Coronavirus in the age of conspiracy theory

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Where Facebook was once a place people congregated to post and exchange benign pictures of their pets, evening meals, deceased relatives, holiday snaps and nights out, it has now become a cesspit of outlandish conspiracy theories on everything from chemtrails, 9/11, climate change, mass shootings, vaccines, and so on.

This descent into madness has been exacerbated by the current coronavirus crisis, wherein we find ourselves being regaled with a set of ludicrous assertions about the virus’s origins — a choice between Bill Gates, the Chinese Government, the Illumnati, or if David Icke is to be believed something known as the Cult. More ludicrous still is the assertion that Covid-19 is spread by 5G masts and has been purposely created and unleashed to place us on lockdown as a control mechanism in service to the approaching New World Order and One World Government.

In the introduction to his book, , Chris Hedges writes, ‘There is nothing rational about rebellion. To rebel against insurmountable odds is an act of faith, without which the rebel is doomed’.

Yes, but what if within the rebellion, rebellion is waged against rationality itself? This as an escape from a reality the ‘rebel’ finds hard to navigate with all of its complexities and contradictions. Much easier to embrace the simplistic and the fantastic — narratives proffered by false prophets such as the previously mentioned David Icke, Alex Jones, and other such cranks, people who’ve filled their boots at the deep well of the gullibility suffered by those desperate to have explained in simple terms that which by its very nature is complex.

Four decades of neoliberalism has done much to atomise society at home and spread chaos and death abroad. Its prime movers have done so while, with the aid of a loyal media, inculcating false consciousness underpinned by the lie that this is the best of all possible worlds. However the answer to the dystopian reality forged as a result does not lie in meeting false consciousness with more false consciousness, which is what makes this rising tide in the traction of conspiracy theory in our midst so insidious and dangerous.

Here we are obliged to confront the fact that in the wake of 9/11 anti-politics, unreason, and subjectivism has increasingly taken the place of serious counter-hegemonic politics and movements. The result is a period in which the objective material conditions for rebellion — growing inequality, injustice and the self-evident unsustainability of the status quo — has lacked the necessary subjective factor of a politically conscious and organised collective response.

Increasingly, and worryingly, replacing collective resistance to the chaos wrought by capitalism is the individual digestion of YouTube videos and social media posts, distorting reality and shaping it according to the need for escapism. More broadly, the thrill of an edited ‘documentary’ with its lurid music, dramatic intercutting, gripping and doom-laden narrative is reflective of the fear experienced by primitive man as he grappled with the seemingly inexplicable forces of nature.

Throughout history cults and millenarian-type movements have been established to meet the need for a portal out of the grim reality of the human condition into the realms of wonder and fantasy. And it’s precisely the urge to escape into this realm which feeds a growing and worrying embrace of conspiracy theory.

I say worrying because we now have open conspiracy theorists at the heads of governments in our world.

Those include Brazil’s current president, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who believes that the threat of coronavirus has been exaggerated and refuses to adhere to World Health Organisation guidelines on lockdown in his country, thus placing the lives of thousands of his own people at risk. Bolsonaro is also a man who isn’t minded to respect the science on climate change, and instead has gleefully set about the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest with commerce not the planet in mind. Similarly, Donald Trump has been guilty of downplaying the science on both coronavirus and climate change, viewing both as part of a plot to cripple the US economy; the former at the hands of China from without, the latter at the hands of the liberal left from within.

In Italy, meanwhile, the Five Star Movement has much to answer for with its fixation on pushing anti-vaccination doggerel onto the Italian public, helping to elevate the country’s ‘no-vax’ movement to mainstream prominence and credibility.

What, strikingly, Bolsonaro, Trump and the Five Star Movement in Italy each have in common is that they sit on the populist right of the political spectrum. And this is also where conspiracy theory sits, revealed in sum as a reactionary interpretation of real world events, immobilising rather than mobilising human agency thereby.

The difference, ultimately, between critical thinking and magical thinking is the difference between engagement with reality and departure from it.


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