Jan 25, 2021
The following article is taken from issue #213, Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle) February 2021, the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group (Trotskyist) active in France.
One of the consequences of the public health crisis is the growing power of conspiracy theories, which are met with increasing success. Behind these ideas hides the far right.
Originally, the term “conspiracy theory” referred to the intellectual attitude of challenging all official explanations of social, economic, and historical phenomena, replacing them with an explanation which the “elites” are trying to hide. What all conspiracy theories have in common is that they denounce the control of a “group” (international institutions, circles of billionaires, Jews, etc.) that orchestrates all events in the strictest secrecy. Those who subscribe to these theories take it as their mission to reveal these schemes.
Although a good many conspiracy theories are completely outrageous—and therefore less dangerous—like those claiming that the world is ruled by aliens or the Illuminati—there is a more harmful form of conspiracy theory developing today, which partially explains its success. These conspiracy theories find a breeding ground not only in the fears and anxieties caused by the public health and economic crises, but also in the legitimate mistrust which the laboring classes feel toward the policies of the leaders of the capitalist world.
The COVID-19 epidemic had barely begun when a wide range of conspiracy theories about it emerged. The first shared point was that it was not natural but “invented in a lab,” whether by the Chinese, Russians, Americans, the Pasteur Institute, or the Jews.
As far as explaining why some secret group or another would have chosen to unleash the pandemic, these theories had answers. The sociologist Monique Pinçon-Charlot explained in Pierre Barnérias’ film Hold-Up that it was to kill all the poor. Others explained that it was to kill the elderly and solve the problem of an aging population. Others claimed that it was a Russian maneuver to destabilize China. Other theories, much more widespread today, set out to prove that it was all the work of pharmaceutical companies, in order to force the population to get vaccinated. The vaccine was said to contain, depending on the theory, a product forcing people to obey authority, microchips activated by 5G networks allowing Bill Gates to control each individual, etc., etc.
The point here is not to describe the many conspiracy theories, but to understand how and why they are so successful—and the dangers that this implies.
It is obvious that these theories are finding a real reception, especially in the laboring classes. The impact of the film Hold-Up testifies to this. It has been seen by millions of people online and claims—with little regard for the millions of deaths from COVID-19—that the epidemic is little more than an invention guided by Bill Gates and the big pharmaceutical capitalists. The success of this theory shows that those who appreciated it were already, if not convinced, at least open to its arguments.
On another level, the success in Germany of certain anti-mask movements, for whom the virus is an invention to stifle individual freedom, has led to demonstrations of tens of thousands of people.
But it is in the United States where conspiracy theories take their most spectacular expression today, with the development of active currents in the past months. Among them, the delirious movement QAnon denounces a supposed conspiracy of Satanist pedophiles whom Donald Trump has been fighting. This would make one laugh, if there had not been some of the main spokespeople of this current among the far-right demonstrators who invaded the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Those included Jake Angeli, who called himself the QAnon Shaman, whose clown-like costume with horned fur headdress barely covered the white supremacist and neo-Nazi tattoos that cover him.
Three years ago, in the conclusion of an article which we wrote about conspiracy theories, we stated: “[Conspiracy theories] are often laughable. But it would be a mistake to content oneself with laughing. It is not impossible that in the future, as the crisis worsens with its political and moral unraveling, these theories will continue to root themselves with potentially dramatic consequences.” (Lutte de Classe, no. 187, November 2017)
It seems that we are reaching this point.
It is easy to believe in conspiracies, above all, because they really exist. François-Xavier Verschave, in his book La Françafrique, has described the many plots hatched by French imperialism in its former African colonies to install dictators under its control and to assassinate those who are not docile enough, a policy which it pushed as far as genocide in Rwanda. The other imperialist countries are not to be outdone. How many coups in Latin America haven’t been backed secretly—as it later turned out—by the United States government?
Yes, many things take place in secret! Secrecy is capitalism’s normal mode of functioning. Banking, commercial, and industrial secrets are elevated to the rank of sacred pillars of the capitalist economy. For example, after the explosion of the AZF chemical factory in Toulouse in 2001, and even the fire at the Lubrizol chemical factory in Rouen in 2019, the capitalists did not want to publicly disclose the simple list of products they use in their facilities, feeding into rumors and conspiracy theories. Putting an end to economic secrecy as well as ending secret diplomacy have long held a central place in the communist revolutionary program, along with workers control.
It should come as no surprise that a large share of the population today views politicians and the state apparatus as professional liars. In the current public health crisis, the government’s constant lying can only feed conspiracy theories, from its changing message about masks—are they useful or not—and its changing message about why schools should remain closed or open, even its discussions about the efficacy of its vaccination campaign.
The political leaders of the bourgeoisie are liars. In fact, this is their nature, since no bourgeois politician would ever be elected by saying the truth, which is that they are devoted to serving big capital. This is the very nature of the bourgeois state, “the board of directors of the bourgeoisie,” as Engels wrote, which makes lying necessary to the exercise of power in a capitalist regime.
The total distrust of pharmaceutical companies is just as legitimate. Not of the researchers, scientists, and workers who work there, but of the shareholders who could care less about public health and only invest in this sector for the profits. In France, the long list of scandals, from infected blood to Depakine, Mediator, and PIP silicone breast implants, should be enough to make anyone not believe these companies, which are perfectly capable of poisoning the population for profit.
Mistrust, doubt, and questioning are all legitimate attitudes toward the statements of capitalists and their political lackeys. One could even say that these are the basics of class consciousness. However, when these doubts turn into belief in theories which are not only absurd, but mostly reactionary (distrust of science itself, confusion of capitalists with Jews), it is tragic.
Recently, conspiracy theories have begun to attract workers from the left, since they appear to take a more anti-capitalist tone. But, even to call these “anti-capitalist” is a gross exaggeration, since no conspiracy theory challenges capitalism as a system. They attack individual capitalists, whether because they are Jewish, which strikes a chord with the more far-right currents, or because they are American, which sounds better to the French left. Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) are bigger targets in the eyes of French conspiracy theorists than supermarket magnate Michel-Édouard Leclerc or luxury goods billionaire Bernard Arnault, who are of course no better.
The current success of conspiracy theories also owes much to the fact that a certain number of intellectuals or celebrities previously known on the left have more or less promoted them.
The most striking example of this type of intellectual and political bankruptcy is Michel Onfray. This philosophy professor was once famous for having created a “people’s university” in Caen with the goal of promoting culture to counter the influence of the far-right National Front. Today, he is a determined defender of Didier Raoult’s campaign to use hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment and the creator of a nationalist magazine called Popular Front, along with a number of far-right individuals.
Many other personalities in the social networks where these theories circulate say that they are on the left. Or at least, they spout a form of humanism, of “resistance to uniformity of thought and to the system,” which earns them the sympathy of a certain number of the oppressed. This is the case, for example, of Louis Fouché, a young anesthetist in Marseille with a pleasant demeanor, who boasts of defending “exhausted and underpaid healthcare workers,” and denounces “the conflicts of interest” between the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry, but who is also an avowed conspiracy theorist and organizes demonstrations against the wearing of masks.
Other doctors, sometimes well-known, have acquired a large audience during this crisis, often with more political horizons. This is the case for the famous professor Raoult, but also for Christian Perronne, Laurent Toubiana, and Jean-François Toussaint, stars of the cable news channels and of the right-wing and far-right press. They have become recognizable after having made so many rounds on the media to minimize the extent of the pandemic. Some of them, like Raoult and Perrone, are crowned with a certain fame and a long list of degrees. These doctors give a pseudo-scientific credibility to many of the conspiracy theories, feeding the idea that the pandemic is not fundamentally so bad. Close to the right-wing Les Républicains party and to employers’ lobbying groups, these individuals have ended up serving as spokespersons for a number of the bosses who believe that the quarantines and curfews have cost them too much money. These bosses would have preferred crisis management in the style of Trump or Bolsonaro, which consisted of doing nothing in the face of this “tiny flu.” Incidentally, both Trump and Bolsonaro were ardent partisans of the hydroxychloroquine treatment advocated by Raoult.
Connections are also forming between certain currents of the radical environmentalist movement, conspiracy theorists, and the far right. The anti-vaccine movement (“antivax”), like those who oppose 5G communications networks, came out of this same radical environmentalist movement. They now find themselves in the same boat. It has reached the point that on one environmentalist, anti-growth website, its author posted direct links to QAnon.
These pathways should not come as a surprise. Intellectuals from the petty-bourgeoisie—who have been successively Stalinists then Maoists, followers of François Mitterrand then Jacques Chirac, later environmentalists, today becoming conspiracy theorists who look toward the far right—let themselves be carried by the reactionary current that moves through society.
From the opposite end, another part of the country’s intelligentsia is outraged by the rise of conspiracy theories, venting its full class contempt through newspaper columns and social media posts against the “idiots” who fall into them. These great minds will not tolerate such nonsense, mocking the “stupidity of the masses.” Besides the fact that contempt has never convinced anyone, it is completely insufferable to see such people give lessons in morality to the conspiracy theorists, while they themselves believe in the virtues of capitalism and the bourgeois republic and are ready to repeat all the politicians’ lies.
Conspiracy theories should be treated like all reactionary ideas—in order to understand and try to combat them, we must distinguish, on the one hand, the political forces behind them and those that transmit them, and on the other, the people who more or less actively believe in them.
Like religion, conspiracy theories are a kind of response to the loss of bearings, despair, anxiety, and, to a certain extent, the anger which the oppressed increasingly feel when faced with capitalism. They respond to a need to explain the disaster taking place, in a situation where workers have the sense of being tossed from tragedy to tragedy, from terrorism to the pandemic crisis, from mass layoffs to disruption in the climate. Left with the feeling of being a powerless victim, they can find in conspiracy theories the illusion of understanding.
Conspiracy theories are flourishing among the ruins of the workers’ movement, in the absence of a coherent and constructive response which could give perspectives to the working classes stunned by the violence of the crisis.
Left without ideas and perspectives, many workers are turning toward those who cry the loudest in denouncing the functioning of an unjust and intolerable society, even if in an irrational and reactionary way. There is nothing new about brandishing conspiracies to try and rally the oppressed against a common scapegoat. Need we recall that Nazism rallied millions of people around the idea of a global Jewish and Masonic plot, and that this ideology used the banner of denouncing the rich, and even of socialism, to win the sympathy of the masses?
The milieu of the Yellow Vest movement is especially susceptible to the spread of these theories. The tens of thousands of women and men who mobilized for whole months before hitting a dead end are logically prepared to believe that their defeat was due to a conspiracy, to forces more powerful than they because they are occult and hidden ... rather than searching for the political reasons behind this dead end.
Many believers in conspiracy theories, in this milieu and in general, are convinced that their belief is a form of anti-capitalism. The German socialist August Bebel said at the end of the 19th century that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” We can paraphrase him by saying that conspiracy theories are in a certain sense the anti-capitalism of the hopeless. But, just like anti-Semitism, they are reactionary and heavy with danger.
The far right uses conspiracy theories like a Trojan horse in order to penetrate milieus which had until now been closed to it.
In Germany and the United States, the participation of organized militants of the far right in conspiracy theory networks is obvious and accepted. This is also the case in France. One doesn’t have to scratch very far below the anti-capitalist surface of many advocates of conspiracy theories to start seeing anti-Semitism or libertarianism, a theory from the United States that preaches the absolute predominance of the individual over the collective.
In many ways, belief in conspiracy theories meets Trotsky’s definition of German National Socialism in 1933, comparing it to a department store in a rural province: “What won’t you find here—cheap in price and in quality still lower! ... All the refuse of international political thought has gone to fill up the spiritual treasury of this new Germanic Messianism.” (Trotsky, What is National Socialism?, 1933). The same could be said of conspiracy theories: a jumble of badly digested anti-capitalism which often mixes with an assumed anti-Semitism; environmentalism, anti-industrialism; rejection of science, progress, and medicine; esoteric fancies and sometimes religion. This indigestible cocktail cannot give workers serious perspectives to change society, but it gives many the illusion of being radical.
Another recent evolution is that this current of conspiracy theories, which for a long time was confined to sterile Internet critiques, now seems to be trying to turn words into deeds. In the past few years, one could believe that conspiracy theories only led to resignation, to the extent that they denounced groups that were both all-powerful and secret, two reasons that made such groups impossible to fight against. This is no longer the case: far-right groups backing conspiracy theories in Germany tried to occupy the German parliament in Berlin last August, before the invasion of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.. In Europe for the past few months, there have been several attacks on cell phone towers, some of them linked to the rumor that 5G technology will be used for mind control. And many doctors have testified in the media that they received death threats for having criticized hydroxychloroquine or advocated vaccination.
It is not impossible that, in this period of collapse, this sort of action could attract young people in particular. And in the coming weeks, we may see groups influenced by conspiracy theories carry out attacks against vaccination centers.
In the United States, groups like these often combine fascist elements and conspiracy theories in their propaganda. (Some, for example, claim that there is a plot hatched by black people, or even government, to commit “white genocide.”) Among the groups that took part in the invasion of the Capitol, there were militants in combat fatigues from the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary organization mostly composed of veterans—its goal, according to its founder, is the struggle against the “socialist plot to install a New World Order.” There were also the Proud Boys, one of whose leaders recently paraded on television with a semi-automatic weapon in hand, wearing a t-shirt that read: “The Tree of Liberty Must Be Refreshed from Time to Time with the Blood of Commies.” Some of the people in these groups trace back to the long-standing actions carried out by religious fundamentalists against women’s clinics, some come out of the so-called “Second Amendment” defenders. And some are part of that racist current that has always existed, which might carry out violence, given the opportunity. What is different today is the more organized form and readiness to carry out actions like that of January 6, or even the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
Here, we are not yet faced with such armed groups. But all militants who defend communist ideas have been, since the start of the pandemic crisis, confronted with people influenced by conspiracy theories.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to respond to these arguments, which in general are not rational. Like religious people, true believers in conspiracy theories have a response to everything, and what is more, they are convinced that those who do not believe their theories are themselves brainwashed victims of the conspiracy.
It is absurd to believe that the capitalists created COVID-19, given that the pandemic shut down entire branches of the economy, including major sectors like the aerospace industry, airplane travel, and tourism. It is also absurd to grant the capitalists a kind of absolute power to control everything, since the main characteristic of this economic system is its lack of planning and its inability to control itself.
But using rational arguments is not enough to convince those who follow conspiracy theories, except sometimes on an individual level. The many journalists and scholars trying to educate the public in order to counter conspiracy theories certainly have good intentions, but they are waging a pointless struggle. One does not combat a social phenomenon, a political current spreading through society, with newspaper or Internet articles. And the many detailed rebuttals of the arguments in the documentary Hold-Up have not had the same influence as the film—far from it.
We are not idealists, nor are we followers of those 18th-century philosophers of the Enlightenment who thought that reason would illuminate the world. There is a material, social, and economic basis for the success of different currents of ideas. Those ideas which are unfortunately flourishing—racism, protectionism, religious fundamentalism, attacks on social “entitlement,” conspiracy theories—are the sign of a retreat in working-class consciousness. They are the fruit of the worsening of the crisis and of the absence of an influential and truly communist party. Against the rise of these different currents, we must work to reinforce class consciousness, tirelessly defend our ideas, convince workers and young people of the need to overthrow the bourgeoisie. And build a revolutionary communist party capable of attracting and giving perspectives to those among the oppressed who are revolted by this society. Conspiracy theories are just as incompatible with communism as are religion and racism.
But if social upheavals happen in the future, they will also carry along all those who today let themselves be convinced by conspiracy nonsense. Like all the other prejudices, these will truly disappear only once humanity enters another stage in its history. It is only when the masses will no longer feel themselves to be at the mercy of forces that overtake them, since they themselves will be in power, that these prejudices can really come to an end.
How many Russian workers and peasants, in 1917 and the years that followed, were full of anti-Semitic prejudices? How many workers participate in major strikes, despite their racist or religious prejudices or beliefs in conspiracy theories? It is through common fights, especially when they are victorious, that prejudices fall, and that the militants who struggle against them can gain influence.
We must certainly combat these theories today. Every communist militant tries to clear the fog from others’ minds, to teach workers “the science of our misfortune,” as the revolutionary syndicalist Fernand Pelloutier said. This means trying to convince others that the solutions are not in fantasies of conspiracy but in Marxism, in a deep understanding of the workings of the system and the perspective of collective emancipation through social revolution.
Maybe it is possible today to use the profound distrust and hatred which many workers feel toward the state in order to convince them of our ideas and to help them to clearly see the difference between conspiracy theory nonsense and revolutionary ideas.
The rise of these ideas and the influence which they are gaining among the working classes, just like the events that took place in the United States these past weeks, are a warning. In this situation, it is pointless to despair: it is more necessary than ever to work to rebuild a revolutionary communist party.