We can learn a lot from how frauds work.
Con artists prey on their victim’s weaknesses such as greed, desperation, or naivety, but a fraud is often sustained by the victim’s incredulity. The victim doesn’t want to admit to having been scammed, not just because acknowledging the financial damage would be unwelcome, but because of the emotional devastation: once your willingness to trust has been exploited, you may be unable to trust again, which can affect all your subsequent relationships.
As a result, the victim often doubles down on the fantasy, providing excuses for the con artist to avoid facing the unpleasant truth. Instead of admitting to having been defrauded, the victim may even exhibit signs of Stockholm syndrome, making a hero out of the culprit, because the fantasy the scammer concocts, that the victim’s “investment” will pay off handsomely, is more comforting than the truth that the culprit hasn’t acted in good faith and that the victim is a fool. The fantasy protects the victim’s self-esteem, so she clings to it until all hope is lost.
This should be familiar to anyone who’s read news from the financial world. But what if there are larger frauds that victimize practically everyone? What if religions and secular ideologies operate on the same principles as financial scams?
The Colossal Fraud of Theistic Religion
Take, for example, the faith that a benevolent, all-powerful God controls the world and will reward those who serve him, after the servants are dead. Doesn’t that sound frankly preposterous — indeed, even more preposterous than the prospect of earning enormous returns from an investment in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme?
Alas, the principle at work here was identified by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kamf, when he said, “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.”
Hitler goes on to the heart of the matter, “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”
The bigger the lie, the more likely people are to believe it eventually, to avoid confronting the fact that anyone could be so inhuman as to perpetrate such a colossal lie. The lies told by financial scammers pale in comparison to the promise of eternal glory in the afterlife at the hands of an invisible father figure who lives in the sky.
If theism is a colossal lie, we should expect not just that the masses would come to believe it eventually, for the reason just given, but that they’d react like those who have been financially scammed and who would sooner turn their mind into a pretzel than concede they’d been defrauded on such a monstrous scale. The victims would redouble their faith; invent elaborate creeds, theologies, and theodicies to explain away every trace of evidence that their religion is an obvious, monumental fiction; erect institutions to repeat the lie and shield the believers from the appalling truth; and demonize nonbelievers who threaten their faith-based self-esteem.
Needless to say, the historical record is consistent with that disconcerting hypothesis. Indeed, that’s such a gross understatement that it, too, is almost a big lie.
The Equal Embarrassment of Secular Fictions
However, secular ideologies are hardly innocent in this regard. Take, for example, the myths that the majority rules through its representatives in a democracy and that everyone benefits in the long-run in a capitalist economy because of the “invisible hand” that stabilizes the society and “equilibrates” competing forces.
Whatever advantages free societies may have over illiberal ones, the ideologies that sustain the former are more like religious myths than scientific theories. We indulge in the ruse of thinking there’s such a thing as “political science” or that economists wallow in mathematics not to hide the fact that their models are fantasies but because economics, too, is a rigorous enterprise.
The global backlash against the neoliberal fusion of these political and economic myths seems to put an end to that ruse. Free societies degenerate into plutocracies or the personal liberties act as so much veneer to conceal more sophisticated forms of enslavement. It’s possible to imprison minds rather than just bodies.
The United States is supposed to be the leader of the free world, but its government was designed to have competing branches to provide “checks and balances” that prevent the rise of a king. In practice, that government’s gridlock leaves the majority of Americans helpless to prevent the rise of plutocrats who acquire their power through capitalism and the private sector rather than politics and whose wealth corrupts both Democrats and Republicans.
In the 1990s, for example, North Americans were sold on the myth of the unparalleled benefits of globalization. NAFTA was signed and other free trade areas were opened, which allowed large corporations to become transnational. Canadian and American workers had to compete with those from countries with much lower living costs and standards. Those foreign workers would therefore be willing to work for much less than the Canadian or American minimum wage.
Businesses would have been foolish not to take advantage of such lower foreign labour costs, so the North American middle classes shrank as their wages were frozen while American health care and education costs rose, and as companies outsourced jobs, laid off workers, and busted unions. To compensate and to finance a class of consumers to buy the plethora of cheap goods flowing from the poorer countries, banks offered Canadians and Americans credit cards and lines of credit, turning them into debtors.
The bankers and money managers on Wall Street became wealthy, as a 2018 Oxfam report showed: “82% of all wealth created in the last year went to the top 1%, and nothing went to the bottom 50%,” says the report. Moreover, “Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few. Women are in the worst work, and almost all the super-rich are men.”
“Free” citizens in North America, Europe, and Australia are beginning to see through the charade, but instead of admitting they’ve been swindled, many of them express their resentment in the form of toxic populism, scapegoating bystanders and letting the real culprits off the hook. The election of Donald Trump is an exquisite example of this state of semi-awakening. Brexit is another exercise in self-destructive populism. Torontonians had Rob Ford as their Trump-like mayor, although thankfully multicultural Canadians lack the cultural richness for more sinister forms of conservative demagoguery.
Right-wing populism is surging all over the world, including Brazil, India, Hungary, China, and Russia, as demagogues scapegoat “illegal immigrants” as being responsible for job losses and other social woes, instead of confronting the shocking truth: democracy and capitalism are themselves lies, and the liberties we enjoy are illusions. The natural reality behind the scenes of our voting and our frantic buying and selling is the biological dominance hierarchy which would require a miraculous degree of enlightenment to overcome.
The secular lies that sustain dictatorships only seem more transparent to those who live in liberal societies, because the authoritarian lies haven’t been part of the air we breathe (until Trump’s presidency and the right-wing populist backlash). The lie that protects Kim Jong-un, that he’s a divine, infallible leader like his father, may be laughable, but so is the lie that free societies are superior to all others, when the freedom obviously isn’t sustainable.
Capitalism ravages the ecosystems that we depend on, and globalization is a time bomb since as the middle classes grow in the developing countries such as China and India, the cost of the goods they produce rises, which makes the tradeoff no longer worthwhile for Western consumers whose minuscule wages — compared to the wealth of the plutocratic one percent — don’t even enable them to buy the cheaper goods without going into debt. The result: the rise of right-wing, authoritarian (illiberal) nationalism.
Yet another big secular lie is the talk of godless morality. Nietzsche famously worried that secularists would be threatened with nihilism thanks to the death of God, that is, the anachronism and cultural irrelevance of theistic myths after the Scientific Revolution. The philosopher GEM Anscombe wrote in 1958 that without the threat of divine punishment, morality has only “mesmeric force.”
What we’re entitled to mean now when we say that murder or rape is morally wrong is only that we don’t like those actions. The natural universe is amoral. But rather than admit that secular morality is more like an artifact and a matter of taste than an objective force that binds us, we act like the scientistic economists and turn to reason for new theories of morality such as utilitarianism and Kant’s deontology. We’re only half awake and we double-down on our lies, to avoid confronting the scope of our collective frauds.
Enlightenment and Alienation
Is escape from fraud possible? The answer is yes, but the cost is too high for most to bear. There was a time, late in the twentieth century when the intellectual fashion of postmodernity held sway. The philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the “postmodern condition” as “incredulity towards metanarratives,” meaning that after the social revolutions of the 1960s, secular authorities had disgraced themselves and there was widespread mistrust, anxiety, and even paranoia.
Precisely that state of bewilderment from genuine freedom proved intolerable, and the descendants of the disenchanted socialists and progressives who fought for those civil rights relapsed into the new faith of tribal identity politics or “wokeness.” Here the big lie is that social equality of outcomes is naturally possible or desirable.
Still, postmodernity hints that freedom from delusion is at least conceivable. The problem is that such enlightenment is for losers. To be so enamored of your intellectual integrity that you voluntarily take up the mantle of angst by standing only for your private sense of what’s reasonable or honourable, refusing to trust in anything else and least of all in the myths and institutions that sustain large-scale cooperation is to withdraw from the pastimes that make life worth living for the multitude.
The enlightened few are the outcasts who occupy caves and basements. They trust in nothing, not even in reason. Their mystical vision is of a universe of absurd games; for them, religions, ideologies, and worldviews are so many rules for social performances that distract from the horrific truth hiding in plain sight, which is that nothing deserves our faith or commitment and everything we say or do is ultimately futile.
No wonder we celebrate our greatest fraudsters.