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Infuriating and invaluable

Johann Hari reviews John Pilger’s The New Rulers of the World (Verso)

Why does John Pilger polarise opinion quite so much? To his followers, Pilger is a lank-haired Australian messiah, the only man (along with Noam Chomsky) standing up for the reality behind the lies of the aquiescent capitalist press.

Yet to his enemies, particularly those on the centre-left, he is an immature reminder of their youthful naivety, and even an apologist for terrorism. Auberon Waugh was so consumed with hate for Pilger that he coined the verb ‘to pilger’, meaning ‘to use absurdly emotive language to make an entirely bogus political point.’

It is easy to understand why his fans love him. He bluntly states what many on the left suspect: that the USA is explicitly an evil, Orwellian state. ‘We have to live,’ Pilger argues, ‘with the [USA's] threat and illusion of endless war, it seems, in order to justify increased social control and state repression, while great power [again, the USA] pursues its goal of global supremacy.’ There is an appealing moral simplicity to this vision: we can all know where we stand.

Pilger offers in this book a detailed account of how the USA is, in his terms, taking over the world. He uses the experience of Indonesia under General Suharto as a template for US-led globalisation everywhere, entitling the chapter about this ‘the model pupil.’

The country was carved up, after the US-supported coup to impose Suharto, in an extraordinary five-day long meeting organised by monopolistic multinationals and the new government working in harmony.

It is largely because of Pilger that we in the West know about this massacre in such detail, and that achievement alone qualifies him as one of the most important journalists of the twentieth century.

He has produced disturbing evidence of consistent Western complicity in this genocide. For example, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, Britain's ambassador in Jakarta at the time, said in a cable to the Foreign Office, "I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change."

And, as Pilger often reminds us, he has come to these conclusions not by sitting in an office in Canary Wharf but by actually witnessing how the majority of humanity lives. The most moving section of the book is based on Pilger's investigation into sweatshop workers in Indonesia. He posed as a London fashion buyer in order to be given a tour of a factory which makes Gap clothes for Britain and America. "I found more than a thousand mostly young women working, battery-style, under the glare of strip lighting, in temperatures that reach forty degrees centigrade." Often, they have to work 36 hours without going home. It is hard to entirely damn a journalist who brings these truths to a wider public.

And yet, it is just as easy at times to see why Pilger's critics loathe him so. For a man who has spent his life opposing totalitarianism, he has a surprisingly totalitarian temperament. He is fond of loyalty tests, and enumerates how many British MPs now speak for 'the truth' (five, apparently) by seeing how many agree entirely with Pilger himself. He has an offensive and irritating habit of implying that anybody who disagrees with him is simply evil, or has been corrupted by money.

He refuses, again and again, to try to engage with the arguments of his enemies.

Pilger is convinced that the lure of money and power has warped every single Western ruler, and that any intellectual argument they offer is simply a retrospective legitimisation of their surrender to these forces.

This makes him over-egg his anti-globalisation pudding. He begins to see every problem in the world as a product of globalisation and the USA. For example, he describes Indonesia's outbreak of dengue fever, a horrific disease, as "a disease of globalisation."

He justifies this claim by saying that "as the camps [shanty towns building up around factories] grew and people migrated from rural areas looking for work, the mosquitoes followed them." In fact, then, it is a disease of urbanisation, and would occur even in a socialist utopia

For anybody who is not familiar with Pilger's work, this is a good place to start: it is punchy, short and written with Pilger's usual economy. New readers will find a man who is infuriating, arrogant, narrow-minded - and invaluable.

Much as John Pilger makes many of us rip our hair out at times, it is hard to deny that the world is a far better place with him in it.

Johann Hari is a columnist for The Independent.