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Conspiracist Thinking Is the Result of 40 Years of Social Atomization

George Monbiot

Amid a disorienting explosion of crises and social shifts, there are worrying signs that some parts of the Left are becoming more susceptible to conspiracist ways of thinking. It’s a symptom of social atomization in the neoliberal era — but we don’t have to accept it as inevitable.

A protester during a march against vaccine mandates in London, UK. (Martin Pope/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

While every political and cultural moment is singular, there’s a case to be made that our own is uniquely disorienting. Given the speed and unpredictability of events and the scale of current social and political crises, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see a proliferation of conspiracy theories across unusually broad swathes of society.

Author and activist George Monbiot, however, finds something singularly dark and sinister about our present moment. In a recent column for the Guardian, he writes with urgency about the extreme right’s appropriation of countercultural idioms and revolutionary language in the age of QAnon and COVID. In a wide-ranging conversation, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with Monbiot to discuss the issues raised in his latest piece, the corrosion of community in the neoliberal era, and the desperate need for a new narrative of solidarity and common good in an age of resurgent fascism and ecological collapse.


LS

To begin, I wanted to ask what prompted this thought? What exactly is this phenomenon as you see it?

GM

I’ve now spent thirty-six years as an environmental activist — on the Left, of the Left — but also see myself as part of the counterculture and sort of a hippie. I might not look like a hippie, but I am. And, over the past few months, I’ve seen the acceleration of a trend (which has been there for quite a while but is now really becoming extremely worrying) of people uncritically accepting some of the themes, the memes, and the conspiracy theories generated on the Right.

I think the pandemic has greatly accelerated that, and that the quite rightful suspicion of power on the Left, green left, and the hippie, alternative countercultural scene seems to have mutated with astonishing and alarming speed into an acceptance of any conspiracy theories based around the idea of a powerful cabal taking away our freedoms, taking away our rights. The uncritical nature of that acceptance, the preparedness to subscribe to themes, which are racist and antisemitic, resonates strongly with certain themes in twentieth-century European history. It’s extremely alarming and needs urgently to be resisted.

LS

You observed that the far right has for a long time embraced frames and language drawn from countercultural and alternative sources — we might think, for example, of the Nazis taking an interest in things like paganism and astrology. I think this is a history many people are unaware of, so maybe we can probe it a little further.

GM

I think this is a very important thing to be aware of and, in discussing it, we shouldn’t commit what the historian Simon Schama calls “the obscene syllogism” of saying: “Well, if the Nazis believed in ecological education, then anyone who believes in ecological education is therefore a Nazi.” But we should be aware that there’s this very long history, and that a big theme in Nazi thought was this idea that “we’re the strong, pure people who come out of nature. We contrast ourselves to the debauched, cosmopolitan people, the urban people.” There was a very strong interest in paganism, in astrology, in natural healing, and quite a lot of Nazis were anti-vaxxers.

Homeopathy was also a strong theme. And, of course, I want to emphasize that I’m not in any way saying that people embracing those themes in their lives makes them Nazis, because that’s evidently not true. But there’s been a long-standing far-right attraction to some of these ideas. In the 1960s and ’70s, some people on the far right sought to reinvent themselves by becoming involved in certain green anarchism themes — deep ecology and anarcho-primitivism — and tried to recruit some of those ideas toward a notion of ethnic separatism and “indigenous” autonomy. And you increasingly see this theme among white supremacists: “We are the indigenous people of this land,” whatever it might be, even of North America, “and everybody else is an interloper, and we have to maintain this land for our pure blood or they are going to contaminate us.”

This is a very long-standing and deep theme, and it was pushed very heavily in the sixties and seventies. It wasn’t in any way generalized, but some people within anarcho-primitivism and deep ecology succumbed to that theme — and they, in turn, were picking up something which had been there at the beginning of the twentieth century among people like Madison Grant in the United States, who was a white supremacist and conservationist. The whole idea was “We’re going to preserve the land for the right people and keep the wrong people out; this is going to be our heartland, but not their heartland.” He was very influential in setting up anti-immigration platforms and campaigns at the same time as he was doing a great deal of conservation work.

Again, this is a history we need to be aware of, and we need to engage with it. It’s no use pretending it wasn’t there. In Britain, the organic movement was to a large extent founded by people on the far right. Not exclusively, but people like Rolf Gardiner and his circle. There was a very strong theme, which resonated with what the Nazis were doing in Germany, of organic agriculture of this sense of purity, blood, and soil. So they were going to build their environmental vision on what was fundamentally a racist and antisemitic vision. Now, obviously, we desperately need an environmental vision today. We desperately need alternatives to capitalist destruction and alternatives to the current economic and political system. But we have to shore up our defenses against all those who want to recruit the alternatives for the far right. And unfortunately, we haven’t been nearly vigilant enough in establishing those defenses.

LS

If this trend is indeed accelerating, what is it about the present moment that might account for it?

GM

I mean, I have literally come across dreadlocked hippies talking about QAnon and about the conspiracy against Donald Trump. So, hang on, how did this happen? I think it’s partly the nature of the issues we currently face — that they are challenging, and that they’re challenging to people on the Left. They’re challenging for anarchists in particular, because we’ve been asked to do things for the common good, which in other circumstances would be regarded as extreme political coercion (for instance, staying in our own homes to avoid spreading the virus and accepting these distancing measures and mask-wearing and the rest of it). To people of an anarchist or libertarian persuasion, this can seem very oppressive. Now, I happen to think that this is a rare exception to the idea that governments should not interfere to that extent, because this actually is a public health emergency and we needed an emergency response. But I can quite understand how it triggers the suspicion and anger of people who have long been highly wary of extreme government intrusion into our lives.

I’m someone who’s been very wary of extreme government intrusion. I believe that the state should play a very significant role in providing public services and in protecting us from predatory wealth and predatory behavior. But, at the same time, there obviously need to be clearly defined limits on the extent to which government can intrude into our lives — particularly when it comes to legal issues in surveillance and the restriction of protest and other essential liberties. So it’s a difficult one, I think, for people of my persuasion to navigate. At the same time, it requires strong intergovernmental agreements — as do the climate crisis and the ecological crisis.

This is, to a large extent, an anti-globalist movement. I mean, I never really saw myself as an anti-globalist. In fact, in 2003, I wrote a book called The Age of Consent which looked at how we should recruit globalization to create more powerful left political movements. Anti-globalization localism, the homespun economy, all of these were major themes and they’re not necessarily wrong ones — the protests against the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the World Bank in the 1990s and aughties were, I felt, entirely legitimate, because these were illegitimate powers being wielded. So again, this moment is difficult to navigate because we see genuine crises, genuine emergencies (like the climate emergency) which do require intergovernmental agreement. Yet that conflicts with a major current of thinking in alternative and left movements.

It seems to me that another big factor has been the profound discouragement and sense of betrayal on the part of formerly left parties, which succumbed — really from the late seventies onwards — to neoliberalism and became often very hard to distinguish from conservative parties. Parties of the traditional left toned down their language, toned down their attempts to restrain economic power, and toned down their redistributive and justice agendas. What we’ve seen, to quite a dramatic extent, has been language swap on the part of the formerly left- and new right-wing parties. So left-wing parties now talk about security and stability. Just yesterday, Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, published a fourteen-thousand-word essay called “The Road Ahead,” and people have literally found the exact same phrases in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. It just lifted chunks out of that. So you’ve got these highly conservative framings about how Labour is going to offer you stability, it’s going to offer you security, hardworking families (as opposed to those scroungers we don’t like) — this highly conservative approach using language literally borrowed from the Conservatives.

Then you have the radical right: people like Steve Bannon and Dominic Cummings, who have stolen the language of the Left. They talk about liberty and revolution. And I think a lot of people find it highly confusing. If you don’t follow politics closely and you don’t keep tabs on who everyone is, you hear words like “liberty” and “revolution” and you might say, “Oh, those must be our guys and our friends, because that’s what I believe! I believe in liberty and revolution!” So this a moment where we have to be super vigilant and ask questions like: Who’s saying this? Why are they saying it? Who’s backing them? And we haven’t been vigilant enough.

LS

Something I admired about your piece was the way it avoided the technological (and particularly social media) determinism that’s now so often invoked to account for the prevalence of conspiracy theories, anti-scientific beliefs, and the like. For you, this is much more about social atomization, the breakdown of community, and also about the absence of any common narrative. As an antidote to these things, you’ve made the case for what you call a politics of belonging, or a restoration story. Can you discuss those a bit?

GM

I think you can almost boil it down to two forms of belonging. There’s creating bonding communities, which are basically getting together with people just like yourself against the Other — that is, people with a similar racial or class background against other people. And then there’s a bridging community, where you build bonds, build links with people outside your background and outside your circle. We urgently need to create bridging communities. Because if we don’t, other people will fill that vacuum by creating bonding communities, and community is essential to human identity. We can’t survive without a sense that we belong to something — and you can see fascism as an extreme expression of the need for belonging. It’s a sort of hyper-belonging, a hyper-community where people wear the same clothes, have the same haircuts, chant the same slogans, and march to the same music (if you can call it music), fly the same flags, etc. It’s this sort of ultra-community with a paranoid need for an extreme form of belonging and for the reassurance you get from being part of something which looks and sounds just like you.

To try to create a politics which has no sense of belonging just opens yourself up to being pushed aside by people who are desperately looking for that belonging and finding it elsewhere. And so I believe that we need to create communities based on equity and justice, based on the common use of common resources, based on sharing, based on public space — literal, physical, public space — and public assets, ideally owned and run by communities, which are inclusive and which deliberately and specifically pull in people from all different walks of life.

There’s almost a science of doing this. There was a four-hundred-page report surprisingly commissioned by a London borough council which looked all around the world at how you create bridging community. There’s almost a sort of formula you can apply, and it can be done very effectively. And I believe that progressive political renewal comes out of that. It doesn’t come from the top down. I would love to see it accompanied by the sort of community politics — which I think digitization and better communication enables to a far greater extent than ever before — which is deliberative, participatory politics, like the participatory budgeting that prevailed in Porto Alegre for fifteen years, the Better Reykjavik program, the Decide Madrid program, where you just have far more day-to-day control over democratic decision-making than we are offered in most of our nations.

In countries like yours and in countries like mine, there’s an election every four or five years where we’re asked to put a cross on a piece of paper. I mean, in our last election, a minority of people voted Conservative, and they now have a mandate to do whatever they want for the next five years — whether it was in their platform or not (not that anybody ever read the platform). But for every single thing that’s in there, they said, “We have a mandate for it and anything else that we want to do. We have a mandate for that as well, because we’re the government and if you don’t like it, you can express your opinion in five years’ time.” Now that is a system called presumed consent: our consent to everything they do for the next five years is presumed, and so they act on our behalf, on the basis that we, the nation, are presumed to consent because they are the government and they got the majority [of seats] in the last election. Now, we don’t accept the principle of presumed consent in sex, so why should it be accepted in politics? It’s an obscene and outrageous idea that our consent can be assumed for everything that they want to do during that time, however outrageous those policies might be. And we have the tools to allow a much more fine-grained, popular, and democratic control of politics than we’ve been allowed. Yet politics is still in the era of the horse-drawn carriage and the quill pen.

LS

When you’ve spoken of the restoration story, you’ve situated it as a new and potentially constructive phrase in our political imaginary — after neoliberalism and also after all of the things that preceded it, whether we’re talking about the common narratives associated with the age of Keynesian social democracy or earlier paradigms.

So I wanted to probe that a little bit more. What exactly does the restoration story mean to you and how would you situate it in relation to these other grand narratives?

GM

The restoration story is about narrative framing in itself. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a highly effective vehicle for promoting a particular politics, and there’s a lot of work showing that without coherent stories, you don’t get anywhere in politics. If you don’t have a story to tell — which tells us who we are, how we got here, what’s gone wrong, and where we need to go — then you’re not getting anywhere in politics, or in religion for that matter. All the successful political movements have been very clear about their narrative. What I find really fascinating is that across both politics and religion, there’s a particular narrative structure which seems to work.

There have been a lot of arguments about whether there are three basic plots or five basic plots or seven or nine, but there’s this one basic plot which I call the restoration narrative and the restoration story, which seems to work again and again in politics. Regardless of whether you’re left, right, or center, this is the structure that you use: the world has been thrown into disorder by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interest of humanity, but the hero or heroes confront the powerful and nefarious forces, and, over against the odds, overthrow them and restore harmony to the land. This is a very familiar story, and we hear it again and again. It’s the story that Marx told, the story that Keynes told, the story that Hitler told. It’s a story that every successful political movement tells about restoration. Now it can be used in a very bad way, and it can be used in a very good way. It was used by the neoliberals to great effect, by Hayek and Friedman and the others. They basically said the state was a powerful and nefarious force and that the heroes — the entrepreneurs — were to overthrow the state and restore harmony to the land.

We desperately need a new restoration story. It’s no good going back to Keynes’s very powerful restoration story because conditions have changed, and you can’t go back in politics anyway — unless you’re a fascist. I don’t know what it is about fascism which allows the model to be endlessly repeated, but, on the Left, you can’t go back. Or even in Keynesian social democracy you can’t go back, partly because the financial sector worked out how to defeat Keynesianism — it figured out how to bypass capital controls and the other essential elements that Keynes put in place. They’ve already got the tools to defeat the system, so why bring that system back? It’s not going to work.

I see a restoration narrative built around the politics of belonging as being a potential way forward. I don’t say it’s the only potential story. Maybe there are better ones, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment. And it’s basically about the world being thrown into disorder by the powerful and nefarious forces of neoliberalism working against the interests of humanity, telling us that our role in life is to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin, there’s no higher purpose in life than that.

But we, the heroes of the story — working-class, middle-class people of the land — will rise up against these powerful and nefarious forces, and start building bridging communities and a politics of belonging from the bottom up: from our own neighborhoods, our own communities, using the tools of participatory democracy, using the commons, investing politically in our own communities, investing economically and socially, we will rebuild a situation which allows us to restore harmony to the land. That’s my best stab at a restoration story for the twenty-first century.