20 November 2020

The Great Reset is the latest conspiracy fantasy – it will not be the last


If you were running a shady cabal dedicated to controlling the world, it’s unlikely you’d advertise it on a website.

But perhaps that’s just me: according to a loose assemblage of anti-vaccine campaigners and conspiracy theorists, and given a platform by Russian state propaganda, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Their strain of thinking alleges that the global pandemic is a ruse to mould society to a set of restrictions and goals, and that the plan was hatched long before a novel coronavirus (supposing it exists at all) emerged in Wuhan. The agents of this conspiracy may surprise you: they are the World Economic Forum (WEF), based in Switzerland.

The WEF is a global NGO established nearly 50 years ago by Klaus Schwab, a business academic, who chairs the organisation. The 1970s were an era when Western society appeared to some critics to be ungovernable, buffeted by oil price shocks, high inflation, trade union militancy and Soviet aggression. It made a sort of sense for global decision makers to meet outside the normal avenues of diplomacy to discuss these pathologies and problems.

The WEF has since become synonymous with its annual meetings in Davos in Switzerland, which are often mocked for conspicuous consumption. These summits do no harm and sometimes, merely by putting people together to discuss issues (such as climate change and vaccination) that can only be resolved by coordinated policy, have a modest benefit.

Or so you’d think. The WEF issued a call in May, gaining the support of Prince Charles, for a summit of world leaders to discuss the twin challenges of climate change and economic recovery from the global pandemic. It did so under the label of the Great Reset. The noun phrase is an essentially empty slogan that anyone can interpret to their taste, but it conveys the essential message that the world was unprepared for the current crisis and needs to become more resilient to external shocks. In a broadcast this week, it was used by Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, as a call for action.

And then it took off. To those who see global policymakers as malign and scheming rather than basically well-intentioned, it was a sign that the whole experience of lockdown had been long planned. The propaganda apparatus of the Putin regime has for many months published wild allegations from obscure bloggers that the Great Reset is code for oligarchs to amass wealth and control populations. As one of them wrote last month for Russia Today: “The production and supply of goods will be coordinated by a central directorate, led not by elected representatives (whose roles, where they exist, will be nominal anyway) but by technocrat factotums.”

There is, of course, no evidence whatever for any of this, but watch how the Great Reset is suddenly gaining traction in the discourse of paranoia. Gareth Icke, son of the notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke, posted an article yesterday setting out the purported elements of the Great Reset, “which is a global agenda to monitor and control the world through global surveillance. You’ll be tied to it through an electronic ID linked to your bank account and health records and a social credit ID that will end up dictating every facet of your life.”

This farrago of nonsense may be risible, but it’s not funny. The alleged conspiracy mounted by the WEF is a new manifestation of a hoary fantasy. Ever since the French Revolution, political reactionaries have imagined that secret societies – historically, the Illuminati or the Freemasons – are the hidden hand behind world events. In the modern era, this prejudice has been transferred to innocuous and well-meaning NGOs, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, which – by having internationalist ideals – are automatically suspected of having nefarious goals.

The historian Richard Hofstadter identified this strain of thinking in American public life in a classic essay titled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ in 1964. He showed that the fevered allegations of McCarthyism, which were then a recent aberration in US politics, had a historical lineage. American society, he said, “has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds”.

In the digital age, a global platform for such movements exists, and it does real harm. Icke himself was banned from Twitter this month – belatedly and correctly – for spreading disinformation concerning the coronavirus, and remedial measures against it, that is a direct threat to public health.

Imagining that world events are the outcome of conspiratorial plotting is not just a factual error; it has catastrophic consequences. In his new book The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, the historian Sir Richard Evans discusses the infamous fabrication The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and observes that “few people [in Nazi Germany] could have made sense of its contents, and what it needed in any case was for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conspiratorial fantasies it contained to be transcribed into terms that were relevant to a twentieth-century readership”. 

Making conspiracy theories relevant to today’s events is what fringe figures on the far-right and far-left are doing, amplified by the propaganda organs of despotic states. The Great Reset is the latest fantasy. It will not be the last. 

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

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