Modern conspiracy theory and the appeal of fascism and racism for the working class
By Bryan Greetham
In my first contribution to this discussion about fascism I examined the claim that fascism was a last ditch response to failing capitalism. Unlike that issue, there seems to be very little evidence to suggest that there is clear economic motivation to explain why the working class support fascism and embrace racist beliefs. So I have never had a convincing explanation for why my uncle, a lifelong member of the Labour Party and a prominent member of his local branch, should also be a lifelong racist.
the willingness of ordinary people to embrace the most extraordinary conspiracy theories to explain why it is that, despite all their efforts and sacrifices, they have to suffer the most extreme economic and social inequality
And I don’t mean he was just anti-semitic, for which there was some reason, although implausible, in that he and his elder brother, my father, would have to trudge way across Gateshead every week to pay the weekly rent to a wealthy Jewish family that owned their home. I say this is not a plausible reason, because no form of racism has a plausible reason and, on a personal note, my father never had a racist thought in his head.
Up until a couple of years ago, I would have said that not only is there no plausible economic motivation for the working class to embrace fascism and racist beliefs, but there is no compelling psychological evidence either.
But the willingness of ordinary people to embrace the most extraordinary conspiracy theories to explain why it is that, despite all their efforts and sacrifices, they have to suffer the most extreme economic and social inequality, which over the last 40 years has come to match levels last recorded at the end of the Victorian era, may be good reason to think again.
So popular was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that it was once second only to the Bible in its circulation.
Their willingness to believe the conspiracy theory that the EU is just a front disguising the real intentions of the Germans to dominate and reassert their hegemony of Europe rivals The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in attracting the support of working class people, who voted to leave the EU in large numbers as their forefathers flocked to support Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. So popular was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that it was once second only to the Bible in its circulation.
the political problem comes first and the conspiracy theory is created to promote and protect the interests of a particular class or group by attracting the support of the working class, who might have little economic reason to embrace it.
Of course, this is not the only conspiracy that has been embraced with such fervour. Many also believe that Covid 19 is a pandemic conspiracy deliberately promoted by China, along with G5, climate change and no doubt many more. Like all forms of nationalism, the political problem comes first and the conspiracy theory is created to promote and protect the interests of a particular class or group by attracting the support of the working class, who might have little economic reason to embrace it.
Kenneth Minogue describes the claims of nationalists as mere ‘rhetoric‘: ‘a form of self-expression by which a certain kind of political excitement can be communicated from an elite to the masses. These ideas are chameleons that take on the colour of the locality around them.’ Ernest Gellner argues similarly that:
Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.
They could both have been talking about the modern conspiracy theory and the appeal of fascism and racism for the working class. They have been invented to generate a certain type of political excitement and mobilise working class support.
Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.
Currently Bryan is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. Much of his work has been in moral thinking, applied and professional ethics and in complex adaptive systems. His current research involves what we can learn about moral thinking from the perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust.
He is the author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophy, an introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.