Decoding Gordon

There may not have been a contest but Gordon Brown still spent six weeks campaignin

So here's my Gordon Brown story. It's 2004 and I'm in a lift at 30 St Mary Axe, better known to Londoners as "the Gherkin". The Gherkin is the year's big new thing on the skyline and I'm about to be shot up to the glass glans on the 40th floor, where the editor of the Guardian is holding a summer party. It's like being one of the sperm in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. I'm standing next to the artists Francis Upritchard and Grayson Perry, who is looking fetching in a hot pink PVC Alice dress with black lace trim. Wait a moment, he says. Someone else wants to get in. Accompanied by an aide, Brown steps into the lift, looks at us for the briefest of moments, jams his tongue into his cheek, then stares fixedly at a point somewhere near the ceiling. The doors close.

I pass the next 30 seconds in a kind of private ecstasy as I implore providence to grant me a short conversation between the Iron Chancellor and the Turner prize-winning transvestite potter. What I'm after is something along the lines of:

"Nice frock, Grayson."

"Thanks, Gordon. Nice economic policy, by the way."

"Glad you like it." etc.

Doesn't happen. As befits a professional politician, Brown breaks the ice, but somehow, for 39 floors, no one knows what to say to him. "I wonder who owns this place?" he asks. It's not obvious who he's talking to: he's still looking at the ceiling. He may be thinking aloud. I can't work out if he means:

a) He doesn't know (unlikely);

b) He just can't remember right at this minute. (Should I remind him? Is that the aide's job?);

c) He's panicked by Grayson's outfit (not unheard of); or,

d) He's making some kind of incredibly left-field joke.

Confused, I decide it'd be easiest to pretend I didn't hear him. Franny and Grayson seem to have come to the same conclusion. When we get to the top and the doors open, everyone, including the Chancellor, seems relieved. I drink several Bellinis in quick succession. The party has an unsettled, apocalyptic tone. Politicians and commentators stalk each other over the canapés. The experience of being 180 metres up in the air inside a glass cone with a 360-degree view of London is giddying. For as long as Brown is in attendance, a helicopter flies tight circles around us, the noise of its rotors penetrating our glass sheath in great dull waves of sound. I catch several people nervously scanning the horizon. I realise they're looking for planes.

Glasgow Labour Party hustings, 3 June 2007

It's a cloak and dagger business, following the hustings. I've flown to Scotland without knowing exactly where I'm going, or when I'm supposed to be there. At the airport, I get a text with the details. When I arrive in Candleriggs, it seems the security provisions haven't prevented 50 or so protesters from setting up outside the hall. There are banners for NO2ID, the Stop the War Coalition, a local anti-Trident campaign and the disabled workers of Remploy. Inside, several hundred Labour members have gathered to hear the message of their crown prince, then watch a debate between the various deputy leadership contenders, whose campaign materials are silting up on a table by the entrance.

Against a backdrop featuring a Union Jack and some smiling children, Brown works the floor. Hello, how are you, good to see you, how are you doing. He shakes hands and grins his strange grin, that 100-watt smile which isn't matched by his hooded eyes. For the first time I'm properly aware of the difficulties partial-sightedness must present to a politician. Imagine Tony Blair's "trust me" routine without the dewy-eyed grimace or the noble gaze into the distance. Brown looks much better than he did in the lift, when his skin was powdery white, giving him the appearance of a sleep- deprived ghost. Today, he appears fit, confident. Suddenly he's standing in front of me.

"So this is the press side, is it? Now I know where not to take questions from, ha ha ha."

He has an odd staccato laugh, which arrives in sudden triplet bursts. It's rich in tone, simultaneously warm and cold, just like the smile. On the platform, he invokes Scottish Labour's recent dead - John Smith, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar - and reveals that he "believes in the values of the Labour Party" - a phrase I'll hear a lot in the next couple of weeks. I think it's political code for "I am not Tony Blair". I whisper snippets of translation to a Japanese journalist sitting next to me, who's struggling to follow. In the interval after Brown's speech, I try to explain the cultural differences between "old" and "new" Labour, but we get stuck on the connotation of "beer and sandwiches".

Brown talks about consultation and carbon-free living. He talks about solidarity and common purpose, about the balance between security and civil liberties. He really gets going when he turns to global poverty, conjuring a vision of a world where the 80 million children who don't attend school are given an education. We could be the first generation to achieve that, he says. He doesn't tell us how, or to what extent he thinks it's in his power to bring about as prime minister. But it sounds great, like one of those old-fashioned documentaries where they say that in the year 2525 we'll all be living in space and getting our nutrition in pill form: 80 million developing world school places probably cost about the same as a couple of nuclear subs or a year's small ground war, so let's assume we've got the cash, but money's surely the least of the obstacles in Brown's way. To take him seriously, I'd have to imagine that the man's planning to reform the entire global economic system, and then he'd have to go and stand outside Rupert Murdoch's office and there'd be no cabin at Camp David and no room in the hot tub at Davos and, oh, all sorts of hideous consequences. But, if I wrestle my cynicism to the floor, I can agree that it's nice to share an aspiration and there are worse things you could hear from the mouth of your country's next leader.

Here's a partial taxonomy of Gordon Brown's hand gestures: the karate chop into the palm, the double grip, the titty-tickle, the pull-towards, the inverted squeeze, the precision finger and thumb, the grasp and tug, and its twin variants, the grasp and flip and the grasp and sweep. When Brown talks about community involvement, or the battle of hearts and minds, he draws his hands inwards to a central position on his dark-suited person. When deporting a terrorist or wiping away disease, he removes the object in a full-arm rugby pass, jettisoning it into the outer darkness of the hall. Oddly, the gesture he uses most frequently, today at least, is Blair's signature thumbs-up barrier, the backs of the hands presented to the audience, their negativity defused by the perky raised digits. As we know from watching Blair and Rory Bremner, the barrier can be extended (when "pushing the envelope" or describing the positive progress of foreign wars), drawn in (to secure borders, or indicate personal involvement), or allowed to remain resolutely static, impregnable to naysayers, Tories and those who fail to meet their performance targets.

Brown's just getting stuck into a lurid description of today's souped-up hyper-terrorist, who's using 20 mobile phones and 30 identities, dreaming of atrocities while moving money around faster than a carousel fraudster, a character whose existential complexity is so mind-bogglingly Matrix-like that it would require 90 days even to establish his identity, let alone find out if he'd done anything, let alone find out if he was about to do anything, when a sinister disembodied voice intones a warning over the PA. "This is an emergency," it says. "Please leave by the nearest exit." It sounds as if the war on terror has come to Glasgow. We comply with alacrity. A guy in the row in front of me leaves so quickly that he drops his passport on his chair.

It turns out to be a fire alarm. A lot of people don't go back in for the deputies debate. I last about halfway through. Peter Hain looks tanned and bug-eyed, like a holidaymaker staring at an oncoming train. Hilary Benn talks in a London drawl about "puddy members".

Jon Cruddas is humble, Hazel Blears pugnacious. "The liberal left paint me as a hammer of the right," she says, her eyes blazing as if she relishes being upgraded from a mere mallet or gavel. "But," she reveals, "I'm not. I'm a nice person." I slip out and eat a dosa at a south Indian place across the road. "So, you been in there?" asks the waiter, looking at the party photo-op taking place outside the hall. "You'll be wanting a beer, then."

Islam and Muslims in the world, London 4 June 2007

No beer here. Strictly orange juice and halal canapés, because it's time for fence-mending, bridge-building and other such remedial measures. I'm in the grand surroundings of Lancaster House, a massive Georgian mansion coated in marble and gilt, its walls decorated with neoclassical frescoes. The occasion is a conference of global Muslim leaders called by the Cambridge University Interfaith Programme. This morning, Tony Blair opened proceedings by promis- ing £1m for training imams. Tomorrow, David Cameron will be talking about pluralism and Ruth Kelly will attempt, unsuccessfully, not to mention veils and crosses. Even Prince Charles has taped a message, which is nice.

Certain vocal British Muslims are grumbling that they've not been invited (they say it's because of their anti-war views, others say it's because they've already been invited to lots of junkets and some Muslims are still terrorists, which by definition means they haven't delivered, so what do they expect, subsidised fun for ever?), but no one seems to be letting this dampen their mood. Eastern European waitresses stand to attention with trays as the day's last plenary finishes. I sit on a chaise longue and watch them come down the stairs, the Grand Mufti of Cairo, the prime minister of Pakistan, the Bishop of London, professors and special advisers and community leaders, sober suits mingling with dishdashes, dashikis, beards abundant, headwear in velvet and astrakhan, cotton prayer caps and silk scarves. There's an air of bonhomie and conviviality. It has evidently been a good day.

Gordon Brown is hosting this reception. He arrives in a car, sweeps straight up to the podium and delivers a short history lesson, telling a couple of anecdotes about the house and reminding us that it was the venue for talks about the decolonisation of Rhodesia and debt-relief negotiations before the Gleneagles G8 summit.

He claims that "there's no more important dialogue than the dialogue we've had today" (I imagine his use of the first person plural is rhetorical, since he's only just turned up) and throws in a quick statistic. Apparently this year there will be "250 interfaith or multifaith dialogues, covering the whole country". This will, apparently, be "50 up on last year". I have no idea what he means, but it sounds very now, very knowledge economy. Production of dialogue is exceeding the levels set in the five-year plan. We are truly a nation of conference-attendees.

Brown is treated like a rock star. Though he's impatient to get away, he's detained by a press of people who want to shake his hand. Great work, he says to them all, you're doing great work here. People jostle one another, vying for his attention. One elderly man, with the tribal scars and floor-length robe of a cleric from the Sahel belt of West Africa, is almost felled by a stray elbow as he works his way in for a brief squeeze and a word of thanks. He comes away, his face radiant.

"Unions Together", Labour Party London hustings, 6 June

I'm at Congress House, TUC headquarters, and as the junior Labour press officer who took my call this morning reluctantly revealed, the meeting's starting "after two", or about six in the evening, information someone has also made available to the 100 or so Stop the War activists making a noise on the steps. I shouldn't moan. No one ever got far in the media operation by indulging in loose talk. The guys running these hustings events look slightly shell-shocked. They have every right to their fatigue, since they've done another of these things in Newcastle since I saw them in Scotland three days ago. They walk about, buzzing with tension, conferring with one another and receiving messages from the Borg Queen through their headsets. It must be a strange bubble, this road-show. The banners and shouting outside, the sepulchral calm of the lobby. When I make the mistake of suggesting that Brown dodged a question in Glasgow, my interlocutor looks pained, touches his hand to his ear and moves away.

They tend towards a type, these young men. It's not that I think the organisation lacks diversity; it's more that it appears to have generated its own subculture. You could be into Nu-Rave, you could be a Young Farmer. Or you could don a red-ribboned security pass and try to get ahead in Gordon Brown's new Labour. You need a sober suit and a big primary-coloured tie. Polenta is out, pub and match are in, so you'll need to get the hair and shoes right. No gel, no fancy stylings. Nothing estate-agentish or flash. Good thick soles are a plus.

As a treat, they allow me backstage. Brown gets his own room, with a selection of sandwiches. His rider includes three scented aromatherapy candles, fresh hand towels, tequila and a bowl of M&Ms with the blue ones taken out. All right, it doesn't. But he's still better off than the flock of would-be deputies, who share a single room. Elsewhere, the organisers are sifting through a list of audience questions. "Is there anything on Iraq?" someone wonders, anxiously. There isn't. "Maybe you could raise it?" they ask the chairman, the New Statesman's Martin Bright. "We don't want it to look like we're stage-managing Iraq out of this." Another questioner is given the thumbs up because "she's a black woman". Welcome to the theatre of inclusivity, the simulacrum of debate.

In the hall, TUC members chew gum and wait for Brown, listening to piped Nineties chill-out music, the kind that's put out by Ibiza mega-clubs, packaged with a picture of a girl in a bikini. Along the row from me sits a tiny frail-looking old man with an extraordinary profile, a full beard and a round bald head. He looks like the ghost of Keir Hardie.

Brown isn't as fluent as in Glasgow. I notice he's recycling his material. There's the joke about Nixon gladhanding the crowd at the independence celebrations of Ghana:

Nixon: What's it like to be free?

Man in crowd: How should I know? I'm from Alabama.

There's the one about Ronald Reagan being prepped for a meeting with Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden:

Reagan: Isn't he a communist?

Aide: No sir, he's an anti-communist.

Reagan: I don't care what kind of communist he is . . .

The crowd likes it. They seem to respond, albeit guardedly, to the redemptive story of the 80 million developing-world schoolchildren, to Brown's gratitude to the state system for his education and to the NHS for saving his sight. At home, he's offering "a new politics, a new form of democracy . . . the agenda is to find a means to involve and engage". Abroad he wants a "new covenant between the rich countries and the poor countries". Later, I look up the phrase. Apart from its biblical origin (Jeremiah 31: 31-4 ) and its echoes within Scottish Protestantism, the "new covenant" was also Bill Clinton's 1991 campaign theme, a term for his proposed relationship with the American people. I take it as a sign of Brown's particular flavour of Americanism, his desire to reach out both to Bible-study Bushies and socially minded Democrats.

Young Labour hustings, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 10 June

Helicopters fly overhead. The director of the city's contemporary art space is excited to be hosting the Chancellor. At the end of the street is a small anti-nuclear protest. Inside, student activists in red T-shirts (optimistic slogan: "Ambitions for Britain") chat to the deputy leadership candidates. Brown is warmly applauded as he arrives. He's dressed down (a rare event, apparently). No tie, blue blazer, button-down shirt, chinos, loafers - the uniform of the smart-casual North American executive. The museum director ("our brand is excellence, international excellence") gives him an old grey-striped Penguin special to sign - J E D Hall's Labour's First Year, an account of the Attlee government. "I couldn't find one of your books in the shops," he says, perhaps unwisely.

Brown has, of course, got a new book out. Courage: Eight Portraits is a collection of Wikipedia-esque capsule bios of unimpeachably courageous types like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, fleshed out with sentiments such as this:

All these heroes . . . command our highest admiration and gratitude; already the wars and uncertainties of our still young century show these qualities are needed still, and are still there when they are needed.

The book is full of such Hollywood sentences - the high stakes, the feel-good ending. The narratives themselves often end badly - most of Brown's heroes get assassinated, executed, or spend years in prison. But that's not the point. The point is his appreciation of the quality (defined here as "action aligned to conviction") which links them together, and might just link us and him if we get on board the freedom train. It's notable that (if you discount Mandela's communism, which isn't dwelt on) none of his heroes is a socialist. Given the title, a deliberate echo of JFK's Profiles in Courage, and its inclusion of Bobby Kennedy among the courageous, it's hard not to see it as another arrow pointing in the direction of the US Democrats as the source of the proposed renewal. In Tom Bower's hostile biography (reissued and updated for the coronation), Brown is portrayed as suffering failures of nerve at several key moments in his career. Bower's claim appears to be that Brown's "big clunking fist" is a substitute for a killer instinct, a viciousness that Blair, for all his presentational lightness, has in spades. Maybe a book associating oneself with the idea of courage is some kind of giveaway of nail-biting weakness.

Brown is interviewed by the TV presenter June Sarpong. Getting down with the kids, he mentions the social networking site MySpace, which he terms "the biggest youth club in the country", skilfully positioning himself somewhere between Cliff Richard and the skiffle boom in the landscape of contemporary hip. On that site, "Gordon Brown" has the tag "don't you wish your PM was hot like me" and says that he'd like to meet "a good assassin" to murder the previous occupant of 10 Downing Street. His 1,452 friends include "Margaret Thatcher", "Lord Levy", "Alan Partridge" and "Tony Blair", whose own page has quite a good picture of David Cameron smoking a spliff. Many people appear to be communicating with "Gordon" in the belief that he's the man standing on stage in front of me, name-dropping Bono. Somewhere, buried in the site, you find "Gordon Brown For Britain" and his 100 friends. I fear the Chancellor may be setting himself up for another Arctic Monkeys moment.

In Oxford, his speech is almost entirely given over to global warming and international development. He tells a story about meeting a 12-year-old Kenyan Aids orphan and rails against people who believe in the impossibility of social change. He sees the debt relief agreement as his defining achievement, at least for this young audience. The large numbers of young people who bought Make Poverty History wristbands are a ready-made constituency for his brand of global feel-good rhetoric, and at the end of his presentation they respond enthusiastically. Leaving aside doubts about whether the Gleneagles promises will be kept, or whether they're meaningful at all without a revolution in trade, it's evident Brown is proud of them. If there's a dream animating the mysterious space behind his sea-island cotton shirt, international agreements on debt and climate are part of it.

An American journalist I met remarked that it's hard to think of another world leader who would end a hustings speech on the topic of debt relief. That should give us pause. So is Brown an internationalist? Or is he just a technocrat, committed simply to more efficient management in the interests of the existing global elite? Can his apparently sincere desire for reform be delivered by the politics he espouses? Is he merely captivated by the fading image of the Kennedys and Camelot? None of these questions will be answered this afternoon, but I have the pleasure of watching him field others - on the al-Yamamah arms deal ("I have no knowledge of such things"), nurses' pay and detention without trial. It seems Young Labour is rather less docile than the rest of the party.

Carers' Week reception, 11 Downing Street, 13 June

Some 150 carers and care workers are enjoying the Chancellor's hospitality in Downing Street. Outside, it's all automatic weapons and crash barriers and high forest-green screens to shield against rocket attack. Inside, Brown is smiling at Sam Brereton, who was born with Down's syndrome and is cared for by his mother and his father, a charity director who's just given a speech. Sam is unfazed, and has happily interrupted Brown's peroration on his personal commitment to carers and his recognition that the government needs to do more.

Brown's smile is a wry, lopsided thing, quite unlike the toothy grin he dispenses while working a room. It's a rare flash of unmediated emotion, perhaps the only one I've seen in all the hours of watching him. He snaps out of it, making jokes about the Treasury's parsimony, pointing at the oak floor ("we can't afford a carpet") and the large Frank Auerbach abstract on the wall in front of him ("that used to be a Gainsborough"). Soon enough he's off to another engagement. Sam, however, is chatting like a political pro. He introduces himself and I ask what he said to the next prime minister. "I told him he seemed like a nice man." So what did Brown say? He shrugs. "Oh, you know. Hello Sam. Things like that." Then he gives me a flash of his Manchester United tie.

Watching Brown on TV, 24 June

There they are on TV, the divorced couple. Blair's world tour has taken him to see the Pope, the tycoon Bernard Arnault and Arnold Schwarzenegger, an accelerating spiral of cele-brity nonsense which is about to catapult him into the post-political stratosphere. Meanwhile on earth, Brown is striding down a station platform, a spring in his step, perhaps the result of a poll which shows him ahead of Cameron in popularity. In a BBC interview he sounds like our new CEO. Later, he embraces Blair on the podium and tells us his Labour Party "must have a soul". He bows his head and announces that he is "ready to serve". Let's hope we can meet his targets.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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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.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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