Paranoid political theories have become divided into two realms; the insane but true, and the insane but false. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know which one we are inhabiting as they move closer and closer together. There are no random accidents anymore. There are only malign impersonal forces that we cannot control and try to dictate every detail of our lives. Everyone knows this. In that sense, the world isn’t divided into two camps, be they QAnon crazies and Guardian rationalists or the sheeple and the truth-knowers. Everyone is cooking in the same paranoid soup.
QAnon is usually described as a delusion centred on the idea that celebrity paedophile Satan-worshipping baby-snatchers are inventing pandemics and so on to distract from their nefarious activities, vaccinate everyone with microchips and implement a world government – or something along these lines. However, this is a parodic description of a dangerous and unsettling phenomenon that is much broader than a fantasy about paedophiles and vaccination, and that has at its root fascist ideas of control and violence and tropes of antisemitism and racism, all the common-or-garden narratives of capitalism.
A common liberal response to QAnon has been to insist on the pre-eminence of ‘facts’, or that we ‘be kind’ to QAnon followers – a bankrupt strategy that both ignores the political danger represented by QAnon, and underplays the personal suffering caused by it. I want to try and look at both.
All illness and suffering come from context. In 2018, the British Psychological Society published the Power Threat Meaning Framework, an increasingly influential document that redefines the notion of mental illness, shifting it away from personal pathology and toward a functional response to overwhelming distress. The PTM Framework affirms that we are ‘social beings whose experiences of distress and troubled or troubling behaviour are inseparable from their material, social, environmental, socio-economic, and cultural contexts.’ In essence it’s a polite way of saying that racism, misogyny, institutionalised poverty and inequity – all the hallmarks of capitalism – make people sick. Instead of asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ suggests the PTM Framework, more useful questions are ‘What has happened to you?’ and what ‘What did have you had to do to survive?’
Having transferred the care functions of the state onto the family, both crushing and reconfiguring it in the process, capitalism tells each of us that failure, misery, and personal suffering are our own fault and that we deserve to be punished. This idea has been internalised in the very structure of a self that capitalism gives us: discrete; really, inherently existing; isolated; independent of context; unique.
If we reference QAnon and ask, ‘What has happened to you?’ the answer is, ‘Capitalism happened to me’. ‘What did have you had to do to survive?’; ‘I became a follower of QAnon’. It’s a useful in-a-nutshell argument, if you need one. But it’s worth digging deeper, politicising mental illness further and reinventing its terminology, where we can.
Mostly we just suffer under capitalism, in unbearable ways. But as capitalism comes apart, people begin to come apart, too, and some try to repair themselves in ways that increasingly resemble psychoses.
In Lacanian terms, we can think about psychoses as manifestations of melancholia, schizophrenia, or paranoia. Each is a last-ditch attempt to restore meaning to a sundered reality and, as per the PTM Framework, create safety and a kind of relatedness. Very schematically, paranoia puts badness ‘out there’; schizophrenia is badness put inside one from outside; and melancholia is a fixed internal badness that you own. Capitalism creates all three of those states, very effectively – and most of us, I think, tend to have a mix of them at one time or another, in greater or lesser mostly non-psychotic degrees – but I’m going to look at QAnon as a version of paranoia. That’s not the same as saying that QAnon followers are ‘mentally ill’. It’s more helpful to think that paranoia, like most of what is pathologised as ‘mental illness’, is an attempt at self-cure.
One way of dealing with the shame and failure capitalism visits on us is to externalise that failure onto Bad Things out there. As capitalism is built on practices of demonisation, we are all of us already primed for something like QAnon. Putting the fascist rants of newspaper columnists to one side, even those liberals who dismiss QAnon as the ravings of idiots are only too eager to blame teenagers, Muslims, and the poor for the spread of COVID-19, and call in an army of cops. Under capitalism, we are encouraged to blame everyone else so we can avoid blaming ourselves, as if those are the only two options available. Which, under capitalism, they are. As capitalism collapses and a lot of white privileges collapse with it, demonisation becomes a more psychologically critical task. If things that go wrong are your own fault – or if it becomes increasingly clear that you bear some complicity in the suffering of others – it is critical to build an alternative system of definitive meaning as a response.
The paranoid breakdown is a last-ditch attempt to maintain control, an attempt at self-cure, an existentially urgent process of desperate system-building, seeking a unifying code to explain reality. Assigning meaning to the world has become perplexing because meaning itself is more and more elusive as certainties and verities collapse. Under this kind of unbearable stress, signifiers and signified become unglued. The increasingly unsymbolisable nature of reality has to be locked down, so meaning will stop sliding about. Everything has got to be indexed and so a system of delusions are produced to make the world meaningful. Capitalism being what it is, a Bad Other has to be rigidly separated out. Badness has to be put outside. Meaning has to be fixed by naming what is wrong, out there, in the world.
Capitalism has given us truncated, withered lives and identities. Much of our popular art, film, and literature is based around attenuated, impoverished narratives of human relatedness that are valorised and set up as cosmic ideals and pursuits of The Truth. They are also full of Bad Things Out There that can be destroyed by the right superhero or cop or magical power or special weapon or secret code or revelation. Against the background of this cultural blancmange, the two pandemics colliding, COVID-19 and QAnon, have revealed to us how trapped one can feel inside one’s own life, as though it were just something that had been handed to you, a place where you are only occasionally be allowed to rest before rising again to face a gruelling day of punishment.
QAnon saves people, the way any paranoid delusion saves people. Now things makes sense. Q knows The Truth, and you yourself can become a little ‘q’, tracking down the clues online, like being part of the world’s most urgently important multi-player RPG. You become the self you always should have been: a free, independent critical thinker, a non-conformist who won’t be dictated to by anyone. Everything that was bewildering, unsymbolisable, is now evidence. QAnon is community-building.
One of the narratives around QAnon is how shocked people are by how quickly supposedly rational, ‘sane’ friends and family members get sucked down the QAnon rabbit hole. The delusions of QAnon don’t have a magical power to red-pill people. That in itself would be a QAnon-like belief. The truth is more heartbreaking. It might be more helpful to think about the person disappearing down the rabbit hole as having been on the verge of that kind of collapse for a long time. For years, perhaps, they’ve been struggling to keep out that sense of personal persecution, of existential failure, that sense of things being wrong, that reality is somehow not working the way it should. We just didn’t see it coming in those close to us, because we didn’t think such things were possible.
There were entry points for them of course. The terror-stricken anti-vaxx and TERF fringe movements serve as effective gateways to white supremacist beliefs, and crusading against paedophilia gives someone the feeling of occupying unimpeachably moral high ground. For anyone on the verge of a paranoid plunge into QAnon, there’s very little other space where they can get any sense of relatedness or internal safety. During lockdown, people we know or care about took all their anxieties and terrors to YouTube, where its fascist algorithms fed them an unrelieved diet of QAnon toxicity, day after day after day.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t punch Nazis when we need to, but it’s also not easy to remember that everyone was once a baby, that traumatic saturation in capitalist subjectivities starts then, and that people are prepped for Nazism over long periods by ordinary life under capitalism and its everyday traumas, crises and brutalities, not grown in vats and pre-programmed. It would be amazing if paranoias like QAnon didn’t thrive in these apocalyptic times. Capitalism in crisis, faced with the inevitable consequences of its own internal contradictions, is the perfect nutrient for fascist ideas, for desperate terrors and paranoias that create demons and project them into the world.
It’s interesting that what QAnon followers call ‘research’ – spending days online gullibly swallowing YouTube videos – looks very much like being spoon-fed. The poison you throw out into the world is given back to you as parental nourishment. A notable feature of QAnon has been the crossover of New Age beliefs and those of the extreme-right. Those beliefs have since become mainstream, and no longer characteristics of a hippie fringe. Alternative medicine, practices of self-care such as yoga and meditation, alternative tech, communal living, recreational drug use, have been very helpful to many people. They can also be framed up as (largely white) ways of managing the primordial anxiety induced by persecutory capitalism and maintaining an internal purity.
It’s no coincidence that the collapse of capitalism and the rise of QAnon are happening at the same time, and that the bulk of QAnon propaganda emanates from white proponents in the US, which is accelerating toward fascism at a phenomenal rate and dragging other white supremacist states such as Australia with it. QAnon is what happens when white supremacy has its back against the wall. It is a symptom of gangrenous collapse and of malignant growth. The weaponisation of QAnon is what is to be feared – when psychoses go nuclear and it becomes necessary to systematise camps, get rid of populations in the name of racial hygiene, kill off the demons that magical thinking couldn’t vanquish, all the predictable practices the Nazis learned from the colonial empires of Europe.
Capitalism is always splintering into a million little fascisms. They scatter like shards of glass across a field of devastation. They rain down within us and outside us until eventually we cannot find ways to bear them anymore. They are relentless and they multiply like blowflies until one day they have torn a large hole in the fabric of the world and dragged through it, as though hauling a hideous corpse, a concentration camp.
In the face of malignant paranoia, it’s more critical than ever to start talking with each other about how we can imagine new ways of existing, based on our understanding of how truly demented capitalism is. We have to reinvent political consciousness, which after all, is what struggles are for. Nobody in Australia would be convinced by QAnon, or any other practice of demonisation, if they understood where they lived in space and time – under capitalism, in an occupied country – and could bear the feelings that understanding elicits.
If you have listened to a QAnon follower talk for any length of time, one of the most gruelling aspects of the experience is how mind-numbingly boring it is. It literally becomes hard to think. For me, this is an indicator not just of the fascist nature of QAnon (under fascism, thinking isn’t required), but of the fractures in my own political thinking that need addressing. It’s a demonstration that, while we need strategies to fight the proliferation of QAnon (by deplatforming its proponents, for example), it’s the very nature of the social order and political consciousness that needs rewriting, as we transgressively, creatively, and outrageously rethink and reorganise the way we relate to each other on an everyday basis.
Political consciousness in European capitalism has always been a weird, hollowed-out thing. In a brilliant lecture called ‘The Myth of the Stupid Savage’ that details the research they carried out for their forthcoming book, The Dawn of Everything, the archaeologist David Wengrow and the anthropologist David Graeber detail how the incisive political critiques of Europe by Indigenous peoples generated political discourse about democracy and inequality. As much as white supremacy might wish otherwise, there is no majestic trajectory of democratic inquiry reaching from ancient Athens to Washington. Wengrow and Graeber argue, with a great deal of evidence, that the ordinary Indigenous person historically had much greater political self-awareness and reflexivity than almost anyone living today. Political self-awareness, they suggest, necessarily emerges out of complex human relatedness. As complex reciprocity is a phenomenon utterly atomised by capitalism, it follows that political self-awareness is too. In its place, we are filled up with other things, subjectivities rooted in white supremacy, exclusion, misogyny, exploitation, narcissism, and narratives and art forms based on those. It all feels very real, but then a self rooted in the idea of itself as a special, concrete, sealed-up, exclusive object, is likely to have a very distinctive sense of reality.
It’s terrible what capitalism has done to us. Nobody is unscathed by it. Climate change, COVID-19, racist murder, fascism, Jeff Bezos and psychotic breaks such as QAnon are all signs that capitalism is going pear-shaped. Knowing this, we can too easily find ourselves caught up in a new version of Margaret Thatcher’s injunction that There Is No Alternative: that this is the end and there’s nothing anyone can do. Which is a very capitalist idea. But if it is the end of capitalism, and what replaces it isn’t to be even worse, then it can’t possibly be the end, but a beginning.