On Saturday 29 August, several thousand people rallied in London’s Trafalgar Square under the banner ‘Unite for Freedom’. What this vague slogan actually meant was not just opaque to passers-by, but appeared to vary incoherently from one participant to another. That much was clear from the placards, banners, and T-shirts displaying an ugly melange of causes and beliefs, including anti-masker, 5G and anti-vax conspiracy theories, the QAnon Trumpist meta-conspiracy and even the British Union of Fascists. It was also the biggest expression so far of what I’d call the ‘cosmic right’, a growing, recent phenomenon in which new age, spiritual and wellness communities embrace far-right conspiracy theories.
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ is a loose and contested phrase. It’s used, with differing levels of accuracy, to describe a wide range of ideas. Many of the less far-out examples contain elements of truth, but among the top speakers at Saturday’s rally was David Icke, a man who believes the world is ruled by a secret race of blood-drinking, shape-shifting lizard people from outer space. Even more disturbing were the numerous visible displays by adherents to QAnon, a sprawling, do-it-yourself, web of conspiracy theories based on the notion that Donald Trump is conducting a secret war against a Satanic, liberal, deep state cabal that uses paedophilia and child sacrifice to control the world.
Despite this blatantly ludicrous premise, it has recently gained a new following among the disgruntled but political unengaged. The previous weekend saw adherents organise a hundred events around the world, seeking to pull in new followers under the seemingly innocuous hashtag #SaveOurChildren. The movement’s trajectory, however, is far from innocent. Among its shared coordinates is ‘the Storm’, a soon-to-come, biblical-style final reckoning in which Trump’s enemies will be arrested or executed. Some believers have jumped the gun, with QAnon already inspiring dozens of violent incidents, including murder.
In the face of such seeming insanity, the instinctive response of much of the left is to fall back into a defence of reason and the institutional forms associated with it, such as science and expertise. But when we look at previous instances of the same reflex, as occurred in the 2016 moral panic around “post-truth”, it’s clear there are traps here for the left. This time we must avoid getting drawn into an apparent alignment with the establishment under the guise of liberal reason.
Let’s be clear: left politics is a project of reason. It is premised on the idea that, given the right conditions, humanity can use reason to better understand the world, and act collectively to change it. This doesn’t mean we must embrace a simple or disembodied notion of reason, but if you don’t believe in this possibility, then you’re a conservative.
While liberalism also believes in reason, it differs from the left in a couple of important ways. Firstly, while liberalism sees the capacity for reason residing in discrete, autonomous individuals, the left also understands reason as a collective capacity. Indeed, reasoning has the greatest potential to affect the world when it becomes a collective project in which, under the right conditions, and with the right tools and organisation, the whole population can participate. Both science and democracy contain this idea within them, but it’s clear they currently don’t fully embody it.
It really is true, for instance, that the funding, focus and therefore practice of science gets distorted by the capitalist drive to maximise profits and social inequality. It’s also true that democracy, as it is currently practised, has been hollowed out and undermined by wealthy elites seeking to enrich themselves. Yet these elites aren’t freely choosing agents bending the world to their will. They are themselves caught up in and animated by the dynamics of capital. Most of this takes place right out in the open even if our own entanglement with capital can seem to happen behind our own backs. That means we can’t solve our problems by returning to the world of 2015, or whenever liberal reason supposedly last reigned. Things were broken then and we need something new. The left’s project is to expand the scope of collective reason and its democratic institutions.
This story will be more complex than a morality tale of good vanquishing evil. Once we accept that we’re all implicated in the problems facing the world, solving them becomes a more difficult task than just deposing a secret cabal. But it does mean we can speak to and offer better explanations and solutions for the real-world problems and experiences that can drive people down the far-right conspiracy rabbit hole.
That doesn’t mean we can reason people out of their impoverished beliefs, not in any simple way. Popularising left analysis can help inoculate people before they get infected by these ideas but once they’re hooked on them, they get inoculated from us. So while looking to interrupt the reproduction of these movements, we also need to learn from them. Not from their content, but their form.
QAnon resembles a massive, alternative reality, live roleplay game in which participants must actively participate in deciphering clues. People get a thrill from doing it, and find it quite addictive. The QAnon worldview provides a sense of community and messianic agency. Stories of Satanic elites and bloodsucking reptilians help some escape from life’s mundane realities by reenchanting the world. The left must look through its own history to find other ways to address those needs. It was the left, after all, that invented modern rituals of collectivity in the 19th and 20th centuries, and there are tools to be found in the playful culture hacking of the 80s and 90s. Surely such tactics can be reinvented and designed in a strategic fashion so they always lead back to the participative project of collective reason? QAnon has revealed some of the territory 21st-century politics will be fought on – it’s time we decided to play.
Keir Milburn is the author of the book Generation Left and cohost of the #ACFM podcast. The recent #ACFM episode on freedom is here.