Research suggests that people may be drawn to conspiracy theories when they promise to satisfy important social psychological motives that can be characterized as epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding, accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g. the desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group)…conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction…Conspiracy belief is correlated with lower levels of education…The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, Karen M. Douglas, et al, 2017
For as long as the printing press has existed, the whole of civilization has quietly fallen under the influence of sovereign entities with the ability to control the value of expended work through the manipulation and control of currency. The ‘sweat of the brow’ ceased to be represented by any discernible value, but rather through an unseen, uncontrollable force of entities outside control of the masses exchanging their representative currencies…Declaration of Currency Independence, June 27, 2018.
Because Bitcoin hard-liners believe true money is a limited-supply good that must be extracted through production, they claim that fiat money ― created by banks or countries ― is artificial or deceitful money under the control of corrupt powers. There’s a puritanical edge to these cryptocurrency crusaders, who mistrust human institutions and trust in an abstract ‘godlike’ order of mathematics and markets…crypto crusaders see politics as foolish.These Five Rebel Movements Want to Change How Money Works, Brett Scott, Huffpost.com, September 14, 2018.
We still lack a proper word for today’s world. For her part, the philosopher Catherine Malabou believes we are witnessing the beginning of capitalism’s “anarchist turn”: “How else are we to describe such phenomena as decentralized currencies, the end of the state’s monopoly, the obsolescence of the mediating role played by banks, and the decentralization of exchanges and transactions?”
Those phenomena may sound appealing, but with the gradual disappearance of the state’s monopoly, state-imposed limits to ruthless exploitation and domination will also disappear.From Cold War to Hot Peace, Slavoj Zizek, Project-Syndicate, March 25, 2022
What makes huge swaths of both the Russian and the US populations currently so vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and hence mass enablers of growing repression and dangerous distraction? Yes, Putin has shut down alternative media, and yes, he has full control of the state media, with the majority rural and small city population soaking up Kremlin propaganda. As a Ukranian video blogger has said of his interviews with Russian prisoners of war, whose mothers he calls to get their response to their son’s involvement in bombing civilians, “often a Russian mother has a TV instead of a brain.”
But even under the current media censorship in Russia, there are social markers that seep into the culture that could raise questions for the great majority of the population – the mass closing of stores, the bodies being sent home, soldiers not responding to family outreach, the calls from soldiers who thought they were going on a training session and find themselves fighting a brutal war, the growing resistance of reservists, the calling up of 135,000 untrained conscripts for a “military operation,” the actual shutting down of media and protestor arrests, etc. These are generally countered, by the majority of the population, with denial or expressions of paranoid nationalism and projected aggression. But how different are these Russians from the almost 5000 clients who for decades turned over their investment money to Bernie Madoff and cried ignorance when his Ponzi scheme resulted in the loss of $50 billion. They knew they were getting inexplicably good returns for decades, but they engaged in a very convenient form of disavowal.
In the US, the susceptibility to conspiracy theories is usually chalked up to demagogic misinformation enabled by the profit-optimizing social media algorithms and reactionary media moguls. But it is easy enough in the US. to access sufficient enough information to at least create skepticism about conspiracy theories; media bubbles in the U.S. are symptoms of populist disavowal as much as they are cause.
Many are the stakes of disavowal – nationalist, economic, emotional – compounded by the active need of neoliberalism to stoke such rationalizations for profit. Neoliberalism needs a passive population, and all the better for profits when surrounded by chaos and governments distracted by war. It is very telling that a recent study found that while US multi-millionaires were public about their socially liberal stances and their economically reactionary beliefs (no taxes for the wealthy, cut and privatize social security, etc.), billionaires were…silent. They did not make their beliefs public; they donated through secret PACS to demolish government oversight and regulation. 40% of all political donations in the US are made by the 1% of the 1%.
The stake in understanding mass susceptibility to conspiracy theories is profound. While the dysfunctionality of government can result in a cynicism that generates conspiracy theories– as in the example of a dysfunctional US government over multiple decades resulting in deep-state conspiracies– the inverse is also true. Conspiracy theories undermine belief in government: “…exposure to conspiracy theories decreases trust in governmental institutions, even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those institutions.” [The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories.]
There are enough actual sinister aspects of American government that one would think conspiracy theories would be redundant. But it is the very nature of globalized 21st century neoliberal capitalism that feeds into the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Aside from the precarity produced by the outsourcing of what used to be the 32% of stable and well-paid union jobs that existed in the US in the 1960s (now 10% and without the same stability or salaries), the very abstraction of neoliberalism is virtually impossible for a mass population to understand – a stock market that is purely self-referential (markets do well when “their expectations are realized,” regardless of how irrational), offshore havens that make it impossible to tie wealth to individuals, a dizzying myriad of tax loopholes for corporations and the super-rich, hidden, internecine relations between government and big money, geopolitical machinations shot through with profit for the few, a finance system of hedges and leverages and “financial instruments” at the top that affects the daily lives of workers, etc. And academic language has not even attempted to clarify neoliberalism for the masses.
Neoliberalism breeds conspiracy theories by creating populaces that find themselves precarious, without understanding how they got there.
Experimental results suggest that experiences of ostracism cause people to believe in superstitions and conspiracy theories, apparently as part of an effort to make sense of their experiences…[and] may be recruited defensively, to relieve the self or in-group from a sense of culpability for their disadvantaged position.The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories
During the last six weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the case has repeatedly been made by pundits, journalists, and academics that aside from propaganda, the majority of the population has overwhelmingly supported Putin for decades because they see him as having pulled them out of the dire poverty that preceded the “shock therapy” entry of the country into the free-fall of so-called free-market neoliberal capitalism in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was that neoliberal “shock therapy” – facilitated by both individual Americans like Jeffrey Sachs and the American state itself – that produced the oligarchs who bolstered Putin’s power for many years, and kept the majority of the Russian population just precarious enough that they feel disconnected from the much smaller, more educated, wealthier, media-savvy urban technocrati class in Moscow, who don’t feel as indebted to Putin.
For the millions of Americans who fall for the rhetoric of the craven Republicans who extoll the virtues of Andrzej Duda in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary, authoritarianism — when one’s place in a country is not only precarious but incomprehensible — has allure. The pop view that this allure is created by an instrumentalized Christian fundamentalist perspective, misses the point. Christian fundamentalism is a symptom, like many others that are seen as precipitative, rather than symptomatic.