Theorizing Social Paranoia: A Précis for Discussion
By Ralph Dumain
“Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world.” — Wilhelm Reich
“You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.” This adage reveals a fundamental problem in addressing the question of social paranoia and the concomitant phenomenon of conspiracy theories. Without the consideration of truth content, or a commitment to some view of social reality by which we could divide rational from irrational truth claims, we are left with a formalistic account of social paranoia based solely on defining characteristics of what Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed the “paranoid style.” Here are some essential questions to be addressed.
Is social paranoia essentially the same in all historical periods, and in all social and political circumstances and movements, or are there qualitative differences which need to be highlighted? What is the relationship between occult and supernaturally based paranoia—in primitive societies, the civilizations of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity—and secular paranoia—about elites or cabals openly or secretly controlling social institutions, the state, the economy, the world order? What transformations has the granddaddy of social paranoiac obsession—anti-Semitism—undergone since the Middle Ages? How shall we compare paranoia in power (in those who command state or institutional power) with the paranoia of the putatively powerless? Is there an equivalence between left and right, or are irrationalist worldviews associated with social paranoia essentially the property of the authoritarian right-wing? If there is an essential difference between right and left, what are the telltale signs of right-wing ideology? Are progressives vulnerable to appeals from the right, and are there examples of right-wing tendencies ensconced within the left?
Are the “moderate men” who evince a plague-on-both-your-houses attitude toward left and right guilty of shifting political discourse to the right?
The pooh-poohing of “conspiracy theories” is deployed by the right when it seeks to dismiss legitimate political criticisms and exposés, and often by the left as a distraction from structural social criticism. Given the shifting boundaries of what might be considered outlandish conspiracy claims in light of covert actions revealed over the past half century, how do we distinguish between at least marginally plausible conspiracy theories and totally outlandish or outright crackpot claims? What are the telltale code words and concepts associated with right-wing or other crackpot thinking? What are the tacit assumptions and characteristic fallacies in reasoning to look out for?
Finally, what does a climate of fear do in itself to break down rational processes and confuse attributions of causality? Wilhelm Reich, quoted above, himself succumbed to paranoiac thinking—even while diagnosing it—under the pressure of real persecution and the political horrors of fascism and Stalinism, and descended into crank pseudoscience even while making astute observations of the mystical mentality. Does a climate of fear—in which one has real reason to fear social forces which themselves may be imbued with social paranoia—bear the danger of impairing the rational capacity of a rational opposition?
In preparation for our forthcoming discussion, please consult the bibliography (with web links) I have prepared:
The Paranoia Papers: Theory of the (Un)Natural History of Social Paranoia: Selected Bibliography
10 April 2011