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The Conspiracy is Capitalism
Elon Musk, transphobia and antisemitism, and moving people from conspiracy to class struggle
As I was writing this piece I took a break, checked Twitter, and saw the richest guy on Earth spouting conspiracy theories about the government of California coming to sterilize your child and take them from you. That’s blatantly untrue, of course, and comes from him embedding himself in the land of fascist conspiracy mongers. Just days ago he amplified and dove into an antisemitic conspiracy-laced campaign started by neo-Nazis about the Anti-Defamation League, ultimately posting repeatedly about how the Jewish organization has single-handedly killed Twitter’s value. The ADL is seriously flawed, but this particular campaign against them is a virulently antisemitic, and Musk’s accusations have ramped up to accusing the organization of manipulating every major Twitter advertiser, playing on tropes of Jews controlling the economy and media. Recent days have also seen NYC mayor Eric Adams saying migrants are destroying New York, an abundance of climate conspiracies in response to environmental disasters from Maui to Greece to every corner of the planet, and I even saw a new conspiracy: you don’t need glasses, they’re just a scheme by Big Lenses to make you pay up.
When the wealthiest person on Earth, who interferes in international conflicts, manipulates markets, and lies constantly points at a historically scapegoated groups and says, “Look they’re the real problem here. They really have the power, even over this company I own, not me,” you’d hope people could easily see through that. But it seems like quite a few can’t, or won’t. By now he’s pointed to Jews, immigrants, and trans people, and spouted or amplified lies and conspiracies about each and every one.
And it’s not just Elon. We’re seeing conspiracy thinking flourish in response to climate change, in response to Covid, in response to nearly all world events these days. If you open any big social media app you’ll see viral videos linking roaring wildfires to government plots, you’ll see theories about Biden being a clone, you’ll see perfectly normal events transformed into massive conspiracies every day. And, notably, you’ll see that nothing much is being done about it by the platforms themselves. Every social media app is flooded with the idea that a secretive scheme, often orchestrated by a small and mysterious group, is behind just about everything. And the funny thing is, they’re right.
Well, they’re half right. A small group does exert vastly disproportionate control over just about everything. The only issue is, they’re not that secretive about it. They flaunt their wealth and power out in the open. The small group known as “billionaires” have seen their wealth grow by 109% over the past decade – from $5.6 trillion to $11.8 trillion. The richest 1% gained nearly twice as much money as the rest of the world put together over the past two years. They control a vastly disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth and many of the world’s politicians, and have concentrated much of the world’s power in their hands. The group I’m referring to has historically been known as the ruling class, or the owning class, the people who own the companies and control the wealth, and they spend their days trying to ensure this imbalanced and unjust capitalist system continues.
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I know that laying out these facts, explaining this increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and power and resources, is not enough. Thankfully, there’s much more to capitalism than just numbers.
In their recent book “Let This Radicalize You” Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes write, “When we tap into the diverse spectrum of human emotion, we have an opportunity to inspire people to view themselves as part of a larger story.” People need stories, need emotional appeal, need something more powerful than fact to overturn convictions that have become deeply rooted. And there are plenty of stories to tell about capitalism. I think of examples like Amazon workers being forced to pee in bottles or work without drinkable water while Jeff Bezos parties on his $500 million yacht. And I also think of our personal stories, from work or organizing or any facet of our lives. A good chunk of union organizing comes from people uniting around grievances, whether that’s stories of bad bosses, bad corporate policies, or simply not getting paid enough. In each case, the move to unionize starts with a conversation. And workers who have successfully organized so often say that the crucial moment was often a story of a boss being rude, disrespectful, or dismissive. It was the emotional story that began to move a coworker towards joining them in struggle.
Yet even in moments of personal pain caused by bosses, working conditions, and underpayment people don’t automatically become radical. That’s where the next step comes in. That’s where organizing and popular education and presenting a clear alternative to murky conspiracies and lies is vital. Because although we tend to think that winning a debate or presenting the right arguments are the best ways to move someone and shift their politics, that’s not necessarily the case. Experience and action, particularly the experience of what happens when you try to buck the sytem, can be far more persuasive than any argument.
For example, in the summer of 2020 far more people may have been convinced that abolition was vital by the police than by thoughtful lefties. I don’t mean that all the articles and conversations didn’t matter, but of the millions of people who went to protests simply because everyone else was doing it, or out of a sense that it was the right thing to do, the police overreach and brutality they experienced was the most persuasive possible argument against policing. I know that in my experience everything I’ve read about policing has been informative and even transformative, but being attacked by police shifted my attitude on a more fundamental level, which laid the groundwork for my subsequent reading and learning and organizing. And, at the right moment, it can be a whole lot easier to get someone to go to a rally than it can be to have them sit and listen to you talk about incarceration or policing.
The same can be said in the workplace. When the boss starts union-busting, fires your friend, or calls the cops on union members for organizing, people start to see and experience who the real enemy is, and what the real conspiracy is, in a way that’s far more effective than any lecture or debate. So a lot of our work is just getting people through the door, getting them to take that one crucial action rather than trying to present the whole framework upfront, all at once.
But then, after those initial moments of revelation or radicalization, the left can and must present a clear alternative. We need a clear analysis of the class structure and a bold and definite declaration that your enemy is billionaires and bosses, rather than a nebulous cabal or a group that the right wants to scapegoat. This is vital to combating fascism and conspiracy, and helping people see the world clearly. At the same time, these later conversations show people that the left has real solutions to this billionaire issue. Building working class power, building unions at work and with our neighbors, developing worker co-ops and organizing to move past capitalism are real answers, as opposed to scapegoating the powerless or pointing people at imaginary secretive gatherings of groups that do not exist.
We can also have, and must have, alternatives to capitalist media. I believe that everything I’ve discussed so far is important, but we also have to remember that these conspiracies we’re seeing everywhere are allowed and incentivized by the structure of media and other facets of society. The for-profit media will and has endlessly run stories on Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others because they value clicks over the negative effects that fawning over dangerous billionaires has on workers, democracy, or the world. And for-profit social media appears to have no incentive to stop the rampant spread of conspiracy, and every monetary incentive to allow it to continue. The pervasiveness of individualism can sometimes lead us to miss the systemic roots of nearly all of our problems. Even conspiracy, which might feel like an issue of whacky individuals, is primarily rooted in systemic problems. We need to build up a robust and radical non-profit media sector that can tell the truth about billionaires, climate change, and conspiracies. Because while people certainly latch on to conspiracy thinking because they want some explanation for this complex and hard world, there’s also a media ecosystem that enables and even encourages the worst of this kind of thinking. Right-wing media is big business, and it actively promotes grifters of all kinds who feed people dangerous delusions. And mainstream media is owned by billionaires as well, so we need robust alternatives now more than ever.
There isn’t one shortcut here, there isn’t one silver bullet. We need independent media, we need to build relationships, and we need to get people who we might think are deeply misguided into unions, organizing, and learning. People are hurting, people are fed up, and it's on us to provide a real target, a real outlet, a way for people to focus their anger that doesn’t lead to hurting the oppressed or swallowing harmful and outlandish ideas. We need to help people punch up, not sideways or down. There is a real conspiracy; there is a real system of harm and exploitation and a group of people who work day in and day out to uphold it. Those who have gone deep down a rabbit hole can’t always be confronted head-on, they’ll often double down. But we can invite them to the union meeting, we can invite them to the radical movie night, we can try to get them to the rally. We can build up consumer owned, non-profit social media and we can keep building the network of non-profit media outlets. And we can work relentlessly in person, on social media, and through conventional media to spread the word that the real conspiracy is capitalism. We can work overtime to show that we do have the answers. The left not only has an accurate diagnosis of the problem, but real solutions that can improve people's lives. Yes, even the lives of those who might seem too far gone. Solidarity, and good luck my friends.
Thank you so much for reading. If you find this newsletter valuable please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Over time it allows me to write more for you! - Josh
P.S. A few other related pieces from me that might be helpful for you:
On Elon Musk and his cult of personality linked here.
On the specific things we can do to organize the left, and not wait for a magic solution linked here.
And on not ceding populism to the right, linked here.
If you found all of this helpful I hope you’ll share it with anyone who might benefit from it! Thank you again for reading and supporting. It means the world to me and I appreciate it immensely.