13 April 2015

Paranoia, populism and propaganda still drive conspiracy theorists


We live in the age of reason – or don’t we? Modernity is a terrific era to live in, benefitting as we are from enormous economic growth, technological progress and easy access to information. And yet, precisely for this reason, conspiracy theories, myths and ideologies seem to mushroom, one more abstruse than the other. Most of them are political in nature. Broadly speaking, they divide the world into the West and the rest; the classical distinction between “left” and “right” doesn’t matter here. Sustainability and social justice freaks everywhere like to blame pollution, climate change, inequality of incomes and any other discontent on the “imperialist” United States, where they see government corrupted by “big money” – which they seem to misunderstand as a typical key feature of capitalism.

These people have little qualms about chiming in with Russia’s state-controlled media, politicians and online trolls who all repeat the same tune, according to which the war in Ukraine was manufactured by the depraved Western Nato-Jewish-Gay-Fascists conglomerate sponsored by the US. Don’t ask me how all these things shall fit together. Anyway, such nutty narratives even please nationalists, traditionalists and other reactionaries who see dark forces at work in the West, destroying religion, culture and family values. Useless to quote any sources, examples are ubiquitous in the social media.

The phenomenon is growing, as sociologists have found out. The social media provide a fertile ground here, as they foster the segregation of think-alike groups. The participants in these closed circles don’t test political ideas and theories against rivaling theories or evidence, they seek to “purify” and radicalise them instead. Few conspiracists reveal their true personal identity, which lowers the verbal barriers and makes it more difficult to detect paid trolls.

Apart from these specificities of the social media, however, the pattern of conspiracy musings isn’t new. Throughout history, it has always been the same. A villain needs first to be designated, so that the world can conveniently be divided into good and evil. The perceived evil in the world will then be explained by one single cause: the villain’s secret malevolent ends. This explanation is presented as a form of higher, more enlightened knowledge to which, unfortunately, the brainwashed masses don’t have access. Any counterarguments will be rejected as conspiracy theories of their own.

This strategy can even be applied preemptively: After last month’s airplane crash in France, it didn’t take long for trolls to express their expectation that the “right Western terrorist Zio-jewish controlled press” would soon pretend that “it was the Russians who caused it”. This example is taken from the comments on the “Press TV” website (on March 25, 2015), a government propaganda TV channel from Iran in English language, catering to the Anti-Americans and Anti-Semites in the world.

The problem with conspiracism is at least threefold:

  • its obscurantism breeds public paranoia instead of fostering critical analysis and deeper understanding,
  • its moralistic formulae lend themselves perfectly to populism,
  • with its strong emotional impulse, it can serve as an effective tool for political propaganda. In the hands of governments, it is outright dangerous.

The appeal of conspiracy theories comes not only with their simplicity. Sure, they spare one the pain of being bothered with complex issues and contradictory facts. But as they clearly designate not only the villain, but also the victims, they can also boost and repair a loser’s fledgling ego. And in the end, they convey the feeling of superiority:  you’re part of the “select group” that holds the “real truth”. Life is so much easier with a theory that is immune to falsification; who cares if this will prevent you from learning something? Forget about Popper! Conspiracy theories thus arise particularly when events are complex and complicated, when people feel threatened and lost out, or when the political establishment doesn’t reflect – and represent – a sizeable ideological trend within the population.

The ultimate roots of the phenomenon however go deeper. They have to do with our overall world-view. Historians and anthropologists have found that while conspiracy theories have been around as long as mankind exists, it is ever since the Enlightenment age that they have increased dramatically. Until then, people had an easy explanation for the evils of the world: God’s mysterious ways. For the broad public, the challenge therefore mostly consisted in trying not to lose one’s faith in the face of sorrow, need and immorality. Important writings about the theodicy problem abound from these days: how could the good Lord allow evil to happen?

The Enlightenment, however, turned things around, as the French Revolution soon demonstrated. This philosophical development of the late 18th century was an intellectual watershed. It was a much awaited liberation, strengthening the use of reason. As the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his selfimposed immaturity”. Whatever the role of God, man now also had a word to say about his fate on earth – and a duty to do so.

By the same token, however, the Enlightenment (except for the Scots) also opened the doors to constructivist, rationalist hubris. Humility was lost. If our existence in society can be researched, known and understood rationally, why not use this knowledge to adapt society to our likings? If people don’t share our likings, why not use force? The slippery slope was steep. In this novel world-view, human living conditions were no longer seen as given by nature or by the impenetrable will of the Master of the Universe, but rather as the result of conscious, rational human design. Inevitably, the French Revolution, inspired by the Enlightenment, led down to Robespierre’s brutal “Terreur”.

If the understanding is that social realities don’t emerge but are crafted, and need to be, it is easy to jump to the conspiracist position. If the world we live in seems unpleasant, or unjust, or immoral, or all that at the same time, it must be somebody’s fault. It must be the fault of those powers that have decided on the rules of the game.

This is the one major intellectual fallacy of conspiracy theories: the search for a clearly identifiable culprit. Sometimes there just isn’t any. Whether we like it or not, much of what happens in our lives is the product of coincidence or emerges as the unintended consequence of our various anonymous interactions with others. As the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson explained, “every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”.

Many of these results are welcome. Adam Smith, another Scot, famously pointed out that the “Wealth of Nations” is the unintended marvelous consequence of the butcher, the brewer and the baker minding their own businesses. Other results aren’t quite so welcome, or even not at all. Given the fallible nature of man and the complexity of social interaction, they may be just as unintended: violence, famine, poverty, depletion of natural resources, pollution etc. aren’t necessarily the result of ill will. To think otherwise would just make one guilty of a different kind of “pretence of knowledge”, as the Austrian economist and social philosopher Friedrich Hayek would say.

To mend the evils of this world, reason, the precious gift of the Enlightenment, ought indeed to be drawn upon. It is our task to try and improve the institutional framework that guides and structures our interactions – so far and as much as human wisdom will allow. If we humbly bear its limitations in mind, it will always be preferable to make use of reason than to indulge in the temptation to lay back and enjoy, rather perversely, the imaginary spectacle of an evil conspiracy at work.

Karen Horn is an independent author and teaches the History of Economic Thought at various universities. She also serves as the President of the Friedrich A. von Hayek Gesellschaft (Berlin). She is the author of “Roads to Wisdom – Conversations with Ten Nobel Laureates”.