Recently, I was reading a short story by one of the masters of the genre, the 19th century French writer Guy de Maupassant. The story was set during the Franco-Prussian war. A group of French elites, to use the modern term (aristocrats in the old language), are stuck in a strange travelling group with the goal of escaping their province which has fallen under Prussian control. The group includes two nuns, a local prostitute and, even less agreeably from the point of view of the elites, a democratic socialist.
The group stops overnight at a hotel in a small town where the Prussian officer who is in charge demands to spend a night with the prostitute. Being a patriotic woman, she refuses to sleep with the enemy. The officer seems to take it well. He doesn’t resort to violence or intimidation. But he does inform the group he will not let them leave the hotel until his desire has been satisfied.
After a couple of days of sitting around bored, the elites get sick of the situation and form a conspiracy (Maupassant’s word, not mine) to convince the prostitute to do as the Prussian officer wishes so they can leave the hotel and reach their destination. One-by-one they try to talk her into doing what is desired using a variety of arguments including appeal to religion, to self-interest and also to the fact that what the officer is asking is simply for the woman to practice her profession. It’s not like she can object on moral grounds. So, what’s the big deal? Just do your job and let us be on our way.
It occurred to me while reading the story how well it describes the situation we are still in to this day. Maupassant had forseen the modern world; a world in which the supra-national elites have more in common with each other than the people of their own country.
But there’s a more specific correspondence. Our modern elites are the equivalent to the French elites in the story. They use a variety of tactics to get the public to acquiesce. Behind that facade, even though we don’t talk about it, is the raw politics of the situation. We don’t have Prussian soldiers in our hotels and towns but we do have an invisible empire, the US Empire – aka the “liberal world order”, to whom our elites are bound.
The elites in Maupassant’s story simply have different priorities to the common folk and one of those priorities is not patriotism. This makes logical sense. When a foreign power dictates the rules to your country, anybody who is a genuine patriot is not going to last long at the top and wouldn’t want the job anyway as they would have to be aware that the rules are not in the interests of the country. Almost by definition, the elites must be conspirators, although it is quite likely that they are not consciously aware that this is the case.
Let’s call Maupassant’s story, and those like it, the Conspiracy Story (yes, I’m following the same form of analysis as I used in my book The Plague Story).
The primary dynamic in a Conspiracy Story is that a group who is in power is trying to conspire against a group or person of lesser power. This is the plot line in many novels and films including one of the most popular Australian films – The Castle – where greedy property developers conspire against several working class Australian families to force acquire their homes at well below the market value. Just like in Maupassant’s story, a variety of tactics are used by the conspirators to gain acquiescence including pretending to be friendly, divide and conquer and, as a last resort, physical violence.
The popular action movie Die Hard is another example of a conspiracy story. In that movie, the conspirators are not elites in terms of social position but they are elites in the sense that they are a highly sophisticated band of criminals (conspirators) aiming to conduct a robbery. They are pitted against the common man, pigheaded New York cop John McClane, who will need to save the day, and his wife, from the bad guys. Again, in that movie we see a variety of tactics used by the conspirators against McClane but mostly these involve various kinds of firearms and explosives. 80s action movies weren’t exactly known for their subtlety, after all.
There are a couple of important facets to the conspiracy story. Firstly, the bad guys are out in the open for all to see as is the injustice they are perpetrating. Because of this, the Conspiracy Story implies the possibility that justice may be served at a later time. The conspirators are obviously in the wrong and they can be captured and held to account.
Another important facet of the Conspiracy Story is that there must be a power imbalance. This power imbalance means that a moral imperative has also been breached alongside any legal one. The “elites” are stronger and they use their superior strength to gain at the expense of the less powerful.
So, we can sum up the Conspiracy Story as follows: a small group of conspirators unite to use their position of strength to gain at the expense of a less powerful group or person.
The reader might already have guessed where I’m going with this because throughout corona the Conspiracy Story has been told many times from the dissident side of the debate. And, of course, there is plenty of justification for that. It’s a sign of the surreal nature of our times that there was the perfect Conspiracy Story already sitting there in plain sight in the person of Klaus Schwab and his merry band of lunatics at the WEF.
If corona were a fictional story or movie, Klaus Schwab could never happen because he is too cheesy even for Hollywood. You can imagine the conversation in the writer’s room as the screenplay was being developed:
Head Writer: Ok, folks, we need a villain for the story. Gimme some ideas.
Junior Writer: I’ve got it! How about an old, bald man who talks with a thick German accent and who wears glasses that look like monocles. He plots world domination from a chalet in the Swiss Alps. Oh yeah, and his ancestors were Nazis!
Other Writer (sarcastically): Whaddya gonna call him? Hans Gruber?
Junior Writer (proudly): We’ll call him Klaus Schwab.
One of the defining features of postmodern literature is its use of irony. Well, clearly we live in a postmodern world. It’s a world where Klaus Schwab ironically (and unironically) exists. And it’s true. It’s true that there is a conspiracy going on right before our eyes. It’s true that the conspiracy is not in the interests of the common folk. It’s true that our so-called elites fly up to Davos for the privilege of taking part in the action. All the elements of the Conspiracy Story are right there out in the open.
But just to be even more postmodern, the Conspiracy Story is given the name Conspiracy Theory and thereby neutered. You’re now a crank for pointing out what’s exactly in front of everybody’s eyes. “So, there’s this guy who wants to take over the world, huh? And he’s German too. Wow. Cool story, bro (eye roll).” That’s multi-dimensional irony. Welcome to postmodernism.
In the spirit of postmodernism, where just because one thing is true doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally valid truths, I’d like to introduce another kind of story that is prominent in the modern world: the Horror Story.
We can summarise the Horror Story as follows: a powerful force is out there. You know it’s there but you can’t really identify it. It doesn’t care about you. You can’t communicate with it. You can’t reason with it. And it might kill you.
Immediately we can see that there are strong parallels between the Horror Story and the Conspiracy Story. From the point of view of the less powerful, the elites are a powerful force. They don’t care about you. You have very little ability to communicate and reason with them and, in extreme cases, they may kill you.
The main difference between the Conspiracy Story and the Horror Story are the properties of identity, agency and control. In a Conspiracy Story, the elites might be screwing you over but you know who they are and how they are doing it. In the Horror Story, you don’t know what the force is or how it is working. You just know it’s out to get you. We can plot the Horror Story and Conspiracy Story on a continuum as follows:
In psychological terms, the Conspiracy Story belongs to consciousness while the Horror Story belongs to the subconscious. The primary emotion of the Conspiracy Story is anger at injustice while the primary emotion of the Horror Story is fear caused by an absence of knowledge and understanding.
It is no coincidence that pandemics are prime examples of the Horror Story with viruses playing the role of the amorphous, indifferent force that might kill you. What the conscious mind wants more than anything in a Horror Story is to remove fear and doubt. Thus, the protagonists in such stories spend their time trying to identify what is afflicting them.
I think a big part of the reason why covid tests remain so popular is that they (claim to) identify the invisible enemy who would otherwise be lurking in the cellular shadows. The tests and the vaccines are the attempt to bring to consciousness what would otherwise remain in the subconscious. They fulfil this psychological need independently of any technical or scientific value they might have.
Even prior to corona, the Horror Story seemed to be becoming increasingly popular in the West. One example is the Japanese horror movie Ring which has seen numerous sequels and remakes including a version done by Hollywood. Note that the plot of Ring is symbolically identical to the way a virus spreads. Coincidence? I think not.
The literary genre of Cli-Fi, Climate Fiction, has also become popular among the upper middle-class professional demographic in the last decade. One of the more common tropes in the Cli-Fi genre is pandemic. In the technical sense that I outlined above, many Cli-Fi novels are Horror Stories in which the amorphous, chaotic forces of nature will strike down not just the protagonist but the whole human species.
And, of course, the climate “debate” in the public discourse is also framed as a Horror Story complete with apocalypse fantasy elements.
Identity, agency and control. These are what is missing in the Horror Story and their absence drives fear. We tend to think the fear is caused by the Horror Story. But what if the causality is the other way around? What if it’s underlying fear which makes Horror Stories popular?
If this is true, we can surmise that the increasing popularity of the Horror Story is because of an increase in fear caused by a perceived lack of identity, agency and control in the lives of many people. We can then go back one step further and ask what has caused people to feel that their identity, agency and control was slipping away.
The first thing to note is that this problem has been around since the start of the industrial revolution and has only been getting more pronounced since then. The speed of change in modern society means that people can never feel that they are standing on solid ground. This dynamic has been given the name anomie and it has been around for a couple of centuries.
With the neoliberal reforms of the 1990’s, the level of anomie has gone into overdrive. Thus, it’s fair to say that “forces of globalisation” have been driving the rise in the popularity of the Horror Story via increased anomie in the population. This makes sense. The “market forces” of the global economy don’t care about you, you can’t reason with them, and they might cause you to lose your job and break up your family. That sounds like a Horror Story to me and it has been a real life Horror Story for a great many people in the last thirty years.
And here we come back around to the Conspiracy Story. The neoliberal agenda was implemented by the supra-national elites who convinced the voting public in each country to go along with it. In that sense, it was a Conspiracy Story. Neoliberalism was quite clearly in the interests of the US Empire because, among other things, it financialised the public assets of most countries thereby increasing the amount of dollars flowing back to the US. The elites in those other countries, including here in Australia, dutifully got on board the program and sold the idea to the public as being all about free markets, competition, globalisation and the liberal world order. In other words: ideology.
In Maupassant’s story, the ideology used to convince the reluctant prostitute took the form of religion. As Napoleon once said, religion was the only thing preventing the common people from stringing the elites up from lampposts. We don’t have religion anymore and so the elites need new kind of ideology which is dutifully churned out by modern universities and think tanks (another term dripping with postmodern irony).
But, unlike Christianity, the new ideology has no basis in what was once a vibrant religion and its associated symbolism. The ideology produced by the modern university is untethered from history and from reality in general. This is a feature, not a bug, because it means that the ideology cannot be reasoned with. It is specifically designed not to be thought about.
Thus, the modern ideology is a Horror Story in and of itself. To make matters worse, that ideology is then promulgated through a propaganda apparatus the size and scope of which the Church could never have dreamed of. The underlying purpose of that propaganda apparatus, however, is still the same. It is there to convince the common folk to acquiesce. These days it does so more through bewilderment than anything. But that bewilderment is ambiguity and amorphousness; the properties of the Horror Story.
As I have noted in recent posts, the modern propaganda apparatus also no longer focuses exclusively on ideology but directly targets the subconscious. This is the big change that has occurred in the Conspiracy Story since Maupassant’s time. The combination of meaningless ideology and Magic means that the propaganda of the elites is no longer understandable by the conscious mind, even the conscious mind of the elites themselves. Therefore, it exists purely in the subconscious causing the Conspiracy Story to become a Horror Story.
Prior to the neoliberal reforms of the 90s, the two main political parties in most western countries represented labour and capital. You knew what they stood for. You knew whose interests they served. Identity, agency and control were well defined and plain to see. This system was then dismantled from within and the labour parties were convinced to sell out; the same betrayal we see in Maupassant’s story.
It is often the purpose of propaganda and ideology to make identity, agency and control opaque so that the conspirators can get away with the scam. And so, in a sense, a Conspiracy Story always tends towards a Horror Story. To the extent that elites in modern society have unleashed an unprecedented volume of propaganda, it has achieved that result. All agency, identity and control appears lost. You lose your job to “globalisation” or “market forces”. Your wages are eroded by “inflation”; impersonal and external like forces of nature.
This absence of identity, agency and control leads to fear and explains the popularity of the Horror Story in the modern climate debate as well as the various apocalypse fantasies of which corona was the most extreme example. What we saw from the start of corona was a deep-seated desire on the part of a large section of the public for politicians to take charge, to be identifiably in control and to show that they had agency. It didn’t matter that what the politicians were being asked to do (“control” a respiratory virus) was impossible. The psychological desire was the end in itself.
Viewed in this way, there may actually be a deep-seated wisdom at play here. It seems almost certain that corona has brought neoliberalism to an end and probably also signifies the end of the “liberal world order”. To the extent that the liberal world order had morphed into a Horror Story, corona could be seen to represent a demand for a return to identity, agency and control. It’s the demand for real human beings as leaders who don’t hide behind ideology, who govern over things that they do actually control and therefore must take responsibility for.
We’re not there yet, of course. There will be a whole lot of ducking and weaving, a lot of propaganda aimed at keeping the ship afloat as long as possible. But we are looking at a reset. I very much doubt it will be the one that Herr Schwab wants. Instead of increasing de-humanisation, I expect we’ll see the opposite. For better or worse, it will be a return to humanity which is to say identity, agency and a less hallucinogenic and far more humble level of control.