It is unsurprising that, as we confront the black swan event of the global pandemic, there has been an upsurge in the spread of conspiracy theories. Historically, narratives around malevolent, all-powerful forces controlling reality in various ways have often emerged in times of social unrest and uncertainty, where large numbers of people find themselves socially adrift or unable to control fundamental aspects of their lives.
While the typical response to conspiracy theories is to view them as the product of ignorance or delusional thinking, this is complicated by the fact that history is full of many real instances of powerful people colluding in secret at the expense of society. The numerous price-fixing scandals uncovered in South Africa in recent years surely also constitute conspiracies, as do corporate cover-ups around the world, many of which we know about only as a result of people questioning the presentation of reality and correctly connecting the dots to map out underlying truths.
It is clear though that what we more commonly describe as conspiracy theories – exemplified in the current period by the linking of 5G networks to Bill Gates, vaccination and microchip implants, for instance – are markedly different from these real-world examples. As social and psychological research has shown, conspiracy theories of this kind are not amenable to empirical enquiry and subsist for long periods of time in the absence of any reasonable evidence. Those adhering to such theories tend to exhibit little interest in testing their underlying claims and will often simultaneously believe in conspiracy theories that outright contradict each other.
As The Conspiracy Theory Handbook published by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication observes, this suggests that conspiracy theories function in a similar way to ideology, with belief being more a case of underlying psychological motivators – dealing with feelings of powerlessness, coping with threats or explaining confusing events – than the result of careful research and reflection. If this is true, it becomes important to understand these drives and the social contexts within which they tend to arise. This is especially vital when we acknowledge that many conspiracy theories contain, albeit figuratively, a kernel of intuitive truth.
Indeed, as Marxist group Aufheben writes in an article titled “The rise of conspiracy theories: Reification of defeat as the basis of explanation”, conspiracy theory, like left politics, often has a sense “that the world is structured by unequal power relations, and that the powerful act in their own interests and against the interests of the majority”. Distinct from the kinds of concrete political analyses that are able to explain these unequal power relations in terms of complex dynamics involving myriad social, political, economic and historical forces, however, conspiracy theories operate with a highly simplified understanding of these aspects of social reality, turning social forces into individual Bond villains and systemic conditions into cabals of all-powerful evildoers. This simplified narrative structure, which tellingly reflects dominant modes of subjectivity and the cult of the personality that has arisen under neoliberalism, also partly explains the appeal of conspiracy theories for large numbers of people looking for a stable foothold in an increasingly complex world.
As simplistic as they may be, it is through empathetic and nuanced engagement with conspiratorial narratives that we can perhaps best grapple with, and nurture meaningful collective responses to, the problems conspiracy theories suggestively outline. For instance, while casting Gates as an evil billionaire who wants to control people with 5G networks via microchips implanted in their bodies through mandatory vaccination is clearly absurd, there are many legitimate reasons to be concerned by the technocratic and paternalistic approach of the Gates Foundation towards addressing malnutrition, malaria and viral pandemics in Africa and, more broadly, the lack of control we have over the actions of the plutocrat class.
Anxieties around being controlled by technology may also be based on intuitions about the extent to which states and big technology companies – Google, Microsoft, Amazon and so forth – have infiltrated, influenced and benefitted from our private lives while remaining almost entirely unaccountable, something researcher Shoshana Zuboff explores in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Similarly, the recent fears expressed by people who are convinced that the Covid-19 pandemic is part of a nefarious plot by global leaders acting in unison to push agendas that diminish our freedoms have at least some basis in what Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism. Here, we would be quite unreasonable if we weren’t acknowledging that numerous states and corporate actors have leveraged the crisis to push forward anti-social agendas, the recent spate of illegal evictions of shack dwellers across South Africa and the loosening of environmental laws around the globe being just two examples.
More broadly, we can discern the vague stirrings of a genuinely radical politics in some conspiracy theories. As Aufheben observes, these theories often express a genuine sense of estrangement from – and dissatisfaction with – capitalism, the state and other dominant social forces. While the world is not, of course, completely controlled by the Illuminati, the Rothschilds or lizard people, it’s not difficult to see the hints of a class analysis here. And when the staggering inequalities of wealth and power in the contemporary world have allowed the ruling class to live fantasy lives so utterly alien from our own, is it any wonder some of us have come to see them as almost inhuman?
Whatever truths they may loosely allude to, however, it remains the case that conspiracy theories, whatever short-term existential relief they may provide by assuring us that everything is easily understandable and under control, even if not in our interests, are deeply disempowering. If we set out with an incoherent understanding of how the world works, we quickly find ourselves unable to take much effective action to tackle its fundamental injustices or equalise its vast disparities of power, which is why the spreading of conspiracy theories usually results in apathy and fatalistic resignation.
More concerning, the same psychological drivers that make conspiracy theories so appealing also leave people susceptible to the influence of anyone – fascists, sociopaths, corporations and insincere spiritual gurus among them – offering an easy, comforting narrative that explains how things are and what we can do to make them better, usually in ways which, ironically, serve covert agendas.
Our approach to conspiracy theories should therefore be at least twofold. On the one hand, we can gently challenge the fallacious elements of conspiratorial thinking and encourage a more thorough interrogation of those aspects that correctly intuit real problems in the world. In practice, this takes the form of political outreach and radical pedagogy, the creation of collective spaces of learning and teaching through which we can tackle the problems we face at their roots without becoming tangled in them. The more we empower ourselves and each other with knowledge about how science, medicine, technology, politics and so forth function, the more we simultaneously hone our critical thinking skills, in turn cultivating personal agency – the sense that we can be meaningful participants in creating social change.
On the other hand, there is the more difficult task of offering assurance and support to those who find themselves drawn to conspiracy theories to make sense of a reality that seems to be slipping through their fingers. Here, we need to develop frameworks that offer sustainable forms of material, psychological and spiritual care. That the world is increasingly complex and uncertain means that very little is, or ever could be, orchestrated in the contrived ways conspiracy theorists propose, but it also means we have to become better equipped to deal with that complexity and uncertainty. While this may seem like a relatively solitary existential pursuit, a genuine sense of security is grounded in healthy, thriving communities of friends, lovers, families and comrades.
Building such communities is no simple task: they are at odds with the alienated and impoverished forms of social belonging that have become so prevalent in capitalist society and they require patient and careful interpersonal and political work. However, if we commit ourselves to learning more and communing more, we can slowly build herd immunity to the impoverished thinking of the present, whether it takes the form of conspiracy theories or dominant ideologies, and begin to cultivate something stronger than the multiple pandemics we currently face.
Covid-19 is a virus that attacks the lungs and many of those infected with it struggle greatly to breathe. Capitalism is an economic relation that attacks the social body and most of us forced to participate in it struggle greatly to live. The deep sense of existential disempowerment wrought by these conditions, especially when experienced together, renders us highly susceptible, however rational we think we are, to conspiratorial thinking and noxious ideologies.
When those around us fall prey to these insidious but increasingly endemic forms of magical thought we should, instead of ridiculing, judging or chastising them, remind ourselves that the word “conspiracy” comes from the old Latin term conspiraire, which means, simply, to breathe together. Breathing together, conspiring, we can create something far better than what currently passes for life.