The term “bad science” was coined by the British physician and writer Ben Goldacre back in 2009 with his excellent book of the same title. Packed into over 200 pages Goldacre runs through the industry’s frauds while also taking time to unpack further scandals such as the Wakefield MMR vaccine debacle and the media frenzy which happily provided additional fuel to fan the flames further. Goldacre clearly enjoys poking holes in homeopathic pseudoscience and claims made by “nutritionists” who are keen to push wonder pills onto the unsuspecting public. Central to his attacks is a deep concern over the state of modern science, medicine in particular. In keeping with that same spirit our focus must shift in order to elaborate further on the warning signs which continue to emerge from the far-right and the anti-science agenda which evidently fuels them. The subjects Goldacre discusses such as health, science and medicine are not isolated issues, they are important topics which deserve to be at the centre of any political debate as the rising doubts over the access to safe medicine has come to the forefront. The term “bad science” has now been co-opted by the far-right and is instead used to judge what they see as the issues which have come to define their lives.
Concerns surrounding the use of vaccines have captured the public’s attention in ways that were not foreseen, and gone are the days when the ideas promulgated by anti-vaxx circles were relegated to the dark corners of the web. The rise of the far-right, Donald Trump, and conspiracy theories in general are all part of the same movement which has enveloped the US political scene with the spill-over effect clearly having made its mark in several states around the globe. Taking a step back to survey the current political landscape it is hard not to notice the features that resemble the carnivalesque. The politics of “fake news” continues to embed itself within the social psyche and is made worse by the lack of societal cohesion capitalism already offers. With so much tension now present, as politicians continue to fumble while making hasty decisions, it is becoming harder to imagine how conditions will return to normal. Even though the argument has been made that what was considered “normal” has actually led to the outcomes we are currently living with. A desire to return to the conditions that existed prior to the virus’s emergence are to some extent an exercise in collective denial and to give preference to the right to ignorance above all else. When analysing the messages coming from the far-right and their resemblance to doomsday prophecies, Covid-19 instead represents ground-zero for the evil machinations orchestrated by our “real rulers” and it is no surprise to see the negative effects long-term isolation tends to produce.
Brought forth each month is a steady wave of conspiracist material. This is usually in response to having to wear masks and the usual conjecture on the new world order take over, or the inevitable microchipping by our new overlord Bill Gates. The subjugation of man by science or man by man is a theme that is evident within conspiracy circles. For Karl Marx, these cries against modernity would represent a feature common to the relations in a market society like capitalism. That is, its ability to civilise but also its ability to systematically degrade or destroy. Or put differently, what has been done to create modern society’s wealth is done alongside the brutal control of the natural world by exploiting enlightened pursuits such as those utilised by the sciences. In Grundrisse, Marx points to the “civilising” force which capitalism represents and how this is diffused on the basis of a power relation which is maintained through the control of nature. Nature then becomes a “utility”, whose existence “appears only as a stratagem designed to subdue it”, with this desire for knowledge now dictated by the profit motive. This contradictory relationship of civilised domination should not be strictly reserved for analysing capitalism’s relationship with the natural world. We can also see it in the wave of protestors who continually flock to the streets. They represent the fruits of capitalism’s contradictory movements, which for some are coming from a place of genuine political frustration, having been cemented during the post-2008 austerity policies that many states wilfully pursued. The public continues to be subjected to the domineering force capitalism utilises in order to ensure the productive process remains constant, even during a pandemic, which many pointed to in order to suggest that the virus was not what it seemed and claimed ulterior motives were at work.
The distribution of a global vaccine has become, due to the resistance against attempts to administer it, a form of domination. Conspiracy theories have become the “sigh of the oppressed” in a very real sense. Yet for all the attempts made by the far-right to scold Marxists and the left in general, labelling us as part of a plot orchestrated by a Jewish elite, the time they waste in doing so, alongside the refusal to engage with some relevant ideas, serve as further impediments when they attempt to try and develop a critical approach towards the power structures that govern our society. When conspiracy theorists try to boil power relations down to one or two individuals who control daily events, Marxists instead point to the economic structure which produces these roles and how they function in a class dynamic which allows political control to be maintained. With power over the process of wealth accumulation via the exploitation of labour playing a key part in how this is achieved. This is contrasted with the rather story-like narrative that conspiracies tend to weave. The convenience that conspiracy theorists enjoy is in not having to engage in a radical critique of society but instead to use an almost atavistic fear to whip the public into a frenzy. Conspiracy theorists obscure what it is they supposedly represent – freedom from control and freedom from exploitation by a particular group. Instead of actually addressing the issues, they replace sober analysis with contradictory narratives that are laden with bizarre anti-Semitic talking points.
Having almost wiped out every collective institution that previously granted society’s members some semblance of control or participation within it, capitalism has precipitated an existentialist crisis. Where marginalised people could formerly interpret class conflict through institutions like trade unions, they now do so through groups fuelled by wacky or alternative ideologies. In these groups the many problems facing society are not explained in terms of political economy, but are rather found in the paranoid narratives that are easily exploited and made more imaginative by the far-right. This deep-rooted alienation can be seen in recent movements such as QAnon, as new research reveals a plethora of mental health issues that many of its advocates suffer from. Elaborated on in The Conversation by social psychologist, Sophia Moskalenko, is how many “QAnon followers arrested in the wake of the Capitol insurrection”, according to their arrest records, suffered with “post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia and Munchausen syndrome”. The figures that were obtained on those who suffer from some form of mental illness is contrasted with figures for the overall population as, “68% reported they had received mental health diagnoses…By contrast, 19% of all Americans have a mental health diagnosis”. It is the disenfranchised and those who have been denied medical treatment who find refuge within conspiracy circles, just as much as they attract white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The empowering effect groups like QAnon offer can be seen as many of the movement’s advocates are pictured in attire stating, “we are Q”.
In further analysing the specific vocabulary that conspiracy theorists use, it reveals the hidden influence capitalism has had on their thinking and world conception. “Globalism”, for example, is conspiracy rhetoric that means nothing as it does not provide factually based examples that can be examined. Globalisation on the other hand was a policy wilfully pursued by many Western states and financial institutions with the purpose of rescuing capitalism from the conditions that sought to reign it in but simultaneously fostered low growth after the WW2 period. The process of globalisation can be studied for the effects it produced, many of which have led to societies that are less democratic, more polarised and based on flimsy economic models that revolve around finance, or “fictitious capital” as Marx called it, rather than investing in productive labour opportunities. Globalisation also produced a neo-colonialist relationship between stronger and weaker economies as peeling back the borders of poorer states allowed cheap labour to circulate as the “free movement” of individuals was promoted only for the benefit of corporations with conditions becoming markedly worse for labour in the West. In How Will Capitalism End? sociologist Wolfgang Streeck describes the tumultuous shift in relations under capitalism and how “individuals deprived of collective defences and left to their own devices…cooperate on an ad hoc basis, driven by fear and… elementary interests in individual survival”. The stagnation that has been a characteristic feature of capitalism has led to the worsening of the lives of society’s inhabitants. In 2018, when commenting on the effect’s globalisation produced, Obama admitted that neo-liberalism “creates frustration and contradictions” and these in turn produced “a different kind of politics…based on a nationalism, that’s not pride in country, but hatred”.
The attempt to depoliticise conspiracy theories is to commit a serious folly, as their emergence points to a larger issue that remains unaddressed in the mainstream media. The patronising liberal panacea which seeks to diagnose every problem as merely not having access to the correct information is not going to help change the situation as the alliance between the massive tech companies, the Democratic Party and the State Department reeks of hypocrisy and will only intensify the narrative of control and thought suppression. The force that is driving the proliferation of conspiracy theories isn’t something generated out of thin air, but is rather a by-product of the economic and political landscape that they originate from. Neo-liberal capitalism and hyper-imperialism are the main sources which spawn wacky movements like QAnon. Media outlets like the New York Times and a whole host of others which try and explain away the problem by focusing on the particular psychology of individuals who join conspiracy movements are applying the same method that is being used to treat what is described as “radical Islam”. In The Muslims are Coming author Arun Kundani writes, “The study of radicalization…is thus in practice limited” and “takes terrorist violence to be a product of Islam” without “any causative role to the actions of Western governments or their allies in other parts of the World; instead individual psychological or theological journeys, largely removed from social and political circumstances, are claimed to be the root cause of the radicalisation process”.
There is a lot more that could be said about how unaccountable billionaires like George Soros have become the subject of anti-Semitic attacks by the right, but we should instead focus on how he champions an open society which is to be overseen by private corporations. His insane wealth and influence help generate its own conspiracies. Capitalism has made the world so unstable with all the conspiracies that it helps unleash from groups who have their own agendas. The struggle over the right to explain Covid-19’s emergence is another one of them. With the world now over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic to further ignore how corporate farming practices are unleashing an ever-greater number of pathogens means that potentially more dangerous strains are soon to arrive. With Western governments unwilling to tackle the structural issues which accentuate these problems coupled with the fact that the mass of the population has been removed from the decision-making procedures that run our societies, conspiracies fuelled by the economic models that capitalism pursues will ensure that conspiracy theories will continue to run rampant.