Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous
collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.
The New Contagion
Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.
Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.
Conspiracy of Concordance
Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.
The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.
Science and Sanity
The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of
plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.
It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.
It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.