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The Idea of Covid
In 2011, Beck perhaps found some vindication of his predictions in the rise of Occupy Wall Street—some of whose participants indeed took inspiration from the Invisible Committee’s writings. By that time, Beck had lost his perch at Fox, in part due to the network’s discomfort with his conspiratorial insinuations — including attacks on the philanthropist George Soros that prompted charges of antisemitism. He went on to found his own television network, The Blaze. Although Beck’s politics remain largely the same, he has become — along with much of the American right — more hostile to the private sector and corporate power in recent years. In January 2022, he released The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of Twenty-First Century Fascism, which identifies a new threat: this time not from networks of left-wing insurrectionists, but from banks and corporations operating in lockstep with the malign World Economic Forum.
As it happens, another anonymous French pamphlet appeared the same month as The Great Reset. Under the provocative title Manifeste conspirationniste (Conspiracist Manifesto), the book sets its sights on many of the same villains as Beck’s jeremiad: the World Economic Forum and its mastermind, Klaus Schwab; Anthony Fauci and other public-health officials responsible for lockdowns; establishment politicians on both sides of the Atlantic from Emmanuel Macron to Joe Biden. As its title implies, the manifesto presents itself as an apologia for precisely the mode of political analysis Beck has long been associated with: conspiracy theory. “We are conspiracists,” the book begins, “as all sensible people are these days.”
The far-left activist and accused saboteur Julien Coupat, who was widely understood to be the lead author behind The Coming Insurrection and several other texts subsequently published under the byline of the Invisible Committee, has been identified as the man behind the new manifesto. (As in the past, Coupat has refused to acknowledge any role, and the anonymity of the text’s authorship has been jealously guarded.) The Conspiracist Manifesto is now out in English from Semiotext(e), the same publisher that brought out the Invisible Committee’s prior oeuvre, in a translation by Robert Hurley, who has rendered much of that oeuvre into English. (Hurley has also translated such landmarks of French theory as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality.)
What exactly has brought Glenn Beck and his former bêtes noires into such proximity? The short answer: the Covid-19 pandemic, and the political response to it. The Conspiracist Manifesto is only the latest instance of a phenomenon evident ever since early 2020: Arguments coded not long ago as far-left have been recast as far-right. In the years after September 11, the massive expansion of state power by way of the declaration of a state of emergency was one of the main concerns of left-wing political critique. Apart from a handful of libertarians, almost all of those who criticized the suspension of civil liberties, expansion of surveillance, and heightened airport and border security in response to the threat of terrorism were left-wing academics. During the pandemic, in contrast, the left almost unanimously embraced the necessity of unprecedented population-level quarantines and vaccine mandates. Opposing such measures was coded as right-wing, and to argue (as many had after 9/11 with regard to terrorism) that the virus had become a pretext for an authoritarian power grab reliably brought accusations of “conspiracy theory.”
Given the wide retrospective acknowledgement of the harms of lockdown policies, it seems fair to conclude that Agamben’s criticisms deserved to be taken more seriously at the time.
The case of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben illustrates this sudden ideological reversal. Beginning in February 2020, Agamben criticized the emergency measures taken in response to the novel coronavirus in roughly the same terms he had used to criticize the post-9/11 war on terror; in both instances, he criticized the state’s invocation of imminent danger to suspend the rule of law and expand the control and surveillance of the population. But whereas Agamben’s antistatist arguments made him a hero of the academic left in the early years of the millennium, in 2020 those same arguments turned him into an intellectual pariah. Former intellectual allies on the left denounced him, as did his longtime English translator.
Given the wide retrospective acknowledgement of the harms of lockdown policies, it seems fair to conclude that Agamben’s criticisms deserved to be taken more seriously at the time. Yet even as the urgency of Covid controversies has receded, Agamben’s academic marginalization remains in effect: Late last year, a planned symposium on his Covid writings at Stanford — whose university press has published many of his books in English — was canceled due to faculty and student complaints.
In 2021, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat remarked that “[y]ou could imagine a timeline in which the left was much more skeptical of experts, lockdowns and vaccine requirements.” After all, Foucault’s highly influential work — a major reference point for Agamben — furnished the basic tools for a left-wing critique of the intersection of medical expertise and state power. But, as Douthat noted, “left-wingers with those impulses have ended up allied with the populist and conspiratorial right.”
The Conspiracist Manifesto is notable in its explicit embrace of this alliance. “Fearing the ‘conspiracist’ epithet is a symptom” of being “intimidated by the firepower and panic power of the reigning propaganda,” the authors write. The function of this label, they argue, is to disqualify and censor certain lines of thinking that might come too close to making sense of how power operates.
The source of this stigma against conspiracy theory, the authors contend — they go so far as to call him the “inventor of anticonspiracist rhetoric” — is the philosopher Karl Popper. In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies (after which Soros, the favored demon of Beck and his ilk, named his philanthropic enterprise), Popper formulated the familiar conception of “conspiracy theory” as an irrational fixation on the behind-the-scenes machinations of powerful actors, which he regarded as a modern form of superstition. His original phrase for this was “the conspiracy theory of society,” which was later shortened in colloquial usage. (The phrase “conspiracy theory” had been used prior to this, but it was Popper who imbued it with the derogatory implication we now attach to it.)
Two years after publishing The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper helped found what the authors of the Conspiracist Manifesto call “the most successful conspiracy of the second half of the twentieth century: the Mont Pelerin Society.” Mont Pelerin, whose illustrious founders also included the economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, “established neoliberalism as a force,” putting in place the theoretical and propagandistic foundations of the economic order subsequently implemented by Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and third-wave successors like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
It is no coincidence, the Manifesto’s authors allege, that Popper “vilifie[d] ‘conspiracy theory’ for the first time” just before he took part in the creation of an elite conspiracy against the socialist and social-democratic regimes that held sway after World War II — a project whose overt aim was to render markets and states less responsive to popular democratic pressures. “From its inception,” they write, “anticonspiracist rhetoric has ... served to cover up an intense conspiratorial activity.” The purpose of stigmatizing “conspiracy theory,” in this account, is to instantaneously dismiss any account of power that takes note of the coordinated activities of elite interests outside of any democratic accountability — a scenario that both describes how the Mont Pelerin Society functioned and the mode of politics it sought to make more prevalent.
This historical background is crucial to the Manifesto’s speculative interpretation of the events of 2020. The order dreamed up by Mont Pelerin in the late 1940s — in which markets took precedence, barriers to trade were dismantled, and workers’ bargaining power was diminished — became the system to which, as Thatcher put it, there was “no alternative” by the early 1990s. Yet this global order, seemingly unassailable in the 1990s and 2000s, was well into an existential crisis by 2020. A decade prior, after the 2007-08 financial crisis, it had begun to face challenges from a reinvigorated left in Occupy and the “movement of the squares” in Europe. It defused these threats, only to face a series of more formidable setbacks: the Brexit vote in Britain, the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States, the electoral credibility of left-wing candidates like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and the rise of the Yellow Vest protests in France. As the Manifesto emphasizes, 2019 was a year of massive popular street-level revolts that shook the foundations of the political order worldwide — notably in key sites of the neoliberal “heartland” such as Chile and Hong Kong, both of which were viewed by Milton Friedman as exemplars of the Mont Pelerin economic model.
For over a decade, it had been clear that the order put in place after the tumult of the 1960s and economic crisis of the 1970s was teetering on the brink.
The Manifesto’s “conspiratorial” hypothesis is simple: “Let’s say that a group of powers … have a shared basic interest in maintaining the general order, a certain regularity, a certain stability, a certain predictability.” Given the state of the world in 2019 — described by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has employed such luminaries as Kissinger and Brzezinski, as a new “age of mass protest” in a report from October of that year — how could those at the helm of this group of powers “keep from being overtaken by panic?” For over a decade, it had been clear that the order put in place after the tumult of the 1960s and economic crisis of the 1970s was teetering on the brink. This, for the Manifesto, is the backdrop of 2020: “It was the goal of the crisis management of the ‘pandemic’ to freeze the wave of global revolts that preceded it.”
As things turned out, the emergence of SARS-Cov-2 in Wuhan in late 2019 enabled the rollout of a novel mode of population management known as “lockdown” (a word originating in prisons), pioneered in China and rapidly adopted across much of the planet in early 2020. What this amounted to was the demobilization of society on a global scale: the criminalization of social life and the appeal to epidemiological risk to legitimize a massive expansion of police powers and digital surveillance. Later, the introduction of vaccine mandates that made access to the public goods of citizenship contingent on compliance with the evolving demands of unelected health “experts,” registered in digital passports, smoothed the introduction of controls that might have once been seen as violations of basic civil rights.
To be sure, a new wave of protest emerged after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, as if the popular energies bottled up during the first months of lockdown had been primed to explode. But whatever the unruly character of these protests and the sometimes-harsh state response, a few peculiar things stood out about them. For one, part of their legitimation came from public-health officials who, after months of enjoining the public to stay home and castigating all who disobeyed, gave their approval to the protests. A tacit distinction was thereby established between permissible and impermissible exercise of the right to assemble, as determined by biomedical experts.
The events of 2020 seemed to have enabled a certain reassertion of control, even over street protest.
This new standard was reinforced when the protesters’ cause (if not the more-destructive acts of some protesters) almost instantly gained the imprimatur of some of the world’s most powerful public officials and corporate leaders. In some subtle form, then, the events of 2020 seemed to have enabled a certain reassertion of control, even over street protest. Moreover, many of those who flooded the streets over the summer obeyed injunctions to avoid crowds once again as new variants emerged later in the year.
The Conspiracist Manifesto does not overtly endorse the strong version of the “plandemic” narrative, according to which the virus itself as well as the response to it were part of a grand, longstanding political scheme to implement a “Great Reset.” Nonetheless, they do at least flirt with this line of analysis. From the perspective of the hegemons of the global order in late 2019, they argue, “a new instrument was needed, one capable of definitively freezing all those odious mass protests.” Did the emergence of a new pathogen in Wuhan furnish a convenient crisis that the powers that be made sure not to let go to waste, or does the pathogen’s alleged origin in the Wuhan Institute of Virology suggest a deliberate leak set the crisis off? At times, the book hints at the latter interpretation, but the authors refrain from saying so directly, and many of their historical analogies suggest a mode of power that works more improvisationally.
For the authors of the Conspiracist Manifesto, the most revealing historical precedent for the events of early 2020 is the rush to war in 1914, which saw “[t]he same stifling, unapologetic character of the propaganda, phoned in but effective nonetheless” and “[t]he same war declared against the enemy as an instrument for bringing to heel one’s own population.” Perhaps most crucially, both years saw the “same gaping betrayal by the Left.” Infamously, socialist parties — including the German SPD and the French Socialist Party — that had initially opposed the war ended up falling in line once it was declared. Likewise in 2020, the Manifesto states, “the Left ... systematically lent its support to the technocratic world coup.” How did a generation of leftists raised on Agamben and Foucault — not to mention the insurrectionary antistatist salvos of the Invisible Committee — end up in the position of not only accepting the radical overnight curtailment of civil liberties but dismissing those who objected as “conspiracy theorists”?
Latour’s alarm over the similarities he detects between critique and conspiracism leads him to distance himself from critique. His aim in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” is to articulate a more-constructive alternative to critique that eschews suspicion as a methodological imperative. Conversely, the authors of the Manifesto embrace, only partly tongue-in-cheek, the kinship between critique and conspiracism. They retrospectively designate “all the great authors ‘on the Left’” as “uniformly conspiracist”: Foucault, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Adorno, Deleuze, Guattari, and above all Guy Debord (a major influence on the Invisible Committee), whom they dub a “superconspiracist.”
The English-language Conspiracist Manifesto’s cover design mimics the “little black books” that the same publisher, Semiotext(e), released in the 1970s, which introduced the work of such thinkers as Foucault, Deleuze, and Baudrillard to many American readers. While Semiotext(e)’s founder, the late Sylvère Lotringer, was a professor at Columbia University, the imprint possessed a certain underground allure, connected as it was to the downtown Manhattan arts scene of the era and the intellectual samizdat of zine culture. After the absorption of European critical theory into the U.S. academy, Semiotext(e) continued to publish work that revealed the persistence of a sort of “theory underground” in other parts of the world like France and Italy — where, as with the Invisible Committee’s apparent role in infrastructural sabotage, radical thought and radical action remained intertwined in a way they rarely were on this side of the Atlantic.
According to the Manifesto ’s authors, the recognition that all power, from the highest levels down, has a conspiratorial dimension should lead radicals and subversives to understand themselves not just as conspiracists but as conspirators. Indeed, the Invisible Committee has always presented itself in this way, as a shadowy, secretive network operating behind the scenes; this was part of why its existence set off alarm bells for Glenn Beck. Now, as then, Coupat and company are attempting to write an incendiary call to arms, not an abstract academic tract. Hence, the book concludes with a call for “putting together a conspiratorial plan that will go on spreading, branching, complexifying, deepening” — all of which sounds reminiscent of Occupy-era calls for the “disgust to become a network,” and hence of the milieu of 2000s ultraleftism.
“French generals,” Latour wrote in 2004, “have always been accused of being on the ready one war late. Would it be so surprising if intellectuals were also one war late, one critique late — especially French intellectuals, especially now?” One way to read the Conspiracist Manifesto is as an attempt to re-radicalize critical theory as the basis of subversive politics by way of an explicit affiliation with conspiracy theory. But one wonders whether the authors are not “one critique late,” playing catch-up with an array of mostly anonymous internet posters who — subject to heavy censorship — arrived at an account of pandemic-era emergency politics that anticipated much of the substance of the book well before its publication in France. It was not, for the most part, Invisible Committee-style radicalism that motivated lockdown protestors, quarantine violators, vaccine refusers, and other conscientious objectors to the Covid world order. Instead, it was a far more nebulous, theoretically and politically indeterminate mode of suspicion. While often characterized as right-wing, such attitudes are more difficult to localize on the political spectrum, as the recent success of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in channeling these suspicions into a surprisingly credible Democratic primary campaign suggests.
In his classic Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, written amid the ascendancy of Mont Pelerin-style globalization, Fredric Jameson characterized conspiracy theory as a “degraded attempt ... to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.” The implication was that a properly critical theory, armed with the intellectual weaponry of Marxism and post-structuralism, could make good on conspiracy theory’s “degraded attempt,” and furnish the “cognitive mapping” needed to make sense of the new capitalist dispensation. In effect, the Conspiracist Manifesto inverts this proposition, viewing critical theory’s efforts as “degraded” and conspiracy theory as the more promising and radical path. Indeed, the authors argue that in left-wing political circles, “the ideological victory of Marxism” — the intellectual lens favored by Jameson — “had the effect of deactivating the necessarily conspiratorial dimension of all serious subversive activity.”
The Conspiracist Manifesto should prompt a reconsideration of the question raised previously by both Jameson and Latour: Can the reflexive skepticism of “critical theory” be distinguished from that of “conspiracy theory”? What is — and what should be — the proper relation between these two bodies of “theory,” both ostensibly defined by radical suspicion? Unfortunately, the conformism and demoralization of left intellectual circles post-Covid makes it more likely that the Manifesto, and the uncomfortable questions it raises, will be mostly ignored in the same milieus where the Invisible Committee once had a certain prestige. A more-receptive audience, however, might be found among fans of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — or for that matter, Glenn Beck. If the book is to be believed, Coupat and his comrades are entirely comfortable with that fact.