The Paranoid Style in Canadian Politics

Conspiracy theories are way more exciting than political economy, and Canada’s Pierre Poilievre is exploiting the thrill of paranoia for political gain. The Left must counter these impulses with analyses of worker exploitation — and a program for change.

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre speaking at the Conservative Party of Canada English leadership debate in Edmonton, Canada. (Artur Widak. / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Canadian Conservative Party leadership hopeful and presumptive front-runner Pierre Poilievre trades in wacky, YouTube-esque politics. His messaging coddles and encourages conspiracy theory types. He’s running a faux populist campaign, flirting with a dangerous and disaffected cohort whom he can’t possibly ever satisfy — and really shouldn’t try to. But on he goes, fueling noxious, reactionary anger and resentment. This rancor caters to conspiracies that trade in tiny slices of reality, mutating mundane facts into wild fantasies that are far more complicated and absurd than the problems they purport to explain.

One of Poilievre’s targets is the World Economic Forum (WEF), the global nongovernmental organization whose infamous gathering in Davos, Switzerland stands for the struggle between the ruling and worker classes. Poilievre has said that, as prime minister, he would ban ministers and government officials from attending. He has tried to tie former Conservative cabinet minister and leadership contender Maxime Bernier to the WEF. This was perhaps an attempt to prepare a strategy to win over voters from Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, a bizarre and toxic upstart counter movement to traditional conservatism.

Poilievre’s railing against the WEF is so cynical and transparent that even the Toronto Sun called him out for it, with columnist Brian Lilley pointing out that “[Former Conservative Prime Minister] Stephen Harper wouldn’t be considered good enough for a Cabinet position in a government led by Pierre Poilievre.” Harper, of course, attended the WEF.

On Guard Against the Lizard People

The far right attacks the WEF routinely. These attacks are not focused on the structural power of capital and its overt control over the conditions of labor and state economic and social policy. Instead, the far right circulates conspiracy theories over nebulous policy proposals from cosmopolitan elites. And on this point, at least, there is some truth — the much-hated silk-stocking “globalists” are, in fact, keepers of the status quo flame. However, the explanatory plots to which they are linked are usually related to classic antisemitic tropes in the style of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These just-so stories replace complex analyses of exploitative systems with racist scapegoating and dark fantasies featuring cabals of scheming puppet masters.

This ire often overshoots its mark or is so outré as to tumble into derangement. Ill-defined attempts at do-goodery from the global jet setter class become monstrous Frankenstein-like instances of despotism. Take, for example, the “Great Reset,” which, according to conspiracy theorists, signals the rise of an omnipotent global socialist government that will strip away liberty from all freedom-loving people of good will. In reality, it’s the theme of the 2020–21 WEF meeting and its initiative to stabilize global relations, liberalize global economies, and secure the global commons in the face of climate change. As always, there’s plenty to critique there — but nothing new or particularly exciting.

In the wake of the pandemic, social anxieties already expressed in the batshit crazy world of QAnon have been ratcheted up and conspiracy exponents everywhere warn of a global surveillance state launched under cover of COVID vaccines. But there is no omnipotent authoritarian world government hiding in the bushes. Instead, it is simply more of the same: deprivations and inequalities resulting from a system dedicated to profiteering.

Just-So Stories

People believe conspiracy theories because they want to belong and need to make sense of the world. As Mark Lorch writes in the Conversation,

One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world and incredible ability to recognise patterns. Indeed, a recent study showed a correlation between an individual’s need for structure and tendency to believe in a conspiracy theory.

Peer pressure drives conspiracy beliefs, too. People want to fit in. They want others in and around their social group to like and accept them. Conspiracy theories are inherently social phenomena. They spring from the same sources that so many of our common behaviors do, from cheering for a sports team to going along to get along at work. They’re fundamentally human, all too human.

For groups who are exploited, impoverished, marginalized, lost, and afraid, conspiracy theories provide an anchor. They’re a kind of safe space for the disaffected. The problem is they are often venomous and dangerous. That’s why it’s reckless to mobilize and exploit conspiracy theories and their devotees, why Poilievre’s game is so cynical and risky, and why the Left needs to maintain grounded, responsible critiques of certain targets shared with conspiracy sorts.

The complicating factor in processing conspiracy takes on the WEF is that the WEF deserves critique — especially from the Left. As Cas Mudde pointed out in the Guardian in 2019, the WEF had no problem at the time cooperating with right-wing extremists and populists such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. There are, after all, overlapping interests between these groups, such as market deregulation. As Mudde concluded, “neoliberal elites from Davos to Seattle do not oppose the rightwing populist agenda. They are trying to shape the post-Trump world, in which big business can amass profits unopposed by largely privatized and underfunded states.”

The Davos set, in effect, are playing their own dangerous game with cousins of the conspiracy theorists who oppose them so vehemently. Were Poilievre to win, they’d no doubt play it with him, too, since they share the same goals of market fundamentalism — even if they clash around the margins on, say, environmental politics. Either way, neither the WEF sorts nor Poilievre have any intention of upsetting market politics in any fundamental way.

Appeal to Reason

The Left needs to double down on its own sustained critique of the WEF and organizations like it. The problem is that the Left’s critique is grounded in reality — the reality that capitalism’s avatars and functionaries around the world cooperate to protect and advance their material interests against the interests of workers. And this reality is boring. Further, it takes time to explain. But it is the only way forward.

The answer to this problem can be found in the name of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Midwest socialist weekly, Appeal to Reason. Working people understand that the deck is stacked against them and that they are exploited. Conspiracies may be exciting, but human beings don’t need the sugar of conspiracy to allow the medicine of reasoned analysis to go down.

The pervasiveness of conspiracy and the exploitation of their prevalence by right-wing actors like Poilievre offer up an opportunity for the Left to distinguish itself. We should grab the chance to offer a more compelling and grounded alternative that explains precisely what the problem is. There is no conspiracy required. The problem is simply run-of-the-mill capitalist interests.

While we need to be wary of conspiracy theorists and politicians who cynically use them, the Left should not abandon its critiques of institutions and players who happen to attract their attention. What appears to be shared affinities are so only in the most superficial ways. The Left ought to also guard against opponents who mobilize conspiracy oppositionality, reducing all critique of the WEF to conspiracy. A policy of criticism without paranoia is a good start. If THEY are really out to get you, it isn’t paranoia. And the fact is: they are out to get us, but there’s nothing new or cloak-and-dagger about it.