Capitalism, Science, and the Rise of Conspiracy Theories

Public faith in science and rationality has declined as capitalism repeatedly fails to deliver on its promises.

Costas Panayotakis Feb 16, 2021

One of the notable characteristics of Trumpism is the newfound strength of extravagant conspiracy theories that commentators in the mainstream media castigate as a dangerous affront to democracy and scientific rationality.  While correct in its description of QAnon and other far-right conspiracies as dangerous and irrational, the mainstream commentariat’s superficial and platitude-ridden jeremiads never touch on an important dynamic fueling conspiracy theories — the problematic and contradictory relationship between capitalism and neoliberalism on one side and science on the other.

When capitalism started to emerge within feudal Europe, the bourgeois and commercial strata most identified with it saw science as a valuable ally in their struggle against a social order that relied on the power of the church to reproduce itself and place limits on the ways that individuals could pursue profit and accumulate wealth.  Capitalism’s struggle against feudalism was a protracted one. It proceeded unevenly as a result of the differences in local social, economic and political conditions in different parts of Europe, and often played a role in the outbreak of major social and political revolutions (most famously in England, France, and Russia) that shaped the social, economic and political landscape we still inhabit.  Integral in this process was the claim of pro-capitalist forces to represent progress, scientific reason and enlightenment as against religious obscurantism and its support for the ‘unnatural’ barriers to individual economic freedom that the declining feudal order represented.

As long as capitalism persists, science’s entanglement with ideology will undermine people’s faith in scientific rationality. 

The identification of science with progress and capitalism probably reached its apex in the late 1800s.  Bolstering this identification was the fact that, after the horrific conditions and human toll that early industrialization imposed on European workers and, more indirectly but no less horrifically, on colonial populations and enslaved Africans forced to work in sugar or cotton plantations in the Americas, some of the material fruits of industrialization appeared to trickle down to segments of the European working class by the second part of the 19th century.

By contrast, the 20th century soon lay to rest any naïve optimism regarding capitalism’s ability to translate the rapid development of science and technology into social progress. Capitalism’s pursuit of profit may favor and even require scientific research and technological development. But as long as the prevailing socio-economic order persists, any material benefits that scientific and technological development bestows on us will have to be weighed against science and technology’s implication in ecological catastrophe, genocidal (and potentially nuclear) wars and levels of surveillance that even George Orwell could not have imagined.

The rise of neoliberal capitalism over the last few decades has added a new twist to this dynamic.  This latest model of capitalist development has greatly increased economic inequality by removing any obstacles to the pursuit of corporate profit. At the same time, it has demolished worker protections and systems of social security, such as the welfare state, designed to mitigate the risks that chronically unstable markets impose on ordinary people. 

This state of affairs has over time fueled popular discontent and resistance across the capitalist world and has shaken people’s faith in neoliberal promises.  The promise that the unfettered pursuit of corporate profit would benefit everybody by spurring investment, economic growth, employment and a rising income for all, were based on the allegedly scientific analyses and arguments of mainstream economists, technocrats and experts.  The latter are so confident of the scientific validity of their prescriptions that they have, with the assistance of the mainstream media, attributed anti-neoliberal sentiment (either on the right, as among some Trump supporters, or on the left, as among progressive movements around the world critical of the center-left’s capitulation to neoliberal theology), to the mental defects of deplorable populists and flat-earth advocates who don’t understand how the real world works.

In reality, it is the allegedly scientific models and prescriptions long pushed by mainstream economists and the corporate media that have spectacularly failed to capture reality.  This failure was dramatized in 2008 when mainstream economists were as surprised by the eruption of the global financial crisis as the average citizen. Such failure heightened popular skepticism about what the officially anointed purveyors of science pronounce to be ‘true’ and ‘rational’.  Scholars have attributed the rise of Trumpism to other consequences of neoliberal capitalism, such as deindustrialization, financialization, and the growing economic chasm between urban and rural areas in the United States and abroad. However, don’t underestimate the role that the ideological dynamic discussed in this piece has played in the rise of Trumpism, the far right and all the conspiracy theories that such political forces routinely exploit and propagate.

Ultimately this dynamic is a reminder that in any oppressive and exploitative society, like capitalism, science and culture are always tainted by ideology, or the promotion of beliefs that are less concerned with the discovery of truth than they are with the justification and reproduction of the prevailing social order.  As long as capitalism persists, science’s entanglement with ideology will undermine people’s faith in scientific rationality.  So, whatever staunch supporters of capitalism in the corporate media may say, nobody should be surprised if conspiracy theories not only survive in the future but become ever more virulent as neoliberal capitalism continues to encourage the spread of global pandemics, like the current one.

Costas Panayotakis is a professor of sociology at New York City College of Technology and the author of The Capitalist Mode of Destruction (Manchester University Press, February 2021).

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