In recent years, conspiracy theories have flourished all over the world. They have taken on important political dimensions by attracting certain sectors of the population. The current example par excellence is QAnon in the US, a group born of conspiracy theories that became a political support base for the right-wing government of Donald Trump, to the point of storming the Capitol in 2021 when he lost the presidential election.
Conspiratorial explanations of reality are flourishing among the working class today, thanks to the fact that capitalism provides fertile ground for their emergence. Alienation and the profit motive are its basis.
Marx points out that the capitalist production process, by separating the worker from the fruits of his product, generates individual alienation throughout society. Workers are unable to benefit from their labor, a well-known situation that also contributes to the creation of conditions of exploitation by the workers themselves, which capital uses for its domination. Yibing Zhang, one of the most important Chinese scholars of Marx, puts it clearly:
“The objectified results of workers’ past labour actually became the rulers and exploiters of tofays’ workers. The “past” created by workers becomes the ruler of the “present”… Hired labour necessarily created a ruling power transformed out of itself: capital. This is the actual alienation of capital and labour relations that Marx describes (Zhang, 2014, p. 481).
Likewise, the very dynamics of capital in its constant search for profit means that we cannot consider transactions within the system as inherently fair, since each individual capitalist will always try to make some kind of profit in order to obtain a higher profit by different methods. In production based on the exploitation of labor, we find the non-payment of the surplus value generated by the workers. As in the circulation of goods (in the market), where companies try to appropriate the greatest amount of surplus value generated at the expense of the workers and even other companies, even through unequal and fraudulent exchanges, when they cannot simply compete with productive improvements.
This means that workers are forced to buy the goods they need at prices and with qualities that they cannot verify are fair; they can hardly verify that they are not being cheated or that their income is not being expropriated. This is evident in the presence of companies that, through their dominant market position (such as monopolies), seek to establish the highest prices that will provide them with the maximum profit, even if the quality is low; or in the granting of (predatory) consumer credits of an unfair and expropriatory nature. The capitalists are not exempt from this, as they confront each other (in the acquisition of raw materials and fixed capital, or in the financial market) in the search to continue their productive processes and to obtain profits.
It is important to note that both governments and capitalists have created countless mechanisms to reduce mistrust in transactions, such as contracts, quality standards or antitrust policies. Similarly, governments implement wage or social policies to facilitate the social reproduction and thus alleviate the conditions of exploitation by capital. Nevertheless, the result remains the establishment of harsh living conditions for the majority of the population, both because they are not fully paid for their labor and because competition creates a systematic mistrust that permeates the whole of society.
The underlying consequence of both situations is that the agency workers have as individuals in the course of their lives is brutally limited. It is this context that workers experience on a daily basis as not belonging to the benefits of the capitalist system, and which becomes fertile ground for conspiracy theories and group building around them.
In other words, workers who are unable to individually confront the dynamics of capital, to obtain the desired objects and to unravel the non-belonging to «capitalist society» develop a justified opposition to the current reality. There are many ways to confront capitalist society and its discontents, such as the socialist project. David Harvey summarizes it as follows: «Labor constructs the agency and instruments of its own domination (including that of nature) in the form of capital, in the persona of the capitalist. This sets the stage for an emancipatory project of negation, first in its bourgeois and then in its socialistic form» (2023, p. 210). Conspiracy theories, for their part, create a fantasy: the figure of the other behind the other, who manipulates and controls reality, who enjoys the system without limitations, who is not castrated, and who is the explanation for why things happen as they do.
For conspiracy theorists, it is not that the capitalist system is inherently unjust, nor that there are low wages, poverty, misery, and disproportionate wealth for a few due to the same dynamics and contradictions that capitalism generates. For them, there is someone else who manipulates or controls governments, corporations, media, etc. in order to benefit from the system, to enjoy it, while the rest are condemned despite their efforts. In this way, the non-belonging of workers leads to a group identity based on being part of those who know the conspiracy and how the world works… who know «the truth». This is in contrast to an imaginary enemy: those who conspire and control the world.
On the right, stereotypes such as the communist conspiracy, gender ideology, or cultural Marxism, among others, are used as the source of all social ills. When the dynamics of capitalism undermine the traditional family or generate social resistance to labor exploitation and drive workers to organize and women to demand their emancipation, right-wing conspiracy theories see all this as part of a «communist» conspiracy. They create a «specter» to make people believe that it is responsible for preventing capitalism from benefiting everyone and traditional values from creating social harmony.
The effect of workers’ acceptance of conspiracy theories is a redoubling of their lack of agency, i.e., by shifting responsibility to a conspiratorial person or group, they are assigned agency for everything that happens, which blocks the possibility of organizing with other workers, the development of class consciousness and the strategic role they play in the struggle against capitalism.
The left is not without its share of conspiracy theories. For example, they point out that the elites of international institutions, big business and governments manage every situation, such as economic crises and wars, to their advantage. When they are defeated, there will be revolution.
But they forget that individual capitalists and national governments are not free either; they are forced to act in this way to maintain the accumulation of capital. The coercive laws of capitalism force them to do so, as Marx pointed out. Capitalists cannot give up competition and remain capitalists. Likewise, governments, as part of this structure, are compelled to maintain the stability of the system, and capitalists are compelled to take all measures to generate a new wave of accumulation in the face of any economic crisis. This is not the same as a grand global conspiracy to generate economic crises to advance their interests: economic crises are inherent in the dynamics of capitalism.
An example of this is the assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic and its global response are measures to benefit Western finance capital in the face of the imminent economic crisis; an alleged way to inject funds into the stock market and sustain the Western finance market, and to advance in control measures to establish an authoritarian capitalism to face the crisis. This ignores the fact that the COVID-19 epidemic is a crisis generated by the same dynamics of capitalism in its search for profits in the trade of exotic species and in the metabolic collapse of the various ecosystems of the world (as anticipated by Mike Davis, 2020, and described by John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi). It was a pandemic that brought capitalism into crisis and led to the adoption of emergency measures to avoid economic and social collapse. The fact that this crisis has been used to advance various repressive policies and that world governments have taken measures that mainly benefit corporations in their daily actions is different from a global conspiracy.
When the left succumbs to conspiracy theories, it abandons the project of emancipating humanity and gives rise to the creation of enemies and right-wing politics, a position that depoliticizes the emphasis on the structure of the capitalist system (McGowan, 2022). The adoption and flourishing of conspiracy theories among the working class is also a sign of the failure of the left to awaken class consciousness and collective action.
This is not to say that real conspiracies have not existed or do not exist. Capitalist and government groups act behind the backs of the population and profit from it. However, there are also clandestine leftist organizations that seek the overthrow of capitalism. The differences in action are undoubtedly absolute, as shown by the Iraq war promoted by the US, UK and Spain with false evidence, as opposed to the anarchist groups that through small actions seek to overthrow governments and the system itself.
However, the right-wing benefits from conspiracy theories to create an enemy and mobilize workers in its favor. In this sense, the communist conspiracy and its various strands are essential for the right wing in constructing its identity, while serving as a preemptive strike against any attempt to change the status quo.
The left does not need a conspiracy to explain reality or to define itself. It seeks a way out of the exploitation of the capitalist system that feeds the conspiracy, and thus the emancipation of humanity. Only by being clear about the latter will it be possible to regain ground in the face of conspiracy theories.
- Davis, M. (2020). The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism. New York: OR Books.
- Harvey, D. (2023). A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse. London: Verso Books
- McGowan, T. (2022). Right & Left. Sublation Press, USA.
- Zhang, Y. (2014). Back to Marx: Changes in Philosophical Discourse in the Context of Economics. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag.
 Vighi in his text «A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Systemic Collapse and Pandemic Simulation» (The Philosophical Salon, 08/16/2021) argues that the pandemic narrative was created to avoid the financial collapse of capitalism. This article led Žižek to point out that he was a skeptic and saw conspiracies in the background, in his text «Les Non-Dupes Errent» (The Philosophical Salon, 11/20/2021). Vighi has responded by maintaining that he is not a conspiracist and subsequently relaxing his earlier assertions.
Originally published in Sublation Mag.