THE UNITED STATES OF CONSPIRACY is a Frontline documentary by Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Jim Gilmore and Philip Bennett. It examines the rise of conspiratorial politics in the United States from the early 1990s until the election of Donald Trump – paying particular attention to the role played by Alex Jones and his online vehicle, Infowars, in the weaponisation and normalisation of conspiracy theories. The influence of Jones’ falsehoods on the style and content of Trump’s campaigning was immense. The documentary makers’ claim that conspiracy theories now constitute an important component of mainstream political discourse is as troubling as it is true.
The assumption, after Trump and QAnon, is that the weaponisation of conspiracy theories is primarily (some would say exclusively) a strategic innovation of the Right. But, what if the counterfactual – that conspiracy theories have their origins on the Left – turned out to be true?
What if, ever since the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s, a consistent and increasingly complex web of left-wing conspiracy theories has been woven around that ideology’s success? Theories characterising the entire neoliberal project as the conscious product of a collection of right-wing individuals who, working largely in secret, had set out to undermine and dismantle the entire social-democratic post-war economic order. A cabal whose long-term objective was to make it impossible for social-democracy to ever again threaten the dominance of Capitalism’s economic and social elites.
To such a claim, the Left would immediately raise the objection that the above description of neoliberalism’s success is not a conspiracy theory, but the plain and simple truth. They would point to the very real Mt Pelerin Society, the notorious Powell Memorandum, the plethora of right-wing think-tanks, and such elite retreats as Bohemian Grove and Davos.
The Left’s claim would be that neoliberalism didn’t just happen, it was organised by flesh-and-blood human-beings. Conspiracies belong to the Right, they’d say, for the very simple reason that the outcomes intended by the conspirators inevitably involve impoverishing the many for the profit of the few.
The Left’s position on conspiracy theories is, therefore, relatively straightforward: it doesn’t need them. The Right, on the other hand, has no choice except to conspire behind an opaque curtain of lies. Bluntly, it cannot afford to tell the truth.
But if conspiracy theories are nothing more than politically-inspired deceptions, a definition which The United States of Conspiracy more than justifies, then where does that leave the claims of (for want of a better term) the “Woke Left”?
The quality that most distinguishes Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories is the heightened emotional state in which he communicates them. Jones rages, he weeps, he shouts at the camera and shakes his fists. Only very rarely does he communicate with his followers in a calm and reasoned fashion. It’s as if he is compensating for the lack of facts and evidence in his wild claims, by directing ever more extreme displays of anger and disgust towards the individuals and groups he is attacking.
It is when the fetid atmosphere created by the Right’s toxic accusations and denunciations is at its thickest, that comparisons with the Woke Left spring most easily to mind. If the level of emotion on display, and the strength of the invective used, is inversely related to the truth of the claims being advanced, then the veracity of a great deal of contemporary left-wing discourse must surely be called into question.
On the issues of race and gender particularly, the Woke Left’s almost instant recourse to accusation and denunciation is alarmingly reminiscent of Alex Jones and his imitators. There is the same determination to discipline, punish and suppress the perpetrators of willful falsehoods and the upholders of heretical doctrines. Most alarming of all is the shared proclivity of the Conspiratorial Right and the Woke Left to dehumanise their opponents. Alex Jones describes his enemies as “demons”, the Woke Left brands its enemies as racists, fascists and TERFs.
Naturally, these highly emotive defences of Woke political positions raise questions about whether or not they can be validated by more rational, evidence-based, discussion.
It has always been the Left’s mission to convince by means of reason and science: building toward a crushing demolition of its foes’ arguments by assembling a battering-ram of verifiable facts. This process cannot be successful if the right of those to whom the Left’s case is being made to interrogate its facts is denied. Facts cannot be asserted, facts can only be proved. Unfortunately, the Woke Left is not at all disposed to proving its facts in the cut and thrust of open political debate. It offers dogma. It punishes heresy. But it is only rarely willing to enter into open-ended discussion.
The lies of Alex Jones, his disgusting conspiracy theories, are, fortunately, easy to refute. The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Al Qaeda, not the US Government. The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre was a devastating human tragedy, not a “false flag operation” performed by actors. The Queen of England is not a shape-shifting lizard. Hilary Clinton is not a demon from hell. The Comet Ping-Pong pizzeria is not the epicentre of a diabolical Democratic Party paedophile ring.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the claims of the Woke Left. That the Māori chiefs at Waitangi never signed away their sovereignty; complainants of sexual assault never lie; biological sex is a social construct; may or may not be statements of fact, but they are beyond doubt claims of extraordinary political significance.
What The United States of Conspiracy revealed is what might be dubbed an “epistemological crisis”, i.e. the extreme danger posed to the coherence of contemporary societies by the unprecedented lack of a generally agreed means of determining what we know, and how we know it.
The most dangerous conspiracy theory of them all is the one that declares there’s a whole host of dangerous people out there who simply will not accept that ours is the only side that knows the truth.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 July 2022.