As a teenage boy, I was what you might call a conspiracy theorist. That is, I believed in the “grand unified conspiracy” model of reality, where a small group of people whose names most people don’t know have most power in our society and have secret and cruel intentions for the majority of us. That’s what most people would consider a “conspiracy theorist” and I met that definition.
In a narrow interpretation of the word, a conspiracy theory is simply the suggestion that a historical event that took place may have been the product of a group of people who worked together and kept their coordination secret. If that’s the definition of the term, then I’m still a conspiracy theorist, as is anyone with an IQ above room temperature.
Here’s an example: Do you think the Russian appartment buildings were the product of a conspiracy by FSB agents to promote Putin’s rise to power? If so, you’re technically a conspiracy theorist. Do you think Nazi Germany staged attacks by Poland to justify its invasion? If so, you’re technically a conspiracy theorist.
That’s the awkward fact we’re dealing with, the reality that vast numbers of historical events are in fact the product of conspiracies. People who observe this tendency tend to end up convinced that if so many events turn out to be the products of conspiracies, some other events that we don’t interpret as conspiracies may very well be conspiracies as well. It’s not coincidence that many conspiracy theorists are historians or have a background in the military: Many wars tend to start as a product of conspiracies and the outcome of wars tends to be decided by conspiracies too.
Conspiracy theorists tend to be marginalized in society. If you believe an event relevant to your occupation to be the product of an undiscovered conspiracy, this will tend to hinder your career advancement. As an example, if you’re a post-doc who happens to be convinced that COVID19 leaked from a Chinese lab, do you think you’re more or less likely to become a tenured professor?
One of the consequences of the marginalization of conspiracy theorists, is that conspiracy theorists tend to end up mainly interacting with other conspiracy theorists. A high school teacher I had was a wealthy man, part of the minor Dutch aristocracy. He was a critical thinker and somewhat eccentric. At some point, he began working as a legal advisor, for people who faced default on their mortgage. People who can’t pay their mortgage tend to be working class indigenous Dutch people with a hostile view towards authority figures.
If you sympathize with such people, you’ll take over some of their views. His motive is pretty obvious, it’s the motive that most aristocrats historically have: They want to be popular with the poor. The bourgeoisie wants to distance themselves from the poor, the aristocrats historically think of themselves as guardians of the poor. So, because he sympathizes with marginalized Dutch people, he began to take over bits of their worldview.
He became a minor celebrity in Dutch conspiracy subculture, where he interacted with other Dutch conspiracy theorists. In such interviews you have to be entertaining, so he began peddling Alex Jones style horror stories about creepy gargoyles on Dutch bridges and Satanic Jewish sects. What happened is pretty obvious: Someone with a healthy dislike of authority met other people who dislike authority, causing group polarization that turned him into a parody of himself.
Why does this happen? The main reason is because the dominant culture marginalizes conspiracy theorists. I’m going to quote an article from a girl I went to college with, who tries to make a name for herself out of penning petty essays for major Dutch newspapers. She won’t make it as a member of the Dutch chattering classes, because she’s too unsophisticated in expressing her disdain for marginalized people.
I’ll translate an excerpt from her essay, in which she described meeting a former colleague, here:
according to my former colleague Greta Thunberg is an actress, we have never been to the moon, and the NOS, where I did an internship, sells the biggest bullshit in the country. My blood pressure was exceptionally low during that period due to my pregnancy, this must have been the only time it peaked.
She asked why I suddenly had such an aggressive attitude towards her, and said patronizingly, “I understand it’s hard to hear all this for the first time.” Please, we had to hear this from some weed addict at some house party when we were young and brash. The only difference is that this time it was a yoga practicing millennial that I had until then on my side.
What is she really saying here? She’s shocked that someone she believed to be a member of her own privileged demographic of secular upper-middle class liberal college graduates would adhere to ideas that are mostly held by conservative working class uneducated white people. In doing so, she reveals her class bigotry. I know you’re wondering if the “weed addict at some house party” refers to me, but it doesn’t.
What is always missed in discussions about conspiracy theories in the mainstream media, is why vast demographics of society believe in conspiracy theories that seem absurd to journalists writing these pieces. Here’s the reason: The system works for you, whereas the system doesn’t work for the people you’re describing.
When black and gay Americans faced an outbreak of a novel disease that slowly kills you, against which we had no known cure, the Reagan administration effectively stood by idly. Is it a shock that many black and gay Americans believed HIV to be a product of biowarfare programs? On the other hand, when we faced an outbreak of a novel disease that appears to kill mainly nursing home residents with a few months of life expectancy left, the government shuts down the schools and locks you up in your house and tells you how many people you’re allowed to have sex with. Is it a shock that people now believe the government has nefarious objectives?
The reason marginalized low-status people believe in conspiracy theories is because they recognize the system doesn’t represent their interest. It’s a relatively small step from “the government is incompetent and doesn’t represent my interests” to “the government is actively working against my interest”. On the other hand, if your experience is that the government solves problems for you that are caused by average people acting in their own best interest, you’re unlikely to be drawn to conspiracy theories.
The reason conspiraphobia -the fear high-status people tend to have of explanations that suggest conspiracies by powerful people- exists is because high status people have arranged their own lives in a manner based on the idea that they can trust powerful people and institutes. At the end of the day, if you use your real name on your Twitter profile, you trust that governments won’t run algorithms on your data that will be used against you. If you signed up as an organ donor, you trust that doctors won’t think “I can euthanize this racist white trash loser who had a car accident and give his kidneys to a feminist performance artist and a Marxist college professor who suffer kidney failure”.
High status people have this idea in the back of their mind, that a government that can decide to forcibly quarantine you if you test positive for a virus might misuse its power, but because they achieved their success by trusting the strucutres of power in our society, that realization deeply unnerves them. High status people thus tend to have a knee-jerk allergic reaction to any suggestion by low-status people that powerful people might conspire against the rest of us.
What the media should be doing is including conspiracy theorists in the public discourse, as opposed to marginalizing them. If conspiracy theories are not discussed in the dominant media, marginalized people who are skeptical towards authority will create their own media, where you will get group polarization. It’s the same problem with Reddit. If you’re a right-winger, you’ll find your posts removed and your subreddits banned. This means you’ll leave Reddit, moving to alternative sites. On those sites you tend to encounter actual neo-nazi’s, ensuring that neo-nazi ideas end up disseminating among regular conservatives.
Similarly, the media should move away from publicly identifying authors, to enabling more anonymous communication of ideas. People feel more able to express their true beliefs, when they know they won’t face personal repercussions. Here’s an example: I’m convinced that virologists have very different views about COVID19 in private than in public. Their private views are not discussed, because that would mean reputational damage.
I’m not a virologist, so I’m not going to make absolute claims here. However, based on the evidence I have read, my personal belief is currently that COVID19 emerged in Wuhan as a consequence of a research accident. The Chinese government responded to this accident with a sense of panic, shutting down the entire province of Wuhan, fearing both the potential humiliation that might mean the end of the CCP and a possible unprecedented outbreak of mass death.
This strain of events subsequently led Western governments to shut down their nations too, going against all established pandemic protocols, with the worry in the back of their heads that a synthetic virus might behave radically different from any virus we know about. With the discrepancy between the actual risk observed and the potential risk posed by a synthetic biowarfare agent that is not immediately visible, the governments intentionally began to spread fear among the public.
The subsequent panic led to a creeping normalization of government control of society that was first unthinkable. That’s why we now live in a situation where we’re locked up in our homes over what effectively amounts to a surprisingly regular and boring common cold virus, against which the elderly unfortunately happen to have no significant pre-existing immunity that makes other common cold viruses generally harmless for them.
That’s my most plausible scenario when it comes to what has happened to humanity. I don’t believe governments around the world would be incompetent enough to simply panic and throw hundreds of millions of people into extreme poverty for no real reason. They feared that something far more terrible was about to happen than what actually took place.
This is of course a low-status narrative. It’s the kind of narrative your Uncle Bob would tell you at the Thanksgiving table after he had a glass of beer. It’s not something you’re going to see Washington Post columnists with blue checks on Twitter suggest in an oped. Because no member of the chattering classes would want to publicly tie their name to this description of events, you never hear it in the mainstream media.
Because you never hear this idea in the mainstream media, you have to go to obscure forums and subreddits to find it. That’s where you will find a wide range of ideas, most of them much further fetched than what I am suggesting here. You’ll encounter the idea for example, that Bill Gates planned this whole pandemic in advance because he wants to sterilize us all with his vaccines.
As evidence, you’ll see the fact that his foundation was involved in setting up some scenario where they prepared for the risk of a pandemic starting in Brazil where a coronavirus moves from pigs to humans. Seems awfully coincidental right? The reality is however that if you have to plan for a pandemic, the most plausible scenario is simply a corona virus jumping species. MERS is a good example of a corona virus that jumped from camels to humans. It suddenly showed up in South Korea at some point, infecting hundreds of people there, killing dozens.
When you really study a subject well, you’ll often be able to predict events to such a degree that it will seem as if you yourself were involved in causing them. Here’s an example of what I mean. Back in 2013, I read a lot about Bitcoin. I wrote a silly story that unexpectedly became popular. Here are some excerpts:
On average, every year so far, the value of Bitcoin has increased by about a factor ten. From 0.1 dollar in 2010, to 1 dollar in 2011, to 10 dollar in 2012, to 100 dollar in 2013. From now on, there’s a slight slowdown, as the value increased by a factor ten every two years, to 1,000 dollar in 2015, to 10,000 in 2017,
I predicted Bitcoin would hit 10k in 2017!
The four institutions with the largest still accessible Bitcoin balance are believed to be as following:
-ASICminer – 50,000 Bitcoin
-The IMF’s “currency stabilization fund” – 70,000 Bitcoin
-Government of Saudi Arabia – 110,000 Bitcoin
-The North Korean government – 180,000 Bitcoin
I predicted the North Korean government would be the main user of cryptocurrency! In reality, I simply extrapolated from what I knew about its properties. I went with entertainment over realism, so I could probably have done a better job if I wanted to. Now imagine a dozen experts in virology and other subjects planning a scenario about a pandemic and you will find yourself asking: “Did they plan this pandemic themselves?”
The problem is that the current mainstream media and social media platforms work in the exact manner that high-status people like: Everything you do and say is tied to your real name (thus all the work you do helps further boost your social status, rather than merely serving to propagate an idea you’re passionate about), people will judge your ideas based on your credentials and biography, if you’re famous enough you get a blue check next to your name to further enhance your credibility and the ideas that are propagated fit entirely within the interests of high status people.
There’s an apparent exception I need to mention, that’s not a real exception at all: The media pushing for wealth redistribution and socialism. You’ll find newspapers suggesting all the time that college debt should be forgiven, that people should get a basic income, that landlords are evil parasites, etcetera. That happens, because social status and economic status are not perfectly correlated: You can be popular and relatively poor. You can also be a wealthy nobody (ie a landlord). It’s increasingly the case that status is no longer derived from wealth: These days, it’s derived from your occupation, regardless of how much that occupation might pay. A thirty year old journalist living with roommates still gets to look down on a thirty year old plumber with a paid off mortgage in our society.
If your job mainly consists of complaining about racism on Twitter and in Vox essays, your social status is high (at least higher than when you do customer support at a cryptocurrency company) but your net worth is probably rather low and you probably have 90k of college debt that was essential to get a foot in the door for your journalism job.
There’s the thing: A lot of conservatives with a bit of assets are willing to side with wealthy oil barons, real estate moguls and other billionaires, because they realize the scenario the modern left is pushing for is one in which high social status people who have 100k of college debt and live with roommates in their thirties will end up with the same economic status as someone who started working a trade at age 18 and bought a house in his twenties. Those of us who made the choice of giving up social status in favor of economic status don’t want to see people getting economic status for free from the government: If we think of status as a zero-sum game, it’s clear that this would go against our interest.
The last important question I want to answer is as following: Why did I chose to focus on attaining economic status, rather than focusing on attaining social status? The answer is that I was interested in neither when I was a young man. As a young man, I was hoping that society would simply collapse within the next few years.
It became clear to me after a while this wouldn’t happen and that preparing for that scenario would merely lead to me becoming a thirtysomething year old who lives with his parents eventually. That’s when I had to make a choice: How do I want to get my shit together in life? I emphasized economic status over social status, because economic status allows you to be true to yourself.
Imagine I have a 1 million Euro stock portfolio. Tomorrow I could announce: “I believe the moon landing is fake, global warming is a hoax and the Holocaust never happened either.” What would happen is that nobody could do a thing to seriously screw up my life. No matter how low-status my beliefs might be, I could still afford to be honest about them. The government can’t decide to suddenly increase your taxes to punish you for being a racist conspiracy theorist.
On the other hand, if I was a journalist or a celebrity and made such an announcement of low-status beliefs, people would be able to destroy everything I had built over decades in a period of months. Right now, I can now buy a (small) house without needing a mortgage. If I had been a member of the chattering classes instead, I could be fired from my job for having low status beliefs and subsequently kicked out of my house, because I would have been unable to pay the mortgage.
Of course I don’t expect that the media will treat conspiracy theorists fairly, or ever ask themselves why people believe in conspiracy theories in the first place. It’s the nature of human society that privileged people over time tend to become blind to the ideas and problems faced by marginalized people, until those marginalized people start getting violent.
The privileged people are anticipating that, so we start seeing increasing panic in the media about violent “conspiracy theorists” who have supposedly lost all touch with reality. The thing to consider is that when the distance between privileged people and marginalized people increases, the two social classes become increasingly ignorant about each other’s lived reality.
As an example, before the Russian revolution, many Russian peasants saw the Czar as someone who had some sort of magical powers. They were quite shocked to discover he was a simple man who couldn’t really do much to help them. If we look at the French revolution, we also see all sorts of allegations against Marie Antoinette that were unsubstantiated.
These days, a popular allegation from marginalized people is the idea that elites are satanic pedophiles. These ideas become popular, because elites have in fact become severely decadent, as evidenced by the fact that Epstein had his own private island where powerful men could abuse underage girls. The reality remains however, that there exists a distinction between seventeen year old girls who are paid for erotic massages and children who are ritualistically abused before being murdered. I’m not condoning either of course, but I’m arguing that the distance between privileged and marginalized people has become so large that elites are evolving into a caricature of themselves in the eyes of the public, comparable to the mass orgies supposedly held by French aristocrats. depicted by bourgeois satirists in 18th century France.
This brings me to one last point, which is that “the elite” tends to be the shadow side of a conspiracy theorist’s psyche. The elite manifests your own taboo thoughts and desires, just as every Great Evil Other always manifests whatever it is that we suppress in ourselves: Theorizing about all the evils the Great Evil Other engages in, allows us to externalize those aspects of ourselves. When I was around twenty, I had an intense dislike of Islam. This went hand in hand of course, with an intense lust for Arab women. That’s how these things tend to go.
Similarly, when conspiracy theorists rant and rave about eugenics and how the elite want to forcibly sterilize us all and use bioweapons to reduce the human population, you have to ask yourself if it’s possible that the guy telling you this stuff is secretly worried about overpopulation himself and would love to get rid of the dumb people he dislikes. As an example, conspiracy theorists like to make a big fuss about the Georgia guidestones. It’s hardly far fetched however, to suggest the ideas on those stones are actually quite appealing.
Adam Curtis knows why we all keep falling for conspiracy theories
You might want to check out Curtis’ latest documentary. It’s epic.
1st in a 6 part series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHFrhIAj0ME
Thanks for sharing this, Curtis is one of the best documentary makers of our time
“When I was around twenty, I had an intense dislike of Islam. This went hand in hand of course, with an intense lust for Arab women.”
My favourite and most important part of this piece.
I remember a phrase from Michael Parenti, that goes more or less like this: people make fun of you for suggesting that there are conspiracies where the powerful “meet in conference rooms” and plan what to do with the world. Because, of course it’s much more probable that they do these meetings in public parks, on swings.
Conspiracies are real and they happen constantly and are a matter of historical documentation. it’s pretty easy to find about the shady stuff cia did for example. but the media likes to paint this image of insane tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist in order to distract us from those. this is not done just out of some elitist smugness like you suggest, but also it is also done consciously. many people in the us media are literally cia agents (this was the operation mockingbird). in Europe you have also things funded by the cia, like radio free Europe.
anyway, sorry for the text wall
Rintrah, what do you think of Adam Curtis the genius documentary maker?