Miles Cole for New Statesman.
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The pugilist: Sadiq Khan’s quest to become mayor of London

Can the Tooting MP complete the journey from council home to City Hall? 

One recent morning, Sadiq Khan entered the ring at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club in Wandsworth, south London. He ­began sparring with one of the regulars: ducking, weaving, throwing jabs. Khan learned to box as a boy, partly for self-defence; two of his brothers are coaches at the volunteer-run academy near Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005. Among those pictured on the wall is Frank Bruno, the club’s most famous son.

Khan had invited me to join him, and soon after I arrive at 10am, Pop, the youngest of his seven siblings, inducts me in the ring and we begin 90 minutes of training. “Boxing isn’t fighting,” Khan told me when I interviewed him two days earlier. “It’s a classic mistake people make – boxing is a sport. The skills you learn are life skills: being magnanimous, what to eat, how to keep fit, how to look out for each other. The first thing you learn in boxing is defence – you’ve got to defend yourself . . . We all boxed [in my family] and that gives you confidence if you get into bother on the street.”

The only one of his brothers not to compete at amateur level, Khan preferred football and cricket (he had trials for Surrey). But he moves with an agility seldom associated with MPs – many of whom are more likely to be found in the Palace of Westminster’s bars than its gym. As a devout Muslim, Khan does not drink, and in 2014 he ran the London Marathon.

During our warm-down we pass a road on which his father drove the number 44 bus. A few minutes away is the council estate where Khan grew up. He doubts that bus drivers today could afford to live in the area, and speaks with sadness at how gentrification has frayed the bonds of community. It was the fear that working-class Londoners were being denied the opportunities ­afforded to his family that partly inspired his candidacy for mayor of London.

***

In eight weeks, on 5 May, Sadiq Khan will compete in the UK’s biggest bout of all. With the exception of the French president, no European politician has a larger personal mandate than the mayor of London. The city's leader controls a £16bn budget and housing, planning and transport policy. If the government lives up to its devolutionary rhetoric, the next incumbent will acquire still greater powers.

For the past eight years, London has been led by Boris Johnson, who twice defeated his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. But Khan is predicted to win back City Hall for Labour. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, whose billionaire father founded the Eurosceptic Referendum Party, was the candidate that many in Labour feared: telegenic, green (he edited the Ecologist magazine) and socially liberal. The Tories’ hope was that, like Johnson, Goldsmith would attract non-Conservative voters. Yet in a city that leans ever more towards Labour – the party won 45 of its 73 seats in last year’s general election – few believe he can emulate his predecessor. Fellow Tories have criticised his campaign as “low-energy”. The most recent poll, published by Opinium on 8 March, gave Khan a 10-point lead in the final round.

“I’m the least complacent person you’ll find but I’m quietly confident,” he told me.

Khan, colleagues often say, is “a winner”. At the 2010 general election, he defended his Tooting seat from an aggressive and well-funded Conservative challenge. In the same year, he managed Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, masterminding the defeat of Miliband’s elder brother, David. In the 2014 local elections, after Miliband rewarded him with the post of shadow minister for London, Khan achieved Labour’s best result in the capital since 1971. At last year’s general election, on an otherwise morose night, the party gained seven seats in London, its strongest performance since 2001.

When Khan announced in May last year that he would stand to be Labour’s mayoral candidate, many expected him to be defeated by Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister. It was not an assessment that Khan ever shared. As David Lammy, who finished fourth in the selection contest, told me: “I remember Sadiq sitting in his office – it would have been six months before the campaign got going. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, I am going to do this.’ He was steely about it and very clear in his own mind.”

Khan’s team emphasised an ­elementary but overlooked truth: it was Labour Party members and supporters who would choose the candidate. The party’s leftwards trajectory gave him the advantage. Unlike Jowell, an unashamed Blairite, Khan opposed the Iraq War, a totemic issue for activists. He worked hard to win the endorsements of Ken Livingstone, the Unite, GMB and CWU trade unions and his fellow London MPs. Khan’s nomination – if not support – of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership and his opposition to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill gave him further credibility among the party’s selectorate. His policies included a London Living Rent (based on a third of average local income) and a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares.

While Jowell and other candidates attempted to appeal to existing party members, Khan recruited new ones. Over the four-month campaign, he made more than 200 visits to workplaces, community centres, churches, temples, mosques and shopping malls. “The thing that should never be underestimated with Sadiq is his ability to campaign,” Lammy told me. “He’s a bit like a terrier; when he gets his teeth into something he’s not going to let it go.” Jowell simply told me that Khan was a “formidable campaigner” and that “all the signs are that he’s going to win”.

When the selection result was announced on 11 September 2015, with Khan beating Jowell 59-41 in the final round of voting, many were stunned by his landslide victory. But not him. “I never thought it was going to be a close race,” he told me just after the result was announced at the Royal Festival Hall. “I always knew – irrespective of what respectable London newspapers may write and who they’re going to endorse – when it comes to voters seeing what the candidates stand for and what their vision is, I’d win.”

No one I spoke to doubted Khan’s political skill, but some questioned his integrity. “He has got a tendency to want it so much that he slightly overeggs it,” a senior Labour MP told me. “Some of that mud will get thrown at him: that he changes his position, that he is politically expedient – and that then goes to trust. What does he really stand for?”

Having nominated Corbyn for the leadership, Khan was derided for sharply rebuking the new Labour leader in a Mail on Sunday interview on 20 September. He warned that Corbyn’s meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah reinforced Labour’s “anti-Jewish” image, criticised him for failing to sing the national anthem (“He was very unwise. You are trying to be the British prime minister”) and vowed to “work closely with a Tory government if it is in London’s interest”.

Such comments, opponents suggested, would never have been made during the selection contest for the mayoral candidacy – when he needed the Corbynites. But he insists there was no inconsistency. “I was quite clear when I nominated Jeremy that I wasn’t going to vote for him [Khan endorsed Andy Burnham]. Look on my Twitter timeline. And, George, in the selection process I was asked whether I would serve in his shadow cabinet, if I wasn’t successful, and I said no – because we come from different parts of the party. We believe in different things.”

Without the help of Khan and other non-supporters, Corbyn would not have made the ballot. Khan insisted that he had no regrets. “Jeremy Corbyn, to give him some credit, won among Labour Party members, among Labour Party supporters and among trade union supporters . . . You can have an analysis of why the other candidates failed to inspire, enthuse and engage with the membership, whereas Jeremy did, and that’s a conversation for them to have.”

He rejected the suggestion that his victory was a by-product of Corbynism. Were that the case, he said, one would have expected Diane Abbott or Christian Wolmar (both of whom voted for the eventual leader) to win. “The reason why that didn’t happen was because in my campaign I managed to enthuse, inspire and engage the selectorate. My mandate is similar to Jeremy’s, almost 60 per cent ... We were fizzing with energy, we had ideas and we won.”

His attempts to distance himself from the Labour leader have led the Tories to label him “Corbyn’s man”. At a Goldsmith rally on 26 January, David Cameron warned voters that they would be “lab rats in the first Corbyn economic experiment in public life” if Khan won.

However, in tacit acknowledgement of the risk posed by Corbyn’s unpopularity, Khan does not plan to appear in public with him in the lead-up to May (to the consternation of Corbyn’s allies). The leader’s role will be limited to voter mobilisation: leafleting, fundraising and phone banking. Yet Corbyn has more cause than most to hope that Khan is successful. Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1982 to lose council seats in a non-general-election year; retaking the mayoralty would provide crucial consolation.

Khan is also avoiding campaign appearances with Livingstone and has ruled out giving him a job if he wins. “If you’re running for mayor, your job is to represent London – you’ve got to stand up for London,” Livingstone said of Khan. “You often have to disagree with a Labour government, as I had to. It’s a campaign between Zac and Sadiq; it’s not a rerun of me and Boris. We should keep out of it.”

***

The day after Corbyn made the Labour leadership ballot on 15 June last year, Khan was again accused of expediency when he announced that he opposed a third runway at  Heathrow Airport in favour of Gatwick. “Sadiq was for Heathrow expansion in 2008; he was for it when he was transport minister in 2009. Zac Goldsmith has announced he is running [the Tory candidate is a long-standing opponent], and suddenly he’s against it,” Lammy told a mayoral hustings. But Khan denied that his stance was born of opportunism. “It was born out of the facts. Unlike Zac Goldsmith, I accept the case for an increase in flight capacity in this part of the country. I think the case has been made for jobs and growth.

“But in the last full year for which there’s data almost 10,000 Londoners died because of air pollution. There are children in parts of London whose lungs are underdeveloped. The UK Supreme Court last April held that the air-quality directive had been breached. So air is a killer – it makes you sick and it’s illegal. In those circumstances, you can’t say yes to a new runway at Heathrow.”

At Gatwick, he added, far fewer people were affected by air and noise pollution.

The Tories have recently levelled a far graver charge than that of Corbynism or opportunism: that Khan is a friend of Islamist extremists. On 7 February the Sunday Times reported that Khan had attended four meetings of the group Stop Political Terror (while campaigning against the US-UK extradition treaty), which had the support of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda cleric. On 12 February, across two pages, the London Evening Standard noted that Khan’s former brother-in-law, Makbool Javaid, had attended events organised by the extremist group al-Muhajiroun in the 1990s (the pair have not spoken for a decade). Four days later, MailOnline reported that Khan had given a speech at the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival while the “black flag of jihad” was flying.

Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told me: “Khan wants to be the mayor for millions of Londoners at a time when the terror threat is very real. An attack could happen at any time and he would have to respond and unite the city in those circumstances – he will be responsible for policing and community relations. He’s campaigned against the role of the police and allowed himself to share platforms with people who very definitely have the wrong kind of views. It’s not very good judgement if he wants to be the mayor of a city like London.”

Such comments frustrate Khan. “People who understand politics understand what happens at these things,” he said. “What happened was very simple.

“Many MPs from all parties, including Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith himself, had objections to the US-UK extradition treaty . . . Now, often when there are meetings happening about a cause, what happens is you’re very busy; the meeting may have been taking place for two, three, four hours; you’re doing other stuff. You go along, you take the stage, you do your spiel, you speak and more often than not just leave to do your next event.

“Often you’ve got no idea who was speaking before you, who’s speaking after you. Nobody could honestly, hand on heart, think I agree with the sort of views spouted by other people who spoke at the same meetings: that’s not the way it worked.

“I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to extremism and radicalisation. I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to people who claim to follow the same faith as me but have views that are abhorrent.”

He added: “So, what are you implying by your nudge-nudge and your wink-wink? What are you saying either about me or about the one million Londoners of Islamic faith? I get people approaching me all the time who are Muslim who say, ‘If they’re doing this to you, what chance have I got?’ or, ‘You’re encouraging us to get ­involved in mainstream politics yet this is how you’re treated’ or, ‘If they’re digging around, as they’ve been for months, about your extended family – about who used to be related to you, or whatever – what chance have we got?’”

He spoke of his dismay that Goldsmith, who some believed would shun such tactics, had pursued this path. “Those advising Zac to do this sort of stuff, it’s foolish advice. I thought Zac was bigger than this.”

Khan has received death threats from extremists for his involvement in democratic politics and, more recently, for supporting equal marriage. Friends say that despite the political and physical risks posed by taking this stance, he never hesitated. As a former human rights lawyer and champion of civil liberties (he chaired Liberty for three years), it was an automatic choice.

In a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in November, a week after the Paris terror attacks, Khan spoke of how “successive governments had tolerated segregation in British society” and had allowed “the conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”.

He warned: “We’ve protected people’s right to live their cultural life at the expense of creating a common life. Too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background, without understanding or empathising with the lives and beliefs of others.”

None of this has prevented his rivals making the claim that he is a friend of extremists and, by implication, one himself. But unlike Livingstone, who responded vociferously to accusations of anti-Semitism, Khan has maintained his composure.

“I’ve watched him go through this extremism row two or three times quite closely,” an MP told me. “He’s extraordinarily calm under that level of pressure. He draws on a well of inner stability that is really impressive. Tony Blair could obviously do it in spades but there are not that many senior politicians who can do it.”

***

Sadiq Aman Khan was born on 8 October 1970 at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. His grandparents emigrated from India to Pakistan following Partition; his parents emigrated from Pakistan to London shortly before his birth. Khan was the fifth of eight children (he has six brothers and one sister). His late father, Amanullah, was a bus driver for more than 25 years; his mother, Sehrun, was a seamstress.

Khan attributes his work ethic to his upbringing. “My dad worked all the hours that God sent as a bus driver. If he got overtime he’d take it. My mum not only raised eight children but was sewing clothes in the house while raising us, while cooking.

“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. I got a paper round, a Saturday job – some summers I laboured on a building site.”

He was taught to support those in need. “My mum and dad would send money to their relatives back in Pakistan. My mum still does, because we’re blessed being in this  country.”

The family grew up on the Henry Prince council estate in Earlsfield, where Khan and his seven siblings squeezed into a three-bedroom home. He did not travel abroad until he was 23 and slept in a bunkbed until he was 24. He attended the Ernest Bevin comprehensive school (named after the former Labour foreign secretary), which Independent editor Amol Rajan described as “the dreaded second choice ... the staple of local news reports about drugs, gangs and local hoodlums.” I asked Khan if this Tarantino-esque description was accurate.

“Listen, I’m very careful of speaking about certain things because it gives the impression ... Look, it’s still a school and children still go there, you don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the school. It was a great school, it fulfilled my potential. I’m not one of these people who moans that I could have been this if I’d gone to this school. It was a great school, the teachers worked their socks off.” He added: “It was a tough school, though, you had to be streetwise, you had to look after yourself.”

Racism was a feature of the family’s life. Bus passengers referred to his bearded father as “Paki Santa” and assaulted him. Such insults sometimes prompted Khan to use his boxing skills. “We went down on the floor hitting each other,” he told the Mail on Sunday of one fight. “He didn’t call me the ‘P-word’ again.”

Khan and his brothers also encountered racism on the football terraces. “I experienced Wimbledon, my brothers experienced Chelsea,” he told me. “At Stamford Bridge there’s a place called ‘the shed’. The NF [National Front] would sell newspapers and wear boots and the green bomber jackets and chase people like my brothers away, call them names.

“I didn’t support Chelsea because I didn’t want to support a club that had racist fans. Plough Lane was down the road ... I remember going to watch Wimbledon vs Spurs, it was an FA Cup game. Although I was a Wimbledon fan, at the Wimbledon end, after the game I was racially abused by fans using the Y-word and the P-word.

"I didn’t go back to Plough Lane.”

He then spoke movingly of the extent to which London had progressed. “My daughters [Anisah and Ammarah] are 16 and 14 and they’ve basically grown up in the same area that I grew up in and my wife grew up in. They’ve never been called the P-word – they’ve never been the victim of overt racial abuse. That shows the progress we’ve made.”

At school, a teacher told Khan, who studied biology, chemistry and maths at A-level, “You’re always arguing. Why don’t you be a lawyer, rather than a dentist?” It was this, as well as LA Law on television, that inspired him to join the Bar. He studied at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan), where he became a visiting lecturer, and took his finals at the Guildford College of Law. Having joined Labour at the age of 15, he was elected as a councillor in Wandsworth in 1994. That same year, he married Saadiya Ahmed, a fellow solicitor.

Khan told me he made a conscious decision to specialise in human rights law (“acting for the underdog”), rather than corporate law. “It wasn’t work for the sake of becoming a millionaire. It was working hard and giving something back.”

He became a trainee solicitor in 1994 at Christian Fisher under the renowned human rights lawyer Louise Christian. Three years later, he was made a partner – a precocious achievement for someone of his age and background. In 2004 he left the company, which had been renamed Christian Khan, to become the Labour candidate for Tooting. Khan and his former partner, who was aggrieved by his sudden departure, have not spoken since.

As a human rights lawyer, he acted for what he recently described as “unsavoury individuals”, such as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Babar ­Ahmad, who pleaded guilty in the US in 2013 to “providing material support to terrorism”. Ahmad, whose extradition was opposed by Khan and other MPs (including Goldsmith), was a childhood friend. Khan’s opponents have sought to exploit this.

“We never went to each other’s houses. We weren’t close friends but we knew each other growing up – we’d see each other at mosques,” Khan told me. “When you see people at the mosque you don’t discuss politics and stuff. It’s, ‘How you doing? How’s things?’ You may play cricket together, as most kids do at the park and stuff. I can’t remember having an argument about his views in detail. What I do know is that when he was arrested it was a big deal because he was the victim of police misconduct. He brought a claim and won damages in relation to how he was treated – he suffered serious injuries.” Khan has seen Ahmad twice since he was released from prison in the US: at a funeral at Balham Mosque and on the Tube with his lawyer.

In 2005, Khan was elected as the MP for Tooting, his lifelong home. He was praised by former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who represents neighbouring Streatham, as a constituency champion. "In spite of the fact that he's had a national role he was never seen to have taken his eye off the ball of the local situation," he told me. 

Six months after entering parliament, Khan rebelled over Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention for terror suspects, the first of several clashes with the then prime minister. In 2006 he signed an open letter warning that the government’s foreign policy provided “ammunition to extremists”. On the tenth anniversary of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, he spoke of how Blair had “called the four MPs of Islamic faith in to No 10 and sat us round a table and said – to Mohammad Sarwar, Khalid Mahmood, Shahid Malik and myself – it was our responsibility.

“I said: ‘No it’s not. Why have you called us in? I don’t blame you for the Ku Klux Klan. Why are you blaming me for the four bombers on 7/7?’” (This account is contested by Mahmood and Malik, who accused Khan of “self-serving revisionism”.)

“They’re allowed to recollect things how they like,” he told me. “I’m quite clear in my recollection . . . It reinforces my view that we’ve got to defeat radicalisation and extremism by all of us working on this – this isn’t a uniquely Muslim problem. There’s a great saying, which is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Similarly, it will take a village to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

In Gordon Brown’s 2008 reshuffle, Khan was appointed communities minister, becoming the second Muslim to serve in government. The following year he was made transport minister: the first Muslim to attend cabinet and become a privy counsellor. “The palace called me and said, ‘What type of Bible do you want to swear on?’ When I said the Quran, they said, ‘We haven’t got one.’ So I took one with me.”

Of his faith, he told me: “It’s part of who I am – that’s the best way of describing it, because I’ve been asked this a lot. We all have multiple identities: I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m Fabian and I’m Muslim.”

I asked him how he felt when an LBC/YouGov poll was published showing that 31 per cent of Londoners would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim mayor. “That was during the selection campaign. When I saw it I was thoroughly depressed.

“When you’re the candidate in a campaign, you’ve got to be strong; you’re the leader. I went to the campaign – we’ve got lots of volunteers – three of my volunteers of Islamic faith were devastated. Two of them were crying. They just didn’t want to carry on because they were devastated that the impression was given that three out of ten Londoners are somehow Islamophobes.

“That’s not what the survey was about. With surveys, with polls, it’s how you ask the question. If I ask you the question, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the mayor of London was of Islamic faith?’, what sort of message would that send? It elicits a very different answer to, ‘How comfortable are you with the mayor of London being a Muslim?’ And so I’ve spoken to people at LBC who on reflection realised that the question maybe shouldn’t have been asked, or at least asked in a different way.

“You can slice and dice it whichever way you want, this is a great, great city. There is no other city I’d rather raise my daughters in. I’ve got cousins in Pakistan, ethnic majority and religious majority, and they say to me they couldn’t achieve in Pakistan what I’ve achieved here.

***

For some politicians, campaigning is mere business; for Khan it is a pleasure. I joined him in east London as he visited start-ups hosted by the Bootstrap Company in Dalston: a film-maker, a bakery, a dressmaker. “Are you making a profit yet?” he asked. At a time when his party is increasingly perceived as “anti-business”, Khan takes every opportunity to present himself as a friend of enterprise. He has been aided by Goldsmith’s decision to support Brexit.

“We’re a city where literally more than 500,000 jobs are directly dependent on us being a member of the EU,” he said. “We’re a city where 60 per cent of the world’s companies choose their headquarters. Forty-three per cent of London’s exports go to the European Union. In those circumstances, if you want to be a good mayor, how can you be in favour of leaving?”

Goldsmith has argued that a Conservative mayor will invariably get a better deal from the government, a notion that Khan dismisses. “To give the current government their due, they do business with a Scottish Parliament, which is not Tory . . . they do deals with the Welsh Assembly, which is not Tory. They’ve given greater devolution to Greater Manchester, which is not Tory and probably never will be.

“I actually get on with George Osborne and other members of the government. Many of them sponsored me when I did the marathon. I think I’m friends with some of them.” Osborne, a fellow Londoner, personally congratulated Khan when he won the mayoral nomination.

Khan’s name is often mentioned alongside that of Sajid Javid, the business secretary and fellow bus driver’s son (“I’m the son of a bus driver. I used to love that line ... then Sajid fucking Javid came along,” Khan quipped during his press gallery appearance). “I saw him the other night, actually,” he said. “I think one of the great things about politics now is if you’re an ethnic minority the sole party for you to choose isn’t the Labour Party. That’s fantastic, I think, it’s really encouraging that both mainstream parties have embraced the importance of reflecting society.”

During his time in the shadow cabinet, Khan was one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and a tribune of the soft left. But he told me that he no longer supports signature policies such as a 50 per cent income-tax rate or a “mansion tax”.

“It’s really important to understand that we had a manifesto, which we fought the 2015 election on, and we lost – we lost badly for the second time in a row.

“In the Eighties when we were losing elections, members of my party had a phrase, which I think was wrong, which is ‘no compromise with the electorate’. The electorate are always right.”

In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin Barber writes that “a preference for pragmatism and problem-solving over ideology” is a feature of successful city leaders. It is a model that Khan – like Ken Livingstone before him, a socialist who forged an alliance with big business – has embraced.

If Sadiq Khan wins the race to lead London, he will capture a prize that increasingly eludes Labour outside the city: elected office. The election of a British Muslim mayor would be an event of international significance, and a symbol of London’s cosmopolitanism. “I’m fed up of losing. I don’t believe in heroic failure,” he told me. “I’ve got the policies, I’ve got the principle. We need the power to improve London.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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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