A coffin of thought

So this is it: the open casket of conservative politics, a coffin of thought in which John Howard and Tony Abbott are nestled alongside Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. The group calls itself the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship. It is a global collective of anti-globalists, funded by a Dubai-based investment vehicle and a British billionaire.

With Abbott and Howard are Andrew Hastie and John Anderson, all of whom sit on the alliance’s advisory board. Other members include climate sceptic Bjørn Lomborg and a string of entrepreneurs and swivel-eyed Republicans.

In announcing the group, Peterson writes of a shadow stalking the earth, a crisis of meaning and purpose. He warns of shame. He says individuals are unfairly told to see themselves as predatory and the family to see itself as oppressive. He worries about anxiety and the focus on environmental catastrophe.

“A century and a half or more of corrosive cultural criticism has undermined our understanding of and faith in the traditions necessary to unite and guide us,” he writes. “In the midst of this existential chaos, the false idol of apocalyptic ideology inevitably beckons.”

Peterson writes of the need for cheap energy and of the evils of technology. He calls for abundance to be enjoyed by men and women made in the image of God. He sees social stability in sacrificial and child-centred relationships, which must be valued and rewarded.

“Those who present a vision of inevitable catastrophe in the absence of severely enforced material privation are not wise seers of the inevitable future, but forlorn prisoners of their own limited, faithless imaginations,” he writes. “Those who scheme to lead using terror as a motivator and force as a cudgel reveal themselves by definition unfit for the job.”

These are the scriptures of an unwell mind. They are the jitters of a former benzo addict who eats only beef and talks as if he doesn’t realise other people are on the tram. What is extraordinary about his views is the politicians they have attracted in common cause.

It is one thing for Peterson to style himself as the intellectual leader of a tribe of Reddit users. It is another for two former prime ministers to agree and stand beside him. The former are drawn together by angry celibacy and the latter by whatever is the political version of that. Both groups are alienated by their own inadequacies.

Explaining his involvement, Howard says: “On climate change, I have said on numerous occasions that I am an agnostic.” A spokesperson for Hastie says: “Mr Hastie is looking forward to building a new narrative for politics that goes beyond the soulless, values-free, consumer-focused politics of corporatist progressivism.”

This new narrative is being built by a group of reactionaries, gathered by their objections to climate action, feminism, queerness and racial equality. They don’t use these words, however: they talk about “alienated polarisation” and “our social fabric”.

The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship will host its first conference in London this October. Liberal senator Alex Antic has already had his return airfare paid for, plus accommodation. Together this small, strange group will practice its catechism of self-pity. They will not find a new conservativism because they are not truly conservatives. All they will find is that loneliness and dejection can be eased by meeting with others who are similarly afflicted. This, at its heart, is Peterson’s business model. A man who made his living selling masculinity to adult men with Star Wars doona sets is doing the same for right-wing politicians whose absence of compassion has isolated them in a new and increasingly feeling world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "A coffin of thought".

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