and the QAnon Shaman
By Christopher Carrico
“It looks like Floki has taken Congress!” my Mom texted me as the horned, painted, spear-wielding “QAnon Shaman” with neo-Norse tatts took the Senate floor.
“Where was the security?!” people asked. Well… they were right there aiding and abetting. The Capitol Police opened the gates and let everyone in.
We’ve been social distancing for 10 months, and the radical skepticism which has been eating away at us for years seems to have taken on even more malignant forms. Young earth creationists and climate change deniers helped pave the way for anti-vaxxers, “fake news”, “pizza gate”, “Plandemic”, and Trump claiming that he won the election in a “massive landslide victory”.
I find myself slipping into quarantine solipsism sometimes myself. A neurotic patient, turning away from reality because it seems unbearable. None of the social tools of reality testing readily at hand.
Who will talk back to the fantasy world that both the Viking LARP-er and the American President are living in? The postmodern constructivists who suddenly plant signs in their yards claiming that “Science is Real”?
Oddly, perplexingly, Empiricists have been enablers for Mysticism.
Usually thought to be among the Mystics himself, I have no idea who Yeats was thinking of when he said, over 100 years ago, that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” But I can’t count the times I’ve thought of that quote over the course of the last three decades.
For the left, for decades we’ve seen defeat after defeat, causing us to question everything that we thought we knew. Even ideas of a minimum of social democracy are ruled out of line and targeted for elimination. In just the few months leading up to lockdown, we’d seen a wave of new assaults against Latin America’s Pink Tide, including a coup in Bolivia, and we saw liberals close ranks and portray moderates like Corbyn and Sanders as dangerous radicals.
Meanwhile the far right exploits these moments of skepticism and doubt: adding a dispute with the germ theory of disease to its ones with climate change and evolution. Unafraid to directly assault reality. Each morning our days start with news briefings of neo-fascist surrealism being taken to new heights.
We have no reason whatsoever to think that lukewarm liberals will clap back when and if they are at the helm. “Return to Normal” and “Nothing would fundamentally change” are their slogans. And they will use our Trump and COVID-era fears as pretenses for reinforcing the workings of the National Security State. They will refuse to directly confront the radical right – in the name of “unity and healing” for the “whole nation”. Imagine a scenario in a few years when a leader a lot like Trump emerges, but who is not a completely incompetent ass. Will the strength of American “democratic” institutions protect us then? There is no telling where it will all end.
Let’s take a step back from this moment and consider whether it is the exception or the norm. Radical skepticism (and its opening of the gates for fantasy) is clearly the post-modern condition. But I would argue that it is also the condition of capitalist modernity.
During the early Enlightenment, when the bourgeoisie was still consolidating its economic and political power, its emerging philosophy, Empiricism, was often united with the revolutionary forces of science and mechanical materialism in the fight against feudalism, absolutism, and dogma.
But the peasants’ and workers’ movements that were a part of the Radical Reformation and a part of the English Civil War unleashed forces which the rising bourgeoisie feared and were unable to control. These ideas gained strength during the 18th century, culminating in the French Revolution. During this time, Empiricism came to increasingly sever its ties with science and materialism, and to align itself (sometimes tacitly, and sometimes more explicitly) with the forces of reaction.
Whereas Francis Bacon was outlining the philosophical foundations for the scientific method in 1620, less than 100 years later, Berkeley was doubting that what was known empirically through our senses could even tell us that the material world existed. An Anglican Bishop, Berkeley concluded that God was the sole source of all that we experienced through our senses.
David Hume followed in Berkeley’s footsteps in some ways. While he was famous during his time as the “Great Infidel” for his skeptical views on miracles and religion, he agreed with Berkeley that there was little that our senses could tell us for certain about the reality of the material world. He doubted not only what his senses told him about the external world, but also whether the “self” he seemed to experience was an illusion, whether there was continuity between the objects which he saw today and the same objects which he saw yesterday, and whether or not there was any relationship between cause and effect.
While Empiricism was originally inspired by the advances of science during the Renaissance, even the geocentric model which Copernicus and Galileo challenged would have been impossible with Hume’s skepticism. How could we know that the sun that rises today is the same as the sun that rose yesterday?
How can we prove that there is not a flat earth? How can we prove that the universe wasn’t created in six literal 24 hour days in the year 4004 BC?
How can we prove that climate change is real? How can we prove that Coronavirus is real?
How can we prove that Trump didn’t win the elections in a massive landslide? How can we prove that it is not the will of Odin and the Norse gods that he be President?
Materialism and realism offer a way out of these dilemmas, but the mainstream philosophies of the capitalist world have considered materialism and realism to be based on unprovable, axiomatic assumptions. These assumptions are paradoxically called “metaphysics”, and are considered to be as “unfalsifiable” as the supernatural assumptions of religion, magic, and Neoplatonism.
And so, by ostensibly taking a neutral position with regards to the nature of reality, all of the traditions which are the direct descendants of Empiricism, like Pragmatism, Logical Positivism, and much of Postmodernism, open the gates to allow Fantasy to be indistinguishable from the Real.
As a result, we are neurotic patients with no methods for reality testing, and no grounds for objecting to what Floki has to say from the floor of the Senate.
You can believe whatever you want to believe, but you can’t stop reality from being real.
About the Author: Christopher Carrico is an anthropologist, philosopher, and writer. His research has focused on ecology, race, and political economy from a Marxist perspective. He is a contributor to Falsework, Smalltalk: Political Education, Aesthetic Archives, and Recitations of a Future in Common, available here via the Hic Rosa Collective. He is an adjunct at Towson University.