The rise to prominence of conspiracy movements has generated much angst among mainstream commentators. In the lead-up to the US presidential election, QAnon, which believes that Donald Trump is leading a secret battle against a cabal of child-abusing, blood-drinking liberal elites, became a particular focus.
Is the increasing prominence of QAnon, and the associated array of coronavirus-related conspiracies, indicative of a surge in conspiracy thinking in the broader population? If you were to judge by media interest in the topic, the answer would be yes. Much of it, however, can be explained by a section of the media suggesting that Trump’s association with fringe theories from the darkest corners of the internet portended fascism in America were the president to be re-elected.
The Trump-QAnon nexus reinforced the impression that US society was on the brink of a catastrophic spiral into violent, right-wing irrationalism, and that the election of Joe Biden was the only thing that could prevent it. But like the fear of an impending fascist takeover, the idea that the US and the world are currently witnessing a major surge in conspiracy thinking has been exaggerated for dramatic effect.
The proportion of people who believe in conspiracy theories has, in fact, remained relatively steady for decades. A 2014 study by political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, published in the American Journal of Political Science, found that 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. And in their book American Conspiracy Theories, also published in 2014, Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent reviewed more than 100,000 letters to the editor published in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune from 1890 to 2010, and found that there was very little change in the frequency of letters indicating a belief in conspiracy theories.
Recent polling by the UK-based anti-racist advocacy group Hope not Hate found that 10 percent of Americans identified as either “soft” or “strong” supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon, then, has significantly fewer adherents than other popular conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US were an “inside job” involving the US government, which, according to a 2019 poll, 23 percent of people said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” believed.
QAnon is also less popular than the right-wing “birther” conspiracy of the Obama years—according to which Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore was ineligible to be US president. Polling by YouGov from 2012 found that 20 percent of Americans believed the statement “Barack Obama was born in the United States” to be false, and a further 25 percent were unsure.
You might argue that QAnon is a more dangerous conspiracy theory than many others. QAnon supporters have been implicated in a number of violent acts in recent years, and are known for making threats of violence against those they perceive to be part of the satanic cabal of paedophiles they imagine to be operating within elite liberal circles around the world. In a leaked FBI briefing from 2019, QAnon is identified as a potential domestic terrorism threat. “Certain conspiracy theory narratives tacitly support or legitimize violent action”, the briefing states, and “some, but not all individuals or domestic extremists who hold such beliefs will act on them”.
Again, however, the threat posed by QAnon supporters has, in the fevered atmosphere surrounding the US election, been exaggerated beyond all reason. To date, the record of violent acts committed by QAnon supporters seems very mild indeed compared to some other major conspiracy theories in history. Think, for example, of the frequently state-sanctioned violence committed over many centuries against the world’s Jewish population, thanks, in part, to the blood libel—the claim, originating in twelfth century England, that Jews were murdering Christian children and using their blood for religious rituals.
Whether or not the claims about QAnon have been exaggerated, the prevalence of conspiracy thinking in our supposedly rational and scientific age requires some explaining. The illiterate, god-fearing Christian peasants of the Middle Ages were easy targets for those using the blood libel to incite hatred of Jews. In that violent and superstitious world, the idea that shadowy forces might be carrying out the most grotesque and barbaric rituals under cover of darkness would not have seemed so far-fetched.
Today’s society is vastly different. The majority of people in developed nations such as the US are literate and have access to vast quantities of information about the functioning of society and the activities of those in power. On the surface at least, it seems puzzling that so many people would passionately believe in something like QAnon—a theory that shares much with the blood libel and its medieval visions of ritual abuse and murder.
Why do so many people turn away from official sources and accounts of social phenomena and events and prefer instead to “do their own research”—something that has become almost synonymous with going down the online rabbit hole of conspiracy theories like QAnon?
Part of the answer is that sources of information we’re told are highly reputable frequently turn out to be far from truthful. The build-up to the invasion of Iraq provides a clear example. The official narrative, peddled by politicians such as US President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard, and amplified by all the most respectable and authoritative journalists and institutions of the mainstream media, was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was building a stock of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed an immediate threat to Europe and the US.
This fabrication—constructed from threadbare fragments of information provided by some extremely dubious sources with an interest in eliminating Saddam Hussein—became the pretext for war. The result was an entire country devastated, hundreds of thousands killed and no WMDs anywhere to be seen. Today, the architects of the invasion and the “big lie” that justified it are lauded by liberal opinion makers wanting to contrast the era of Brexit and Trump with what they regard as a more heroic period of politics.
This example is just one of many. Again and again, governments and the media have peddled half-truths and outright lies to further the agenda of the powerful. It’s only natural that many people would approach their pronouncements with scepticism, and seek, where possible, alternative sources of information.
But the next question is what makes some people so apt to believe such seemingly outlandish claims as those made by QAnon? You might not trust the mainstream press to tell you what’s really going on in the world, but why go from there to a belief, for example, that Hillary Clinton is part of a global paedophile ring that’s kidnapping thousands of children, locking them in underground tunnels, ritually abusing and murdering them, and drinking their blood?
There are two parts to the answer. First, we have to consider the reality of conspiracy among the world’s rich and powerful. The wealthiest people in the world do regularly gather behind closed doors—whether in corporate boardrooms, exclusive global summits or more informal settings—to make decisions that will impact the lives of millions. And governments conspire with big business to ensure the latter’s interests are promoted against workers and the poor.
The history of major capitalist states is riddled with examples of secret abuses, deep-state intrigues and efforts to manipulate mass opinion in the interests of corporate power. Is it irrational to believe that in such states there are dark forces at work behind the scenes, prepared to commit the most grotesque acts in the name of some nefarious plot to dominate the world? Not at all. The irrational thing (as the recent revelations about Australian military abuses in Afghanistan show), would be to claim that this isn’t happening.
The second factor pushing people in the direction of outlandish conspiracy theories like QAnon is the unfortunate reality that Marxism and other systemic, left-wing critiques of capitalism are very much on the margins, particularly in a country like the US. The operations of class power under capitalism can be explained without recourse to lurid tales of ritual abuse and blood sacrifice. But thanks to the relentless ruling-class crusade against Marxism and socialism in the US and elsewhere, a large portion of the population has been quite effectively warned away from it—that is certainly the case with the passionate Donald Trump supporters, who make up the biggest chunk of QAnon’s adherents.
In social and political milieus where the capitalist world view dominates—a world view in which competitive individualism is paramount, and history and society are shaped by the actions of “great men” (and for the political right, they are still almost exclusively men)—it makes sense that social grievances will be viewed as the result of the actions of particular individuals, or groups of individuals, rather than by broader economic forces or class dynamics. And if those grievances (whether it’s the decline of traditional blue-collar industries, the frequently associated breakdown of communities, the erosion of “family values” and so on) remain unaddressed year after year, no matter who is in power at the time, you might well suspect that those pulling the strings “behind the scenes” must be drawing on a more than merely human power of influence.
Once you get to this point, there’s a well-worn, centuries old path into the kind of violent and highly sexualised imaginary characteristic of conspiracy theories. If the surface appearance of society and politics is interpreted as concealing a secret battle between the forces of good and evil, why not embellish this with the most lurid details imaginable? This, no doubt, is part of the appeal.
As long as capitalism exists—and the exploitation, alienation and oppression that go with it—conspiracy theories of various kinds will continue to win adherents. With Trump’s defeat, QAnon itself may decline. In its place, however, others will arise.
Perhaps the most useful way to understand the role of conspiracy theories is to view them as a kind of secular religion. In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx famously described religion as “the opium of the masses”. “Religion”, he wrote, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. Organised religion created, according to Marx, a more or less self-contained world separate from the one of day-to-day poverty and suffering. In place of any hope of achieving real happiness, it creates an “illusory happiness” based on participation in the religious community, and a hope for salvation in “the next world”.
QAnon operates in a similar way. No matter how isolated and powerless you may be in your everyday life, you can at least be “in the know” about the secret rituals and crimes of those in power, and can feel comforted in your belief that the elites will soon face their day of reckoning—the “Storm” or “Great Awakening” in which the forces of good, led by Donald Trump, will carry out mass arrests and executions of the movement’s liberal globalist and deep-state enemies. And it’s the same, if not quite with the same eschatological register, with many other conspiracy theories. In the context of the pandemic and the associated global economic and social crises, for instance, the idea that the whole thing is really just a plot (“plandemic”) involving a few powerful individuals (Bill Gates), provides certainty amid catastrophe.
The tragedy is that, just as in the case of organised religion, the actual elite that dominates our society—the capitalist class and its loyal political servants—are well served by such outlandish theories. James Meek put it well in a recent article for the London Review of Books:
“The danger of conspiracy theories is not that they promote action to tear down society but that they delegitimise, distract and divert: they divert large numbers of people from engaging in political action, leaving the field clear for the cynical, the greedy and the violently intolerant. They distract them from questioning authority about society’s real problems by promoting a gory soap opera as if it were real and the result of ‘research’.”
How can we win a world without the largely right-wing irrationalism of conspiracy theories? Again, Marx’s analysis of religion suggests the answer. “The abolition of religion”, he wrote, “as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions”. The answer, then, lies in the struggle for socialism—a movement of workers, the poor and the oppressed that can expose and challenge the real structures of power, and create the basis for a new, more just, more democratic and more equal society.