Conspiracy and Populism in the Post-Democratic Age


Ian Loader

Democratic malaise and the ‘war on motorists’

Many cities across the world have, in recent years, been taking measures to halt, and reverse, a century of car-centric urban planning. Such measures have typically included low emission zones, congestion charging, reducing speed limits, modal filter schemes, and reallocating land for cycling and walking infrastructure, or the use of residents. To their advocates such car-restraining measures are considered essential to the future of urban transportation in a climate-changed world, or part of a project to make transport more inclusive and cities more liveable.
But the politics of urban transportation is often fraught – and likely to become more so. In the UK, such measures have recently prompted a backlash claiming they amount to an ‘elite conspiracy’ against, or ‘war’ on, motorists. Much of the attendant outrage occurs online - on X or neighbourhood discussion groups. But it has taken the form of tabloid campaign’s (such as The Sun’s ‘Give us a Brake’) and various street protests. It has also been mobilised in (or by) national government discourse and policy pronouncements.
In this paper, I describe the claims animating the revolt against ‘the war on motorists’ and seek to make sense of its animating rhetoric and ideologies. Should we locate these claims in the ‘psycho-social attachment’ (Charbonnier 2020) to automobility, and the freedom and control that people associate with driving? Do they form part of a wider backlash against policies to tackle the climate crisis? Do they suggest a deep or pervasive distrust of political authority? What do they tell out about the relation of the ‘mainstream’ to the ‘populist’ Right?
What, in short, does the supposed ‘war on motorists’ tells us about the contemporary democratic condition – and the capacity of democratic politics to find solutions to pressing social problems.

Francesca Ubetti
The Online Making of Vaccine-Critical Identities: Truth, Accountability, and the Rise of the ‘Well-Informed Citizen’

Anti-vaccination sentiment has been recently framed as going hand in hand with populism. This paper explores the shared identities of online vaccine-critical activists. In doing so, it attempts to gain an insight into the political self-understandings of a collective of citizens sometimes regarded as a manifestation of ‘scientific populism’ (see Kennedy 2019). First, I challenge perspectives that frame
anti-vaccination activism as an expression of 'post-truth society'. Following this, contrary to views portraying vaccine opposition as the result of pervasive sentiments of uncertainty and doubt in late-modern societies or a general skepticism towards expert knowledge, I argue that vaccine-critical groups create confident members who are self-assured about their epistemic competence and who do not outright reject expertise. Drawing on the work of Alfred Schütz, I suggest that online vaccine critics cast themselves as ‘well-informed citizens’ who feel uniquely qualified to appropriately discern which expert sources they can rely on. Finally, I analyse narratives expressing 'conspiratorial' views depicting pharmaceutical companies and policy-makers as colluding for the sake of profit to the detriment of children’s health. Significantly, these narratives rely on the existence of legal provisions offering liability protections to vaccine manufacturers against vaccine damage claims as ‘evidence’ that the state is on the side of ‘Big Pharma’. In the end, I suggest that the ‘whistle-blower’ and ‘well-informed citizen’ identities claimed by vaccine critics and their narratives of systemic collusion among public institutions may be seen as two sides of the same coin, both rhetorically supported by references to existing laws.

Joseph Patrick McAulay
Spectacular revolutions: Conspiracy Theories, crime, and the Crisis of Democratic Modernity

What is the relationship between conspiracy theories and crime? Conspiracist crime has dramatically increased in the past decade as conspiracy theories have moved from the fringes to the political mainstream, yet we currently lack an understanding of how conspiracist sub-cultures manage the political tensions caused by criminal activity or justify their own criminal actions. In this paper I attempt to sketch out a rough informal theory based on initial readings of both conspiracy theory texts and pre-existing academic theory in both sociology and social psychology. I argue that conspiracist theorists often position themselves as revolutionary or anti-establishment figures fighting against a corrupt system of power, and that this rhetoric is utilised to justify acts of resistance or deviance from the hegemonic legal systems they see as inherently illegitimate. However, this revolutionary position exists within what Jovani Byford calls rhetorical a tradition of explanation that is inherently reactionary and does not seek to overthrow the system, merely re-create it in a more stable and enduring hierarchical order. In this way the revolutionary rhetoric of the conspiracist sub-culture is “spectacular” in Guy Debord’s sense, a distorted representation of social reality that is mediated through media images. In this sense conspiracy theories give individuals the ability to explain and even critique the systems of capitalist democratic modernity in a simplified manner whilst simultaneously re-affirming the very systems which cause that crisis