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1 June 2016

A Marxist at ITV, the Hitch’s deathbed “conversion” and the antibiotic resistance crisis

The week in the media, from drugs to pub irregulars.

By Peter Wilby

Did Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist and raconteur, throw in his lot with the deity at the last minute? Larry Taunton, an American Christian evangelical, claims in a new book that, during two long road journeys in 2010, he studied the Bible with the Hitch, who died from cancer the following year.

“Don’t believe it. Don’t credit it,” was Hitchens’s stern instruction to anybody who heard of a deathbed conversion. But I find no difficulty in believing Taunton’s account while also being confident that Hitchens remained steadfast to the end in his non-faith. Any intelligent and cultivated person is (or should be) interested in the Bible because it is impossible to understand English history or culture – in its King James version, the Bible had a decisive influence on the development of the English language – without reading it. After the terrorist attacks of the past decade or so, many of us have studied the Quran without becoming Muslims. Hitchens may well have been interested in learning how others coped with the prospect of death without himself becoming a Christian. What Taunton means by “studying” the Bible is, I suspect, different from what Hitchens would have meant.


The paranoid right

How close are Europe and America to fascism? Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism states: “The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value . . . Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State . . . interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.”

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I am not sure that Austria’s narrowly defeated presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom party, would subscribe to that, still less Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for the US presidency, or our own dear Nigel Farage. Fascism is a boo-word best left out of the current debate.

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What most characterises the resurgent right is paranoia, an understandable reaction to a world that seems to change at bewildering speed. “They” are engaged in a liberal conspiracy designed to frustrate the will of ordinary folk, undermining simple family values and flooding the country with migrants. “They” mounted “Project Fear” to stop the British setting themselves “free” from Europe. “They” were at work again in Austria, rigging the presidential poll with postal votes, according to Hofer’s followers.

Who are “they”? Almost anybody in a position of power or influence, working not just for the government but for the European Commission, the IMF, central banks, established media organisations (particularly the BBC), universities (particularly those that have climate science departments), big corporations, Facebook and so on. Yet we on the left are capable of our own brand of paranoia. To us, “they” have loads of money. “They” conspire to make loads more, thereby depressing the living standards of ordinary folk. Which, to my mind, is a simpler and more believable conspiracy.


Drugs don’t work

The economist Lord (Jim) O’Neill, asked by David Cameron to review the antibiotic resistance crisis, warns that by 2050 bacterial infections will be killing more people than cancer. The declining effectiveness of antibiotics has been evident for more than 20 years, but almost nothing has been done to develop a new generation of drugs. It is a classic example of market failure. Pharmaceutical companies continue selling existing antibiotics – making minor tweaks so they can claim new patents – rather than bearing the heavy and risky investment of finding new ones. O’Neill proposes an international levy on the companies, which can be used to reward those that develop genuinely new drugs.

This solution, which O’Neill calls “play or pay”, is a good one. But why rely wholly on the private sector? Governments should fund their own research, based in universities. After all, the first antibiotics were developed in the 1930s and 1940s by scientists at Oxford and Cambridge. The word “universities” appears nowhere in O’Neill’s report.


No Marx

Noreena Hertz, the author and academic appointed as economics editor for ITV’s News at Ten, is denounced in the right-wing press as a dangerous Marxist. This is a curious description for someone who was appointed to an “inclusive capitalism task force”, chaired by the global managing director of McKinsey, and to the board of Warner Music Group.

I first published the then unknown Hertz in the NS in 1999. Her gist was that consumer power, involving boycotts of unethical companies, was the best way of effecting change. “Consumer politics is the real new politics we are buying”, she wrote, “not the false new politics of devolution, coalition or proportional representation . . . Politics is dead – long live the consumer.”

She wrote for us again two years later asking “Can shopping really adequately replace voting?” To which, she replied: “No, it cannot.” This may, as a reader suggested, have been an example of the instability of the market, but it certainly does not suggest
a very resolute Marxist.


Pub irregulars

Dropping into our local pub the other night, we were surprised to find it unusually full. There was live music, dancing, hugging and jollity. We joined in, thinking we were making new friends in the neighbourhood. Not quite. Most of the revellers, as they left, called for taxis and it turned out that they  were friends, former colleagues or business associates of the publican. I have long suspected that most newspapers are bought by their journalists’ relatives or by journalists on other papers and that most books (at least in hardback) are bought by the author’s relatives or other authors. Is something similar now true for pubs? Perhaps an economist can explain how it is possible for industries to survive on this basis. 

This article appears in the 25 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad