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Anti-Vaxxers: A Spinozist Analysis

13 Apr 2022

Dean Turner

Anti-Vaxxers: A Spinozist Analysis

‘Why do people fight for their servitude as if it were their salvation?’ This is the question posed by Spinoza in his Theological-Political Treatise. It is arguably one of the most significant questions in political philosophy, and at the same time, it is one that thinkers to this day have yet to provide a definitive answer to.

This question has become increasingly relevant within the context of the pandemic: Anti-vaccine and adjacent movements believe they are fighting for freedom and against tyranny. This could not be further from the truth. It is not especially hard to prove that vaccines work and that they are not part of some elaborate government conspiracy.

We can appeal to the science that demonstrates that vaccines are not harmful. We could even point out that conspiratorial thinking is unnecessary to demonstrate that governments and big businesses are exploitative and immoral. We can use all the hard evidence that exists to try and counter the anti-vaccine movement’s claims. But it seems like hard evidence will never be sufficient when the beliefs of the movement are grounded in superstition.

What insight into this unquestionably modern problem can a 17th-century philosopher such as Spinoza provide? In Spinoza’s lifetime, his home country of the Netherlands was undergoing a turbulent time of religious and political strife between various factions of liberal republicans and conservative theologians. Spinoza himself was no stranger to this, coming from a Jewish family who had to flee persecution in Portugal. He was also excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1656 for his unorthodox views on God and scripture. He wrote the Theological-Political Treatise in response to what he saw as superstition leading to religious intolerance.

Spinoza argued that we are susceptible to superstition when our agential power is limited. This is easier to understand when we take into account that according to Spinoza, true joy is only possible when we act together with other people, adding our powers to theirs. When our ability to act in this fashion is diminished by forces beyond our control, superstition creeps in to explain away our powerlessness. Superstition takes hold in our minds because our bodies are limited.

We can think of Spinoza’s notion of superstition as analogous to Marxist theories of ideology, in which the material institutions of the state and capital are represented in our thinking. For Spinoza, the material reality of tyranny, where our bodily power is repressed, is represented in the mind as superstition.

What does any of this have to do with the anti-vaccine and adjacent Covid-sceptic movements? Spinoza’s idea of superstition can help us explain the prevalence of these movements. I want to make the argument that anti-vaxxers, although they are without a doubt wrong, cannot simply be written off as stupid without further thought. The anti-vaccine movement as a whole cannot be explained except through a social lens, taking into account relations of power between individuals.

Spinoza presents us with the possibility of democratic life and collective joy lived according to reason. All people have the capacity for reason. Spinoza does not think that everyone who blindly follows superstition is doomed to ignorance through a flaw in their nature. Rather, the capacity to follow reason is limited by the material circumstances in which people find themselves.

Today, our ability to act together with others is increasingly limited. People are arguably more powerless than ever, be that through social media hierarchies, the tyranny of the workplace, or the diminishing ability to simply provide for ourselves and our families through a decline in real wages. We can all think of evidence that points to widespread, collective powerlessness, the perfect environment for superstition to creep in. Most people’s capacity to act is limited by divergent forms of social control. As such, we look to convenient ways of explaining this that further obscure the actual root causes.

Spinoza’s analysis can help us to understand that it is not the case that we should write off anti-vaxxers as simply all fundamentally stupid. The movement is worth serious consideration, of course, not in virtue of the truth of their ideas, but rather as a symptom of the problems within society. There is a material reality that the ideas of the anti-vaccine movement are an expression of. Without a radical restructuring of that material reality that grants everyone equitable powers of agency, belief in superstition and pseudoscience is inevitable.