By Nicolas Guilhot* – Boston Review
Conspiracy theories like QAnon are ultimately a social problem rather than a cognitive one. We should blame politics, not the faulty reasoning of individuals.
Like picture day at school, the January 6 march on the Capitol was about wearing your best outfit. For the rank-and-file, the uniform would do—heavy-duty workwear and a MAGA cap—but the more exuberant went for superhero costumes, Roman togas, animal pelts, or ghillie suits. The optics were all the more important because not much else was at stake. In the absence of any clear agenda and organizational capacity, posing inevitably took the place of politics: it was all about showing up and showing off. Only violence saved the bravado from complete ridicule. When the clueless mob moved in to take the country back by force, all it was able to get its hands on were a stolen pulpit and other memorabilia of parliamentary procedure. The real trophies of the day were the selfies.
Blaming conspiracy theories on bad thinking—logical fallacies and faulty evidence—erases their political significance.
The star of the event was a shirtless man wearing a headdress of coyote fur with buffalo horns, his faced painted the colors of the American flag, his chest adorned with neo-pagan tattoos. A magnet for camera objectives, he was ubiquitous in the media coverage of the day: flexing his biceps on the dais of the Senate Chamber, wielding a spear, roaming the empty halls of power, inspecting a desk still strewn with the leftovers of a hasty evacuation, addressing perplexed police officers He instantly went viral and triggered analogies ranging from British pop singer Jamiroquai to Star Wars’s Chewbacca. A few days after the riot, you could buy his action figure from a maker of collectible dolls in Argentina. He inspired copycats: in April, during a protest against restaurant shutdowns in Rome, a former tanning lamps salesman who owned a pizzeria in Modena paraded in the midst of the riot, complete with horns and fur, the tricolore smeared on his face.
This icon of January 6 was Jacob Chansley, a thirty-three-year-old Trump supporter from Phoenix, Arizona, better known as the “Q Shaman” after the QAnon conspiracy theory—a theory popular with the extreme right, according to which the world is governed by a global cabal of pedophiles. Before becoming the public face of the riot, Chansley’s political theatrics and sense of attire had already earned him the attention of the local press. In 2019 and 2020 he regularly appeared at Trump rallies and occasionally could be found pacing in front of the Arizona Capitol while dispensing the wisdom of QAnon—a rambunctious performance punctuated by the beats of a shamanic drum. Following the January 6 riot and Chansley’s arrest, a few details surfaced about an otherwise unremarkable life. He lived with his mother after being evicted from his apartment. In college he had studied religion, psychology, and ceramics. There was a stint in the Navy as supply clerk apprentice on an aircraft carrier. There was a failed attempt at an acting career. And two books: an essay and a novel, both self-published and available on demand through Amazon. Written under the pen name Jacob Angeli, One Mind at a Time distills in a stream-of-consciousness style Chansley’s views about the world. It also contains a few further nuggets of biographical information. As a teenager, he saw himself as a George W. Bush patriot, unconcerned by environmental issues, supportive of the invasion of Iraq and convinced that the United States had a right to export freedom at the point of cruise missiles—until he stopped believing the mainstream media and saw the light, thanks in particular to “several boundary dissolving experiences . . . with psychedelic plants.” Since then, Chansley has considered himself a healer and a practitioner of shamanism.
Chansley’s devotion to QAnon and his participation in the January 6 riot have shaped how we understand him politically. Some commentators have pointed out that his tattoos are symbols of Norse mythology that have long been coopted by white supremacist groups. And if this may seem to clash with shamanic paraphernalia and an outfit that suggests a Fortnite hangover more than a sartorial penchant for the Waffen-SS, it is also true that the early Ku Klux Klan looked like a carnival gone wrong, complete with cosplay and kazoos, before settling for what James Thurber once described as “bedsheet regalia.”
As much as it is tempting to cast Chansley as just another fascist, however, the reductio ad Hitlerum can only go so far. There is no doubt that Chansley’s rants reflect the conspiracist views of the extreme right. “Q,” he claimed in an interview, “is about taking back the country from globalists and from communists . . . [who] have infiltrated the news. . . . the entertainment. . . . the politics.” Yet by paying attention only to what is reminiscent of the fascisms of the past, it is easy to miss what is new and distinctive—and more immediately relevant. Reporting on the events of January 6 for the New Yorker, Luke Mogelson observed that many participants who had been to previous anti-lockdown protests “saw themselves as upholding the tradition of the civil-rights movement,” some even comparing themselves to Rosa Parks. Some QAnon followers were former centrists or liberals who had become disillusioned: some had voted for Obama, others came from households of Hillary or Bernie supporters. That may not be Chansley’s case, but some of his beliefs have a progressive pedigree. In One Mind at a Time, he describes the world that will emerge once the “militarized corporate fascism” of the Deep State is defeated: prisons would be “phased out” and the death penalty would be abolished; borders would disappear and everyone would be able to move freely; there would be “plenty of money for teachers to be paid more, for health care to be covered for all citizens, for homeless people to have homes, and for no human or animal to go hungry or neglected.” Not to mention that hemp would replace wood and the bee colonies of the Amazon would be spared the evils of deforestation.
It is easy to dismiss all this as the bloviations of a confused mind—and in part, that’s what they are. But what looks like an incoherent ideological bricolage cobbling together rabid rants against globalism and ideas that seem to be lifted from Black Lives Matter (“defund the police”) or Bernie Sanders campaign material also reflects the capacity of the alt-right to absorb progressive or countercultural motives and channel them in a reactionary direction. If fascism must be invoked, it is not so much as an external attack on liberalism or democracy, but as a pathological development internal to them; not an ideology codified in the past but a movement that preempts and defuses the need for social and economic change in favor of the status quo—a movement of industrial magnates and laid-off factory workers, casino moguls and janitors, slumlords and evicted tenants, a movement that found in a real estate crook the best possible poster boy. What truly matters is not so much whether we can hear echoes of 1930s beer halls in Chansley’s pronouncements, but why a New Age eco-warrior from Arizona supporting universal health care can participate in a parody of putsch along with Neo-Nazis and soccer moms, casting himself as the global face of gonzo fascism in the twenty-first century. Part of the answer, it seems, has to do with conspiracy theories.
QAnon congealed around a prior conspiracy theory known as the “Pizzagate,” according to which Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring operating from the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria in Washington, D.C. The rumor was not put to rest when a heavily armed believer stormed the premises and found nothing but a back kitchen with staff busy working batches of dough and marinara sauce. It kept spreading in cryptic prophecies posted on bulletin boards by a mysterious contributor signing “Q,” a code for a Department of Energy security clearance. For the online community of devotees who tried to make sense of Q’s revelations, Trump was waging a secret war against the global pedophile ring entrenched in the Deep State. The final battle would take place in broad if crepuscular daylight, as Trump would direct various military agencies to round up the members of the cabal—an event called “The Storm” in QAnon’s lore.
In his classic study of the conspiracist mindset, Richard Hofstadter suggested that what distinguishes the paranoid mind is not just the belief in conspiracy theories, but the view that history itself is just one big conspiracy. For Chansley, QAnon was not only a theory about the Washington establishment but the grand scheme of American history, the ultimate frame in which every piece of the puzzle found its place, from UFOs and the assassination of JFK to recent school shootings. It is difficult to summarize Chansley’s lucubrations, which make the Indiana Jones franchise look like a dull PBS documentary. In a nutshell, the global elite indulging in human trafficking and child rape is just the outer layer of a vaster, darker plot. Its members are coopted precisely because their depravity allows the Deep State to blackmail them into submission.
Once they are considered a cognitive issue, conspiracy theories also become an individual problem rather than a social one.
But if so, what is the Deep State and what is it up to, one might ask? Following World War II, Chansley explains, the United States secretly absorbed the Nazi intelligence community, and with it advanced German technology, not all of which was of human origin. In their quest for supremacy, the Nazis had come into possession of esoteric knowledge, maybe during their secretive expeditions in Antarctica and in Asia, where they probably came into contact with alien civilizations (hence, the Foo-fighters.) Transplanted to the United States, possibly along with some extraterrestrial colleagues, Nazi scientists have continued their medical experiments on human subjects and the development of secret alien technology (hence, Roswell). This massive cover-up still goes on: under the North American landmass lies a crisscross of caves known as “Deep Underground Military Bunkers” or DUMBs, “connected via large tunnels which uses [sic] a magnetically powered levitation train that travels at mach speeds from base to base.” Some are secret or off-limits military installations, while others are camouflaged as civilian infrastructures. Brave truth-seekers have sometimes exposed the latter: Denver International Airport, for instance, is an eight-level deep DUMB—for how else could one explain the swastika-shaped layout of its runways, if not as a tongue-in-cheek giveaway of its real function as a frequent traveler hub for Deep State Nazis? Can it be a coincidence that the existence of a netherworld inhabited by non-human creatures is attested in a number of ancient civilizations? And what can possibly be going on in the vaults of that other cove of rapists, the Vatican?
Everywhere, from Comet Ping Pong to Denver’s departure lounge, people are abducted to serve as guinea pigs for experiments in genetic transformation, mind control, and preternatural powers, with a few children thrown in pasture to the pedophile elite who shields the Deep State from public scrutiny. Chansley looked straight into the darkness and did not flinch: “When I discovered that 800 thousand children and 600 thousand adults are reported missing every year in the US alone, I got Goosebumps! [sic]” The fluoridation of municipal waters and ideological brainwashing through the school system and the mainstream media ensure that the subservience of the general population, while mind control powers allow the Deep State to direct programmed killers and stage school shootings, in an effort to disarm the patriots who might be tempted to liberate the underground population of sex slaves. And then, there are the victims no one talks about: in cahoots with evil corporations such as Monsanto, the Deep State indulges in “ecocide” and slaughters not just innocent kids but million-strong herds of our bovine brethren. Where are the children? Where are the bisons?
There is a widespread tendency among scholars, information watchdogs, and public officials to view conspiracy theories as theories, statements about the world that can be true or false. As they are typically false, we treat them as flawed sociological explanations, premised on logical inconsistencies or faulty evidence. The expression “conspiracy theory” was coined by a philosopher of science, Karl Popper, to designate the incapacity to understand social events as the outcome of a many interdependent processes: one saw them instead as the expression of a single and omnipotent will. The “conspiracy theory of society,” Popper wrote, was something akin to “a primitive kind of superstition.” This has remained the prevalent view ever since: in an influential article published ten years ago, two Harvard scholars called them “crippled epistemologies.”
Once they are considered a cognitive issue, conspiracy theories also become an individual problem. While they are worthless as explanations of society, they tell us something about the people who embrace them. Even when the diagnosis is clad in the sociological garb of poor educational achievements or lower class background, what they tell us is that people do not think well: we have come to view conspiracy theories as bad information, and those who believe in them as unsophisticated information processors. Because so many observers now consider conspiracy theories the illiteracy of the Internet age, it becomes tempting to treat them as a phenomenon sui generis: the “new conspiracism,” they suggest, relates to no actual event (as opposed, say, to the assassination of JFK) and is nothing but the hot air generated by Facebook servers. For them, QAnon is a phenomenon that would not have been possible “as recently as the turn of the century.”
There is no denying that the Internet and social networks play a major role in the diffusion of conspiracy theories, but that does not mean that conspiracy theories have become dark information clouds. Nor does it mean that they are a new phenomenon: if anything, what is striking upon closer scrutiny is the sense of déjà vu.
In May 1969, a rumor spread like a wildfire through the French city of Orléans: young women mysteriously disappeared in the dressing rooms of six fashion stores in town. The victims were drugged and abducted through underground tunnels in order to be trafficked in international prostitution rings. Surely, that the owners of the incriminated stores were Jews could not be a mere coincidence. As the rumor gained momentum, the silence of the local media became suspect and eventually woven into the fabric of the conspiracy: the press was bought—fake news!—and the public authorities were in the know. On May 31, as many orléanais ran their errands along the stalls of the open-air market, small groups assembled in front of the incriminated stores in a volatile atmosphere. Were it not for the end of the market day and the beginning of a weekend focused on national elections, things may have gotten out of hand and one can easily imagine people “storming” the stores just like a QAnon follower stormed Comet Ping Pong fifty years later. What is striking about the Orléans episode is its similarities with today’s conspiracy theories: the horror hidden beneath a popular storefront, the global sex trafficking, the secret tunnels, the collusion of the media and the political elite. The only difference is that there was no Internet.
Shamanism may have disappeared or declined to the level of folklore, but the apocalyptic experience that shamans sought to channel has not.
In the immediate aftermath of the rumor, sociologist Edgar Morin traveled to Orléans with some of his colleagues in order to understand how the conspiracy theory had emerged and spread. Translated into English in 1971, Rumor in Orleans is the account of his fieldwork. It is no longer in print, and as far as I can tell, has never been mentioned in relation to QAnon. Yet reading it today reveals the extent to which our understanding of conspiracy theories has changed. Morin could not blame the Internet and had to look for different factors. He tried to understand a moral panic that triggered the resurgence of old anti-Semitic mythologies in relation to changes in the demographic structure of the city, new gender identities, the role of women in the labor market, processes of economic modernization that disrupted the social and moral fabric of the town, and a slow urban decline that saw a former medieval capital turn into an outer banlieue of Paris. In short, Morin tried to understand the historical world in which the myth had gained traction—not an error of inference, let alone a defective epistemology.
What is remarkable fifty years later is the extent to which the real world has disappeared from our discussions of conspiracy theories. We have replaced social and economic conditions with cognitive deficiencies; ancient mythologies with logical fallacies; history with atavistic biases. It is not just that we have projected the causes of conspiracism deep into the recesses of the human brain: we assume that these depths are easier to know than the world that surrounds us and more amenable to reform. The champions of debunking and the new information vigilantes are not interested in entertaining the possibility that the root cause of conspiracy theories may be located outside the mind and may require a reexamination of our economic and social arrangements. For them, the world is fine as it is; it is all a matter of bringing people in alignment with a reality which they fail to appreciate. Steven Pinker, one of the paladins of truth and rationality, suggests implementing nothing less than “debiasing programs” that would help individuals see that there is nothing wrong with the world and that everything will be okay if we let those in charge take care of it. The imperative is to adapt to a world given a free pass and avoid the temptation of meddling with it. Debunking ultimately turns out to be a defense of the status quo—not because conspiracy theories may be true, but because it uses them to further restrict the space for politics.
If one had to designate a culprit for the tendency to turn conspiracy theories into a problem of individual psychology and rationality, it would be Hofstadter. According to the glowing editorial blurbs that ushered the recent reedition of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in the prestigious Library of America collection, Hofstadter’s work on “irrationalism, demagoguery and conspiratorial thinking” was a “touchstone for making sense of events in 2020.” Such endorsements not only reflect Hofstadter’s relevance to American political culture. They also pay tribute to a historian who saw in conspiracy theories an atavistic mindset, a sort of lacustrine monster that occasionally surfaced in American history but was better understood in terms of “depth psychology.”
Paradoxically, Hofstadter brought the cachet that comes with a Pulitzer Prize to the notion that history had relatively little to teach us about what was really an archaic mentality, sometimes woken up by the disruptions of modernity but ultimately impervious to it. It should come as no surprise that his revival takes place in the day and age of the cognitive sciences and paternalistic policies of “nudging.”
Less attention has been paid to Hofstadter’s repeated allusions to the Apocalypse. The paranoid spokesman, Hofstadter wrote, sees the world “in apocalyptic terms”: he delivers “apocalyptic warnings” and “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds. . . . Like religious millenarians, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.” In the Christian tradition, the Apocalypse offers the first vision of history as a grand conspiracy culminating in a final showdown. It is a story of imposture and usurpation. In the lead role, one usually finds the Antichrist, or a version of him: an impersonator who pretends to be the Lord, he is the original “crisis actor” and “false flag”; a usurper who claims to unify mankind into the Kingdom while actually establishing his tyranny, he is the original stigma that left its mark on all subsequent globalists. From old millenarianisms to Pat Robertson’s 1991 bestseller The New World Order, he features in most conspiracy theories, at least as a role model. QAnon itself is a barely secularized variation on the Apocalypse: a story about absolute evil parading in the world under the guise of liberal dispensation and its imminent unmasking and final judgment, delivered in the traditional stormy weather. The Apocalypse, as literary critic Frank Kermode suggested, is a story that helps us make sense of the finitude of our world by projecting coherence between the end and what precedes it. It recapitulates: the end concords with past events, everything checks because everything was connected from the beginning in ways that will be revealed. The Apocalypse fulfills a deep-seated need for consonance when it comes to grappling with final visions; no wonder it is also the template for the paranoid mind. In the face of repeated disconfirmation, it has to be continually reinvented: “the image of the end,” Kermode pointed out, “can never be permanently falsified.”
Conspiracy theories seek to turn apocalyptic feelings into the building blocks of alternative cultural and political communities.
This should give pause to the champions of debunking. Not only do conspiracy theories build upon fundamental cultural patterns that are not easily uprooted, but established religionstoo are “crippled epistemologies.” The implication did not escape QAnon believers: “If Jesus were walking the Earth today, do you think you’d see him for his miracles?” one of them writes, “Or would you label him a conspiracy theorist?” Conspiracy theories are a matter of faith in what time holds in stock. The “truth” they embrace is defined by the revelation of what is to come, not logical demonstration. Not only is debunking powerless in such cases, but it is in the face of adversity and contrary evidence that faith proves itself through perseverance. Because they revolve around an apocalyptic sense of time, conspiracy theories are not just flawed ideas: they are also a specific way of being in the world.
Hofstadter was too busy refurbishing a political statement as a psychoanalytical diagnosis and equating his tepid liberalism with rationality itself to flesh out the apocalyptic metaphors he so frequently relied on. He didn’t have to: the affinities between the paranoid mind and the apocalypse were the subject of an essay by the anthropologist of religion Ernesto De Martino published the same year as “The Paranoid Style” in the Italian magazineNuovi Argomenti: “Cultural apocalypses and psychopathological apocalypses.” Nothing indicates Hofstadter and De Martino were aware of each other’s work, yet both were addressing the crisis of liberalism. Hofstadter did so with the cool confidence of one of its spokesmen, by casting its discontents as a folkloric oddity. De Martino took a longer and more critical view. He saw a world poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation, which the exhaustion of the ideologies of progress and the decline of religion left ill-equipped to deal with the possibility of catastrophe.
For De Martino, redemptive visions of the end of the world—what he called “cultural apocalypses”—were a universal phenomenon. If everything is at risk of dissolving into nothingness or is bound to end anyway, the productive impulse that sustains collective life disappears. It is only by offsetting this risk that human societies had been able to give value to their mundane existence and project themselves into history. When the early Christians of Thessaloniki convinced themselves of the imminence of the last days and lapsed into idle stupor, it took Saint Paul a couple of inspired apocalyptic dispatches to turn the paralyzing anxiety into the promise of a better world around which a Christian community could organize its life here and now. Cultural apocalypses, however, did not have to be religious, nor did they necessarily mean the end of earthly existence as such. They could also manifest themselves as “the social and political aspect of the end of a specific historical world” (De Martino was particularly interested in the millenarian movements triggered by the end of colonial rule in Africa) or a particular occurrence in the life of an individual or a community. At each of these junctures, religious ceremonies, secular rituals, progressive or revolutionary ideologies mitigated the idea of a final collapse and disclosed anew the possibility of a collective and meaningful existence. Apocalyptic cultures allowed people to keep calm and carry on.
In the absence of these cultural mediations, however, apocalyptic fears take a psychopathological turn: the collapse of one’s world becomes a desolate and private experience, and the sense of loss is experienced outside any cultural community. One is overwhelmed by feelings of estrangement and passivity. The familiar becomes uncanny and the world ceases to be the solid ground in which the self is rooted: it no longer consistsin stable and objective relations between things but seems to dissolveinto their occult connections. As if walking through a booby-trapped house, one feels “at the center of a web of diffuse threats, hostile forces, obscure conspiratorial plots spun at one’s expense.” The psychopathological apocalypse is the ultimate form of status anxiety—indeed what Hofstadter saw as the psychological underpinning of the paranoid mind. There was, however, a major difference: where Hofstadter saw a solipsistic mindset, De Martino saw the result of a cultural failure.
In an earlier book, De Martino had written about the role shamans played in averting these apocalypses. His great intuition was that the world we take for granted as the stable background of our lives is not a given but a historical and cultural conquest, on which our sense of autonomy is dependent. In primitive societies, it had to be wrested from an environment rife with invisible spirits and mythical forces, to which a fledgling self could easily surrender. Lest it annihilated the individual and threatened the entire community—as with the Thessalonians— this risk had to be mitigated. Shamans did not entirely ward off the apocalyptic dissolution of the self and of the world, but they took it as the starting point of their rituals in order to transform its meaning. Instead of passively succumbing to it, they provoked it in order to control the occult forces of their cosmogonies. By taming invisible spirits and bringing them under their sway, they recovered for the individual or the community “the world that [was]about to be lost.”The psychopathological risk was averted and the apocalyptic experience safely encased into the cultural fabric of a community. Saint Paul was nothing but the shaman of early Christianity.
Written in 2018 under the pseudonym Loan Wolf, Will & Power: Inside the Living Library is Chansley’s novel. It is also the story of a world lost and recovered. Like Chansley’s other volume, it is an exacting reading that defies summary. The main character, who is Chansley’s alter ego, goes on a camping retreat after losing his girlfriend and his job in a gardening store. Deep into the woods, he befriends a Sasquash-like creature from another planet who initiates him to an ancient wisdom called “Shama” and teaches him to harness the powers of the earth magnetic field and the vast universe of invisible plant and animal spirits inhabiting the world. Although they are available to all humans, the powers of shamanism have been kept secret and perverted to serve the designs of the “Dark Lords,” an evil race of extraterrestrial colonizers who hide under a human appearance.
There is no need to belabor the embarrassing details of the novel’s plot, delivered in the colloquial style of a text message and the emotional range of an emoji set. The belief in animal magnetism is anything but new, and ever since it originated in the eighteenth century with Franz Mesmer, it has been associated with ideas of action at a distance and, often, conspiracy theories. But Chansley gives these old themes a contemporary, tech-friendly twist: these invisible flows of energy become the “Life-Net,” through which plants and creatures exchange “all sorts of information.” Local events are “loaded” on this Life-Net and accessible from anywhere once the newly initiated shaman logs into it. The world is indeed a “living library” where every creature, every individual being is connected to everything else: a dense forest of hyperlinks in which one can “surf” indefinitely (in an early scene, the main character hovers above the land on a magnetic pod).
The apocalyptic world of the paranoid, De Martino suggested, is characterized by an “excess of meaning,” a significance overload that makes everything not quite what it seems to be. Things are elusive and mysterious, their connections are obscure, and the encounter with reality is endlessly postponed. Both of Chansley’s books deal with a world so saturated with meaning that it bursts at the seams. In his essay it is indeed a disorienting universe, in which no active life is possible: one can only chase vanishing points and feel disempowered, prey to the threatening forces of the Deep State and dispossessed of one’s freedom. In his tale of shamanism, however, the experience of these infinite layers of meaning is a liberating one. What used to be a mysterious and elusive web of occult connections becomes a boundless expansion of individual powers. The uncanny feeling that “nothing is exactly what it seems to be” becomes the empowering awareness that “everything is connected.” Like a glove, the world of conspiracy theory has been turned inside out. By surrendering to the invisible forces of the universe in order to master them, the Q Shaman too recovers the lost world of human freedom.
One could argue that delusions of self-aggrandizement are a classic symptom of persecution paranoia; they are. From this vantage, Chansley’s phony shamanism is risible. His noisy antics and self-conscious accoutrement are as culturally genuine as Venetian waterways in Las Vegas. His psychotropic experiences are private trips that have no connection to any meaningful traditions. And yet, his shamanic persona captures something fundamental about conspiracy theories that psychological considerations—let alone disquisitions about truth or rationality—fail to see. It seeks to exorcize the paralyzing grip of apocalyptic anxieties and to redeem the world of the paranoid mind. It adumbrates what De Martino called a cultural apocalypse. The QShaman reflects something that permeates and possibly defines QAnon and all the contemporary movements capitalizing on conspiratorial thinking: by gaining traction, conspiracy theories avert the fall into individual paranoia and seek to turn apocalyptic feelings into the building blocks of alternative cultural and political communities.
Debunking is a distraction. Instead, we should address the dearth of political vision on which conspiracism feeds.
Shamanism may have disappeared or declined to the level of folklore, but the apocalyptic experience that shamans sought to channel has not. De Martino suggested that in modern societies, this “existential drama” could manifest itself in historical situations of “particular suffering and deprivation,” such as wars or famines, that placed the individual under unsustainable duress. If so, it is certainly the defining experience of our time: the climate meltdown and its wake of extinctions, the destruction of continent-wide ecosystems, the uprooting of entire communities fleeing the devastations of infinite wars or the irreversible degradation of their habitat, a global pandemic that ravages the most vulnerable, unprecedented social and economic inequalities that mean that for millions of people the end of the world may be the end of the month. Never before has our existence as individuals and as a species felt so precarious. Never has our world seem so fragile. Our capacity to project ourselves in the future has shrunk dramatically. Even uplifting spatial feats that used to be seen as giant leaps for mankind now feel like evacuation drills for the first class deck, as billionaires fizz into orbit in their private escape capsules. It is minutes to midnight, we are told.
Yet it is also business as usual. One looks in vain for the cultural and political resources that would help us see through the apocalyptic haze the possibility of a new beginning, and a better one. In this schizophrenic situation, cognitive dissonance can only become a norm. In his account of the Orléans conspiracy theory, Morin pointed out that one of the factors allowing for dangerous mythologies to hold sway over an entire city was “under-politization.” The proliferation of conspiracy theories reflects the dismal poverty of a political culture that fails millions of individuals confronted with the loss of their world. Because they are a desperate and impoverished attempt at making sense of the catastrophic dimensions of the present when the available cultural resources fail to do so, conspiracy theories are a direct outgrowth of this political vacuum. A fine observer, Morin also impugned “the incapacity of the intelligentsia to address these problems.”
Not much has changed: it is only from a privileged position in which the certainty of their world is a given that today’s pundits can consider conspiracy theories as cognitive deficiencies that need to be corrected and remain deaf to the existential anxiety they express. If we are concerned about the spread of conspiracy theories, we should realize that debunking is a distraction, a Whac-A-Mole game for fact-checkers and information watchdogs. Instead, we should address the dearth of political vision on which conspiracism feeds. Politics is fundamentally about time, and it fails when it looks like the bureaucracy of the last days. Postponing the end of the world has always been the conservative justification for the maintenance of order and the preservation of the status quo. The mindless accelerationism that apparently constitutes its alternative today only represents a different strategy for achieving the same goals. Instead, we need to recover a political capacity to throw bridges across a cataclysmic present. This can only start with reconstructing the vision of a common world and an inclusive future for all those who are losing theirs.
Short of this, conspiracy theories will continue to thrive and occupy the place once taken by ideologies. It is already clear that the politicians tempted to harness them are playing the sorcerer’s apprentice—indeed, the shaman’s apprentice. And as we all know, their time is the midnight hour.
*Full-time Professor of Intellectual History in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute. Working languages: French, Bulgarian, English, Italian, Russian, German