While browsing in an Oxfam shop recently, I entered just as a customer was fluently outlining his critique of contemporary society to the shop assistant. It took me about five seconds to work out where he was coming from. Though conspiracy theorists like to consider themselves independent thinkers who have done 'their research', it's notable that they spew out the same tropes.
Within just a couple of minutes my mental bingo card was complete: 'great reset', 'plandemic', 'Stasi', 'globalists', 'Klaus Schwab', 'Bill Gates' (perhaps he'd mentioned George Soros before I'd entered) etc. So predictable. That it was coming out of the mouth of someone who apparently has a professional job was concerning.
More concerning has been the rise of conspiracism. As an illustration we may have two serious contenders to be US President in 2024 who have embraced conspiracism. These are Trump and Robert F Kennedy Jr, whose speeches often consist of laundry lists of conspiracy theories (perhaps not entirely surprising given the vast conspiracy culture that surrounds the death of his uncle).
I'm not a comedian!
The fringe is often criticised for the dominance of stand-up comedy and a sense that much of it is trivial. In contrast, Marlon Solomon's updated Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard's Tale
deals with one of the most serious challenges we face: the rise and mainstreaming of conspiracism.
Before Solomon reached the stage, conspiracy theory videos were playing on a loop. The audience chuckled along to the bizarre ideas being articulated. However, the message of the show is that the mainstreaming of conspiracism is no laughing matter and is having real world effects. Both on our public discourse and on the individuals affected. A late arriving hen group was a slightly surreal touch, forcing Solomon to make clear that 'I'm not a comedian... really I'm not'.
He began by relating that while he was Jewish, his identity had only solidified in recent years as he started to explore conspiracy culture. Through studying it, it revealed that most conspiracy theories, at root, have anti-Semitic characteristics. This is a theme that is highlighted time and again on the excellent The New Conspiracist
podcast. Most conspiracy theories, it emerges, have roots in anti-Semitism and the foundational text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
. This bizarre (and fictional) text suggests that all serious problems in our society stem from the influence of the Jews. Only after reading this bizarre document could Solomon understand some of the strange comments he'd received over the years relating to blood libels (the widespread belief that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood for arcane purposes).
Solomon spends much of the performance speaking from the shadows, emphasising the notion of a shadowy cabal quietly in control of finance and institutions. The show makes really skilful use of videos, with Solomon often in dialogue with himself on screen, playing a series of roles. A highlight saw Solomon put a range of nasty social media comments to a jaunty tune. The show is entertaining, informative but ultimately very concerning.
Solomon outlines the difference between event conspiracy theories (relating to explanations of individual events: 9/11, moon landings etc) and systematic conspiracy theories. The latter is the real hard stuff; an ideology in itself. It implies one highly competent malevolent force behind everything, pulling the strings.
Solomon believes that David Icke has played a key role in bringing conspiracism towards the mainstream. Sometimes considered a harmless crank going on about shape-shifting lizards, there is clearly something much darker about the Icke phenomenon. He is a 'super conspiracist', believing that one overarching conspiracy is behind everything nefarious. Jon Ronson first highlighted the anti-Semitic tropes embedded in much of Icke's work in the late 1990s. Solomon outlined, with well-chosen clips, how this aspect has become much more evident and explicit. His use of the phrase 'Rothschild Zionists' hardly obscured the hard line anti-Semitism embedded in his worldview.
This would not matter if he was still a fringe figure. However, media figures such as Russell Brand have helped him reach an even wider audience in recent years: Icke regularly sells out larger arenas on his speaking tours. What Solomon wished to emphasise was the real world affects. This included the murderer of MP Jo Cox. He had bought into conspiracy theories regarding the white helmets in Syria; Cox was a prominent supporter.
Solomon was particularly critical of certain elements on the progressive left who had a blind spot regarding anti-Semitism, echoing the arguments made by David Baddiel in his book Jews Don't Count
. Reasons for this included the way that Icke sometimes echoes those who are critical of neoliberalism and the power of finance capital. Where were the anti-racism protesters at David Icke events?, Solomon asked rhetorically. He suggested that if someone such as Tommy Robinson had said the same things as Icke, there would have been mass protests.
In the closing part, Solomon related that he had himself, after watching several 9/11 conspiracy videos (such as Loose Change
), got drawn into that culture. He had seen how it had changed him and his relationships with friends. It shows how people can be susceptible to such ideas when their lives are at a low point.
Solomon brought the show to a finish by emphasising that conspiracism feeds off fatalistic pessimism and a sense that things can't be changed for the better. It eats away at trust in government and politics, suggesting that social problems can't be solved – and certainly not through democratic political means. At root, it reduced the world's complexity and implies a doomladen future is inevitable. Solomon wanted to emphasise that 'good stuff is happening'.
The audience was entranced throughout by Solomon's highly engaging manner and well-delivered narrative. It was emotionally affecting at several moments; especially several long pauses after some of the more extreme statements. It was troubling for everyone in the room to hear such horrific falsehoods spouted with such confidence. The quiet rage was clear in Solomon's voice and expressions. Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard's Tale
demonstrates that the Fringe contains shows dealing with the most urgent issues of the day.
The rear of the flyer for Solomon's show features the likes of Alex Jones and David Icke. The concerning aspect is how ideas associated with such characters have gone mainstream. As Solomon noted afterwards, conspiracist culture has spread virulently in the wake of the pandemic. Conspiracy theories have always been a latent part of public conversation but they seem more prominent today. Social media has undoubtedly played a key role here. The mainstreaming of conspiracism has become more and more evident.
It has gone from being expressed in niche magazines and online forums to being articulated on media outlets such as GB News, by presenters such as Beverly Turner and Neil Oliver (who talks of a 'silent war' taking place with its 'strategic objective' the 'total control of the people'). This is in direct contravention of Andrew Neil's original promise that the station would not peddle fake news and conspiracy theories. This disturbing trend has been tracked by the likes of culture broadcaster Matthew Sweet. For Sweet, GB News has 'become a space through which conspiracy theories are being introduced into the British media'. It acts as an intermediary between respectable broadcasters and the wider conspiracist media sphere.
Such views have also, sadly, been articulated by politicians, especially relating to Covid-19 and vaccines. The Covid pandemic has brought out the conspiracist aspect in our public discourse (it also gave people time at home to 'do their research' and get lost in rabbit holes of vaguely plausible nonsense). Andrew Bridgen was rightly condemned by the Prime Minister for his 'utterly unacceptable' remarks when he tweeted that a consultant cardiologist had told him the vaccine roll-out was 'the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust'. It suggests that some within the conservative movement (much larger and wider than the party itself but which feeds into it) have embraced conspiracism. Many see the language of the culture warrior hard right as problematic. Commonly used terms such as 'globalist' and 'cultural Marxist' have, it is argued, anti-Semitic overtones.
What underpins conspiracism is a fundamental anti-politics. This, along the deep thread of anti-Semitism, is why conspiracism should be taken seriously. During the week I caught Solomon's show, I was working on an article on the political theorist and writer Bernard Crick. Though it's now almost 15 years since his death, his work has great relevance to the present era of populism. In his classic In Defence of Politics
, Crick identified five main threats to politics (ideology, democracy, nationalism, technology and false friends). Conspiracism needs to be added to this list, though in many ways it is a toxic mix of all five. It's certainly an extreme form of populism articulated with heightened ideological certainty. Any critics are immediately considered part of the globalist establishment.
Conspiracism feeds off a deep sense of grievance, itself a direct threat to the version of politics articulated by Crick and those influenced by him. Conspiracism could be seen as a deeper, darker form of grievance politics. From this worldview, all politicians are beholden to dark 'globalist' forces which dominate international institutions. Crucially, whoever gets democratically elected, 'they', the 'globalist elite', will remain as the true power. The disorienting impact on politics of this is articulated in A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy
(by Rosenblum and Muirheah).
Conspiracism eats away at politics by posing as a serious, radical critique of power but instead leads to passivity. 'They' are all powerful. The idea that genuine change is not possible through political means leads to the type of 'direct action' witnessed on 6 January 2021. Their conviction that their cause was right led them to hold hostage institutions of government in order to get their own way. What lies behind this is not a view that politicians are incompetent or ineffectual but that they are part of a deeply malevolent system.
What is the alternative proposed? One of Trump's most prominent supporters, Matt Gaetz, Member of the House of Representatives (Florida), called for the use of political violence to achieve a truly conservative Republican agenda. Addressing a crowd at the Iowa state fair, Gaetz suggested that 'only through force do we make change in a corrupt town like Washington, DC'. The Capitol attack illustrated Crick's argument that democracy itself, if freed from constitutional limitations, can become anti-political through hindering the primary political task of peacefully conciliating those with diverse interests. From Crick's perspective, conspiracism needs to be challenged tenaciously as it has the potential to undermine politics.
The anti-politics aspect of conspiracism is exemplified by Russell Brand. As noted by Helen Lewis in her recent Radio 4 series, The New Gurus
, Russell Brand has evolved in recent years and now, under the guise of 'critical thinking', fully embraces conspiracy culture. Like Icke, he has fused it with new age mysticism, borrowing from a wild variety of religions. Brand embodies the mainstreaming of cultish conspiracism, reaching many who may otherwise not think about politics.
In 2013 he went 'viral' after expressing deep anti-politics sentiments in a BBC Newsnight
interview with Jeremy Paxman. He said that until 'genuine alternatives' existed, there was no point in voting – 'until then don't bother'. This was on the back of Brand guest editing the New Statesman
magazine. In an editorial piece, he outlined that 'imagining the overthrow of the current political system is the only way I can be enthused about politics'. His more recent pronouncements suggest that it's not just the current version of politics that is the problem for Brand but politics as an idea.
Lewis, who was working at the New Statesman
at the time admitted that what Brand was saying at the time seemed 'controversial and exciting' but now looks rather 'naive and dangerous'. His verbal fluency makes him a magnetic public performer. However, speaking at such speed can't disguise the psychobabble he uses and the bizarre ideas he has come to embrace under the guise of being a critic of the 'mainstream media' and someone who has a 'deep mistrust of authority'.
His YouTube channel includes videos on an A-Z of the main conspiracy theories, from JFK to 9/11 and Covid vaccines. Often Brand steps back from fully endorsing the wilder ideas but he does platform them under the guise of 'just asking questions'. His loose notion of truth was evident when he recently discussed theories around whether the fires in Hawaii were 'started deliberately to benefit rich elites'. His conclusion was that 'whether it's true or not, it feels true – and in terms of its results it is kinda true'.
His verbal dexterity remains from his stand-up days but is now used for nefarious purposes. That he was previously given a platform by a serious magazine of the centre-left (New Statesman
) shows how conspiracism has seduced some of those who have seen neoliberalism and global finance capitalism as the enemy. To see one single enemy drains a complex world of nuance.
This is a very simplistic idea of politics, with little sense that we have any real agency. The sheer simplicity of conspiracism is combined with an exciting sense, among its adherents, that they have accessed secret knowledge and can see what others can't. What we have seen in recent years is the embrace of conspiracism by prominent political and media figures. This, as Solomon related in his powerful show, is why we need to take this seriously.
Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard's Tale
by Marlon Solomon (Little White Pig, 26B Dublin Street, Edinburgh) runs until 27 August.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics