I hope that the Illuminati exists. At least that would mean that someone has their hands on the wheel of the world. A shadowy cabal that may be running a pedophile ring out of pizza parlors nationwide, but at the same time has steadily and reliably increased the average standard of living in the country for the last 200 years? It could be worse. I can see the appeal of conspiracy theories. Having someone to blame is comforting and, honestly, far more exciting. It sets up a dynamic of opposition, a grand narrative. We’re the heroes, they’re the baddies just waiting to get taken down in spectacular fashion.
In my opinion the reality is far more bleak. No one knows what they’re doing, powerful people are the same bundles of instincts just with more resources at their disposal. They’re just shooting wildly into the dark hoping that something sticks, all the while adhering to the same self-preservatory impulses as the rest of us. They do the same risk assessments that we all do, just with higher stakes. The same way that you or I may go about managing our finances or planning our day, powerful people go about building the world around us. Of course there’s greed and corruption, people can be shitty and selfish.
The thing that bugs me about conspiratorial minded people is the arrogance they tend to have. To them, everyone is just a sheep with the wool over their eyes and they’re the ones who have figured it all out. If everyone would just follow them down the rabbit hole and do some simple Google searches, they would all arrive at the same convenient truth. I find the whole thing incredibly cynical.
But there’s a kind of inevitability to conspiracy theories. Jean-Paul Satre wrote on the Anti-Semite:
“It is not unusual for people to elect to live a life of passion rather than of reason. But ordinarily they love the objects of passion: women, glory, power, money. Since the anti-Semite has chosen hate, we are forced to conclude that it is the state of passion that he loves.”
Simply put, the anti-Semite relishes not in the hate of the Jew but rather in the love of their own hate. The Jew is immaterial, a convenient scapegoat. So too are the thoughts of the conspiracy theorist. They love the idea of an immaterial, all encompassing conspiracy. This is a passion based partly in insecurity, in a lack of control, but also partly in the aforementioned arrogance. To be correct, to be in the know, to be aware of something that everyone else doesn’t. They love the fact that they are above everyone else. It doesn’t matter if that takes the form of a faked moon landing or a flat-earth or fluoride in the water turning the frogs gay. As with the anti-Semite, the actual conspiracy is secondary.
We can see this fairly empirically in the form of Youtube data. Flat-earth Youtube channels had a spike in the early 2010’s consistently pulling off 6-digit viewing numbers every video, but viewership has slowly tapered off in the last half decade**. Why? The reason is simply because the flat-earth is no longer trendy. It’s attention has been swallowed up by more all-encompassing conspiracies. So the population migrated elsewhere, largely to QAnon in 2017 and 2018. And while Youtube’s algorithmic changes contributed to flat-earth’s decline, those changes were rolled out largely in 2018 after flat-earth had been declining for several years.
Conspiracies have always relied on a kind of ideological syncretism, where a theorist will merge different beliefs and different contexts in order to make more sense of the whole. This will often happen with theories that have a religious flavor to them. Conspiracy theorists will take common religious tropes from any number of varying beliefs and relate them. Like a Dan Brown novel: the Mona Lisa is related to the Egyptians somehow because they both have pictures of a smiling woman.
It encourages a kind of confirmation bias. And since practically all of these ideas are modular, anything that could be incorporated into the conspiracy suddenly appears to fit and works to confirm everything that came before. Sometimes even rebuttals can fall into this trap. “People are talking about the flat-earth and then suddenly a bunch of anti-flat-earth documentaries come out on major platforms, seems fishy.”
That’s the role that Q-Anon currently plays, it’s an aggregate of all these other conspiracies whose legs may have been too weak to stand alone, but together are strong. They just needed a way to incorporate them all together. Q-Anon also creates a grand narrative, an extremely non-committal narrative at that. Trump is fighting the pedos, all you need to do is believe. There’s no revolution, there’s no monetary investment, no hard work to be done. Just belief and maybe the click of a share button or hashtag.
In the same essay Satre tells a story of a French colleague who had failed his comprehensive exams while another classmate, a Jew, had passed. While the Frenchman had admitted he had not studied for the exam he also had exclaimed that no Jew could know French poetry better than an actual Frenchman.
“Far from his experience producing his idea of the Jew, it was the latter that explained his experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”
Let’s extrapolate these assumptions: we can say that if the conspiracy is irrelevant, then conspiracy theorists' beliefs about the world presuppose whatever conspiracy they claim to believe in. The nature of the world is already made up in their minds, the conspiracies that they choose to follow only confirm their attitudes. The theorist believes that there is something systemically wrong with the world, economically, socially, culturally, politically. And I think we can all agree that there’s a good argument for that being the case. However, rather than approaching that problem through the system itself conspiracy theorists instead conclude that there must be external factors, whether those forces are aliens walking among us or the Illuminati.
In this way, the presupposition of conspiratorial thinking is more in line with Fascist ideology. Historian Alexander De Grand notes on fascism that:
“Their [fascist] views were expressed as a radical repudiation of the liberal and parliamentary political order that took the form of anti-materialism and the search for new spiritual values, anti-socialism, appreciation of the irrational forces in modern society and glorification of instinct and violence in political life.”
Facism throws out logic and fact, and makes instead an appeal to emotion, to subconsciously held beliefs. It’s individualist, anti-intellectual, and ideologically violent. Similar to conspiracies, ethno-fascist ideology has undergone its own kind of syncretism. Hitler’s Nazis intended a German ethnostate, only Germanic peoples. But the Nazis of today are inclusive by comparison, they just designate “White”. People that would’ve been purged by old Nazi standards are now the ingroup. This syncretism is a modern invention to cope with the fact that modern American Nazis are likely an amalgamation of European descent. Pure bloodlines in our assimilated, globalized world are a myth.
There are real issues in the world, but more often than not they lie in the problems with systems rather than with individuals. Which makes those problems much harder to fix and more importantly much harder to motivate people to care about. Even when the problem does lie with individuals I think that these kinds of conspiracies are reductive and disruptful to actual critiques. For example, Bill Gates has a huge target on his back in the conspiracy-verse. As the world’s richest man it only makes sense that he would be plotting something nefarious. Concealing the fact he’s actually a reptilian humanoid looking to pump the human race full of nano-machine filled vaccines in some kind of sick self-basting plan he has before he devours us all. The reality is that he’s a billionaire with his own set of preconceived biases about how the world should be run and so proceeds to use his money towards those ends in, at best, inefficient ways, and at worst, reductive ways.
Gates has pumped billions into fighting Polio, a noble cause. But he continues to do so year after year despite the fact that Polio has been virtually eliminated, in no small part due to Gates’ work (. But that money could be used to focus on a myriad of other diseases. Polio vaccinations can often come at the cost of other more pertinent vaccinations (McGoey 158). Gates is also able to leverage his massive financial strength to affect vaccine patent laws, of which he keeps very stringent. This fits well into his past philosophy, as the way he made his vast fortune was largely on the back of strong intellectual property rights, so of course we’re going to do it his way; the same backbreaking way that Gates successfully built Microsoft. There’s lots of reasons to dislike and distrust this type of philanthrocapitalism, but the conspiracy theories detract from the legitimate concerns.
Conspiracies often prey upon people in distress, people that are looking for answers. Sometimes literal distress, economically or socially; other times philosophical or existential distress. This distress must manifest into something that is more concrete. Sometimes it manifests in predictable, understandable ways: class conflicts, gender conflict and racial conflict. Other times it manifests itself in less productive, but nevertheless understandable ways: violence and self destruction. But sometimes people get sucked down the rabbithole of mistrust, inventing unsubstantiated reasons for their distress. It’s a distrust of everything, all systems, all institutions.
Weirdly, I think the most reasonable rejection of conspiracy theories lies in the mundane. In the statistical truth that people are blabbermouths. In 2016 David Robert Grimes published a paper, “On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs” which utilizes statistics to calculate how long it would take for a conspiracy to leak. Popular ones like the moon landing hoax would take approximately 3 years and 8 months, suppressed cancer cure 3 years 3 months and so on. All this due mostly to the fact that creating and distributing such ideas would involve a lot of people. If there’s a secret Illuminati base underneath Denver International Airport, who cleans the bathrooms there? Even evil bases have to have janitors. Who does IT? George Soros is over 90 years old. He certainly doesn’t know how to set up a wifi connection. Someone has to cater for the debaucherous bacchanals of the elite and if I know one thing about the food industry it’s that word gets out.
Surely the evil shadowy counsel would throw a pizza party after they establish the New World Government. To be honest, if you can’t do that then what’s even the point?