In the era of coronavirus trutherism and QAnon, with more and more people willing to believe bizarre lies about how the world operates, it’s worth considering the root cause of the conspiracy theories that inspire this thinking.
Marcus Gilroy-Ware’s After The Fact: The Truth About Fake News, published this week by Repeater books, does exactly that. The book begins with a whistle-stop history of free-market capitalism in the latter half of the 20th century, providing a wide-ranging but succinct explanation of how we’ve arrived at the situation we’re in today, where “the pursuit of profit and the private accumulation of wealth have been made into the supreme and dominant principles of society, far beyond the capitalism of old”.
Lots of books about “fake news” situate the root of the problem in tech companies, and the specifics of how their technologies function. This stance often implies that the problem of misinformation could be resolved simply through Facebook tinkering with how its platform operates.
After the Fact avoids this simplistic analysis, instead looking for an explanation in the economic realities and impacts of capitalism. I found it expansive, interesting and, for a book that engages with some pretty complex ideas, surprisingly accessible. If you wanted to understand how capitalism operates today, particularly at an ideological level, it would be a good place to start. But I was specifically interested in one of the book’s central ideas, which is that free-market capitalism helps to create and perpetuate conspiracy theories.
We really are, in tangible and material ways, being conspired against. Gilroy-Ware gives some examples of past real-life conspiracies, such as the plastics industry pushing “plastic recycling, including in schools, as a means to legitimise the continued use of plastics, despite full knowledge of the ecological dangers this presents”. MI6, meanwhile, “provided intelligence to assist the CIA kidnapping or ‘rendition’ in 2004 of two Libyan rebel leaders” and handed them over to Colonel Gaddafi, as a way to sweeten a petroleum trade deal.
There are a number of similarly shocking examples in the book – but the idea that elite corruption takes place is hardly far-fetched. The problem is that examples like this often get far less traction than their wackier counterparts. Verifiably true conspiracies are less popular than conspiracy theories. Why is this the case?
“To understand what the real conspiracies even are, you have to come to an opinion about what power looks like in this era,” explains Gilroy-Ware. “And I think there are a lot of gaps in our literacy about what power looks like. We tend to imagine it in a very fanciful and distorted way. There’s always a [belief] that power and capital are one and the same. If you want to make theories about the ways that you are being conspired against, you need to address the structures of capital as they exist in the world. Unfortunately, that is not an automatic starting point.”
“I think the key thing,” he continues, “is that there’s a set of structural relations in place which produce suspicion. This is because these power relations are open to abuse, and are abused. This abuse of power – which is often conspiratorial, insofar as it entails a concealment of certain information about its operation – creates a society in which there will always be a conspiratorial mindset. We have to remember that the origins of conspiracy theories lie in the fact that people are simultaneously being conspired against and not being given access to the skills or information they need in order to make sense of their actual circumstances.”
The more arcane conspiracy theories, in the vein of QAnon (the popular but widely discredited belief that Donald Trump is fighting a global cabal of paedophiles), can actually function in the interests of the wealthy and powerful. If you were a member of the Hollywood elite who was engaged in criminal sexual behaviour, say, you might even welcome the bizarre theories of QAnon.
As Gilroy-Ware explains, “It creates a narrative that is so patently ridiculous that most reasonable people won’t believe it. This might help you if you want your tracks to be covered, if you’re producing products that you know will give people cancer, or manufacturing drugs that are going to drive millions of people into addiction. Real conspiracies are normally more boring, whereas these ‘exciting’ conspiracy theories tend to help distract people away from the gritty reality of what conspiratorial capitalism actually looks like.”
Another key argument in After the Fact is the idea that capitalism’s co-opting of social justice movements (think brands posting black squares on Instagram in solidarity with Black Lives Matter) can help fuel conspiracism, as well as the racism and misogyny which often play a role in conspiratorial thinking.
“There’s various ways that conspiracy theories take on a tone that's racist or misogynist. This can occur in relation to cooption,” says Gilroy-Ware. “When these powerful forms of capital co-opt social justice movements, and use them as a kind of camouflage, it can turn people who are already suspicious of powerful institutions against these movements, because they associate them with the power they think they're up against.”
The heart of what’s going here is a divergence between free-market capitalism and traditional conservatism, which used to share a far stronger alliance. These days, high-profile companies will support just about any social movement if they think that doing so will be good for their bottom line. Neoliberalism prioritises profit above any kind of morality, unlike both the left and the right. It’s understandable that many on the traditional “family, church and nation” side of the right feel betrayed by this – and it’s that anger that is crucial to the spread of conspiracy theories.
“There was an alliance for a while between the middle-classes and conservatives in the right-wing, that enabled a particular kind of world order to be built around ideas of entrepreneurialism and hard work – a sort of folksy capitalist fairytale,” says Gilroy-Ware. “Particularly at a time when the bad guys in the world were the communists, the capitalists, in an economic sense, and the conservatives, in the traditional right-wing sense, could forge an alliance. Over time, neoliberalism has undone that alliance, as it abolished any forms of value that were not compatible with markets and competition, including conservative values. While the left has had 150 years to get used to the idea that capitalism will always betray when something more valuable comes along, this has been a much more recent realisation for conservatives.”
“That's a really important process for us to understand,” he continues. “When you see investment banks turning their logos into a rainbow on Pride weekend, for instance, you realise that the people who own these banks will make an alliance with anyone who will make their position stronger. They'll use left-wing language, gay rights, civil rights in the United States, and women's rights. All of these were hard-fought struggles which were not supported by capitalist elites or the right-wing at all at the time.”
When capitalism does co-opt these causes, the anger of right-wing conspiracists who may already have racist, misogynist or homophobic leanings gets turned even further in those directions.
You’d struggle to find a better example of conspiracism in action than the anti-concession speech Donald Trump gave last Saturday night, in which he refused to accept he was losing and blamed the presidential election results entirely on voter fraud. It was all there: the anger, the lack of evidence, the fear that something is going to be taken away.
“It will fuel certain kinds of political conspiracism in America for years to come,” says Gilroy-Ware, “and that’s partly because QAnon is based around Trump as a sort of messiah figure. He has enormous influence over those people, even if he doesn’t continue to have sway over the general population. So with what he said on Saturday, he’s really charging the batteries for the next few years. I don’t just think it will be rocky, I think blood will be shed. But this has been building since John McCain and Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, at least. I don’t think Trump is the beginning of it, and he won’t be the end either.”
So how do we tackle this kind of conspiracism? Should we be taking to social media to argue with strangers and our weird cousins?
“My view is that the left needs to be playing a long game,” says Gilroy-Ware. “And I don't think getting into arguments with people on Twitter, or any other forum, is particularly productive. I think the left can be a voice of reason in talking about the problems we face, but often we frame it like, ‘We have all the answers, and if you don't listen to us, you're fucked.’ This might be true. But we have to do better in how we deliver the message. I don’t even want to have the argument, really, I want to make the world fairer, and to lessen the kinds of anger and resentment and bitterness we’re seeing.”