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Jeremy Corbyn: “I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote”

Can Jeremy Corbyn really lead the Labour party? NS editor Jason Cowley meets the potential leader to talk campaigns, the media, and how he'd handle PMQs.

I was instructed to meet Jeremy Corbyn in a café at the Royal College of General Practitioners, close to Euston Station in London. I had asked for as much time as possible with Labour’s 66-year-old man of the moment but his aides had offered “no more than half an hour”. Three weeks earlier I would probably have been granted three hours in his company. Three months ago, when Corbyn was deemed to be little more than a stubborn, if principled, relic of Benn-era Labour politics, he would have been an unlikely candidate for a New Statesman interview, so predictable seemed his oppositionism and so complete his irrelevance.

But now, with the Labour Party traumatised by election defeat and “Corbynmania” gripping the left, the Islington North MP is inundated with requests for media interviews. Even his closest aides accept he could win the Labour leadership, having begun the contest merely content that their man had secured the necessary 35 MPs’ nominations to make it through to the final four.

“Things have gone crazy,” said a breathless member of his campaign team, which is being funded by Unite and other unions. “We weren’t able to give any time to the Financial Times and we could only give the Mirror five minutes on the phone.”

In the event, Corbyn, a veteran of the Stop the War Coalition, the anti-apartheid struggle and CND, arrives 30 minutes late for our meeting. With him is Simon Fletcher, a former chief of staff for Ken Livingstone who also worked for Ed Miliband as  a go-between with the unions. Fletcher is an old friend of the New Statesman and I assent when he asks to sit in on the interview, which ends up lasting 14 minutes longer than expected, before Corbyn is hurried away to catch a train to Bristol. (He actually missed his train because, as I learn later, he was mobbed at Euston by young fans wanting to have selfies taken with him. Such are the perils of being the flag-carrier for the radical left in Labour’s excessively protracted and increasingly bizarre leadership contest.)

We meet two days after a YouGov poll for the Times has confirmed what we had reported on our Staggers blog: that Corbyn, who began as the 100-1 outsider, leads the contest to be the next leader of the Labour Party. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says as he orders a mid-afternoon cappuccino. “Who wouldn’t enjoy it? It’s fascinating, the latent thirst that was out there for serious debate and serious politics.”

He pauses. “Oh, look, there I am in black and white.” He glances at a wall-mounted television screen on which a report about him is being broadcast on one of the news channels. I peer at Corbyn and then at Corbyn peering at himself on the screen – and the effect is disorienting, as if I have stumbled into some kind of parallel world in which this survivor from Labour’s most bitter conflicts in the Eighties has re-emerged as a serious leadership contender. But this is no hoax: it’s really happening – and in and to a Labour Party that seems to have lost all confidence and sense of purpose, having endured the disastrous leadership of Ed Miliband, and been routed in Scotland and defeated in England.

There is nothing smug or triumphalist in Corbyn’s manner. He is quietly spoken and, unlike other leftist renegades such as George Galloway or Ken Livingstone, unshowy. He is wearing an open-necked white shirt (beneath which is visible a thin-rimmed vest of the kind my paternal grandfather, a London bus driver, used to wear, even on the warmest days, under his stiff-collared, starched shirts) with one of his trademark beige canvas jackets. His grey hair and beard are clipped short. He looks pale and tired and has a heavy cold, which has deepened his voice. He resembles nothing so much as a red-brick sociology lecturer, circa 1978.

Because of his cold, I ask if the campaign is becoming too much for him. “Not at all,” he says. “I have put the case for anti-austerity economics. I’ve put the case for the kind of anti-Trident peace view of the world and I’ve put the case for Labour being a bigger, more community-based party, and it’s been very interesting the discussion we’ve had at the forums – sorry, the hustings.”

Most of the hustings have been oversubscribed and after each one Corbyn holds his own, separate event. “We went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival [in Dorset] on Sunday after the London hustings and I wasn’t part of the main stage because the TUC are strictly neutral on this. But after the festival had finished we had our own event outside the Unison tent and we had 3,000 people there.”

Among his many ardent supporters is Richard Burgon, who was elected MP for Leeds East in May. “I was one of the first MPs to nominate him and I’m proud to have done so,” Burgon told me. “Jeremy has enthused tens of thousands of people who were sick and tired of the same old, same old Westminster bubble politics.”

Burgon denied that the Labour intake of 2015 is more left-wing than its predecessors. “There are a range of views among the new MPs. What I would say, though, is that most of us aren’t in thrall to outdated Blairism.” Corbyn, he said, is “not the favourite to win but he can win”. “It’s all to play for. The political establishment and parts of the media are out to get him. They don’t want people to opt for real change.”

***

Jeremy Corbyn was born in 1949 in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and attended Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, followed by North London Polytechnic, from which he dropped out, never completing a degree. His parents – his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a maths teacher – were both peace campaigners, as their son would become, too. Corbyn has at various times worked as a journalist, teacher, union official and councillor. In many ways he conforms to a north London leftist stereotype: ascetic and parsimonious, he is a vegetarian, does not drink alcohol, has his own allotment and does not own a car. His brother, Piers, is a controversial weather forecaster and climate-change denier. Corbyn has been married three times – his present wife is a Mexican, Laura Alvarez, who imports fair-trade coffee – and it has been widely reported that his second marriage ended because his then wife wanted to send one of their three sons to a selective grammar school, as indeed she eventually did. The truth, I was told, was more complicated, as marriage break-ups inevitably are.

How seriously should one take the Corbyn surge? There is certainly much enthusiasm for his uncompromising socialism among the young – “the more we hear about Jeremy Corbyn . . . the more people seem to like him”, wrote the NS blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – and among many former Labour supporters who became disaffected with the party during the Blair years. “Today,” another New Statesman contributor wrote to me, “I paid money over to Labour for the first time since I was a party member in the early Nineties. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn has given me hope that the party can return to its roots.”

But which roots are these? From its earliest beginnings, Labour has been an uneasy coalition of socialists and social democrats, of radicals and pragmatists, of workers and professors. It has always sought accommodation with rather than aspiring to replace capitalism. Yet, along the way, there have inevitably been ruptures and splits. In 1951 Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned from the Attlee government because they wanted the party to “Keep Left”.

But how left does left need to be?

A serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his long career since he was elected to the Commons in 1983 defying the party whip. Throughout the Eighties he was close to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Sinn Fein; and, as a vigorous opponent of what he calls “Israel’s occupation policies”, he has nurtured alliances with the Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah. “Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody,” he says now.

He supports the abolition of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent (“nuclear weapons are immoral”) as well as withdrawal from Nato (“I’d rather we weren’t in it”) – issues that contributed to the Labour split in 1981. A hard Eurosceptic, he told me he had not “closed his mind” to Brexit – so I was slightly surprised to read on 29 July that he had issued a statement arguing that Britons should not “walk away” but “fight together for a better Europe”.

“Taken slightly historically, the turning point in the EU was actually the Single European Act, the Thatcher/Maastricht-era stuff, which was turning the EU into very much a market system,” he says. “Setting up an independent European Central Bank, which then promotes the euro, and I think the sheer brutality of the way they’ve treated Greece, makes me question an awful lot. The other side of it is, I think, that Labour should be making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporate taxation across Europe. There has to be agreement on environmental regulation . . . Why are we leaving it all to [David] Cameron, to put together a statement, when he’s had no negotiations with anybody?”

He returns to the plight of Greece. “Look at it another way: if we allow unaccountable forces to destroy an economy like Greece, when all that bailout money isn’t going to the Greek people, it’s going to various banks all across Europe, then I think we need to think very, very carefully about what role they [the EU] are playing and what role we are playing in that.”

He is a republican, but abolition of the monarchy can wait, because “my priority is social justice”. He supports the removal of the charitable status of independent, fee-paying schools (“I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of them straight away”) and he would force state-funded academies and free schools to return to local authority control (“I would bring them back into the orbit of local education authorities”).

***

Corbyn knows what he knows and has known it for as long as he’s been in politics: he articulates his strident positions without stridency but also without compromise, and he seems comfortable in his own skin as Ed Miliband never did.

Miliband’s public performances were invariably tortured, as he triangulated and equivocated. For whatever reason, he never successfully reconciled the radicalism of his rhetoric about “predator capitalism” with the incrementalism of his retail policies; his cerebral style of book-learned Hampstead socialism with the pragmatic need to convince the electorate that he and his party could be trusted to run the economy more efficiently and effectively than the Tories.

By contrast, Corbyn is an unembarrassed advocate of big-state socialism – high taxes on business and the rich, public ownership of the railways and essential utilities, strict regulation of markets, the abolition of tuition fees, a benign, non-interventionist foreign policy and so on – and is happy to speak of the influence of Marx on his political thought.

As you listen to him, it can all seem so gloriously uncomplicated, as if socialism in one country were eminently achievable, even in age of integrated global capitalism. It’s hard not to respect his conviction and candour even if you disagree with his policies. His zeal and confidence contrast markedly with the caution of Yvette Cooper and the opportunism of Andy Burnham, who this past week joined in the chorus of Labour self-flagellation by announcing that the party today would never have been able to establish a national health service.

The changes to the rules under which Labour elects a leader – implemented by Ed Miliband as part of a new settlement with the unions to diminish the power of the block vote – means that anyone who registers as a supporter and pays £3 has a vote in the leadership contest. Under the revised rules, which have reduced the role and influence of MPs, the party has made itself vulnerable to entryism and outside manipulation. Unite, which supports and funds Corbyn, is also working assiduously, using phone banks to encourage its members to register as “affiliated” supporters so that they can vote in the contest – for Corbyn, no doubt. Leading members of the shadow cabinet such as Chuka Umunna have said that they would not serve under Corbyn. Meanwhile, the Tories are sitting back and watching all of this unfold with ill-concealed delight. Labour has not felt this divided since the early Eighties, when moderates from the right of the party broke away to form the SDP.

***

The radical left likes to convince itself that Labour lost in 2015 because it was not sufficiently socialist, as if the people of England are yearning for a more egalitarian society, if only the right leader would emerge. Yes, 50 per cent of Scots voted in May for the SNP, which positioned itself to the left of Labour and won 56 of the 59 Westminster seats; but Scotland, in the grip of nationalist fervour, has become an altogether different country from England, which is why so many Scots want to end the Union.

So, how does Corbyn propose to win in southern England and the Home Counties? I remind him that, south of the metaphorical Severn-Wash line, excluding London, Labour holds 11 out of 197 seats. But he says: “Let’s erase the line for a moment and talk about the whole of Britain, where 36 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote . . . the registration system mitigates against young people registering. And so I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote. We can grow the electorate: the Obama strategy, actually, that’s a lot of what Obama did.

“Secondly, is it wrong to appeal to every­one and say, ‘Actually, your society and your interests are better served if we have a fully comprehensive wraparound health and adult social-care service, if we have a comprehensive benefits system that doesn’t subsidise low wages and high rent; but instead, we do something about both of those things,’ and that we have a strategy which actually removes the worst vestiges of poverty in Britain? I don’t know about you. You travel around a lot, I’m sure, as I do, it’s absolutely – I’ll put this in black and white now – it’s absolutely disgusting, the level of serious poverty in Britain.”

I ask Corbyn if he is serious about winning. He smiles. “We’re doing this as a serious point, and it’s a serious operation and it’s going very well. I’m putting forward a different economic agenda. And my strong view is that we lost in 2015 particularly, but also in 2010, because essentially we were offering people slightly less hardship than the other side was offering people. It wasn’t very attractive to a lot of Labour voters. Compounded by the vote on the welfare bill, this has put Labour on the wrong side of the feelings not just of the people on benefits or who might be on benefits but a lot of other people who think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of poverty in our society, which the Labour Party should be concerned about.’”

Does he fear the party could split if he won the leadership, especially as he would have to command the kind of loyalty from colleagues that he has never shown?

“Well, loyalty is about the party and the movement . . . if you want a better and more effective party, we’ve got to open ourselves up much more to our membership and our supporters. And that is what has happened in this election. It’s much more open than any previous contest . . . I think a lot of the people who have joined the party since the election – I’ve met a lot of them – are anti-austerity. They’re people who have joined to do something. Maybe they saw also that the other, very small left parties like Respect and Left Unity just didn’t get anywhere.”

How would he feel about being leader of the opposition? Would he have the stamina to take on David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, week after week?

“I’ve got lots of stamina, don’t worry about that. I cycle every day – it’s OK.”

He wouldn’t win and then resign? “Why would I do that? Who says that? There have been some amazing statements that have come out about me in the past few days. Apparently people know what’s going on in my mind so I don’t need to think any more. I just read the papers.

“Listen, if we win this election, we’re in it for the long run.”

So he’d fight the general election in 2020?

“Well, let’s take one thing at a time. We haven’t been elected yet. We might not be. But I hope the party would want to hold together and I’m sure it would. I hope the party would recognise that the most democratic election we have held has produced an important result and has mobilised more importantly a very large number of people. I’ve never seen so many people at Labour Party meetings.”

We digress briefly to discuss George Galloway of the Respect Party. In March 2012, when Galloway won Bradford West in a by-election from Labour, Corbyn tweeted his support for his old friend even though he had defeated a Labour MP – but now he says they are no longer close. “No doubt George and I will come across each other somewhere . . . I thought the tactics he used against our candidate [Naz Shah, who won Bradford West back for Labour in May] were appalling. I was quite shocked; it was appalling.”

Simon Fletcher interjects. Our time is up and Jeremy Corbyn has a train to catch. Before departing, he says: “I have an issue with the New Statesman. In 1968, when
I was living in Jamaica, I sent a poem to the Statesman for publication. I never heard ­anything for months – and then it was eventually rejected.”

Would he like me to publish the poem, I ask?

“Yes, I would,” Corbyn says. He seems pleased and his shrewd eyes brighten.

Fletcher intervenes. “We’d better see what’s in it first,” he says, and then, gesturing towards the street, he leads his man away. On the nearby television screen, a clip from a recent Labour leadership hustings is being replayed. The camera closes in on Corbyn as he gestures and expounds. He seems suddenly everywhere – an unspun, pre-internet politician who has become an unlikely icon of the social media age, an inspiration to the idealistic young, nothing less than the man who would be leader of the British left. But here’s the question: can the surge last?

 

Q&A: Scotland, Israel and WikiLeaks

Jason Cowley Your favourite Tory MP?

Jeremy Corbyn Well, there have been a lot of them. The most amusing is Peter Tapsell. He was just totally historic. He said he had been in parliament so long, he kind of knew it all. I mean, I’ve obviously known a very large number of them. Often extremely patriarchal, right-wing Tories.

NS And favourite Labour MP?

JC Over the years? Well, it would have to be Tony Benn. Because he was an original thinker, and also I think very bravely published his diaries, which showed his developing original thought. And yeah, he got the most amazing attacks and was ridiculed throughout his life but ended up a much-loved, old-school institution. Tony was a legend, in many, many ways.

NS The historical figure you most admire?

JC In Britain or anywhere? That’s a very tough question. Well, there are so many. I think in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne. Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different. And there is a report that I can’t find any proof of one way or the other, that in late 1648 he had a three-day parley with Cromwell at the Nag’s Head in Islington. I can’t find the record of it. But I wish I could get it. Then I could get a plaque put up for it.

NS Is there a historical figure you most identify with?

JC The historical figure that I would seek to identify with is probably Salvador Allende, because I think he was a very interesting guy in many ways. Very thoughtful, deep man.

NS Did you meet him?

JC No, no. I’ve met many people in Chile but unfortunately not him. He was brought down by the CIA, with the help of the British.

NS Do you support Scottish independence?

JC I think they’ve got the right to a referendum if they want one. I would be much happier if they had their autonomy in the way they’ve got it now.

NS Do you still support Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame? Do you still think he’s “imprisoned” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London?

JC He’s taken himself into the embassy because he felt that, had he been taken back to Sweden, he would be taken forcibly to the US. The Swedish are unclear about what would happen to him in Sweden. I think it would be much better if the Swedish authorities investigated the case against him, decided whether there was a case for a prosecution or not, and dealt with it that way, while guaranteeing that under no circumstances would he be extradited to the US.

NS Would you abolish the charitable status of public schools?

JC I would look at that, yes. It’s very difficult to do, and I’m not into saying we’re going to get rid of them all straight away. I want to empower local education authorities much more. I’m actually more worried about the role of free schools and academies, which are largely unaccountable.

NS Are you worried about entryism from the far left?

JC I would want the registered supporters to become party members. I am of the view that we should lower the membership fee and increase the membership.

NS Would you abolish the monarchy?

JC Listen, I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican. But it’s not the fight I’m going to fight: it’s not the fight I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with the problems, protecting the environment.

NS Do you regret seeking to build alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas and other terror groups?

JC Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody . . . There has to be a conversation. Over Hezbollah and Hamas, yes, I’ve met [the Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal. I’ve met people from all these groups, actually, with a number of other people; Tony Blair has [too].

NS Do you support Israel’s right to exist?

JC Yes.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

MATTHIAS SEIFARTH FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Moby: “The average American IQ is around 98”

Moby, the vegan king of chill-out pop, talks wealth, David Bowie’s hat and the average intelligence of his fellow Americans.

In January 2012, two women walking their nine dogs on the hill beneath the Hollywood sign found a man’s severed head wrapped in a plastic bag. His decomposing feet and hands were discovered nearby. First theories pointed to the work of a Mexican drug cartel, or the murderous Canadian porn actor Luka Magnotta. The story piqued the interest of the electronic dance music mogul Moby, who wrote about it in a New Statesman diary in May this year.

Today, the smell of cedar and pine hits you on the canyon path, which is hot, steep and sandy – an immediate wilderness in one of LA’s most exclusive areas. The Griffith Observatory shines like a strange white temple on the hill. Brad Pitt, a local resident, was doorstepped after the head was discovered: he lives near Moby on the streets of Los Feliz, near Griffith Park, where the only sounds are hedge strimmers and workmen’s radios. Moby’s 1920s mansion is all but obscured by Virginia creeper.

As we sit down at his kitchen table, Moby tells me that the body parts were found to belong to a 66-year-old Canadian flight attendant called Hervey Medellin. Shortly before Medellin’s disappearance, his boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, had used a computer in the flat they shared to find an article titled, “Butchering of the human carcass for human consumption”. The head, feet and hands showed signs of having been frozen: the rest of the body was never found. He says it was one of those rare times in life where reality was more intriguing than the conspiracy theories.

Moby, of course, eats no meat. Fifteen minutes’ drive away in the hipster neighbourhood of Silver Lake, his vegan bistro, Little Pine, serves a variety of plant-based dishes, proceeds from which go to animal rights organisations including the Humane Society and Peta. His own music is never played there. We are meeting to talk about his new album – but, he says: “It’s 2016 and people neither buy nor listen to albums. And they certainly don’t listen to the 16th album made by a 51-year-old musician. I don’t care if anyone gives me money for this music or for live shows ever again. Once a record’s released, I couldn’t care less what happens with it. I liked making it, but I don’t care.”

He is currently working his way though the stages of grief outlined by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. To denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance he has added a new phase: Schadenfreude. On the night of the US election, he left the house at 6pm west coast time to watch the coverage with some friends. He checked his usual round of sites on his phone: CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the BBC, politico.com. He was concerned to see that no one was calling any of the early states; with Obama’s election, exit polls suggested the victory by noon. Days earlier, Moby had been predicting humanity’s “wake-up call” in the form of the destruction of Greenland or a zoonotic virus – but not this. He is softly spoken, with a quick laugh and the kind of intelligence that seems to warm him up from the inside when he talks, but today he is angry.

“It is disturbing on so many levels,” he says. “One, that we have elected an inept racist as president. Two, just seeing how dumb and delusional so many Americans are. Because really – in terms of the subsets of people who would vote for Trump – you have to be delusional, or racist, or stupid. I am so confused as to the fact that such a high percentage of Americans are either really stupid or incredibly bigoted.”

The stupidity of Americans is, he says, a matter of “anthropological curiosity” – or simply demographics. “The average American IQ is around 98,” he notes. “So that honestly means – in a vaguely non-pejorative way – that there are a lot of really, really dumb people. The nonsense that people were spouting before the election – that Trump was a good businessman, for example? This phenomenon has been particularly egregious of late: people have an almost adversarial relationship with evidence. Climate-change deniers are another example.”

As a self-described old-timey alcoholic, Richard Melville Hall (nicknamed Moby by his father in honour of his great-great-great-uncle Herman) has a pervasive interest in neurochemistry. He uses it to explain much of the past six months in Western politics. Our failing political systems – the subject, in fact, of the album he doesn’t want to talk about – are underpinned by “a kind of delusional motivation, which is basically to ignore the countless things that are actually going wrong in the world and focus all your attention on things that are arbitrary. In the United States, you have people who have perfectly good jobs in safe communities who are obsessed about Mexico, crime and unemployment. We have these quasi-Orwellian responses to stimuli, and they come from a place of fear and scarcity. Humans are still built to amass as much wealth as possible, and fight off the enemies as quickly as possible, but the only threats are the ones we generate ourselves.”

There’s a dishcloth on the table, a few magazines, a bit of a draught and Moby in a black hoodie pouring two glasses of water.

Fear and scarcity pervade American society, he says, because social policy is an extension of corporate process and “nothing is free from the cadres of professional lobbyists”. Meanwhile the ravenous news consumption that helped drive Trump reflects a human addiction to the “neurochemical jolt” of engaging with the media.

“People have a profound and almost feral attachment to that which makes them feel good in the moment,” he says. “Without thinking of long-term consequences, does their belief give them a shot of dopamine right at this second? If so, they hold on to it. Eating junk food, voting Brexit and voting for Trump.”

 

***

 

Moby is the model of an addictive personality well-practised at controlling itself. He was a fully fledged alcoholic by his early twenties: at ten, he’d been given champagne and made himself the promise, “I always want to feel this good.” Now, he cannot touch a drink, but his modern-day addiction, he says without a beat, is his phone. Every thought is pursued to extremes. He recently released an animated video for a new song, “Are You Lost In the World Like Me?”, showing a procession of grotesque, phone-addicted cartoon characters filming a girl as she throws herself off a skyscraper and hits the ground.

The house is vaguely baronial, airy and open-plan: all dark wood and furniture polish. An Annie Hall poster in the pool house; a coyote postcard on the kitchen wall.

This particular property is a result of serious downsizing: Moby has a habit of buying very big places, doing them up and then moving out. When he was still in New York, he bought a remote mountaintop retreat in Kent Cliffs, 50 miles north of Manhattan. He created a magnificent bedroom of 1,500 square feet with ten skylights – but quickly learned he could only get a decent night’s sleep when he pulled his mattress into the cupboard. He told the New York Times that, living all alone in the big house, he “felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane”.

He moved to LA in 2010, swapped vodka for quinoa smoothies and took the keys for another large building – the Wolf’s Lair, the turreted, 1920s Gothic castle in Hollywood once inhabited by Marlon Brando, with the swimming pool historically used for porn movies and the hidden tiki bar. He bought it for $4m and sold it for $12.5m four years later – allegedly to Banksy. He rattled around in that house, too. Right on cue, he tells me: “I felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane.”

On the one hand, these were sensible ­investments for the man who’s sold 20 million records; on the other, large impersonal spaces appealed to Moby long before he was in a position to buy them. Raised by his single mother on food stamps and welfare in Darien, Connecticut, he started his adult life squatting an abandoned lock factory, where he could ride his moped around his bedroom, piss into a bottle and read battered Star Trek paperbacks while working on early demo tapes, rather like a ragged, vegan version of the boy in the movie Big.

He was very happy in his penniless state, as he records in his memoir, Porcelain. He’d like to propose something he calls the End of Wealth – but we’ll come back to that.

In the past few years Moby has broken free from the “Beckettian purgatory of touring”. When his biggest-selling album, Play, was released in 1999, his music career was effectively “over”. Before Play, he had changed creative direction, going from progressive house to ambient to thrashy punk – to which he has just returned – and no one knew what to do with him. The only reason he hadn’t been dropped by his UK label, Mute Records, was that its owner, Daniel Miller, was “an old egalitarian socialist”.

Play sampled slave songs of the Deep South – recorded by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940s – and wove them into a backdrop of cerebral chill-out. The songs of pain and emotion took on an eerie neutrality, and TV shows and ad companies came calling. He was approached by Will and Grace and Grey’s Anatomy. At that point, selling records and touring were still more lucrative than licensing a song to TV – and licensing a song to TV was still considered selling out. But Moby considers himself an ugly duckling: “If someone who was once unattractive suddenly gets asked out on loads of dates, of course they say yes a lot.” He licensed every song on Play and it became the soundtrack of the millennium.

His memoir was unusual because it concentrated on the ten-year period before he got famous. It captured his enthusiasm – and his strangeness – at its source and showed him to have a sense of humour that may have passed people by the first time round. “I’m in London! London!” he wrote. “Benny Hill, Joy Division, Peter O’Toole!” He visited the vegan café in Covent Garden.

The book is filled with money: or with the constant, practical concern of not having it. Navigating poverty is an everyday routine: he is an “alchemist” turning used beer bottles into nickels at the recycler, and thence into soya milk and oranges. In his early twenties he becomes a Christian, partly so that he can repeat the Sermon on the Mount at Bible classes in the households of Greenwich Village and “judge” the rich children.

Book two, which Faber & Faber is waiting for, is more difficult. The period of his fame and fortune in the 2000s is too much of a cliché. “Ten years ago I was entitled, narcissistic, bottoming out, alcoholic, selfish and feral. Robbie Williams has done that story, so has Ozzy and Mötley Crüe. Who wants to read that? It’s tautological.”

Instead, he has decided to write about the first ten years of his life. It will look into his relationship with his mother, who loved him but raised him in various drug dens. He was at her side when she died in 1997, but he missed her funeral, having woken late in the morning to discover that at some point in the night he must have got up and set his alarm clock three hours late. He took a taxi to the wake, worrying about the fare, and for reasons he can’t really explain, turned up cracking jokes.

He has a strange nostalgia for the kinds of friendships you have in early adulthood, when everyone is equal, “before that point when someone starts making money and they think they’ve won: they’re going to have access to a different kind of happiness”.

In 2003, when he turned 38, he was famous, wealthy and miserable. “I’ve been able to see and inhabit almost every stratum on the socioeconomic scale, from extreme poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, and it gives me an insight into it,” he says. “Because a lot of people who experience wealth are born into it, and a lot of people who experience poverty never leave it. I can safely say that for me there has been no causal effect between increased fame and wealth and increased basic happiness and well-being.”

When Moby talks about himself, he applies many apologetic epithets: clichéd, meditating, yoga-loving, mealy-mouthed. In 2007 he developed mobygratis.com, a large online resource offering independent film-makers and film students a licence to use his music for free. If their films are commercially successful, the revenue from licence fees must go to the Humane Society. He says he wants to propose a more rational, evidence-based approach to wealth.

“We are still attached to the idea of the redistribution of wealth,” he says. “As progressive lefties, we’re all brought up to think that is a good idea. In the old days, it meant the difference between eating and not eating. Nowadays the person on $30,000 consumes twice the calories of the millionaire, and has a bigger TV and works fewer hours.

“There is an underlying assumption that if wealth were distributed more evenly then people would be happier, but there is unfortunately very little anthropological or sociological evidence to support that idea, unless there are institutions to support the basic needs of community, like food and shelter. Confusing materialism with happiness is the essence of our culture.”

While west LA is plastic surgery and gold-plated toilets, he says, his own neighbourhood is “David Lynch wearing an old T-shirt and mowing the lawn”. Among the millionaires of Los Feliz, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. He knows several who live “incredibly austere lives. I was having tea with Jim Carrey the other day. He’s basically just giving everything away. He just realised that owning three planes was stressing him out . . .”

In his New Statesman diary, Moby said that life in LA offered him miles and miles of lavender-scented name-dropping.

“Coldplay played the Rose Bowl recent­ly,” he says. “And the Rose Bowl holds 75,000 people. It’s a struggle for me to sell 2,000. At first, I winced with a little jealousy. But then I thought, ‘If my career was at that Coldplay level, how would that actually affect my daily existence? Would it make my shoes fit better? Would it make the water pressure in my shower better?’ As long as you’ve satisfied the basic hierarchy of needs – enough to eat, clean air to breathe, bears not eating your legs – happiness is all where and how you put your attention.”

***

He goes to his kitchen cupboard and from among the colanders and measuring jugs he extracts a black velvet fedora – size seven, silk-lined, from a London company established in 1879. In green marker around the inside rim are the words “With love from David – Christmas 2005”. Bowie gave it to him over Christmas dinner that year. “It’s the hat that he wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Moby says. “There’s this amazing picture of him wearing it with John Lennon and it’s clearly when he was doing a lot of cocaine.”

Moby lived on Mott Street in Little Italy and Bowie lived on Mulberry Street. “I had a little roof deck, and he had a beautiful roof terrace, and we could wave at each other.” They were neighbours and friends, worked on music together, went on tour together, had barbecues together. He says the title of Bowie’s last album, Black Star, is a reference to the 1960 Elvis Presley song of the same name “about the end of a life” (“And when a man sees his black star,/He knows his time, his time has come”).

“David had been sick for a long time,” he says. “Or ill, as you say in the UK. So, David had been ill for a long time. I was very pleased that . . . after he died, people were asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, I’m just kind of happy that he lived as long as he did.’ Because I . . . had thought, yeah, I had thought that he was going to die a little before that. So.”

The Radiohead singer Thom Yorke lives just up the street from him in Los Angeles but Moby has never met him “as far as I know”. Apart from Bowie, he claims not to have musician friends.

“Musicians – and I’m sure you’ve encountered this many times – have a sense of self-importance that is off-putting,” he says. “It is very hard to be friends with someone who thinks that just by showing up, they’re doing something special. At the end of the day, you want to say to them, ‘You know what? You wrote a couple of good songs. Let’s put it in perspective.’”

He was born on 11 September 1965, and on his 36th birthday he watched the twin towers burning from his roof deck. He tells me that when the second plane hit and it became clear the first was no accident, he heard “the cumulative effect of ten thousand rooftops covered with people, and the weirdest scream. A scream of horror but also a scream of understanding.”

Fifteen years on, he talks about this year’s politics as a Manichaean thing. “Half the world are motivated by fear and desire to move backwards, and the other half are motivated by optimism and a desire to move forward rationally. It’s religious tolerance versus fundamentalism; it’s racism versus inclusion. I wonder if there’s a way we can make peace with that whole other half of humanity who are holding on to a non-evidence-based approach to the future. But I don’t know what it is.” He has known Hillary Clinton for two decades, was a vocal supporter of hers during the election run and released a pair of anti-Trump tracks for Dave Eggers’s music project 30 Days, 50 Songs.

He says that many celebrity Clinton backers were cautious to come out for her during the primaries “because Bernie supporters wanted to crucify you. Now Trump has united and inspired Democrats more than anything since the Vietnam War.”

The election result, he says, might just be “the equivalent of a crystal meth addict going on one last bender. Maybe this bender will finally convince Americans to stop voting for Republicans. Because they are terrible. There has always been an understanding that if everyone in America voted, there would be no Republican politicians. The reason Republicans win is that most Americans don’t vote.

“Those of us on the left who were brought up to be tolerant of people who had different opinions from us – well that’s great, ­unless the opinions are bigoted and wrong. If someone is a climate-change denier, they are wrong. If someone voted for Brexit, they are wrong. If someone voted for Trump, they are wrong. There is a lot of ambiguity in the world, but not about these things.”

The clock ticks towards 11.15am and Moby, ever punctual, is done.

“These Systems Are Failing” is out now on Little Idiot/Mute

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump