Art critique

Discourses of distrust: conspiracy theories and criticism of ideology – Journal #116 March 2021

In my postscript to historical communism, I focused on the role of language in socialist society and how it differs from the role of language in capitalist society. Under the conditions of capitalism, the purpose of discursive practice is to produce trust – trust in commercial products, political parties and institutions, the judicial system, etc. If we rely on these speeches, we say that they are true, that they correspond to reality. Otherwise, they are said to be false. But how to tell the difference between true and false speech? After all, as mortal individuals, we are not always able to have direct access to the reality to which such talk is supposed to refer. And even if we obtain this access, the suspicion remains that we only have a “subjective impression” of it, which cannot serve as a criterion of truth. Ultimately, we can only make a purely personal decision to commit to a certain discourse, ideology, political attitude, or worldview. As they say, “we can buy it” – like we buy any other product. And this operation of buying a certain ideology is a silent operation. It can no longer be verbalized.

The discourse of Marxism, on the contrary, produces not trust but mistrust. Marxism is essentially a critique of ideology. Marxism does not seek a “reality” to which a particular discourse would refer, but the interests of the speakers who produce this discourse – class interests above all. Here the main question is not What is said but Why It is said. And this question of Why is not related to the personal situation, interests or discursive strategies of the speakers. Men cannot know what is good for them; they very often profess ideologies directly prejudicial to their interests. Thus, individual discourses are investigated by the critique of ideology according to their objective role in the class struggle.

This critical inquiry allows those who listen to and read these discourses to make a rational decision about whether to join. We know what class we belong to and so, using ideological critique, we can choose a discourse favorable to our class interests. For example, if we belong to the ruling class, we can choose a discourse that has the greatest reactionary potential and that can best be used to resist the liberation movement of the working class. But this choice and similar choices are, of course, always debatable: the positions of different social classes change all the time, and the relations between social forces also change. Thus, the accompanying discourses must be constantly modified and often even exchanged: a discourse yesterday reactionary can become progressive today, and vice versa. The discourse of criticism of ideology is a meta-discourse and it cannot be stopped. Indeed, only the discourse of distrust always goes further and is never silent, whereas the moment of trust is always a moment of silence.

However, as we well know, criticism of ideology has been almost completely removed from the public sphere by post-communist censorship. We prefer not to talk about class, we appeal to the so-called “common interests” of rich and poor, we will “unite and not divide”, we will save our common planet. One will be positive. We will trust in the power of a united humanity. Distrust, however, can never be completely removed. The metadiscursive space cannot remain empty indefinitely. So now it has been filled with conspiracy theories that substitute for criticism of ideology. Instead of analyzing the class interests behind the dominant corporate discourses, it is assumed, for example, that these discourses serve a sect of pedophiles who use the blood of children as raw material to produce drugs. We wonder: what to do with these crazy conspiracy theories? How to regain the trust of the people? One can only propose a rational and enlightened way for this distrust to manifest itself.

This is especially true in our internet age. In many ways, the World Wide Web was an attempt to build space for virtual communism after communism declined in the offline world. It’s relatively free to provide and access content, so anyone can participate. Thus, the internet promised to break with selectivity and therefore with unequal access to public space. Indeed, selectivity was the main problem of traditional media. Newspapers and publishing houses, museum curators and theater directors select and write texts, images and events according to their ideological predispositions. This selection was motivated by two factors: interest in the commercial success of a publication or event, and the desire for this publication or event to avoid major political controversy. As a result, the mainstream public discourse reflected the attitudes of the most privileged social groups. In contrast, in the virtual space beyond national borders, every voice could theoretically be published and heard. The Internet seemed to offer a space in which public speech could finally become free.

There is another aspect of the Internet which recalls the communist past. The communist movement changed the position of listeners and readers. They ceased to be passive consumers of public discourse and became followers on the road to the communist future. Language no longer functioned as a description of an existing reality but rather as a call to create a new reality. In this sense, the public speeches were neither true nor false but rather inspiring or disappointing. However, different communist parties, organizations, groups and leaders offered somewhat different descriptions of the future and instructions on how to achieve it. The language of calls, orders and commands inevitably produces contradictions, ruptures and conflicts which can become violent. And you never know where these contradictions and conflicts can lead. This uncertainty is of course frightening and produces the desire to appease public speech. In its early days, the Internet appeared to be an ideal instrument for this pacification.

Indeed, the Internet user is not a consumer but a follower. But these contemporary followers are not following in the traditional sense. The traditional follower was part of a religious, ideological or political movement. Following involved discipline and the willingness to sacrifice. It was often exemplified by the figure of the samurai who was believed to commit suicide when tracking became impossible due to the death of a leader or loss of aim. Obviously, the contemporary Internet user does not have the same sense of purpose and dedication. These followers follow public figures, their public actions but also their private affairs. And without leaving their computer, a follower can follow very different personalities, be they politicians, religious leaders, footballers, artists or princes of the English royal house. In the “real world”, being followed by such different public figures would lead to contradictions and conflicts. But on the internet all these personalities are territorialized by their accounts on different forms of social networks. These accounts can be visited by subscribers, but leaders cannot impose their presence on subscribers by their own will. The internet enables followers but disables leaders. The follower visits a public figure just to see what is happening to him, what state he is in at any given time, like a doctor visits a patient to see how he is feeling.

However, this romance is not perfect. Each Internet user is not only a follower but is also followed. And here the promise of equality is broken. This is because different users have different numbers of followers. This number serves as symbolic capital and can easily be transformed into real capital. So the question arises: why does this other person’s account have so many followers and not mine? Under the conditions of the Internet, it is even more difficult to answer this question than in an explicitly selective and elitist traditional culture. In this traditional culture, the mechanism of selection could be described and criticized. But the internet is supposedly regulated by algorithms, and they are inscrutable and uncritical to ordinary users. This means that the space behind the surface of the internet is necessarily imagined as dark space. This space causes a competition between conspiracy theories to fill it – and the winner is, of course, the darkest. The follower turns into the hunt and the followers become the hunters. The hunt follows the digital trail left by the targeted game. But on the internet the follower is a hunter who can never reach the object of the hunt because this object remains offline. This fact only increases the hatred.

Contemporary authorities are responding with censorship, hoping to stop the spread of conspiracy theories and hate speech. Today, the same people who not so long ago praised unrestricted free speech and the so-called “hive mind” are the most radical proponents of a return to censorship. But the way to resist conspiracy theories is not to go back to censorship but to go back to the Marxist critique of ideology. It applies to ideologies disseminated on the Internet no less than it applied to ideologies of earlier eras. After all, the selectivity hidden behind the surface of the Internet reflects corporate and state interests to the same degree as the overt selectivity of mainstream media and institutions.