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.
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 crackdown 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.
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.
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. That is, when people are isolated from each other and 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.
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Doh, and I forgot to say, that one of Marx’s favourite sayings was ‘doubt everything’, which works in line with Marxism, and science, and cuts into every conspiracy theory that is certain and closed in its account.
“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.”
I thought the whole point of Marxist analysis was that the reality of exploitation is not in plain sight and that social relations are obscured by commodity fetishism? This would surely help better to explain why some (possibly well-meaning) people resort to conspiracy theories.
I am puzzled how a group can label themselves ‘socialist’ and then spout drivel which has zilch to do with any form of socialism I am aware of.
The problem with ‘conspiracy’ theories is that while most are bonkers we have enough examples of genuine conspiracy to allow people to believe that this is always the ‘explanation’. For example watch the fantastic television series Snowfall, which is about the genuine conspiracy of the the CIA and the Reagan government to import vast quantities of cocaine from Mexico, sell it on the streets via mafia and other organized crime mobs and use the proceeds to buy arms to give to the ‘Contras’ fighting the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
In the UK we had the Blair conspiracy to drag us into a war against Iraq by lying about chemical weapons. I detest Doris, but his lies are piddling compared to Blair’s.
That is in ‘real’ life. You also have to look at the tsunami of cultural production in film and tv that USES ‘conspiracy’ as its main motor,e.g The Manchurian Candidate.An old example I know, but it was one of the first and one of the best and created in the febrile atmosphere caused by the assassination of the Kennedy’s, ML King, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Unfortunately a great deal of these attitudes are rooted in the very late 1960’s and the early 1970’s. The main impetus came from a groundswell of middle class opposition to gigantic food companies and ‘big pharma’.
Both of these concerns were very real and genuine, remember the Thalidomide scandal was extremely recent. But none of these concerns were based on any united, coherent, organized, political party or theory.
At the time these movements were seen as, and experienced as, radical and a genuine challenge to the status quo. It was not long after this that the biggest, and most succesful, consumer revolt in British history took place against the imposition of ‘Keg beer’ throughout pubs. Thus was CAMRA born.
But what started out as legitimate questioning of big business has, over the decades, morphed into a self-righteous, dogmatic, largely middle-class denial of science. The ‘wellness’ industry is now worth tens of billions and 99% of it based on complete quackery.
One of the biggest and most profitable companies is Vitabiotics, a name that is pure marketing genius, which plasters ads everywhere, selling vastly overpriced vitamins for every conceivable medical problem, from ‘tiredness’ (because nobody should ever feel that), to ‘joint pain’, hair ‘gummies’ for children etc. None of it is necessary for anyone eating a decentish diet. The body excretes all superfluous vitamins. Customers are literally pissing away their money.
Holland & Barrett are another company in the same area and their shops are always plastered with news of the latest “superfood”, or “detox” (another genius word, nothing can detoxify your body other than your liver) and there is no such thing as a ‘superfood’.
As sure as the sun rises huge corporations in the food industry and pharmacy (and many others) have a lot to answer for and have committed huge crimes. But you need a Marxist analysis to understand why. Unfortunately millions of people with high incomes retreat instead into ‘worried wellness’ and buy into marketing campaigns and misinformation run by companies that are every bit as revolting as the ones they claim to be against. ‘Conspiracy’ becomes just another marketing tool and George Melly in his book Revolt Into Style showed this process back in 1969/70. Internet sites, like Amazon, claiming it was first published in 1989 are talking shite. Anyway read it.
Agree very much with the arguments made here. I have several friends that have succummed to antivax conspiracy theories. One is still involved with socialist campaigns, although I think is completely immune (pun intended) to any counter arguments. The only thing we can do is argue a bit and then agree to disagree. To try and counter all of the ridulous arguments is an impossible task. It would require so much time it would probably be a full time job. And I think if I did prove one argument wrong, the goalposts would shift anyway. However, it is possible to work on the things we do agree on. But I think working together requires a lot of empathy with the fear and anxiety that the antivax people feel, even if we think their actual arguments are nonsense. The friend who has gone to the right I don’t think got any empathy from people on the left at all. Its a difficult balance to care about their fears and yet try and avoid allowing meetings to be taken over with nonsense though. I’m not sure what the strategy should be when it comes to providing space for them to speak at meetings, how much time to provide and how these debates should be chaired and bounded…
It’s also important to show solidarity when anti-vaxxers are disenfranchised, even if we don’t agree with their views… I am planning to submit a motion to my local labour party for example against the possible sackings of health and care staff who refuse the vaccine
I think strong encouragement and persuasion should be tried first – not least from their peers, who are placed in jeopardy by their vaccine-refusing workmates. However, I fail to see the logic of your position. If you were working in a factory and a new piece of equipment was introduced, with potential – if there was an accident – to harm not only the operators, but other workers in the vicinity, would you say there should be no sanction if they refused to follow new safety protocols?
There is a very long tradition of workers in hazardous occupations tasking great care to ensure their safety and those of their workmates. It is one of the reasons behind the solidarity and militancy that charactersises mineworkers, for example.
The first point is that people have a right to decide what is put into their bodies in a way that is entirely different to safety systems installed. There is a strong tradition of body politics that is helpful on this matter, and we need to respect people’s decisions about their own bodies. The second is that you can still spread the virus even with a vaccine, and seeing it as a singular cure for the pandemic is part of the problem. We need a lot of measures to ensure people are safe, such as regular testing, new infrastructure, and paid leave for people with the virus. Focusing so much on the virus is a distraction and is dividing the working class from being able to make other bigger demands that are necessary to keep us safe. Thirdly, if you are think that I am trying to argue for “logic” you are misunderstanding me. Empathy for other people’s positions goes way beyond logic and is about connecting to people’s fears and anxieties, however irrational they might be.
Firstly, I don’t recognise an absolute rule about the inviolability of an individual’s body. Individual rights are a social and political question and will be different in different social contexts. For example, a teacher using reasonable force to break up a fight between two pupils would not be considered to be committing an assault, whereas precisely the same physical actions would be assault if not fight was taking place. I am also not arguing that people should be forcibly vaccinated, just that carers have a social duty to be vaccinated and to not endanger others.
If a person is not vaccinated and potentially endangers other people, then then should expect that (other) measures to be taken to remove them from that situation. This applies particularly to health service and care workers. Compulsory vaccination is far simpler than, say, allowing patients/clients the right (which I would regard as perfectly reasonable) to refuse treatment by a non-vaccinated carer, just as workers in any setting would be justified in refusing to work with colleagues whose behaviour on the job they considered unsafe.
I’m well aware of the need for other measures to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the fact that the vaccines are not 100% effective. No safety measures are 100% effective. Often people who make this point resort to lies and distortion concerning the research.
Another diversionary tactic might be to assume that I’m not aware of the crimes of the government in the pandemic. I take these factors as a given: they don’t belie the fact that – given the current situation and the history of failures – Vaccines have been the major factor in reducing serious illness, deaths and incidence of long CoViD. Both these approaches – including misrepresentation of the science and conspiracy theories about Big Pharma – were used against my views in the “debate” about compulsory vaccination on Not the Andrew Marr show a few weeks ago.
Interesting and powerful, the idea that the capitalist system necessarily incites conspiracy as part of its disruption of social bonds leading to xenophobia.
On vaccination mandates. I’m not convinced the unvaccinated pose a significant risk to fellow workers.
If interested longer comment here:
MASS PREVENTIVE MEDICAL INTERVENTIONS
For the asymptomatic – consider the question of mandating these for eg healthcare workers likely to have already high levels of relatively short lived immunity due to population vaccination, and probably long lasting immunity due to to previous infection. Why is it necessary to try to mandate vaccination for healthcare workers – a) already likely to have some immunity, and where b) vaccination may not prevent transmission anyway, and c) where vaccination may provide a misleading sense of security leading to riskier behaviours.
As a medic in a past life I tried to live by a value that accepts individual personal responsibility for personal life style decisions, including about medical interventions, always involving personal risk.
For the asymptomatic individual it is too easy to cause more harm than good whilst making it appear, and be believed, that the individual can only benefit. As we know such mass interventions (eg cancer screening) do profit industry and empower some medical professionals to exploit the individual, and garner professional kudos/esteem.
It is not conspiracy theorizing to argue for individual autonomy over an intervention that carries personal risk and incites desire/demand to comply. The individual is justified in being sceptical about such interventions not as part of a Great Reset, but because there is a history of well documented fans continuing corporate malpractice for profit. This involves a capitalist system inspired devaluation of the human harm that follows (see link below for current example).
Even tRight-Wing corporations, such as FB, suppress valid scientific enquiry and its evidence on the basis of a conspiracy-type claim that these must be authored by quack scientists involved in conspiring to undermine efforts to suppress viral transmission.