1. The Conspiracy within the Conspiracy
Last week I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time. Like everybody else, I was familiar with images from the film — Richard Dreyfuss making the iconic mountain out of a plate of mashed potato, the mothership (from which Parliament Funk unfortunately doesn’t descend) in the drawn-out son et lumiere ending — but I must be one of the few people in Western civilisation not to have seen Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film. And watching it, I was struck by its relevance to today. Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking (and writing) about the role of conspiracy theories in our culture and politics, and in particular their current ideological role in ushering the populations of formerly liberal democracies into a totalitarian biosecurity state on the justification of the threat of what we’re told is a deadly novel-coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.
The first thing that struck me about Spielberg’s film is that UFOs are the conspiracy theory par excellence. Drawing on more general fears about the threat of alien life forms in the early Twentieth Century — a fantasy emerging from the loosening of the grip of organised religion over the minds and behaviour of Western populations and the concomitant rise of spiritualism and new age religions after the Great War — the conspiracy theory of UFOs has the function of dividing the reports of unidentified flying objects, which appear overwhelmingly in the night skies of Middle-America, into two poles. Either 1) extra-terrestrial life forms with highly advanced technology are visiting earth and, just like in Hollywood movies, they decided the deserts of the USA the best place to start; or 2) the people reporting seeing unidentified flying objects are mistaken, deceived, lying or plain crazy. This either/or scenario allows those who regard themselves as rational believers in science to dismiss the witnesses of these sightings with some variation on the word ‘loonies’, and the considerable evidence of those sightings to a realm of esoteric and cultic belief. In doing so, the conspiracy theory serves to occlude what is the most obvious explanation for UFOs, which is the sudden rise in experiments in avian and rocket technology by the military of the USA and other countries after the Second World War.
Implicit in this explanation is that the conspiracy theory of UFOs has not emerged from a more general attempt to explain these unidentified flying objects, but has been created by the same people responsible for those objects in order to silence questions about their origins. These might include asking what the purpose of these experiments are; what military power do they dispose of; who is involved in their financing and production; are they being used to spy on the citizens of the country whose taxes are paying for them; how much of the annual budget is being spent on them; why are they being kept secret and under what laws; and other questions no government, let alone the security services and military of the USA, has any intention of answering. All these military, political, legal, financial, national and rigorously material issues were all removed from the agenda with the creation of a conspiracy theory about little green men of advanced intelligence and dubious intentions visiting our planet. How this conspiracy theory was disseminated in first books and radio programmes, then television shows and films, and now on social media, is part of the history of twentieth and twenty-first century culture and ideology.
It’s within this context that Spielberg made his 1977 film, which starts in the small town of Muncie, Indiana, the heart of the American Midwest, makes references to the Bermuda Triangle — another great conspiracy theory of US history — and leads its protagonists to Wyoming, the least populated of the United States of America and the site of the mashed potato mountain. And, of course, it all ends with a visitation by benevolent aliens who return every American ever reported abducted by aliens or lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Ah! how different those times were to the far more violent imagination of today’s culture industry, when every UFO is an enemy aircraft intent on destroying the U.S. of A. and its allies — which of course includes us.
So far, so anodyne. But what makes Spielberg’s film different — and in my opinion constitutes it’s only point of interest — is that the story, which is itself a product of the UFO conspiracy theory, contains within itself its own conspiracy. Briefly, the US military has decoded a message from the aliens that turns out to be the geographical co-ordinates for their forthcoming visit, the flat-topped mountain called Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. But they first have to evacuate the area of civilians. In one scene, we see scientists considering a list of disasters that will do the job, which we see written down on a pad as follows:
- EARTH QUAKE ALERT!
- FLASH FIRE — FOREST FIRE
- VIRUS — a) Diphtheria, b) Unknown strain, c) Bad water
- (the first words are hidden by a glass ashtray, but the last one is) MILITARY
One of the scientists suggests ‘disease’. To which another responds: ‘What kind of disease?’ ‘A plague epidemic’, he replies. ‘Nobody’s gonna believe in a plague in this day and age!’ So someone then suggests ‘anthrax’, to which the Major, who despite his low rank is in charge of the whole operation, replies:
‘That’s good. I like that. But it may not evacuate everybody. There’s always some joker who thinks he’s immune. What I need is something so scary it will clear 300 square miles of every living Christian soul.’
I half expected to see Professor Neil Ferguson walk through the door waving his latest estimates of how many million people will die unless we do exactly what he says — but this is what they come up with in the film. While Richard Dreyfuss is building a model of Devil’s Tower in his living room, the daytime soap opera on his television (from my recollection it’s Days of our Lives) is followed by an ABC News report of a rail disaster near the mountain, in which a train loaded with a ‘dangerous chemical gas’ went off the rails. As we cut to the living room of the female love interest, played by the hot-panted Melinda Dillon, the news report goes on to say that thousands of civilian refugees are fleeing, ‘spurred on by rumours that the seven tanker cars that overturned were filled to capacity with GM nerve gas’. Already, then, the unidentified ‘dangerous gas’ that justifies the military evacuating the area has been given a name, not by the US Government but by ‘rumours’ whose origin is equally unidentified. This is a model of how conspiracy theories are created and function, terrorising those for whom they had been made sufficiently to justify their complete control, while allowing those who made them to disavow responsibility for their creation.
In the next scene, the hero and heroine arrive in the small town of Moorcroft in Wyoming, where we’re given a typically Spielbergian scene of the hysterical masses that he already depicted in Jaws, and which would become a favourite subject of his cinema. There’s a now-familiar bit of dialogue where a salesman, knowing an opportunity for a quick buck when he sees one, is selling small cages of canary birds, like those used by miners to detect the release of dangerous gasses in mines. In a line representative of how all disasters — natural, man-made or manufactured — are capitalised on by the money-men, he tells his audience:
‘Alright folks, I don’t want to alarm you, but this genuine nerve gas is colourless and odourless. These canary birds are guaranteed to fall off their perch one hour before the gas does anything to you.’
There have been so many candidates from the medical profession over the past year, but in choosing actors to play this small but important cameo role in the British remake of this film, we cannot possibly look beyond those rising stars of the lying industry, Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, his deputy, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.
The hero buys a canary bird and a couple of gas masks, fortuitously runs into the heroine, and together they get into his car and drive through field fences and road blocks towards the mountain. It reminded me of our drive last Christmas, when we got up early enough to leave the outskirts of London before the sun came up, only to find even the back roads between tiers 4 and 3 blocked with barriers and signs telling us to ‘Go back!’ As we sat considering our next move, a line of impatient locals overtook our stationary car, drove around the barrier, and continued down the road — and we did too.
There’s a nice parallel to this when Dreyfuss assures Dillon, who is looking pensively at the canary and the dead sheep lying by the side of the road, that he ‘guarantees this whole thing is a put on’. They look at each other, hesitate, then both put on the gas masks. As in so many scenes in Spielberg’s cinema, moral choices are presented as acts of faith, and here the hero and heroine are shown as failing in theirs.
Jump forward a few scenes, and they have both been captured by the US military, and are being interrogated by a French scientist played, for reasons only Steven Spielberg will know, by the French filmmaker, François Truffaut. For reasons even the most imaginative script-writer couldn’t explain, he appears to have some authority over the US military, and is interrogating the Dreyfuss character. The scientist is in on the lie about the ‘nerve gas’, and tells Dreyfuss that if the prevailing winds were blowing from the south instead of the north, ‘this conversation would not be taking place’. The hero confidently responds that ‘there’s nothing wrong with the air’. When the scientist asks him how he knows that, he replies: ‘I just know. There’s nothing wrong with it.’ This is an exemplary demonstration of the supra-rational arguments of the conspiracy theorist; but when the scientist invites him to go outside the interrogation hut ‘and make me a liar’, he doesn’t, and once again the hero fails his test of faith.
So the hero and heroine, along with a few others who have seen the UFOs and like them penetrated the army’s barriers, are fitted with gas masks and bundled into a helicopter by men also wearing gas masks as well as chemical-protection jumpsuits of the kind we’ve become increasingly familiar with over the last year among the COVID-faithful.
And now we come to the final test of faith in Spielberg’s essentially religious drama. As they sit in the back of the military helicopter, waiting to be taken away from the meeting with the aliens, Dreyfuss takes off his gas mask. His eyes closed, he lets out what could be his last breath of uncontaminated air, breathes in deeply, and opens his eyes. And then he knows. He calls to the heroine, who also takes off her mask against the warnings of the other captives. ‘Listen, there’s nothing wrong with the air around here!’ This is the moment of awakening on which the film turns.
But as the hero urges the others to join him in this act of faith, they offer their excuses. ‘If the army doesn’t want us here’, says an elderly woman, ‘then it’s none of our business!’ ‘It’s just a coincidence that I painted it’, says a man whose depiction of the holy mountain drew him there. Here we have the denial of revelation on which the characters in Spielberg’s film are judged and divided into believers from unbelievers. Joined by only one other man, who subsequently falls to the real sleep gas the army used on the sheep, the hero and heroine run through the military compound, where they pass personnel unloading equipment, and who are not wearing their gas masks. This confirmation of the conspiracy is repeated when the Major tells the remaining civilians to ‘keep their masks on until they’re out of here and out of danger’, then removes his own mask as the helicopter takes off. In every sense of the word, the conspiracy of the nerve gas has been ‘unmasked’.
This reminded me of the TSG riot police who attacked the protesters in Hyde Park on 20 March at the end of the peaceful demonstration against lockdown. In front of the cameras operated by their Forward Intelligence Units, they all wore bright-blue medical masks for the footage shown on the 9 o’clock news that night and posted on the Twitter account of the Home Secretary with her usual contemptuous remarks about ‘disgraceful thugs’. But as soon as the cameras were gone and the night shift had arrived, the masks all came off as the real thugs in uniform drove away from the jeers of the crowd. This is the media-managed spectacle of politics in the UK, as scripted, directed and edited as any Spielberg movie.
The rest of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, about three-quarters of an hour, doesn’t really matter. The UFOs appear, the aliens land, the missing Americans are returned (and without having aged, that ultimate dream of the American imagination), Dreyfuss joins those few selected to board the mothership, and, as the ultimate hero of this drama (the heroine is left behind with her returned child), is chosen by the child-like aliens to join them. Unlike the still-masked unbelievers who never get to meet their God, this is his reward for a faith that transcends his role at the head of the nuclear family, that sanctified bed of capitalist production, and even transcends his reason as he descends into the insanity of his idée fixe.
In this story, Spielberg is undoubtedly commenting, as he does in almost all his films, on the forms that faith takes in a society in which the role of organised religion, its churches and its synagogues, has declined, but in which people still feel a need to believe in something bigger than themselves. And in the face of humanist scepticism and atheist unbelief, his film offers a narrative of redemption that would extend, in Schindler’s List, even to the death camps of the Third Reich. But this is a narrative that, behind its message of individual rebellion, challenges nothing. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the US military is lying to the American people, but it’s for their own good. US scientists have invented a threat that doesn’t exist, but it’s to protect the US public from the potentially even greater threat of alien invasion. The religious doctrine of our unique place in God’s creation is exposed as false, but contact with aliens is subsumed into a religious experience. The hero presents a model of rebellion against the most sacred institutions of US society — family, media, military, science, the US Government itself — yet his rebellion leaves them all untouched, their power unchallenged, their lies unexposed, as he is subsumed within their sacrificial rites. Indeed, the Dreyfuss character becomes their ultimate sacrifice, in which he is transformed into both interstellar astronaut and earthly messiah — a typical concession for Spielberg, that most Christian of Jewish directors.
But the conspiracy theory within the conspiracy theory does more than merely subsume the UFO spotter’s rebellion into the status quo of US society. It’s primary function is to reaffirm the polarisation that is the purpose of all conspiracy theories, and which are their defining characteristic. By reaffirming the truth of the UFO conspiracy theory through a narrative of faith rewarded, we are invited to choose between two positions. Either we accept the cinematic spectacle of this revealed truth as confirmation of our belief in the face of the attempts of the US Government and security services to conceal it; or we reject the truth-value of cinema as the realm of the spectacle, while recognising and perhaps even welcoming its depiction of the importance of irrational belief, individual faith, self-determination, and other fantasies of the American (and, increasingly, the British) imagination under late capitalism.
From the latter position, those who believe that UFOs are visiting aliens can be dismissed as either well-meaning or dangerous cranks, as seduced by the spectacle of Hollywood cinema as they are by conspiracy theories about UFOs. From the former position (which in 2020 was occupied by just under half the population of the USA), Spielberg is the rebel revealing the truth ‘they’ don’t want ‘us’ to discover. In promoting the film, Spielberg, who never misses a trick, related that he received a 20-page letter from NASA, warning him that the film was dangerous, which he responded to in typically conspiratorial terms:
‘I really found my faith when I heard that the Government was opposed to the film. If NASA took the time to write me a 20-page letter, then I knew there must be something happening.’
But what neither of these opposed positions opens a view onto is the most rational explanation of unidentified flying objects, which neither the denial of the evidence of their existence nor their transformation into proof of extra-terrestrial life allows. The conspiracy theory, therefore, like all conspiracy theories, functions not to divide people into those who believe in it and those who do not, but to reduce what should be a rational debate about the empirical evidence to one in which the truths about the world we live in remain secret and largely hidden. Indeed, the function of conspiracy theories is to silence critical inquiry beneath the noise of mutually uncomprehending and unlistening camps.
2. The Truth behind the Conspiracy
A characteristic of Steven Spielberg’s films, and of most narrative cinema, is that the attitude of the ideal viewer is itself represented in the film. When the aliens first visit the sleepy town of Muncie in Indiana, what we are shown are not the UFOs but the face of the heroine’s child, who in an image that has since become synonymous with Spielberg’s child-focused cinema, stares open-mouthed, smiling and inarticulate at the spectacle of which we are offered only glimpses. By the time we get to the end of the film, and the spectacle is revealed in all its cinematic phantasmagoria, the watching adults have taken on the same face. Again and again through the long, extended climax of the film, we see the faces not only of the hero and heroine but also of the scientists, open-mouthed and wide-eyed before the cinematic spectacle being shown, simultaneously, to us as viewers. By the end, the enormous alien mothership has become co-extensive with the cinema screen itself, their parallel sound-and-light shows equated to the point where they are indistinguishable, and both exerting their power over the dazzled audience. The ultimate realisation of this attitude is the 3D cinema of today, in which we are placed within the spectacle itself, as well as the increasingly immersive and virtual technologies by which our phenomenal experience of the world beyond our digital screens is being replaced.
This viewing attitude is rigorously uncritical. Distance — critical or emotional — has always been the enemy of propaganda. In its place, we are offered a simulacrum of unmediated experience, in which the cultural product is not viewed, read, interpreted, decoded, contemplated or critiqued, but ‘experienced’. Tears, awe, shock, suspense, excitement, desire, lust, disgust, anger, fear are the reactions most valued in today’s culture. And, as the dominant cultural mode of a given society always is, the attitude of the cultural consumer is also a political attitude. An audience accustomed, habituated and trained to these emotions, which we now expect and demand in return for our financial and emotional investment, is more susceptible to those emotions being used to form our views of the world beyond the screens of cinema, television, advertising boards, laptops and smart phones. As the USA repeatedly demonstrates, an uneducated, gullible, paranoid, terrified and deeply religious population ignorant of the world outside their digital screens and indoctrinated with conspiracy theories is the most malleable and amenable to the exercise of US power over both itself and the rest of the world.
So what is the point of tearing off your mask if, like the hero and heroine of Spielberg’s film, you’re then lead up the mountain path to the spectacle of a conspiracy unmasked? Ten years before Spielberg’s film, in May 1968, the walls of Paris were painted with the motto: ‘Sous les pavés, la plage!’ (‘Beneath the pavement, the beach!’), encouraging the rebelling students and striking workers not only to use the paving stones of Paris as missiles against the police, but to find the reality that lay hidden beneath the veneer of urban life. But those were simpler times. Today, behind the mask, there is only the conspiracy, which does not conceal the truth but, rather, is the lie invented to dissemble the truth.
The last anti-lockdown protest in London, held on 24 April, was an immense, peaceful, joyous demonstration by up to half a million people from all over Britain, unbranded by parliamentary parties and identity politics, on which the masked death-cult of the COVID-faithful looked with horror. Half-way down Oxford Street, which was filled with demonstrators from one end to the other, I spoke to a retired military man who had come all the way from Dorset. He was a nice bloke, spoke a lot about spiritual pathways, but the conspiracy theories of COVID had done their work on him. His firm conviction that the coronavirus crisis was a lie had come between him and his wife, he said, who thought he was mad and dangerous. Without me asking, he volunteered all sorts of theories about what is really happening. He identified a number of powerful individuals as the conspirators behind the lockdown, which ranged from the usual suspects (Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab, etc) to more unusual figures whose names I didn’t recognise, and also identified a number of people he said knew the truth, largely celebrities on social media. He then started pointing out the recurrence of the numbers 666 in the advertising we passed. His argument here was a bit more subtle. He didn’t claim that this recurring motif, which I couldn’t see, was a sign of evil or Satanic organisations, but rather of the confidence of the conspirators, for whom, he said, this sign meant something, even if it didn’t to the rest of us, much like the secret handshakes of Freemasons.
In many ways, then, this man was an embodiment of the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who like my acquaintance had been abandoned by his wife because of his irrational beliefs. Like him, he saw the occult symbol of a concealed and deeper intention everywhere he looked. Like him, he saw his discovery of a hidden truth as a spiritual journey that had brought him, just as it did Spielberg’s hero, from his home town to the site of revelation. And like him, he saw this revelation as the truth of a conspiracy unmasked.
I recall this meeting here not to ridicule or dismiss this man, who is emblematic of the people who are ridiculed and dismissed in mainstream and social media as ‘covidiots’ (etc.), and with whom I was proud to march. I asked above what the point of tearing off your mask is if all it leads you to is a journey up a spiritual mountain to a meeting with little green men from outer space. It’s a genuine question, and the dismissive way in which I’ve framed it here is part of why it needs to be answered. My answer is that, although I do not believe in the conspiracy theories of what is happening behind the mask of the coronavirus crisis, these marchers have seen through that mask far more clearly than the millions of educated, professional, largely middle-class people who continue to believe, with an equally irrational conviction, in the blatant lies we are being told by our Government and media.
If the working-class Britons who constituted the huge majority of the marchers on Oxford Street don’t yet have the knowledge with which to answer their own questions, it is the fault of a system of government, media and education that inundates them with conspiracy theories. If it’s on those theories that people fall back when trying to offer an alternative explanation of what they know to be a lie, it’s because that’s precisely what those theories have been created to do. That the middle-classes, who have been largely responsible for disseminating those theories in our media and entertainment industry, should now laugh at those explanations is another example of the contempt in which they hold the working class of Britain. But their laughter is hollow, and growing more so, and has no place on the lips of those whose unshakeable belief in these lies would itself be worthy of laughter if its consequences for all of us hadn’t been so devastating. My answer to the question, then, is that the point of tearing off your mask is that it brings you here, among half a million people who at least recognise a lie if they don’t yet know the truth, to demonstrate our freedom from the biosecurity state being built on those lies.
Conspiracy theories are a product of our post-modernity. Where modernism understood the truth to be concealed beneath the surface reality of things (the beach beneath the pavement), postmodernism views reality itself as being constituted by those surfaces, beneath which there is only the abyss of competing opinions whose will to power produces the truth (the conspiracy behind the mask), which is therefore always contingent. But conspiracy theories are not only a product but also a phenomenon. Among the plethora of information with which we are inundated in the postmodern world, in which any viewpoint can find expression and confirmation, truth is no longer subjected to discursive measures — for example, adherence to scientific procedure — but has been reduced almost entirely to a question of authority — the belief in something called ‘Science’. Thus, rather than presenting the empirical evidence of, for example, the efficacy of masks in stopping transmission of a virus, we are instead instructed to ‘follow the science’, and anyone following scientific procedure to show their lack of efficacy and even possible harm to the wearer is accused of being ‘anti-science’. The discursive procedures of a discipline, whether scientific, historical or philosophical, have been apotheosised as Science, Fact, Truth. In other words, the discursive production of knowledge is reduced to faith in the authorities overseeing the application of these disciplines to political power: science to the pharmaceutical industry, fact to the media empires of billionaires, truth to the spectacle of politics. It is from this, I believe, that we are seeing the divide — that has been opened by the conspiracy theories produced in response to the coronavirus crisis — gradually taking on a class dimension.
On the one hand — and more, even, than by Brexit — the implementation of the UK biosecurity state behind the mask of this crisis has rendered the old political divisions into Right and Left irrelevant. Under Keir Starmer, the British Labour Party is more right-wing than the Government of Margaret Thatcher; and, along with every other Parliamentary Party, it has collaborated with the Conservative Government of Boris Johnson in either not opposing, or actively voting for, coronavirus-justified regulations, and then enforcing, though its local and municipal authorities, the programmes and technologies of the biosecurity state that have removed our human rights and civil liberties. When the entire political class of the UK is united, as never before, in dismantling the foundations of our democracy and freedoms, it is not surprising that the new division in the UK is not between the various parties competing for government of the state, but between the political, civil, legal, medical, educational, media and other institutions implementing the UK biosecurity state and that section of the British people resisting the increase and reach of it’s control over us. From this comes the potential for a new unity of resistance outside the usual bickering and division between parliamentary parties.
But, on the other hand, as the march through Central London on 24 April demonstrated to anyone who was present, those who, without necessarily understanding what is going on, know that what they are being told by these institutions is a lie, are overwhelmingly from the working class. And by the same token, as shown by the parallel but far smaller demonstrations against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill organised by the liberal wing of the Labour Party, those who, without being able to say why, believe the lies they are being told, are overwhelmingly from the middle classes. This isn’t to say, unfortunately, that millions of working-class Britons don’t also believe these lies; or that a handful of middle-class Britons recognise them for what they are; but this class attitude to authority goes some way, I think, to explaining what I myself have found most inexplicable about the ease with which this revolution into a totalitarian society has been affected. That is the obstinacy — I would even say the religious fervour — with which educated, professional people, who are aware of the lies and media manipulation with which every recent travesty in British history has been justified, from the Iraq War to the imprisonment of Julian Assange, now believe, unquestioningly and implacably, the same authors and disseminators of those lies about the most far-reaching changes to our politics and society since at least the Second World War.
The working class, in the divided factions of its former unity, has one thing in common, and that is its experience of being lied to by figures in authority. Not instinctively but through experience, a working-class person does not trust someone a middle-class person does trust, whether that someone is a politician, a councillor, a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an intellectual, a journalist, a banker, an architect, a property developer or a civil servant. There are very few members of the working class who have not been lied to, and know they have been lied to, by the members of at least several of these professions if not all of them. After the lies and collaboration of the last year, this list will now include a doctor. For a middle-class person, in contrast, if they themselves do not belong to one of these professions, then their parents did. It’s by the authority these professions exert over the institutions that keep the ruling class in power that the middle classes rely for their own position in the social hierarchy of capitalism. It’s not only in their experience, therefore, but also in their class interest, to maintain trust in, and obedience to, the authority of those institutions.
But I’ll be honest. I’m still trying to understand how the albeit rigorously depoliticised and deeply anti-intellectual middle-classes of Britain could be so absolutely and willingly duped by the crooks and liars that rule over us; but this, I think, goes some way to explaining the almost total complicity of our professional classes in these lies, without which they could never have attained their current status as Science, Fact, Truth.
This, however, goes to the heart of what we’re seeing implemented behind the mask of this manufactured crisis. As I’ve argued in my article Cui Bono? The COVID-19 ‘Conspiracy’, far from being a health crisis, what has brought about this transformation of Western liberal democracies into totalitarian biosecurity states is a revolution in global capitalism and the new forms of politics, law and culture that accommodate and propagate the emerging character and expanding monopoly of that capitalism. To be surprised and horrified, as I admit I have been, by the willing complicity of the middle-classes with the unprecedented censorship and authoritarianism of the emergent UK biosecurity state is to accord, by implication, a level of resistance and opposition to the lies and injustices on which the past forty years of neoliberalism have been built.
Why should those who believe that the sixth largest economy in the world can’t afford to build council housing, or pay for the education of its children, or for the health-care of its population, or that the bailouts of banks responsible for the financial crisis should be recouped by cuts to public services for the working class, or that the increase in the wealth of the UK’s 145 billionaires will increase the wealth of the 14.5 million Britons that were living in poverty even before the coronavirus crisis, have any hesitation in believing that a viral load too weak to produce symptoms in one person will transmit a sufficient load to kill another, or that surgical masks designed to stop salvia droplets will stop viral particles 0.1 microns in diameter, or that PCR-tests with a false positive rate higher than the percentage of the population testing positive is a scientific basis for removing our rights and freedoms, or that lockdown restrictions that have never been used before in the history of modern medicine are the best way to stop the spread of a respiratory disease, or that a virus with the fatality rate of seasonal influenza justifies imposing experimental vaccines on the population as a condition of our freedom, or all the other lies on which the UK biosecurity state is being been built? We live in an age of lies, and if the middle classes have been content to stand by and watch the theft, war, poverty and inequality produced by the corporate monopoly of neoliberalism while comforting itself with the radical conservatism of identity politics, why should we expect anything different from them now? I don’t, but that doesn’t mean their responsibility for the ease and rapidity with which this lie has been made into a Truth that has already transformed our world irrevocably won’t lie at their door forever. Their betrayal is total, unforgiveable and completely unsurprising.
But there is a problem. On the one hand, the myriad of conspiracy theories that have both arisen from, and been created in response to, the coronavirus crisis have allowed those opposing the global biosecurity state to find common ground across political, cultural and even class divides. On last Saturday’s March for Freedom, Home Counties gentlemen in striped shirts and Pringle jumpers waving the flag of St. George shared the street with council-estate kids from Inner-London dancing to drum ’n’ bass and Essex mothers pushing a pram with one hand and shouting through a megaphone in the other. I’ve never seen anything like it on all the many marches, protests and demonstrations I’ve been on, and the fact so-called working-class and left-wing organisations are not there to support this opposition is a betrayal equal to that of the middle-class whose lies they instead promote.
But, on the other hand, the identification of the conspiracy behind this manufactured health crisis as everything from 5G technology to a global ring of child sex-traffickers, to the corporate membership of the World Economic Forum, to the Communist Party of China, to the Elders of Zion, to the brotherhood of Freemasons, to the secret members of a New World Order, has effectively — and I would say very deliberately — divorced the unity their opposition potentially constitutes from political agency. Half the population of the USA may believe in alien visitations in flying saucers, but their beliefs are not the platform for political power — not yet, anyway. The UK Government and its financial and corporate partners are presumably content to see half a million people march through Central London for 7 hours if all it takes to dismiss them on national TV is an interview with someone who sees ‘666’ signs in adverts for 5G broadband networks. We may admire the individual conviction and even follow the character of Dreyfuss as he runs up the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but we’re never going to vote him into power.
Where, then, does the truth lie? Undoubtedly, with the working class. The truth is not something that is concealed and awaits revelation. That is the metaphysical model of religion and, by extension, conspiracy theories. The truth is what is produced by collective action. And as we’ve seen demonstrated on the streets of London and across the UK over the past year of otherwise total compliance by the UK population, only the working class has the experience and the disposition to question the lies with which this crisis has been manufactured. It’s on its head that the vastly expanded powers of the ruling class have fallen heaviest and will even more so in the future. The resistance of the working class in this global class war isn’t another manufactured spectacle in the middle-class drama of parliamentary politics; it’s a fight for survival for us and our children. And only the working class can oppose the totalitarian future being built for us by our rulers with the willing collusion of the middle classes. In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether the working-class opposed to the biosecurity state believes it is facing a secret cabal running a New World Order or the new forms of corporate government by unelected technocrats we’re seeing emerge from the manufactured chaos and immiseration of the global population.
But it does matter how that opposition manifests itself as affective political power. Socialism gave the working class a framework in which to understand its immiseration and disenfranchisement — not as a condition of the natural state attributed to it by the philosophers of the ruling-class, or of its punishment by God for the crimes of Caine of which it has been accused by the clergy of the ruling class, or of the hereditary idleness and criminality diagnosed in it by the scientists of the ruling class — but as a necessary product of capitalist relations of production. It gave the working class a plan of how those exploitative relations could be overthrown and replaced — through mutual solidarity between workers, through the development of working-class consciousness, through unionisation of labour and industrial action against the power of capital, and, ultimately, through the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. And it also gave the working class an image, at least, if not a road-plan, of how a future and more just society could be built — from the equal rewards for equal labour of a socialist society, to the distribution of a society’s wealth according to the individual needs of its members in a communist utopia.
All that has been largely destroyed in the UK by the past 40 years of neoliberalism. This has not only indoctrinated several generations of Britons into the religion of free-market fundamentalism that has little relation to the monopoly capitalism tightening its increasingly authoritarian grip on the world; it has also erased the legacy and hopes of socialism in the minds and cultures of the working class as violently and effectively as the Norman Conquest wiped out the cultural memory of Anglo-Saxon England and the surviving traces of the Celtic imagination. In place of socialism’s project of working-class emancipation, neoliberal ideology has fashioned an imaginary world explained by conspiracy theories whose only relation to the real workings of monopoly capitalism is that they are the deliberately manufactured and disseminated products of our media and culture industries. This, if you like, is the real ‘conspiracy’, which is not a conspiracy but the function and purpose — long ago exposed but now repressed and forgotten — of ideology within capitalism: to maintain the power of the ruling class, to reward the middle-classes for their obedience, and to keep the working class deceived about the causes of its impoverishment and disempowerment, and therefore unable to organise its resistance into affective opposition.
The mass demonstrations and protests against coronavirus-justified restrictions on our human rights and civil liberties, like the violent imposition of totalitarian programmes and technologies of surveillance, monitoring and control, and the construction of a biosecurity state founded on mandatory biotechnological interventions and digital health passports as a condition of our citizenship, all offer hope that the mass deception of the working class by conspiracy theories can be overcome and replaced by a properly emancipatory, political and revolutionary project. It is up to us to extract that project from the lies by which it continues to be dissembled. As we have seen over the past year of cowardice and complicity, a people can be deceived collectively, but they discover the truth one by one. But there has never been a better or more urgent time to undertake this task, which starts with one very simple but practical and symbolic gesture. Whether the conspiracy theory is of unidentified flying objects carrying alien life forms from outer space or a disease so deadly you need a test that amplifies viral DNA half a trillion times over in order to know whether you have it, the truth begins when you take off your mask.
Architects for Social Housing
P.S. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is currently available on Netflix.
Further reading by the same author:
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