It was possible to bill last week’s Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference as a kind of anti-woke Davos, and many did. The sheer weight of personages and, apparently, money, put the event in a similar stratum. Representatives from venture capital and private equity had paid £1,500 each to be there. There were long, languid breaks between panels for ‘Networking’. There were branded notebooks and pens, as many as you could carry. Jimmy Carr circulated the hall with a knot of retainers.
But what ARC reminded me of more than anything else was another alpine conference: the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, in which the shaken remnants of Europe’s old order gathered to plan for the future after Napoleon’s defeat. For one, the whole thing had a decidedly central and eastern European tinge. Something like a plurality of the guests seemed to be from Poland, Germany or the Danubian basin – huge moustachioed men, each walking with the upright carriage of a hereditary officer. Clericalists abounded, of all shapes and sizes; cassocks, burning incense, long and pointed fur hats. The event was guarded, ushered, and superintended by a corps of what seemed to be Cossacks or Hungarian hussars, each smartly fitted out in a sort of Byronic poet’s shirt.
Present, too, was the same feeling of Metternichian despair, of the ultimate futility of their efforts. An impressive galère committed to some kind of political change in the Western world had assembled here, with considerable resources at their collective disposal. But no one seemed to take much heart from this. Even Jimmy Carr looked glum, and didn’t tell any jokes. There was a bit of a collective pall, and the closest thing I found to a salon wit or social lion there was Curtis Yarvin, otherwise known as Mencius Moldbug, the blogger and tech entrepreneur. Taking no active part in the conference, he instead wandered amiably around the hall, dispensing bits of social and historical apercus.
And this general gloom was borne out in the talks themselves. The unspoken assumption behind most of the headline speeches seemed to be that some kind of flight to the hills would eventually be necessary, and that these people were simply here to set out their stall for posterity.
This manifested itself in a few different ways. You could see it in the retreat to the realm of pure ideas – itself a form of quietism. Jordan Peterson opened the first panel with: “What is the difference between a Story and a Theory?” You could see it in the way that even the possibility of victory was never entertained; the schools, the universities, the bureaucracy, the corporate boards – all were in enemy hands, but this is something that was, time and again, described as a kind of meteorological event, like the rain, not something that had been accomplished by human wiles, and could be undone by the very same. Trump and Brexit, the two attempts to put some of these ARC ideas into practice, were hardly mentioned at all.
You could see it in the panel chaired by Niall Ferguson (whose usual bonhomie was gone), which, bizarrely, focused on foreign policy. This seemed like another wilful distraction. If the stakes are really this high for the Western world, then surely we can put the fate of the Taiwan Strait and the menace of TikTok on ice for now?
You could see it, worst of all, in how the proposed solutions were all personal, not political. Everything always seemed to boil down to some kind of Tolstoyan appeal. Again and again, it was suggested that the attendees should cultivate individual virtues; far less often was it suggested how the assembled might organise themselves for the capture and exercise of power. Day two of the conference began with an extended reflection on Christian forgiveness, which was followed by a musical number from Hamilton on the same idea. Peterson asked the audience to “meditate on what each of us can do” in their personal lives – a fine phrase, but somehow less compelling than Dominic Cummings’ or Trump ’25’s plans to simply fire all the bureaucrats. The best laid proposals were for ‘parallelism’ – that is to say, the founding and nurturing of parallel cultural institutions. But even this spoke to a certain narrowness of vision. What the clamour for new colleges and Sunday schools suggests, ultimately, is that the speakers at ARC hoped only to act as a frustrated appendage to woke society, like the English Dissenters.
For their part, the British delegation did not really rise to the level of events. In this hall the fate of the human race seemed to be at hand, but most of the British speakers kept translating everything back into the local vernacular of the Westminster Lobby. It was myopic and annoying. “Leveling Up”, “SW1”, “Whitehall”, “London-centric”, and – most wincingly – “Blue Labour”. These were all blandly dumped onto the stage with little explanation or introduction. How this audience of long-dispossessed Polish szlachta, Uniate clerics, and ‘Great Hungary’ revisionists were supposed to know what these terms meant was anyone’s guess. Michael Gove began his speech with a giggle about Cummings’ testimony to the Covid Inquiry (few sitting around me seemed to know who or what that was), before reading out a fairly standard Daily Telegraph leading article about the glories of the English constitution after 1689, and how these “Robust Institutions” could explain our present prosperity. He was followed by the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, the American reality show, who gave his predecessor a bemused glance as he quit the stage.
What also disheartened me slightly while listening to these speeches is how backwards the diagnosis tended to be. According to ARC, what has gone wrong with the Western world is a lack of moral purpose – absent strong “Judeo-Christian” values, nihilism, hedonism and, as milord Glasman put it, “atomisation”, beckons.
This simply won’t do. What is woke? It’s a series of unfalsifiable egalitarian moral ideas that you are not permitted to disagree with, and which are now encoded in national and international law. There is nothing languid or directionless to any of this at all; these ideas are enforced in deadly earnest, and the West’s governing classes are less relaxed about heterodoxy than at any time since the 17th century. Insofar as Western nations experience ‘anarchy’, then it is official anarchy – groups like Extinction Rebellion are protected by the courts and the police, whose emergent political function is to protect these provincial Ultras from the wider citizenry. Meanwhile, all Western nations are now signed up to a Net Zero political economy of degrowth and ruralisation. This isn’t hedonism at work here, but the twee asceticism of heat pumps and Solar Punk.
Jordan Peterson’s favourite novel is The Devils. In the book, the spur to narrative action is provided by a group of local nihilists, who mock the reigning social order and intrigue for its overthrow. For Peterson, this is the primordial battle, one that is now being waged on a global scale. This is certainly the case, but ARC’s position in this battle, properly understood, is that of the nihilists. The attendees at ARC are not the defenders of a moral consensus, but the enemies of an existing one. The house slogan of ARC was ‘The Better Story’ – well and good, but the “Better Story” requires first and foremost the destruction of the old one. This is something that demands a certain kind of nihilism, a willingness to declare that all reigning values are stupid, deadening and false. Hope for the future, sure, but never forgetting the value of pure, gleeful negation – which the present order of things can never assimilate.