Conspiratorial right-wing speech ought to be understood to be addressed properly

Photo by: Naomi Mckinney on Unsplash

Conspiracy is becoming a mainstay of popular right-wing rhetoric and there are ways to approach it that are more productive than less, starting with understanding it. 

A few weeks back a group of Freedom Convoy supporters appeared on the roadside leading into the Brock University campus sporting Canadian flags and signage warning of the dangers of 15-minute cities and the COVID-19 vaccine. 

I stopped by in hopes to see if we could find common ground on some issues and get a sense of what exactly is promoting the continuation of the movement, over a year after its inception. The answers to the latter question were unclear to say the least. Responses ranged from fighting an existential crisis on behalf of Jesus Christ, to the incorrect proposition that more vaccinated people have died than unvaccinated when comparing the potential adverse effects of the vaccine to contracting COVID-19 without being vaccinated. Other gems such as freemasons in the United Nations trying to institute social control through walkable city proposals popped up as well. 

Despite the strangeness of a lot of the complaints, what shined through was that these particular protestors seemingly had no outward political associations. They didn’t like the Ford government, they hated Trudeau even more, and felt the New Democrats sold out years ago. 

As someone sympathetic to the NDP, I mentioned that when Ontario had its first NDP premier, Bob Rae, he instituted a series of neoliberal austerity measures, notably the Social Contract Act, which were widely unpopular. However, I mentioned that the NDP as of late has been the only party to provide a relatively robust critique of the causes and abuses of the last year of inflation, which garnered a pause of thought from the protestors. 

Pretending that this made any serious dent in their worldview, however, is wishful at best. The conversation almost immediately devolved back into grand assumptions of a global cabal that wants to control us through social institutions such as the UN and the World Economic Forum. 

In a sense, it didn’t matter that I didn’t make much of a dent, what mattered was that they trusted me because I was calm and tried to tie in complaints they had to history and policy and by the end there was, at least, a broad agreement that capitalism is a net negative on society. 

The right is exceptional at stoking anxiety and fear into folks like the ones I talked to, and when they engage with someone who doesn’t outright call them crazy or act antagonistically, it begins to puncture a hole in the culture war portrayal that the “bad lefties” are out to get you and limit your freedoms by shutting down your speech. 

Yes, the protestors’ conspiratorial speech seemed bonkers to me, but the sense of alienation and insecurity can and should be diagnosed as the result of the capitalist camera obscura of necessary social ties as well as the lack of media literacy around algorithmic pigeon-holing of content that is motivated by profit. 

One theme in my discussion was an appeal to the “them” who are doing all the nefarious things that tie together vaccine programs and 15-minute cities. When pushed on who exactly was behind this, which agency is pulling all the strings, I was again and again rebuked with “them!” meaning, ostensibly, the powerful, mostly governmental agencies of the world.

However, the Lacanian answer is that this “them” is the big Other — which is language, the agency of trans-individual authority or the symbolic — in its otherness. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, though, was clear that the big Other doesn’t exist, that “there is no Other to the Other”—there is no final recourse to the truth of language as being an accurate representation of the world. 

Conspiratorial speech is similar to the psychotic experience of language apropos Lacan as a foreign body that infests or invades the body, depleting it of the rich meaning that seems to exist in the imaginary wholeness of the world in its immediate stupid existence. 

The conspiracist projects these feelings of invasion onto really existing agents in the world, Trudeau for example. Consequently, for the conspiracist floating signifiers are easily mismatched and combined: the UN and an effort to create a passive population through a vaccine program become connected in a rich imaginary of connections that make the conspiracist certain. This brings us back to Lacan who argued that for everyday neurotics (most of us), doubt is commonplace. For the psychotically oriented subject, unabated certainty is the ailment that intrudes and disintegrates their symbolic universe. 

The task of the left should be to try to tie down these right-wing floating signifiers to logics that arise from the real abstract agency that is at the root of a lot of material feelings of alienation and distrust: namely communicative capitalism as Jodi Dean understands it—a place of symbolic foreclosure. 

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