Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.~Hannah Arendt
Conspiracy theories seem to be gaining momentum and have even led people out on the streets. “9/11 was an inside-job” believers, flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, Covid-19 skeptics, and Qanon followers – the crowd of conspiracy theorists appears to be growing. Many tend to blame this on the low education of those who believe in such ideas. Others openly call for the further technocratization of politics as solution to this trend.
But vesting technocrats with more power is actually part of the problem. There is another factor, that drives this rise of conspiracy theories – disempowerement. Psychology professor Jan-Willem van Prooijen, in an research paper of his, traces various sources that indicate how when people feel powerless, or experience a lack of control over their environment, they are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. The Association for Psychological Science has also reached a similar conclusion: A recent review of the scientific literature on conspiracy theories indicates that these ideas may appeal to people trying to make sense in a world that leaves them feeling disempowered, alienated, and confused.
There seems to be a lot of logic in that explanation as people have gone justifiably suspicious of authorities. And contemporary technocrats and experts are part of a lineage that claimed its right to rule over society that dates way back into human history. I am talking of gerontocracy.
Murray Bookchin links the latter, along with patriarchy, as the foundational base of social hierarchies, domination, and exploitation. It was the elders, usually male, who claimed to posses knowledge and wisdoms that were beyond the reach of the rest of society. Thus together with the emerging warrior class they began taking control over their fellow human beings.
Today the governing institutions continue this line of thought. It is no longer the oldest in society, but it is still the supposedly wisest and knowledgeable who are being elected to take charge of our lives. And in the meantime the rest of society is continuously being further distanced away from the centers of power. No wonder then, that people are increasingly suspicious of what the government, its experts and the mainstream media are telling them. It is not that they have suddenly became irrationalists or anti-science, it’s just that they have been lied to too many times by institutions, that were initially designed to maintain the privileged position of the ruling elites.
Unfortunately this distrust is most often being channeled through the dominant imaginary of capitalism and national discourse. Instead of reaching out to other disempowered citizens and attempting to change the political architecture, people who believe in conspiracy theories often fell into state of collective narcissism—a belief that one’s own social group is superior – but unappreciated – by other people, according to a report. And people who believe in conspiracy theories almost always view themselves as part of a people, whose “rightful” place on top of society has been snatched away by someone else. In this way they don’t move beyond the dominant imaginary that has disempowered them in the first place; they firmly participate in it.
It is no wonder then, that researchers have suggested that people immersed in conspiracy beliefs are “less inclined to take actions that, in the long run, might boost their autonomy and control”. They are, instead, much more prone to prove their superiority over other groups. Michael Albert has argued that conspiracy theory provides an easy and quick outlet for pent up passion withheld from targets that seem unassailable or that might strike back, which he concludes, is downright conspiracy theory turned into scapegoat theory. In this sense conspiracy theories are deeply reactionary and in line with totalitarian tendencies.
In order for the wave of irrational and anti-scientific conspiracies to be tackled in any meaningful way, people en masse have to be empowered. As van Proojen suggests, this approach might be more effective than trying to rationally refute conspiracy theories, because many conspiracy theories are not rational to begin with, and moreover, rational reasoning is often not the root cause of conspiracy theories.
If people have the possibility to directly participate in the decision-making that determines the course of their societies, instead of being treated like infants, there will be little room left for fears of others secretly ruling over us. In one such setting, based on direct democracy, there will be no elites ruling society, nor closed expert groups hoarding knowledge, where information and science are made freely available to the public (and not channeled through bureaucratic and/or for-profit institutions) for the latter to be able to engage in rational and secular deliberation.
As author Joseph E. Uscinski has written in his book “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them”:
If feelings of powerlessness increase belief in conspiracy theories, might the reverse also be true—that is, do feelings of empowerment decrease belief in conspiracy theories? Empowerment refers to the feeling that one is in control over one’s own life, and can influence relevant decisions that shape one’s future. Just like feelings of powerlessness are related with negative emotions, including fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, feelings of empowerment are likely to decrease such negative emotions and instead foster hope, optimism, and confidence in the future. Such positive emotions may stimulate citizens to perceive their social environment in a less suspicious state of mind.
Such genuine empowerment, however, can be implemented only by society itself. No institution intended to preserve the privileges of an elite will willingly disperse its power among all of the population. It is the latter who must self-organize and radically alter the political architecture of society. In this endeavor conspiracy theories are nothing less than a great obstacle, and as such they must actively be resisted by the social movements. A more democratic and much less paranoid society is not only a viable alternative to the current alienating and authoritarian regime, but a matter of social participation and organizing in the here-and-now.
 Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973), p353.
 Joseph E. Uscinski: Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p433.
Teaser photo credit: The Eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye of God, seen here on the US$1 bill, has been taken by some to be evidence of a conspiracy involving the founders of the United States and the Illuminati. By de:Benutzer:Verwüstung – de:Bild:Dollarnote_siegel_hq.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2140203