Earth Inside a Lightbulb

Flat-Earth Revival: A Distortion of Capitalism

This article was written just before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its publishing was delayed due to these dramatic developments. The article touches on a small but interesting example of the ways through which capitalism enables the spread of conspiratorial and anti-scientific ideas. The content remains fully relevant in view of the recent emergence of conspiracy theories about the source of COVID-19.

“Reason has become unreason,” Engels once noted, commenting on the fact that the existing social order has outlived its historical justification. In its heyday, capitalism represented a force for reason and progress. That time is long over, and the continued existence of this system exacerbates the many social distortions we can see around us today. One example is the emergence of the flat earth movement.

Fringe “Flat Earth Societies” have been around for decades. However, the belief has been given new life by a new community on YouTube and Facebook groups—as well as local meetups and even international conferences. The 2018 documentary, Behind the Curve, offers a look at the movement, a community which, as the name implies, believes that we are living, not on a globe, but rather, in a flat, domed structure. To be sure, we should not exaggerate the social weight of flat-earthers. The attention garnered by flat earth is disproportionate and due to the vocal nature and particularly notable beliefs of this group. Still, a look at the phenomenon gives us a glimpse at a peculiar consequence of the belated nature of the socialist revolution.

Behind the Curve focuses on the rise of Mark Sargent, the de facto leader of the renewed flat earth movement. Having worked his way through all the other conspiracy theories, he explains in the film, he eventually arrived at the flat-earth theory, initially seeking to disprove it—before realizing he couldn’t. After creating Flat Earth Clues, a series of YouTube videos, Sargent became an overnight flat-earth celebrity, and his videos are cited by many in the community as the initial impetus for their new point of view. The community has grown far beyond what he ever anticipated, with millions of hours of flat-earth content now available on YouTube, according to Sargent.

Liberal pop-scientists explain the bump in flat-earth belief as merely the product of miseducation or stupidity, and “combat” this trend by taking cheap shots at flat-earthers, mocking their scientific literacy and intelligence. By contrast, Marxists seek to explain social trends and contradictory developments in their totality, by examining the full context of individuals’ interrelationships with society and looking for the root cause.

A look at Sargent’s Flat Earth Clues video is instructive. In his introductory video, he gives his “Reader’s Digest” version of the theory: For most of human history, people understood that the earth is flat, with an impenetrable dome structure covering it. Then, Copernicus presented a new theory, the globe theory, which was accepted around the world for the next 500 years. Then, in 1957, having developed the technology to reach the edge of the dome, governments realized that the earth is, in fact, flat.

Flat Earth Map
Fringe “Flat Earth Societies” have been around for decades. However, the belief has been given new life by a new community on YouTube and Facebook groups. / Image: Orlando Ferguson, Public Domain

The question was, therefore, posed: keep the secret or risk their power? An easy choice, for as Sargent explains, “they would rather hide the world itself, rather than risk their power on it.” NASA was established to divert attention away from private space exploration, the moon landing was staged to give legitimate cover to faked images of the globe, and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey were pushed to further imbue the public with a belief in the globe. Along these same lines, Sargent and others invent numerous highly creative rationalizations and experiments to support their thesis.

Significantly, the overwhelming emphasis in Sargent’s videos is the assertion that “power corrupts.” Additionally, if one doubts their claims, proof is given, not just in the form of “rational” and “pragmatic” explanations, but also in the form of assurance that those in power will do anything to maintain it. This sheds light on the fundamental basis of the belief. The unifying psychology of flat-earthers is not one of “science denial” per se, but rather, what is ultimately a class instinct, albeit expressed in a highly distorted manner. As another flat-earther in the film says, “Anybody who you can see or you know their name, they’re merely a front. You’re never going to know who the real controllers actually are.”

Like most conspiracy theories, the flat earth theory seeks to “connect the dots” and bring clarity to a world that feels confusing and polarized. The feeling that we lack agency, that our individual choices have little impact on the world, that forces beyond our control play a dominant role in our lives, that the real inner workings of society differ from the way the “powers that be”‌ present them, is widespread under capitalism—because that feeling is correct. But in the absence of grounded, scientific explanation for this feeling, a layer of people can become convinced by the large stock of decades and centuries of conspiracy theories.

To be sure, a lack of scientific literacy and confidence in science certainly plays a supplemental role in the continued belief in a flat earth. But this too must be examined in the context of people’s concrete exposure to conspiracy theories and anti-scientific ideas, which does not occur in a vacuum. Under capitalism, an intuitive understanding of the negative role that the profit motive plays in the scientific method leads some people to a generalized distrust of “establishment” science, as evidenced by similar phenomena such as the anti-vaxers.

Observing the contradictory nature of capitalistic scientific development in the United States, Trotsky once observed that the then-new technology of radio was being used, not to combat prejudice and superstition, but rather, to broadcast Church sermons. We might similarly note that in our time, belief in a flat earth maintains itself on the internet—a physical infrastructure enabled by massive cables wrapped around the globe, as well as satellites orbiting that globe. Despite the enormous educational potential that this technology offers us, antiquated beliefs thrive nonetheless.

Socialism would mean beginning the task of utilizing science to construct a world of plenty. The genuine agency given to billions, alongside the experience of applying our understanding of the world to improve it, would result in the withering away of religion, superstition, and conspiracy theories. It would mean the unshackling of science from the profit motive, and consequently, a restoration of confidence in science. As Trotsky noted, “The very meaning of the word ‘revolutionist’ could be extended to cover all conscious human activity—such as that aimed at harnessing nature, or expanding technical and cultural gains, or even building bridges to other universes that we cannot know or imagine.”

Unfortunately, we do not yet live in such a world, and there are no shortcuts to it. As long as capitalism remains, so too will the social antagonisms it produces. Following on his comments on the potential for a new kind of world and human, he added: “But we, comrades, have no right to make such an abstraction … for we have by no means fulfilled our own concrete historical, political, revolutionary task—the overthrow of class society.”

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