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Now you see it, now you don't: what optical illusions tell us about our brains

Illusions can offer insights into how the visual system processes images.

Maurits Escher: where do the staircases lead?

The human brain is a network of about 20 billion neurons – nerve cells – linked by several trillion connections. Not to mention glial cells, which scientists used to think were inactive scaffolding, but increasingly view as an essential part of how the brain works. Our brains give us movement, language, senses, memories, consciousness and personality. We know a lot more about the brain than we used to, but it still seems far too complicated for human understanding.

Fortunately, the brain contains many small networks of neurons that carry out some specific function: vision, hearing, movement. It makes sense to tackle these simple modules first. Moreover, we have good mathematical models of nerve cell behaviour. In 1952, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley wrote down the “Hodgkin-Huxley equations” for the transmission of a nerve impulse, which won them the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine. We also have effective techniques for understanding small networks’ components and how they are linked.

Many of these simple networks occur in the visual system. We used to think that the eye was like a camera, taking a “snapshot” of the outside world that was stored in the brain like a photo stuck in an album. It uses a lens to focus an image on to the retina at the back of the eye, which functions a bit like a roll of film – or, in today’s digital cameras, a charge-coupled device, storing an image pixel by pixel. But we now know that when the retina sends information to the brain’s visual cortex, the similarity to a camera ends.

Although we get a strong impression that what we are seeing is “out there” in front of us, what determines that perception resides inside our own heads. The brain decomposes images into simple pieces, works out what they are, “labels” them with that information, and reassembles them. When we see three sheep and two pigs in a field, we “know” which bits are sheep, which are pigs, and how many of each there are. If you try to program a computer to do that, you quickly realise how tricky the process is. Only very recently have computers been able to distinguish between faces, let alone sheep and pigs.

Probing the brain’s detailed activity is difficult. Rapid progress is being made, but it still takes a huge effort to get reliable information. But when science cannot observe something directly, it infers it, working indirectly. An effective way to infer how something functions is to see what it does when it goes wrong. It may be hard to understand a bridge while it stays up, but you can learn a lot about strength of materials when it collapses.

The visual system can “go wrong” in several interesting ways. Hallucinogenic drugs can change how neurons behave, producing dramatic images such as spinning spirals, which originate not in the eye, but in the brain. Some images even cause the brain to misinterpret what it’s seeing without outside help. We call them optical illusions.

One of the earliest was discovered in Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. Giambattista della Porta was the middle of three surviving sons of a wealthy merchant nobleman who became secretary to the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. The father was an intellectual, and Giambattista grew up in a house in Naples that hosted innumerable mathematicians, scientists, poets and musicians. He became an outstanding polymath, with publications on secret codes (including writing on the inside of eggshells), physiology, botany, agriculture, engineering, and much else. He wrote more than 20 plays.

Della Porta was particularly interested in the science of light. He made definitive improvements to the camera obscura, a device that projects an image of the outside world into a darkened room; he claimed to have invented the telescope before Galileo, and very likely did. His De refractione optices of 1593 contained the first report of a curious optical effect. He arranged two books so that one was visible to one eye only and the other to the other eye. Instead of seeing a combination of the two images, he perceived them alternately. He discovered that he could select either image at will by consciously switching his attention. This phenomenon is known today as binocular rivalry.

Two other distinct but related effects are impossible figures and visual illusions. In rivalry, each image appears unambiguous, but the eyes are shown conflicting images. In the other two phenomena, both eyes see the same image, but in one case it doesn’t make sense, and in the other it makes sense but is ambiguous.

Impossible figures at first sight seem to be entirely normal, but depict things that cannot exist – such as Roger Shepard’s 1990 drawing of an elephant in which everything above the knees makes sense, and everything below the knees makes sense, but the two regions do not fit together correctly. The Dutch artist Maurits Escher made frequent use of this kind of visual quirk.

In 1832, the Swiss crystallographer Louis Necker invented his “Necker cube” illusion, a skeletal cube that seems to switch its orientation repeatedly. An 1892 issue of the humorous German magazine Fliegende Blätter contains a picture with the caption “Which animals are most like each other?” and the answer “Rabbit and duck”. In a 1915 issue of the American magazine Puck, the cartoonist Ely William Hill published “My wife and my mother-in-law”, based on an 1888 German postcard. The image can be seen either as a young lady looking back over her shoulder, or as an elderly woman facing forwards. Several of Salvador Dalí’s paintings include illusions; especially Slave Market With the Apparition of the Invisible Bust of Voltaire, where a number of figures and everyday objects, carefully arranged, combine to give the impression of the French writer’s face.

Illusions offer insights into how the visual system processes images. The first few stages are fairly well understood. The top layer in the visual cortex detects edges of objects and the direction in which they are pointing. This information is passed to lower layers, which detect places where the direction suddenly changes, such as corners. Eventually some region in the cortex detects that you are looking at a human face and that it belongs to Aunt Matilda. Other parts of the brain are alerted, and you belatedly remember that tomorrow is her birthday and hurry off to buy a present.

These things don’t happen by magic. They have a very definite rationale, and that’s where the mathematics comes in. The top layer of the visual cortex contains innumerable tiny stacks of nerve cells. Each stack is like a pile of pancakes, and each pancake is a network of neurons that is sensitive to edges that point in one specific direction: one o’clock, two o’clock and so on.

For simplicity, call this network a cell; it does no harm to think of it as a single neuron. Roughly speaking, the cell at the top of the stack senses edges at the one o’clock position, the next one down corresponds to the two o’clock angle, and so on. If one cell receives a suitable input signal, it “fires”, telling all the other cells in its stack: “I’ve seen a boundary in the five o’clock direction.” However, another cell in the same stack might disagree, claiming the direction is at seven o’clock. How to resolve this conflict?

Neurons are linked by two kinds of connection, excitatory and inhibitory. If a neuron activates an excitatory connection, those at the other end of it are more likely to fire themselves. An inhibitory connection makes them less likely to fire. The cortex uses inhibitory connections to reach a definite decision. When a cell fires, it sends inhibitory signals to all of the other cells in its stack. These signals compete for attention. If the five o’clock signal is stronger than the seven o’clock one, for instance, the seven o’clock one gets shut down. The cells in effect “vote” on which direction they are detecting and the winner takes all.

Many neuroscientists think that something very similar is going on in visual illusions and rivalry. Think of the duck and rabbit with two possible interpretations. Hugh R Wilson, a neuroscientist at the Centre for Vision Research at York University, Toronto, proposed the simplest model, one stack with just two cells. Rodica Curtu, a mathematician at the University of Iowa, John Rinzel, a biomathematician then at the National Institutes of Health, and several other scientists have analysed this model in more detail. The basic idea is that one cell fires if the picture looks like a duck, the other if it resembles a rabbit. Because of the inhibitory connections, the winner should take all. Except that, in this illusion, it doesn’t quite work, because the two choices are equally plausible. That’s what makes it an illusion. So both cells want to fire. But they can’t, because of those inhibitory connections. Yet neither can they both remain quiescent, because the incoming signals encourage them to fire.

One possibility is that random signals coming from elsewhere in the brain might introduce a bias of perception, so that one cell still wins. However, the mathematical model predicts that, even without such bias, the signals in both cells should oscillate from active to inactive and back again, each becoming active when the other is not. It’s as if the network is dithering: the two cells take turns to fire and the network perceives the image as a duck, then as a rabbit, and keeps switching from one to the other. Which is what happens in reality.

Generalising from this observation, Wilson proposed a similar type of network that can model decision-making in the brain – which political party to support, for instance. But now the network consists of several stacks. Maybe one stack represents immigration policy, another unemployment, a third financial regulation, and so on. Each stack consists of cells that “recognise” a distinct policy feature. So the financial regulation stack has cells that recognise state regulation by law, self-regulation by the industry, or free-market economics.

The overall political stance of any given political party is a choice of one cell from each stack – one policy decision on each issue. Each prospective voter has his or her preferences, and these might not match those of any particular party. If these choices are used as inputs to the network, it will identify the party that most closely fits what the voter prefers. That decision can then be passed to other areas of the brain. Some voters may find themselves in a state akin to a visual illusion, vacillating between Labour and Liberal Democrat, or Conservative and Ukip.

This idea is speculative and it is not intended to be a literal description of how we decide whom to vote for. It is a schematic outline of something more complex, involving many regions of the brain. However, it provides a simple and flexible model for decision-making by a neural network, and in particular it shows that simple networks can do the job quite well. Martin Golubitsky of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University and Casey O Diekman of the University of Michigan wondered whether Wilson’s networks could be used to model more complex examples of rivalry and illusions. Crucially, the resulting models allow specific predictions about experiments that have not yet been performed, making the whole idea scientifically testable.

The first success of this approach helped to explain an experiment that had already been carried out, with puzzling results. When the brain reassembles the separate bits of an image, it is said to “bind” these pieces. Rivalry provides evidence that binding occurs, by making it go wrong. In a rivalry experiment carried out in 2006 by S W Hong and S K Shevell, the subject’s left eye is shown a horizontal grid of grey and pink lines while the right eye sees a vertical grid of grey and green lines. Many subjects perceive an alternation between the images, just as della Porta did with his books. But some see two different images alternating: pink and green vertical lines, and pink and green horizontal lines – images shown to neither eye. This effect is called colour misbinding; it tells us that the reassembly process has matched colour to grid direction incorrectly. It is as if della Porta had ended up seeing another book altogether.

Golubitsky and Diekman studied the simplest Wilson network corresponding to this experiment. It has two stacks: one for colour, one for grid direction. Each stack has two cells. In the “colour” stack one cell detects pink and the other green; in the “orientation” stack one cell detects vertical and the other horizontal. As usual, there are inhibitory connections within each stack to ensure a winner-takes-all decision.

Following Wilson’s general scheme, they also added excitatory connections between cells in distinct stacks, representing the combinations of colour and direction that occur in the two “learned” images – those actually presented to the two eyes. Then they used recent mathematical techniques to list the patterns that arise in such a network. They found two types of oscillatory pattern. One corresponds to alternation between the two learned images. The other corresponds precisely to alternation between the two images seen in colour misbinding.

Colour misbinding is therefore a natural feature of the dynamics of Wilson networks. Although the network is “set up” to detect the two learned images, its structure produces an unexpected side effect: two images that were not learned. The rivalry experiment reveals hints of the brain’s hidden wiring. The same techniques apply to many other experiments, including some that have not yet been performed. They lead to very specific predictions, including more circumstances in which subjects will observe patterns that were not presented to either eye.

Similar models also apply to illusions. However, the excitatory connections cannot be determined by the images shown to the two eyes, because both eyes see the same image. One suggestion is that the connections may be determined by what your visual system already “knows” about real objects.

Take the celebrated moving illusion called “the spinning dancer”. Some observers see the solid silhouette of a dancer spinning anticlockwise, others clockwise. Sometimes, the direction of spin seems to switch suddenly.

We know that the top half of a spinning dancer can spin either clockwise or anticlockwise. Ditto for the bottom half. In principle, if the top half spins one way but the bottom half spins the other way, you would see the same silhouette, as if both were moving together. When people are shown “the spinning dancer”, no one sees the halves moving independently. If the top half spins clockwise, so does the bottom half.

Why do our brains do this? We can model that information using a series of stacks that correspond to different parts of the dancer’s body. The brain’s prior knowledge sets up a set of excitatory connections between all cells that sense clockwise motion, and another set of excitatory connections between all “anticlockwise” cells. We can also add inhibitory connections between the “clockwise” and the “anticlockwise” cells. These connections collectively tell the network that all parts of the object being perceived must spin in the same direction at any instant. Our brains don’t allow for a “half and half” interpretation.

When we analyse this network mathematically, it turns out that the cells switch repeatedly between a state in which all clockwise cells are firing but the anticlockwise ones are quiescent, and a state in which all anticlockwise cells are firing but the clockwise ones are quiescent. The upshot is that we perceive the whole figure of the dancer switching directions. Similar networks provide sensible models for many other illusions, including some in which there are three different inputs.

These models provide a common framework for both rivalry and illusion, and they unify many experiments, explain otherwise puzzling results and make new predictions that can be tested. They also tell us that in principle the brain can carry out some apparently complex tasks using simple networks. (What it does in practice is probably different in detail, but could well follow the same general lines.)

This could help make sense of a real brain, as new experiments improve our ability to observe its “wiring diagram”. It might not be as ambitious as trying to model the whole thing on a computer, but modesty can be a virtue. Since simple networks behave in strange and unexpected ways, what incomprehensible quirks might a complicated network have?

Perhaps Dalí, and Escher, and the spinning dancer can help us find out. 

Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Digital Media Fellow at the University of Warwick

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
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The prophets of Trumpism

How the ideas of two pre-war intellectual refugees – the radical Herbert Marcuse and the reactionary Eric Voegelin – are influencing the new culture wars among Trump and his acolytes.

Even after Donald Trump’s more conciliatory address to Congress, American politics seems set to become a battle between the president’s joyless autocracy and a carnival of protest that could end up evoking the anti-war movements of the 1960s. There will be more draconian executive orders and more marches in pink hats. There may well be violence.

The intellectual battle that will be played out in the months and years to come, however, was foretold by two German refugees from Nazi persecution: Eric Voegelin, the doyen of Cold War reactionary conservatives, and Herbert Marcuse, the inspiration behind the revolutionary student activism of the 1960s. Voegelin argued that society needed an order that could be found only by reaching back to the past. Marcuse argued that refusal to accede to tyranny was essential to give birth to a revolutionary politics that would propel progress to a new kind of society. Marcuse the radical and Voegelin the reactionary could not seem further apart, and yet they share a common intellectual root in Germany in the 1920s, from which came a shared critique of modern society. Their ideas may well inspire some of the political conflicts to come.

The culture wars of the 1960s are very much alive for Trump’s acolytes. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News and Trump’s chief strategist, blames the counterculture of the 1960s – the drugs, the hippies, the liberal reforms – for America losing its way and, eventually, succumbing to economic crisis in 2008. Bannon set out his ideas in Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary which blamed the financial crash not on greedy, under-regulated bankers but on the moral and cultural malaise that started in the 1960s. He is still fighting people who might have been inspired by Marcuse. “The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centred, most narcissistic generation the country has ever produced,” he told an interviewer in 2011.

Bannon’s thinking, set out in several speeches over the past few years, is that America’s working and middle classes have been betrayed by an elite in Washington, DC (the “Imperial City”, he calls it) which oversees insider deals so that the insiders can profit from global capitalism. Bannon wants to return America to traditions rooted in Judaeo-Christian values and to reassert national sovereignty. Most worryingly, on several occasions he has said that the crisis will only be resolved through the catharsis of conflict and national mobilisation through war.

America has always been a work in progress. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were very different presidents but they shared a belief that progress was America’s calling. The reactionary turn in US politics is not just a shift to the right but an attempt to displace progress as the common creed.

Instead, Bannon and his ilk want America to become a work in regress, as the historian Mark Lilla argues in his recent book on reactionary philosophy, The Shipwrecked Mind. Much of the new reactionary thinking echoes Voegelin’s idea that, in order to renew itself, a society must first go backwards to find where and how it lost its way.

 

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Eric Voegelin defies easy categorisation. Born in 1901 in Cologne and brought up in Vienna, he was brave and principled. After a visit to the United States in the 1920s, he wrote two books criticising Nazi racial politics, which got him sacked from his teaching position at the University of Vienna. When the Germans arrived in Austria following the Anschluss in 1938, Voegelin and his wife fled on a train as the Gestapo ransacked their apartment.

After a brief stay in Switzerland, he moved to America and in 1942 took up an academic post at Louisiana State University. He then embarked on a prolific career, the centrepiece of which was his sprawling, multi-volume work Order and History.

Voegelin’s philosophy gave expression to the dark and powerful forces that had shaped his life. He believed that modern society was prey to flawed utopianism – he called this “gnosticism” – in which an elite of prophets takes power, claiming special insight into how heaven could be created on Earth for a chosen people. Gnostic sects in the Middle Ages had their modern equivalents in the Nazi proclamation of a racially pure utopia and the Marxist promise of equality for all. Voegelin’s catchphrase was: “Don’t immanentise the eschaton!” (meaning: “Do not try to build heaven on Earth”).

Marxism and Nazism, Voegelin argued, were political versions of religion: we get rid of God only to reinstall him in the form of an elite of reformers with all the answers. In his recent bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that we are entering a new stage of the process that Voegelin identified. We have become as powerful as gods, he argued, but now need to learn how to be wise and responsible gods.

Today Voegelin’s attack on overreaching perfectionism echoes in reactionary criticism of Obamacare and in the yearning for national certitude. Voegelin thought the role of philosophy was not to change the world, but to understand its underlying order and help us tune in to that, rather than being diverted by the lure of the false prophets of political religion.

He was influenced by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who said that “origin is the goal”, by which he meant that the point of the future was to restore the ancient past. For Voegelin, order comes from a sense of harmony, of everything being in its place. This is a position that opens itself up to deeply conservative interpretations.

When, in his presidential inauguration address, Trump spoke of American “carnage”, he was echoing Voegelin’s account of decay and disorder. When he talked of “one people, one nation, one heart” he was evoking the kind of order that Voegelin spoke of. Trump and his acolytes see their mission as the need to restore a natural order, under which illegal immigrants and aliens are kept well away and white people can feel at home once more in a society where everyone signs up to Judaeo-Christian beliefs.

Nothing could be further from the ideas of Herbert Marcuse.

Born in 1898 in Berlin, Marcuse became a member of the celebrated Marxist Frankfurt School, which included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and, tangentially, Walter Benjamin. Marcuse emigrated to the United States in 1933 as Hitler came to power. By 1940, he had become a US citizen and, while Voegelin was starting work at Louisiana State, Marcuse was working as a researcher for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. He continued working for the government after the war and resumed his academic career only in 1952. His best-known book, One-Dimensional Man, was published in 1964.

One of Marcuse’s big ideas was the “Great Refusal”: progress had to start with refusing to accept an unacceptable reality. One should say “no” to a world of alienating work, dominated by corporations and impersonal systems, which allow little room for people to explore their deeper sense of humanity. Marcuse saw the student and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, which adopted him as their intellectual mentor, as evidence that the Great Refusal was gaining momentum.

Trump has given the Great Refusal new life. The documentary film-maker Michael Moore has called for cities to become “regions of resistance” by offering sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation. Angela Davis, the once-jailed Black Panther revolutionary who was close to Marcuse, told the Women’s March in Washington that people had to be ready for “1,459 days of resistance: resistance on the ground, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music”. In a lecture at the Free University of West Berlin published in 1970, Marcuse said demonstrations and protests were an essential first step towards a “liberation of consciousness” from the capitalist machine:

“The whole person must demonstrate his participation and his will to live . . . in a pacified, human world . . . it is . . . harmful . . . to preach defeatism and quietism, which can only play into the hands of those who run the system . . . We must resist if we still want to live as human beings, to work and be happy.”

The Great Refusal was a capacious idea capable of embracing anyone who wanted to say, “No, enough!” It could embrace trade unions and workers, African Americans and feminists, students and national liberation movements, those who were on the margins of society and those professionals – technicians, scientists, artists, intellectuals – who worked at its centres of power and who chose to refuse as an act of conscience.

As a new generation prepares to embark on a period of resistance, what lessons should they learn from the wave of protest that Marcuse once helped to inspire?

Protest is a way to bear witness, to make voices heard and to make it possible for people to bond. Yet the fire of protest can easily die out as the Occupy movement did, even if its embers are still glowing. The carnival-type atmosphere can be uplifting but fleeting. Creating common programmes to be taken forward by organisations demands hard work. The Arab spring showed how quickly a popular revolution can turn sour when a movement is not ready to take power.

Since the protests that Marcuse was involved in, no comparable movement of the left in the United States has mobilised such a broad support base. Instead, that period of resistance was followed, at the end of the 1970s, by a shift to the right in the US and the UK. It was reactionaries, not revolutionaries, who set off forward to the past.

Now we seem to be in for an intensifying cycle of conflict between the adherents of Marcuse and Voegelin: between the Marxist revolutionary and the mystic conservative; between resistance and order; between those who want to live among a cosmopolitan, urban multitude and those who want a society of provincial oneness and sameness; those who want change, innovation and creativity and those who crave simplicity, stability and authority.

That much is obvious. Yet what is striking is not how different Marcuse was from Voegelin, but how alike they were. The best way to respond to the rise of Trump might be to blend their ideas rather than set them against one another, to create a new intellectual and political combination. Indeed, they could be seen as different branches of the same intellectual tree.

Voegelin was influenced by the German- Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, who studied with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg in the 1920s. Jonas joined the German Jewish Brigade, which fought against Hitler, before emigrating to the US, where he became a professor at the New School in New York. He was one of the foremost scholars of gnosticism, which became Voegelin’s focus. Towards the end of his life, Jonas took up a chair at the University of Munich named after Voegelin.

Voegelin did not study at Freiburg, but one of his closest friends was the social ­theorist Alfred Schütz, a student of Edmund Husserl’s who applied his phenomenological thinking to the sociology of ­everyday life. Marcuse studied with Husserl and Heidegger at Freiburg, at the same time as Jonas and Hannah Arendt. From that shared intellectual root have emerged some powerful ideas that could unite progressives and conservatives.

Only at moments of profound crisis – of the kind we are living through – do we see just how contingent, vulnerable and fragile our society is. Voegelin warned: “In an hour of crisis, when the order of society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability.”

A crisis should be a time for profound reflection, yet leaders are more likely to resort to “magical operations” to divert people’s attention: moral condemnation, branding enemies as aggressors, threatening war. “The intellectual and moral corruption,” Voegelin wrote, “which expresses itself in the aggregate of such magical operations may pervade society with the weird ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in Western society.”

Welcome to the Trump White House.

 

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Voegelin is a timely reminder of how unconservative Donald Trump is and of how conservatives should be a vital part of the coalition against him. Conservatism comes in several strains: laissez-faire conservatives such as George Osborne want small government, free trade, low taxes and freedom of choice. Status quo conservatives such as Angela Merkel want stability and continuity, even if that entails sticking with social welfare programmes and liberal democracy. Authoritarian conservatives, however, are prepared to use the big state to engineer change.

One important question for the future is whether the laissez-faire and status quo conservatives will realign around the ascendant authoritarian camp promoted by Trump. Merkel is the world leader of the conservative-inspired opposition to the US president. But his most profound critic is Pope Francis, who uses language similar to Voegelin’s to condemn the “material and spiritual poverty” of capitalism, and the language of Marcuse to condemn the process of dehumanisation embarked upon by Bannon and Trump.

“As Christians and all people of goodwill, it is for us to live and act at this moment,” the Pope has said. “It is a grave responsib­ility, since certain present realities, unless ­effectively dealt with, are capable of ­setting off a process of dehumanisation which would then be hard to reverse.”

The challenge for progressives is to reframe resistance in terms that can appeal to conservatives: to use conservative ideas of character and spirituality for progressive ends. We will spend a great deal more time trying to conserve things. The swarm of legal challenges against Trump will hold him to the principles of the US constitution and the rule of law. Many of the young people attracted to Bernie Sanders and the Occupy movement yearned for the restoration of the American dream.

Building bridges with the conservative opposition is not merely a tactical manoeuvre to widen support. It has deeper roots in shared doubts about modernity which go back to Freiburg and the man both Marcuse and Jonas renounced in 1964 for supporting the Nazis: Martin Heidegger.

For Heidegger, modernity was a restless, disruptive force that displaced people from jobs, communities and old ways of life, and so left them searching for a sense of home, a place to come back to, where they could be at one with the world. Technology played a central role in this, Heidegger argued, providing not just tools for us to use, but an entire framework for our lives.

Marcuse, writing four decades before ­Facebook and Google, warned that we needed to resist a life in which we freely comply with our own subjugation by technical, bureaucratic systems that control our every thought and act; which make life rich but empty, busy but dead, and turn people into adjuncts of vast systems. We should “resist playing a game that was always rigged against true freedom”, he urged, using language that has been adopted by Trump.

Writing not far from what was to become Silicon Valley, Marcuse pointed to a much larger possibility: the technological bounty of capitalism could, in principle, free us from necessity and meet all human needs, but “. . . only if the vast capabilities of science and technology, of the scientific and artistic imagination, direct the construction of a sensuous environment; only if the world of work loses its alienating features and becomes a world of human relationships; only if productivity becomes creativity are the roots of domination dried up in individuals”.

Writing in the 1960s, when full employment was the norm and advanced society was enjoying a sense of plenty, Marcuse foreshadowed the debates we are having now about what it will mean to be human in an age of machines capable of rapid learning. Mark Zuckerberg’s argument in his recently published manifesto that Facebook creates an infrastructure for a co-operative and creative global civil society is a response to concerns that Marcuse raised.

 

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Just as Marcuse saw that capitalism was a union of contradictions – freedom created on the basis of exploitation, wealth generated by poverty – Voegelin thought modern society was self-defeating: it declined as it advanced. Giving everyone wages to buy stuff from the shops was not progress, he said, but a soulless distortion of the good life, an invitation to spiritual devastation. The gnosticism that Voegelin so hated, the effort to design a perfect society, was also the source of the technological and rational bureaucracy that Marcuse blamed for creating a one-dimensional society. Voegelin would have regarded the apostles of Silicon Valley as arch-gnostics, creating a rational order to the world with the insights gleaned from Big Data and artificial intelligence.

Marcuse and Voegelin point us in the same direction for a way forward. People need to be able to find a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Both would have seen Trump’s ascendancy as a symptom of a deeper failure in modern society, one that we feel inside ourselves. The problem for many of us is not that we do not have enough money, but that we do not have enough meaning.

For Voegelin, living well involves “opening our souls” to something higher than buy and sell, work and shop, calculate and trade, margins and profits. Once we detach ourselves from these temporary, Earthly measures of success, we might learn to accept that life is a mysterious, bubbling stream upon which we cannot impose a direction.

A true sense of order, Voegelin argues, comes from living with an open soul and a full spirit, not being part of a machine manufacturing false promises. If we cannot manage to create order from within, by returning to the life guided by the soul, we will find order imposed, more brutally, from without. Marcuse, likewise, thought that turning the Great Refusal into a creative movement required an inner renewal, a “liberation of consciousness” through aesthetics, art, fantasy, imagination and creativity. We can only escape the grip of the one-dimensional society, which reduces life to routines of buying and selling, by recognising that we are multidimensional people, full of potential to grow in different ways. It is not enough merely to resist reality; we have to escape it through leaps of imagination and see the world afresh.

Václav Havel, the leader of the Czech resistance to communist rule, called this “living in truth”. Havel’s most influential essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, written in 1978, is about how to avoid the slow spiritual death that comes from living in an oppressive regime that does not require you to believe in what it does, merely to go along with “living within a lie”.

The greengrocer who is the central figure and motif in Havel’s essay eventually snaps, and stops putting in his shop window an official sign that reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel wrote: “In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”

Human beings by nature long to live in truth, even when put under pressure to live a lie. In language evocative of Voegelin and Marcuse, Havel writes: “In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.”

In communist Czechoslovakia that meant taking a wide and generous view of what counts as resistance as people sought their own ways to “live in truth”. Under President Trump, many Americans are finding they are living within a regime of lies, and they will be drawn back, time and again, to find ways, large and small, personal and political, to live in truth.

Resistance to Trump and Trumpism will succeed only if it mobilises both conservative and progressive forces opposed to authoritarianism, and it needs to stand for a better way to live in truth, with dignity.

Charles Leadbeater is the author of the ALT/Now manifesto, which is available to read at: banffcentre.ca

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution