Might conspiracy theories be the expression of a paradigm shift in our morality, an Enlightenment 2.0?
Conspiracy theories are Veblen goods. Their value goes down with popularity. So to the casual dabbler during the innocent 2000s, they used to be fun and kooky, harmless exercises in pareidolia and synchronicity. Now conspiracies are the mainstream view to explain any phenomenon we don’t like, and that’s taken all the fun out of calling the Queen a reptile, Bush a puppet, and everyone else a cuck. Conspiracy theories attracted two kinds of people, 1) Veblen snobs who enjoyed the feeling of knowing something nobody else did and 2) persecution-complex paranoids who wanted to wake everybody else up. Mass media is staunchly Darwinist, allowing popularity to define the survival of a meme instead of any abstract notion of inherent value. This medium strongly selects for the paranoid personality types endowed with the will and energy to evangelize. Within a decade, the Veblen snobs have dwindled away to nothing, as their domineering conspiracy bedmates swelled the ranks and made the idea of a conspiracy theory a mixture of three things all snobs hate: commodified, loud, and dumb.
Conspiracies are now commodities. Bare essentials of life. There is no longer the scope for a branded differentiation that separates a sophisticated conspiracy from an idiotic one. They’re all just store-brand now. This is a dark cloud with a formidable silver lining. The silver is this: our standards for rational behavior and strategic thinking are higher, but silverest of all, we are no longer blind to the equivalence of sins of commission and sins of omission.
The first explains why we believe Antifa was responsible for the pro-Trump Capitol riots. We have seen the amazing efficiency with which a huge part of the US turned instantly against Trump, his supporters, and his bid to stay in the White House. Given what we know about the aftermath of these riots, it is exceedingly difficult for us to visualize a counterfactual, a world perhaps where the riots awakened the country to a black rot at the center of government and sparked a revolution, ie a world where Trump wins. Our inability to conceive such a counterfactual leads us to believe that what happened was what was always going to happen, ie in every possible parallel universe where the pro-Trump riots occurred, the same result ensues. Given this certainty of a result that is entirely antipodal to the aims of the rioters, we only have 2 options in our views about the rioters
- They’re unbelievably irrational, and did the exact wrong and counterproductive things.
- They knew exactly what they were doing, and got exactly what they wanted
The latter view leads to Antifa. So I suppose the act of turning a blind eye to all the evidence, all the facts, and all the logic, contains something almost romantically humanitarian about hoping that people are not so stupid as to belong to Category 1 and therefore must be Antifa. This was the same line of reasoning that made BLM looting the opportunistic conspiracy of right-wing vandals and trolls. Both these conspiracies are touchingly generous in their opinion on human reason, when unfortunately all the facts suggest that crowds of humans regress to the IQ of a potato. Yes, crowds are that dumb, and thank god for that. Imagine a competent, rational, strategically drilled mob of rioters. No thanks, I’ll take pitchfork-wielding simpletons any day.
So onwards to the silverest lining: our expectations regarding responsibility vs accountability, incompetent action vs incompetent inaction. A conspiracy theory has a basic underlying mechanism: it takes any result that developed organically or inadvertently, and assigns to it an element of will-power. Bush did 9/11, because otherwise the US was simply caught napping. Big-Oil suppressed climate change information because otherwise our lawmakers have simply been napping. Bill Gates created Covid because otherwise the world was simply caught napping. Conspiracy theories reveal to us the arbitrary privileging of a sin of commission over a sin of omission, whereas they’re both just sins. Letting climate change, 9/11 and Covid happen, are all just as immoral as making them happen, and a conspiracy theory eliminates that intermediate nuisance of making a philosophical case about equivalence, instead jumping straight to the bottom line: that these bad things were made to happen.
In the Enlightenment, our moral philosophy made a paradigm shift into the principles of universal rights, justice, and individual freedom. Over the next 2 centuries, we’ve reached a stage of civilization where these ideas are very difficult to argue with. Immoral actors or groups of actors, starting from the state, cannot harm, persecute or enslave us. But there was a loophole they’ve been exploiting. They can let us come to harm, persecution or slavery, through no fault of their own. Force Majeure. The politician can claim he isn’t responsible for earthquakes and droughts, for spontaneous pogroms and internecine violence. Then everyone reads Hobbes and agrees with the politician, approving his request for more funds to control the beast within all of us, and maybe dig one well to keep the peasants happy for another planting season.
In the Enlightenment 2.0, these sins of omission are just as egregious, just as culpable, and just as immoral. ‘We didn’t cause climate change’ is a pointless argument to have with the future, and so ‘we did nothing about climate change’ is as good as ‘we caused climate change’. Like the Capitol rioters, Antifa, and the grand pooba of the Illuminati, each human is equipped with the faculty of reason that allows us to choose objectives and then move towards them. The same faculty of reason allows us to choose those objectives based on purely abstract principles of right, wrong that need have nothing to do with experience, empiricism and plausibility. Conspiracy theories are so inherently credible because they contrast reality with a much much better one that might have been, one that could and should have been, but isn’t. Why does it not exist? Clearly we lack the imagination, energy, will and intelligence to move purposefully towards a Utopian future. But that’s a very discouraging and disheartening answer. Better to believe that Jeff Bezos has his grubby paws in there somewhere.
The problem comes back to one of the counterfactual. We cannot conceive of a much better world than the one we live in, despite the best efforts of Asimov, Verne and Tesla. Yet, we have no trouble feeling that the path of history was occasionally driven single-handedly by forceful personalities, concentrated ingots of the spirit of a species. So what is the difference between history with a purpose, and history where competent men thought up an idea of history with a purpose? Men who arrived at the point of flattening out of the history curve, and then jumped a little farther. That’s the mechanism for natural selection. A series of waves. At the crest of the wave, some particles don’t round the bend but shoot off tangentially to go much farther. The rest of the wave crashes down, has a few ripples before dropping off to zero. The tangential now represents the rising curve, till it tops out and crashes back down. Each time this happens, the amount of water on the tangential is much lower, until finally there is no longer any wave. This is the great filter. Why there isn’t intelligent life. And why so few of us made it through.
Until a point where we think we understand the purpose of history. And watch. And wait. The league of shadows. When the time is ripe, and they have the power needed to pull off a most glorious purposeful history, begs the question, why wouldn’t they? We are hopeful that those with the will don’t have the power to pull history, those with the power don’t have the will. That means only that either everything happening right now is being manipulated by someone, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, ie the rational non conspiracy theory nut stance to take, then there has, so far, not been someone with the power as well as the will. Let’s say there is non-zero possibility that there will be such a person, surely we would concede that it isn’t that stunningly difficult a task. How confident are we that that person will pull history for the sake of good, like Jesus, or for the sake of evil, like Hitler?
If we’re risk-seeking, we focus on how amazing things could be if someone had the power, the will, and the goodness. Utopia. We’d like this to happen. How do we get there? We concede that the will is what is rare in society, power is just an instrument. So that means power should be totally ignored and we should focus on finding the gem in the population who embodies that sacred will to pull history. Where should we look? How will we know when the perfect candidate comes along?
If we make a mistake and give him all the power, he’ll use it against us. Said the Republicans
Our willingness to give it to him depends on just how confident we are about him. Said Science. So we shall build a body of knowledge to analyze the past and the future. We shall learn the answer to the question. That answer will be the person we find. There need be no doubt about the mistake, as much as there is need to doubt if 2+2*4=16 is a mistake.
It would be, if your chosen symbols stood for something else. Said the spiritualists. Besides, power is not ours to give, it is God’s.
And how would he give it, if not through a spokesman. A prophet, perhaps, to point God’s finger at the one who would wield it. Said the theists.
Why point fingers, when God would wield the mortal just as the mortal might wield the power. Through heroes. Said the pagans.
Gentlemen, gentlemen, said the Magician, seeing how the nature of dissolution worked, through squabble and distraction. Yes to all of you, as I’m sure you will later concede, for now remind you me why we are come here.
To pull history in a way that is good.
Nay, say the risk-averse, standing up after minutes of silence from the other side of the great hall. To prevent the pull of history in a way that is bad. We need never even look for he who might pull among the lands of they who know not what a wheel is. If nobody believed history could be pulled, if it were all merely fantasy, then which self-respecting competent man would try? There will be a war then, between those who would hide the fact that history can be pulled, and those who would seek its release or worse, those who seek to pull it.
In this way was the candle of the Second Enlightenment allowed to whittle down and die. A conspiracy theory would later emerge that it was not allowed to whittle, but actively whittled.