Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Secular Theodicies and Some Political Consequences of Conspiracy Theories

When people stop believing in God, they don´t believe in nothing – they believe in anything. G.K. Chesterton

In this blog I am not so much concerned with the truth claims made by conspiracy theorists but with the consequences of believing in them. This is not a value free claim; instead I believe that in certain historical moments, when vast numbers of people become convinced that their polity is threatened or controlled by powerful conspiracies, the consequences for society have been catastrophic and even genocidal.

Elsewhere I have argued that conspiracy theories are an integral part of the construction of forms of political religion (here and here). Discursively they serve as a theodicy: clearly defining an enemy that can be blamed for all evils and calling for total loyalty to the authoritarian leader, who is presented as the only one capable of defeating the vast conspiracy. Historical examples of this are obviously Stalinism and National Socialism, and the best literary example is Orwell´s 1984.

Most modern conspiracy theories act as secular forms of theodicies (by secular theodicy I mean that the explanations of the evils of this world are to be sought in this world). Through them people can be sure that their suffering is not just part of natural, structural, or religious causes, but that concrete this-worldly groups or their agents are to blame. This gives people a sense of political empowerment because if the root of evil is inner-worldly, then it can be defeated with the tools of this world. Only that this empowerment is based on the premise that a powerful conspiracy can only be defeated by a powerful leader. The more powerful the conspiracy, the more power the leader, or in some cases the movement, needs to have in order to defeat it. The consequence is that political mobilization is only effected in support of an authoritarian leader.

Total trust in the leader and his capacity to defeat the conspiracy means that political dissent and internal opposition are considered treason. Conspiracy theories are part of a construction of a siege mentality that stresses the inner group against the enemy. As Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro clearly put it: “There is no opposition in Venezuela, there is only a conspiracy.” Internal debate must be suspended until the day the conspiracy is totally defeated.

When conspiracies are as vast as “capitalism”, “the empire”, “the Zionists”, etc., internal debate must be suspended indefinitely. The secular theodicy argument comes full circle: evils may be caused by human agents, but they are so vast and powerful that they can only be defeated by a leader with out of this world, messianic, and religious powers. Conspiracy theorists truly stop believing in God, and believe in anything.

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