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30 reasons to celebrate in 2009

Good news has been in short supply in 2008, so we offer reasons for excitement and optimism in the n

1 The US administration

There is a scene early in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, written when he was in his early thirties, in which he describes how as a boy he was taken by his mother, Ann, to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, in Indonesia. There was something wrong in the marriage, and very soon Ann, suffering acutely from loneliness and fearing that she and her young son were a burden to her troubled husband, found a job teaching English at the American embassy in Jakarta. Many of the men employed at the embassy were, Obama writes, "caricatures of the ugly American".

The caricature of the ugly American: this would do as a description of George W Bush. No American president has done more to besmirch the international reputation of his great country than the man who, in January, will leave the White House, unmourned and unloved even by those who might once have counted themselves among his most loyal supporters.

The years of the Bush presidency have been a time of profound shame and disgrace for the United States. Bush was unfortunate that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 happened when he was commander-in-chief. His presidency has been defined by those attacks and will be remembered for the way in which he and his closest allies and advisers, the neoconservative cabal led by Dick Cheney, responded to them, not with largeness of vision and Wilsonian multilateralism, but with dogma, violence and war. He will end his second term with the US deep in recession, with the banking system on life support, with US troops still an occupying force in Iraq, with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp still open, and so it goes on. No one should ever allow Bush to forget the horrors of Abu Ghraib Prison, or his intransigence on climate change, or how his social and religious conservatism perverted policy at home and abroad on a range of issues from a woman's right to abortion to the use of stem cells in scientific research.

How different things will be under President Obama. We all know that Obama presents as the candidate of change, the hyperarticulate outsider who comes from the margins to win control of the very centre. In reality, he is an arch-politician, a pragmatist; he believes strongly in continuity, hence the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the retention of the Republican Robert Gates as defence secretary. He is not the liberal idealist some of us would like him to be. But nor is he in any way the caricature of the ugly American.

In addition to the differences of tone and style from the Bush administration, the Obama presidency will be marked by significant policy shifts. For a start, he will lift the so-called global gag rule (more formally: the Mexico City Policy) that restricted US-funded organisations from promoting abortion in their aid work in the developing world. He will put a much greater emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation; in the Senate, one of his few accomplishments was a non-proliferation bill, with the Republican Dick Lugar (he has even spoken of "setting a goal of a world without nuclear weapons"). He will be multilateralist. Having appointed one of his most influential advisers, Susan Rice, to the role of ambassador to the United Nations, he is expected to take that institution more seriously than his predecessor, even if he has expressed scepticism about the limits of its effectiveness.

On climate change, he supports a cap-and-trade programme that would reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. On social policy, he is obviously a religious moralist, as any serious politician must be in America to make progress, but he is not a religious conservative. He has said that he will lift the ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem-cell lines, thus ideally increasing the chances of groundbreaking therapies.

Above all, by his very presence as a black man in the White House, with a black wife and children, Obama is and will continue to be a symbol of hope and possibility to people of colour not only in America but in the world.

Jason Cowley


2 The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

From October 2009, the British government will for the first time be committed to research unhampered by prejudice, which ultimately may help to deliver healthy lives for many, many people. In this country, 350,000 people live with Alzheimer's, one in every ten couples need fertility treatment and five children are born with cystic fibrosis each week. All of them could benefit from new research. There is no guarantee that research with stem cells and admixed embryos - containing human and animal material - will provide miracle cures, but with well-regulated experimentation we can test the boundaries. Science will progress, through either co-operation or competition, and humanity will benefit. We are indeed looking at a brave new world - and it's exciting.

Frank Furedi


3 The Convention on Cluster Munitions

Amazingly, 2009 will be the first year from which armies will face restrictions on the use of cluster bombs. A convention signed by 100 nations in December 2008 is due to be ratified in June 2009. It restricts the use, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons, and provides for clearing up unexploded munitions. The treaty is not a blanket ban, nor has every nation signed it; but it may still mark the beginning of the end for these cheap, vicious and inaccurate weapons.


4 Fourth-generation biofuels

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in February 2008, the geneticist Craig Venter told an audience including Al Gore and Larry Page, founder of Google, his modest ambition: "replacing the whole petrochemical industry". How did he plan to do it? By genetically re-engineering simple organisms to feed on CO2 and produce octane-based fuels as waste; he expected to be producing these fourth-generation biofuels "in about 18 months". Venter, who has made Time's list of the 100 most influential people two years running, is not someone whose predictions should be taken lightly. If he achieves this latest goal, energy will enter a new era in 2009.


5 The indictment of Omar el-Bashir

Early in 2009, the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant against Omar el-Bashir (below) for his role in the crimes committed by the Sudanese government and its allies in Darfur. It will be the ICC's first indictment of a head of state, and its first for genocide, sending a powerful message to leaders around the world.


6 The economy

Economically speaking, it is extraordinarily difficult to be optimistic about anything in 2009: even the buoyant Chinese economy looks to be suffering, with riots as factories close. However, new Labour has moved rapidly to try to ease the pain for pensioners and low-income families. We can be grateful that this is not the 1930s, that there is a strong welfare state in place and that, although we may yet see pictures of soup kitchens, they will be unreal and unnecessary distortions.

More people will find themselves out of work but the intellectual and commercial life of the nation goes on. Britain is still a highly innovative place, as two recent blockbuster drug breakthroughs illustrate: Crestor, from AstraZeneca, will keep the nation's hearts healthier; and Ceravix, the cervical cancer vaccination from GlaxoSmithKline, will provide protection for millions of young women. And ethical drug breakthroughs such as these will continue: GSK has one of the best late-stage testing pipelines for new medicines in the world.

With several banks under government control after 16 months of the credit crunch (which began in August 2007), mortgages and finance should begin to become available again. The really good news for people with tracker and variable-rate mortgages is that in 2009 we should see the lowest interest rates in modern times, with the bank rate falling as low as 1 per cent by the spring. The weaker pound should also be good for exporters over the longer haul - and all the strongest recoveries in the British economy in the post-Second World War era have followed substantial declines for the pound.

Alex Brummer


7 Antiretrovirals

I am looking forward to the outcome of something a bit off the wall: the first trials of pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV infection, which will investigate whether uninfected people can take antiretroviral medicines, then screw around without condoms and stay uninfected. If the trial results are "positive", they will raise interesting scientific possibilities and challenges, as well as a huge moral dilemma - and a potential political maelstrom.

Elizabeth Pisani


8 Mammoth cloning

Bringing back mammoths might not be the most obvious focus for human endeavour in 2009, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. The prospect of cloning long-extinct species reared its head thanks to two scientific discoveries in November. At the beginning of the month, Japanese scientists announced they had created clones of mice that had been frozen for 16 years; a couple of weeks later, an American-Russian research team announced it had pieced together most of the woolly mammoth genome, the essential building block for bringing the animals back from the dead.

As seismic as these discoveries are, the real-life Jurassic Park is a long way off. Science has plenty of questions to answer before that can happen, ranging from the vagaries of producing artificial chromosomes, to how to gestate a fertilised mammoth egg. Still, in 2009, it is likely there will be plenty of research into cloning, and perhaps also discoveries in more practical areas, such as the cloning of tissue from healthy organs for surgery. Who knows - an explanation may even be found for our fascination with the prospect of re-creating prehistoric animals.


9 Justice for the Gurkhas

In September 2008, the high court ruled that the immigration policy preventing from settling in the UK Gurkhas who had served in the British army, but retired before 1997, was unlawful. More than that, the judge, Mr Justice Blake, declared the policy "irrational". The case for a fairer ruling has been made even more compelling by a petition, presented to the government by Joanna Lumley in November, containing more than 200,000 signatures in support of the Gurkhas' cause. Gordon Brown has pledged to publish guidance in "the near future". The outcome of the Gurkhas' campaign is still uncertain, but 2009 will, at the very least, provide further publicity for their cause - and, with any luck, a ruling in their favour.


10 Paul Dirac's reputation

In January 2009 comes the publication of The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo's biography of Paul Dirac (below). Barely remembered outside the scientific world, Dirac was one of Britain's greatest theoretical physicists, a figure of heroic international stature - and, as the book's title indicates, a very peculiar person. Farmelo has unearthed a great deal of new material. I hope this biography will not only make people think and talk about Dirac as the important 20th-century figure that he is, but also raise new questions about that curious phenomenon we know as genius.

Brian Cathcart


11 Climate change

The next 12 months will be critical in the battle against the biggest threat the planet faces: climate change. But there are many reasons to be optimistic about the progress that can be made both at home and abroad.

Here in the UK, the Climate Change Act has firmly established an important commitment dramatically to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by the middle of this century. It's a challenging target, but the nation's efforts should be aided by the scrutiny of the new, independent Committee on Climate Change. Already it has made a significant impact: its first report, at the beginning of December, recommended the intermediate "carbon budgets" that will be presented for the next 15 years.

With targets now set, we need to take the vital steps that will make our economy less dependent on fossil fuels, and begin investing in more low-carbon technologies and sectors. The approval of the Gwynt y Môr project, one of the world's largest offshore windfarms, off the Welsh coast, and the government's proposal to develop the technology and infrastructure to make electric and low-carbon cars a practical reality, are steps in the right direction.

In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor presented a "green stimulus" package, which, by including measures to improve the energy efficiency of households, has made some advances towards a low-carbon future. However, the 2009 Budget, which will probably be the last major chance for a concerted fiscal response to the present economic crisis, should provide an even stronger impetus.

Along with the other members of the European Union, the UK should in 2009 reach agreement about how to realise its commitment to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020, and to increase the share of energy consumption met from renewable sources to 20 per cent. In November, the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen will look to establish an ambitious global agreement to come into effect from 2012, when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expires. And the success of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which puts a price on carbon and caps emissions, should put the EU in a position to negotiate new international targets.

Barack Obama's positive statements on the need for domestic action and international co-operation to tackle climate change have opened up the possibility of re-establishing a sense of common purpose among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Emerging economic powers with rapidly rising emissions, such as China, are also showing increased recognition of the need for all countries to participate in an equitable plan to make reductions worldwide.

Around the world, governments and businesses need to seize the clear opportunity that is offered by the current economic crisis to increase demand for low-carbon growth in a way that lays the foundations for the future. So let us hope that 2009 is a watershed year in the battle against climate change.

Nicholas Stern

Professor Lord Stern of Brentford is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics


12 Balkan states heading for EU membership

If all goes well, most of the states of south-eastern Europe will be heading irrevocably towards EU membership by the end of 2009. Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia have been granted candidate status; the rest of the western Balkan countries have the EU's commitment to eventual membership. After more than a century and a half of violence, the ground is being prepared for an end to major conflict in this troubled region.


13 A neutral view of race

There is a real possibility that, by the middle of 2009, commentators around the world will no longer feel the need to describe Barack Obama as "the first black president of the United States". Certainly the election of a candidate with his racial characteristics was a cause for rejoicing. But we need to move on. In the 2009 which I hope to inhabit, Obama will be, or will become, a president who happens to be black, and none of us will regard that as being more worthy of comment than his status as the first president who has edited the Harvard Law Review. Commentators can begin the process by identifying other traits of Obama's that are as obvious as his colour. And that will allow them to make judgements. Race is, or ought to be, a neutral description.

Roy Hattersley


14 More safe water

In 2009, more people worldwide will gain access to safe water and sanitation, and take their first steps out of poverty.

Nonosoa is from Soavina Antokofana Ambohitrano, a remote Madagascan village that last year suffered outbreaks of bubonic plague. Her life has been transformed by a simple handpump. "I often used to get sick," she explains. "Everyone is healthy now. In future life will be better and health will keep improving."

Currently one in eight people lives without safe water and 2.5 billion have no safe, clean place to go to the toilet. About 5,000 children die every day from easily preventable water-related diseases. But progress is being made. Water and sanitation are now on the G8 agenda, in part thanks to WaterAid's advocacy work. "Water is life - let us act like we mean it," said the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the recent UN High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals.

This year, WaterAid and its partners reached more than one million of the world's poorest and most marginalised people with safe water and brought sanitation to more than three million. Next year, we're aiming to reach millions more. For them, and for people like Nonosoa, 2009 marks the beginning of a brighter future.

Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid


15 Political Parties and Elections Bill

In the wake of the Oleg Deripaska affair, this bill, which is going through parliament, should give the Electoral Commission greater powers to regulate and investigate donations to political parties and close loopholes, bringing into line the letter and the spirit of the law on donations. The chances that dodgy handouts will be entirely prevented are pretty slim - but at least the new legislation might save George Osborne from a repeat of one of the embarrassments he was afflicted by this year.


16 Broadband for East Africa

Towards the end of summer 2009, three huge new fibre-optic cables will bring broadband internet to East Africa, with particular benefits for Kenya and Tanzania. The cables will link Asia, South Africa and East Africa, and the benefits will be enormous and immediate. The internet will be cheaper, quicker and much more accessible for millions of Africans, with all the benefits that entails - not least encouraging foreign companies to outsource business to the region.


17 The Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize

For months, the judges of this major new book prize have been working their way through piles of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. "There are numerous book prizes, yet none specifically celebrates one of the best things non-fiction books give us: ideas," points out Julian Baggini, one of the judges. The winner will be announced in March - and awarded with £10,000 for his or her efforts.


18 The new face of opera

Skin Deep is a thoroughly modern opera: a satire on society's obsession with beauty, youth and wealth, sung in English, with a libretto by Armando Iannucci. Opening at Opera North in January, and playing in Salford, London and Newcastle later in the year, the darkly comic tale of Doktor Needlemeier, an overzealous plastic surgeon, will be a vicious sideswipe at celebrity culture and a rejuvenating shot in the arm for opera.


19 75 years of Liberty

At this exciting moment in world history, I believe that there is a real prospect of renewed commitment to human rights on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. The year 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties), the domestic rights and freedoms campaign in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth. In recent months, in preparation for the new US presidency, we have been deepening our special relationship with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and we will support its mission to end torture as a tool of US security policy. Closer to home, now that the successful Charge or Release campaign against 42-day pre-charge detention is behind us, we look forward to broadening the consensus around fundamental rights and freedoms. We plan to lay waste to the myths around the Human Rights Act, nail down the coffin of ID cards and promote the values that bind democratic people together: dignity, equality and fairness.

Shami Chakrabarti


20 Football 2010

I'm looking forward to England confirming their place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I couldn't bear to go through all that again: pretending it didn't matter, pretending we could always support the foreign players in the Prem because, really, they are one of us. If England don't make it this time, that's it, I'm taking up fretwork.

Hunter Davies


21 Hu Jia, Chinese activist

By awarding Hu Jia, one of China's leading activists, its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament has sent out a strong message of disapproval to the Chinese government. Hu's campaigns have tackled China's civil rights record, its treatment of HIV sufferers, and its environmental concerns - with the result that, in April, he was convicted for inciting subversion and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. China has reacted angrily to European "interference", but Hans-Gert Pöttering, the parliament's president, has been unrepentant: "The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China."

Hu himself has said that he expects "big changes in the next five years" in China. Continued attention from the EU in 2009 can only help.


22 Better chances for cancer sufferers

More cancer patients are surviving for longer and that is sure to continue in 2009. As a result of recent announcements by the Health Secretary and Nice, almost all cancer patients will have access to effective new drugs. Improved radiotherapy, targeted to the individual patient, will be more accessible and we will be opening our Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at Oxford University to develop even better techniques.

In 2009 we will see legislation to ensure that all tobacco is sold in plain packaging and to make it illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds. Cancer Research UK will also be leading a joint initiative with the national cancer director to make symptom awareness and early diagnosis top priorities in the fight against cancer.

So although 2009 will be difficult economically, it will be more important than ever for people to continue supporting Cancer Research UK. Further improvements in cancer survival depend on the public's generosity.

Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK


23 The closure of Guantanamo Bay

Soon after 20 January 2009, Barack Obama will begin to close Guantanamo Bay. It will be a grand day for justice, for the prisoners held there, and for the reputation of the United States. At present, roughly 250 prisoners are held at Guantanamo. Of these, as many as 40 will be brought to the US for a trial of sorts; 160 will be sent home with expedition.

Yet the joy with which we bid farewell to this unpleasant legacy of George W Bush's administration must be tempered by the reality of what he has bequeathed us. The remaining 50 stateless refugees will need to be resettled, and we must hope that countries which resisted helping Bush out of his self-painted corner will offer asylum when Obama comes calling.

Despite its secretive qualities, Guantanamo is the public face of the Bush "secret prisons" programme. The men there constitute less than 1 per cent of 27,000 ghost prisoners - many in Iraq, others in Afghanistan, and in far-flung prisons in Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kosovo, as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco - held by the US under worse conditions than their Guantanamo counterparts. What will become of this secret renditions programme? First, will anyone even admit it happened? There is already pressure on Obama not to dredge up all the terrible things that happened under the Bush administration. Yet until the truth is exposed, it is unlikely that we will learn the lessons necessary to avoid a repetition of this dark period in US history.

The second, self-interested motivation for silence comes from the perpetrators of these wrongs. The CIA is unlikely to lead the charge for revelations, given that its agents are those most likely to face indictment for the patent illegalities they committed. And there is a third reason to think that this process of rendition may not simply melt away with Bush. He was not its progenitor. That distinction went to Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton also joined the party. Obama will inherit plenty of US-sponsored violence around the world, with prisoners taken every day. What is happening to them? What will be done in the future?

Presidential policies are only as well formed as the facts that a president receives. Obama's information about those we deem "terrorist captives" will come from those who capture them - the Pentagon and the CIA, which have a vested interest in portraying them as dangerous jihadists, no matter what the true facts may be.

So hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners will remain divorced from their legal rights. As Guantanamo Bay closes, a swell of goodwill towards the new president will release the pressure to resolve this darker legacy. As economic stimulus packages monopolise the front pages, let us hope that in 2009 these prisoners are not wholly forgotten.

Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, visit http://www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact: Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640


24 UK Supreme Court

On 1 October 2009, the UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square will open its doors for the first time. It will take over from the House of Lords as the final court of appeal, and play a part in the development of UK law. Lisa Harker, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, commended the move: "It's a further step towards the separation of powers in the UK, with the House of Lords no longer the highest court in the land."


25 Picasso exhibition

From February 2009, the National Gallery will host the first major British exhibition of Picasso's work since 2002 - with the unusual aim of undermining its star's reputation. "Picasso: Challenging the Past" looks at some of the artist's most famous work in relation to the artists who came before him, including El Greco, Delacroix and Manet. Nicholas Penny, the gallery's director, has described Picasso as "a very great artist, but a very much more uneven one than many people realise". Works seldom seen in this country will be on show; and the debate about whether one of art's biggest names deserves his reputation for innovation and brilliance should be enjoyably contentious.


26 Stricter licences for lap-dancing clubs

Peter Stringfellow might scoff, but almost everyone else has reason to applaud the government's decision to license lap-dancing clubs as "sex encounter establishments". In 2009, it will be easier for councils to close clubs down - just one of the benefits, as Katherine Rake, director of the women's rights group the Fawcett Society, points out: "Local communities will have more say about what happens around them - and, hopefully, a bigger debate over the sexualisation of our society will be opened up."


27 Advances in nanomedicine

Nanomedicine - a suite of medical tools that measure or manipulate extremely tiny interactions - will be on the cusp of making it big in 2009. Interest in the technology has been building for some years, and a few simple tools are already in use. Now society seems ready for the more powerful possibilities.

Cancer patients will benefit hugely. Miniature capsules that deliver drugs exclusively to diseased cells enable patients to take toxic medicines that would otherwise be lethal, and make existing therapies far less unpleasant.

Nanotechnology also opens up the potential for new methods of diagnosis. The most dangerous cancer cells are much squishier than healthy cells; researchers have discovered that they can measure how rigid the cells' membranes are by using tiny cantilevers, rather like diving boards with a point on the end, to prod individual cells. This technique can pick out cancer cells that are otherwise undetectable. And molecule-sized cantilevers have also helped scientists at University College London to work out how some bacteria have become resistant to vancomycin, a common antibiotic.

Nanomedicine will have many more applications a little further down the road. Membranes with clever molecular architectures should improve dialysis, while "nanosuspensions" will allow for more soluble compounds. BioSante Pharmaceuticals, an American company, is investigating the possibility of producing insulin that diabetics can take as a pill.

Researchers at Tsinghua University in China say they have developed a nanomedical scaffold that delicately guides young bone cells to where they are needed, then gradually disintegrates as bones heal. This useful development should cut the cost of treatment, especially in developing countries, speeding recovery and reducing the need for repeat visits to hospital. That innovation probably won't be ready in 2009; but nanomedicine at large is poised to make its name outside the scientific world.

Anna Petherick


28 Change for Iraq

Finally, British troops are planning to quit Iraq in 2009, after a deployment lasting longer than the Second World War. The end in sight is not a precipitous pull-out but a sense of how stability may return to the country. The city of Basra provides a vision of that future.

Controlled for months by Iranian-backed Shia death squads that fought the British and terrorised the people, Basra is transformed. Friends just back say it is a place at last free from bomb blasts and intimidation.

But it took the arrival of US troops finally to make that change - helping the Iraqi army in April 2008 to overturn an "accommodation" by the British with the death squads. British soldiers ultimately joined the battle, but not quickly enough to erase the humiliation of being "bailed out", as history seems to require, by the Yanks.

The result is not a democracy. The city is ruled by the Iraqi army. Yet if martial law works and saves lives, we should celebrate and go.

In 2009, Basra may at last see "mission accomplished" - though not quite the mission the neoconservatives intended.

Stephen Grey


29 The voice of a real European electorate

In 2009, EU leaders are likely to ask Ireland to vote again on a new EU constitution, which cannot help but reopen the debate. There is - understandably - a lot of anger and resentment about the constitution, but I'm hopeful that people will find ways to come together and hold politicians to account both nationally and across borders, to begin to constitute a genuinely European public.

Dolan Cummings, Institute of Ideas


30 The Ashes

Australia return to these islands in the summer as England attempt to win back the Ashes over a five-Test series, starting in July. The 2005 series - one of those rare national occasions when nearly everyone you met, man or woman, seemed to be talking about the cricket - was the greatest contest of its kind in the modern era. It was a thrilling series, which England, having lost the first Test at Lord's, eventually won 2-1 against an Australian side then considered to be one of the best in the game ever.

England lost the return series in Australia 5-0. Now, they have a chance to regain the Ashes against an Australian team diminished by retirements.

A sporting contest not to be missed.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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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.

 

***

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