21 September 2021

Anti-capitalism and conspiracy theories are rarely far apart

By Rainer Zitelmann

Conspiracy theorists are people who look at negative events – such as crises, pandemics, and so on – and see them as the result of the machinations of powerful individuals or groups. This ‘conspiracy mentality’ is often associated with decidedly right-wing beliefs, but it is often overlooked that people on the left of the political spectrum frequently have a tendency toward conspiracy thinking, too. 

This is especially true for anti-capitalists. Anti-capitalism is a belief that is particularly widespread among people with left-wing convictions, but it also exists among people who hold decidedly right-wing positions. And both groups have similar bogeymen – they primarily blame the super-rich, bankers and large corporations for the world’s crises and catastrophes.

The enemies of the right include super-rich people such as George Soros or the Rothschilds, the enemies of the left include super-rich people such as the Koch brothers or faceless “lobbyists” who are seen as the string pullers behind major political events. Often, however, the enemies of the far right and left overlap – such as Bill Gates, who attracted fierce ire and hostility during the coronavirus crisis. During the 2008 financial crisis, it was ‘greedy bankers’ and ‘financial speculators’ who were singled out for blame.

In a large-scale empirical study, the German social psychologists Roland Imhoff and Martin Bruder found that ‘conspiracy mentality can be understood as a generalised political attitude, distinct from established political attitude like right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation’. Conspiracy theorists in particular harbour strong resentment against social groups that are powerful or they perceive to be powerful. The researchers’ analysis showed a clear correlation between conspiracy mentality and statements such as:

  • ‘Multinational corporations are to be blamed for most of the world’s problems.’
  • ‘As a result of their greed, CEOs have lost all their morals.’
  • ‘Everybody in the world would be better off if there were fewer international financial speculators.’

Conspiracy mentality, as demonstrated by agreement with the above statements, is closely related to scapegoating. The American psychologist Peter Glick has argued convincingly against the widespread view that weak, defenceless minorities are always chosen as scapegoats. In point of fact, the opposite is often true: ‘It is precisely the perceived power of a group (not its perceived weakness) that makes it likely to be scapegoated’. As examples, he cites the Armenians in Turkey, the Jews in Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the rich and intellectuals in Cambodia. In all these cases, it was economically successful groups that were first selected as scapegoats and then murdered. ‘Are groups always chosen for their perceived vulnerability? No, precisely the opposite – groups are scapegoated because they are (often falsely) perceived to be powerful and malevolent.’

Scapegoating and conspiracy thinking are also expressions of envy. In an international study in seven countries that was conducted as part my The Rich in Public Opinion project, for example, it became clear that people who are strongly inclined to social envy are far more likely than non-enviers to agree with the statement: ‘Those who are very rich and want more and more power are to blame for many of the major problems in the world, such as financial or humanitarian issues’.

In the United States, 57% of respondents with pronounced social envy agreed with this statement, in stark contrast to only 12% of non-enviers. Anti-capitalism and prejudice against the rich are thus closely related to conspiracy thinking and scapegoating, which in turn are particularly strong among envious people.

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Rainer Zitelmann is the author of The Rich in Public Opinion (https://therichinpublicopinion.com/) and The Power of Capitalism (https://the-power-of-capitalism.com/)

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.