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Against ideas

We have too many of them and they are not doing any good

Artillery Row

Last Saturday afternoon, mid-way through the “Battle of Ideas” event in Westminster, I realised I was incredibly bored. Perhaps this was my own failing. This was after all an array of interesting people speaking about interesting things, from The Critic’s own Lola Salem on classical music to Andrew Orlowski on AI, and Tomiwa Owolade on the importation of American racial politics. Yet sitting through the various panels, on everything from Mizzy’s Tik-Tok antics to the fraying of the social contract, I couldn’t help but think I had heard it all before.

I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. One of the speakers Thomas Prosser has already written a polite and thoughtful questioning of the extent to which ideas did actually clash. I would go further. Substitute for “battle” the word “skirmish”, or even “circle jerk” — given that there was an orgiastic tendency for agreement — and you have a better event descriptor.

The opening panel set the tone. The New Statesman’s Harry Lambert was pitted against Matt Goodwin before a baying mob of very online people. As it turned out, the hated Lambert actually had plenty to agree with the audience on what he termed “the excesses of the left”. The main point of contention posited was barely dealt with, however. Did Goodwin’s populism extend to contempt for economic elites and a focus on the redistribution of the tax burden? On this issue, the two passed like ships in the night. Instead, we went to the audience, whose input made Question Time look like an Enlightenment salon.

Such a tension emerged again at this week’s ARC conference, a more overt expression of the right’s desire to establish an alternative narrative about “what we are and where we’re going”. As an editor of these pages acknowledged, there was a tendency to revert to “reheated Reaganism”, libertarian fantasies and generic attacks on woke, whilst foraging a serious economic and practical sense of what the “better story” looks like.

In lieu of reaching a consensus on the more difficult questions, many panels also revelled in the game of pointing out how much the left had lost their marbles, all the while revealing a curious tendency to become tangled up in these boring issues. This was an event in which questions like “what does diversity actually mean?” saw a general consensus that extreme identity politics was not an effective way to organise society, only for members of the audience to prefix the same point again, and again and again, with statements like “As a bisexual … ” The effect is rather like watching a grown up who, having thrown himself into the hedonistic chaos of a child’s birthday party, is now telling everyone off whilst his face is painted as a cartoon mouse.

We have seen the magic of ideas fizzle out — perhaps for the best

“Free speech” was very much allowed, something attendees were constantly reminded of in various marketing materials that adorned the venue. Though generally, when a microphone was given to a member of the audience, we discovered that deference to such a virtue resulted in nothing much said. Beyond us, in the real world, terrible things were happening: people were losing their jobs for innocuous opinions about what a woman was; Jewish people were frightened in their own city; inequality and depression were rife across society. They knew these things were bad, the people at the Battle for Ideas, and they enjoyed talking about how bad they were, but for all this free speech, there was never really a clear consensus on what to do.

Perhaps this was never really the point. Nonetheless it put on display, quite nicely, a broader cultural exhaustion. Is all this talking about ideas doing us any good? By coincidence, at the bottom of my bag, lying crumpled next to all the leaflets of ideas, I had a pretentiously hefty copy of Jacques Barzun’s 500 year romp of Western cultural life. From Dawn To Decadence is Barzun’s narrative, and in some respects it’s the story of what happens to ideas over the years. Once upon a time, they burnt brightly in the mind and soul. From Christianity to Marxism, they inspired people to do things: some terrible, some good.

But in Barzun’s final chapter on “demotic society”, we see the magic of ideas fizzle out — perhaps for the best. But this doesn’t stop them from being discussed, traded, fetishised in an amorphous culture of boredom. Leibniz was ahead of the curve in 1680, complaining about the “horrible mass of books” that kept growing. Maybe he was right. The result, on display at the Battle of Ideas, and quite ironic given that some of the organisers have a background in revolutionary communism, is the ultimate bourgeois shrug: “I agree with you on that, but not on this.”

Reel in the ideas. Stop talking about them. They are everywhere now. Fiction, having died, has been replaced by the tyranny of non-fiction and current affairs. We have festivals, podcasts, endless books with titles starting with How, Why, When.

Underpinning this obsession, especially in an atomised society and a dying culture, is the entertainment value, the thrill, the purpose, of agreeing and disagreeing, of debating and debunking, and discussing and predicting from a thousand different angles. No one ever really changes their mind about anything. If they do, it’s usually because something terrible happens to them in the real world beyond that stagnant realm of ideas.

But sometimes not even this is enough. This week the Covid Inquiry saw Dominic Cummings once again cast as the pantomime villain. For all the sound and fury about swearing and Cummings being rude to people on Whatsapp, he had a point well worth addressing. Faced with a crisis, the government didn’t seem to work very well. In fact many of our institutions are the same. They don’t seem able to do the basics — usually because they have come to have ideas above their station. But who wants to discuss that? What a boring idea.

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