We now know that at least 30 million Americans, about 15% of the adult population, believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” A full 20 percent of poll respondents believe a biblical-scale storm would soon sweep away the elites now running our country and “restore the rightful leaders.” About 80% of Republicans – whose representatives have just a drop less than majority control over the Congress and are in full control of the Supreme Court – do not fully reject these and other QAnon conspiracy theories. Not waiting on divine action, 15% also said that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
Even given the decreasing trust that anyone should have in public opinion polls, and even if these numbers are significantly off, there is something very deep and scary going on. The appearance of populist movements, from the left or the right, are a sign that elites have lost control of their subjects’ view of the world and of what is possible. The sudden and ubiquitous influence of social media, taken advantage of by racists, fascists, vigilantes, and QAnon have given huge numbers of people an alternative view of reality.
But today’s insurgents are not merely rebelling against their rulers. There’s an intoxicating drip of social insanity flowing through their brains. Yes – conspiracies exist: every time people get together to plan something it’s a conspiracy of sorts, almost always about something short-term or specific. Even among the rich and powerful, whose resources and time frames are larger, conspiracies – secret agreements – come and go as part of the normal efforts of elites to avoid competition or regulation. The conspiracies that today’s militia believe they are fighting are long-term, globally powerful, and so secretly effective that they are able to get millions of people, perhaps across hundreds of years, to carry out the plot without anyone realizing what was going on or spilling the beans. The conspiracists are wizards who, in the best fantasy fiction style, have stolen our world from us for their own unclear but obviously alien purposes.
History moves through epochs, fundamental shifts in the socio-economic patterns societies that shape work, relationships, and culture. In the midst of a relatively stable epoch, the ruling elites dominate life and consciousness. It’s what historian Gary Gerstle calls a “political order that is a combination of ideas, policies, institutions, and electoral dynamics…a hegemonic governing regime….A truly dominant order doesn’t have to justify itself; it’s assumptions form the contours of common sense, making alternative ideologies seem marginal and unworkable.”
It is not surprising that during periods of epochal transition bizarre currents of wild ideas and activities are unleashed. There is a crazy-making unmooring of people’s assumptions about how the world works, about what is happening to them and their families, about what things mean and what is true, about what the future holds. Living through this shifting of the tectonic plates underneath every aspect of daily life also shakes our psychological foundations.
So….what is the deeper story? It’s clear that the post-WWII global dominance of American-based corporations and banks is ending as Europe and now China emerge as economic powers in a decolonized and multi-centered world. But how is that process being shaped by the rise of digital communications, virtual machine controls, and Artificial Intelligence? We know that the collapse of revolutionary socialism and the unraveling of neo-liberalism have created space for non-Western movements to demand alternative paths to modernization along with non-Western versions of culture and religion – but how is this different from the non-aligned movements of the past? In what ways is the increasing distance of profit-seeking investment from production, the increasingly speculative and therefore vulnerable nature of the financial industry’s ever-expanding influence over the economy, either cause or symptom or both?
And why is it that a non-trivial percentage of the American population seems to be slightly unhinged? Like the rising tide of “deaths of despair” – a self-blaming and self-destructive disconnection with others related to the loss of opportunity and hope in a changing economy in which others seem to be thriving – this current dissolution of society will have some basis in developments in the domestic and global socio-economic systems. But the analysis we need will show how – and why – it is playing out so dramatically in personal and social psychological/cultural dimensions.
We need a deeper analysis of what is happening to the political, social, and cultural structure of our country – and simultaneously happening in a parallel manner in countries around the world – to cause so many people to become not only unmoored from the ruling classes usually hegemonic ability to define reality but able to be sucked into such paranoid, angry, and violence-invoking forms of social hysteria. Of course, each country will have its own particularities and its own story and some may be only tangentially related to the rest of the world. But there’s got to be some kind of global dynamic at work, some movement of the tectonic plates that shape the world’s socio-economic and cultural surfaces – something epic-defining change as big or bigger than the shift from feudal kingdoms to nationalist republics, from mercantilism to imperialism and the subsequent movements for national liberation.
I don’t pretend to understand all the levels of what’s going on. But I know it’s happening. And I fear that it’s creating a world that will be more desperate and brutal than what I lived through – a world that I fear my grandchildren will have to struggle through with a vulnerability that few of us baby-boomer Americans had to deal with.