Conspiracy theories are booming. There are many new publications on the question of why they arise and how one can react to them. In this article, five theses are put forward. The starting point is Albert Camus‘ philosophical reflections on human existence.
1 Existential uncertainty
Man asks for the meaning of the world, but the world only answers him with silence. This is the starting point of Albert Camus‘ philosophy of the absurd. Those who do not believe in God or religion experience an existential insecurity that is difficult to bear. According to Camus, one can react to this in two ways: One can devote oneself to simple explanations of the world and emulate a political utopia, or one can rebel against authoritarianism and simple promises of salvation through democratic revolt, truth-seeking and solidarity. Since the beginning of modernity, these two paths have been opposed to each other: In a world where God is losing influence as an explanatory model, some want to replace him with secular ideologies or authoritarian leaders, while others prefer democratic negotiation without promises of salvation and accepting uncertainty. Some also cling to or return to religion.
Camus‘ reflections from the 1940s and 50s have lost none of their explanatory power. On the contrary, they seem particularly relevant today. The world has become more complex, more interconnected, faster, more immediate and harder to understand. Even people with a high level of formal education can no longer comprehend or understand many developments in detail. Globalisation has led to a pluralism of identities and opinions, increasing opportunities but also increasing uncertainty.
So we can assume that the existential question of the meaning of life is at least as relevant in our complex, globalised, accelerated world as it was before. Many people look for answers in simple explanations. Many find it difficult to accept that there are no simple answers, that the world is too complex, too contradictory to understand everything about it. This is a first breeding ground, inherent in human existence, for irrational theories, for fears and for the success of authoritarian populists.
2 Loss of trust in elites an inequality
The human starting point of existential insecurity is compounded by the fact that in this complex world, the elites are losing approval. Whereas in the past people largely trusted what scientists or politicians said, for some decades now distrust in these actors has been steadily increasing. On the one hand, they are too far away from the citizens for them to feel understood or represented. On the other hand, they have come too close to everyday language in their communication styles for anyone to believe that they have a certain superiority in interpreting the world. It is a paradox of science that it has long since stepped out of its ivory tower into the lowlands of media logic and has thus lost credibility and trust at the same time. Debates that were previously conducted within the discipline are now broadcast on television or Twitter and thus lose their objectivity. But those who don’t know that professional disputes are part and parcel of science believe they can concoct any view of things they want.
Professional politics, on the other hand, is losing trust for the same reasons we have known since ancient times: Promises that are not kept, the defence of privileges, alliances with rich sponsors, rhetorical tricks or lies, etc. In addition, there is a neo-liberal narrative of a necessary withdrawal of the state, of the power of large corporations and of winners and losers in an all-pervasive competition. Inequality is rising. The traditional elites are no longer trusted to provide answers to the existential uncertainty in a complex world or at least to ensure stable structures, integrity and trust in the political sphere. Whether this impression is justified may be another question.
- lack of experience of democracy.
The first two points promote a sense of paralysis and powerlessness in the face of a world that is silent and elites that do not offer simple and clear answers. This sense of powerlessness is not only abstract, but also real, where it concerns the organisations of our everyday lives. These are still characterised by strong hierarchies in which most people do not have much to say. A large part of the population is forced to spend many hours a day in organisations that leave little room for free decisions. At work, most people experience that contradiction or criticism of the bosses leads to sanctions, to dismissal and thus to a threat to their existence. In schools, students experience that they have little say when it comes to the important things, that the pressure to perform increases and their power remains low. Those who rebel in these hierarchically organised everyday situations risk their future. Experiences of democracy, on the other hand, are relatively rare. In the political sphere, they are usually limited to election Sundays. They also hardly ever take place in everyday life.
The mixture of more complex, competitive world conditions and little to no democratic everyday life reinforces the desire for simple solutions, which in turn plays into the hands of the above-mentioned phenomena – conspiracy theories, populism.
4 New media
The fourth aspect, which goes hand in hand with the others, is the change in communication possibilities through new media. It is a truism that Twitter, Facebook and What’s App have massively changed the way we communicate. This applies above all to the political sphere. What used to be sayable at best at the pub table is now considered good enough to be tweeted out into the world. The logic of these media is geared towards slogans, scandalisation, clicks and likes. Dialogue is lost, a tweet quickly leads to name-calling, hate speech, the shutting down of debate and polarisation: anyone who is not for me is against me. Anyone who criticises me wants to shut me up. The division of the world into enemies and friends is progressing rapidly. Against existential insecurity and daily powerlessness, one can now at least tweet, post and put others into simple categories. This seems to make the world more bearable.
5 Political struggle
The last thesis is that all the previously mentioned aspects only lead to polarisation because, despite all the despair and frustration, people now see the chance to gain the upper hand, to assert their own simple positions and world views, to take a swipe at complexity, to end powerlessness. Only when people have the hope of being able to change something do they express themselves politically. If they don’t have this hope, they stay at home on election day and drop out of political discussions. So there are also positive aspects to this. We see an enormous politicisation. More and more people are getting involved. Voter turnout is increasing. Politics is being discussed everywhere.
In many cases, this new politicisation has a disturbing effect. The sloganeers are too loud, the voices of reason seem too quiet. It is the task of politics, science and the task of enlightened citizens to intervene in this struggle for the sovereignty of interpretation and to make it democratically fruitful. Only a strengthening of democracy in all situations can take the wind out of the sails of those who want simple explanations instead of democratic debates and strive for an authoritarian turn.