So many lives are trapped in limbo.
Across Europe and the Middle East, there are too many youngsters kicking their heels with nothing to do and few job prospects. And as the old saying goes, “the devil makes work for idle hands to do.”
In Europe, unsurprisingly, high unemployment and severe underemployment have contributed to a collapse of trust in capitalism, adding to the ranks of populists on the Right, who demand protectionism and denounce elites, and populists on the Left, who demand … protectionism and denounce elites.
Once upon time, I could instantly tell political affiliation by hearing someone’s favorite conspiracy theory. Nowadays, I pause and avoid jumping to conclusions. In the past the composition of the elites being denounced tended to be different, but now I find the dramatis personae is virtually the same regardless of political alignment. Red and Brown are mingling in a mushy, mushy Maroon.
Weirder still is that conspiracy theories in Europe are becoming as fanciful and wild-eyed as ones encountered in the Middle East, the land of conspiracism. Middle East conspiracies generally include Jews, Israel, high finance, America, oil, and the CIA — why do so few people ever blame Russia or China?
European conspiracies now include all of the above, although oil is less prominent in these hybrid times.
A yellow vest friend of mine, a participant in France’s latest populist revolt, drives me to distraction. Like many of his European generation, he’s facing major challenges in carving out a career. He’s not work-shy, but jobs are hard to find, and as the years go by, his discipline erodes.
In France, youth unemployment is running about 20%, in Italy and Spain at 33%. And even those figures mask the full truth. Many youngsters are careening from one short-term, dead-end job to another or are working part time with enough hours not to be counted as unemployed.
The latter is the fate of my yellow vest friend. I have noted that his conspiracy theories have become more outlandish and more often than not, alas, now wreck the peace of a dinner featuring delicious, smelly French cheeses and excellent local wine.
Of course, he subscribes to the idea that al Qaeda wasn’t behind 9/11, and it was in fact a CIA plot of devilish ingenuity. Like many on the far-left, although he would utterly reject he’s a bigot, there’s a fuzziness in his denunciations of Israel which bleeds into an anti-Semitism more traditionally associated with the far-right.
Why do I link unemployment with conspiracy theories? The more powerless people feel, the more they need to blame others and to explain their plight as the result of a covert plot. It is more comforting to blame others than to face ones own failure. Europe is becoming like the Middle East in that regard.
The political scientist Michael Barkun has argued that conspiracy theories provide a “template imposed upon the world to give the appearance of order to events,” and what they all have in common is that “some small and hidden group” has manipulated events. Conspiracies embody, he says, three principles: Nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.
An added benefit for conspiracy theorists is that they feel “empowered.” After all, their insights are the result of special knowledge and the ability to understand cui bono, or who benefits.
In the Middle East, I’ve had for years a firm policy never to try to dissuade someone about their pet conspiracy theory, especially if there’s an AK-47 propped up nearby. Better just to take notes for later use.
Now in Europe, I am starting to adopt a similar approach, not out of fear of getting shot, but from an appreciation that trying to mount counterarguments with facts and a demand for evidence is a hopeless endeavor.
The continent that gave birth to the Enlightenment and reason is becoming worryingly unreasonable.
Jamie Dettmer is an international correspondent and broadcaster for VOA.