The fuel for conspiracy theories is the decomposition of capitalism

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"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” as Marx famously said. Today, the reality of most people’s ‘being’ across the globe is deteriorating in a dangerous and bewildering manner: wars, economic hardship; environmental degradation, enforced migration and this year, in addition, a new virus. These material conditions of growing chaos and confusion – plus the apparent absence of a credible alternative – are the soil nourishing the proliferation of ‘conspiracy theories’.

As millions are infected and hundreds of thousands of people die across the globe as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, a myriad of explanations for the cause of this scourge are on offer, many taking the form of conspiracy theories. Despite pronouncements by bodies such as The World Health Organisation and the United Nations[1] that the origins of such diseases lie in the destruction of natural habitats resulting in the unregulated intermingling of animal and human species (to which we would add the intensive and unhygienic processing of animals on an industrial scale),  vast numbers of the population believe that the pandemic has been unleashed deliberately by individuals, cabals, or malign countries for their own sinister purposes.

Such ‘theories’ range from the accusation by the President of the United States, Donald Trump, that ‘Communist’ China both manufactured and spread the Covid virus, to the widely-held notion that the Pandemic is being used by states to monitor and control their citizens by a sinister ‘global elite’ or by individuals such as investor George Soros or Microsoft multi-millionaire Bill Gates to further their own designs of world domination.

Such ‘theories’ do not remain on the purely ideological level but manifest themselves in everyday life, in action, through protests, lobbying and social media that influence the behaviour of millions - particularly but by no means exclusively in America. Witness, for example, the growth from the fringe to the mainstream of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement - those opposed to the state-mandated use of vaccines used to prevent disease – which in 2019 was said to have contributed to the worst measles outbreak in a generation in America. In May this year, a survey showed that almost a quarter of US citizens said they would refuse a vaccine against Covid-19, even if one was developed! In Australia, the figure was closer to 50%.

More sinister still is the development of a pogrom spirit, manifested in physical assaults on people of Asian appearance held responsible for the spread of the virus. India’s television news channels, already notorious for spreading hatred against Muslims, accused Muslim missionaries of “deliberately” spreading COVID-19, dubbing them India’s “virus villains” and “human bombs.” The orchestrated wave of anti-Muslim violence in New Delhi left at least 53 dead and over 200 injured,

The medium is not the message

It’s certainly the case that the development of global internet outlets such as Facebook and YouTube have fostered the growth of all kind of conspiracy videos, channels and sub-groups featuring figures such as David Icke or InfoWars’ Alex Jones, past masters at peddling world views in which Jews, bankers, the Illuminati or sinister ‘globalist’ organisations run and manipulate the world – at the very time when international bodies dealing with World Trade, World Health, arms limitation or Climate Accords are being side-lined by rampant nationalism.

On the internet dwell and organise the ‘wellness’ adherents whose bodies are their temples into which no state-promoted vaccine must pass; their loathing of ‘big government’ or ‘big pharma’ is shared by those ‘libertarians’ of the left or of the right who are convinced that the spread of Covid-19 is a deliberate policy of the world’s leading states in order to document and control their populations. Those who burn 5G telecommunication towers live here too. On the fringes of such movements, the armed wing of the crushed petty-bourgeoisie such as the weapon-worshiping Boogaloo fraternity which promotes ‘race war’ creating (in their warped vision) space for their particular brand of self-managed mayhem. The myth of the rugged, frontier-busting individual so prevalent in US culture – the ‘mask refuseniks’ among them - is merely a reflection of the extreme division of labour exerted by capital in which each person appears to be reduced to a hopeless, helpless being, divorced from the means to produce a livelihood and from the products of his/her labour.

But it’s not the development of technology that’s responsible for the proliferation of millennial-style sects – the medium should not be blamed for the message. That honour falls to disintegrating capitalism itself. And the ruling class is perfectly able to use its own putrefaction to wage war against its own population and its enemies.

We’ve already mentioned President Trump’s citing of China as the culprit responsible for creating and distributing the new virus. This chimes well with US imperialist interests which promote a vilification and weakening of their rising enemy. Trump is egged on in this arena by Democratic Presidential candidate Biden. Trump’s own supporters at QAnon, meanwhile, are happy to present America and the world in the grip of a traitorous band of gangsters (which include many previous US presidents but bizarrely excludes Reagan and Kennedy) in which Trump and ‘a few brave men’ are the only true patriots… [2]. For this ruling cabal, conspiracy theories are an idiot’s useful smokescreen: Covid-19 is a ‘hoax’, fake news, as are claims of Russian bounties for the killing of US soldiers. The Democrats – who harbour a wide-range of ‘alternative’ solutions to pandemic and economic crisis – also employ conspiracy theories to portray the Trump clique as the sole cause of America’s decline in the world, with Trump as the puppet of Russia’s Putin. ‘Rational’ posers such as The Alliance for Science debunk the anti-vaxxers and their conspiratorial ilk … while promoting the production for profit of genetically modified foodstuffs.

Scapegoating in history

In times of plagues past, as well as a certain social solidarity in the face of tragedy, there were repeated attempts to look for scapegoats. “Europe’s most deadly and devastating disease, the Black Death of 1347–51, unleashed mass violence: the murder of Catalans in Sicily, and clerics and beggars in Narbonne and other regions; and especially the pogroms against Jews, with over a thousand communities down the Rhineland, into Spain and France, and eastward across large swathes of Europe eradicated, their members locked in synagogues or rounded up on river islands and burnt to death – men, women and children.” [3] In Italy, the Flagellants had blamed the Jews as well as a corrupted church hierarchy for bringing down God’s wrath. To avoid giving them ammunition, Pope Clement VI absolved the Jews (and God and the church, of course) and held a misalignment of the Planets responsible. 

Thus in addition to targeting ‘outsiders’, ‘the other’, or minorities, blame for disruptive disease could also be laid at the door of the ruling class: Pericles gets shamed for leading virus-weakened Athenians against their Spartan rivals during the Plague of Athens, 430-426 BC, and during the Antonine Pandemic (there were many in the Roman Empire ) of 165-190 AD, between 170-300 notable Matrons were ‘tried’ and executed for “poisoning” male members of the ruling class who had been victims of the plague. This impotent lashing out at ‘elites’ is an important aspect dictating the form and function of conspiracy theories in today’s epoch of decomposition and political populism. [4]

The rise of irrationality

Despite limited insights in Antiquity (eg contemporary historian Thucydides’ view that the Athenian Plague “was caused by the crowding of the rustic multitudes together in small dwellings and stifling barracks”) it was impossible in bygone days to have a scientific understanding of the origin and transmission plagues. Hence the hunt for fall-guys and the proliferation of irrational explanations.

Today, humanity’s grasp of what’s going on is – at least in theory – much greater. The Covid-19 genome (the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism) was mapped within a couple of weeks of its formal discovery early this year. This makes the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories about the origin of the pandemic and attempts to ameliorate it appear even more of an anomaly, even allowing for the fact that this is a new virus with, at present, unknown aspects.

However, plagues and pandemics arise out of specific social conditions and their impact similarly depends on the particular the historic point reached by a given society. The Covid-19 crisis is a product of capitalism’s profound decay and the immense contradictions arising from the juxtaposition of astounding advances in all branches of technology and the appearance of pandemics, droughts, fires, melting icecaps and urban smog. All this finds its expression at an ideological level, as do the manifest disparities between a growing pauperisation and unemployment of a large part of the planet’s population and the enrichment of an exploiting minority.

Conspiracy theories today rival religions in their attempt to describe and explain complex reality: like religion they offer certainty in an uncertain world. The various ‘truth’ movements personify the hidden, impersonal processes of crippled capitalist accumulation by pointing the spotlight on individuals or mysterious, connected cliques. They appear convincing to the extent that their ‘critiques’ often contain some basic truths – for example that the state is bent on collecting, collating and storing ever-more data on its citizens, or that there exists a ‘deep state’ which operates behind the façade of democracy.

But conspiracy theories place these half-digested truisms in utterly false frameworks, such as the idea that it’s possible to opt-out (or go ‘off-grid’) and avoid the cold gaze of the state’s surveillance technology (the survivalist mentality) without destroying the state apparatus itself or, in the case of the ‘deep state’, that this is the product of a cooperative international cabal, rather than the expression of evolving state capitalism,  a direct expression of capitalism’s competitive nature, dictated by the  drive to dominate or destroy rival states in an increasingly barbaric series of wars of each against all. Conspiracy theories thus become not only a misinterpretation of the world but a blockage against the development of the consciousness required to change it. 5]

Capitalism abuses science

Arising out of the same deep distrust of ruling ‘elites’ which led to the populist phenomenon of recent years, the taste for irrational explanations of reality has gone hand in hand with a growing rejection of science. Hence the frustration of Donald Trump’s medical enabler, Dr Anthony Fauci: “There is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country – an alarmingly large percentage of people, relatively speaking,” said the USA’s chief medical spokesman on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. This from the figurehead who lends scientific credibility to the Trump administration, purveyors of conspiracy theories par excellence! In Britain, a Commission of the House of Lords (yes, there still remain Lords of the Realm!) investigating the power of digital media was told of “a pandemic of misinformation and disinformation …If allowed to flourish, these counterfeit truths will result in the collapse of public trust, and without trust, democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance. The situation is that serious.”

But if the ruling class uses and abuses science to lend credibility to its policies – as we saw clearly in the UK in the way that the government initially toyed with a half-baked version of “Herd Immunity” theory as a possible justification for its utterly negligent reaction to the pandemic – it is not surprising that science itself increasingly loses credibility. And if the rise of “counterfeit truths” also leads, as the House of Lords report fears, to a loss of conviction in the idea of democracy, this poses even greater difficulties for the capacity of the ruling class to maintain control of society through a political apparatus which is broadly accepted by the majority of the population.

The sound of silence

But the loss of control by the bourgeoisie does not in itself contain the potential for positive social change. Without the development of a serious alternative to bourgeois rule, it leads only to nihilism, irrationality and chaos.

The growing cacophony of conspiracy theories - the prevalence of nonsensical denials of shocking and frightening reality – is not merely predicated upon the ruling class’s loss of control over its economic system and its own political apparatus. It above all arises from a social vacuum, an absence. It’s the lack of a perspective – an alternative and vitalising vision for the future but rooted in the present - arising from the relative retreat of proletarian struggles and consciousness over the past 30 years or so that contributes to today’s social confusion. In 1917, in the midst of a seemingly endless and deadlocked World War killing millions and destroying decades of accumulated human civilization, it was the Russian Revolution, organised and executed by the working class itself, which inspired a wave of revolutionary movements across the world, forcing the ruling class to end the war and offering the possibility of a different way of organising the world, one based on human need. Humanity has paid the price for the failure of the soviet power that arose in Russia to spread across the globe, thus dooming it to internal degeneration and counter-revolution.

From the point of view of the ruling class, the proletarian revolution is itself only possible as the result of a conspiracy: the First International was denounced as the hidden hand behind every expression of working class discontent in 19th century Europe; the October insurrection was no more than a coup d’Etat by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But while communist ideas are most of the time only put forward by a minority of the proletariat, revolutionary theory can at certain moments become evident to large numbers once they begin to throw off the torpor of the dominant ideology, and thus transform itself into a “material force”. Such profound changes in mass consciousness may be a long way ahead of us, but the capacity of the working class to resist capitalism’s attacks also points to this possibility in the future. . . We saw this in an embryonic way at the beginning of the pandemic, when workers refused to go ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ into unprotected factories and hospitals for the sake of capitalism’s profits. And if today’s conditions of plague and orchestrated sideshows like the Black Lives Matter movement cut across the international proletariat’s ability to unite, the terrible privations currently unfolding – increasing rates of exploitation for those at work, development of mass unemployment around the globe - will oblige it to confront all the false visions clouding its consciousness of what is to be done.

Robert Frank, 7 July 2020

[1] Pandemics result from destruction of nature, say UN and WHO, The Guardian, June 17, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/17/pandemics-destruction-nature-un-who-legislation-trade-green-recovery

[2] See for example the slick videos produced by the QAnon organisation, including The Plan to Save the World.

[3] Pandemics: waves of disease, waves of hate from the Plague of Athens to A.I.D.S by Samuel K. Cohn, https://academic.oup.com/histres/article/85/230/535/5603376 The author contentiously argues that despite the scapegoating and mass murder of Jews in medieval plague times and other examples cited by himself, such ‘blame culture’ has yet to be weighed against evidence of social solidarity in the face of catastrophes wrought by disease. See also See Cohn’s Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from The Plague of Athens to AIDS, Oxford University Press

[4] See ‘The Trump election and the crumbling of capitalist world order’, International Review 158, Spring 2017 https://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201702/14255/trump-election-and-crumbling-capitalist-world-order

5] See Marxism and Conspiracy Theories https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201201/4641/marxism-and-conspiracy-theories

Rubric: 

Covid-19