Posted on 15 January 2021
On 6 January 2021 a mob of violent pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol, determined to ‘stop the steal’ and block congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Jacked up by fiery speeches delivered by Donald Trump and others at a park just south of the White House, the gang would turn and march on what Americans call the ‘People’s House’, breaking through police barriers, vandalising, wreaking havoc and provoking violence from which five people have died and many others were injured.
Participants in the horde were motivated by a range of false beliefs: that Donald Trump had won the election in a landslide; that the count was fraudulent and the election had been stolen; that a cabal of cannibalistic paedophiles was working to defeat Donald Trump; that the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax to control the public and remove the President.
Professor of Intellectual History Nicolas Guilhot, who arrived at the EUI in September 2020, researches the comeback of conspiracies in political discourse, and is now working on an all-too timely book on the topic.
The come-back of conspiracy
While in modern times conspiracy theories have mainly been relegated to the fringe, they have now become mainstream.
The spread of conspiracy theories online has tended to focus the attention on the role of information, but they are obviously a much older phenomenon.
Professor Guilhot believes conspiracy theories cannot be reduced to an issue of mass psychology or flawed knowledge: rather they are a symptom of something deeper.
“It’s easy to blame conspiracy theories on the internet, information bubbles or cognitive biases,” says Professor Guilhot, “but in doing so we turn what is fundamentally a political problem into a question of logic, truth or knowledge.”
“The real challenge today is to re-politicise these issues, to try and understand what conditions they are symptoms of” he says.
Powerlessness and paranoia
The root of the matter is social and historical. More specifically, says Guilhot, we increasingly live in a world where complex informal systems of “governance” seem to prevail over the nominal institutions of political democracy.
“In many ways you can look at conspiracy theories as narratives of a world that is no longer yours, an opaque world in which your sense of agency is diminished” says the historian. “They rationalise disempowerment. What they express, in the end, is a need for politics that finds no outlet.”
Politicians such as the US’ Trump or Italy’s Salvini have seized on these narratives, gaining political momentum by ascribing perceived social disadvantage to forces such as the ‘deep state’ or invaders (i.e. immigrants) from without.
Confronting conspiracy in political thought
Conspiracy theories often resemble apocalyptic narratives: they express an existential anxiety, the feeling that the world in which the self is grounded is caving in and is no longer secure.
While the attraction of conspiracy theories stems from their force in explaining (albeit falsely) what for too many appears a cryptic reality, championing the belief in science and facts is not enough to counter them.
“Debunking does not work. Trying to shore up the authority of expertise or fact-based evidence simply misses the point, and is just another way of avoiding politics.”
“It is time to re-politicise conspiracy theories” says the historian, “and address the underlying social and economic conditions that make them so attractive.”
Guilhot notes that decades of neoliberal economics have gutted structural guarantees and social protection of work, income, education, and health, thus creating fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Add to that unprecedented inequalities, an impending environmental catastrophe and a global pandemic, and you have a recipe for disaster.
So long as these policies continue to undermine individuals’ connection to society, people will continue to accept occult explanations of why those guarantees are crumbling. And cynical politicians will continue to use them.
Professor Nicolas Guilhot joined the EUI’s Department of History and Civilization in September 2020. He recently published a more comprehensive discussion of this topic in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. See his article (paywalled) ‘Teorie del complotto, quel nemico occulto e potente’, 9 January 2021.