What The X-Files tells us about modern politics
In the final decades of the twentieth century, globalisation increasingly rendered the ways in which we understood and made sense of our world redundant. Global transformations in politics and economics, in society and culture, were widespread and complicated. These new, complex systems were and are dynamic, extensive, and difficult to perceive, let alone comprehend.
The global economy, for instance, is highly complex and operates at such a scale across time and space that it is near impossible for any single individual to observe and understand the totality of its workings. Global politics has likewise become an intricate, byzantine web of actors and institutions, while complicated problems such anthropogenic climate change evade simple analyses and solutions.
From the 1980s, the ways in which we situated ourselves and understood our place inside these vast systems became increasingly incapable of providing answers. For the left, Marxist and marxian analyses of the industrial economy and its working class proved adequate as the basis for individual and collective organisation throughout the nineteenth-century and for much of the twentieth century.
The postwar era produced new challenges to this mode of thinking, however, in the form of struggles beyond class, founded in race, gender, and sexuality. The rise of welfare states demonstrated the ability of capitalism to adapt to grievances, and the contemporary left has failed comprehensively to articulate a response to the global spread of economic liberalism. The old ways of seeing the world and its problems have not proved themselves effective in understanding and responding to the new world.
How then were we to locate ourselves on this globe and chart a course for the future as the old maps became obsolete? Enter conspiracy theory. Fredric Jameson has argued that conspiracy theories are one kind of response to the crisis experienced when we can no longer understand the world and our place in it. In a complex world, conspiracy theories offer clear explanations of vast, global-scale movements and events. They reduce global complexities to a human scale, and explain them in terms of human agency.
Who is responsible for it all? The Illuminati. The Freemasons. The Jesuits. The Jews. Bush. Aliens. The theories can be incredibly complex, yet they all offer a version of the world that makes a simple kind of sense. The X-Files emerged in the early 1990s at a time when the West had an appetite for both conspiracy and extra-terrestrials: aliens had been visiting Earth for far longer than we could have imagined, its story went, the government knew, and a shady organisation known as The Syndicate were in league with the aliens with a plan to colonise our planet.
Aliens abducted 1990s popular culture as anxieties about the new millennium were growing, the government and media was increasingly distrusted, and New Age spiritualties were proliferating. Many began to doubt the religious beliefs they had grown up with, which failed to offer answers the new Big Questions of existence. “People are looking for answers from different channels,” opined one psychologist in 1996. “U.F.O.s are a marriage of high-tech and a strong religious desire to believe.” The X-Files combined alien pop culture and conspiracy theory in a heady mixture.
September 11 and its aftermath saw conspiracy theories marginalised largely in the hands of the far-Right, and The X-Files struggled to find its place in a post-9/11 world. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have recently argued, however, the Left found its own ways of reducing global complexity to a human scale. They call it folk politics, and within this framework we find the context for liberal identity politics. “Folk politics often reduces politics to an ethical and individual struggle,” they write.
There is a preference for focusing on the everyday, individual experience over structural analyses, for the specific and particular over the universal. “The classic images of universal emancipation and global change have been transformed into a prioritisation of the suffering of the particular and the authenticity of the local”, they argued. “As a result, any process of constructing a universal politics is rejected from the outset.”
This might help to explain why so many, upon the premiere of the new X-Files, felt so uncomfortable. In arguably haphazard manner, viewers were thrown back into the pre-9/11 world of conspiracy theory: a method of reducing global complexity to a human scale, to be sure, but not the path favoured by the mainstream Left in the past two decades.
At the centre of the first episode was Tad O’Malley, a conservative commentator who theorised that drought was the result of weather wars, “conducted secretly using aerial contaminants and high-altitude electromagnetic waves.” The world was in a permanent state of war, “to create problems, reactions, solutions to distract, enrage, and enslave American citizens at home.” Everything from the Patriot Act to the militarisation of police forces, the building of prison camps to Big Food, Big Pharma, and Big Health, and even the obesity epidemic, was reducible to one cause: “The takeover of America.”
Most are happy to let conservatives and libertarians have their conspiracy theories – which, as Srnicek and Williams point out, are essentially faulty maps of the modern world. Offering an extreme, though generally entertaining, example of such faulty mapping, The X-Files reminds us that there could be an alternative: that there might be other ways of understanding and responding to the world of the twenty-first century that go beyond the individual and personal, beyond both rightwing conspiracy theory and leftwing folk politics, and into the realm of the universal, global, and comprehensive.