Sturgeon loyalists have begun alleging a state conspiracy to decapitate the nationalist movement and fend-off independence. But they aren’t alone – around the world conspiracy theories are resurgent, and the political centre is the most paranoid of all, argues David Jamieson.
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The conspiracy theory has become the final refuge of the Sturgeon loyalist. In the heyday of SNP hegemony nationalist Twitter and Facebook became something of a fixation for Scottish journalists and politicians. ‘Cybernat’ became a term of abuse, and roving bands of clicktivists were discussed in urgent tones, as a real moral crisis in Scottish society. Departing Labour MPs and BBC journalists alike depicted them as an unacceptable workplace hazard – like asbestos – to be phased out somehow.
Today, a trawl through what remains of nationalist social media is a sorry business. While erstwhile ‘opinion formers’ and the like are changing their tune, many old stalwarts are falling silent or grasping desperately for any hope. By reflex, a common solace is the conspiracy theory. Police Scotland, it is claimed, are engaged in a British state conspiracy to decapitate the nationalist movement, and end the threat of Scottish secession.
There’s lots wrong with this claim, starting with the obvious reality that neither the former nor current SNP leadership represent any kind of threat of Scottish independence. But what interests me here is the reflex motion – the very fact that for practically all political traditions, the conspiracy theory has become a regular, almost obsessive feature of ideology. From the Jan 6 Trumpists storming the Capitol, to the ‘Blue Anon’ conspiracy theorists of the US Democratic Party and CNN insisting on a global Russian conspiracy to elect Donald Trump, conspiracy theory has broken into and colonised the political centre in the heartlands of the world system.
It’s travelled a long way since the grainy 9/11 conspiracy theory videos that populated the early years of YouTube. In Europe, the claim of ‘great replacements’ has become an common trope on positions anywhere to the right of the old, fading centrist parties. The Russia scare and, increasingly, a new ‘Yellow Peril’ panic are just as ubiquitous on the centre and centre left. But more prosaically, almost all political scandals now incite claims of conspiracy.
Let’s park the conspiracy theory label for a moment. It’s loathed by the conspiracy-minded themselves as derogatory, and it comes with its own historical baggage (created to label alternative theories for the Kennedy assassination). As an aside, the phrase has been done an injustice by one of the most infuriating turns of US English. It is now more common to refer to conspiracy theories as ‘conspiracies’. Thanks for this new butchery cousins.
It’s a strange kind of accusation as well. Conspiracies – including secret ones, do of course take place in public life. Indeed, they very commonly take place within police forces. Anyone who knows the history of policing knows that these bodies of armed agents, awarded the famous ‘monopoly on legitimate violence’, and sent to confront black-marketeers, very often end up monopolising the markets in drugs, pornography, and guns they are supposed to be suppressing. When they push their right to violence to the point of sadism and murder, cover-up has been the rule, not the exception. Few today would deny this.
Having established that conspiracies are a very real force in the world, and that this is widely acknowledged, we must ask what separates the healthy acceptance of these realities from the derangement I’ll call conspiracism. It’s all a matter of how much emphasis one places, in the overall scheme of things, on the problem of unofficial or unaccountable networks, operating ultra vires.
That last point is important – the imagined enemy of the conspiracist is the secret conspiracy. The conspiracy that isn’t supposed to be happening and has no sanction from official authorities.
This is the strange paradox of conspiracism and its place in modern culture. The world of power is quite open about the nature of its hierarchical and elite structure. Our government is a hand-picked cabinet. A privy council upholds the constitution. The House of Lords is unelected. The City of London is governed by a shadowy guild. Neither military chiefs nor spy masters nor the boards of powerful corporations are subject to election, and they are all busy conspiring, all the time.
And yet the conspiracist and the anti-conspiracist alike turn their face from these official, plain sight conspiracies. The anti-conspiracist grants that these conspiracies are real, but they are necessary, even inevitable. Moreover, the anti-conspiracist sees no relationship between the prevalence of real elite conspiracies and the widespread suspicion that there are further elite conspiracies which are not so public.
If the conspiracist is even more vehement in his failure of concern for the official conspiracy, it is because it is a threat to the power and meaning of his supposed secret conspiracy. It’s fair to ask the conspiracist who complains of a ‘Great Reset’ or an ‘Illuminati’ – ‘what could be worse than what is admitted to us every day’?
Do we need a secret cabal of eugenicists or a round table of ancient bloodlines when we already have the everyday horrors of the official conspiracy – the arms companies, the Pentagon, the capitalist conspiracy that pumps pollution into the air and human beings into factories to sell their labour at cut price? Why invent a hidden evil when there’s a proud evil, with brutalities beyond human reckoning, before our eyes?
My suspicion is, there’s a relationship between the failure, of all factions, to come to terms with the real, public, and sanctified conspiracy of power, and the imagined, hidden, ultra vires conspiracy – the puppeteers behind the façade of puppetry.
In the past, because the public conspiracy of capitalists, state management and coercive institutions was hegemonic, wielding not only force but public acceptance and even support, anti-elitist sentiment transferred, or projected, into a shadow image of the same power.
This conspiracism emerged with modernity, and with each upheaval created by the development of capitalist relations, it experienced a surge in mass sentiment. Some of the most dangerous manifestations of conspiracism can be associated with exact phenomena. These include the emergence of the workers movement in the Russian Empire in the run-up to the revolution of the 1905, inspiring the publication of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1903.
The Dreyfus Affair issued from growing tensions between France and Germany, as colonialism rebounded on Europe. The Great Depression helped bring anti-semitic conspiracism to power in Germany.
The intertwining of anti-semitism in this period with conspiracism has led many to make a cardinal error – to assume that all manifestations of conspiracism are carrying the germ of anti-semitism, or being just re-badged anti-semitism. It’s a mistake that George Monbiot makes on an almost weekly basis. For him, every argument exalting agriculture over synthetic production is a dangerous Volkish movement. For many others, criticism of banks and finance, or nostalgia for industries that produced physical more than intangible goods, or arguments for national rather than transnational political governance – all are redolent of racialist ideas from the turn of the last century.
But the impetus for conspiracism – fear of the permanent revolution of capitalism, and the redirected paranoia it unleashed – predated and conditioned modern anti-semitism. The squalid pamphleteers of the reactionary press understood this at the time, consciously moving away from slogans about ‘Christ killers’ to appeal to the growing terror in the middle and working classes about finance, unemployment, unfair competition and war. This is the ‘socialism of fools’ August Bebel referred to – the conscious attempt by the reactionary right to displace anger at capitalism onto a racial minority.
It remains for us to ask why conspiracism has become so mainstream again today. I think to understand thia new conspiracism, and the purchase it has gained all over the world, we need to see it as another manifestation of the void that has opened between the population and elites. 2008 saw the return of crank money theories. The return of war to Europe has seen an liberal mania over supposed Russian influence. The impact of global production on the environment, and the attempt by elites to control the fallout, have prompted fears of a global scheme to deprive people of what little property they possess.
The permanent revolution of capital continues, but now without the economic growth and improvements in living standards that characterised some other periods in its history. Instead we have falling expectations, an increasing sense of precarity, and foreboding about the future. These moods cannot be projected through a political system which is more closed to popular energies than perhaps any time since the majority adult franchise was established. Paranoia is not an entirely irrational response to a situation of this kind.
Scottish and world politics really is increasingly dominated by small, closed cliques, above and apart from the populations they are supposed to serve. So know that when you hear complaints about 5G, plandemics, ’20 minute cities’ and MI5 operations against the former First Minister, you are hearing the muffled, confused anger of people who have increasingly given up on a democracy that has given up on them.