Anti-vax freedom seekers are vying to establish a safe haven in Mullumbimby in the remote Northern Rivers region in New South Wales, Australia. The region, including the famous Byron Bay, has long been a paradise for New Agers and the seekers of alternative lifestyles. The same region and places such as Nimbin made their mark for sustainable lifestyle initiatives, and communes. The long-established free vibe of the region has been transformed with the current anti-establishment sentiments and the accompanying conspiracy theories. The democratic establishment is considered to be a vehicle for the Soros-funded New World Order. The post-World War II rules-based world order and its key organisations are also considered to be public enemies, providing a lifeline to authoritarian elements worldwide. With conspiracies running wild on the Internet appropriating Agenda 21, which is the UN sustainable development goals, as nothing more than a path to the fictitious New World Order, one can only imagine what this could do to people who happened to believe and fell through the conspiracy rabbit hole.
Evidence shows that in response to fictitious disasters that are said to await humanity, a feverish survivalist movement is active, vying to evade the imaginary enemy presented as liberal élites and the democratic establishment. This article analyses a Telegram channel aimed to counter the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset, a plan to redesign economies for sustainable development. The Great Reset agenda, from its very inception, has been a subject of bizarre conspiracy theories. The Telegram channel has 17,494 subscribers. It is an example of how conspiracies affect people, misleading them to strive for meaningless pursuits. Behind conspiracies, there is a psychological trigger of enthusiasm. Over-enthusiasm creates exaggerated threats. The more hyperbolic the conspiracies are, the more feverish the believers become, wasting enthusiasm and imagination for a threat that does not exist. Slandering democracy not only benefits authoritarian elements, but it also creates chain reactions as survivalists prepare to defend themselves from an imaginary enemy. How does the survivalist movement come up with bizarre alternatives in response to a conspiratorial reality they believe?
The Telegram channel brings together scores of experts to find solutions. Needless to say, presented with an existential threat, survivalists go the extra mile to come up with solutions. They find a series of alternatives, which are well established and accepted solutions by now. Who they are and what do they do? In the Telegram channel, there are advocates of Agorism, who have become key proponents of the survivalist movement. Agorism is a new libertarian philosophy, which has ties to anarchism. New Libertarianism is an ideology at the heart of current anti-establishment sentiments. Agorism represents a resistance to the establishment by means of creating a voluntary open marketplace, aiming to build a counter-economy. Counter-economics advocates encourage people to opt-out of the economic system by creating self-sufficiency. With this proposition, endless streams of alternative currency, organic farming, natural law, vegan activism, net-zero energy, permaculture, and self-sustainable communes join the new libertarian revolution, bringing them scores of partners to build a self-sustainable Utopia.
In the same Telegram channel, there are advocates of sociocracy, trying to provide alternatives to democracy. Sociocracy is based on consent rather than majority consensus, which is a key element of democracy. The breakaway survivalists are then joined with alternative medicine circles who are enthusiastic to provide their expertise to self-sufficient lifestyles. At this point, advocates of green medicine, holistic medicine, natural health, indigenous medicine, COVID deniers, and anti-vaxxers come to share the platform, pooling their alternative expertise together. This Utopia of alternatives in response to an imaginary threat does not stop until the world schoolers join the saga; the alternative education advocates, who organise learning communities and are pro-unschooling from the current education system. There is also a stream of independent journalists and alternative media, and inclusion of Arcturians, who are said to be friendly aliens.
Escapism in a Time of Trouble
Anarchism, Libertarianism, New Age, and other fringe movements are not new phenomena. They have existed alongside democracy for decades. What’s happening currently is a result of an underlying context. What is the difference of these movements now compared to their history? Fringe movements have been existed of their own accord but were rarely presented with an urgent enough cause or a pressing emergency that would have united them. These movements neither had all-inclusive mediums to easily reach the masses before Web 2.0 technologies that gave rise to the deep web, online forums, messaging platforms, and imageboards. Above all, democracy was victorious in the post-Cold War world, and was resilient in its universal core values, liberty, equality, and justice. At least democracy could retain legitimacy despite facing multitudes of practical challenges in an increasingly unstable world. What is changed was the context; the above relative normalcy was forcefully changed due to three key factors. First, fringe movements were presented with an all-inclusive existential threat, appropriated as liberal democracy, the rules-based world order, its organisations, leadership, and the lifestyle. Second, the case against democracy was mainly developed, propagated, and mobilised on the Internet. Third, many fringe movements come to unite against what considered as a coming authoritarian rule, said to be planned by liberal elites. The threat is misplaced, overlooking real authoritarian elements, but appropriating liberal democracy as the culprit of something nefarious. It is not democracy, but the vilification of democracy, which created a widely rumoured case, misappropriating democratic establishment with authoritarian conspiracies.
The conspiratorial threat framed by authoritarian elements, over time, was forceful enough to bring many fringe circles to their fold, as the latter started to buy the authoritarian narrative about impending harms of the democratic establishment. The key conspiratorial narratives are now dynamic enough to mobilise people, who happened to believe the conspiratorial character assigned to vilify the democratic establishment. Survival movements in this context can come in many forms. What is the threat or survival from what? The main threat is said to be the coming totalitarian rule. Other threats are expected to be natural disasters and the collapse of the world as we know it. Many fringe movements unite against an imaginary enemy, predicting a common threat that would affect them all. What will be the impact of otherwise harmless people being driven by false promises towards extreme goals such as evading the system?
Crying Wolf: The Impact
Anti-establishment movements present a fundamental threat to liberal democracy. These movements are driven by many underlying ideological undercurrents. For example, populism provides traction to mobilise anti-establishment movements. Populism presents a case for ‘good’ people vs. ‘evil’ elites, with a feel-good idea about a direct democracy: ‘power to the people’. Populism is a medium rather than the actual mechanism of the anti-establishment movements. Populism lacks both feasibility and sustainability to establish a real alternative to liberal democracy. However, as an ideology it convenes an understandable cause: masses vs. tyrannical elites. Beneath the appeal of populism, reality shows that numerous ideological elements grow their own causes in the fertile soil of populism as if removing the establishment would bring their presumed ideal society.
The anti-establishment movements cannot be simply undermined as ‘paranoid’, a style of thinking Hofstadter (1964) identified to be behind “exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Rather the anti-establishment movements are strategic and aim to achieve their ideological goals, envisioning their versions of an ideal society. However, anti-establishment movements can influence people who are prone to Hofstadter’s “paranoid style of reasoning.” While identifying the anti-establishment movement as ‘strategic’ rather than ‘paranoid’ in their aims and goals, what exact impact they would have on democracy?
Anti-establishment movements fervently engage in vilifying democracy, employing readily available conspiracy theories, and this can lead to democratic decay. For example: Pantazi et al (2021) link their findings to explain how belief in conspiracy theories contributes to decreased support for representative democracy. Albertson and Guiler (2020), find that conspiratorial narratives about election meddling can undermine democratic institutions. Ardevol-Abreu et al (2020) explain their findings to indicate how “conspiratorial beliefs negatively affect conventional modes of political participation.” Lamberty and Leiser (2019), quite alarmingly, find that “conspiracy beliefs lower democratic participation and lead to political violence.” Bennett and Livingston (2018) show how the “spread of disinformation […leads] to growing legitimacy problems in many democracies.” With all the above evidence, it is not just conspiracy theories that need closer scrutiny, but the strategic use of conspiracy theories and their role in mobilising anti-establishment movements.
Conspiracy theories play a strategic role in the context of populism and rising authoritarianism. First, they vilify democracy, making a case against it. Second, conspiracy theories act as the key motivation in mobilising people against the establishment. Conspiracy theories are not just theories now, which help understand the world. They mimic a political ideology, presenting a cause and incitement to radicalise people. For instance, the Pizzagate conspiracy was the incitement that radicalised an otherwise harmless person, who drove 350 miles to Comet Ping Pong Restaurant in Washington DC carrying a gun. His intention was to save children. Similar conspiratorial reality affected the radicalisation of the Hanau shooter who killed 11 people in Germany. The conspiratorial reality behind survivalist movements can radicalise their believers. These individuals have already committed to a particular cause. They are under mobilisation, aiming to shun the mainstream and develop alternatives. Their conspiratorial reality creates perfect conditions for radicalisation, providing the cause, idealism, and motivation to seek alternatives to liberal democracy.