I try to keep abreast of the latest conspiracy theories circulating on the internet because I consider them especially pernicious manifestations of false consciousness. It’s seldom I encounter individuals disseminating them in public, though.
This all changed the other day at work, when an older customer approached me to inquire as to whether the store I work for carried DVDs of an obscure television program from the 1960s, the name of which eludes me. Of course we didn’t and I informed him accordingly, and usually that’s where my interactions with customers cease. This gentleman, however, seemed intent on having a conversation. He mentioned that he saw we carried Das Boot and asked if I knew how many languages the film has been dubbed in. I told him I had no idea, but, considering the popularity of the film, I conjectured at least the major Western European languages were covered. Somehow this brought us to a conversation about how the Chinese are currently involved in pirating most of the United States’ films and how “awful” this illegal activity is. I remarked that, although China has reverted to capitalism, the Central Politburo of the Communist Party doesn’t seem too keen on respecting intellectual property rights, or at least those of foreign companies. I find ideological inconsistencies of this sort slightly humorous and expected he would too, but he refused to concede that China is currently practicing capitalism, which immediately signaled to me that I was dealing with some species of conservative. Being that I was at work, I couldn’t argue my case too forcefully, so we ended up having to agree to disagree on that particular issue.
Perhaps owing to my apparent knowledge of these subjects, the man was eager to converse further. Chinese “communism” naturally led into a discussion of Russia and the history of the former Soviet Union. The man shared a few amusing anecdotes about Vladimir Putin which, in his opinion, demonstrated that Putin remains a “KGB thug at heart” who the United States’ military should ideally eliminate from the world stage. “But our country hasn’t had the testicular fortitude to doing anything like that since Reagan,” he muttered. His fondness for American imperialism disqualified him from conventional propertarian status, which further piqued my curiosity as to exactly what category of conservative I was dealing with. “Neo-con?” I wondered to myself.
From Putin we drifted into a discussion about Stalin. As I expected, the Holodomor and the dubious death figures compiled in Stéphane Courtois’s (ed.) The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Havard University Press, 1999) were mentioned. I had neither the ability (again, as a consequence of being at work) nor the desire to contest these matters, so I allowed the man to prattle on about the myriad Soviet atrocities. I did, however, invoke the suppression of the Kronstadt Soviet and the Ukrainian Free Territory in an attempt to balance the conversation somewhat, but it fell on def ears. Only the casualties suffered by the White Army and Kulaks seemed to matter to this individual. Surprisingly, and to his credit, the man never faulted communism’s alleged incompatibility with ‘human nature’ for the suffering experienced in the Soviet Union.
“Yes, but what of Hitler? He was also a genocidal dictator, but of the right,” I eventually interrupted—I felt an urge to cut short his anti-socialist tirade by citing an example of bourgeois barbarism; I figured his response to this remark would also determine whether he harbored fascistic sympathies, therewith revealing the source of his conservatism. “Hitler was a Satanist,” the man responded. I attributed this ludicrous statement to the common error people commit in conflating Paganism with Satanism. “He was vaguely interested in Paganism, and publicly identified as a Christian,” I chuckled, “but his personal conversations confirm that he was secular.” “No,” said the conservative. “He literally worshiped Satan and it’s rumored he could actually summon his spirit. The evidence of this has been suppressed since the end of the Second World War.” At this point it became obvious I was conversing with a religious conspiracy theorist of the highest order. Part of me wanted to end the conversation right there, because it’s futile engaging in debate with someone with no appreciation for basic standards of logic and evidence. But another part of me was intrigued. I wanted to find out how he came to espouse such utterly ridiculous views.
“Every radical political movement since the Enlightenment has been orchestrated by Satan himself, from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks. The entire world is governed by Satanists today, and the Democratic and Republican parties are controlled by them too,” the zealot proclaimed. He went on to explain how the only way to prevent humanity from descending into savage depravity is to ground all of our personal decisions and social institutions in the teachings of Jesus Christ. “The United States is the last country in the world that has maintained its Christian faith despite the onslaught of modernity and it’s up to us to ensure Satan’s politicians don’t succeed in their attempts to destroy the Church.” I wondered at this moment whether Bakunin was onto something when he said “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.” Surely any deity that requires of its creation a suspension of critical inquiry and unhesitating submission is unworthy of respect, let alone worship. But I think Terry Eagleton’s challenge to this line of reasoning is essentially sound, i.e., that the problem is not with the idea of god or even with Christianity per se; the problem is fundamentalism. And this man was a fundamentalist, if ever there was one.
My patience had been exhausted so I finally just had to ask outright how he came to these bizarre conclusions. He cited a couple of arcane texts authored by paranoid, evangelical charlatans and Alex Jones’s 2000 documentary film, Dark Secrets: Inside Bohemian Grove. As it happens, I had seen the documentary when I was in high school. It consists of grainy footage of a chubby megalomaniac commenting on the unusual, paganesque rituals he observed while infiltrating one of the bourgeoisie’s social clubs in the redwood forest of northern California. Is it strange? Certainly. Evidence of Satanic influence among the power elite? Hardly. Fraternal societies and private clubs have been a hallmark of elite life from time immemorial. This is nothing out of the ordinary. So, rather than interpreting the Bohemian Club as evidence of esoteric Satanism, a more sensible inference is that politicians utilize Christianity cynically, in order to secure votes, which is why they have no scruples about participating in pseudo-pagan rituals every so often in their private lives.
The customer spoke glowingly of Alex Jones. “He’s one of the only men brave enough to fight for us.” “Us?” I thought. As he continued, I imagined the man in a dark room, huddled around his computer screen, clutching his bible while listening to Jones scream about “chem trails” and the Illuminati’s sinister plot to establish a “New World Order,” and I felt pity. Why is it that reasonably intelligent people, like this man, can be so credulous? What is it about conspiracy theories that appeal so strongly to this segment of the population, i.e., retired and semi-retired American males? On that subject, I have a few thoughts. I have been developing a theory I call ersatz significatio, which I hope to devote more attention to in the months and years ahead. Simply put, my hypothesis is the following: just as consumerism is the compensation capitalism offers the proletariat in exchange for a life of alienated labor, conspiracy theories and the survivalist ethos they prompt offer older people a sense of purpose after their role in value production has passed. The limited consumption older working class and petit-bourgeois men have the ability to engage in cannot occupy the increased leisure time retirement offers, and often conspiracy theories can fill that void in addition to imbuing in these men a sense of meaning. They are fighting to secure ‘liberty for posterity,’ and so forth—while not disrupting capitalist property relations or its attendant system of commodity production.
 See Mark B. Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933,” Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 70-89 (1991) for a critique of the standard narrative of the Soviet government engineering the famine in order to discipline disobedient Ukrainian peasants.
 As recorded by Martin Bormann, et al. in Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944: His Private Conversations (New York: Enigma Books, 2000).
 Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State (New York: Cosimo Books, 2008), p. 28.
 See, for example, the arguments in Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).