As conspiracy theories circulate, churning around every conceivable deceit — from the origin of SARS-CoV-2, disinformation regarding mask-wearing, and the imposition of martial law, to the anti-vaxxer campaigns and supposed threat to public health from the 5G radiation spectrum — I am motivated to examine the more bizarre features of a world-system that appears to be hurtling headlong into murky chaos.

But first let me be clear about conspiracy theories — as distinct from a conspiracy, where there is evidence of collusion to perpetrate fraud. Given adequate analysis of the major elements, every conspiracy theory — apart from totally zany ones suggesting aliens or Illuminati rule the world — needs moments of truth in the story for it to become plausible. Where conspiracy theories fail to withstand scrutiny, it is not in the individual ingredients, but the intuitive leaps made between shards of half-truths. Typically, this involves mistaking correlations for causal links. It only takes someone with a tendency to see things that are not there, a phenomenon known as illusory pattern perception, for a conclusion, however farfetched, to be deemed credible.

These days we are having to deal with all manner of semi-plausible fictions — from fake news and spin to half-truths and propaganda — all fused into, yet distorting, moments of actuality. Our inability to discern the truth of any situation stems primarily from algorithmically-curated content, unfettered opinions, online searches directing us to paid (inherently biased) content, manipulated videos, and prejudiced corporate media, that come tethered to a world-system narrative (worldview) and praxis.

While ancient civilizations, such as Aztec, Indic, Sinic, and Mayan, for example, clearly gave rise to well-defined worldviews, these became extinct or melded with each other over the course of generations, losing much of their uniqueness in the process. Risking gross over-simplification of a highly diverse phenomenon, I have long held a view that the world-system each of us experiences on a daily basis, with all its vitality, surprises, routines, tensions, and myriad stories urging us to buy, decide, exercise, study, join forces, love, compete, explore, work and play, now derives from just two distinct, occasionally intersecting worldviews whose main themes and imperatives are shared by most of the 7.7 billion people on our planet.

The first of these worldviews was shaped by Western cosmology, scientific realism, Cartesian logic, democracy, and the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment. The second by East Asian cosmologies, a fusion of Taoism and Confucianism, authoritarianism, mercantilist policies, and ancient imperialist convictions. Attempts to advance the Western worldview in non-Western countries — initially from the missionary zeal of European powers who seized territory to exploit resources, and more recently by the efforts of the US to maintain a global hegemony at any cost, mostly backfired. Indeed, at least some of the antagonism against the West in countries like India and Indonesia, for example, is a vestige from colonial times.

Each worldview has its own notion of progress, as well as other rules, norms, institutions, and societal values. A complicating factor is that each narrative is interpreted differently by groups and individuals, based on a diversity of cultural mindsets, that are contingent on tribal or local allegiances, beliefs and practices.[1] However conflicting these interpretations appear to the casual observer, they are internally consistent for those who have allegiance to the worldview in question, and only trend towards incoherence for those adhering to the opposing narrative. We will return to the importance of these mindsets in due course.

While there has been both continuity and constancy in the East Asian worldview, particularly in its purer Hanzu cultural form, the Occidental tradition has been more receptive to developing disturbances. These, occasionally radical, intrusions were absorbed, thus extending the scope of the worldview, while eroding its appeal internationally. Meanwhile, China has painstakingly peddled its support for the established order, adopting liberal ideals if or when necessary for its continued expansion, while steadfastly growing its economic and political fidelities — most recently through the enormously ambitious Belt & Road initiative.

Two questions are relevant in terms of the accelerating collision between these worldviews:

  1. Will China’s desire for political and economic primacy eventually lead it to challenge the Western system that helped bring it success, or will it be content to patiently work within and alongside liberal institutions and practices in the pursuit of that ambition?
  2. How long can the US empire cling to global hegemony while it tortures journalists and whistleblowers, arms terrorists, wages endless wars, encircles the planet with hundreds of military bases, and bullies every nation on earth using military and economic force?

We can best answer these questions by delving more deeply into the role played by cultural mindsets. During the early stages of our evolution, there were many such cultural mindsets in existence. In Australia, for example, by the time of European settlement in 1788, it is estimated there were more than 200 different aboriginal languages spoken, as well as hundreds more dialects, in a population of around one million.

Both languages and groups of people were associated with expanses of land. It is thought the largest of these language-named, territorially-anchored groups, numbered around 500. Their members shared cultural qualities and interacted more with one another than with those from dissimilar groups. While language names were used by groups as cultural markers for one another, group identity was grounded in localized relationships. That said, the worldview of Aboriginal peoples tended to be expansive, with a perception of society as a community of mutual beliefs and behaviours reaching far beyond the confines of any one group.

These groups were not political or economic entities. There was no consciousness of a shared national identity as we would understand that today. Nor did cultural differences necessarily correlate closely with ecological zones in spite of the spiritual significance of place and space.

The blurring of such boundaries accords with strong cultural emphases on diffusion and the expansion of networks of relationships — through kinship, marriage, religion, and exchange. As in today’s world, the emphasis on protecting borders, along with higher levels of ethnocentric practices and inter-group conflict, were more likely to be found in resource-rich areas with higher population densities.

Appreciating the impacts of these two opposing worldviews — one in decline for the past half-century, but whose power depends still on military reach, diplomatic bluff, the US dollar, and the illusion of moral legitimacy, the other of increasing applicability for greater numbers of people — is central to my thesis. But that counterpoint also has to be understood in conjunction with a multiplicity of individual mindsets that routinely interpret and translate reality in terms of living in one or other of these epistemological prisons. The role played by a variety of media in shaping these mindsets is obvious, given the extent to which we are relentlessly bombarded with information signifying conflicting and continuously fluid priorities, opinions, values and attitudes.

Society has been dumbed down to such an extent that we are constantly on edge, stuck in a gridlock of ignorance, unable to make even the simplest of decisions. This also helps clarify why, in such a befuddled state, and especially when confronted by unanticipated or sudden events that challenge our habits and routines, we act peremptorily, with inconsequential or no objective basis for our actions, wait for others to make the first move, protest and complain, or simply try to ignore the bedlam by carrying on as best we can. Ultimately, though, there is nowhere to hide.

At an ontological level, both worldviews identified here inevitably generate their own unique delusions. American exceptionalism[2] in conflict with Chinese imperial destiny. These figments of imagination have become the dystopian driving force of a geopolitical theatre grounded in hubris and most recently lapsing into farce: a world in which a bizarre race to mutual ruin, fuelled by rampant greed and stupidity, is now infecting most of humanity.

Against that prevailing crisis, amidst the swirling vortex of propaganda aimed at stoking fear and outrage, citizens of almost every country, with the exception of a few island nations like Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu, find themselves trapped in circumstances where science remains tentative, the genetic code of the virus puzzling epidemiologists and clinicians alike, and new stories about its origins spiral into ever more fantastic conspiracy theories.

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, we then suffered an opportunistic knee-jerk political response. Lockdown. Legislators of all persuasions decided that the unpredictable nature of the disease warranted a further shock — amounting in some instances to a blatant misuse of power. Basing their decisions on an unwittingly collective consensus, in addition to dubious and ambiguous advice, most chose to ride roughshod over long-established rights. We are all witnessing the result. Draconian, albeit fairly arbitrary rules, imposed under martial law on a mostly terrified yet compliant populace.

Whether this was a wise experiment or a massive mistake will only be revealed with hindsight. Even so, this is the first time in human history that a healthy population has been strong-armed into quarantine, with a consequent breakdown of the global economy.

While current government policies are being viewed by some as sheer lunacy, particularly by orthodox economists, the imposed hiatus in production might also be interpreted as a gift in the otherwise helter-skelter existence of contemporary life.

As international air travel shuts down, businesses go into administration, city streets lose their vibrancy, unemployment figures climb sharply and entire industries appeal for assistance, the production of non-essential goods has inevitably slowed to a crawl. Not that the global crises we had been facing before the pandemic have faded or proven any less hazardous. A spate of recent reports indicate a continuing increase in carbon emissions, greater numbers of species threatened with extinction than previously thought, poverty on the increase, mental health and domestic violence escalating as a direct result of isolation — and billionaires increasing their already fantastic fortunes, sometimes by as much as one third, essentially by doing nothing.

Be that as it may, the temporary suspension of normality has afforded us time to reflect on the future we are busy creating, what really matters, and how we want to live our lives. At the same time, it has magnified the flaws in some of our most life-critical systems, including public health of course, that were present, if mostly hidden, prior to the pandemic. Above all, it has given us an opportunity to reconsider what steps must be taken to heal an increasingly dysfunctional human family living together on a planet increasingly under threat from our activities.

As an inevitable counterpoint to the desire of the plutocracy for entrenching their authority by deploying differing shades of authoritarianism, a new generative consciousness is emerging. This ontological force for transformational change could well shine new light on the craziness, providing hope we can survive and prosper in spite of our numerous imperfections and errors of judgment. Indeed, just a few central ideas with newfound memetic potency could provide the basis for a rapid transition of society, capable of transcending the many dangers contained within the intersection of two opposing worldviews.

Redesigning the mechanics of production using nature as our model. Rejecting the dogma of separation — from each other and from nature. Reimagining human purpose within a world that works for everyone. Consuming less. Using energy from the sun to power production. Finding ways to remove the stigma associated with unemployment and homelessness. Democratizing the global economy. Even repurposing the military to wage peace rather than war…

These are the grand challenges of our time. They must be solved if we are to avoid neo-feudal conditions where extreme wealth for a small minority of the human race is counterbalanced by serfdom for the rest of us. Be aware that this is our present trajectory. We are not sufficiently alert to the various catastrophes this is already provoking. For it is utterly untenable without further coercion and suppression, supported by fear-driven conflict and the weaponisation of words.

War is the single most irrational and self-destructive behaviour our species engages in, and the presence of nuclear weapons and autonomic swarms of drones makes it infinitely more so. In an even remotely rational world, war would be something everyone avoids without exception. In an era dominated by two empires — one driven by an agenda of unipolar hegemony, and the other by visions of an illustrious destiny — citizens should have governments too afraid of the power of civic society to keep secrets from them. Instead, wars are pursued and planned for, reasons are fabricated to ensure they occur, and whistleblowers are punished for telling the truth.

Given the emergencies facing humanity, it is essential that we develop a new set of obligations for each other, the next generation, and the planet. The smokescreen of the pandemic cannot hide the fact that peace and cooperation at scale are pre-requisites for survival. The sooner we realise this the better placed we will be to start designing a world our children will be proud to inherit.

Our most fundamental beliefs regarding human nature and the human condition — including what is possible (or not) to achieve — urgently need reframing. Humans are not innately selfish or ruthless. Indeed, there is copious evidence suggesting the opposite: that humans are hard-wired for cooperation and were originally inclined to extreme egalitarianism. Moreover, the assumption that racism or warfare are innately human traits arose from a misconception of hunter-gatherer societies. Anthropologists now tend to agree that war is a late development in human history, arising alongside the first agricultural settlements.

Based purely on the evidence, the notion that prehistoric life was a frantic struggle for survival is simply not true. Meanwhile, the narrative of extreme self-interest, made popular by Richard Dawkins and his theory of the selfish gene, became compelling because it fitted so perfectly, and helped justify the intensely competitive individualistic ethos of 20th-century capitalism.

The proposition that we have become undeniably brutal and self-centred can be justified by psychological and environmental changes that occurred over the past few hundred years that are intensely disruptive in today’s world. When the natural habitats of primates are disturbed they become more violent and hierarchical. It seems reasonable to assume the same thing has happened to us. The advent of farming, and later the industrial revolution, gave rise to a new sense of individuality and separateness which eventually evolved into self-interest, patriarchy, and conflict.

Today’s political actors are fully conscious that the smokescreen of fear and panic created by the coronavirus, provides a rare opportunity to exploit public boredom and fatigue, especially by advancing pre-existing repressive agendas. It is likely, however, that the hazards posed by the potential exploitation of COVID-19 for broader political, economic, and societal gain, far outweigh the immediate threat to life and health from the virus itself.

Civil disobedience as a reaction to civil liberty restrictions is never far from the surface of our collective awareness. Although it is too early to accurately assess the degree of government incompetence in handling present circumstances, the authoritarian abuse of power does not appear to be falling along the lines of conventional power structures. It is also feasible that some narrative-based illusions are crumbling faster than ever before.

If any of this is true, and if the smokescreen surrounding the pandemic is playing a major role that is still too early to see, least of all appreciate, incumbent power structures may be forced to relinquish their control. In doing so they will face an end-game, not of their choosing. On the other hand, perhaps the loss of liberty and basic rights will be protracted as governments try to ramp up their increased powers of surveillance and control over citizens.

It is possible, of course, that the current policy of suspending civil liberties will be effective in eliminating most threats posed by the virus — or we will be told that it was. Governments will restore the civil liberties currently being suspended and all will quickly return to the way things were before. Perhaps the economy will weather the fallout from the lockdown and everything will return to business-as-usual. As yet we cannot know what aspects of the current pandemic are the most likely to impact us permanently.

For example, will mass gatherings of civil disobedience be outlawed? Are we about to submit to a semi-permanent state of medically-imposed martial law? Will state-imposed quarantine or other freedom-of-movement restrictions become normalised? Will the smokescreen be used as a way of covering up economic crisis and collapse? Again we do not know what lies ahead.

But one thing is sure. As the fog of ambiguity lifts and a new semblance of normalcy arises from the ashes of the old, we will find out whether we are willing and capable of adapting to a different course, and of shaping a new society. In that context, recasting prevailing narratives as a means to transform and transcend both shared worldviews, will not be radical. It will be essential.

[1] Some people believe an argument should be made for the expansion of Islam globally to be considered the genesis of a third dominant worldview narrative. Although it is impossible to ignore Islam as a major factor, I am reluctant to categorize it as a worldview in this context, given that it derives almost entirely from religious dogma, rather than from a variety of philosophical, religious, moral, cosmological, and ideologically coherent sources.

[2] American exceptionalism is not the same as claiming the United States is unique, different, or more powerful than other countries. It is a belief that the US is morally superior to other countries. In the past two generations, this has become less of a coherent doctrine. Linked only to military might, even this is about to be challenged by China’s expansionism.