First published on 30 June 2022.
It is popular in universities to denounce conspiracy theories as inherently evil descendants of twentieth-century totalitarianism. I don’t wish to make a judgement on this specific point, because each side is polarised to the point that they deal in different narrations of history. To overcome this empirical war, I suggest philosophy can bring conceptual peace. Rather than demonstrating that conspiracy theory is unhistorical (which, no doubt, it is), I want to show that it is unphilosophical. But I also acknowledge its psychological motivation in deep distrust of extant institutions, a distrust arising from the context of our crumbling institutional architecture. I propose an alternative critique of the centre ground — one which draws not on the anti-conspiratorial ideology of the right, but on the anti-capitalist sociology of the left. I suggest that both the right and the centre form a vicious cycle that only the left can break, by critiquing the system that underpins both the centre ground and conspiracy theories thereof: capitalism.
Conspiracy theories used to be obviously lazy. The antisemitic right-wing generals behind the Dreyfus Affair accused the general Alfred Dreyfus of failing to retake Alsace-Loraine from Prussia (a task surely up to the Kaiser, not a middle-ranking general). The writer Emile Zola revealed the conspiracy in J’Accuse, in a startling reversal of the conspirators’ logic, who had accused Dreyfus of the kind of deception in which they, themselves, were engaged. Zola’s letter, rather than provoking a cycle of blame and shame, successfully exonerated Dreyfus in the opinion of the public and the judiciary. Nonetheless, as Hannah Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the culture war between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards raged on.
Today, conspiracy theory takes on a rather different form. Rather than accusing individual people, or groups of people, of crimes, conspiracy theory takes aim at ‘the establishment’, a term borrowed from the left, which is now lumped in with the liberal establishment taken to run the world. But the logic has not really changed — only the rhetoric. If the ‘problem’ is still a definite section of society, then this is still a potentially xenophobic move, designed to label a substratum of people in particular ‘establishment’ roles as evil or corrupted by power. If power corrupts, however, who can blame the wielders of power? The wand chooses the wizard …
But so far we have dealt with conspiratorial moves or mistaken history. We have not dealt with the theory of conspiracy. Such a theory is now instantiated in Curtis Yarvin’s concept of ‘the Cathedral’, which is taken to denote the mass of ideology converging on, roughly, a left-liberal consensus. The theory sounds sophisticated, but it is fundamentally lazy. The main reason it has an intellectual following is that Yarvin portrays it as based on the selective mechanisms of the market, which has ceased to select for ‘good’ ideas (when, exactly, did the market select for such ideas?). As a result of the corruption of capitalism, the shadow of feudalism has been reanimated in the neomedieval structure of the modern university, where Hobbes’ hated ‘school-men’ run the show with false dogmas and misleading mantras.
As with the accusers of Dreyfus, Yarvin risks himself becoming entrapped in the accusation he levels, like a boomerang which returns to injure the wielder of the weapon. Article after article paints Yarvin as himself part of a ‘cathedral’ of thought, termed the ‘alt-right’, or the ‘dark enlightenment’ (surely an ironic turn on Hobbes’ ‘Kingdom of Darkness’, itself taken to represent the original cathedral of Christendom, or Augustine’s ‘city of god’). The wand wounds the wizard.
But notice the change in conspiratorial ideology. Once a banal, post-Christian suspicion of non-Gentiles (see, again, The Origins of Totalitarianism), now conspiracy theory is deployed to attack the system itself — and its critics. The left is part of the conspiracy, apparently, and so — as Yarvin’s respondents claim — is the magician behind cathedralism. Painting Yarvin as a dark wizard echoes portrayals of contemporary academics such as John Mearsheimer as following a ‘dark’ legacy (see Adam Tooze’s recent piece or, alternatively, Harry Potter), as well as recent attempts in academia to frame almost every early-modern intellectual as a ‘theorist of imperialism’, for heaven knows what reason. The right has its own theory of which theorist is behind totalitarianism, despite also being a victim of antisemitism (a spectacular irony, given Arendt’s famous formula: antisemitism + imperialism = totalitarianism) — namely, Karl Marx.
Marx’s theory is that the market exploits people on a systematic scale. Workers sell their labour power to capitalists who take all the credit (in this case, literally) for work they didn’t exactly do (though the work was done, legally speaking, ‘on their behalf’ — so that somehow, by magic, they did put in ‘the work’). Max Weber responded that capitalists begin as workers of sorts, divorcing themselves from luxury just as workers are divorced from the ‘means of production’ (or resources and technology) in Marx’s story. These elementary schisms are weakened, but not entirely collapsed, as the system evolves. Some workers have become professionals, and invest in stocks and shares as part of the petit-bourgeoisie (‘little capitalists’, or wannabes). And capitalists indulge in all sorts of vices, although the tech start-up billionaires still get up early in the morning.
Yarvin’s theory owes something to these sociological theories; it ties mainstream ideology to economic sociology in a way that echoes the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and its tracing of liberal ideology to the Enlightenment and its politico-economic contradictions (though apparently critical theory is part of ‘the Cathedral’, too, if not its alleged foundation — never mind its self-aware critique of the Kantian ideology of modernity: liberal individualism). Capitalism, in dividing the institutional fabric of Christendom, creates the ingredients for liberal individualism. Today, we are seeing the return of the repressed — modern capital, in the shadow of the medieval cathedral, is bringing back aspects of the old unity to manage the new disunity it has unleashed. Between the two poles, the modern state — Hobbes’ ‘commonwealth’ — struggles to balance capitalist anarchy with cultural hierarchy. The hierarchy of the family, and the anarchy of the market, once found their balance in the moderating role of the republican state — as proposed by ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and inherited by modern politiques Machiavelli and Harrington. In the universities, such republicanism lives on — but usually when tied to some concept of the individual, as described by liberal philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Yarvin’s ‘Cathedral’ stands in the shadow of Marx’s Capital just as capitalism stands in the shadow of Christendom: old ideas and institutions undergo decay, but are restored to manage the decay of the ideas and institutions which replace then. In this sense, we are still in the world of Dante’s Inferno, heading deeper and deeper into hell, which presents itself as a modern version of purgatory.
Just as right-wing cathedralism and centre-ground capitalism stand as two sides of the same coin, so do modern and medieval ideas form flip-sides of the same game of Dantean dice. The alternative is not to play the game. But to not play is to guarantee loss. And to lose is, in a market economy, to die. To lose in a post-Christian world is to guarantee damnation after death. We can’t lose, but we can’t not lose. We are trapped. In proposing a mythic escape from our condition through restoring ancient ideals, conspiracy theory fundamentally misunderstands modern reality. The dynamics of contemporary capitalism are predatory, but they are also inescapable. To stand any chance of escaping, we must first accept that the chances of escaping are minimal, if not nonexistent. In the humility of philosophy, not the hubris of conspiracy theory, lies our only hope of redemption — precisely because redemption, as history shows, is hopeless.