Conspiracy theories are booming. Most present a hodgepodge of uninformed fantasies. But they all have one thing in common – they don’t go far enough. This text, originally published by marx21, was translated by Colin Wilson.
‘Conspiracy theories flourish in places and at times of fear and uncertainty,’ writes Robert Anton Wilson, the author of Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups. When conspiracy theories attack governments, scientists and the media, they express a deep distrust of the reliability of our social order. The fact that such suspicions have surfaced more and more frequently in recent years, and cast a spell over millions of people, shows how widespread uncertainty about the future is. There are plenty of reasons for this: the international order is becoming increasingly fragile, more vulnerable to crises and war.
For years, economists have seen capitalism caught in a ‘secular stagnation’, a perpetual state of zero growth. In addition, the string of huge scandals seems endless. Internationally, the Panama Papers revealed how celebrities around the world make money from illegal financial transactions. Jeffrey Epstein, a friend of the Clintons and Prince Andrew, coerced children into sex with impunity and then suddenly died in prison. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted of tax fraud. The trial of Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges is ongoing. Here in Britain, Boris Johnson conspired with a friend to have a journalist beaten up; has been sacked as a shadow minister for lying about an affair; and wasted millions as Mayor of London on vanity projects. Incompetent private contractors continue to receive huge amounts of public money, such as tens of millions to Serco for the failed ‘test and trace’ programme.
Behind all these crooked goings-on lie conspiracies, in the sense of groupings of influential people who violate the law in order to enrich themselves. You could also describe this as organised criminality involving political leaders. It exists. And it is the stuff from which conspiracy theories are made. Some conspiracy theories point to real crimes and can make at least plausible arguments. But there are two main problems with them: first, they distract from the root causes of the problem and direct people’s anger in the wrong direction. Second, they don’t give people who are suffering under capitalism tools or strategies which can help them to change the world.
A popular Covid-19 conspiracy theory claims that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is behind the current crisis. Gates, we’re told, is pulling the strings behind the scenes to deceive governments, the media and health bodies around the world so that pharmaceutical companies in which he has interests can earn billions with a new vaccine. What are we to make of these claims?
Bill Gates has an estimated net worth of $160 billion. This makes him one of the richest men in the world. Together with his friend, the major investor Warren Buffett, he runs the globally active Gates Foundation, and he invests in companies such as Coca Cola, Kraft and numerous pharmaceutical enterprises. He has publicly stated that his investments in the healthcare industry are among his most profitable. As governments have decided – on the initiative of the USA in 1993 – to freeze their ‘assessed contributions’ to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it relies on private donations, and Gates pays for around 14 percent of its annual budget. This gives him considerable influence on the direction of the WHO. NGOs such as Medico International have rightly criticised for many years the influence of the Gates Foundation and other private companies such as the Ferrero Group.
But there are problems with the Gates conspiracy theory. The first is the selective use of sources. The conspiracy theory is based on the claim that he has been ‘caught’ – as shown by the fact that for years he has been giving public lectures about the dangers of new virus outbreaks, and at the same time is involved in pharmaceutical companies. But there is no evidence as to how Gates, with the supposed help of the WHO, duped practically all the governments in the world on the subject of Covid. What is more, so far there are no plans to make vaccination compulsory, and there is no telling whether one of the companies in which Gates is involved will find and market a vaccine.
For supporters of conspiracy theories, this is simply evidence of the sophistication of the conspiracy. On the one hand, they deeply mistrust official sources and in particular Gates himself. On the other hand, his statements, of all things, which he makes in front of the media and which can be read on his foundation’s website, are considered evidence of his ‘sinister’ machinations.
Conspiracy theories don’t address the real problem with the influence of private companies – that WHO strategies are focused on controlling disease once it has broken out, rather than preventing it. By far the most important cause of illness is poverty, including lack of access to clean water, healthy food, and sanitation. Gates and the pharmaceutical industry earn billions from the WHO’s campaigns against diabetes and high blood pressure, while the organisation fails to ensure that people have decent nutrition and living conditions. This fundamental WHO approach ensures much higher profits for big pharma than would developing another vaccine on top of the dozens of others that are put on the market each year.
The second problem with conspiracy theories is the way they focus on individuals, or on particular groups or institutions. Gates is not the only billionaire in existence, and he operates internationally alongside powerful heads of state, despots, mafia bosses and presidents-for-life who don’t take orders from him or let him tell them any old fairy tale. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is not Bill Gates – it is that its main goal is generating profits rather than curing disease, let alone preventing it. Conspiracy theories concentrate their fire on particular representatives of a system, instead of critiquing the entire social order.
A third problem with conspiracy theories is that their supporters are almost always quite unimaginative about the motives of the conspirators. Such-and-such a person always wants power, money and world domination. On the one hand, this reflects the fear of the theory’s supporters that someone will take something – including their rights – away from them. And this suspicion is valid, at least to the extent that for companies under capitalism what is really at stake is the limitless multiplication of money. Turning money into even more money becomes an end in itself, even if that means going to war or making the entire planet uninhabitable. ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!’, as Marx wrote.
Conspiracy theories are usually based on the assumption that they explain everything that is happening in the world. The alleged ‘Jewish-Bolshevik world conspiracy’ of the Rothschilds and Communists worked like this. Today ‘Islam’ is said to be pushing for world domination. In reality, all companies have a basic desire to expand, because otherwise they will perish. But no company, no state and no secret clique seriously wants to have a monopoly on global power. Even the USA is currently withdrawing from its role as the sole remaining superpower because it lacks the strength for the role.
It is these issues which make conspiracy theories compatible with alt-right and fascist ideas. The harshness, brutality and lack of any moderation in historical fascism make it easy to overlook the fact that fascism never produced a comprehensive and coherent theory of society. Racial theories – obscure and frequently refuted by science – myths about the state and ethnic groups and their associated antisemitism – all these can best be understood as attempts to develop such a theory. Fascism is based on a hodgepodge of obscure and half-true platitudes and prejudices, as compiled in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Such theories gained wide circulation amid the deep social crisis of the 1920s.
Immediately before the catastrophic fascist seizure of power in Germany, theorists such as Georg Lukács were shocked by the ‘destruction of reason’ and the ‘shrill’ irrationalism, by what Theodor Adorno labelled ‘ignorance and confusion’, which were spreading from conservative circles and the middle class – the measurement of skull sizes and characterology, personality cults, fascism, ‘theosophy, numerology, naturopathic medicine… and countless other sects’. On the other hand, Lukács compared the easily absorbed, but ultimately banal, bourgeois social theories of his time by saying that they increasingly found themselves ‘in the situation of that legendary “critic” in India who was confronted with the ancient story according to which the world rests upon an elephant. He unleashed the ‘critical’ question: upon what does the elephant rest? On receiving the answer that the elephant stands on a tortoise, ‘criticism’ declared itself satisfied. It is obvious that even if he had continued to press apparently ‘critical’ questions, he could only have elicited a third miraculous animal. He would not have been able to discover the solution to the real question.’
Having come to power, the Nazis encouraged the natural sciences, at least in areas relevant to the military. But after extensive bans, expulsions and book burnings, the intellectual life of the Third Reich was characterised by pseudosciences such as ‘race theory’, occultism, solipsism, Nazi-approved religion, fanaticism and kitsch. Hitler, Himmler and other Nazi grandees had their horoscopes cast regularly and adhered to Hanns Hörbiger’s ‘world ice theory’, which was supposed to explain the fall of Atlantis and the biblical flood. The Hollow Earth theory, according to which we live on the inside of a hollow sphere, was on the other hand finally rejected – because it had a ‘foreign pedigree’. The prevailing thinking was meticulous and accurate when it came to the development of rocket engines. But with regard to its broader coherence and more profound aims it declined into ‘mythology’, into ‘superstition and lunacy’ as the theorists Adorno and Max Horkheimer put it.
In 1933, Leon Trotsky wrote about the mysticism which had become widespread in Germany, commenting that ‘Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms… Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner… capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.’ Today in Germany, the radical right has recognised how compatible the conspiracy theories expressed on demos against social distancing are with their view of the world. An author of the Identitarian Movement writes that conspiracy theories are ‘a healthy, materially verifiable assessment of the state of the world.’ Therefore ‘they necessarily have much in common with the right and the down-to-earth, National-patriotic camp.’
Liberal voices object to conspiracy theories on the basis that it is false to suspect conspiracies behind all negative developments or to hold ‘the elites’ responsible for all the evil in the world. They argue on a personal and moralistic basis against the personal and moral claims of the conspiracy theories. For example, they assert that Jeff Bezos – whose company, Amazon, made him the first person in history worth $200 billion during the weeks of the corona lockdown – is not a bad person and has no secret plans.
That may be true, and his intention to conquer the retail market is no secret either – in fact it’s shared by all of his competitors. But this doesn’t change the fact that during the Corona crisis Amazon is driving its competitors into bankruptcy and paying its employees starvation wages. People get upset about this and they are right to do so.
Left-wing criticism of conspiracy theories must start with these real problems and propose concrete solutions. A serious critique means calling for limitations on private property rights in general, not just those of certain ‘dark powers’. Die-hard supporters of conspiracy theories on the other hand, such as the Nazis, always focus on a ‘certain type’ of entrepreneurs and a ‘certain form of capitalism’ in the words of theorist Herbert Marcuse.
In any case, we must resolutely oppose supporters of conspiracy theories and their search for scapegoats as their explanation of the current state of the world. Private ownership of the means of production and the organised chaos of competition from all sides are enough to constantly generate conflicts, poverty, scandals, corruption, misleading of the public, murder, manslaughter and secret deals. But individual billionaires or governments are not all-powerful. They can all be put under political pressure from below or driven out of office.
Most conspiracy theories ask legitimate questions. A few provide plausible answers. Many are a hodgepodge of uninformed, often racist, sometimes dangerous fantasies. But overall they don’t go far enough. Even the worst fantasies of conspiracy theorists cannot match the global everyday life of capitalism: the daily, completely legal misery and the violence, surveillance and oppression that billions of people have to live with. The real problem is not that some secret conspirators illegally seize power and wealth, but that a tiny minority quite legally treats the world as their private property. In order to put an end to conspiracies, we need to democratise the world. For Marxists, that means fighting for socialism.