Looking The Other Way

Why do so many people obsess about false conspiracies, but ignore the real ones?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th May 2024

I am a conspiracy theorist. I believe that groups of people conspire secretly against our interests to line their pockets, cover their backs or achieve political goals. By this definition I suspect you are, too.

We see evidence of these conspiracies every day. We see them in the Horizon scandal, in which the Post Office kept prosecuting innocent operators. We see them in the government’s use of a “VIP” lane for procuring PPE from friends and donors at extortionate prices. We see them in the Windrush scandal, in which people were denied their legal rights and unlawfully deported by the UK government. In the Cambridge Analytica scandal: a secretive micro-targeting campaign likely to have influenced the Brexit vote. In the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers, showing how the ultra-rich hide their money from taxes and legal scrutiny.

All these are conspiracies in the true sense: hidden machinations that advance particular interests while causing harm to others. A theory is a rational explanation, subject to disproof. If you accept these scandals are the result of hidden machinations, which they evidently are, you are a conspiracy theorist.

As so often with matters of public importance, the language we use is deficient and misleading. We need better terms, that distinguish wacky and often malign fairytales from the very essence of democracy: the reasoned suspicion of those who exercise power over us. I prefer to call the fairytales “conspiracy fictions” and those who peddle them “conspiracy fantasists”.

An extraordinary aspect of this issue is that there’s so little overlap between conspiracy fantasists and conspiracy theorists. Those who believe unevidenced stories about hidden cabals and secret machinations tend to display no interest in well-documented stories about hidden cabals and secret machinations.

Why might this be? Why, when there are so many real conspiracies to worry about, do people feel the need to invent and believe fake ones? These questions become especially pressing in our age of extreme political dysfunction. This dysfunction results, I believe, in large part from a kind of meta-deception, called neoliberalism. The spread and development of this ideology was quietly funded by some of the richest people on Earth. Their campaign of persuasion was so successful that this ideology now dominates political life. It has delivered the privatisation of public services; the degradation of public health and education; rising inequality; rampant child poverty; offshoring and the erosion of the tax base; the 2008 financial crash; the rise of modern-day demagogues; our ecological and environmental emergencies.

But every time we start to grasp what is happening and why, somehow this understanding is derailed. One of the causes of the derailment is the diversion of public concern and anger towards groundless conspiracy fictions, distracting us and confusing us about the reasons for our dysfunctions. It’s intensely frustrating.

There are plenty of hypotheses about why people believe these stories, but only one good way of answering the question. Talking to them.

I live in the Lentil Belt: close to Totnes in south Devon. While all sorts make their homes here, it has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for “conspirituality”: the convergence of new age culture and conspiracy fictions. The most disturbing episode in the BBC radio series Marianna in Conspiracyland featured Totnes artist Jason Liosatos. He couldn’t see what was wrong with a blatantly antisemitic and eugenicist claim he’d made. When I looked him up, I found an article by the anti-racism campaign Hope Not Hate, detailing his antisemitic smears. He had also been banned from YouTube for his falsehoods about the pandemic. He sounded like a monster. But when his name came up among friends, I was told, “The weird thing is, he’s also a really nice bloke, always helping people and giving his money away, a pillar of the community.” The apparent opposite of the basement-dwelling misanthrope I had pictured.

I was intrigued. How could someone walk both paths? How could they be prosocial and kind, yet spread the most antisocial and cruel falsehoods? He seemed the obvious person to talk to if I wanted to learn why and how these fictions spread.

When I stepped into his gallery, Liosatos greeted me warmly (he knew who I was) and mentioned a mutual friend. A tall, fit, handsome man of 62, with a powerful frame and thick hair, he seemed remarkably friendly and kind. How could this person hold such terrible views? He agreed to talk to me and we arranged to meet at Dartington Hall, a medieval building not far from town.

Researching the interview, I found the contradictions astonishing. Like Russell Brand, he mixes toxic fables with spiritual exhortations. “Cherish the gift of another day alive on this planet in this vast universe.” I found all the usual conspiracy fictions: vaccines, nanoparticles, 9/11, “chemtrails”, 5G, net zero, the Great Reset … and some of the worst antisemitic slurs I’ve ever seen online.

Born in Barry, Liosatos has a warm south Wales accent. He left school early and suffered drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness. His sense of social justice led him into trouble: in South Africa he was shot at while trying to defend Black citizens from police beatings. After a spiritual awakening, he got his life together: he’s a talented and successful artist. Many of his paintings have non-political themes: portraits, landscapes, cows, horses, abstracts. A few show grim scenes of starvation and exploitation. How could I make sense of this man?

We sat across a table long enough for Vladimir Putin, in a grand room in the old hall. He struck me as almost guileless, without the barriers most people erect against the world. His body language was open and relaxed. It was hard not to like him.

But from the moment we began to talk, I found myself in a place of extreme discomfort. The first things he told me aligned so closely with my own worldview that it was almost as if I were hearing my own voice coming back at me. Weirdly, this triggered a strong sense of guilt by association: as if, because I agree with him in some respects, I am also responsible for the gross antisemitism and other fictions he has spread. He spoke fluently about how we internalise the oppressive nature of a system “based on short-term greed, fear, profit, power, debt and slavery”. People, he told me, “pretend they’re OK. And that’s part of the problem. There’s an amazing capacity in each person to endure suffering, pain, boredom, punishment, work that they don’t want to do.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Like me, he wants to “start building small templates” of community action. And he acts on this impulse, with remarkable generosity and openness. “People come in my shop,” he told me, “sometimes to ask me for money; sometimes people just come in and burst out crying.” He seems to function as a kind of unofficial therapist for distressed people in the town. He said he explains to them that what they’re feeling is a natural response to living in a maddening world system. I strongly agree with that, and I would put a name to it: capitalism, which, thanks to the penetrating oil of neoliberalism, now finds its way into every crack in our lives.

I soon discovered, again with some discomfort, that there’s another thing we have in common: neither of us are in it for the money. When I asked him about how being banned from YouTube had affected his income, he told me it was a big blow, as he had a lot of followers, but added, “I never pushed it as an income thing.” He could have made a lot of money, he said, but he wasn’t interested. Now, on his own channel, he sells a few nutritional supplements (this seems to go with the territory), but says he makes hardly anything, a claim that, looking at his site, I can easily believe.

This differentiates him from many other conspiracy fantasists, some of whom make a packet by spreading their false stories. Some, like the army of bullshitters sponsored by the oil companies, are paid directly. Sometimes, the arrangements are more diffuse. The Tea Party movement, for example, which generated toxic culture wars, political divisions and conspiracy fictions (such as the Obama “birther” myth), was nurtured and promoted by Americans for Prosperity, a campaign group founded by the ultra-wealthy Koch brothers.

Some make astonishing fortunes by promoting fictions on Substack, Spotify and Rumble. Certain influencers have made tens of millions this way. Liosatos, by contrast to some of the culture war entrepreneurs, seems to speak from conviction. “I’ve just wanted to really talk about a better world for humanity, and a fairer world,” he told me.

When I asked him about the impact of the BBC series, he told me that many people in town, including people he loved, “suddenly wouldn’t speak to me”. Someone drew a swastika on the wall of his gallery. “I don’t want to be this person who’s speaking about controversial things, George. Let me tell you, I’d rather not do this … But I’m doing it because I feel an obligation to people who haven’t even been born yet.”

This is what I kept bumping up against throughout our conversation: the rhetoric used by people in the green and left movements – people like me – had been repurposed to justify grotesque libels against Jews and other groups. Liosatos uses the language of liberation to rationalise falsehoods that reinforce oppression.

“People can say what they like about me,” Liosatos said. “But come and speak to me, come and meet me, that’s all I ask people to do. I’m not such a bad guy.”

I asked him about a video on his channel, in which Liosatos interviews a fellow artist called Harry Vox. Vox, a US citizen, describes himself, as many conspiracy fantasists do (causing me yet another ripple of dissonance), as an “investigative journalist”. In reality, he simply recites discredited claims. On Liosatos’s video, he claimed that “all of the thinktanks that have any significance in Washington are financed with Jewish money”; that “Jews control the media”; that for 600 years Jews have made money “as the tollkeepers, as the fee-takers, the rentiers”. They don’t work, “they just own the real estate and rent it out” and so on. In other words, he deployed that ancient transfer of guilt, blaming all the ills of capitalism on Jews. Throughout this disgusting diatribe, Liosatos nodded along, sometimes interjecting, “Well said, Harry.”

All these stories are longstanding tropes or false generalisations used to spread and justify antisemitism. As Hope Not Hate has documented, Liosatos himself has a history of such claims, for example telling people to “read the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to know who your masters are”, and claiming that Bill and Hillary Clinton are owned by “Zionist Jewish Banksters”.

When I challenged him about these and other such falsehoods, it soon became clear that Liosatos believed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a real strategy document written by Jews. How on earth, I wondered, could anyone not know it was a notorious antisemitic forgery? When I tried to persuade him to see that he was channelling outrageous lies, Liosatos started rambling, waving his arms, speaking in broken sentences, suddenly diverting into unrelated subjects.

I began to suspect that he saw himself as a martyr, persecuted for following his beliefs. He claimed that the Guardian was paying me to prove that he was antisemitic. “What do you want to do, put me in Dartmoor prison? Is that where you think I should be?”

I wasn’t scheming to bring him down. But I felt it was worth interviewing him, or someone like him, because conspiracy fictions, even – perhaps especially – when promoted by people who claim to want a better world, can have deadly consequences. They inspire terrorism and attacks on Jews, Muslims, immigrants, legislatures and other targets. Anti-vaxx myths help spread infectious disease. Some of the most common falsehoods also target the public sector and civic life, spreading lies about public health, schools, traffic calming, urban planning, climate policy, university courses, taxes. They reinforce the assaults of neoliberalism. When such falsehoods are spread by powerful interests, you could see them as conspiracies to spread conspiracy fictions. They bamboozle people, disempower them and distract attention from the crimes and strategies of states, oligarchs and corporations. People who recite these fables might imagine they’re sticking it to The Man. In reality, they’re serving him.

Almost invariably, this litany of false stories leads people towards the far right. Conspiracy fictions are the fuel of far-right politics: it cannot operate without them.

I asked Liosatos whether he agreed that, for hundreds of years, including during the Holocaust, Jews have been persecuted and murdered as a result of antisemitic slurs. The paranoia I had begun to detect now seemed to burst into the open.

“You’re going to call me a Holocaust denier now, are you?”

“What is your view of the Holocaust?”

He started speaking very rapidly.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sure there was a Holocaust, George. Yeah, there was a Holocaust, wasn’t there? … I know people were … Were they gassed, killed? You know? So many people, Polish people as well, lots of people, right?”

While many other people, including 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles, were killed in cold blood by the Nazis, the number of Jews they murdered – six million – far outstrips their assaults on any other group. A common theme in “soft” Holocaust denial is to fudge these facts.

By now Liosatos’s warm expansiveness had vanished. He was stammering and tense, arms rigid. I felt at once furious and sad for him. There was something tragic about the way he had tried to navigate what he rightly sees as a mad world, and come to all the wrong conclusions.

I raised another interview he had conducted, with a man called Courtenay Heading. On Liosatos’s video, Heading claimed that viruses don’t exist and Covid is “a fraud”, and called doctors promoting Covid vaccines “Mengele medics”. This is a common theme in Liosatos’s work: for example, he has promoted the groundless and discredited claim that the blood clots found in corpses by embalmers are caused by Covid vaccines.

At the time of the interview, Heading was awaiting trial. Liosatos thanked him for everything he’d done, described him as a hero and compared him to Martin Luther King and Gandhi for putting himself on the wrong side of the law. Liosatos told me that Heading is now in prison. When I asked him why, he said, “Well, he was doing a lot – he was doing a lot of things, doing a lot of marches, he was – he was – he was really being … ”

“What was he actually in prison for?”

“I don’t even know.”

“You said that by putting himself on the wrong side of the law he was a hero. But you didn’t know what charge he was facing?”

“I can’t remember, it was a plethora of things.”

“There was a specific charge.”

“OK, you tell me. Show me that I’m a dummy, George. Go on, take the glory.” He seemed both frustrated and resigned, almost as if he knew the jig was up.

“It was persistently stalking and harassing a woman scientist. Throughout the time she was pregnant. For which he received eight months’ jail.” To Heading, the scientist’s “crime” was to set up a Covid testing centre.


“The judge said it was hard to conceive of a worse case of stalking.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know that … So you’re now next going to say – to make me out to be even more of an idiot, obviously – that I should have investigated that more.”

Yes, I said, he should have investigated that more. Wasn’t he curious about why Heading was awaiting trial?

“Well, I knew he’d been – I heard he’d been harassing someone who was in the science department. And he had plenty of proof that this vaccine is hurting people.”

“And you think that justified harassing a scientist?”

A long pause. “Well, I think it does, yeah. Yeah, I do, yeah. And now they’ve said, ‘Oh, she was pregnant.’ But, George, listen, I find your questioning amazing. I think you should have been a lawyer or something, George.”

When I told him I was trying to understand him, he said, “You’ve been sent here.” It seemed he felt he, too, was the victim of a conspiracy.

I moved on to the issue that puzzles me most. Why are so many conspiracy fantasists uninterested in real conspiracies?

It must take quite an effort to see the false stories but not the true ones. For example, there’s a widespread fiction that “chemtrails” – the term conspiracy fantasists give to aircraft contrails – are a dastardly scheme to spray us with toxic metals (barium and aluminium compounds), to alter our minds. There is no evidence for such claims – but toxic metals in aircraft exhausts could indeed be altering our minds. In the UK, the fuel used in piston prop aircraft still contains tetraethyl lead. At sufficient doses, lead reduces IQ and mental performance, and can cause irrational behaviour, delirium, nightmares and hallucinations. A paper in Public Health Challenges estimates that more than 370,000 households (about 900,000 people) living close to aerodromes in the UK are “at risk of being exposed to damaging levels of lead”.

In the EU, tetraethyl lead in aircraft fuel is being phased out. But the UK government has insisted, since Brexit, on creating a separate chemicals regulation system. One result is that there are no plans to stop the use of tetraethyl lead here.

I strongly suspect, but can’t prove, that this is a result of industry lobbying. Call it a conspiracy hypothesis. I also suspect this is the kind of outcome some big donors to the Leave campaign were hoping for: the deregulation of dirty and antisocial capital is a central aim of neoliberalism and, as we’ve seen in many cases, Brexit has delivered it. Call that a partly upheld conspiracy hypothesis. But I’ve yet to find a chemtrail fantasist who shows the slightest interest in either tetraethyl lead or the dark money poured into Brexit. If a story is either plausible or proved, it seems, they don’t want to know.

So I asked Liosatos about the scandals I mentioned at the start of this article: Post Office, Windrush, VIP lane, Cambridge Analytica, Panama and Pandora Papers. In every case, he told me he didn’t know enough about them. “It seems to me,” I told him, “that you focus on the things that aren’t true, and not on the things that are true.”

“Oh my God!” He laughed. “That’s unbelievable. I’m amazed you’re saying that, George, I really am … Why do you think I haven’t looked into them, George?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what are you insinuating … ? Say it. Get it off your chest … It’s almost like … You’re just sort of trying to sort of pick a fight! It’s really weird, you know?”

The wind suddenly seemed to go out of him.

“I think I’ve had enough, mate, honest to God. I really have. I’ve had a long day … I’ve been in the hospital with my friend for the last week and a half … And to be honest, I love you dearly, I really do, I’m not pulling out because I feel threatened by you … I just – I can’t do this.”

He seemed so dismayed and outraged that I began to wonder whether I was persecuting him. Was I being too harsh towards this confused and flailing man? Can you be too harsh towards someone who spreads vicious antisemitic lies and seeks to justify stalking? I still felt both pity and anger towards him, but by then these sensations had been joined by another: contamination. I felt as if I needed a shower.

He began shifting on his seat, almost standing up to leave. I asked if we could discuss just one more thing. It seemed to me that Liosatos genuinely wanted to create a better world. How can the journey to that better world involve spreading antisemitism and defending stalkers?

“I’m trying my best, you know? If someone needs help, I’ll try and help them. At the same time, OK, maybe, like you said, I’ve made some terrible mistakes … You can write what you want about me, I’m not worried about it. I’m really not. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Could it be, I asked, that he focuses on conspiracy fictions because he can’t face the real horrors we confront? He threw his shoulders back, exasperated.

“Oh God, George, I’m amazed you just said that to me. I’m shocked. I’m not saying you’re wrong about everything. It’s complex, that’s what I’m saying. What I do, George, is I look at what everyone says, right?”

“But you don’t look at what everyone says, do you?”

“Oh, OK, George. That’s it.”

“Should I stop the recording?” I asked.

“You can say that Jason said to turn it off in the Guardian … Hey, wait for it, hang on: ‘He became irritated, he kept putting his glasses on. And then he came towards me.’ George, are you going to do that?”

“No, I’m not going to do that.”

“I bloody hope not, mate.”

As we stepped into the mossy courtyard, he seemed deflated. He said: “I’m not going to do this any more. I’m getting nothing out of it. I’m going to go back to the spiritual vision.” I said I thought that was a good idea.

“Let’s have a hug,” he said.

In her excellent book Doppelganger, Naomi Klein explains how today’s conspiracy fictions are a distorted response to the impunities of power. We know we’re being lied to, we know justice is not done, we see the beneficiaries flaunting their immense wealth and undemocratic power. Conspiracy fantasists may get the facts wrong, “but often get the feelings right”.

I would add a couple of thoughts. I see conspiracy fictions as a form of reassurance. This might sound odd: they purport to reveal “the terrifying truth”. But look at what they’re actually saying. Climate breakdown? It’s a hoax. Covid? All fake. Power? Just a tiny cabal of Jews. In other words, our deepest fears are unfounded.

These fictions are highly conservative. Several of Harry Vox’s libels would have been familiar in England 800 years ago. Suspicion of science and technology, to judge by the widespread association of blacksmithing with dark arts, goes back to the iron age. Anti-vaxx myths in Europe are as old as vaccination. Conspiracy fictions tell us nothing has changed, the same bastards are in charge, this is an evil we know. Perhaps this is why some fantasists become so attached to their stories: they’re a place of safety.

Conspiracy fictions also tell us we don’t have to act. If the problem is a remote and highly unlikely Other – rather than a system in which we’re deeply embedded, which demands a democratic campaign of resistance and reconstruction – you can wash your hands of it and get on with your life. They free us from civic responsibility. This may be why those who take an interest in conspiracy fictions are so seldom interested in genuine conspiracies.

When I got in touch to fact-check with Liosatos after writing a draft of this article, he emailed back to ask for a couple of small deletions about personal matters, which I accepted, but otherwise seemed resigned to it. He told me that while “this is definitely not a retaliation for your character assassination of me”, he wanted me to know that “when I was with you I sensed a deep spiritual emptiness and sadness within you, albeit well covered … it can be quite sad for me to see and feel people’s pain which they hide so well”. Then, reminding me of his warmth and lack of rancour, and the turmoil this has caused me from the beginning, he wrote, “Thank you again for inviting me for our meeting, and I wish you all the very best, love, and prosperity.”

It’s hard to assess our own spiritual welfare, but all I can say in response is that I’ve been surprised, as I’ve grown older, by a powerful and gathering happiness. I feel strangely reconciled to both life and the end of life, no longer haunted by either the demons of my youth or by the prospect of infirmity and death.

Or maybe I’m deceiving myself. Perhaps we all succumb to fictions of our choosing.

Jason Liosatos and I have the same desire for a better world, the same anger towards those who thwart it. What differentiates us, I think, is rigour. I think he is insufficiently rigorous in choosing what to believe. As a result of this lack of rigour, his instinct for justice and his potent sense of his own persecution have taken him to a very dark place. This has led someone trying to be good to spread great harms. It’s a warning to us all.

The Invisible Doctrine by George Monbiot and Peter Hutchison is published by Allen Lane on 16 May.