This January, the World Economic Forum reconvened in Davos. The annual gathering has been criticized as a place where the globalist elite gather to conspire against the rest of us. But Malcolm Collins scoffs at the idea anything important happens there. ‘Davos is where lower-level elites go to be told what the narrative is’, he says. ‘It’s where the mindless minions get their marching orders.’ The real elite is gathering elsewhere.
Malcolm and his wife, Simone, organize ‘secret societies’ for the American elite, particularly the tech rich. Simone was managing director for Dialog, the invite-only ideas-gathering set up in 2006 by Peter Thiel and Auren Hoffman. They also recruited members for Act2, a young leaders network set up by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, and have worked for other more secretive organisations.
‘Secret societies are very interesting and high utility’, Malcolm tells me. ‘They’ve become more popular in the last two years for two reasons. First, a lot of the elite moved out of big cities during the pandemic, so they need places to socialize and learn what’s new. Second, they need a place where they can talk honestly without being cancelled. There’s zero chill in society right now.’
What Malcolm calls ‘secret societies’ have long been popular with the American elite, though they may be becoming more so. Eric Schmidt has gathered everyone from Senator Cory Brooker to Lady Gaga at his annual Yellowstone Club. Investment bank Allen & Company has run its Sun Valley ‘summer camp for billionaires’ since 1983. Now, the ‘new elite’ is finding places to think ‘outside of the orthodox and figure out what’s going on’, Collins says. Peter Thiel hosts a few of the new gatherings, from the Founders 50 island retreat to the Hereticon festival.
Another organizer of an exclusive gathering says: ‘Where can you meet and hang out with people with different views to you, but still in an environment where you can trust the conversation will stay private? The secrecy is a means to an end, so people don’t leak things to raise their status.’
The ‘granddaddy’ of this sort of network is Renaissance Weekends, a gathering in South Carolina founded in 1981 by power couple Phil and Linda Lader. Phil says: ‘One evening we were talking with friends about how difficult it is to have serious conversations in a purposeful, substantive way with colleagues, family or friends. So we decided to have a house party and invite interesting people. We invited 60 families to that first four-day gathering over New Year’s Eve.’
42 years later, Renaissance Weekend has run 157 four-day gatherings, all invite-only, non-profit, and strictly off-the-record, for ‘innovative leaders’ and their families. Lader insists this isn’t a networking event, although it got that reputation in the 1990s, when he was deputy chief of staff to Bill Clinton, and the first family attended the weekends for many years. But he says Renaissance Weekend is non-partisan and not mainly political — it might have sessions on quantum physics, or the future of religion. He also says it’s not a conference. There are no speakers, no pre-released list of attendees, just topics for group discussion.
He says: ‘I have a profound belief in the unique transforming power of ideas and relationships. Ideas without relationships become purely academic. Relationships without ideas is just networking. I abhor networking. But the relationships forged here have led to many successful businesses, non-profits, political campaigns, and over two dozen marriages.’
Previous forms of secret society, like the Freemasons, used to be men-only. But new secret societies offer the rising elite a forum to meet life-partners — the Collinses run a match-making service for one of their client organisations, the Future Forum. And they’re a place for the raising of future leaders, like the ‘Renaissance Summer Camp’. This shaping of a new elite is seen as a particularly sinister aspect of organisations like Davos, whose ‘Young Leaders’ programme has invited numerous future heads of state. But that’s the whole point of secret societies: elite formation, or trying to identify and create new leaders and instill public virtues in them.
Bryne Hobart, a writer on technology and sociology, recently discussed the value of secret societies on the Lunar Society podcast. He said: ‘If you’re someone with a bunch of money and you want to exert maximal influence on society, then you want to mould young people with particular values and advance them in society. That form of secret society is basically what universities used to be. And those secret societies had secret societies within them, like Skull and Bones at Yale.’
But elite universities in western societies are not doing a very good job at shaping new elites at the moment. Either they’re turning out managerial careerists without much sense of public service, or they’re creating young activists who see western cultures as sinful and worthy of immolation. Even the venerable Skull and Bones has been affected.
Bones was founded in 1832, modelling itself on German secret student societies. Its 15 members a year commit to spending at least 12 hours a week together, discussing ideas and socializing in the ‘Tomb’ in Yale and at Deer Island in upstate New York. Its principal aim was to foster brotherhood and instill public virtues, and many of its members went on to serve in the State Department, the CIA and White House.For example, both George W. Bush and his 2004 presidential opponent John Kerry were Bonesmen.
But recent Yale graduate Jasper Boers says the Skull and Bones is not what it was. ‘It’s hard to instill public virtues in a wider culture that is so careerist. The student body has also become much more anti-hierarchical and adversarial in its relationship to society.’ He says recent members took down paintings of previous alumni because of their historical sins, and when George W. Bush invited new members to dinner, the conversation turned into a harangue about the Iraq war. Several alumni have now dropped out of the network.
In other words, when the old elite opens its doors to potential new Ivy League or Oxbridge leaders, they risk being denounced by them on social media. Young leaders would rather get short-term approval for their activist cred on social media than seek change through fostering long-term relationships with the old elite. With universities failing, new forms of elite formation are required.
Secret societies have existed for millennia, but they took off in 18th-century Britain, the hey-day of clubs for the new urban elite. The most popular was the Freemasons, who rapidly became the object of endless conspiracy theories and persecutions. Historian John Dickie, author of The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, says its secret rituals and handshakes are the least interesting thing about them.
‘The core idea is fraternity, a place for men to gather, socialize and better themselves.’ Freemasonry helped carve out the new public domain of civil society, a place unlike the court, where the middle-class could fraternize with the aristocracy as ‘brothers’, build a supportive network, and learn public virtues. Freemasonry spread across the world, particularly taking off in the US, where George Washington helped turn it into something approaching a national cult. It also shaped national leaders in other countries like India, where many members of the Indian National Congress were Freemasons. Several prominent leaders of the civil rights movement were Freemasons, including Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks.
Freemasons and other fraternal organisations reached a peak of popularity in the late 19th century, when as much as 40% of American adult males belonged to a secret society. But Freemason membership has been declining for decades, as men spend more time at work or with their families. The thick ties of fraternal organisations have been replaced by the thin ties of social media. But Dickie thinks new forms of secret society could emerge: ‘In an era of over-sharing online, what could be more exclusive than face-to-face encounters where no one will betray your secrets.’
The idea that secret societies have a role to play in elite formation is, of course, extremely counter-cultural at the moment. Both the left and right rage against sinister gatherings of the global elite, like Davos, the Bilderberg Group or Bohemian Grove. According to conservatives like Samuel Huntington and Christopher Lasch, they produce a self-regarding, rootless, transnational elite — ‘Davos Man’, as Huntington called them. Maybe so, but nationalist-populist movements also use secret societies to socialize, swap ideas and foster new talent — Donald Trump’s MAGA movement had the secretive 45 Club, for example.
Perhaps the oldest charge is that secret societies only advance their own nefarious agenda, rather than serve the good of society. For two centuries, the Catholic Church excommunicated all Freemasons on charges that they were homosexual Satan-worshipping conspiracists. It’s true that various occult organisations like the Golden Dawn and Scientology have adapted Masonic rituals and its hierarchy of initiation. And it’s also true that secret societies use rituals and mind-altering substances (usually booze) are a means to social bonding. But the memetic script of the Freemasons has been adapted by many different groups and agendas, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Civil Rights movement, from the Founding Fathers to the Mafia. There is no ‘one agenda’.
Sometimes, secret societies can be infiltrated and weaponized by bad actors, the way Jeffrey Epstein used the Edge Foundation to curry favour and protect himself. And sometimes they can be used by a handful of families to preserve dynastic power. But if an old order hangs on to power too long, new elites have historically fostered regime change through…secret societies. The thick ties of secret societies are much more effective at fostering genuine social change than the weak ties of online activism.
I personally have never been a member of any secret society, nor even a member of not-secret societies. I am an individualist sceptic Groucho Marxist — as soon as I join a community I see the flaws in it. I am also by temperament an anti-elitist — nothing annoys me than people who are too quick to assume they are part of ‘the elite’.
But the counter-argument is there is always an elite in society. The question is how competent it is, what values it serves, and how open it is to new and diverse talent. Secret societies have long been a way to recognize and vet new talent, pass on public virtues, and shape new elites. In a time of zero chill in the public domain, is it possible such private gatherings may have an important role?
And now, let the conspiracy theories begin!
Malcolm and Simone Collins’ new book, The Pragmatist’s Guide to Crafting Religion, is out now.