This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
There is a great reset. It has a website with a video introduction by HRH The Prince of Wales. Sponsored by the World Economic Forum, it’s the Davos view on how the world might grow sustainably after the recession wrought by Covid. It is as worthy, dull and platitudinous as you might expect. But unless all the fanfare is a cunning plan to hide it in plain sight, it is very far from a conspiracy. Yet a small minority of noisy voices insists otherwise, erecting lurid theories about what the lizards are up to. Or perhaps those voices are, in turn, well-funded agents provocateurs, working to the agenda of foreign governments, whose purpose is to discredit and drown out more sensible voices. They do so in order to — well, what?
These ways of explaining the world achieve something truly remarkable — they eat themselves, yet thrive on the diet. They seem more prevalent than ever — but what form of modernity does the conspiracy theory assume? It is a form that has scarcely adapted since subjected to the diagnosis of the historian Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Unseemly, unlettered people expressed political opinions outside the acceptable range, their villainy self-evident from the populist manner of their doing so.
It’s not fair that Remain lost or that Trump won, these things are unconscionable and therefore diabolical
They did not know what they were talking about; they projected their ignorant fears onto the reasonable, mature section of the political community; and they needed to do this to validate, and compensate for, their own myriad, unworthy anxieties.
Such was the age of Barry Goldwater. Let us take a brief tour d’horizon of contemporary, transatlantic sophistication.
Vladimir Putin stole the 2016 US presidential election with a “Manchurian Candidate”. Donald Trump was compromised by Moscow hotel bedroom footage and sundry financial entanglements. The theft of the election was greatly assisted by the gross corruption that pervades American democracy.
But in 2020, the presidential election was robust, the Russian (or was it Ukrainian?) enthusiasm for interference having vanished, the pervasive corruption in check. If any personal sleaze or unfortunate entanglement attended Joe Biden’s family, it was no part of the press’s role to vulgarly blow it out of proportion.
In Britain, the only question is: where do you start? Tony Blair and Iraq? Blair and his demographic reshaping of Britain? Jeremy Corbyn and his theories about groups of people who had theories about him? Obviously not: those conspiracies are offered up by bumpkins. Instead, you start with the learned and the broadsheet columnists. You start with Brexit, a great deception brought to you by a non-exhaustive list of American disaster capitalist billionaires; Steve Bannon and other people you have only a vague sense of; the Canadians; the Saudis; the Pakistanis (look it up: it’s on the internet); and, most probable of all, that energetic global web-spinner, President Putin.
That the Brexit referendum vote was achieved through subterfuge is an article of faith for a section of the most conventionally learned
We’ll dispense with how any of these malign forces somehow secured the Brexit referendum. We’ll just focus on why. Take the Russians: they obviously wanted the UK to leave the EU because — well, here the theory becomes obscure. Maybe they just wanted chaos, although they could, up to a point, achieve something that smelt vaguely like that merely by having useful, high-end idiots manically overstating their supposedly incalculable influence.
That the Brexit referendum vote was achieved through dastardly subterfuge is an article of faith for a section of the most conventionally learned. Nothing by way of evidence, inquiry, parliamentary report or regulatory finding can shake them from this belief. What gives current conspiracy theories among the cognitive elite their manic drive is, however, exactly what drives them when they’re spouted by the lumpen proles at the bottom: unfairness.
It’s not fair that Remain lost or that Trump won, once. These things are unconscionable and their explanation must therefore be diabolic.
It’s tempting to take steps in this analytic direction, to earnestly muse on “modern mediated society” and postmodernism, on the faux-worldly “ignorant knowing” that marks out how people show their awareness of what’s happening around them. They know you see, they’ve cottoned on.
From the Deep State being a Turkish term for Henry Fairlie’s Establishment, but with a bigger black helicopter budget, to “I see what they did there”, the attitude is the same: an ironic eyebrow raised to the transparent machinations of our rulers. It’s also how the fury wells up, because having seen through the charade, these open-eyed people are rightly outraged at their rulers’ wickedness, in Brexiting or Trumping.
The antidote to all of this is relaxed cynicism. There is nothing new about even the most educated subscribing to fantasies in order to describe a reality they dislike. The mistake would be to suppose that modernity — be it in terms of manners or technology — has fundamentally changed meaning. It has not. Things are as they are, and that includes a great deal of silliness.
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