Picture credit: James Whatling/Parsons Media

I went to anti-woke Davos

The ARC of justice is long, and bends towards complacency

Artillery Row

The ARC (Alliance for Responsible Citizenship) conference started with a bold fanfare — literally, with a band performing “Fanfare for the Common Man”. The event, attended by over 1500 people, sets out to be an alternative to gatherings such as Davos and the World Economic Forum. It is funded by the Legatum Group and headed by Philippa Stroud, who is stepping down as CEO of the Legatum Institute to head the new initiative. Also centrally involved is Jordan Peterson, who writes of his vision for ARC, “it is existentially perilous to insist upon the impending end of the world in this doomsaying manner — lest the ensuing panicked tyranny produce exactly the result that is, in principle, most feared.” ARC sets out to be different — a positive, hope-filled conservative civilisational vision, rather than a politics that scares people on apocalyptic visions or manipulates them through hateful partisanship. It’s a bold and necessary starting point, one that I thoroughly applaud. The idea of empowering people as citizens who take responsibility for their culture, a re-engagement with the roots of our civilisation — ARC has hit on one of the most urgent and underrepresented areas of thought and politics.

Unfortunately, what followed was a morning largely made up of apocalyptic, doomsaying, hyper-partisan, unimaginative and woodenly Reaganite haranguing. First Philippa Stroud took to the stage to make some rather Davos-WEF style remarks about the primary role of property rights to Western Culture, the importance of entrepreneurialism, and the environment. We were told we were in a “civilisational moment” that called for a new generation of young leaders who would renew our Western culture. But what was this culture? What was distinctive about it? Because individual liberty, property rights, and getting rich are hardly values that are showing any sign of anything short of total domination in the Western world. 

I was still waiting, anxiously, for the better story, but I was to be waiting awhile. The next speaker, ousted Republican speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy continued the boilerplate centre-right theme. Burnt offerings were left on the altars of Reagan and Thatcher, and it was explained to us, “government is the problem, not the solution”. 

Whilst chewing our reheated conservative talking points, a tattooed man with a beard burst from stage right to perform Christian rap to a startled crowd of conservatives. The Euphrates was concreted over, Babylon was built in a morning. I wasn’t clear on what was actually being expressed, but the audience politely applauded it.

Still reeling from this extraordinary spectacle, I was not emotionally prepared for Jordan Peterson, who strode onto the stage dressed as a Batman villain. Peterson was on form, pacing back and forth, gesturing fiercely, consumed with a strange inner passion, glorying in a multicoloured suit of crimson and navy blue. As he pirouetted back and forth first one side, then the other flashed at the audience. Like Harvey Dent, you never knew if you were going to get hopeful Peterson, or despairing Peterson. Was the arc of history bending inevitably towards justice (an oddly progressive idea for a conservative WEF), or was the arc actually an ark, in which we were being invited to board as the apocalyptic floodwaters rose around us? 

The coin was tossed, flickered through the air, and landed, inexorably, on the side of despair. Attendees had taken “risks” to be here, and Peterson earnestly hoped, with a hint of menace, that nobody would face “consequences”. Since we will “all vanish”, Peterson asks, “why not give up all hope?” The alternative is “taking responsibility”, a boring centre right dad trope, but presented as a torturous metaphysical quest, part of our “divine destiny”. Moving on from the suffering of Job, Peterson pivots to the exiles of Abraham and Moses. We’re all faced with the choice between socialistic comfort and the adventure of life, between being “aimless slaves” in the desert, or making it bloom. 

Plato’s favourite political analogy, the ship, makes an appearance. But whereas Plato’s ship of state has a captain who must order his crew, Peterson’s boats are solo affairs; we are “captains of our own ships”. The ark is not one ark, but a thousand little boats bobbing on a storm-tossed ocean, sailing towards the promised land. But in his speech, at least, the promised land never turns up; it is never defined or explained. But whilst heaven is absent, Peterson evokes hell, with the regularity and emotion of a revivalist preacher. “The alternative is hell” he warns. We’ve created hell many times in the 20th century, he explains, pointing to totalitarian states like the Soviet Union; and we now have the capacity to “bring about hells that would make the others look like practice”. 

The panel that followed, chaired by Jordan Peterson, and comprising activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia John Anderson, and the author Os Guinness, did not do much to change the tone. Anderson was affable enough, and I could only agree with his account of the misery of social atomisation. But where was this positive alternative vision –– the “better story” I was still waiting to hear? There was much about the “radical left” who foolishly sought to transform an unchanging human nature — “Their revolutions never succeed, their oppressions never end, and their promised futures never arrived”. But Anderson’s positive answer was just yesterday’s liberalism — “individualism should never be a selfish story”.

Os Guinness (who featured in a video before gracing us with his presence in the flesh), gave us a sermon on the evils of “cultural marxism”. In his view, we are imperilled by a “long march through the institutions” of progressive radicals who are attacking our civilisation. Ayaan Hirsan Ali’s better story was also a tale of how evil her foes are, informing the audience that she unapologetically supports Israel, and that if the West did nothing about its opponents they would “behead your babies too”. Islam told a “story that cherishes death” unlike “Judeo-Christian civilisation”. It’s true that Islamophobia is a term that is far too casually deployed to denounce legitimate criticisms of Islam; but when you reduce a 1,400 year old faith that has given us poets, philosophers and statesmen to a regressive freedom-hating death cult, I’m not sure what else to call it. Equally the term “Judeo-Christian” seemed like a neat way of cutting Islam — which influenced Western art, literature and theology profoundly — out of our history. 

We emerged, blinking, from this apocalyptic despond to an unexpected vision following the panel — was that, could it be? It was Miriam Cates, beaming like an especially joyful English madonna, reminding us that “freedom, prosperity and happiness” are not the values of the West, “truth, beauty and the good” are. I nearly started cheering. The Boschian ruddy clouds of the end times were blown away, clear sunlight shone down and it seemed like an actual, serious conference might be breaking out. 

Paul Marshall got behind the podium, and laid out a coherent, powerful vision that had thus far been lacking. He talked about the “crisis of legitimacy” facing free market capitalism. He spoke of how the City has lost its culture of “virtue and honour”. Of how a triad of monopoly, crony and woke capitalism were eating away at the effectiveness and fairness of markets. He denounced Davos, the deindustrialisation of the West, quantitative easing and the monopolistic polices of Uber, Google, the big airlines, Apple and the managerial technocratic class driving it. He concluded this powerful denunciation of the state of modern capitalism with a call for a new Teddy Roosevelt, and antitrust legislation to check the worst tendencies of modern markets. Paul Marshall came across as a serious man, with serious ideas. It was everything the conference should have been earlier in the day, and sadly, what it failed to be for the remainder of the day.

Some invisible button was pushed, and the conference suddenly transformed into a meeting of the Libertarian Party. As Paul Marshall departed, the crisis of capitalism appeared to disappear with him as if by magic. He was replaced by Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, who  appeared from the back of a campaign bus in Iowa, his image flickering and wavering like a libertarian Princess Leia hologram. “Milton Friedman…you’re my only hope” wasn’t quite what he said, but it almost was. Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) was the woke death star threatening free trading Alderaan. ESG is a “cancer”, the sole purpose of corporations is to “maximise profits”, and that’s the only moral purpose they need worry about. 

The panel that followed was very exercised about the outrageous idea of corporations having a social purpose. I could only agree that political agendas of the liberal left had been imposed on corporations, often irrationally and against the interests of investors, customers and stakeholders who are given no say in the matter. But I could hardly believe that the only answer they had to this was to embrace the pure profit motive. Paul Marshall’s earlier message was cheerfully ignored. “Creative destruction” is necessary. “Uber has done huge good”. Virtue? The only solemn duty incurred on LLCs by society in return for their protection from prosecution is to butt out of politics and get rich. 

The libertarian fever dream only intensified across the course of the afternoon, when we moved seamlessly to the environment. Everything was getting basically better we were told. Climate activists are mentally ill narcissists. Environmental problems can be solved with technology and intensified industrial agriculture. The planet is a “dynamic system” meaning resources are “infinite”. We should aim for “mastery” of our planet and the climate. Shortages? We can just mine asteroids. Ayn Rand was quoted. I felt like I was having a stroke. 

As a panel on liberal democracy unfurled some staunchly NATO messaging, I fled the conference hall

As a panel on liberal democracy unfurled some staunchly NATO messaging, I fled the conference hall for some much needed pizza, and collected my thoughts. When I set out to report on the conference, I had very much wanted to avoid one of my least favourite genres of journalism. There’s nothing that hacks love more than pouring cold water on a newly lit fire. There’s something especially grotesque about reporters, many of them working for legacy media outfits, and who don’t have a single entrepreneurial bone in their body, carping about people trying to do something new. 

ARC is new, and has a seriously worthwhile and interesting mission. The sheer numbers willing to pay an eye-watering £1,500 to attend, or the reduced but still substantial £300 offered to others, speaks to an extraordinary and engaged audience hungry for new ideas. I know many of these people, some are good friends. They’re often younger, professionals, academics, bright, broadly conservative, and deeply frustrated with the status quo. 

Chatting to people afterwards, and catching up with other attendees over breakfast I found some of my own feelings echoed. Many were positive about the conference overall, and wanted to see it succeed. But reheated Reaganism was the last thing most people I talked to wanted to hear. “It went down like a lead balloon” said one person I spoke to. Another was frustrated by the lack of participation with attendees, who were theoretically able to suggest questions to be debated on stage, a feature that seems to have been ignored in practice. The audience — almost without exception highly educated, cultured people, who had given a lot of time and money to be there –– deserved better than the tired, patronising speakers that filled much of the first day. 

I want the ARC agenda as presented on its website to succeed; the “better story” that was presented by Paul Marshall, a clarion call for a different kind of market, with a substantial role for democratic legislators and citizens in shaping it. But if ARC just tells the wealthy their only job is to get richer, tells us to stop worrying about the environment because technology will save us, tells us that the only problem to overcome is “cultural marxism”, it is not a hopeful, but a complacent story –– simply progressive liberalism with an anti-woke spin. 

The conference goes on, and I hope for better as I set out to the first session of the second day. But as I flip through my schedule I notice, with a sinking heart, that the Christian rapper is about to take the stage again…Here we go again…

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