A security camera hangs in front of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on March 13, 2021, in Brussels, Belgium. Picture Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

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National Conservatism Conference diary: our brave reporter encounters globalisation in Brussels

Artillery Row

I begin my odyssey by boarding the Eurostar. And already, I’m a reactionary — just what has happened? The very name “Eurostar” implies gleaming bullet trains, white table cloths, fresh continental breakfasts and exquisitely turned out businessmen leisurely conducting high level negotiations by laptop and blackberry. But that era is gone (if it ever actually existed — as ever with reactionary sentiments, who can tell?)

I’m not a fan of globalisation and liberal modernity

British tourists munch packets of crisps, fat middle aged men play games on their iPads, everyone is (of course) wearing masks, and the glamour of the experience is furiously absent. I mournfully consider upgrading to first class on the way back only to discover that the alternative to standard travel is something called “standard premier”. But I don’t want to feel standard, I’m going to Europe by train, I want to feel special.

Clearly something needs to be done, we need to return to the good old days when people travelled in style (and in suits) and we need someone who can make the trains run on time. Enter the hero of the hour — National Conservatism. It’s a newly minted version of a very traditional form of right wing politics centred around national communities rather than markets or global humanitarianism.

The conference I’m attending for the next two days is entitled “The National Conservatism Conference: The Future of the Nation-State in Europe” and according to the website:

NatCon brings together public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.

Speakers include everyone from a host of Eastern and Central European big-shots (including the President of Slovenia), Anglo-American conservatives, academics from across Europe and even a smattering of journalists.

As a post-liberal I’m not a fan of globalisation and liberal modernity, but I’m equally realistic about the fact that we haven’t been fighting any world wars lately. I’m also only too well aware that the nation state itself is bound up with liberalism — long before McDonalds started turning up in every capital and the EU got its hands on our bananas, it was nation states imposing homogenous rules and culture on often unwilling populations.

Brussels is an interesting choice in this context — the headquarters for both the EU and NATO are based there, and it’s a city transformed by global capital and mass migration. It’s ground zero for liberal globalism. As I was soon to discover.

After getting an easy connection to Brussel-Nord, I hop off at the station and walk 10 minutes or so to my hotel, fronting onto the Botanical Gardens. Lovely right? Wrong. Dead wrong. First of all this part of Brussels is an architectural mess — a terrible chimera of clashing styles, arbitrary skyscrapers, concrete blocks dropped from the sky, weird empty pavemented spaces, and underpasses.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I started up a crumbling but relatively charming street such as you might see in any corner of Europe. But what was happening on those streets? Well, the first business that presented itself to my eyes was a sex shop. And it didn’t get any better from there.

People often accuse harmless teenagers of “loitering” when they’re merely out of things to do and knocking back some energy drinks. But “loitering” was exactly what the gangs of youths (and not so youths) were doing along my route. As I went along I was occasionally distracted by weird taps and thumps from the windows next to me — where overweight prostitutes dancing behind windows tried to get my attention.

Is this a European capital in one of the wealthiest countries on earth? What on earth had gone wrong? If ever a man was ready to hear about national conservatism and the salvation of Europe, it was me. I check into my room and determine to set out to pursue tradition in the city centre, the “pentagon” of medieval Brussels, and maybe scare up lunch and a bit of culture. But this too was to end in disillusionment.

I made a run for the historic centre, and the cathedral. First stop was the Botanic Gardens — a lovely public park, but rendered surreal by the ugly plate glass skyscrapers dotted around it, casting the greenery into shadow. What was this evidently fine piece of urban landscaping doing surrounded by the worst kind of ersatz development?

Other such mysterious stranded figures presented themselves to me on my way into town. Especially odd was the “Congress Column” a monument that commemorates the founding of the Belgian constitution and also integrates the tomb of the unknown soldier. For something resembling Nelson’s Column, it finds itself off the side of a rather grotty blank-faced high street.

But take a step closer and you discover you’re overlooking all of Brussels — and what a strange sight it is. The overlook itself is a vast echoing platform of concrete, and in front of you is a hideous jumble of buildings, grey, brown, sickly yellow, with a glint of white and silver of familiar churches swallowed in the mad-cap developments. Cranes cast great shadows overhead as they swing round to still rising structures swarming with builders.

The West is desperate to escape power and hierarchy

I recalled a cryptic remark from my flatmate (sometime Critic contributor Sam Ashworth-Hayes) who said he was “very curious” to see what I would make of Brussels as I happily yammered on about going to Belgium (my last trip was aged 21, to the town of Bruges). It turns out the city’s development in the post-war era was so infamously bad that it actually gave rise to a term — “Brusselisation” — to describe “haphazard urban development and redevelopment”.

Continuing on, one suddenly bursts forth into a lane that might be in Durham or York, ending in a magnificent Gothic Cathedral — dedicated to St. Michael and St. Gudula, it’s a calming sight to a traveller bedevilled by the chaos of modern Brussels.

But shelter is not the be found — discordance makes it mark here no less decisively. Plastered everywhere, practically jostling statues of saints and the high alter itself, are painting of a strange weeping face. It’s the work of artist Michel Pochet — a putatively Christian piece, but framed in terms of a liberal universalism. The woman taken in adultery is presented rather like Instagram art; naked, red-haired and surrounded by a cutsie heart-shaped circle of stones.

Answers are to be found on a nearby sign. For you see, “the new iconography of ‘God Mercy’ is born: God weeps with us; expressing the highest form of love.” Maybe the spirit of reaction really has infiltrated my heart (or perhaps it never left) but “new” sounds off warning bells in my head. As ever when my instincts are moved by wildly unreasonable and uncharitable prejudice, I was proved entirely right 30 seconds later.

For as I read on I discovered that, “the central core is emptiness, non being…Pochet is strongly influenced in his work by the art of the Far East, especially by the philosophy that underlies it”.

Now perhaps there’s nothing wrong with looking to Buddhism and other eastern philosophies for inspiration as a Christian, but it takes a subtle theological touch to do so without doing violence to either tradition. The great face, which is meant to represent the trinity, has two sinister faces standing in for its irises — it is an image of total inwardness and infinite reflections, a solipsistic icon.

And naturally we are informed that it bears witness to the “wounds of humanity, from the Shoah to the drama of migrants.” Now I don’t doubt the unique and incalculable horror of the holocaust, or for that matter the profound sufferings of many migrants, especially those forced to leave their country by war or oppression. But is this really the form of suffering that is most salient to the people of Belgium and indeed the West today? Where are the daily dramas of illnesses and bereavements, or the cruelties of loneliness and mental ill health that are exploding across the west today? The tragedy of childlessness and the crisis of meaning?  

You cannot help but feel that this country, at times the victim of history and rival empires, at others at the surging forefront of thought, industry and culture, and often both at once, has lost all sense of its own identity. There was no story of their own to tell in their national cathedral, not even the Christian one.

As Pochet says “when we have reached the void, the nothingness; only then do you realise that you can accept and understand everything, because you are nothing, you are mercy”. It’s a sentiment that echoes Derrida, who argued that the true gift is without return or reciprocity, and is entirely other than being or language.

The West is desperate to escape power and hierarchy, and with it reciprocity and responsibility. It’s half seeking to atone, half seeking to live in furious luxury. It desires a painless, euphoric, sanctified suicide of its own making, a scented pyre that will heat the world. Becoming a loving void is the present dream of our civilisation, and it’s a prospect that fills me with utter horror. Because voids are always filled, and rarely by anything good. 

I don’t know if the National Conservative conference represents a serious attempt to stave off that collapse, and I personally have my doubts. Some have suggested that its one of the sinister forces tearing down the old order — but liberalism is dying and its murderers, for good or ill, appear to be all of us.

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