John Pilger on the radical works which can make sense of our times

Extroadinary times call for extroadinary art. John Pilger rounds up the exceptional works which have stuck with him.

These are extraordinary times. Flag-wrapped coffins of 18-year-old soldiers killed in a failed, illegal and vengeful invasion are paraded along a Wiltshire high street. Victory in Afghanistan is at hand, says the satirical Gordon Brown. On the BBC's Newsnight, the heroic Afghan MP Malalai Joya, tries, in her limited English, to tell the British public that her people are being blown to bits in their name: 140 villagers, mostly children, in her own Farah Province. No parade for them. No names and faces for them. The suppression of the suffering of Britain's and America's colonial victims is an article of media faith, a tradition so ingrained that it requires no instructions.

The difference today is that a majority of the British people are not fooled. The cheerleading newsreaders can say "Britain's resolve is being put to the test" as if the Luftwaffe is back on the horizon, but their own polls (BBC/ITN) show that popular disgust with the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq is strongest in the very communities where adolescents are recruited to fight them. The problem with the British public, says a retired army major on Channel 4 News, is that they need "to be trained and educated". Indeed they do, wrote Bertolt Brecht in The Solution, explaining that the people . . .

Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In their modern classic Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky describe how war propaganda in free societies is "filtered" by media organisations, not as conscious "crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors' and working journalists' internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness". In the wake of the US invasion of Vietnam, in which at least three million people were killed and their once-bountiful land ruined and poisoned, planners of future bloodfests invented the "Vietnam syndrome", which they identified perversely as a "crisis of democracy". The "crisis" was that the "general population threatened to participate in the political system, challenging established privilege and power". Afghanistan and Iraq now have their syndromes.

With this in mind, I respectfully urge readers to put aside the holiday reading lists in the newspaper review pages, with their clubbable hauteur, and read, or read again, books as fine as Manufacturing Consent, which help make sense of extraordinary times. As Herman and Chomsky decode principally the American media, an ideal companion is Newspeak in the 21st Century, by David Edwards and David Cromwell (published next month by Pluto). The founders and editors of the outstanding website present a fluent dissection of Britain's liberal media, employing the kind of rigour that shames those who proclaim their impartiality and independence from vested power. Read also A Century of Spin by David Miller and William Dinan, who describe the rise of an "invisible government" invented by Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays. "Propaganda," said Bernays, "got to be a bad word because of the Germans, so what I did was to try and find some other words." The other words were "public relations", which now consumes much of journalism.

The latest achievement of PR is the "Obama phenomenon". In Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (published in the US by Paradigm), Paul Street peels away the mask in perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States.
Not enough laughs? Pack Joseph Heller's Catch-22, still unmatched in its demolition of the idiocies and lies of the killers who promote wars. Try this:

"Anyone," says Dr "Doc" Daneeka, "who wants to get out of combat isn't really crazy, so I can't ground him."
Yossarian: "OK, let me get this straight.
In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying."
Dr "Doc" Daneeka: "You got it . . ."

Kurt Vonnegut's equally black and brave and hilarious Slaughterhouse Five is my other favourite war book.

"How's the patient? [the colonel] asked.
“Dead to the world."
“But not actually dead."
“How nice - to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive."

Faber recently published Harold Pinter's Various Voices: 60 Years of Prose, Poetry, Politics (1948-2008). It is a gem from Pinter on everything from Shakespeare, night cricket and Arthur Miller's socks to murderous great power:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless . . . while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

If you have not already read it, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a rare treat: a view of humanity so precisely, beautifully, honourably, yet almost incidentally expressed. In the "bantering inconsequence" (F Scott Fitzgerald) of effete modern fiction, no one touches McCullers or, for that matter, Pete Dexter, whose Paris Trout is the great unsung book of the American South, or Richard Ford, whose Rock Springs is a masterly collection, among his others, on the mysteries between men and women. And don't forget Albert Camus's The Outsider, about a man who will not pretend: a parable for today. Happy holidays.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.