article from Socialist VIEW, No. 13 Winter 2004

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis Wheen
Reviewed by Michael O'Brien
WITH "MUMBO JUMBO" Francis Wheen has found a polite catch-all term to describe how irrational thought, religious obscurantism, blind faith and new fads increasingly pervade all aspects of life the world over.

A well worn Marxist axiom is that the dominant theories and beliefs in a given society tend to be those of its ruling class and Wheen ably charts how the initial development of capitalism as a system went hand in hand with giant leaps in philosophy, art, science and technology. The prevailing belief was one that human reason and a scientific method could be brought to bear on any challenge. This stood in stark contrast to the proceeding dark ages where the church had a virtual monopoly on learning and art and a firm lid was placed on any advances in understanding that went beyond the scriptures.

For Wheen, science and reason had the upper hand over mumbo jumbo for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries right until the end of the long postwar upswing and a few years more for good measure. However he identifies two events in 1979 as marking a turning point heralding an era where mumbo jumbo has come back with a vengeance.

One is the Ayatollah coming to power in Iran and the other is Margaret Thatcher's election victory. Both, admittedly by different routes, set their respective societies back years, one by a religious obscurantism which has become a powerful anti Western philosophy in the Muslim world.

The other destroyed Britain's manufacturing base and preached mumbo jumbo in the guise of monetarism, privatisation and trickle down theory. All of which have by now become the orthodox approach for governments of the right and former left throughout the world.

What both have in common is the notion that the world and the market are essentially beyond human understanding and are incapable of being changed for the better through collective action in this lifetime. One offers rewards in the afterlife, the other poses individual advancement within the capitalist framework.

The book is sometimes hilarious as Wheen catalogues all the ills a world dominated by mumbo jumbo brings, from self help books, to crystal treatment and from the horoscopes to the revival of creationism in US schools. Tony Blair's third way is not spared either but rather shown up as an example of essentially right wing ideas explained with lefty sounding words.

There is plenty in this book to arm socialists and Marxists with arguments against crackpot theories. Wheen however is no Marxist and clearly views the post war "consensus" with a developed welfare state and a high level of trade union organisation as the ideal. How we are supposed to achieve that is left unanswered.

The most dissatisfactory part of the book is Wheen's swipe at the left for its opposition to recent wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It is true that some on the left have given hostages to fortune, adopting a virtually uncritical position on political Islam. Wheen essentially sees only military powers and alliances as being capable of stopping ethnic cleansing and despots. He overlooks the potential for workers and poor to act independently on their own behalf. In the end it was the people of Serbia that overthrew Milosevic and not NATO bombs.

Despite these flaws, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World deserves some praise for presenting such a vast and daunting topic in an accessible and often funny book.

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This article is from the Winter 2004 edition of Socialist View (it was printed in late October '04).

The contents list for this issue is here, as are the back issues.