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QAnon is a conspiracy theory alleging that the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, is battling an organized and criminal deep state—which also happens to be a Satan-worshipping cabal of pedophiles engaged in sex-trafficking—and that this battle is moving towards an apocalyptic showdown in which our president will vanquish the forces of evil.
The theory has by now spread across the globe, promoted by everyone from school-aged kids to fitness trainers to politicians to blue collar workers to professional trolls.
Most observers approach QAnon in personal or moral terms: Someone chooses to believe QAnon because they’re crazy or misguided, or someone promotes QAnon because they stand to gain something from doing so.
But what if QAnon grows out of a deeper, unacknowledged sense that the United States is fundamentally broken? Seeking salvation or help, people often turn toward religion – and conspiracy theory just is the form that religion takes in this broken world and time.
Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is the “opium of the people,” seeming to suggest that religion is a means for manipulating the masses. Yet this is not Marx’s whole view of religion. People rarely quote the sentence before Marx’s claim, where he suggests that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
This point ties to Marx’s account of alienation, an account that stresses the ways in which the modern world affects our sense of ourselves. Marx noted that, as workers, we are alienated from our work, from ourselves, and from each other. Because our relationship to what we do and why tends to be almost exclusively transactional, our relations to others also come to be conceived in transactional terms. This leads to a cognitive dissonance because we are not wholly transactional creatures but creatures who benefit from having a deeper meaning in our lives.
The maintenance of a structure that produces such alienation requires ideology, and religion—or at least so Marx thought—was one of the chief ideological means for addressing our alienation and maintaining the status quo.
It may seem that I am contradicting myself, then, when I seemingly suggest that an apocalyptic conspiracy theory emerges as a displaced form of religion meant to maintain the status quo.
In fact, quite the contrary, but this is where we need to go beyond Marx’s analysis by detailing some features of his account.
What’s striking about alienation is that it refers to an entire social order. In Marx’s classic analysis, we become alienated from our labor and ourselves because we work to produce things we don’t ultimately own or even care about in order to acquire money to buy things we may or may not need. Because of this dependence on commodity exchange, we also become alienated from others because we conceive of our time as money and so increasingly monetize all of our experiences, including even our relationships to others (think about, for example, how many times you call someone only on your way to do something else). We finally even come to be alienated from our species, Marx thinks, because we come to be alienated from our basic existence as a being who is capable of meaning and thereby of a plurality of evolving and changing interests, something for which our current order offers less and less opportunity.
The alienation that emerges from the modern social order, however, does not instantly or inherently suggest that religion offers a form of consolation. Alienation is a subjective experience that points to objective conditions; it is produced by the broader social order. Religion, so the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani argues, however, is always an individual matter: it deals not exclusively with the broader order, but rather with our place in it. This is why the emotion of anxiety is oftentimes associated with the presence of religion, as the religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made all too clear.
The emotion of anxiety is not unrelated to alienation, especially from a first-person perspective, where each emotion feels deeply uncomfortable, oftentimes calling into question the most basic relationship between our self and the world.
But these emotions or states evince quite different histories, as is most evident even in their linguistic origins. The concept of alienation can be traced to the Latin root alienus, relating to another person or place and thereby to the unfamiliar, while the concept of anxiety can be traced to the Greek root of ánkhō or áxoos, the former related to the act of strangling, the latter relating to that which is unwrought or uncarved, as in a statue.
Each suggests a dimension of instability or the unknown. The notion of anxiety is, however, fundamentally individual: it is, for example, a particular person that is strangled or a particular statue that is carved (the fundamental use of the category of the unfamiliar is that it is general). This is one way to understand why, in existential terms, anxiety is oftentimes bound up with our being towards death. Death, as philosophers as different as Simone de Beauvoir and Martin Heidegger teach us, is that which most individualizes us.
What is striking about this overlap between anxiety and alienation is that the subjective similarity between these two emotions allows for alienation to be converted into anxiety. Something that emerges from not feeling at home in the modern world because of feeling left out of the political process (say, because of the presence of big money in politics) or of the economic world (say, because of the lack of money in their own lives) comes to be felt in existential terms.
Those who are drawn to QAnon are thereby responding to a world in which they feel alienated and, in the words of political theorist Hannah Arendt, superfluous. Rather than responding to the material conditions that have produced this order, they consciously or unconsciously convert this experience of alienation to the related emotion of anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, can be addressed by religion or by its stand-in: the conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory allows for the management of feeling not at home simply through the possession of the right fact(s). Just as religion tells us there is no need to be anxious about death because of an afterlife, so a conspiracy theory tells us there is no reason to be anxious about what’s going on, because it isn’t what is really going on.
Conspiracy theories, however, don’t change anything because they fundamentally don’t operate within the realm of reality; they thereby serve to maintain the status quo just like any other ideology.
The key to addressing the “threat” of QAnon, then, is not to focus on QAnon as an individual problem of psychology, of why certain people are drawn to conspiracy theories as an individual choice. The key is to focus on QAnon as a byproduct of structural problems within our social, economic, and political order. We must fundamentally address the conditions that have given rise to the various forms of alienation that afflict our world—to do anything else is just to fall into yet another kind of denial of reality.
Martin Shuster is an associate professor of philosophy at Goucher College.