2007 - 2020

The Politics of Paranoia

What are you worried about?
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Obviously we’re all worried we might get the disease and die, or that our loved ones might get infected and so on. It’s the background thrumming anxiety that makes us alternately irritable, angry, sad or even slightly high.
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But there are other things not so obvious that I’m worried about and maybe you are too?
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I’m worried about all the things they’re dropping and not doing under the disguise of the pandemic. The extension of early years nursery education has been quietly dropped. Monitoring at Mossmorran, which was already completely inadequate has been cancelled by SEPA [Mossmorran campaigners fear operators given ‘free pass’ as monitoring cut back – The Courier]

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But the things we really should be worried about we probably don’t know anything about and never will.
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I’m worried about government’s incompetence and that they are not telling us the real truth about the figures involved here. And I’m worried about the impact of that lack of openness and transparency as it leaches out into the public consciousness. Because as we languish in this fourth week of lockdown (with no obvious sight of it ending), the effect of that government secrecy and disinformation is a cloud of distrust.
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Covid lands into a world where respect and trust in the political classes is very low. It’s been corroded for years since the expenses scandal and long before, and now social media boots and amplifies a culture of distrust and suspicion. A ton of that is a good healthy thing, a growing lack of deference and a mounting sense that those in power don’t know what they’re doing.  But the other aspect of that culture of distrust is a malignant conspiracy culture that allows whacky and sinister ideas to spiral. In this atmosphere, where people are genuinely both scared and ill at ease, this tendency is super-charged, boosted by a potent mixture of fragments of knowledge and desperation.

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The mirror to this phenomenon is the distrust in the media which has been festering for decades. This is both healthy and toxic. While a critical stance on media fault lines and structures is imperative, a blind hatred of all media and journalists is debilitating. Anything can be deemed irrelevant and dismissed as “fake news” without examination if you don’t like it. People openly clamor for news media which just reinforces their existing beliefs.
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Post-Truth and Denialism
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This fracture, this paradox runs through conspiracy culture. As ‘Bob from Brockley’ tweeted this week: “There is a paradox at the heart of conspiracism: its starting point is a radical doubt, but it’s devotees are highly credulous and susceptible to the trappings of authority.”
As Keith Kahn-Harris points out in his brilliant book on “denialism”: “Denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity.”  Kahn-Harris argues that denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial: “Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.”
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While ‘Denial’ (of which we are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent) can be seen as a coping mechanism, ‘Denialism’ becomes an altogether more insidious and dangerous phneomenon.
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Kahn-Harris argues:
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“In recent years, the term has been used to describe a number of fields of “scholarship”, whose scholars engage in audacious projects to hold back, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the findings of an avalanche of research. They argue that the Holocaust (and other genocides) never happened, that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is a myth, that Aids either does not exist or is unrelated to HIV, that evolution is a scientific impossibility, and that all manner of other scientific and historical orthodoxies must be rejected.”
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And this becomes circular. Once you go down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy theory and denialism there’s often no way back.
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Climate denialists and moon-landing sceptics, chemtrail spotters and Flat-Earthers, Assad-apologists and anti-vaxxers, Covid disinformation enthusiasts and 5G tower attackers often feed off each other, citing and cross-referencing each others descent into a realm of post-truth. It was inevitable that someone would shout “False Flag” about the coronavirus, presumably “child actors” are next.
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In this culture of paranoia people who distrust “official” knowledge wear it as a badge of honour. Misinformation can be shared virally, if that’s a term we can still use, and gain authority in its presentation even if its starting premise is plainly ridiculous. In this atmosphere individuals gain cult-like followings and a status despite their peculiar outpourings. The more whacky it gets the more they are egged-on, easily dismissing anyone who stands in their path with their ‘facts’ and rationality.
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There’s good reasons for this phenomenon.
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The first is the spectacular failure of leadership we’ve seen in the west for decades. It has allowed distrust to fester and systemic problems to be ignored. The spurious distrust of “experts” that manifest itself through the Trump and Brexit years is a displacement effect from those who have very genuine reasons to not trust those in charge. Equally the toxic attacks on “metropolitan elites” stem from a totally reasonable class-based anger at the society that has been built on gross and disfiguring inequality. But the main reason for the growth of this phenomenon is that states do act in secrecy, parapolitics does exist, and we know this. There is a lot out there to be suspicious about, there are good reasons to be deeply critical of those in power and good reasons to examine the clandestine networks of power that exist.
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But, as Robin Ramsay explores in Politics and Paranoia, there was a moment when the conspiracy phenomenon switched from being one driven by the left as being a critically-minded exploration and challenge of the powerful, to one dominated by the right, with wildly irrational ideas – as most recently seen in the convergence of the Trump base and the ‘Q’ cult.
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[Ramsay cites Holly Sklar’s The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management as the turning point if you want to geek out on this].
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As the right took over the sub-culture of conspiracism the major media noticed this apparent crossover and it was described as fusion paranoia.
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This type of thinking is infectious. In recent months we’ve even seen individuals in the Scottish nationalist movement start to talk of the ‘Deep State’ an unconscious mimicking of a key term from Trump supporters.
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Conspiracism and populism are almost exclusively a politically right-wing phenomenon.
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Even the left-wing conspiracy theorists are right-wing.
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They are now boosted and given airplay by the proliferation of new media outlets on the fringes of the British and American right, from Guido Fawkes to The Spectator, from Spiked to Breitbart, all seeking the clicks and happy to give space to (almost always) angry white men.
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As Marlon Solomon pointed out: “The world Is facing an unprecedented crisis so London Live invited on David Icke – a man who believes the moon is a hollowed out space station from which shape-shifting transdimensional aliens secretly control our world – to give his insights on Covid-19.”
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The problem with all of this in a time of pandemic hardly needs stated.
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It’s not only that we need to have some collective social control. We also need a cure and we need testing and we need to interact with the state and with each other.
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So the coronavirus arrives in a toxic soup of extreme distrust of politics and media at a time when we need leadership and to build trust and solidarity and in a moment where we need to have sources of trusted information. This has gone from being useful to being essential.
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The main thing I’m worried about is that people are so worried and anxious they will buy into theories that are dangerously stupid.
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In times like this we need to be rational and to have faith in each other. We urgently need to have good faith and to build trust and solidarity.
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This doesn’t mean we have to lose our critical edge. It doesn’t mean we have to be unthinking about power and media. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be angry at the chaotic and the disgraceful governance that surrounds us, because if anything we’re not angry enough.
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Conspiracism lands and thrives in a post-ideological world, where the political landscape has become so fuzzy and confused that it is difficult to make any sense, so you will believe anything that’s put before you. If anything the coronavirus crisis makes clear the need for a new politics, new political ideas to create the new systems we will need to recover and re-build our world. They may look quite different from the old politics as everything has changed completely.

Comments (23)

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  1. Jo says:

    “Assad-apologists”

    I really wish you’d left that out, Mike. This is not the place….and for you to caution us against crying “fake news” is really unfortunate because the absolute fake news surrounding Syria goes on and on. And I’m no apologist for Assad.

    I’m not trying to kick off a row or discussion on this because, frankly, there’s enough to worry about.

    I’ll comment separately on the rest of the article.

  2. Jo says:

    “While a critical stance on media fault lines and structures is imperative, a blind hatred of all media and journalists is debilitating.”

    My main concerns are related to media behaviour during the current crisis. I recognise that “blind hatred” isn’t the way to go but at the same time my trust in journalists is shot to pieces.

    Right now there are hints that government is about to cave in and start lifting some lockdown measures. Those hints are coming from the MSM, the body that has pushed against the lockdown from day one. Ministers deny any such plans. So, there’s jiggery-pokery going on somewhere.

    My personal view is that journalists are now less trustworthy than politicians and the more I see the more difficult I find it to stop feeling that way.

    Only days ago when we learned that lockdown would go on for another three weeks, Kuennsberg was right in there. Her question? “What will be the outcome at the next review in three weeks time?”. I couldn’t believe it. What is wrong with these idiots? It seems to me they actually don’t care about what’s happening! It seems to me that right now the media is the real enemy. And I don’t think that’s down to paranoia on my part.

  3. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Who’s driving the “open-up-the-economy” agenda? Recklessly promulgated despite the glaring evidence that we’ve yet to fully understand the virus and its patterns of transmission, let alone produce a vaccine to defeat the fucking thing? That’s what’s bothering me right now.

    A corollary of the back-to-the-past agenda is the prediction of a long lasting and fathomless economic depression which can only possibly be ended by the return to “business as usual”. How fantastical, unhelpful and staggeringly unimaginative is that in light of the fact we have no idea when a vaccine might be delivered?

    1. Jo says:

      Josef

      We were also fed the info that a recovery from Covid 19 would leave the patient immune. That’s now been debunked too!

      Many experts seem to have this need to answer difficult questions despite not actually knowing the real answer. I would rather have an honest, “I don’t know.” than a response which journalists will reinterpret in whatever way they want and publish as fact.

  4. Paul McMillan says:

    The Spectator on the ‘fringe of the right’,?
    Its been going for 200 years
    Have you labelled it along with those truly dreadful hate rags (Spiked, Breitbart) cos you don’t get invited to its summer party?

    1. Paul McMillan says:

      Joking aside in the ‘good old days’ (BI before internet) conspiracy theorists (or as i refer to them, loonies) had no option but to send letters to newspaper editors telling them that (take your pick) the world was secretly controlled by Free Masons, Jews, Communists, Aliens etc etc. The editor would pick up the letter think to him/her self ..loony and then throw it in the bin. Now we live in AI (after internet times,) the lòonies can then post their ‘theories’ on line and other loonies around the world read them and think to themselves ‘somebody agrees with me so (despite what my mum tells me) I’m not a loony as people agree with me, ergo I’m right.
      As for conspiracy theorists been on the right not so sure. However they all seem to be male
      Perhaps the female of the species is better tuned to suss out bullshit? Please don’t accuse me of been sexist, its just an observation.
      Keep well everybody!

  5. kate macleod says:

    Qld , which closed its borders to other Australian states ( especially internal tourists) some weeks ago, has a population similar to Scotland and its Covid 19 deaths are 6 so far.

    One of the things i dont think is reasonable or engendering trust is people who maintain the scottish government in following policy from westminister , including halting tracing in early march, put the public interest first for ‘national unity’ or for scientific grounds. it just didn’t put the scottish public health interest first. It has not been transparent about why or about PPE provision. It doesn’t really seem to care so many people have died and it certainly doesn’t feel responsible for local deaths.

    National non unity, as a recent article on the German experience in Bella showed, can be great for ensuring voices that lead to preserving life are heard.
    I think non auto conformity to govt and in house experts- that is experts chosen or tolerated or sacked by politicians for their ends- by particular health journalists such as norman swan on the ABC (who it seems a lot of people trust) as well as many other journalists widely debating and comparing international outcomes, and most importantly State Premiers and their alternate experts ignoring the Fed govt when they wish to be more cautious about protecting people ( almost never more reckless for some reason) has been useful. Sweden shows a poor outcome of blind conformity to a govt’s chosen experts, at least for old people.

    Where is trust going to come from and who can it be placed with? Maybe taking a good look at all the alternatives and backing what and who seems to make most sense at the time is better than ongoing trust in any leader, person or party. I think there has been too much undeserved trust invested and it will be gone out of fashion a while. Most likely Corbyn was someone who could have been trusted to preserve life to the fullest extent within his power in this situation and there is almost noone who didn’t mock him. i don’t trust those millions upon millions of people.

  6. Kevin Hattie says:

    I wonder what factors are behind the lack of critical thinking in society. It’s not only to be found among those who gather in strange corners of the internet; it can be found among intelligent and competent people.

    We are all guilty of bypassing our critical faculties at times. How often we do this is a matter of individual habits. Speaking from a personal viewpoint, I’d say more than 50% of the time. I’m guilty of things like confirmation and authority biases, as well as reading things and taking them at face value. It requires more effort to subject things to critical scrutiny. So maybe it is just laziness. But even though my critical thinking skills need some practice, I still have enough about me to avoid falling into some of the crazy conspiracy theories out there. I wonder what the difference is between myself (and those in a similar predicament) and those who buy into crazy conspiracies. Is it upbringing? That would be hard to say. Educational attainment? There are probably better educated people who believe some of these theories than me. Laziness? Some conspiracy theorists go to great lengths to explain and justify their theories. Fear and anxiety about reality? I share this.

    Who knows?

    Anyway, I’ve said enough. Who knows who might be reading this…

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Kevin Hattie, it looks a lot like a form of immaturity to me. Perhaps in the distant past people needed to make appropriate decisions on a regular basis just to keep alive. They may have had groundless superstitions for growing crops, say, but in general those superstitions had to work, or they’d starve. Nowadays, in certain comfortable lifestyles, perhaps many adult-aged people are still mentally in some sub-mature stage, who have had a lot of things done for them, yet barely notice how dependent they are on others. They might be people who often indulge in conspiracies themselves (to defraud the Inland Revenue, or to blacklist union activists, or to buy stolen goods in the pub whilst habitually decrying burglary and petty theft) and project this tendency onto others. I think it was Machiavelli who said that anyone can start or lead a conspiracy, but the only really effective ones were carried out by powerful people (I am not sure that is true, but it may be an indication that the vast majority of conspiracies are a bit lame and/or easily discovered, especially due to blabbermouths).

  7. Just a note to let you know – even thought it completely proves the argument of the article – we won’t be publishing your conspiracy theories here, as its grossly irresponsible in the time of a global health emergency (as should be very clear to you).

    1. Kevin Hattie says:

      The ‘who knows who might be watching?’ bit at the end of my previous post was a joke.

      Well, I was half joking. It’s no conspiracy to claim that our online activities are not as private as they ought to be.

    2. Michael says:

      That’s a shame Mike. Was it grossly irresponsible to be casting doubt on the claims about Iraq’s WMDs, or the Bay of Tonkin or Reichstag fire? All events that cost the lives of millions of people and the consequences of which that we are all still living with today. I know you must get tired of having your views challenged and that you want to occupy the “middle” ground of “rationality”, but that doesn’t mean your views or insights are superior on every issue. That’s why we need open debate and discussion. I’m not your enemy. I’m just interested in facts. Not stories that suit our existing positions. But Bella is your platform and I respect that.

      1. Its interesting you mention the Bay of Tonkin, its a touchstone piece mentioned in Robin Ramsay’s book that is frequently referenced by 9/11 Truthers.

        Interested in your perspective, would you have me just publish all of the theories about coronavirus?

        1. Michael says:

          It’s strange to get this kind of hostility from you Mike. In the past I have helped livestream Bella events, and you’ve published bits by me etc. All I did was send you a comment with a couple of links to academic journals, a professor, a couple other credible articles, one by Scott Ritter the ex weapons inspector and my own views. You’ve allowed other people’s views to be expressed here! I was a bit shocked by your reaction. But, as I say, I respect that Bella is your platform to manage as you see fit.

          1. I’m indebted to your help and support.

            I’d repeat the question.

          2. Michael says:

            I don’t see any harm in critically assessing events, looking at the available evidence and discussing different views and conclusions. If the small part of my post that expresses my views about coronovirus (based on the academic evidence that I have seen) fails your publication guidelines, that is your business.

          3. Hi Michael – my response was not just to your post but dozens advocating stopping the lockdown equating it with the Nanny State and suggesting the virus is part of a Chinese plot and some involving the Rothschilds. I totally agree there is room ( and need) for critical thinking and will try and make the right call while excluding inflammatory and dangerous content.

  8. Daniel Raphael says:

    Good and useful essay. One point for consideration: at least some of the confusion we observe (and sometimes experience) between “conspiracy” and “critical thinking” is due to lack of definition. Politicians are notorious for this, but they are far from alone in failing to be precise and consistent in their use of language. What brought this to mind was your passing comment, Mike, that ‘populism’ is largely a right-wing thing. Well, I don’t know. You might understandably not be familiar with the populist movement in the United States in the 1800s, and the Populist Party that was its organized expression. It was a decidedly leftish movement [I’d use a hyperlink at your site if I knew how, but here’s the Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People%27s_Party_(United_States) ]. Fast forward to a few decades ago, and a very decidedly right-wing outfit, happily short-lived, adopted the name of that party. I offer this as a kind of caveat about ‘populism’ in particular, but also as a synedoche for all and any terms that are lacking readily recognizable definition.

    As my high-school philosophy teacher often asserted as a sort of First Principle: “define your terms.” It’s good advice, which in our better moments, we all should follow.

    1. Kevin Hattie says:

      Daniel,

      Fantastic point. Clearing the fog of ambiguity is indeed very important. This point cannot be stressed enough.

      Also, I am jealous you got to study Philosophy in high school. It’s the subject I chose at university, but I would have loved an earlier beginning in it.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        Understood. It’s what got me interested in what’s proven to be a lifelong focus, the longest of all my sustained interests. The teacher offered several distinct classes, but it’s been so long I’m hazy about which ones they were. I know that we studied epistemology in one, and the book Intro to Philosophical Analysis, by John Hospers, was the text. Another had Russell’s famous book, A History of Western Philosophy, as its central focus. There was a course on ethics (I think), which I didn’t take, and possibly one on aesthetics (less sure about this one). The prof was a fan of the Vienna Circle, a logical positivist empiricist Humean skeptic (his train of self-definers, as I recall). it was a good intro and foundation for setting out on the philosophical quest, though he wouldn’t have been edified to see how it developed through my life. Still, if you’re going to venture into phenomenology, Heidegger, existentialism, and Merleau-Ponty, starting out with “define your terms” and a good dose of sobering humility is a good foundation.

        He later taught philosophy at the community college that opened in our modest-sized city, until complications from a flying accident brought his life to a close. I have thought of him many times across my life, always with gratitude for what he brought to my life.

    2. Thanks, yes, all valid points, I was speaking about ‘this moment’ but of course there are example of left wing populism

  9. Richard Easson says:

    You are right Mike that we should retain our critical faculties and keep a cool head looking at the facts, but the facts are dire and so many (to me obvious small things )are not even being addressed, which are piling up into a wonderful confusion.
    For instance outwith the terrible reality of the virus and its effects, since lockdown over 4-5 weeks there must be about ten million cars that have not been MOT’d, serviced or repaired, perhaps major faults needing looked at, and still driving around (insured?) so when this is over (?) this will never be caught up with a Government that couldn’t run a sweetie shop with everything marked threepence. They can’t even in a compassionate way say they will even meet the funeral costs of all NHS victims of their ineptitude. That would mean caring.

  10. Michael says:

    As tens of millions are thrown out of their jobs and the whole global economy is being restructured by central bankers and their corporate partners, a “scientific” study from Standford University suggests that Covid-19 is actually relatively harmless in most cases.

    “The study from Stanford University, which was released Friday and has yet to be peer reviewed, tested samples from 3,330 people in Santa Clara county and found the virus was 50 to 85 times more common than official figures indicated.

    “At the time of the study, Santa Clara county had 1,094 confirmed cases of Covid-19, resulting in 50 deaths. But based on the rate of participants who have antibodies, the study estimates it is likely that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had been infected in Santa Clara county by early April.

    “That also means coronavirus is potentially much less deadly to the overall population than initially thought. As of Tuesday, the US’s coronavirus death rate was 4.1% and Stanford researchers said their findings show a death rate of just 0.12% to 0.2%.”

    Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/17/antibody-study-suggests-coronavirus-is-far-more-widespread-than-previously-thought

    Is it acceptable to cast doubt on the mainstream narrative about Covid-19 on Bella Caledonia, with reference to a “scientific” study?

    Covid-19 is looking more and more like a ruse. And it’s looking more and more irresponsible to be blindly going along with it.

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