The surprising—even if predictable—attempted “coup” in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, carried out by followers of the psychopath in the White House, has given a political dimension to the question of conspiracy thinking. Since then this topic has become central to political discussion and the evaluation of popular reactions towards official political positions. Within the classic left, conspiracy thinking is rarely paid more than superficial attention, emphasizing its reactionary, irrational, and crazy—almost comic and ridiculous—aspects. Surfing on the outbreak of the pandemic and its terrible social and economic consequences, fear and the rejection of conspiracy thinking have come, in a way, to replace the obsession with the “danger of populism” in the dominant discourse of democracy. “Conspiracism” and “populism” are now seen as threats to the foundation of the representative system, taken, naturally, as the impassable horizon of contemporary politics. This is exactly why it seems important to consider the reemergence of these forms of thought within the structural framework of the capitalist political system, in relation to a deeper problem, that of the crisis of the system of political representation.
Conspiracy thinking, if we are to believe the partisans of the current world order, is based on the denial of “the reality established by science.” According to this kind of thinking, “the real truth” is not that in which we are supposed to believe. Instead, lies have become dominant among political, media, and scientific authorities. Real power is in the hands of hidden entities, invisible and secret, who constitute a manipulative counter-power. People are ready to go back to the Christian anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages to find a source for conspiracy thinking. This is to stop halfway, however, for religious thought itself is evidently the primary source of conspiracy thinking, and in particular the monotheistic religions, in which real power is exercised by an invisible, omnipresent ruling entity that manipulates human beings, determining their destiny. Later on, once capitalist social relations became dominant, conspiracy thinking found fertile soil in which to take root and develop. In a world where human beings are dispossessed of their own destiny, alienated from themselves and their activity, powerless to control their fate, political power is, by definition, beyond our control, hidden behind an appearance of formal equality that obscures economic and social inequality. The capitalist world is fertile ground for paranoia and its functioning can only reinforce conspiracy thinking, which finds the “real truth” somewhere else than in the world of real social relations.
Certainly, such an approach to the question of conspiracism will not appeal to those who defend the capitalist mode of production. Such people talk as if unaware of the conspiratorial practices that recur regularly in the conflicts among capitalists. These conflicts and jockeying over power are embedded in powerful institutions, the lobbies, which behind the scenes put weight on the “invisible hand of the market” in order to promote the interests of particular capitalists and to shape political and economic decisions. Any questioning of these practices, any critique revealing economic and political lies and secrets, is dismissed as “conspiracy thinking.”
Some go so far as to discover conspiratorial designs in thinkers like Marx. A facile comparison is made between Marx, who demanded “ruthless criticism of everything that exists,” and “contemporary conspiracy theory, [which] takes the form of critical doubt, calling into question political power and the authority of experts.”1 Such people would doubtlessly vilify the hard-hitting pages of Bakunin’s God and the State, where he develops his critique of the “principle of authority,” demonstrating the links between state power, religion, and science. For sure, these partisans of scientific truth, which has become political truth and a pillar of capitalist power, recognize that it was “the glorious command of the Enlightenment”2 to doubt authority and science, but only to distinguish themselves from theories like Marx’s that “construct a world like a vast fabric of hidden interests.”3 Yet it must be admitted that it requires a big dollop of pedantic ignorance or intellectual dishonesty to identify Marx’s critique of political economy, with its unveiling of capitalist social relations, with a “fabric of hidden interests.”
It is the questioning of established authority and the power of experts that above all upsets supporters of the representative system, for whom the “force of truth” and the power of science cannot be questioned without threatening the existence of modern democracies. Rejecting conspiracy thinking seems to lead immediately to distancing oneself from any denunciation of the corruption of the political world, which it is necessary to protect just because it is out of sync with reality as lived by the majority of people in a period of economic, social, and environmental crisis. The outbreak of the pandemic occurred within the ongoing process of the weakening of inter-class consensus. The questioning of the representative system has been underway for many years, as can be seen in various conflicts and social movements, from Occupy and the Movement of the Squares in Europe and in the Arab countries to unexpected and novel mobilizations like that of the Yellow Vests in France, the revolts in Hong Kong and most recently those in Thailand and Myanmar. In European society, where social conflict persists despite the weakening or partial eclipse of the institutions of the old workers’ movement, above all the trade unions, the rejection of the representational forms of electoral democracy has been reinforced by the chaotic political management of the health crisis and the failures of the states.
For years struggles within the public health system in most European countries have demonstrated the fragility produced by its methodical destruction by neoliberal politicians. The pandemic only clarified this reality. Once more, a political understanding was a truth experienced painfully by the population. The incapacity, irresponsibility, and incompetence with which governments dealt with the situation are explained by their submission to the liberal dogmas applying quantitative calculation to the health services, by the governments of managers who treat “health” like a commodity. With a pandemic in play, authoritarian political measures—lockdowns—were intended above all to protect what remains of the public health system and thus to hide the responsibilities of governments in the disaster. They were immediately seen, angrily, as essentially measures of social control, depriving people of civil liberties. The idea of the manipulation of the pandemic in the interest of social control reinforced conspiracy thinking. Sometimes, under the pressure of a drift into paranoia, the pandemic was even perceived as a fiction fabricated to justify the need to control society.
The failure of the state in the face of the pandemic, its contradictory decisions, basically centered on repression, the occultation of its own responsibilities, are examples of the extent to which the functioning of the political world feeds conspiracy theorizing. In the same way, belief in scientific truth was seriously weakened by this failure. If it was already hard to have total confidence in the efficacy of management and in “science” after the death camps, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Chernobyl and Fukushima, the pandemic strengthened this difficulty. The governmental failure to take responsibility in the face of the gigantic ecological crisis—prefigured violently by the series of various pandemics—proves that the true power of decision resides not in the sphere of politics but in that of the interest of production for profit—one more split between appearance and reality.
It is therefore insufficient to understand the development and the success of conspiracy theorizing as due only to irrationality. Conspiracy thinking is reinforced by the failures of political action and the state. That being said, such thinking has its own limits and opens the way to paranoiac fantasy. All of apparent reality is perceived as the false face of a hidden reality to be unveiled. The mythology of a world controlled in the shadows by beings or secret powers, by a secret world government, seduces and suffocates the doubt central to critical thought. Conspiracy thinking creates a “truth” difficult to call into question. It is also a simple and easy mode of thinking. The complex and contradictory functioning of capitalism, imposing itself on the ruling classes themselves, is replaced by obscure and secret schemes of a minority. This is, however, only an apparent simplicity, because in fact this is a confused mode of reasoning that appeals to the opacity of irrational fantasies.
On a more specifically political level, the convergence between conspiracy thinking and a subversive approach to the order of today’s world is ambiguous and complex, sometimes even antagonistic. Conspiracy thinking involves a rejection of existing political elites and distrust towards democratic representation, which dispossesses the individual and the collective of their power. But in this conspiracism takes an old road, drawing nourishment from all reactionary ideas and practices, from racism to various paranoias, from Nazism to fundamentalist religious sects, to the cloudy fantasies of QAnon, which bring together pedophile rings, blood rituals, and institutional political parties. Conspiracy thinking goes along with submission to leaders—not the official leaders of the system, who are questioned and execrated, but the “true leaders,” capable of uncovering the conspiracy and reversing the order of things through a return to the past. There is an explicit example of this idea of a return to a mythic past in the Trumpist slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
In this way, political mobilizations inspired by conspiracy thinking inevitably end up in the camp of reactionary and obscurantist forces. The “insurrections” for which its partisans call are preventatively counter-revolutionary acts. From mistrust of the system of democratic representation they pass directly to praise and defense of dictatorship, hailing providential leaders. In this regard, it is important to return here to the identification made by certain European leaders between the action of conspiracy-minded mobs in the United States and movements which contest the representative system, like that of the Yellow Vests in France.4 In fact, the gap that separates these movements is a gulf. Conspiracy, racist, and xenophobic ideas are to be found among the Yellow Vests, but it was egalitarian demands and the critique of social injustice that gave force and dynamism to this movement—values quite opposed to those shared by the pro-Trump pack, a fighting force at the service of a heaven-sent white supremacist. One can only agree with this succinct analysis:
Racism, xenophobia, the fight against abortion or the defense of traditional family values, anti-government ideas and conspiracism were never what powered the Yellow Vests. The capture of institutions by violence equally never figured in the numerous attempts to consolidate a program made at regional or national assemblies. There were certainly racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic slogans or signs carried at demonstrations or at the roundabouts [where Yellow Vests gathered] … But those things existed on the margins of the movement, and were most often gotten rid of by the Yellow Vests themselves. There were also extreme-right-wing voters in the groups scattered across France, along with militants from the ultra-left, unionists, the whole spectrum of leftwing militants. The bubble effect, fed by a frenzied consumption of social networks, no doubt nourished conspiracy ideas in a part of the French population, among them those most resistant to official discourse, but this is not to say that support for this movement made people more open to such craziness.5
In the conspiracy-minded universe, everything happens as if, after having criticized the elite manipulation of the system of representation and having denounced the presence of dark powers, people submit to forces that they don’t control—in a word, the “real elites.” People remain prisoners of the same alienated schema of separation from social decision-making. The conspiracy thought process is incapable of confronting the question that it began by posing, that of the loss of control over one’s own life. People set themselves apart from the visible power structure that is supposed to be fake only to submit to another one. In this sense, conspiracy thinking is a form of mistaken understanding of the crisis of representativity, in the same way that fascist ideas of the years 1920–30 made a reactionary critique of social-democratic politics with the aim of constructing an authoritarian response. Doubt—radical critique—is reduced to suspicion and smothered by paranoia. Instead of seeking the social collectivity’s control over its governance people seek to know who governs, those who appear to do so or those in the shadows who really do so. To go back to the example of January 6 in the United States, political conspiracy thinking confines itself to conflicts within the ruling class, the clashes between its tendencies—clashes whose outcomes, naturally, have consequences for all of society.
In conspiracy thinking, the world is divided between a manipulated mass, without understanding, enslaved by appearances, and an enlightened, initiated vanguard, able to uncover the hidden ruling power. For the conspiracy minded, the masses are incapable of self-emancipation. Conspiracy thinking thus integrates elitist and vanguardist thinking, and it is hardly surprising that it has attracted, throughout history, all counter-revolutionary currents. Conscious, autonomous collective activity is foreign to it. Since the French Revolution, conspiracy thinking has always interpreted social revolutions as episodes of the manipulation of crowds by unseen forces. A corollary to submission to the heaven-sent leader, conspiracy thinking places political power at the center of social power. Hence the attraction of the places where this power is exercised and the wish to capture it. Even those who believe in the existence of a “real secret government,” seek to operate on the plane of actual political power.
A critique of political representation can only be based on the practice of direct democracy, self-government, born in and through an autonomous and spontaneous social movement that breaks with the separation of people from social governance basic to “politics.” This is the only way in which the critique of the democratic authoritarianism of the present day can become a force of collective self-emancipation. Only the collective taking on of social responsibilities can go beyond the limits, the contradictions, and the difficulty in application of the political ideas of the existing social system to undermine the irrational and obscurantist paranoia that gives rise to conspiracy thinking and infects the political crisis.
Conspiracism can take root and nourishment in a lack of confidence in the representative system, but it remains fundamentally opposed to emancipation; it distances itself from all collective activity that seeks to go beyond the permanent delegation of power, the separation of politics from the rest of life. Beyond this, conspiracy thinking, by claiming to unveil the real, secret power that dominates everything, is in conflict with the achievement by the exploited social classes of consciousness of their own responsibilities for the destruction of the planet and the conditions of life on earth, to their understanding of their own alienation. Conspiracy theories lead away from the responsibilities of social beings. With respect to the pandemic, conspiracism stresses paranoiac explanations, avoids the question of the ecological crisis and its capitalist cause. Only our capacity to be conscious of the social relations of production and reproduction of life can make visible what appears to be hidden, our social alienation. Conspiracy thinking in all its forms is only an expression of the difficulty or refusal to attain this understanding. It is the easiest and most reactionary way to deal with the questions raised by the current crisis of political action. A false consciousness opposed to emancipation, it perpetuates the separation between “masses” and “elites.” Our social responsibility for the world’s condition is hidden, in the conspiracy way of thinking, by the confused search for secret powers.
Given its reactionary essence, the political activity of groups stimulated by conspiracy thinking ends up justifying and legitimating the representational system that at the start it claims to denounce and contest. This could be seen following the chaos engendered by the events of January 6, 2021 in the US. However, the sinister potential of this way of thinking is far from exhausted. The long crisis that the global system of profit production is undergoing, with a reeling economy, exploding social misery, and the aggravation of the ecological crisis, lies before us. In the face of the pursuit of liberal-democratic policies incapable of reversing the course of events—to confine ourselves to the particular but exemplary case of the United States—one can expect the appearance of more and more reactionary and authoritarian political forms. Once again, humanity finds itself before the crucial and unavoidable choice between the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and a collapse into barbarism. The revolutionaries who opposed the first great butchery of the 20th century saw this coming; since then, the human race has only put off the choice, on each occasion, at the price of vaster and more terrible suffering.
- Eva Illouz, “Croire à la science ou pas : la question qui pourrait décider de l’avenir du monde,” Le Monde, December 11, 2020.
- This was French president Macron’s reaction to the January 6, 2021 events at the Capitol in Washington.
- Mathilde Goanec et Ellen Salvi, “Gilets jaunes et Capitole: une déraisonnable exploitation politique,” Mediapart, January 8, 2021.