Duck Dynasty comes to ARC. Picture credit: James Whatling / Parsons Media

An economic peasants’ revolt?

ARC provided a platform to a vital dissident message, but it needs to lose the dead weight of discredited ideas

Artillery Row

There are two paths for the dissident right: one, seductively garlanded with money and eager audiences, leads to irrelevance and inaction; The other, rubble-strewn, obscured by mist and fog, leads to a global movement capable of challenging the corruption of state and market, and restoring our flagging democracies. The former path involves the alliance of Reaganite conservatism with a demagogic, conspiratorial class of self-serving culture warriors. There’s plenty of money in trying to claw back yesterday’s ideas and elites to their former status, and plenty of eyeballs (and thus dollars too) in farming outrage and presenting the “woke” as the root of all modern evils. It means ignoring that globalisation has deindustrialised the West, cratered wages and productivity, imperilled cultural coherence and confidence, and empowered our geopolitical rivals. Call it the Ron DeSantis approach — Trumpian rhetoric wed to Reaganite economics. Unsurprisingly, however, it leads to electoral defeat and cultural irrelevance, as DeSantis is finding out, and soon enough, so will Rishi Sunak.

The other way, being explored and charted by movements like Blue Labour and Red Tory in the UK, new publications like Compact Magazine, and a growing world of post-liberal policy makers and commentators, involves marrying right and left wing critiques of liberal modernity, and the corrupt apogee it has reached in the 21st century marked by the War on Terror, the 2008 financial crash, and an unprecedented explosion of mass migration. There’s space in this new dissident realm for a wide range of voices willing to challenge a failed progressive consensus, and for ideological exiles both socialist and conservative. There’s growing agreement that both state and market are failing; a sense that the right no longer conserves our values, and the left no longer challenges big business.

As I explored amid the conference itself, ARC is a new venture, and new ventures evolve and go through growing pains. They are allowed to do so. Equally, though, mistakes made at the outset can worsen over time, poisoning the well from the very beginning. There’s room in the conversation for a variety of speakers and thinkers, not just those I personally agree or approve of. Even mistaken arguments, presented honestly, clearly and powerfully, can be of profound value in an emerging venture; an opportunity to clarify and sharpen a message and a movement.

 A British cabinet minister just got up and blamed our economic crisis on the snowflakes

But ARC is especially beset by the tendency of the dissident right to charge headlong down the primrose path, pitch up the big tent, and invite circus acts to perform in it. There was a lot of pageantry, quite literally, in the case of the cast of Hamilton turning up to belt out a show-tune. A bit of silliness is no bad thing, if it’s a sign you’ve got a capacity for self-awareness and criticism. But when silliness is offered up with humourless moral seriousness, it starts to feel rather cult-like. One attendee openly wondered when the Kool-Aid would be sent round. As day two kicked off, a series of horn players — first a Greek horn, then a Jewish shofar, then some sort of giant Roman kazoo — came forth like solemn children at a school talent show. Once these horns had restored Monday’s apocalyptic mood, Michael Gove came to the podium. But this particular messenger of the apocalypse was a rebel angel, calling for a “Promethean”, entrepreneurial economy backed by a strong state.

Whilst we were still absorbing this Faustian gospel, another violent shift in tone invisibly occurred, rippling across the venue. Without even a helpful Monty Python narrator to intone the words “now for something completely different”, a video was played, introducing the stars of the hit US reality series, Duck Dynasty. A very different horn resounded, with the iconic QUACK of the show’s duck-caller echoing across the darkened auditorium. Phillipa Stroud, with the air of a kindly girls’ prep school teacher, asked the reality stars, Willie and Korie Robertson, about how their programme was transforming “the culture”.

The post-lunch panel featured central banker Andy Haldane, Australian conservative politician Angus Taylor, and my fellow Blue Labourite Maurice Glasman. Whilst Andy lamented regional inequality (though not, mind, class inequality, which has gotten steadily worst across the West since the 1980s), Maurice swayed socialistically in his swivel chair (presumably between cultural conservatism and economic radicalism), drawing the eye away from whatever Andy and Angus were saying. The counterweight duly swung to the whole enterprise, “People of faith don’t believe the free market created the world”, “Nature isn’t a commodity valued by the price system”, “capital centralises every bit as much as the state”. Populism, he argued, is the reemergence of working class people into politics, a furious democratic reaction to globalisation. If only democratic populism, rather than technocratic complacency, had been the tone of more of the conference.

The serious conference made an appearance again on Day 3 with a panel on currency, largely thanks to colourful French economist Charles Gave. Although his economics — ultra free market — are in a sense at the other pole to Maurice’s, they agree in surprising ways. If Paul Marshall laid out a responsible capitalism regulated by anti-trust, Maurice stood up for a populist, conservative socialism, and Charles outlined a libertarian democratic vision of money unshackled from state manipulation; then all three converged on their assault on central banking. Paul Marshall himself quoted Maurice in describing quantitative easing as “the biggest transfer of wealth from poor to rich since the Norman conquest”; a sentiment echoed by Charles who described central bankers as “a bunch of criminals”.

This was a message that was both coherent and radical, whilst having space for dissident voices across the political spectrum. It was a message more than strong and interesting enough to stand on its own. I worry, however, that it will be drowned out by the contradictory cheerleading for the global economy, and the sheer volume of eccentricity, hucksterism and revivalist preaching that was heavily portioned out alongside it.

The anti-woke stuff, when attached to substantial institutional critiques, can be a vital part of the story. But it’s just not good enough when it’s served up to excuse the mistakes and misdeeds of the powerful. This tendency was nowhere more egregiously at work than in the interview with our Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch. Asked, after thirteen years of Tory rule, why Britain was much less prosperous, she had the audacity to blame not her own risible government, but the “attitude” of the British people, and a “cultural shift around risk and safetyism”, saying that we “fear being entrepreneurial”. It was not helpful to focus on who had been in charge, and in any case the answer was “limited government”. Yes, a British cabinet minister just got up and blamed our economic crisis on the snowflakes – that’s where conservatism is in this country.

Now imagine that “millions of children are on fire”

As the final session concluded with a sincere request from Jordan Peterson for children to clean their rooms and promises we’d all meet again for another conference, I hardly knew how to assess it. Topics and speakers would change so suddenly that it sometimes took on the quality of a fever dream. You’d blink, and Bishop Barron discussing Aquinas would be replaced with Michael Gove channelling Milton’s Satan. Certain bizarre leitmotifs kept coming up; dead children were one. Jordan Peterson told us that left to their own devices “your two-year-old will die”. Jihadis were coming to “behead your babies”, suggested Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Sometimes children are simply shot innocently into the stratosphere, as in the talk by the gentle Warren Farrell, who spoke, persuasively, of the plight of “dad-deprived boys”, and presented us with the following image:

But amidst the general child-centred crisis, pride of panicky place had to go to the interview with conservative Mexican actor Eduardo Verástegui, producer and co-star of the film “Sound of Freedom”, which purports to tell the “true story” of the founding of the controversial anti-trafficking group “Operation Underground Railroad”. The film, introduced in a trailer before the interview, is like a conservative remake of Taken, but there are hundreds of children, they’re all being raped, and the protagonist is an earnest Mormon, a heroic fictional version of OUR founder Tim Ballard .

Eduardo was being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey Show star Dr Oz and his wife, who were earnestly, trustworthily nodding along in a manner honed by dozens of interviews with reiki practitioners, faith healers and crystal fondlers. Eduardo came across as a nice, earnest guy, who was clearly sincerely convinced by extraordinary claims of mass child kidnapping, prostitution and sex trafficking. Such things happen, as we know in the case of Rotherham, but were we to believe the claim that “millions” of children are currently sex slaves? Imagine, he argued, that a house full of children was on fire, and the firefighters were arguing over jurisdiction rather than putting out the fire. Now imagine that “millions of children are on fire”. Looking rather like a latino Superman, he rattled his rosary in the air and looked terribly concerned in a handsome guy way.

But those numbers have little basis in fact. There are many underage victims of sexual exploitation, but they are most typically teenagers (not as often depicted in the film, very young children) living in poverty, many of them runaways, who turn to prostitution to survive, or are lured into it by a boyfriend, and are often from physically and sexually abusive homes themselves. This complex reality requires years of care, investment and rehousing. It’s a long way from the lurid fantasy of toddlers snatched from loving homes. Not only that, but the man the film is based on, the OUR organisation’s founder and CEO, is far from the straightforwardly heroic figure shown in the movie. Apart from a desire for fame, questionable methods and a half a million a year salary, Tim Ballard is currently at the centre of extremely serious claims of sexual abuse, directly linked to his work at OUR. Utah’s governor has called for a criminal investigation into Ballard, and he has been publicly denounced by an elder (and former friend) who says that Tim Ballard had messianic tendencies and “betrayed his friendship”. The elder also claims that he “never authorised his name, or the name of the Church, to be used for Tim’s personal or financial interests.” These accusations were echoed in another public statement from a spokesman of the Church of Latter Day Saints itself.

What were organisers thinking when they decided to promote this film? It’s not just that it undermines the seriousness of the event, but it’s not even obvious what it has to do with the stated goals of ARC. As upsetting as child exploitation is, what were the policy takeaways? What did it tell us about how to live as citizens? Why is a snake-oil salesman like Dr Oz peddling a film based on the life of a self-aggrandizing sex pest on ARC’s dime? I was utterly baffled.

When one goes to events like this, as someone who is in broad sympathy with the need to oppose progressive liberalism and the loss of conservative values in society, you feel this subtle but pervasive pressure to be a good sport. Since I’m on team “anti-woke” in the culture wars, I feel, without ever quite being told, that I’m expected to justify or ignore severe, even fatal missteps from those who are ostensibly on the same side. But the action of a friend is to tell the truth — I’d like to be on the side of the serious, thoughtful ARC that occasionally shone through, but I can’t pretend away the trivial and occasionally absurd conference that it kept reverting to.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover