Charisma and its limits

Elections are times to reflect on democracy.  Elections may affirm the fact that we are still at least nominally participants in democracy, but they are often unpleasant, in their own time and in retrospect.  As David Runciman puts it, ‘politicians at election time still promise to be all things to all people.  … These empty promises catch up with the politicians before long, at which point they are replaced by other ones.  But democracy does not get any better.’[1]

This disillusioned view comes from Runciman’s argument that democracy is in a sort of mid-life crisis, but that it has the capacity to ‘disaggregate its own death. It can put it off, piece by piece.’  Runciman urges against giving way to despair; instead he proposes a sort of Oakeshottian gentle steering of the boat to avoid the worst of the rocks.  It is in stark contrast to louder jeremiads on populism and its damage to civil society, but the issue of leadership is central for both, and beyond that the problem of charisma.

Charisma is a critical term in Weber’s analysis of power, and it is interesting how often it is cited in works on populism, though seldom with much additional interpretation, and indeed thrown around in historical analysis; indeed Weber thought that Augustus was a prime example of his charismatic rulers.[2]  It is an easy adjectival phrase – the ‘charismatic leader’ and the one who ‘lacks charisma’ sum up what might be pages of analysis.  And one might well conclude that it is an undefinable quality, not a learned behaviour.  But that should not mean that its effects cannot be analysed.

91JlHPaiu5LOne of the most sustained readings, and developments, of Weber’s notion was offered in an odd book by Philip Rieff called Charisma: The Gift of Grace and how it has been taken away from us.  Rieff wrote it in the early 70s but put it to one side until he was encouraged to look at it again shortly before his death.  Objectively speaking it is a mess of a book, but it keeps circling, obsessively, round why Weber’s charisma cannot be left as a cliché; it’s too important and too potentially devastating.[3]

Rieff’s main objection to Weber is that he conflated the original, magical, religious charisma with modern political charisma.  Charisma in the original sense (which for Rieff is entirely Judaeo-Christian) involved a degree of mutual recognition between leader and followers, and it is rooted in a creed and it involves interdicts, prohibitions, that seek to restore an earlier state of good conduct.  Charisma is about someone pulling society back to some notion of a higher social goal.  It was also, in what Rieff calls the charisma of perception, something which everyone possessed, a sense of inwardness and awareness of interdiction that is the opposite of charisma as the encouragement to transgression, which is what Weber describes.  Here we have the pivot to Rieff’s most notable concept in Charisma, the idea of a therapeutic mode.  Instead of a fundamental connection with interdiction and therefore restraint on power, the therapeutic mode permits the leader and the follower to embrace transgression, and thereby allows power to be unfettered.

At least part of the problem for Rieff seems to be that Weber’s charisma is self-annihilating.  Once power is gained, it is routinized, the ‘break’ represented by the personality cult is lost to sight.  Routinized power, as Weber famously argued, works to secure the continued existence of power for the successors of the original charismatic.  However, this in and of itself encourages challengers.  If Freud had made inwardness into a neurosis to be cured, Weber made charisma into an opportunistic grasping for power at any cost, exalting the endless ‘breakthrough.’

Rieff’s image of an original charisma seems to me implausible, but his attack on Weber has some merit, and not just for Weber’s own time.  Stripped of its strenuous efforts to imply a plausible original charismatic authenticity, the notion of interdiction and permissiveness, and the play between them, add depth to Weber’s rather flat notion and explain a little more of what is going on in the audience.  He also brings out the self-defeating nature of charisma perhaps more than Weber.  At the least, Rieff reminds us that every time we call a politician charismatic (including those in antiquity), the term is loaded with far more than the simple associations which come with the notion of populism.

Charisma was written at the same time as another book with which it has many similarities, but which, rather than being hidden, was published to some acclaim.  Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity was an attempt to track the emergence of these two notions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[4]  The argument is comfortably rooted in literature, but nevertheless makes a wide claim that at a certain point it became necessary not simply to tell the truth but rather to perform one’s sincerity.  Sincerity is ‘a congruence between avowal and actual feeling.’  Its problem is that in the performance, one seeks to create the feeling, and where there seems an absence of sincerity, a gap, emerge the problems of doubt.  In the end, and especially if you take the view that the world corrupts the possibility of sincerity, it can slide into simple conformity, the repetitive expression of what one is supposed to think.  Thus the revolutionary notion of the ‘authentic’ comes into play, a more inwardly related self-actualization regardless of norms and social restraint.

The notion of the authentic and the therapeutic are not far away from each other, it seems to me in their rejection of the normative in search of some kind of transgressive truth, and the fact that this catches others up into a movement.    Whatever may be the origins of this, both are deeply prone to decay.  CaptureRieff borrows a New Yorker cartoon for the notion of spray-on charisma; Trilling worries about the lack of ‘credence’; and in a long discussion printed in Salmagundi in 1974 the participants (including Trilling) quote Rieff favourably for his bon mot, repeated in Charisma that the modern guru, a figure of fake authenticity, ‘The leader himself becomes weightless, a flickering shifting image. … He is deliberately weightless, and preaches weightlessness to us. [He] represents the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.’  This moral weightlessness is of course its own form of untethered, therapeutic permissive authenticity.

Hunter_McGovernWas there anything about 1972 and 1973 that might have encouraged this jeremiad of male mumping?  Well, it may not be entirely coincidental that 1972 was the year in which Nixon rolled over McGovern in an election, in which voters chose a man who had already reneged and pivoted on almost every subject.  Part of the reason we know about this election is that Hunter S. Thompson, described it in one of the great satirical works of political journalism.  Thompson, loaded, wired, drunk and angry as he was for most of the campaign, who came to see in George McGovern ‘one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States who really understands what a fantastic monument to all of the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if it had been kept out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.’[5]

Trilling, Rieff and the rest were preoccupied in 1972 by the fatal transformation of sincerity, authenticity and charisma into a toxic mix of insincere salesmanship and transgression.  They also to various degrees fell into the catastrophist mood that Runciman worried about.  Rieff in particular became (or always was) a caricature of unhappy obsessive conservatism; ‘Book smart, life stupid’ was the epitaph he suggested for himself.

But they set a challenge, which remains.  Runciman argues that we can survive the erosion of democracy as we used to know it.  Trilling, Rieff and Thompson, in different ways, asked what sort of survival it is if those values which were supposedly integral to our civic life, the effort, albeit clouded with difficulty, to tell the truth to some conception of a responsible society, is radically undermined by our own political process.  That question is with us in the UK election, and quite possibly, the US election to come.

Adrienne Rich, New York City, 1973
Adrienne Rich, New York City, 1973

In 1973, Adrienne Rich, whose own life had been upended by the suicide of her husband in 1970, wrote a profoundly sorrowing, angry and political book called Diving into the Wreck.  Its key image is a witnessing, a deep dive for some sort of truth.  I read at least in part as about the difficult redemption of the public and the internal worlds, about facing the past and hoping fiercely for a truthful future.

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed

the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters.



[1] D. Runciman, How Democracy Ends, London 2018.

[2] M.Weber, Economy and Society, London 1978: 1125.

[3] Rieff’s work can be approached through the essays in J. B. Imber (ed) The Anthem Companion to Philip Rieff, London 2018, some of which are more penetrating than others.  Rieff’s career was made on the back of his first book, Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, 1959, which was in fact substantially written by his first wife, Susan Sontag; see now B. Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work, 2019.

[4] L. Trilling, Sincerity and Authority, Harvard 1972.  See also Charles Taylor’s important and in some ways clearer account, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard 1991.

[5] H. S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, New York 1973.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s