern state, and the brutal reaction that violence frequently spawns. It is a theme often pursued in the Socialist Standard and one expressed in the aphorism ‘One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’.

 Given such honesty of purpose it is regrettable that the author demeans his work by the undefined abuse of the term ‘Marxist’: throughout the entire book he uses the word as though it was an essential pre-fix to the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ that so confuses him.

 In the fashion of the BBC and its journalists, he makes no attempt whatsoever to outline what he perceives to be Marxist or Marxism. Doubtless if he knew, he would realise just how ridiculous it is to suggest that, for example, FARC nationalists in Columbia are killing in order to establish a wageless, moneyless society of common ownership and production for use.

 Away from the often-repeated nonsense about Marx and terrorism the book is both interesting and informative but the informed reader will find Rees’s belief in fairies more than a little distracting.


       Pensions myth
Phil Mullan: The Imaginary Time Bomb. Why An Ageing Population is not a Social Problem.

IB Taurus.

 There are too many old people. They are becoming an unsupportable burden on the pensions and health systems. If nothing is done about it there will be a generation war between pensioners and the decreasing proportion of those of working age.So runs the argument consistently put over by the media. But, according to Mullan, it’s a myth based on faulty statistics, disguising a hidden agenda by people who want to cut pension and welfare benefits for other reasons and/or want to make money by selling private pensions.

 He points out that while the proportion of over-64s in the population is indeed rising this is mainly a reflection of a reduced birth rate in the past, which has meant a fall in those now in the 16-64 age range. This has happened before in the last century without the dire consequences now being predicted. Most estimates, he says,don’t take into account the reduced expenditure on the under 16s that a fallen birth rate means nor the fact that a significant proportion of the 16-64s are also not working, not just the disabled and the recorded unemployed but also many who are on “incapacity” benefit as early retirees to whom capitalism denies a job.  Nor does it take into account the fact that over time the productivity of those at work rises nor that the health of the over-64s is improving.

 So, for Mullan, the “pensions time bomb” is an imaginary threat, but not just a panic cynically stirred up by vested interests. It is also a reflection of what he calls the current “age of anxiety” where : “The feeling of uncertainty and insecurity influences discussion and debate in all sphere’s of life. Politicians have lost popular authority and have tended to limit their objectives. The main idea coming out of political think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that there are no more ‘big ideas’. Most Western governments have adopted a narrower agenda of managing what exists rather than seeking to intervene in society in pursuance of more ambitiousaims. . . Interacting with the élite’s loss of nerve, the erosion of previous collectivities is a major source for this popular mood.

 The demise during the 1980s of trade unions and of less formal mechanisms of support, solidarity and community have left people more on their own than ever to face the problems of everyday life. The social fragmentation and individuation thas made life seem more insecure”.

 This pessimism, bred (we would add) by the inability of capitalism to meet needs and by the failure of reformism last century, is the fertile ground on which the vested interests concerned have been able to sow this particular panic.


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