Politics & Media
Sep 16, 2020, 05:55AM


Conspiratorial thinking and the new shape of social reality. 

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Qanon is a conspiracy theory that claims Donald Trump is a deep-cover operative recruited by a heroic cell of intelligence operatives to expose a vast child-trafficking ring of Satanic pedophiles, all of whom happen to be elite Democrats.

It’s a great story. The even better story is that millions of people believe it, making it a bona fide facet of our present, in-real-life political culture.

Qanon has been around for the duration of the Trump era, but it’s come into particular media focus over the past couple of months. So far, the intelligentsia's response seems to take one of two forms. Some wish to engage in a kind of simulated debate, rattling off effortless refutations of Qanon’s argumentation and speculation. This response indulges in the understandable temptation to treat Qanon as a preposterous and repulsive sideshow; it’s just one more Trump-era oddity to point and laugh at, and something that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

By contrast, a fresher narrative argues that Qanon be taken seriously. This view notes that now, with believers headed to Congress and growing connections to law enforcement, it’s really not a joke anymore. Meanwhile, elements within the national security apparatus have begun to characterize Qanon as a legitimate threat to national security. This more alarmist branch of Qanon concern trolling amounts to a panicked request for the restoration of clean sanity by force, whether by corporate censorship or, if necessary, through public coercive action.

Taken together, these two responses restage a familiar binary of American political culture, which treats unusual political phenomena as something to either laugh at or shoot. Both fail to adequately reckon with the conditions that led to Qanon’s flourishing, and both resort to stale modes of diagnosis to dismiss or control something that is plainly sui generis.

As Marianne Williamson observed in a recent op-ed, the “elite rationalists” of our political culture lack the tools to address Qanon “because they refuse to acknowledge that anything beyond the purely material factors of life are real.” Failing to appreciate the role that collective affect and “irrational” frames of understanding play in shaping socio-political dynamics, elite media discourse thus proceeds with “a psychological naïveté masquerading as intellectual sophistication.”

Williamson’s right. How pedestrian it is, contenting oneself with the conclusion that Qanon is merely idiotic or dangerous, when the real question is how such an outrageous tale could capture the imagination of such a broad swath of the political culture in the first place, and what it means for democracy as it begins to translate into electoral success.

It’s important to emphasize that conspiratorial thinking isn’t an exclusive characteristic of the right. Lest we forget the hysterical energy that centrist mono-liberalism put behind Russiagate, or the extent to which the Jeffrey Epstein saga continues to fascinate minds on the socialist left. Today, we find less and less terrain remaining outside the metes and bounds of the conspiratorial landscape, finding instead only its new zones and precincts. More and more, these frontiers of the weird are the incubators in which people form contemporary political identity and connection.

What are the conditions of possibility for something like Qanon, and what is its real political consequence? A helpful place to start is to consider the possibility that we’re transitioning to a political culture in which conspiratorial thinking and other forms of “irrational” sociopolitical discourse increasingly serve the political function that religion used to.

Even with the advent of political liberalism and democracy in the 18th century, religion has remained in most contexts an enduring source of collective identity. In its typical form, religious vocabulary and a corresponding system of values give politicians a way to boil down complex problems of social morality into widely graspable metaphors. Further than that, religion provides a lodestar of supra-political meaning that justifies the “base” conduct we dirty our hands with while navigating coarse realities. Religion and spirituality are the abstract referents we point to when in need of a reminder about “who we really are” and “what we really stand for.”

Now, as religion’s impact on public political life declines, conspiracy discourse offers a choose-your-own-adventure version of the same thing. It gives people who are feeling unmoored from traditional meaning an exciting new frame for interpreting the world, and it’s a way of maintaining the moral certainty necessary to form sustained political willpower. In this connection, it’s simply no coincidence that Q’s posts about spycraft and impending civil war have been interleaved with evangelical Christian platitudes and imagery, or that its primary antagonists are believed to be expressly satanic practitioners of ritual magic.

These two forms of thinking and meaning-making have much in common, particularly relating to today’s political economy. Late capitalism remains an era of profound disenchantment with the world and its shrinking menu of possibilities. A decade after Mark Fisher’s now-classic diagnosis of capitalist realism and its attendant cancellation of the future, online life has only intensified this reification of reality and human experience.

Our digital, trackable, shareable lives are permeated with an oppressive feeling of panoptical transparency, as though we’re all paying the price of fame—overexposure, objectification, loss of privacy—yet receiving none of its benefits. As the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has observed, “data totalitarianism” is fast replacing human free will and imagination. Social media dynamics and data-driven economic production have all but fully penetrated the human psyche, leaving us at the mercy of a hardening reality, one that is progressively ossified by big-data repositories and algorithms of the unconscious. In such an era, a deflationary feeling accrues that there’s nothing left to see, it’s all a Google search away, and the world has no secrets left to tell.

In this context, conspiratorial thinking is simply a way of making the world magical again. The conspiratorial eye reacts to the neoliberal mortification of reality by adopting a schizophrenic’s exuberance; it responds to lost meaning by grafting meaning onto everything, every single thing, from coded messages in the most banal presidential proclamations to the tortured numerologies of anonymous shitposting. It’s no wonder why such an unhinged worldview would be intoxicating. It stakes a moral and ontological claim on the idea that political emancipation lies in our search for something beyond humdrum appearances, beyond this mausoleum of quantification that data-driven platform capitalism seeks to transform the world into.

Like religion, conspiracy theories imbue life with a renewed sense of mystery, reopening the gap in reality that spurns the human drive for knowledge and understanding. It’s for this reason that conspiratorial thinking is becoming the only discursive form capable of providing the unifying narratives necessary for political mobilization.

For these reasons, we should read conspiracy theories not as literal descriptions of observable reality, but rather as broad political metaphors, if we’re to appreciate the remarkable structuring role they’ll continue to play in contemporary politics. And while treading at this level of analysis, remember that conspiracy theories are neither true nor false; as metaphors, their value lies not in their ability to make falsifiable truth claims, but rather as tools of signification and accelerants to political action.

Because no polemic is nowadays complete without some finger-pointing, one might reasonably start with institutional media. In many ways, the unmooring of social reality is only a matter of the chickens coming home to roost. From the Iraq War, to the 2016 election upset, to Russiagate, to Covington Catholic, to the blatantly contradictory narratives about coronavirus, mainstream mass media has alienated and confused the public into mass psychosis.

Following such a failure of journalistic institutionalism, it’s reasonable for people to turn to their own, DIY frames for interpreting the world. To this extent, Qanon and other forms of conspiracy theory are popular because professional journalism obliterated its own credibility long ago.

And yet, it’d be too easy to prescribe a restoration of journalistic standards as a panacea to our situation, which takes the form of a more generalized crisis of social reality. Insofar as the media has been an unwitting contributor to the erosion of its own epistemic authority, that’s only because it never had any realistic choice.

In neoliberal, cognitive, aestheticized, big-data capitalism, the commodification of information has given way to the commodification of reality itself. Principles of market exchange now apply equally to traditionally extra-economic givens such as true and false, real and fake, sacred and profane. Online conspiracy theory communities are miniature stock exchanges for rising and falling truth values, with traditional epistemic authority now replaced by a form of crowd-sourced, customer-is-always-right extravagance.

This trend isn’t new. Already in the 1980s, Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism had noticed that the ascendancy of conspiratorial thinking was linked to the fact that global, decentered, digitized finance capitalism was already beginning to exceed our capacities for traditional depiction. This “postmodern sublime” was something that the human psyche and its until-then reliable modes of discourse and artistic representation had yet to catch up to.

Our representational systems still haven’t caught up. We still don’t have any popular way of credibly mapping the contours of the world’s material bases of power. The dynamics of late capitalism, its dizzying feedback loops and cascading effects, still exceed our ability to apprehend them in anything but the coldest mines of proprietary user data. Given the choice between faceless algorithms and hysterical intrigue, for many people the choice has been simple.

In his recent book on the pandemic, Slavoj Zizek identifies a crucial deadlock faced by governments in attempting to control the virus. “A strong state is needed in times of epidemics since large-scale measures like quarantines have to be performed with military discipline,” and this may include the ruthless control of information and top-down shaping of narratives. Inevitably, “this control itself spreads distrust and thus creates even more conspiracy theories,” leading to a population that is impossible to control and difficult to lead.

Writing at the very beginning of the pandemic, Zizek predicted almost precisely what would happen in the United States: “It’s not hard to imagine that large bands of libertarians, bearing arms and suspecting that the quarantine was a state conspiracy, would attempt to fight their way out.” Meanwhile, even as media outlets struggle to debunk such conspiracies, skepticism and distrust remain pervasive: 

“The central message, that shadowy elites… are somehow ultimately to blame for coronavirus epidemics is thus propagated as a doubtful rumor: ‘it’s too crazy to be true, but nonetheless, who knows… ?’ The suspension of actual truth strangely doesn’t annihilate its symbolic efficiency… the only way out is the mutual trust between the people and the state apparatuses.” 

But here, Zizek is naive. The pandemic hasn’t been a time of restored trust between people and government. On the contrary, the pandemic has entailed a profound loss of trust in anything resembling a competent political institution, let alone a reliable Big Other that might fix an epistemic anchorpoint some place we can still find it.

Already in the United States, anywhere from a quarter to a third of Americans believe in some form of coronavirus conspiracy. Whether it’s the idea that the virus was engineered in a lab, or that masks are a nefarious form of social control, or armchair methodological debates over mortality rates and infection statistics, or the conclusory insistence that interminable lockdowns were an unqualified success even as major cities slide into fiscal crisis and trigger acute urban decay, or the liberal suspicion that the virus would instantly evaporate if only the lower classes would behave themselves; in all these ways, the so-called facts of social reality have lost any determinate position. In their place, factional conspiracy theory and consensual psyops are some of the only tools we have left to approach collective understanding and frame this odd, disorienting moment in time.

Whether or not any of this is convenient for this or that political goal or program, it should nonetheless come as no surprise. The shock therapy of social reality is perfectly at home within the neoliberal atomization of human perception. Politicized conspiracy discourse is a feature and not a bug of the system as it really exists, and it will remain so until there is a reinvention of material conditions of production and distribution.

For the time being, what would be out of place is precisely the fantasy that the liberal professional class continues to entertain, which is the deluded idea that we can simply reboot and reinstall centralized epistemic authority by leveraging the same tech platforms that created this mess in the first place.

—Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. His first book, Reality Squared: On Reality TV and Left Politics, will be published next year by Zero Books. You can preorder it here, and he can be reached on Twitter @syvology


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