In the Western world, conspiracy theories have proliferated in the twenty-first century for many reasons. At the societal or macro-level, austerity and a massive wealth gap have created enormous uncertainty and insecurity for much of the world’s population. As Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan argue in their recent book Angrynomics, this has led to the resurgence of populist forms of politics based on anger and fear of the other – a paranoid outlook born not so much of the conviction that my tribe or group is right, so much as the belief that everybody else is wrong. In the media sphere, meanwhile, the displacement of reporting by public relations content, the rise of clickbait churnalism and fake news, and the tendency for news to devolve into cheerleading for partisan political narratives (as argued recently in Matt Taibbi’s book Hate, Inc.), might have undermined public trust in mainstream journalism. No wonder that so many people are suspicious of official narratives and institutions and the ‘Blue Church thinking’ (as they say on the Intellectual Dark Web) of the mainstream, liberal consensus.
The recent pandemic has been a boom time for the paranoid style of politics. Well-known crazy man David Icke emerged as the most prominent conspiracist over recent months. Icke’s interviews during the pandemic with the former derivatives broker and super-grifter Brian Rose were watched by millions on Rose’s London Real platform. Now, if you were to be charitable, you could say that Icke makes a few reasonable points in his talks and writings. He often talks, for example, about the need to transcend the politics of left and right and to challenge the ‘postage stamp consensus’ constructed by the mainstream media – the exclusion of any fundamental challenge to dominant ideology. Socialists could agree with all that. But Icke has also forged a career making wild and unsubstantiated claims about the existence of twelve-foot reptilian overlords, the New World Order, and so on. And to take just one example from his recent pontifications about the pandemic, Icke confidently stated in his first interview with Rose that Covid-19 was a hoax and that the virus had not been isolated, which is simply incorrect: Covid-19 has been isolated and genetically sequenced by scientists in South Korea.
Another irrational voice during the pandemic period has been the Australian Max Igan, who made a series of walk-and-talk videos during lockdown, mostly posted on YouTube (and when he was eventually de-platformed by YouTube, Bitchute). In his talks Igan expounded his opinions in a blokeish, parasocial style (“folks” is Igan’s favourite term of address for his audience). Like Icke, Igan talks about Covid-19 as a “plandemic” implemented in the service of total social control by a neo-Bolshevik (sometimes neo-Fascist) elite, with the connivance of Bill Gates and George Soros (although he recently reminded his listeners, during a recent conversation with the anti-semitic ‘investigative journalist’ Harry Vox, that he has some good friends who are Jews). It’s loopy stuff, supported by nothing more than occasional allusions to other online conspiracists and Breitbart news stories.
Icke, Igan and their ilk see politics as a Manichean struggle between the forces of Good and Evil (or Light and Darkness) and they are forever telling us that humanity is on the brink of annihilation – the underlying refrain of all reactionary politics. Salvation, for these figures, lies in the masses ‘waking up’ from their sleep. But Covid-19 has also brought to prominence some figures at the soft end of the conspiracy spectrum. This group includes the veteran British curmudgeon Vernon Coleman, a former GP and nationalist who believes that the lockdown was implemented to keep food prices high by shadowy groups who want to implement a world government. Also in the UK there is the potato-faced self-help author Carl Vernon, who mocks those who observe the lockdown guidance as “sheep” and sees wearing a facemask to prevent Covid-19 transmission – a well-supported scientific recommendation – as a form of “social engineering”. And then there the more careful and rational conspiracists like the American James Corbett who, like some of the figures mentioned above, questions the scientific rationale for the so-called lockdown and expresses concerns about the potential of Covid-19 to be exploited by the security state, while eschewing the wilder, patently irrational claims of the likes of Icke and Igan. But even Corbett is in thrall to the conspiracists’ master narrative that global events are being directed by ‘globalists’ intent on world government – despite fairly strong evidence that the contemporary global picture is increasingly fracturing into smaller and smaller nation states. Finally, while female YouTubers like Amazing Polly prove that conspiracy theory is not just a boys’ game, conspiracy theorists are predominantly white men, usually on the right wing of politics (although there are plenty of liberal conspiracy theories, too – Russiagate would be a pre-eminent recent example).
It’s important to say at this point that the tout court rejection of all conspiracy theories is just as wrong-headed as the wide-eyed belief in Jewish plots for world domination and other irrational theories. We do, after all, live in a world shaped by the plotting of the capitalist class which often operates in Machiavellian ways (as well as plain stupid ways – for cock-ups are at least as common as conspiracies). Some conspiracy theories are rational and even well-substantiated; in fact, they are not ‘theories’ at all. One could, for example, make an extensive list of factually established, state-sanctioned false flag operations: Gleiwitz, Northwoods, the Gulf of Tonkin and Gladio, to mention just a few high-profile cases. And it is a matter of record that governments have conducted secret experiments on their populations (the Tuskegee study from 1932-1972), fixed autopsies to cover up state violence (Attica Prison Riot in 1971), covertly sold arms (Irangate from 1985-87), lied about the threat posed by enemy states (Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in 2003), and so on. In light of all this, those who proudly proclaim that they do not ‘believe’ in conspiracies are simply parading their ignorance about history and the modus operandi of businesses and the security state. The mainstream media, politicians, and factions within the so-called ‘deep state’ often engage in lies, deceptions and cover-ups in order to protect ruling interests.
It follows from all this that we should keep our minds open about at least some of the topics often laughed off by politicians or mainstream journalists as ‘conspiracy theories’. Given what we know about the various actors involved in his case, it would seem eminently rational, for example, to speculate that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t commit suicide last year. And I definitely don’t think that those promoting conspiracy theories should be banned from the major media platforms, as some of them have been. In fact, even some of the online Covid conspiracists raise some pretty valid points alongside their torrents of irrational and anti-scientific assertion. For example, the crisis will surely be used by national ruling classes to ramp up the surveillance of their populations. And we absolutely should be asking very critical questions about the extensive and unaccountable power of global philanthropists like Bill Gates, who seems to exert enormous influence in areas such as science and the media. The capitalists are of course exploiting the current crisis to the greatest extent possible, but the evidence is that they are making hay while the sun shines. There is no evidence that they have deliberately orchestrated the entire pandemic for purposes of social control or world government.
Indeed, socialists approach these issues scientifically and we would advocate a rational solution to the conspiracies of our rulers. Indeed, even if some of the most outlandish and irrational conspiracy theories about Covid-19 really were true – if, say, the so-called ‘elites’ really were intent on eradicating humanity, or culling the global population back to one billion people, or instituting a world government, as some of the figures described above have suggested – the only way to prevent such fiendish, undemocratic schemes would be to create a democratic society without rulers. And that, of course, would amount to the very thing that most of the irrational, mostly right-wing conspiracy theorists mentioned above detest: socialism.