Examining and criticising the media narrative around world events is vital in order to unpick and dismantle neoliberal myths that support the West’s oppression of the developing world and help secure corporate domination at home. But this vigilance in questioning government and media mouthpieces can occasionally lead many intelligent and once sceptical people down the logical cul-de-sac of conspiracy theory.
Increasingly I’ve noticed that the conspiracies advanced by sections of the fringe-left actually have their origin among the religious conservatives of the American far-right, buoyed along by a blossoming industry of conspiracy entrepreneurs.
People have feared lluminati and Masonic plots since the eighteenth century. By the 1790s, pressure from the Catholic Church had led to the dissolution of the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret-society of liberal Enlightenment-era thinkers, but John Robison, in Proofs of a Conspiracy (1797), claims the organisation survived, and continued “for the express purpose of rooting out all religious establishments, and overturning all the existing governments of Europe”. Other writers shared his view, ascribing the group a central role in the French Revolution. Robison presents the Illuminati as a debauched, anti-Christian movement whose members had devised a tea to cause abortion, as well as a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours”.
Other strands of the current conspiracy worldview trace back to the second Red-Scare of the 1950s, and Communist paranoia in the United States. Modern conspiracy theorists share many of their fears with McCarthyism: the United Nations, vaccines, mental health provisions and the fluoridation of water. McCarthy believed the American government and media were ridden with spies and Communist agents, and that the country was in the grip of “a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
McCarthyism often took on an anti-Semitic tone, pin-pointing Jews as puppet masters of a global Communist conspiracy to destroy the United States and form a One World Government. Despite the fact that around this time, Jews in the Soviet Union were facing accusations of treason and of conspiring against Communism.
The John Birch Society is a reactionary, fringe-right organisation that emerged out of McCarthy era Red-Scare paranoia. It campaigns for limited government, flat-rate income tax and an unregulated free market economy, and has become one of the primary sources for the underlying conspiracy theories currently contaminating both wings of the political spectrum. Robert Welch, founder of the Society, was a devout anti-Communist who helped finance McCarthy’s Senate re-election bid. He believed that even President Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”.
As Welch’s paranoia expanded in the ’60s, he became one of the first to tie together disparate groups such as the Illuminati, international banking, business families (like the Rothschilds and Rockefellers), organisations like the Bilderberg group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission and the United Nations into a grander conspiracy, working together for the destruction of both America and Christianity.
In later years, The John Birch Society became a major proponent of climate change denial and anti-environmentalism. In the ’90s, this crystallised into fears about Agenda 21, a non-binding and essentially toothless UN resolution promoting sustainable development. Ex-Fox News wing-nut Glenn Beck has expanded on this fear, collaborating with his ghost-writer on two books of scintillating dystopian fiction which imagine a post-Agenda 21 world where the only available food is grey “nourishment cubes”, cars have been replaced by “bus boxes” powered by the legs of political prisoners and Churches are banned by the World Government.
Many right-wing conspiracy fantasies draw inspiration from Christian apocalyptic predictions in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. Christians have applied the book’s hallucinatory prophecies to the world around them for centuries, and in recent years, “the mark of the beast” has been updated to signify barcodes or credit cards, or plans to do away with cash and implant microchips under the skin, as well as claims that every new President is the Antichrist. Each new theory downplays the almost infinite malleability of the source material while leaning on the religious text for legitimacy or profundity and often position American Christians in a battle for the fate of the planet against the forces of Satan.
Long-standing Christian anti-Semitic myths are the bedrock for many modern conspiracy theories. ‘The blood libel’, the insane suspicion that Jews would kill Christian babies to extract their blood for Passover matzos goes back to antiquity but finds a contemporary outlet in the work of David Icke. Icke’s shape-shifting reptilian space lizards control our planet (often, but not exclusively, taking human form in the shape of powerful Jews), and sacrifice babies and drink their blood in order to live forever.
Icke cites 19th century Russian anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as key evidence for his sci-fi themed worldview. This work of racist fiction was brought to a mainstream American audience by the industrialist Henry Ford, who paid for hundreds of thousands of copies to be published and given away in the 1920s. Ford’s bigoted promotion of The Protocols and other anti-Jewish campaigns led to him becoming an “inspiration” to Hitler, who kept a life-sized portrait of Ford next to his desk.
“I use the term Illuminati Protocols,” explains Icke, “to get away from the Jewish emphasis.” Although he accepts that The Protocols might “possibly” be a forgery, his followers often claim that Icke genuinely believes his brain-defying proposition that Jewish voices in the book are, in fact, not Jews at all, but descendants of the Anunnaki, a group of ancient Mesopotamian gods themselves actually a race of space lizards who interbred with a blue-eyed, blonde haired alien race called “The Nordics” to create the half-human “Aryans”, Satanic paedophile shape-shifters who live in tunnels and caves under the Earth and have ruled humanity for thousands of years. Despite Icke’s bizarre space opera stretching the limits of credulity to breaking point, increasingly it’s likely you’ll know somebody who thinks that, although the space lizard stuff is a bit nutty, he might actually be onto something. He seems to fight the good fight; against the military-industrial complex, against Big-Pharma and the destruction of the environment. He is seen as a sort of jolly, left-leaning, anarcho-hippy with a just a few out-there ideas. He is anything but.
Leaving space lizards and Aryans to one side, Icke’s core political beliefs are often indistinguishable from those of The John Birch Society, or hard-right US evangelicals. Icke opposes gun-control, Planned Parenthood, abortion, vaccines, the UN and Obamacare; he voraciously promotes climate change denial and thinks Agenda 21 is a plan to depopulate the planet. He even flirts with Holocaust denial and believes the Jews “financed Hitler to power in 1933”. Icke’s talks attract the support from neofascist groups in the US and the likes of Combat 18 in the UK, who gave him a glowing review in their newsletter, Putsch, and complimented him on being “clever enough” to avoid calling out the Jews by name and referring to them under code words such a lizards or banksters.
Many of Icke’s views are shared by bellowing conspiracy wrestler Alex Jones, and his website Infowars. Jones self-identifies as a Christian paleoconservative and was directly inspired by The John Birch Society as a teenager. Although Icke and Jones have similar roots, they do disagree about the exact nature of the entities who control the world: Jones says they are, in fact, biblical demons.
Whilst Icke strikes an ostensibly compassionate tone, Infowars reads like a Fox News spin-off. Jones wonders if the government is lacing juice boxes with chemicals to turn America’s sons gay, attacks the Black Lives Matter protest movement, fear-mongers about Islamic refugees, believes Obama is a Muslim and praises Donald Trump as a “modern day George Washington”, even going as far as endorsing him for president.
Part of the appeal of both Jones and Icke is that they consistently construct false-flag conspiracy theories around seemingly every terrorist attack or mass-shooting almost as soon as they happen. These viral stories spread widely online and as they come tied to warnings about the attacks being used to justify a police state, surveillance or military interventions, they often find traction with sections of the left — who are seemingly unaware of the author’s far-right perspective or how these theories fit into the larger Christian right’s historical narrative.
With over 1.6 million Facebook followers, the website Natural News has built a large audience among liberals by focusing on health food, GMOs, spirituality and “natural cures”. But, beneath its veneer of organic recipes and mind-body healing lurks a deeply conservative and conspiratorial worldview. The website promotes now standard conspiracy theories about an imminent totalitarian takeover by the United Nations, poison-filled vaccines, cancer-causing doctors and vile false-flag conspiracies about mass-shootings, terror attacks and even earthquakes, with victims and their families labelled “crisis-actors” paid by the state. Recent articles rail against the minimum wage, gun-control, pro-choice and civil rights activists, and the rise of socialism. Site founder, Mike Adams has also recently endorsed Donald Trump; an online poll showed 44% of Natural News visitors backed Trump for President.
Icke, Jones and Natural News share something in common with the mainstream media they claim to oppose: the use of fear to sell goods.
Often reading like a run down of Daily Mail-esque “eggs good for you
this week” health-scares, day after day their websites post unscientific hysteria about cancer-causing food, water, light bulbs, wi-fi signals; horror stories about doctors poisoning us with medicine and giving our children autism through vaccines. But, amongst the panic and paranoia — and always only one click away — is the online store. A nutritional supplement to combat each manufactured fear. Their customer base conditioned to trust no one but them.
Outside of such scams, these conspiracy theories cause immense damage politically by misdirecting those with a genuine interest in exposing and resisting the corruption and barbarity inherent in Western capitalism. Energy is squandered chasing phantoms like chemtrails or the “truth” about 9/11 and, at the same time, people’s credibility on genuine issues of concern is tarnished. We find ourselves in the perverse situation where left-wing environmentalists push climate change denial, oppose gun-control, and promote the the repeal of affordable healthcare legislation in the US. Conspiracy theories manage to get the left doing the right’s dirty work; and it remains rare to see the transaction happen in reverse.
It is important to note the drastic difference between the work of rational sceptics like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, and the dot-connecting fever-dreams of David Icke. Yet, for someone in the thrall of conspiracy paranoia, no such distinction exists. As the audience for conspiracy continues to grow on both sides of the political spectrum, the left needs to start taking these theories seriously, not as descriptions of reality, but for what they are: dangerous intrusions of right-wing propaganda into left-wing ideology, which corrupt and discredit our attempts to roll back the worst excesses of the one conspiracy which genuinely threatens us all: neoliberal capitalism.