When QAnon crossed the Atlantic and spread across Europe, especially in Germany, many were taken by surprise. I wasn't. It was bound to happen. Quite simply, QAnon had come back home.
But let's proceed in order.
I spent nearly three years of my life investigating QAnon and conspiracy fantasies in general. The result is the book La Q di Qomplotto: Come le fantasie di complotto difendono il sistema [The Q in Qonspiracy: How Conspiracy Fantasies Defend the System], which was published in Italy in March 2021. It also took many readers by surprise, because of its format – it's a UNO, Unidentified Narrative Object – and because of my approach in tackling conspiracism.
By trying to avoid the dualistic pattern of 'conspiracism vs. anti-conspiracism', I try to understand the success of conspiracy fantasies – for reasons which I explain in the book, I never call them “theories” – starting from the kernels of truth they always contain and from the needs they satisfy, albeit in warped ways: the need to express one's anxiety and anger against the system, the need for a life more infused with wonder and enchantment, and the need for community in a society plagued by emotional frustration and loneliness. Conspiracism often intercepts these needs before anyone else does it.
How conspiracy fantasies defend the system
They defend it by hijacking discontent and directing it toward scapegoats, by channeling energies to places where they're wasted or dissipated. And yet defending the system is not the intent of most people who embrace conspiracy fantasies. On the contrary, they think they're opposing the system. That would be a good attitude, if we could prevent it from being captured by conspiracism. That's what we need to start from, not from any sneering attitude or sense of superiority. None of us can cast the first stone: there's no clear division between the Others, i.e. the ‘gullible’, ‘ignorant’, ‘reactionary’ or even ‘crazy’ people who fall into the 'rabbit hole' of conspiracism, and Us, i.e. the rational, educated, progressive and definitely sane people who 'believe in Reason' and so on. Anyone can fall prey to the cognitive biases that conspiracism exploits.
It's hard to find someone who never believed a conspiracy fantasy. At any moment, the Others are potentially Us
Conspiracy fantasies have always thrived on the Left, no less than on the Right. Just think of the Truther narrative about 9/11, which was popular in some sections of the anti-globalization movement of the 2000s. Just think of how many leftists believed the fantasies fueling the Stalinist Great Purge of 1937. Just think of all the fantasies about Big Pharma's ‘evil plans’, vaccines and medicine in general: they're equally distributed on the opposite sides of the political spectrum.
The latter example allows us to move on: conspiracy fantasies over medicine also develop around indisputable kernels of truth: there really is a morbid relationship between medicine and capital, between health and profits. Many people are confusedly aware of that, and they experience it every time they're interpellated as patients. They've experienced it even more intensely since the Covid emergency began. Conspiracism captures that half-awareness and makes sure it doesn't evolve into anti-capitalism.
We must get rid of the idea that those who trust vaccines are intelligent and virtuous and those who don't trust them are stupid and vicious. If we clear the field of such clichés, then we can understand that the problem is the prolonged lack in our societies of consistent and influential forces that could turn discontent into intelligent struggle, and turn conspiracism into sharp criticism of the dominant ideology, the economy, the system. That criticism is constantly being replaced by surrogates. Indeed, by unintentional parodies of criticism. That's what conspiracy fantasies are.
To simply “debunk” those fantasies doesn't work. Debunkers are constantly preaching to the converted. People who embrace a conspiracist view will never be convinced to drop their beliefs by proving that they're illogical and false. We need to go beyond debunking, and we'll never do it if we don't start by acknowledging that every conspiracy fantasy has a kernel of truth. After we acknowledge this, we can try to beat conspiracism in its game, nay, in our game: we have to be the first to intercept discontent, and satisfy the needs conspiracism usually exploits. We need narratives that are more intriguing than the fantasies we want to debunk.
Stories aimed at re-enchanting the world without blocking critical thought. Stories that show their stitches, i.e. that allow people to understand how they work, how they're constructed, so that they can construct more such stories themselves.
The form of La Q di Qomplotto is an attempt to put the content into practice. In the work, I developed and used several concepts:
conspiracy fantasies as “unintentional parodies” and “unconscious allegories” of class struggle; “conspiracy asemia” (the tendency of conspiracism to take metaphors literally); “toxic narratives” (stories that the mainstream media always tell in the same way, omitting the same elements); “diversionary narratives” (stories that prevent social contradictions from producing social conflict along the real “lines of fracture”); “ratiosuprematism” (the tendency to attribute a belief in conspiracism simply to a lack of logical thinking); “BPC”, that is, Balloon- Piercer Syndrome (the debunker's 'professional illness'); “poets of conspiracy singularity” (people or groups who at a certain point trigger a rapid convergence and a new synthesis of different conspiracy fantasies, e.g. the Querdenken ideologues), etc.
In the 2017-2019 period, QAnon was apparently a very North-American phenomenon. In fact, it already had plenty of supporters in Germany. Looking closely at the stories in QAnon's canon, we see that all the materials are quintessentially European, they're part of the continent’s history and culture. Someone described QAnon's European followers as “epigones”, but this is wrong. We should speak of "cousins," who entertain a dialogue between two branches of a transatlantic family tree.
During the 1980s the US was in the grip of the so-called Satanic Panic, with dozens if not hundreds of innocent people accused of raping and torturing children in secret tunnels during satanic rituals. SRA, Satanic Ritual Abuse, was later proved to be an urban legend.
Thirty years later, however, SRA became the narrative core around which QAnon formed.
Someone might think it's Puritan stuff, typically American obsessions re-emerging once in a while, but in the 1990s and 2000s we had the same phenomenon throughout the Old Continent. For example, in Italy we had the cases of the “Children of Satan” in Bologna, the “Devils of the Modena lowlands”, and the trial of the educators of a kindergarten in Rignano Flaminio near Rome, a case that was an exact photocopy of the famous McMartin case in California.
After January 6th, when the assault on Capitol Hill took place, we entered a 'post-QAnon' phase. A conspiracy singularity – the ultra-rapid convergence and agglutination of a huge number of conspiracy fantasies – occurred in 2020, thanks to the pandemic emergency.
Now the conglomerate of stories is branching out again and developing in many directions, until a new singularity will take place.
Conspiracism is in our cultural heritage
In Europe the soil is fertile, it's been fertilized for millennia: centuries of Holy Inquisition, hunts for heretics and then for witches, the Counter-Reformation, the 'Blood Libel” against Jews (of which SRA is simply a modern remake), the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Nazi-Fascist anti-semitism... all that shit has never gone away. The past doesn't disappear: it sediments. There's an immense bank of diversionary narratives under our feet, to be unearthed and used in times of crisis and potential turmoil.
The capture by conspiracism occurs because it's functional to the logic of the system. You fall into the rabbit hole through inertial drive, on social networks where you let yourself be led by algorithms, etc. After all, it is an old cliché with a very true core that 'to move to the right, it's enough to stand still', in the sense that capitalist society can't help but favoring trends that do not oppose capitalism. To flow with them, it's enough to not oppose them, to not produce any friction. And it's hardly surprising that if we don't produce friction – or if too few people produce it – 'social algorithms' will channel discomfort into reactionary narratives.
Another thing we have to get rid of is snobbery, which is actually political germaphobia, a fear of getting our hands dirty. Preventing someone from becoming a Trumpist or a Reichsbürger, offering those folks a better alternative. Do such outcomes disgust us so much that we prefer to exclude them from our program? They should be part of the ABC of anti-capitalism.
There are phases in which the logic of the system is faced with incompatibilities, counter-logics and counter-pushes. Moments in which anti-systemic movements are born and become strong. When they exist, the reactionar 'capture' of discontent is no longer an inevitable conclusion. In the midst of contradictions we can take up the challenge. It's happening with demonstrations against the political management of the pandemic in many European countries.
Only mass movements can take charge of counter-conspiracism in effective ways. No task force, no specialized unit, no group of experimenters can replace a mass movement. What we can do is to take a look at the toolbox and make an inventory of the tools that future movements could use. Some of them are just around the corner.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Sandra Mujinga, Spectral Keepers. Exhibition view at The Approach, London, 2021. Photography
by Plastiques. Courtesy of the artist and The Approach, London. © the artist.