In this blogpost I am not putting forward any claims about the validity of the political content of ideologies, conspiracy theories, the COVID-19 pandemic or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This post seeks only to explore the origin and nature of reactionary politics and conspiracy theories, in which I borrow elements from philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. So without further ado, let’s go to wonderland.
Reactionary politics has been on the rise in The Netherlands. Reactionary politics calls for a return to the status quo ante, characterized by Euroscepticism, anti-globalization, COVID vaccine skepticism and pro-Russian sentiment. While I applaud skepticism, critical debate and knowledge seeking in general, I can’t help but notice complacency in both reactionary politicians and conspiracy theorists. But there is not much joy to be found in if what they are saying is actually true. Instead, they display a sense of enjoyment in having exclusive access to certain information and knowledge, which governments fail to take into account and which is unbeknown to the normies of the world. This is a form of surplus jouissance (enjoyment). Surplus enjoyment is the auratic ineffable extra that makes us like something more than the thing itself. It’s to enjoy the act of shopping more than the purchased product.
Paradoxically, the closer we get to the object of our desire the more it eludes our grasp. The more you drink Coke, the thirstier you become. The more profit you make, the more anxious you are to lose it. And the more conspiracy theories you consume, the further down the rabbit hole you go. Our desires seek to sustain themselves and are therefore never fully satisfied or do not want to be. Furthermore, we are not in control of our desires and we often find ourselves transfixed on things that are denied from us. Prohibition creates desire and makes the object of our desire only more desirable. This is best displayed by God himself, who injected the concept of desire into paradise by forbidding Adam and Eve from eating from the fruit of knowledge. The objective to keep desires alive, hence the failure to fully satisfy them, is only bolstered further by neo-liberal capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t aim to satisfy, but to sustain the desire for new products and commodities, leading to ever-expanding markets. Part of the reason why conspiracy theories are so popular is because how easy it has become to capitalize on them.
The Reanimation of the Big Other
Reactionary politics and conspiracy theories are reactions to the scientific revolution, the rise of secularism and neo-liberal capitalism, which have led to the decline of traditional forms of authority in society and in our faith in the big Other. The big Other, also known as the symbolic order, is the collection of our languages, relations, conventions and laws and restrictions, which govern our desires and communication. Although we generally don’t like being told what we cannot do, laws and restrictions enable us to properly function in the world as subjects, as they create desires and function as reference points for us to develop sound and structured worldviews. They enable us to apply reason, answer existential questions and to differentiate between wright and wrong.
Paradoxically, today’s society in which we enjoy greater freedoms than ever before, only increases anxiety. As symbolic authority and social prohibitions erode and the objects of our desires become more readily available, we become closer to fulfilling our desires. But our desires do not want to be fulfilled, they want to be sustained. Therefore, the closer we get to our objects of desire, the more horrifying they become and anxiety rises, because reaching them threatens to remove (surplus) enjoyment and to extinguish the subject of desire itself. Furthermore, as the symbolic order continues to collapse, we get confronted more and more with the incomprehensible nature of reality. The indifference of natural phenomena, such as viruses, and violence between humans that is devoid of any reason or higher purpose.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? … , what sacred games shall we have to invent?Friedrich Nietzsche
As I detailed in my blog about Buddhism, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, but also pondered what sacred games we would have to invent after killing God to guard society from the crisis of nihilism. In other words, how are we to fill the gap left by the abandonment of our faith in the big Other? If reactionary politics is right about one thing, it is that contemporary politics and society are unable to fill this gap. The disdain for the past and cultural relativism of postmodernism and the one-dimensional reduction of complex social problems into oppressor vs. oppressed narratives of neo-Marxist politics have proven insufficient. Therefore, new prohibitions to our desires, new obstacles, have to be introduced in order to reanimate the big Other. One option is to resort back to traditional Judeo-Christian values. In this light, fundamentalism is not conservative at all, but instead a very modern response against the current social order.
Another option is by removing the symbolic altogether and bringing the big Other into reality. This is what conspiracy theories do when they make reference to ‘real’ forms of order: totalitarian world governments, the pharmaceutical industry and all-powerful agents that secretly pull the strings and have it all figured out. Through this recreation of order our subjectivity is restored. Real-world obstacles to our desires are then invented, such as immigrants, protestors, politicians or scientists. Real truth can never be attained though, that’s why they remain conspiracy theories, but this is not the goal. The goal is to sustain desire, not to fulfill it. This is made easier by capitalism and modern technology such as social media, which also don’t aim to satisfy the desire for truth, but only seek to propagate and commercialize this desire. Note that liberalism is just as guilty of substituting the big Other, but by an overgrowth of rules, committees, bureaucracy, political correctness, the increased transactional nature of social interactions, consent, etc. Our reality is currently sustained by the rationales and fantasies surrounding these ‘proxy’ big Others.
There are multiple paradoxes to be found in reactionary politics however. First, because it was our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its shift from polytheism to monotheism and the emphasis on spoken truth, the Logos, which enabled the scientific revolution in the first place. Secondly, pro-Russian sentiment which makes an appeal to complexity and questions the historical role of the West contains itself an element of oikophobia, – a term used to describe an aversion to one’s own culture, as popularized by Dutch reactionary politician Thierry Baudet. But denying Russia the ability to do evil, is in itself a form of Eurocentrism and racism. It’s precisely this same arrogant attitude, that whenever something bad happens in the world it has to be because of Western colonialism and imperialism, which reactionary politicians accuse liberal politicians of who sympathize with refugees.
Both liberal and reactionary politics offer insufficient solutions to the erosion of the big Other. The reactionary appeal to complexity or even conspiracy theories does not translate to better well-being or ethical decision making in times of crisis. One can argue that knowing ‘too much’ has even hurt us during the pandemic by overcomplication, also referred to as scope creep. On the other end, the relativism of liberal politics has led to an overabundance of choices and emerging industries to help subjects cope with this. The more aspects of our identity we outsource to personal choice and the more we question social norms and interactions, the more authority we will need to legitimize in the proces. It is therefore difficult to critique political ideologies and the rationales (fantasies) that surround them, with rational arguments when the main goal of these narratives is to sustain us as subjects of desire.
So how can we move forward? As I argued in The Evil of AI for Good, offering a way out of a political ideology, taking the red pill, is itself an ideological move. This only transposes the problem of ideology back into the solution itself. Instead, we should find ways to remove the (surplus) enjoyment from narratives, by either devaluating the object of desire or confronting the subject directly with his or her object of desire. An example is found in the Pentagon essentially killing UFO conspiracies, inadvertently or not, by opening up about UFO research and sightings. This leads one to believe UFO’s might not be real after all.. shame right! Secondly, this reveals the subject’s real anxiety, which is not the existence of an all-powerful government, but a government which would be powerless in the face of an alien civilization with technology beyond our comprehension and understanding. Again, anxiety does not originate from the existence of the big Other, but from the potential lack of it. We should therefore not close ourselves of and leave particular ideas in the obscure, only for others to enjoy.