Conspiracy theory and Marxist analysis

A small socialist meeting in Lancashire this month drove home to me how, as we should already know, the context for the linkage between the far right, anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movements is very different in different places. In contrast to, say, the US and Brazil, where Trump and Bolsonaro supporters have succeeded in welding together the three different aspects of the threat to our health and future, in the UK the three movements are overlapping but still distinct.

Not all anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists are fascists, and if we do not intervene and argue with these people, we are finished; we will end up as marginalised as we think they are. The pity of it is that they are not marginal, and they are among us. Some comrades who thought they were just being ‘anti-Zionist’ did slide into antisemitic conspiracy theory territory when they became obsessed with who was setting political agendas. Now some comrades who worry about the capitalist state restricting freedoms, which by its nature it will always attempt to do, are now sliding into the same kind of terrain.

Conspiracy

What they have in common is an obsession with conspiracy. At this socialist meeting it became increasingly clear how potent conspiracy theory is on the left as speaker after speaker intervened in a discussion about something else entirely. They said that they felt in a minority, that they had been ‘deplatformed’ because of their views and that they were mobilising for their rights in what they referred to as the most important struggle of their lifetimes, against ‘Covid’ (and you have to imagine the word being spoken here as with scare quotes).

Bit by bit they alluded to what they have been banging about in this socialist forum for some time, that is, the Great Reset; an open economic discussion now spun as the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately engineered by global elites to crack down on dissent and regenerate capitalism for the benefit of the super-rich. This is dangerous nonsense, and we should not be afraid to say so, but we also need to address the problem and argue with these people, who think of themselves as being on the left, about why conspiracy theory is so deeply wrong, and so deeply dangerous to the left.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous forms either renders people into passive observers of the real struggle for power going on behind the scenes or, worse, mobilises them to search out scapegoats, members of groups supposedly connected to the hidden forces that are somewhere pulling the strings. A case example of the former is QAnon, in which increasingly bizarre claims are made about the clash of good and evil conspiracies – such as Trump versus the ‘deep state’ paedophile pizza parlour rings – and supporters are left guessing which political event is playing into the hands of which side. The latter, of course, is present in old antisemitic propaganda, in which big business, Bolshevism and race-mixing are traced to the hidden hands of the Jews.

The left

There is a long history of conspiracy themes on the left, and it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most stupid anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown stuff should now resonate with some socialists. It is true, for example, that corporations and the state will take advantage of any crisis to restrict human rights. That doesn’t mean that Bill Gates has any real interest in knowing where you live and who your friends are, or that his very good friend (wink) George Soros (a Jew) is siphoning your money to support an agenda we are not ourselves clear about.

In the Stalinist tradition there has been much flirting with conspiracy motifs, and that was not surprising, perhaps, as Stalin himself became more isolated at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy, and paranoid about who might take the power he jealously guarded. That context provided the seedbed and opportunity for labelling those who were supposedly manoeuvring against him as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, basically an antisemitic code-phrase for Jews.

This way of dealing with a reality that Marxists were disconnected from also fuelled the idea, popular among far left groups, that it would help their case to point to the nefarious activities of, say, the ‘Bilderberg Group’. This search for puppet masters conveniently overlooked the fact that business leaders and governments meet in many different forums and that they would themselves be daft if they did not sometimes operate together to pursue shared interests.

More recently, we find similar simple-minded themes in the supposed ‘evidence’ that Keir Starmer has attended think-tank meetings hosted by the Trilateral Commission (though I’m reluctant to include too many of the rabbit-hole links to those kind of claims in this article). Again, this is not a big deal once you have an analysis of what Starmer’s politics amounts to, a politics he is quite open about.

What this leads to is an approach to politics that attempts to track down the hidden motor causes for our problems, to point the finger at this or that shadowy organisation or individual, and to declare that the game is up. It beggars belief that people caught up in conspiracy theories should believe that this is a Marxist approach. It is not.

There are two key arguments to keep in mind when we challenge our conspiracy-minded anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown comrades on the left.

Marxism as opposite of conspiracy

The first is that Marxism is not a conspiracy theory. In fact, conspiracy theory is the diametric opposite of Marxist analysis. Marx never showed you that the ruling class deliberately hoodwinks and manipulates the population, or that the working class is kept in the dark about who the real movers and shakers are, let alone that the ruling class is putting you to sleep, or that there is chemtrail evidence in the sky that you are being turned into sheeple.

Marxism is an analysis of the capitalist system of production, a political-economic system that operates according to a profit-motive that is outside of the control of those who are driven to compete and enrich themselves as well as those who are exploited in the workplace to produce the source of profit. It is an analysis of the logic and dynamics of a system, not of particular individuals or groups who benefit from it. It is an analysis that shows how capital accumulation drives the whole world to destruction, to barbarism if we do not act collectively to build a world that is democratically accountable.

This capitalist system breeds conspiracies, and it is sometimes sad to see how some of those who accrue power then themselves come to believe that they control the levers of power. Their boasts, desperate machinations and their organisation of coups against democratic governments that threaten their interests are then taken and used as evidence that the ridiculous overblown idea they have of their own power is real. Careful Marxist analysis of the capitalist state, however, is concerned with networks of relationships that are understandable, explicable as a security apparatus to maintain exploitation.

Marxism accounting for conspiracy

The second key thing to notice about Marxist analysis is that it also shows how capitalism breeds conspiracy theory. The system secretes this theory as part of its own spontaneous ideology, as if of its own nature. We are told time and again, for example, and those who are successful believe it themselves, that it is the brightest and cleverest who will rise to the top, that this system rewards ingenuity. This ideological account covers over the actual source of profit, wealth extracted from the exploitation of the labour power of others. This idea, that individuals achieve and thrive and rise through the ranks, then also feeds the idea that someone somewhere must be taking the decisions that count.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous form was once able, with the rise of the Nazis, to turn an internal division of society, between classes – between the working class that laboured and the ruling class that lived on the accumulated fruits of exploitation – into another kind of division, one between the nation all together and an external enemy. Nazism layered that with all kinds of mystical notions to smother scientific research into the nature of society.

In the process, Nazism took on some of the elements of socialist politics, concern with inequality and, much more problematically, concern with national development and security, and blended those with conspiracy theories that targeted Jews, first associating that enemy with the left, as in the claims of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ emanating from the Soviet Union, and then, to win over some leftists, in claims that it was the rich Jews rather than the rich as such who were the real problem.

A real danger

Conspiracy theory brings in its wake a host of other superstitious notions that drive the believer to the right, turns them from being a searcher for the real truth into an engine of divide and rule, labelling anyone who disagrees as part of the conspiracy, and embroils them in hostility to reasoned argument, hostility to analysis as such. The truth about this wretched political-economic system is in the exploitative structure of social relationships. The truth is not somewhere hidden behind this reality but in plain sight; conspiracies are ideological distractions that make people angry but helpless.

We see hostility to reasoned argument, to evidence, already flourishing among the anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists who are becoming suspicious of science itself, and that is a suspicion that will, as night follows day, lead them into the arms of all manner of cranks and mystical leaders. That needs to be argued against as such if we are to keep open a space for Marxist analysis that is, in some sense, ‘scientific’. It is by virtue of its analysis of the nature of this political-economic system that Marxism leads us to change the world instead of merely interpreting it.

Our ‘science’ is a science of social transformation, realising our potential together as agents of collective change. One of Marx’s favourite sayings was ‘doubt everything’, an approach which works in line with Marxism, and science, and that cuts into every conspiracy theory that is closed and certain in its attempt to account for everything and explain away the cracks and contradictions. Conspiracy theory refers ‘facts’ that it can glean from science, but abstracted from scientific research.

And, worst case scenario, we then see superstition and hatred that is hitched to the far right come into play, and that is where the suspicion of science turns into hatred of Marxism, and of ‘cultural Marxism’ as one of the antisemitic code-words used by fascists. Then, because we are refusing to cheer on the search for the groups or individuals responsible for our ills, because we are insisting that this is a system of production that is at fault, we could then be seen as part of the enemy. Then we really do have the danger of creeping fascism.

Capitalism as a political-ideological structure that operates in tandem with economic exploitation is composed of conspiracies, conspiracies that pretend to explain how the world works and career-guides for individuals isolated from each other who want to be the rulers. Like fascism itself, conspiracy theory flourishes at times of defeat when collective organisation against capitalism is weak, when people are isolated from each other then have to puzzle on their own, as separate individuals, about what the hell is going on. The alienated individual in the grip of the society of the spectacle in social media is one of the key relay points.

That is why we need to argue with the conspiracy theorists among us now, clarify with them what it is they fear and mobilise them in a collective project to change the world. We need to win them back to Marxism, Marxism as the diametric opposite and explanation for the hold of conspiracy theory. If we just treat them as automatic enemies we will be playing a deadly game, a game of hunt the enemy, a game with deadly consequences for us and for progressive movements.

You can read and comment on this article where it was first published here