Conspiracy, criticism & the case of Maajid Nawaz
A deep dive into conspiracy, to go with a new interview with Daniel Pinchbeck
I'm publishing this piece with some trepidation. It's about one of the topics that is hardest to talk about, that raises strong passions and heated arguments. It's also a topic that I've been criticised on many times, that I (and Rebel Wisdom) doesn't take conspiracy narratives seriously enough in our investigation of sensemaking.
There is some validity to that criticism, but at the same time attention is by definition limited. I'm interested in convincing counter/conspiracy narratives and will give them airtime on Rebel Wisdom if I'm persuaded by them, for example Tom O'Neill's fascinating untold story of the Manson killings and its links to the secret war against the counterculture in 1960s America, up to and including the JFK assassination.
I'm publishing this article at the same time as a fascinating conversation with the writer Daniel Pinchbeck, who has spent a lot of time investigating alternative narratives including conspiracy, and has been critical of Rebel Wisdom in the past. In this conversation Daniel and I discuss his interest in the paranormal, why I'm less convinced by conspiracy narratives and we also cover his attitude and approach to the Russia/Ukraine conflict.
It's hard to talk about conspiracy theory in the abstract, so in this piece I'm going to reference the recent Maajid Nawaz interview with Joe Rogan, which was arguably the most conspiratorial podcast that Joe Rogan has recently done, and Joe Rogan's is by some distance the biggest podcast in the world and therefore the most influential broadcaster. As I said in my conversation with Zubin Damania, Rogan is popular and trusted because he's everything the mainstream media are not, his audience trusts him to say what he thinks, and to be genuinely curious and open. So it matters when, as he does at the end of the interview, he validates Nawaz by saying that he was unable to find much fault in his argument.
If you haven't heard the interview, you won't be familiar with all the references below, but the level of detail is unavoidable, because it's impossible to talk about 'conspiracy' in the abstract. In the conversation with Rogan, Nawaz starts fairly slowly, but by the end is making increasingly confident and extravagant claims about military psy-ops, the WEF's Great Reset Agenda, and particularly the influence of the Chinese intelligence agencies. He references specific news articles as evidence and Rogan compliments him on how he's bringing the “receipts” for his claims.
I listened to the conversation and tweeted that it was a perfect example of an overactive pattern recognition mode of thinking, with huge leaps of inference and logic, and that people's response to the interview should sort out those with critical thinking skills from those without. Admittedly a little antagonistic and some responded by saying that I hadn't engaged with the substance of Maajid's claims, which was true.
Many of the 'receipts' that Maajid is presenting are specific to the UK, and so many of Rogan's viewers may not have a level of familiarity with the context that would be required to understand the claims being made. I doubt that the following will convince anyone persuaded by the interview, but I'm going to lay out my analysis anyway.
Conspiracy & Me
Throughout my time working as a journalist at Channel 4 News, in my spare time I was spending a lot of time in and around various counter cultures, such as the psychedelic community, new age (conspirituality), and others where conspiracy beliefs are widespread. I would often get into conversations about various conspiracy narratives about topics like 9/11, or how the Swine Flu pandemic was engineered or 'Codex Alimentarius' being a globalist plot to control the food supply. I would often spend some time researching these at Channel 4 News (hell, I was an ambitious young journalist, and these were great stories, if true), but would invariably would find that the "evidence" would collapse on closer examination.
Why spend the time doing this? Partly because these arguments have large and growing cultural force, having exploded during the pandemic, and yet they're largely ignored by the mainstream.
One of the key principles of the heterodox space that Rebel Wisdom is part of is the principle of charity, encoded in the idea of "rule Omega", where we attempt to understand before dismissing, and Ken Wilber's observation that "nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time" and the idea that each perspective contains elements of truth.
However, my experience is that the conspiracy ecosystem is very poor at error correction or accountability. It throws out multiple claims and predictions but rarely admits error or corrects itself. The other reason to address this is because the 'heterodox/contrarian' ecosystem that Rebel Wisdom has been part of has become increasingly conspiratorial during the pandemic, for many different reasons including the growing appeal of these narratives that hook us at a visceral level.
In scanning the social media reception (Twitter and Reddit, at least) to Nawaz’s appearance, it was interesting to see an almost total lack of serious critique of his claims. Most criticism seemed firmly parked in the ad hominem: the familiar labels of ‘grifter’, ‘conspiracy theorist’, or ‘alt-right’. Broadly, however, the response was rapturous: ‘eye-opening’, ‘leaves Joe speechless’, ‘one of JRE’s best’, ‘terrifying’.
And from the legacy media there has been near total silence. These kind of conspiracy claims fall firmly into the “uncanny valley”, the gap between the mainstream and the alternative that we've spoken about before on Rebel Wisdom. The mainstream ignores them, and the alternative racks up large numbers of views for them without interrogating them in any meaningful way.
There are better and worse versions of the broad argument that Maajid is making. We hosted Charles Eisenstein earlier in the pandemic making the case (in 'Epidemic of Control') that we were in a culture that had only one way to react to crises, by trying to manage and control them. Paul Kingsnorth made a similar, and to my mind much more persuasive argument than Maajid's, that there was a direction of travel of the technocratic, rationalist worldview driving our society which he called 'The Machine'. I said at the time that it seemed like a maturity of the antithesis argument when Paul's essay and viral video came out.
Throughout the pandemic I've been trying to parse the dividing line between "necessary heterodoxy/counter narrative" showing up the holes in the mainstream narrative and where it falls into unsupported claims and conspiratorial musings on the other side. As someone who cares about the integrity of the heterodox space, and has seen it trend more and more conspiratorial during the pandemic, the latter is a big problem, and largely ignored.
Another point to make right at the outset is that even talking about 'conspiracy' is almost impossible because it's such an overloaded term. The term has been weaponised by the mainstream, and it's obviously true that many things that were once dismissed as conspiracy theories have been since proven to be true.
I believe we need two different terms to distinguish between the simple dictionary definition of conspiracy ("a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful") and what could be termed "all encompassing conspiracy", where the supposed conspiracy grows to the point where it turns into something like a religious worldview, where nothing is what it seems except for the 'elect' who are blessed to see clearly. Q Anon is the perfect modern example of an "all encompassing conspiracy". Maajid definitely crosses that line in the interview with Rogan.
It's never a clean line between the two as one can start by being persuaded of a specific secret plan, but then steadily realise who would need to be "in on it" for the conspiracy to be true, and the necessary size of the conspiracy grows and grows. This is why conspiracy theories are psychoactive substances when consumed. Before long we're in the realm of archetype, religion and myth where these deep religious stories are activated, and we're seeing Bill Gates or Hillary Clinton as something akin to Satan himself.
There's multiple layers to this, which we have been covering since the start of the pandemic, when our interviewees such as the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke predicted a rise in conspiracy narratives. He explained how the nature of the virus, as an invisible yet ever present threat, demanding purity codes, would put us into a heightened threat detection (old testament) mode of thinking. For me, Maajid's performance is a perfect example of this overactive system in action, what's called Apophenia, the tendency to see correlations between unrelated things, or to overinterpret patterns where none exist.
Many of the references Maajid used are specific to the UK, and may not be easily understood by an international audience. I'm also from London, I've never met him, but I know several people who know him well and some who were involved with his Quilliam anti-extremism foundation that was wrapped up last year, as Maajid's conspiratorial public pronouncements increasingly became a public relations disaster for the organisation. He also lost his job at the talk radio station LBC for the same reason.
Incidentally I think these incidents mean that the allegation of 'grifter' can be discarded, certainly from the financial side (though attention is often an even more powerful driver), he certainly seems to believe what he says and have the courage of his convictions. The question is, should anyone else?
Truth & Reconciliation
I personally believe that a number of "conspiracy theories" have a lot of evidence behind them. For example, the Lockerbie bombing was most likely the Iranians and not the Libyans, with the narrative shifting just as the US needed the Iranians on board for Gulf War 1. It seems that there was some kind of cover up with the Oklahoma bombing, most likely that the US government had infiltrated the groups responsible, screwed up in not preventing it from happening, and then tried to cover their tracks. In particular with the undeclared war of the 1960s, involving all the most high profile assassinations, the CIA and FBI's secret projects such as MK Ultra, Cointelpro and Chaos, the explanations of people like Tom O'Neill make a lot more sense than whatever remains of the 'official narrative'.
Incidentally I believe that the US desperately needs a 'truth and reconciliation' committee or some kind of amnesty for what happened in the 60s as these secrets reverberate through to the present. There is a powerful and influential form of therapeutic process called 'Family Constellations', which looks at how unresolved family dynamics from the past are fated to play out in the present until they are confronted and resolved, and this happens at a societal level as well as an individual one. The US is particularly prone to conspiracy thinking, and I think part of this is because of the unacknowledged and unprocessed dark secrets buried in the country's history.
The interview with Rogan can be divided loosely into three parts, the first is Maajid recounting his fascinating backstory in Islamic radicalism and his journey away. Then he talks more loosely about the Covid landscape and makes a mixture of solid and less supported claims, and then the final third is when he makes the most extravagant and unsupported claims, and starts drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence he presents.
As I was listening, the first noticeable glitch I found was when he was talking about the case of the weapons inspector David Kelly, who was found dead of an apparent suicide after he was revealed as the source of a BBC story casting doubt on some of the government's claims about WMDs. Maajid raises the possibility that he was "suicided" and in passing says that he “was found dead in his car”. Kelly's death was one of the most famous events of the Iraq War buildup in the UK, dominating the news for weeks and leading to a lengthy public inquiry, and pretty much anyone with any passing familiarity with the case knows that he was found dead in woodland in Oxfordshire. He famously left his house to go for a walk and never returned. For Maajid to be pushing a conspiracy theory around the case without knowing that basic fact is odd. It's perhaps unfair to emphasise this point too much, but I would argue it's illustrative of his level of familiarity and understanding of much of the “evidence” that he later presents during the podcast.
He then brings in the claim that only 17,000 people actually died of Covid in the UK (the official figure is around 145,000). This was from a Freedom of Information request on how many death certificates named only Covid on the form and nothing else. However, doctors are instructed to add any possible contributing cause to the death certificate, from high blood pressure to diabetes, to any of the diseases of aging. It's certainly true (and well known) that Covid primarily targets the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and diabetes is the most common pre-existing condition, but to make the leap to state, as he frequently does during the podcast, that Covid only killed 17,000 people in the UK, is clearly untrue.
The steel man of this case is that we still haven't had a necessary and overdue conversation about the costs versus the benefits of interventions like lockdowns, especially given that the vast majority of Covid deaths were among the very elderly.
For an international audience his continued return to the topic of mandates, of vaccine passports and other invasive Covid restrictions will ring true. As we covered in 'Religious Wars of the Pandemic Endgame', there has been a widespread scapegoating of the unvaccinated with some countries (Austria) going as far as to impose a kind of 'vaccine apartheid' on their citizens. However, as someone listening to Maajid in England, his continued reference to vaccine passports and the curtailment of civil liberties strikes me as peculiar. England never went far down that route. We have never required proof of vaccination to enter premises like restaurants or bars. And most importantly, as of Thursday 24th February, every single legal restriction around Covid, including the requirement to self-isolate, has been removed (despite criticism and pressure not to).
It was an article of faith for many conspiracy minded people during the pandemic that the restrictions would be an "ever tightening ratchet" towards greater authoritarian control. Has anyone who made that case acknowledged that the restrictions have been lifted and admitted their worst fears were overblown?
It's ironic that when Maajid makes his most clearly “evidenced” claims, and presents newspaper articles to back up his point, that his argument goes furthest off track.
He repeats the claim that has become something of an article of faith among the conspiracy-minded, that vaccine passports are the slippery slope to a Chinese-style social credit system, restricting people's access to money via a central bank digital currency. He refers regularly to the fact that “the infrastructure is now in place”, in the form of vaccine certificates.
“It's not about vaccine passports. This was a red herring to have the infrastructure in place that you can have a Checkpoint Charlie society so that when the central bank digital currencies are in place, that infrastructure is already there because people were so scared they voluntarily allowed you to put that in place so that you can maintain your grip on power.”
It's worth taking a step back and assessing this critically. What does it mean to say that “the infrastructure” is in place? Is he arguing that the NHS app on my phone could be repurposed as a social credit system? How? Why would the NHS run such a scheme? At present it's just a QR code within the NHS app and a PDF that can be issued as required. There's no obvious way that this is “the infrastructure” that could be repurposed in this way.
Should we be alert to the possibility of authoritarian mission creep? Absolutely. But the idea that this is “clearly” the thin end of the wedge needs to be interrogated.
As a journalist who's covered the long and tortuous history of big government technology projects, they are generally very expensive failures, for example the incredible waste of money of the “test and trace” project in the UK, which cost £22billion for little benefit. This article in the Register lists 25 years of failure of government tech projects, wasting billions of pounds and failing basic tasks.
If the argument is that proving one's vaccination status to access goods or services is setting a precedent that could be then exploited, then the “infrastructure” point is irrelevant. It's certainly something that we need to be alert to, but without the forcing function of the pandemic, it's not at all clear to me that the public would go along with it, so it's not even a relevant precedent. It's also, as I said before, not a precedent that we've ever set in England. Perhaps I would feel differently if I was living in Austria, or Canada, especially if I was unvaccinated.
He is absolutely right to argue that the case for vaccine passports falls apart when we accept that the vaccines do little to prevent transmission after a short period of time. The logic of the situation means that vaccination is something that can reduce your personal risk of hospitalisation or death, but has little social impact. Again, this is an argument that Rebel Wisdom has made a number of times, with William Eden and again in our Pandemic Religion piece.
Maajid says: “We now know the science that the COVID vaccination doesn't stop all or it doesn't stop infection or transmission and doesn't reduce it beyond 12 weeks. But having known that and they still insist on vaccine passports, it's no longer about seeking the truth for them.”
Who is “they” in this statement? Many countries are now dropping their vaccine passport requirements, even Canada is moving away from them at the state level. When the vaccines were first released, the belief was that they would prevent transmission, it took some time before it became clear that they wouldn't. Is the fact that governments have been slow to change their policies a sign that “it was never about vaccines, it was about control”, or is it a case of bureaucratic incompetence and slow adaptation to reality?
The thing to realise about Maajid's perspective is that it assumes a priori the thing that it claims to prove. This is common to many conspiratorial takes. What I mean by that is that if you also have a paranoid mindset, you will find his examples concerning and convincing. If you don't already have that conviction then his statements don't land.
Basically you need to have already psychologically committed to the existence of a coherent “them”. Only then will statements like this make sense: “There will be another emergency, whether it's war with Russia, which is already being played up, whatever it is, whether it's the crash of the economy, because the fiat inflation at 5.4 percent, at least in the U.K.”
He is already assuming that if any of these things happen, then they will have been engineered. Financial crisis is altogether likely in the medium term, because the financial system is already fragile and running hot, not because it will have been created or engineered by the WEF.
It's towards the end of the interview that the "evidence" comes thick and fast, as Maajid tries to make the case that this is somehow a deliberate 'military-grade' operation and somehow connected to the Chinese government.
MAAJID: The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) have been encouraging a draconian response to COVID and all of this technocracy that is eventually going to arise in the form of Checkpoint Charlie Society and central bank digital currencies.
ROGAN: They've been encouraging other nations to implement these? And how do they get away with that? Like, how do these other nations comply? They comply because of influence?
MAAJID: Influence operations, funding, intelligence operations.
His evidence that the Chinese are influencing decisions at the highest levels of government are news stories about the case of Christine Lee, who was uncovered as a Chinese agent in the UK. She gave donations of £420,000 over several years to a Labour MP, Barry Gardiner, and to of £5,000 to a Liberal Democrat MP, and later Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey.
Though £400k is a substantial amount of money, Barry Gardiner is a minor Labour party politician, Labour are not in power and he is unlikely to ever have any real influence. Ed Davey is now leader of the Liberal Democrats, but they are a minor party who have only 13 MPs (out of 650), and £5,000 is a tiny amount of money to ask for any substantial favours, and would be lost among other larger donations. In passing Maajid says that "those parties, by the way, have always been in favour of the mandates". As have most left of centre parties in every western democracy, of course.
To argue that the lockdown decisions in the UK and elsewhere were caused or influenced by CCP influence campaigns requires much more convincing evidence than is offered here. Who are the compromised western politicians? Who took immense risks of being found out? Given that only Sweden out of any developed nations went against the lockdown tactics in the early days of the pandemic, is he arguing that every other nation was compromised by China? If true, this is a story of interest to any news organisation and would be widely reported.
To argue that there was "military grade" psychological techniques at play he throws in two pieces of evidence, firstly that a Conservative MP is part of the UK's info warfare division, and secondly that a Twitter executive for the Middle East is part of the same organisation. Both of these appear true, but they don't seem to add up to what Maajid is claiming.
The 77th Brigade is indeed the UK's main info warfare division. As Carl Miller reports in this piece for Wired, it's staffed partly by reservists who have experience in tech and communications. Given that we're in a 4th generation warfare situation with the likes of Russia and China where information warfare is a huge factor, the need for something like this should be clear even to Maajid, given his fears about Chinese influence.
It's not peculiar then for a Twitter employee, Gordan MacMillan, to also work as an army reservist in this department. Given that his area of editorial responsibility is the Middle East, it's unclear what relevance this story has to Maajid's main thesis about the Covid response. The source of the story that he works as an army reservist in the 77th was his LinkedIn bio, so was hardly hidden information.
That a Conservative MP also works as an army reservist is also not surprising, Tobias Ellwood was in the Army before being elected as an MP, and is now a relatively minor figure in the Conservative party, and is not even a minister. Again, the inferential leaps being made here are huge and unsupported by the facts presented.
He moves onto other evidence that the response to the pandemic is being manipulated, in the form of the Government's behaviour unit. He's on more solid ground in that even members of that unit have come out and argued that the government have misused the tactics of the unit in the response to the pandemic.
This is the famous "nudge" unit within government, created in the wake of the highly influential behaviour change work of people like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. They challenged the classic economist view that saw people as "rational economic actors" and reintroduced factors like psychologically sophisticated messaging, or using what they term "choice architecture", a classic example is making pension schemes "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" as they recognise that inertia drives people's decisions more often than not.
This kind of behaviour change work certainly operates in an ethical "grey area", as does a lot of government public health messaging, which attempts to guide behviour away from they believe to be unhealthy options towards healthier ones. Tools like these should be observed closely and reviewed regularly. In particular surely what we want is a healthy public debate around whether these tactics are being used carefully and ethically?
In the pandemic it's unsurprising that the government leant heavily on this unit to try to influence people's behaviour. The messaging around hand washing (for "as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday") and other pandemic measures were dreamt up within the unit. However they also used tactics like invoking disgust and playing up fear in order to persuade people to change their behaviour.
Later in the pandemic the co-founder of the Nudge Unit, Simon Ruda, came out and said that he believed they had overstepped the mark in their psychological manipulation.
"In 2015, during a public debate on behavioural science in Lucerne, I was accused of supporting tactics befitting an unsavoury authoritarian regime. At the time, knowing how well-intentioned my colleagues were, I thought this was, quite frankly, nuts.
I remain a supporter of the use of behavioural science in public policy, and of the Behavioural Insights Team, more commonly known as the Nudge Unit. However, witnessing how the UK and other governments have responded to the pandemic, I can now appreciate the vulnerabilities of well-intentioned, democratic regimes, and the potential for behavioural science to be used inappropriately ...
In my mind, the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public. Initially encouraged to boost public compliance, that fear seems to have subsequently driven policy decisions in a worrying feedback loop. Though I don’t think it’s fair to blame behavioural scientists for propagating fear (I suspect that this was more to do with Government communicators and the incentives of news broadcasters), it may be worth reflecting on where we need to draw the line between the choice-maximising nudges of libertarian paternalism, and the creeping acceptance among policy makers that the state should use its heft to influence our lives without the accountability of legislative and parliamentary scrutiny. Nudging made subtle state influence palatable, but mixed with a state of emergency, have we inadvertently sanctioned state propaganda?"
Is this the sign of a "military grade psy ops" project revealed, or the sign of a healthy public debate where senior people involved in the policy are free to make public criticism in order to try to ensure that lessons are learned in the future? The government didn't prevent this criticism being made, the officials were not reprimanded for criticising the state, is this not exactly how we want these things to work?
Maajid also refers to the case of Professor Susan Michie, an behavioural psychologist who has been a member of the Government's official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and also the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B). She has been one of the most hawkish voices arguing for increased restrictions and is also a member of the Communist Party. I agree with Maajid that she seems like an extremist crank on the Zero Covid side, yet it's unclear how much influence she genuinely has. As you can see on the government's own website, there are 148 listed scientists for SAGE, and 104 members of SPI-B. Given the number of outright cranks in academia, if you took a random sample of 100 UK academics, you are likely to find a large number of oddballs, extremists and even some members of the Communist Party.
This is where truth seeking and journalism should start, not end, a capable journalist could then establish relationships with other members of SAGE and ask them off the record if they believe that someone like Susan Michie was having an outsized influence on the recommendations made by SAGE, and therefore UK government policy. Perhaps they could get evidence, minutes of meetings or other documents to show that the government was planning one course of action and then was persuaded otherwise by Michie or others. Then they could build up a picture of 'influence operations'. There would be a large market for this, Chinese influence is a huge and important story.
In the case of Susan Michie, again you can make a good case that journalistic accountability did a pretty good job. Journalists covered her background, leading to her being asked questions about her ideology during TV interviews, such as Richard Madeley on Good Morning Britain.
"“You’ve been a member of the Communist Party for about 40 years now, you’re still a member, and we know that they’re statist. We look at Communist countries around the world and we see that they are tremendously top-down dominant and controlled societies that they rule over.
I just wonder – and I’m putting this question on behalf of those who wonder about your politics – if your politics actually informs your sense of control? It’s not just the medical arguments, but you have a kind of a political bent to want the state to tell people what to do?”
Professor Michie replied: “I’ve come on your programme as a scientist, as do all people who come on to your programme as scientists.
“They come on to talk about the evidence, relevant theories, how we approach our scientific disciplines, and you don’t ask other scientists about politics so I’m very happy to speak about science which is what my job is and to limit it to that.”
The presenter added: “So you’re saying that your politics doesn’t inform your opinion on this subject?”
“I’m saying that I agreed to come on this programme as a scientist,” Professor Michie reiterated. “And I’m very happy to talk to you about the issues that you’re raising as a scientist which is the same for other scientists that you invite on to the programme.”
To summarise Maajid's evidence here for a (hidden) "military grade" and coordinated psy ops operation, we have senior officials in the government's nudge unit criticising the government overstepping the line in its messaging. We have a single Twitter exec who works as a reservist in the British Army's social media unit. We have another backbench (non government) Conservative MP working in the same unit. We have a Chinese spy who gave a large amount of money to a minor Labour Party MP with no power to influence policy, and a tiny amount to the Lib Dem leader. And... something something Klaus Schwab and the WEF.
Ultimately this is a very confused picture, Maajid's central argument, perhaps obsession, is with China and Chinese influence. Yet his argument falls well short of any coherent case for arguing that the pandemic response has been directed by Chinese influence.
He raises genuine concerns about the dystopian potential of centrally controlled Digital Currency, but it is hard to see what this has to do with the pandemic response or why they should be linked except that it falls in the general category of "state control".
This is "overactive pattern recognition" on steroids. As my friend Jules Evans explained in his brilliant explorations of 'Conspirituality', the personality type that is most prone to this kind of pattern matching is called 'schizotypal'.
"Let me add to this emerging discourse by suggesting that conspirituality theories are a form of mystical or ecstatic experience. I want to compare two forms of mystical experience.
The first is a sort of extroverted euphoric mystical experience: ‘Everything is connected. I am synchronicitously drawn to helpers and allies, the universe is carrying us forward to a wonderful climactic transformation (the Rapture, the Omega Point, the Paradigm Shift) , and we are the heroic warriors of light appointed by God / the Universe to manifest this glorious new phase shift in human history.’
The second is a paranoid ‘bad’ trip version of the euphoric ‘good’ trip. ‘Everything is connected, there is a secret order being revealed to me, but I am not part of it. It is an evil demonic order, and it is trying to control me and everyone else. They have a Grand Plan and it is taking shape now. But perhaps I, and one or two others, can wake up to this Grand Plan, and expose it, and at least hide from it.’
These are two sides of the same coin, two sides in the same game. Both are examples of schizotypal magical / dream thinking. In both, the ego is part of a grand cosmic drama — in the first, they are the divine appointed catalyst for Phase Shift / humanity’s rebirth, in the second, they are the heroic exposer of the Hidden Order."
Maajid previously saw the world through a lens of Islamist revelation of the hidden order. There is a religious dimension to conspiracy thinking (revealed truth/archetypal forces of good and evil), so it's unsurprising that a former religious extremist may be predisposed to seeing the world in this way.
The core thing with these theories and how they impact our sensemaking is generally NOT to get stuck on the detail, the propositional content of the explanation, as this is an unwinnable argument. It's instead to pay attention to the PROCESS of sensemaking itself. Can you look at your own process of thinking, of where you are attaching levels of meaning and certainty to things that actually don't deserve it, and making leaps unsupported by the evidence.
So what is really going on? I don't know Maajid personally, but I am good friends with others who do, including people with knowledge of the inner workings of his Quilliam foundation. They say that Maajid was a hugely sociable person who found it immensely difficult to cope with the restrictions of the lockdown. They say he became increasingly obsessed with conspiracy narratives during the lockdown, in particular with a focus on China. These narratives in turn became increasingly popular with people and built up a positive feedback loop, one that many 'influencers' went down during the pandemic.
The last connection Maajid draws is with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the infamous "great reset" plan, which has become a central focus for conspiracy narratives, breaking through to the mainstream in late 2020.
Again, there are more and less convincing narratives around the WEF, and concerns at what it is up to. There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of it, as laid out in this useful critical piece in Open Democracy. The WEF is intended as a coordination body between governments and large corporations, the latter of which are by definition undemocratic, and its leaders such as Klaus Schwab is unelected and unaccountable.
The conspiracy theories around the WEF are hugely reminiscent of the concern about the 'Bilderberg Group', from an earlier time. The Bilderberg group was an annual conference for world leaders, started in 1954, that was the focus of conspiracy theories in the 80s and 90s. Ironically one of the supposed benefits of the WEF versus organisations like the Bilderberg group is that they are aiming to be more public and transparent in their public profile and messaging, compared to the secretive nature of the previous organisation. So the text of the great reset is freely available on its flashy website.
It's probably inevitable that something like the WEF would be necessary, given the fact that many private companies have become so vast and powerful that they rival nation states in their ability to affect the world, and it goes without saying that we need to keep a close eye on its activities.
But reading the text of the Great Reset, the idea that this is the thin end of a totalitarian wedge doesn't add up. It seems more like an empty platitude, a slogan dreamt up by marketers to try to push the same agenda (sustainability, systems change) that they were keen to promote before the pandemic, than a substantially new and sinister offering.
Given the size of the problems facing us as a species, and having seen dozens of similar bold words backed up by very little from similar organisations, I think it's far more likely that the "great reset" adds up to nothing more than empty slogans, than the harbinger of a new world order that leaves us eating bugs in our pods.
I'm more sceptical that the 'Great Reset' can add up to much, or that the WEF has anything like the necessary coordination power to impose its own solutions on either companies, who are ultimately beholden to their shareholders, or national governments, who have their own priorities and are working to much shorter electoral cycles.
I would be much more concerned about the likes of China, who have been slowly dominating the developing world through the economic entanglements of their 'belt and road' initiative, and securing the resources needed for the long term, because their authoritarian government is able to think 20/50 years ahead, rather than the short time until the next election.
That's not to say that an authoritarian future isn't a real possibility, it most certainly is. This is one of the foundational ideas of the Game B movement that Rebel Wisdom has featured a number of times. As one of the driving forces, Jim Rutt explains, the need is to find a "fifth attractor", a global system that isn't any of the known four attractors (collapse/feudalism/neo-fascism/dark ages). Authoritarianism is definitely on the menu of possible options as the current system wobbles, but it doesn't mean that the Great Reset is ushering it in.
The Emergent Hypothesis
Our friend BJ Campbell over at the Handwaving Freakoutery newsletter makes the argument that Maajid "almost" got everything right, but mistook an "emergent conspiracy" for a deliberately manipulated one. He argues that what Maajid was trying to identify was the actions of a collective intelligence, an "egregore".
I think his analysis is interesting, but I'm not persuaded that there's much of a "there" there, in that I just don't see the outlines of the conspiracy that BJ and Maajid are persuaded by.
If you are willing to cherry pick your examples from all across the world you can make the case that there is an ever tightening ratchet towards control, as seen most strongly in Austria, Germany, Canada, etc. As I said at the start, I'm persuaded by Paul Kingsnorth's argument that "the machine" leans towards control of uncertainty as its basic orientation. However, you could make the opposite case by looking at the equal or bigger number of places where the restrictions have been almost totally lifted, in some cases despite huge pressure not to. The UK for example lifted all restrictions last summer despite a coordinated campaign by more than 100 scientists labelling it as a "dangerous and unethical experiment".
One of the most interesting questions is why this is. Why many countries acted very differently in reponse to the same threat. How, for example, Canada somehow got into a disastrous face off with protestors right at the end of the pandemic, using extreme measures to deal with a phenomenon that they seem to have created themselves by insisting on divisive and controversial measures to combat Covid, and showing little flexibility or common sense.
The UK mostly avoided this, never insisted on the most divisive measures and largely kept its society together. The answer to those questions lies more in the domestic political considerations of the governments of the UK and Canada, and the different institutions of the UK and Canada rather than referring to some overarching conspiracy theory or can be illuminated by reference to a plan by the WEF. The world is more complex and contextual than conspiracy theorists like Maajid want it to be.
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