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Why the Intellectual Dark Web has failed

Internet ideologues have yet to formulate a coherent vision to turn their ideas into action

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The 2023 Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) Conference at London’s O2 Arena set itself the task of discovering a better story about the West and pushing back against the narratives of decline that seem to be the motivating force of our intellectual and cultural classes. It was interesting for mapping out a possible new way of thinking, but it also represented the endpoint of the dissident intellectual ecosystem known as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW).

The term was coined by Eric Weinstein, the hedge fund manager who worked with Peter Thiel. In a 2018 New York Times profile, Bari Weiss included in the group not only Weinstein, his brother Bret and sister-in-law Heather Heying, the evolutionary biologist, but Jordan Peterson, podcasters Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin, “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, Sam Harris and the only outright conservative, Ben Shapiro. Others who might also have been included were the writer Douglas Murray and academics Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose of the Sokal Squared hoax.

Allen Bloom witnessed the Cornell faculty fold in the face of black student radicals wielding assault rifles on campus

The IDW was very much an online phenomenon, reacting to events through Twitter and YouTube. In 2019, several articles argued it was our equivalent of the neoconservative movement of the mid-20th century. I’m not so convinced.

Looking back to the neoconservatives — another group of thinkers swimming against the tide of their time — helps illuminate why this is so, albeit through their differences. The original neocons were a group of disaffected American Trotskyites trained in the social sciences or immersed in political philosophy who became disaffected with the Stalinist subsummation of socialism abroad and by the rise of the New Left in the campuses and wider culture of 1960s America.

This loosely coherent group comprised academic, journalistic/literary and political subgroups that coordinated intellectual ideas and data with political power. Their primary concern was domestic: the crisis of American (and Western) civilisation at a key moment of challenge from the Soviet Union.

The academics in the group were caught up in the violent campus radicalism of the late 1960s which sought to upend the integrity of the university as an institution of learning and a repository of the knowledge of Western civilisation. The academics Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell were especially affected by this turmoil, as was Allen Bloom, who witnessed the Cornell faculty fold in the face of black student radicals wielding assault rifles on campus. Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind in response to what he saw as the moral collapse of the academy.

On a broader level, the neocons saw American morals and mores under assault from a counterculture nurtured on campuses and entrenched by what Irving Kristol dubbed the New Class, whose leaders sought to invert America’s ethical foundations and replace them with a melange of secularised American Protestant fervour combined with New Left-inflected ideological talking points around race and sex. This counterculture fed off the tensions that followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, including devastating riots and a rise in violent crime across the nation. Meanwhile the Vietnam War was in its hottest phase, mirrored by protests at home.

There were striking similarities between the early neocons and the IDW, particularly a shared sense of beleaguered defence of Western values, nearly always defined in secular terms, but sometimes with vague gestures towards the religious bedrock on which they rest. Each viewed the Left as having gone too far, but believed it could be defeated through reasoned argument. This produced the same sense of “I didn’t leave the Left; the Left left me” — one can substitute the “adversity culture” of the New Class for the Social Justice Left/Postmodern Neo-Marxists and wokeness to similar effect.

In terms of personnel, there is a congruence between the two groups in the heavy presence of academics, writers and journalists. The original set had Commentary and The Public Interest, whilst the IDW had Quillette as its house journal.

The neocons took advantage of the mass culture of the mid-20th century to disseminate their message of a need to buttress basic civilisational standards, maintain civic order and defend reasoned discourse. The IDW exploited the new digital technology to engage in “the battle of ideas” and defend the “marketplace of ideas”.

If all this sounds rather liberal, indeed it is. What makes the two groups seem conservative was summed up by the historian George Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

The neoconservatives, he said:

were forced to choose; some suddenly found themselves in a “conservative” situation. This is not to say, of course, that the defence of elementary order, academic freedom, professional standards, an open university, and sheer human civility were in any sense the exclusive concern of conservatives. Nevertheless, the very act of protecting these values … had a profoundly “conservatising” effect on many [previously Leftist] intellectuals.

In other words, each group is conservative only in comparison to that which they oppose. The IDW only seemed conservative because the Left it opposed had become so extreme it had denied the biological facts of life via sexual dimorphism.

But opposition wasn’t enough in itself to bind the group together. The IDW quickly became polarised and came apart because of its incoherence. This was presaged by the tensions between neoconservatives too — divisions between those who became aligned with the mainstream conservative movement around National Review and its circle — such as Kristol and Norman Podhoretz — and those who wished to critique the Left’s excesses whilst maintaining a commitment to what they saw as liberal values and politics — such as Glazer and Bell.

Yet differences within each group obscure a broader common purpose: to shore up the vision of liberalism that had preceded it. In the case of the neocons, this was the managerial “consensus liberalism” that arose after the New Deal. When neocons lamented the decline of liberal politics and society, their ire was in defence of the managerial “vital centre” that had supplanted the earlier American model of 19th century bourgeois liberalism and republican constitutionalism.

For all their rhetoric, the neoconservatives were, in effect, trying to conserve the legitimacy of the managerial state and corporatist system by pushing back against the New Left’s efforts to change it. Though they did not challenge the nature of the administrative system with its managerial elite, neoconservative ideas did have an impact, particularly in law and order policies that reduced violent crime, as well as in social policy that mitigated the worst effects of the countercultural revolution. The IDW’s members cannot say the same.

Despite the more economically and politically radical disposition of leading IDW figures such as the Weinsteins, in practice they gather round the metaphysics of culture war and the theatre of online discourse and the battle of ideas.

Endless discussions are useless when the rulers of the marketplace can regularly send in their tanks

The IDW’s members still cannot conceive that change is achieved through factional coherence. Their endless discussions about “conversations” in the “marketplace of ideas” are useless when the rulers of the marketplace can regularly send in their tanks to clear it out.

The neocons had an answer to this problem. Three internal groups in academia, in the journalistic and literary worlds and in politics could work in harmony to popularise ideas which could then be implemented by sympathetic political figures. Theirs was a worldview that took structural power into account and reckoned with the vital importance of elite institutions and networks in pursuing ideological and political change.

The IDW has never had this, and the Arc conference should be seen as a late attempt to construct a counter-elite to achieve their desired outcomes.

The fact that Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter — a key node in the modern communications complex — achieved more in service to the denizens of the IDW’s aims than any three-hour disquisition on the importance of free speech speaks volumes to the reality of the need to pursue some kind of political power to make ideas consequential.

The conference articulated a defence of the very neoliberal order that enabled the crisis the attendees were there to remedy. There was no talk of the need for a developmentalist vision of political economy for a de-industrialised Britain and America. Religion was mostly discussed in civilisational, instrumental ways rather than as the source of life’s meaning. Foreign policy was spoken of in terms of intervention rather than prioritisation.

The original neocons were serious-minded, committed and reflective individuals who worked to have their worldview impact the course of American history. Much of their effort was laudable, even if they defended the very system that induced the destabilisation they railed against.

The IDW and its remnants cannot say the same. They failed to create a coherent vision. Whilst there are similarities in the genesis of both movements, there is a divergence in their records of success.

Those in the New Right, such as the activist Chris Rufo, have shown that words must precede action: getting things done is the measure of success. He and his ideological fellows are the true heirs of the original neoconservatives, in results if not in beliefs.

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