At the end of the fall 2021 semester, Dr. Bill Meyer’s Class on Early Modern Philosophy was challenged to reflect on today’s epistemological crisis. The tendency to gather knowledge and solidify our beliefs based on unverified online information has become increasingly prevalent, being described by Dr. Meyer as creating a “post-fact, post-truth world.” To cultivate discussion around such a topic, the Echo is sharing a series of students’ exceptional essays on this philosophy of virtualism.
I think that your conception of virtualism is a useful abstraction, the interconnectivity and speed of information transfer offered by the internet definitely exacerbates and empowers conspiracy theories like QAnon. However, I don’t think that it begins or ends just with the internet. I am going to attempt to outline the genesis of conspiratorial thinking in the contemporary era, its etiology, and its overwhelming success. There are three approaches that I think can help us understand the epistemological crisis: an analysis of modernity and late-stage capitalism at the level of the individual, a comparison of modern conspiracy movements to the heretical movements of the Pseudo-Apostles and the Dulcinians in the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe, and an outline of the appeal to a fundamentally knowable and controllable reality.
In order to begin to understand the movements at the center of the epistemological crisis in America, we must make an attempt to understand the situation of the individuals who make up those movements. The populist political movement MAGA has galvanized individuals who are facing real and pressing threats to their way of life; some which are cultural and some which are economic. The core of the movement, middle and lower middle class white voters are facing significant challenges in grappling with a late-stage, post-industrial capitalism that has changed faster than the population could adapt. Industrial jobs which in previous generations could provide for a traditional nuclear family are disappearing, and while it is not a result of increased illegal migrant labor as the Right contends, they are vanishing just the same. The structural and economic situations in middle and southeastern America were in a state of crisis even before the pandemic. Things are not going well for those outside of the top 10% of Americans, and our record breaking prosperity exists only on paper. The skills required to enter into tech, which is the only real growth industry in our economy, are largely unavailable and require a higher degree of education than that strata of population has access to.
Alienation created by the capitalist apparatus breeds angst and dissatisfaction that turns to anger when neoliberalism, the dominant political movement in America for the last century, cannot make a compelling offer of meaning to the average individual. The people who make up the MAGA movement, QAnon, and other conspiracy and ultra-right movements are either this disenfranchised proletariat or the petit-bourgeoisie who exploit them. They exist in opposition to what they view as a nation which has forgotten them and the postwar cultural and economic models which allows their forebears to thrive. Worker solidarity, unionization, and collective action through labor movements have been thoroughly demonized by the neoliberal apparatus and consequently the disenfranchised turn to proto-fascist movements, Christian nationalism, and racial rhetoric that emphasize traditionalism, conservatism, and the promise of political violence as a path back to greatness.
This political body, distrustful of the ruling regime of neoliberalism, the mainstream media which is viewed as an intrinsically deceptive pawn, and the perceived liberal elite at the upper crust of society, are very susceptible to ideologies which validate their grievances. Fundamentally, they long for what they conceive of as a better world, a world which had existed in the past but has been lost. Conspiratorial thinking validates this desire, and places it in a cosmic battle of good versus evil. This political body, uneducated in critical theory, economics, and theology but with a great deal of zeal finds it easy to settle into this arrangement, and with it comes magical thinking and a loosening of ideological associations which creates the flexible and amorphous conspiratorial worldview. The liberal elite are no longer just a wealthy class which exploit those below them, they are Satanic, Jewish, child-molesting, reptilian aliens who control everything through the Deep State and alternatively lied about the existence of Covid, or engineered it to kill the good people in the world, or in order to create a vaccine which bears the mark of beast, bears a microchip which will control the minds of the vaccinated, or will turn the vaccinated homosexual, or will alter their DNA to the point that God will not recognize them as human and will not admit them into the kingdom of heaven after death. The particular tropes of the conspiracy can be spread rapidly via the internet, and since all of them fit into the general schema that the upper economic and political class are supernaturally wicked, the particular details are immaterial. Zeal and frenzy are more powerful than empirical and rational understanding, and insufficient zeal is the mark of an individual who either does not understand the truth or is themselves an actor of the Deep State. Charismatic individuals craft and disseminate the conspiracy, often exploiting the political body economically, and lead movements which increasingly resemble religions.
In the late 13th century religious movements arose in northern Italy which are, fundamentally, very similar to the conspiratorial movements of today. They were composed of itinerant monastics and lay religious folk who were dissatisfied with the political, economic, and theological dominion exercised by wealthy secular clergy and the Papal apparatus. They were inspired by extreme interpretations of the teachings of St. Francis, who preached the poverty of Christ as an earthly aspiration. The plight of those serfs who joined Fra Dolcino and other heresiarchs, and who rose up in arms against the established secular and religious authorities was very similar to the plight of those who join MAGA and Qanon in the modern era. Alienated economically, politically, socially, and spiritually, the people joined these heretical movements out of a desire for a better world. These movements taught a doctrine not dissimilar to Qanon, those at the top of society, the lords, secular clergy, and the papacy were in league with the Devil. They taught an eschatalogical doctrine in which it was licit to kill the enemies of their movement, reclaim the wealth they had extracted from the lower classes, and to go to any lengths necessary to establish the kingdom of God on earth. They were galvanized with zeal, and fragmented teachings of various excommunicated sects moved quickly through populations primed to receive them. These movements were composed of individuals who found themselves on the exterior of a society which had exploited them and was incapable of making a compelling offer for why the exploited should remain part of it, the same situation that those who affirm modern conspiratorial beliefs find themselves.
There is a commonality of character in the more supernatural characteristics of the heretical movement of the Dulcinians and QAnon as well, and it is a possibly the most pivotal juncture of the epistemological crisis. It is the desire for a world which is easily intelligible and is in control. For the Dulcinians the papacy and the secular clergy completely controlled the world, and were a supernatural evil which had to be disposed of in order for the kingdom of heaven to be realized. For QAnon, the world is completely dominated by their amorphous adversaries, everything that is wrong is their fault, and the web of their influence extends everywhere. It creates a world which is deceptively easy to understand, because it can be felt and experienced through zeal, and that zeal is itself the answer to the fundamental questions of life. The adherent can feel their own correctness, and there is no argument against that feeling and no demonstration against it that can be made which does not immediately place one in league with the ultimate evil that the adherent opposes. The reality, that existence is hideously complicated, and that we live in political, economic, and sociocultural arrangements which are constantly changing, difficult to predict, and completely out of the control of any one individual or group is horrific, and those enmeshed in conspiracy cannot accept it. No one runs the world, to put it metaphorically there is no driver at the wheel, and the car is accelerating and swerving faster and faster. In this arrangement virtualism is an accelerant, it is a catalyst which allows for the swift expansion and flexibility of conspiratorial movements, but it itself is not their cause.