The interests of the elite are in full view, argues David Jamieson. And the Scottish Government is determined to declare its allegiances proudly.
Who wields power, and how? It is a question that has gripped opinion during the pandemic. In one sense this is strange, given that states are exerting more reach into our lives than perhaps any time since the second world war.
Yet, as in wartime mobilisations, the regimes constructed to manage the public are accompanied by a powerful blast of ideology; stressing national solidarity, a unity of interest, a harmony of ruler and ruled. Ideology is not propaganda. It is a relationship between those with power and those without, and one that depends upon the suspension of disbelief. It typically thrives on the resulting contradictions.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has said the nation should “look seriously at social and economic reform” in the aftermath of the pandemic. The committee the Scottish Government has appointed to guide reconstruction could not be more representative of established power.
Its ultra-elite make-up has been picked through in fine detail elsewhere, but for the sake of emphasis we can just recount that it is headed by Benny Higgins, the chair of the Buccleuch estates, and includes Robert Smith of the Smith Commission, Anton Muscatelli representing the wildly commercialised Scottish university sector, and a clutch of other polluters, speculators, fixers and ruling ideologues.
Even those who have followed the prodigious programme of committee construction in Scotland in recent years (about one a week has emerged from St Andrews’ House or thereabouts since Sturgeon became first minister) are left slack-jawed by its blatant class character.
But few have drawn what seems an obvious connection with a fascination of the lockdown era – the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the disease, and the measures introduced to try and limit its impact on the social order. This has become an item of major concern for politicians and pundits. Media workers have been galvanised by the catastrophic decline in newspaper circulation, to link demands to ‘buy a paper’ with a furious denunciation of online cranks and ‘fake news’ farms (real and imagined). In the panic the nexus of technological shift, corporate cannibalisation and disaggregated public trust which drives the industrial crisis has been largely eclipsed.
The Masonic Lodge might once have appealed to these discombobulated elements, just as in past times it cohered town dwelling artisans buffeted by the dangerous transition to the modern era, or, in the late twentieth century, Scottish Protestant workers hostile to the trade unions, and small shop keepers intimidated by the arrival of local supermarkets.
The perfunctory and rather comical reality of Masonic club life is, of course, not what makes it famous. Rather it is the body of outlandish theories which imagine the secret society as the scaffolding for a global ‘Illuminati’ of patriarchs and bloodlines.
Today in Scotland, along with much other associational life, the influence of the lodge (though still a real elite network) has declined. At one point or several, it was probably instrumental to developments. But it was never a generalised, complete, or indeed global influence.
At the height of the institution, the conspiracy theory was not as strong as it is today. But then, class politics was very much stronger.
The decades since 2001 have seen a significant conspiracist revival. Its growing strength has most typically be associated with end-of-history malaise, or the psychological pressures exerted by globalisation and the modern world. How many times have you heard that people seek out conspiracy theories to shelter from complexity? What a comforting notion that must be for those who embrace the dubious complexities of the liberal world view, where injustice and vast inequality exist because some are naughty in an essentially free and formally coherent order.
How can it not be admitted, as at least partial explanation, that a worldview positing small numbers of elites making backroom decisions that affect the lives of millions, is rather inevitable in a society where small numbers of elites make backroom decisions that impact the lives of millions. Is it really such an outlandish belief that the latest ‘must have’ consumer commodity, 5G, will make us sick, when every such iconic commodity for a century and a half – from cigarettes to fast food, carbonated drinks to alcohol and cars – have made us sick?
This isn’t to say the conspiracist is right. But what they have wrong, is the same thing that the dominant thinkers and attitudes of our society have wrong. Crack nine in ten history books, and you will find a view of social development as the story of individual (usually) men. For the fantasists in the Tory newspaper praetorian guard, who enthuse the coronavirus has been bested by sheer British brilliance, it is the Prime Minister who has dealt the lethal blows, even as he lay in a hospital bed. The mystical belief in individual agency is a constant feature of official ideological life. Why shouldn’t the conspiracist share it?
How do we answer this worldview? By doing precisely what the new anti-conspiracy theory cadets will not, at least in any committed way; first accept, and then take exception to, the real hierarchies which dominate the system. And, secondly, in light of the Scottish Government’s committee for economic recovery, to recognise the cruel reality of the conspiracy theory. It reflects not defiance towards the rich and powerful, but deference. Why invent a secret committee of elite interests, and ignore the official committee of elite interests created in front of your face, and widely publicised?
The belief in the secret conspiracy, the secret programme for social engineering, the secret pursuit of minority interest, is a way to avoid confrontation, psychological and actual, with a real and evident power imbalance, which you do not believe you can beat and from which, in any case, you are not entirely prepared to declare independence. Most 14 year-olds don’t get on very well with their parents. But most also don’t leave home. Instead they console themselves with a twisted version of their keepers.
Such a relationship doesn’t require uniform secrecy, and sometimes it needs reinforcement by arrogant public display. Why waste class hegemony by hiding it behind silly handshakes?
In Scotland, this Lodgeless Masonry has another arsenal. The routine policy of the Scottish Government in these affairs is to appeal to big business (and with it, much important unionist) sentiment, and to expect the base to ignore or explain-away. This is what ‘national unity’ always is: a compact between class elements who can choose and must be appeased, and those who are expected to take what they are given. How many times the performance can be repeated before it cracks the remaining fibres of patience remains to be seen.
But it’s certainly wearing the cloth thin by now. A secondary failure of the conspiracist mindset is one that refuses, in a huff, the potential of successful resistance to ruling designs.
In the meantime, we should endeavour to focus rather more anger on the conspiracy to make us pay for the economic fallout of the pandemic, and rather less on the faint-hearted conspiracy theorist.
Image: Brian Mayne