This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.


Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Show Hide image

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.



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.




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.




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:

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