I’ve finally gotten around to listening to Dave Eden’s excellent podcast, Living the Dream, and in particular an October episode on conspiracy theory entitled ‘Everything You Know is Wrong’.
Dave advances a few ideas about the nature of conspiracy theory and reasons for its current prominence. In particular the podcast is commenting on the growth of conspiracy theory in broadly ‘left’ movements (Occupy, opposition to the TPP, etc) where before such ideas would be rejected.
These are all issues worth considering, but after listening to the podcast, something else struck me.
I’ve spent the better part of the year involved in the campaign against the Reclaim Australia phenomena and its various offshoots. An understanding of the growth of conspiracy theory is directly relevant to understanding the Reclaim Australia phenomenon.
A Definition of Conspiracy Theory
Dave Eden proposes that conspiracy theories:
attempt to explain the world, the broad situation of the society we exist in, as a product of the action of a coherent determined group. So it’s not simply that there are conspiracies, but that the social order can be explained as a conspiracy.
And that there are a variety of common characteristics to conspiracy theory:
This conspiracy is usually described as being alien and outside of the norm, an external force that has impregnated and infiltrated the social order. However it is simultaneously dominating and everywhere. … Linked to this, normally, the vast majority of people are described as being asleep and brainwashed … and the conspiracy theorists themselves often understand themselves as being “the only sane man in the world”, simultaneously not being believed and in danger.
In terms of both of these elements, the idea of ‘conspiracy theory’ is directly relevant to Reclaim Australia and it’s offshoots.
For the anti-Muslim racists of Reclaim Australia, Islam is an “external force” that is presently infiltrating the social order. Refugees, mosques, and halal food are all seen as elements in a progressive campaign to Islam-ify Australia, impose Sharia law, and subvert the existing white Judaeo-Christian social order.
The power that Reclaim Australia supporters attribute to an Islamic conspiracy varies. Reclaim Australia and it’s offshoots are attempting to establish street movements, micro-political parties and alike to ‘resist’ ‘Islamization’. They clearly do not think that the power of the conspiracy is total.
However, every setback their movement faces is explained in terms of an Islamic conspiracy in league with the forces of the state. In Victoria, the decision of the Bendigo City Council to grant a planning permit for the construction of a small mosque was explained as the result of a corrupt nexus between the business interests of Bendigo’s Mayor, the Islamic community, and the federal government.
When an appeal against planning permission for the Bendigo mosque failed at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the conspiracy theory expanded to include court collusion. The looming failure of ‘Rights for Bendigo Residents’ in the Supreme court will doubtless be explained in the same way.
Dave Eden argues that:
Conspiracy theory, linked to this model of understanding the world, is reactionary in both content and form. … They are often tied to some formal of formally fascist or libertarian politics, explicitly anti-marxist, explicitly anti-feminist, explicitly seeing ideas of white middle class subjectivity under attack. They are normally deeply racist… and you often find a deep anti-environmental element too.
The more obviously fascist wing of the Reclaim Australia milieu publicly advances all of these ideas, but they are present throughout the entire Reclaim Australia movement.
As the year has progressed, explicitly anti-communist and anti-left ideas have come to the fore of the Reclaim Australia movement. The Melbourne based neo-Nazi offshoot, the United Patriots Front, is spending far more time talking about the evils of “contaminated” “cultural Marxists”, whilst including plenty of white supremacist, anti-feminist, and anti-queer rhetoric to boot.
They have recently decided that the current Victorian Premier is a communist who has been orchestrating the street based responses to their organizing efforts.
Dave Eden talks about the impact that conspiracy ideas have on the capacity of the left when he says:
The vision of the world they present, forecloses the possibility of collective agency. How’s it possible to transform the world when the world is so dominated by this conspiracy? And in practice the dissemination of these ideas further produce disorder, disorganization, lack of confidence amongst us as a class. These kind of ideas increase our feelings of powerlessness and paranoia.
In terms of the far-right, the conspiracy theory plays a somewhat different role. The idea that the conspiracy exists, but that it can be resisted by courageous ‘patriots’, has been the basis upon which the Reclaim Australia movement and its offshoots have build.
That said, in terms of their affect on the working class, the problem is the same. Islamophobic conspiracy theories have provoked wider class division and disorder.
Prevalence of Conspiracy Theory
Dave Eden argues that conspiracy theory has become the “default framework for a critique of the world”.
It’s difficult to assess the extent to which the prevalence of conspiracy theory is increasing. My personal experience backs up what Dave Eden argues. Conspiracy theory is increasingly predominant in spaces where I would previously have expected left anti-capitalist ideas to be totally dominant.
There isn’t a great swath of polling on conspiracy theory over time, and what polling exists obviously has some problems in terms of the contested definition of conspiracy. That said, what polling that does exist suggests that if conspiracy is a “fringe”, it’s a damned big one:
28% of [United States] voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government
In terms of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, I can’t readily find accurate polling. Last year approximately one in four polled reported “negative feelings” towards Islam or Muslims. I’d be interested to see how that has changed after this years events.
Anti-Muslim conspiracy theories are the dominant idea in the Reclaim Australia milieu (assuming their online communications are representative of the movement as a whole), but they are not necessarily the entire movement.
There is an overtly fascist core at work in the likes of the United Patriots Front. For many of these actors anti-Muslim racism appears to be the tool of the day rather than a sincerely held position. The likes of Blair Cottrell and Neil Erikson (and a few others I can think of) have made the transition from anti-Semitic neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim defenders of the State of Israel a little too quickly for any reasonable person to believe that their surface politics are sincere.
That said, the rise and rise of anti-Muslim conspiracy theory has created the environment in which these fringe players have been able to reach a much wider audience.
Explaining the growth of Conspiracy Theory
Dave Eden presents two concurrent explanations for the rise of conspiracy theory on the Australian left today.
The first is a bit tangential to any discussion of Reclaim Australia. Eden proposes that past defeats (in particular the failure of the movement against the Iraq war in 2003) taught a whole generation that they were powerless.
The growth of conspiracy on the left is evidence of it’s powerlessness, the failure of the Iraq War movement taught a whole generation that collective action (in particular a rally strategy) didn’t (or no longer) worked, and the left currently does not offer credible alternatives to either apathy or conspiracy.
The second explanation draws directly on Marx. We’re witnessing the massive growth and output of capitalism, whilst experiencing less and less control over our own lives. In terms of the far-right, I’d propose this is the more interesting area of investigation.
The growth of anti-Islam conspiracy theories and alike has a lot to do with the current situation in capitalism.
The weakness and disorganization of the workers movement is relevant to the rise of the far-right. The conditions of the whole working class in Australia are under attack, and are progressively being eroded. However the white working class faces something of a double attack on their position.
The white (male) working class in Australia has long enjoyed a position of relative privilege within the wider working class. This relative position is being eroded, in particular by the casualization of labour, the erosion of the social wage, and the erosion of real wages. In 2015 the Australian working class is experiencing an income recession.
The elements that make up the Reclaim Australia audience feel their their ‘rightful’ relative position of privilege is being undermined. At the same time that the position of all workers is being eroded, the racist sees their status being reduced to that of non-white workers.
Dave argues that conspiracy (and perhaps by extension racism) leads to passivity and paranoia. The thing that has characterized Reclaim Australia is they have successfully gone beyond this; Reclaim Australia has been an active outburst.
The particular form its taking is an outburst in response to the erosion of a position of relative privilege.
What’s the Solution?
I have spent the bulk of the past year involved in the campaign to oppose Reclaim Australia and it’s various offshoots. The campaign has focused on disrupting specific attempts by the far-right to project power on the streets.
What we don’t have is a wider plan, idea or practice for addressing the growth in racist conspiracy theory.
If you boil this down … conspiracy theory is the logical outgrowth of a life without power. So the alternative to conspiracy theory is the collective development of power.
As much as I hate to admit it, Dave is right in his assessment of the current strength of ‘the left’:
The left as it exists, very marginal, very small … does not currently have a practice that can manifest power.
But I am skeptical of any position that argues there is a “starting point” in the realm of analysis.
Sure, we need all of these things:
We would need to start with an analysis of capitalism today, how does it actually work, develop a series of strategies about what concrete groups of people can do in this concrete conjucture to shift the balance … and then manifest tactics to allow that.
But, how is any analysis of capitalism today ever formed? How are strategies about concrete groups of people developed? How are tactics that actually convey power projected?
And even if by some magic wand an individual or small group suddenly discovered the answers to these questions, how would such ideas actually transmit from this small group to theorized groups of people?
Meaningful strategy has to be a responsive process developed in practice. Effective tactics will only ever be discovered by experimentation in practice. A commitment to practice is the only way to begin to develop groups that would genuinely have the capacity to transmit this practice (through their engagement and action with) to larger concrete groups of people that could develop the capacity to change society.
The starting point is not an analysis of capitalism today, it’s a commitment to practice that reflects, experiments, and recognizes and learns from mistakes. More than anything else this requires that people committed to libertarian emacipatory politics come together in groups and organise for a concurrent process of action and analysis.
Conspiracy theory as a broad scale social phenomena is not something one can argue away. … What gives it life is the palpable absence of the class movement itself.
On that I agree.
Living the Dream, ‘Everything You Know is Wrong’:
The article that Eden refers to in his podcast, Richard Hofstadter, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’.
On a Lighter Note…