Parenti on "Conspiracy Theory"


Excerpts from the last chapter of Michael Parenti's "Land of Idols".


In 1837, Abraham Lincoln remarked, "These capitalists generally act harmoniously, and in concert, to fleece the people . . ."2 Today, he would be dismissed as a "conspiracy theorist." When so labeled, one is supposed to make hasty protestations to the contrary. For some, conspiracy is by definition ridiculous and nonexistent, evoking a caricatured tableau of sinister figures in secret chambers. Actually, "conspiracy" is a bona fide legal concept, defined as planning or acting together in secret, for unlawful or harmful purposes, often by illicit means. The ruling class's major mode of operation is systemic and institutional rather than conspiratorial. No ruling interest could last long if it tried to control an entire society with the manipulations of secret cabals.


At the same time, no ruling class could survive if it were not attentive to its interests, consciously trying to anticipate, control, or initiate events. It is hard to imagine a modern state that conducted no concerted and secretive operations. In the United States, conspiracies aplenty are now a matter of public record. Just in recent decades there was the fabricated Tonkin Gulf incident, which served as an excuse for escalating the Vietnam war; Operation Phoenix, in which U.S. advisors secretly set up assassination squads that murdered thousands of dissidents in Viet- nam; the Watergate break-in and Watergate cover-up that led to the resignation of a president; the FBI COINTELPRO, involving govern- ment surveillance, infiltration, and sabotage of dissident groups; Iran- Contra, in which top leaders conspired to circumvent the law, selling arms to Iran in exchange for funds that were used in covert actions against Nicaragua; the CIA drugs-for-guns trade in Central America; covert CIA-sponsored destabilization wars in a dozen countries; and the BCCI scandal, involving what some call the most crooked bank in the world. In 1990 there was the savings-and-loans scandal, which Justice Department officials called "a thousand conspiracies of fraud, theft, and bribery," amounting to the greatest financial crime in world history.

If, by its very nature, conspiracy is secretive, some might argue its existence cannot be reliably established. Conspiracy theory defies empirical verification. The very absence of manifest activity becomes reason for the conspiracy theorist to suspect conspiracy. So the argument goes. It is a false argument, at least in regard to those investigators who do not fabricate out of thin air but dig up a great deal of evidence and testimony. Conspirators, even ones in high places, usually leave a trail of discernible involvements and attempted cover-ups that come to light at one time or another, as was demonstrated by the investigations of the above- mentioned conspiracies.

One of the major perpetrators of conspiracies is the national security state. Composed of the White House Executive Office, the secretaries of state and defense, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Agency, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, the national security state involves itself in secretly planned and often criminal operations around the globe. It resorts to military strikes, special forces, undercover agents, surveillance and infiltration of dissident groups, unlawful breakins, planting stories in the U.S. press, the training of death squads and assassination teams, terrorist campaigns to destabilize certain govern- ments, and the like.

Rulers themselves recognize the need for secret and consciously planned state action. They label it "national security." Some- times they apply more candidly conspiratorial appellations: "covert action," "clandestine operations," and "special operations." If, for some reason, one prefers not to call these undertakings "conspiracies," then give them another name, but recognize them as consciously planned, often illegal ventures, whose existence is usually denied.

Class rule (the rule that maintains the existing politico-economic system for the benefit of the rich and powerful) is not achieved solely through the efforts of wealthy individuals and groups. Campaign donations, lobbying, and other forms of interest-group politics are only part of the story. Class rule is not only willful and particularistic but systemic and overarching. It must operate within a capitalist system that, over and above the desires of any individual elites, imposes its own systemic im- peratives. These must be responded to if the system is to be maintained. The essential function of the state is to act as a conscious agent for maintaining the general needs of the entire capitalist system, doing what no private interest-group can do to buttress class hegemony.

This the state can do because it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It has the power to develop technologies of surveillance and control, and a host of auxiliary institutions that are either repressive or legitimating or both-as in the case of the police, courts, the law-and, of course, the military.



One is likely to be called a conspiracy theorist, not only if one believes that ruling-class leaders sometimes use conspiratorial methods, but if one thinks there is even such a thing as a ruling class that seeks to maintain hegemony. A critical study of David Rockefeller's Trilateral Commission concludes, "A conspiracy on the part of certain members of the international ruling class is not being suggested here, but rather that many of these people, who have a great deal of influence, are consciously making efforts to guide and control the direction of the world's political and socioeconomic system in their class interest."

But any assertion that a ruling class tries to direct the system for its own interests is, by definition, considered a conspiracy fantasy in mainstream political discourse. In this broader sense, "conspiracy" refers to something more than just illegal acts. It serves as a dismissive label applied to any acknowledgment of ruling-class power, both its legal and illegal operations.

In place of conspiracy theory, we get "somnambulist theory": those in power just do things as if walking in their sleep, without a thought to their vast holdings. Or we have "coincidence theory": by sheer chance, things just happen repeatedly and coincidentally to maintain the existing array of privileged interests, without any conscious planning or pressure from those who benefit from such interests.

Then there is "incompetence theory," or even "stupidity theory," which maintains that people at the top just don't know what they're doing; they are befuddled, incapable, and presumably not as perceptive as we.

For years we heard that Ronald Reagan was a moronic, ineffectual president; his administration a "reign of errors," even as he successfully put through most of his conservative agenda, serving the interests of corporate America, the military, and the ideological Right with which he had long been actively associated. During the Iran-Contra hearings, stupidity and incompetence were even claimed as a defense. The Tower Commission-handpicked by Reagan himself-concluded that the president was guilty of a lackadaisical management style that left him insuf- ficiently in control of his subordinates.

In fact, as some of his subordinates eventually testified in court, the president not only was informed, he initiated most of the Iran-Contra policy decisions that led to a circumvention of the law and the Constitution.'

Another theory of innocence is what might be called "spontaneity theory," or "idiosyncrasy theory." Stuff just happens. The event is nothing more than an ephemeral oddity, unconnected to any larger forces. In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that there was more than one assassin-and therefore a conspiracy-involved in the 1963 murder of President John Kennedy. In response, the Washington Post editorialized: "[Clould it have been some other malcontent whom Mr. Oswald met casually? Could not as many as three or four societal outcasts, with no ties to any one organization, have developed in some spontaneous way a common determination to express their alienation in the killing of President Kennedy? . . . It is possible that two persons, acting independently, attempted to shoot the President at the same time."*


Studiously ignoring the evidence pointing to a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King, Jr., one writer patronizingly concludes, "A large majority of the American people do believe in assassination conspiracies. That allows events to have large, mysterious causes instead of small, idiosyncratic ones. They like that."' But the question of conspiracy should be decided by an investigation of evidence, not by a priori unscientific and patronizing presumptions about the public mind. In any case, the evidence in King's assassination did not involve "large mysterious causes" but immediate actualities.

Closely related to "idiosyncratic theory" is "aberration theory": secret, criminal state behavior is dismissed as an atypical departure from normally lawful behavior. For five years, beginning in 1983, the FBI carried out a surveillance of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to determine whether the group had links to international terrorism. The bureau utilized all fifty-nine of its field offices, yet uncovered not a shred of evidence to support its conspiracy theory. CISPES charged that the bureau's actions were politically motivated and part of a concerted and illegal government effort (i.e., conspiracy) to suppress opposition to U.S. involvement in Central America. The FBI had collected information on more than 13,198 people and 11,087 organizations during the CISPES investigation and refused to release the files for public scrutiny. The bureau had a long history of harassments against a wide range of protest groups, as evidenced by its illegal and widely condemned COINTELPRO campaign under the late J. Edgar Hoover. Yet the Senate Intelligence Committee found "no pattern of abuse'' by the bureau and concluded that the FBI investigation of CISPES was an "aberration."

In sum, those who embrace theories of innocence would have us believe that unjust social arrangements, malevolent acts, and wrongful policies are the outcome of momentary aberrations, human folly, incompetence, happenstance, isolated and deranged individuals, innocent cul- tural proclivities, and unintended consequences. To be sure, such things do exist, but do they explain every major development in public life? Evidence and common sense suggests something else: the rich and pow- erful are not oblivious to their interests and no more stupid than the rest of us.

It is accepted that coal miners might consciously direct their efforts toward advancing their interests, as might steelworkers, small farmers, and school teachers. Conspiracy is charged only when one suggests that the wealthy and powerful consciously concert with intent to defend their class interests. While small farmers and steelworkers agitate publicly for their goals, seeking to enlist the support of broader publics, plutocrats and policy elites tend to move more quietly through the corridors of power, preferring that their decisions not invite public scrutiny.


Nothing said here is meant to imply that ruling-class leaders are 'infallible or omnipotent. Like many other people, they may overestimate their problems. They sometimes are unsure or divided about particular
tactics. They occasionally are stymied by the unintended consequences of
policies, by angry public reactions, and sometimes the need to maintain
legitimating democratic appearances. But if they do not always succeed,
they succeed often enough. They are far from infallible, but they have a
plentitude of resources to minimize their losses when mistakes are made.

They may not be omnipotent, but they are enormously powerful. And at times, they will put aside democratic restraints and apply the same naked state-oppression as might any dictatorship. Whatever the limits of their power, they are as involved in class struggle as any communist.



Conscious intent is not always denied. If the issue involves antiwar dissenters, labor unions, militant feminists, leftist guerrillas, or commu- nists, then intent-often of a quite sinister kind-is readily ascribed. Only when talking of the dominant politico-economic elites of capitalist nations is one or another innocence theory called into play. It is recog- nized that revolutionaries are capable of concerted actions directed to- ward consciously desired goals-but not counter-revolutionaries.

Thus, one denies the existence of ruling-class power and intent. If everything happens because of innocent causality, then no one is to blame. Sometimes the innocence theorists apply what might be called "universalist theory." It places responsibility on everyone, an undiffer- entiated "we," which means no one in particular. "We produce cars with built-in obsolescence. Knowing the possible dangers, we continue to pollute the environment," Erich Fromm once claimed.16 "We are all guilty of John Kennedy's assassination and we are all guilty of the Gulf war," asserted a KPFA radio commentator who was interviewing me in Janaury 1991. Sometimes the public is told that "we" must defend "our" interests abroad, including "our" oil in the Middle East and "our" in-vestments throughout the world.

Many critiques of corporate and state policies never move beyond a liberal complaint to a radical analysis; that is, they denounce the policy but never ask why such things prevail? What interests are involved? Does anyone benefit from the victimization? On the infrequent occasions when mainstream investigators do ask why, they often come up with innocuous answers. Hence, when they ask why there is so much poverty and hunger among indigenous peoples throughout the Third World, they conclude by blaming the deficiencies of the poor themselves (as with poverty at home). Supposedly the poor need to be taught to farm, fish, or build. In fact, they usually already know how to do those things but they do not own the land or nets, boats, and building materials. Nor do they own the factory that kills the fish by dumping toxic waste into the bay, nor the dam that floods their lands and villages, nor the corporation that destroys their orchards and strips their forests. If they are hungry, it really is because of what powerful interests are doing to them. The rich get richer when the poor get poorer. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is a reality of class society.

In a PBS television program aired several times in April 1992, host Bill Moyers pointed out the gross inequalities of the federal tax structure, how corporations avoided payments by investing overseas, how foreign firms earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States and paid almost no taxes, and how the tax structure was riddled with tailor- made exemptions that favored particular companies and campaign con- tributors. To explain why such policies prevailed, Moyers turned to his panel of "experts" and said, "Isn't this just a case of good intentions gone awry?" He and the panelists proceeded to talk about the economy and the deficit, without mentioning that the existing tax policy was decidedly not good intentions gone awry but an example of how wealthy interests consciously use their influence to win special treatment under the law. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis noted that Indonesian troops invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese island colony in 1975, perpetrating a bloody repression that has brought death to upwards of 200,000 Timorese. Lewis asked, "Why have we done nothing about such massive inhumanity? Why have we not put pressure on Indonesia, a recipient of much American aid?" l8 (Here again the undifferentiated "we.") Getting no satisfactory response from the State Department, Lewis preferred to leave the issue as an unsettling mystery. He did inch closer to the truth when noting that "Indonesian forces used arms re- ceived from U.S. aid in the invasion-which violated American law." and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "excoriated his aides" for letting a cable go out with that information in it. So Kissinger was fully aware of the invasion, was giving the Indonesian military the arms needed to carry it out, and wanted that fact kept secret. In other words, the White House was actively complicit in the intervention.19


There are two models of conflict. Model #1 describes conflicts as oc- curring because of miscommunication; people misunderstand each other's intentions, and anticipate the worst. In defense, both sides move preemp- tively against the other, now caught in a conflict that no one wanted. As the conflict escalates, each side finds confirmation of aggressive intent in the other's defensive or anticipatory moves. That model certainly explains a variety of conflicts, especially at the interpersonal level.

Model #2 says that conflicts occur not because of miscommunication or irrational misunderstanding but because both sides know all too well what the other is up to. Conflict arises when there is a conscious aware- ness of clashing interests and the perceived potential for gain or victimization by one or another side.


There persists "a similar mythology around imperialism." Suppos- edly, U.S. rulers don't know what they are doing abroad. In their "mis- guided attempts to help out in other parts of the world," they do unintentional damage. Liberal opponents of the Vietnam War made this argument. In the 1980s it was repeated about Nicaragua: our leaders supposedly did not realize that Nicaragua wanted peace and was not a threat. If only they understood, they would not have inflicted such pun- ishment upon the Sandinista government and the Nicaraguan people. In fact, Nicaragua was a real threat and U.S. leaders knew it. "Any example of successful independent development not tied to the superpower bat- terers of the world is a tremendous danger to the ability of imperialists to continue to subjugate the rest of the world. True independence would set an example that would inspire others to attempt to gain control of their own lives and resources. "23


Given the pattern of behavior and the testimony of participants, this was not a conspiracy fantasy but a conspiracy actuality: U.S. leaders were not interested in reaching a peaceful accord with the Sandinistas and were withholding their real intentions from the public-and even from their own staffs.

Another example of testimonial evidence: Critics long have accused the oil industry and various governments of conspiring to suppress the development of alternative energy sources in order to keep the public dependent on fossil fuels. This was dismissed as conspiracy theory. But in 1989, the Saudi oil minister told the Petroleum Association of America that "the interests of both Saudi Arabia and oil independents are best served by cooperation that keeps oil prices down and alternative energy uneconomical [emphasis added]."28 If the oil moguls express to each other their opposition to alternative energy, we can conclude that we are not suffering from a conspiracy fantasy.

Those who feel threatened appear somewhat paranoid in the eyes of those who deny the existence of threat. Through most of the 1980s, the United States financed and trained a counterrevolutionary army that con- ducted a two-front invasion against Nicaragua, killing thousands of civilians and destroying farm cooperatives, power stations, clinics, schools, and other "soft targets." U.S. military planes repeatedly invaded Nicaraguan air space, and U.S. warships stood at the ready off both that country's coasts. The superpower batterers cut off all aid and trade, imposing a crippling eco- nomic embargo. U.S. forces mined Nicaragua's harbors and blew up its oil depots. President Reagan said he wanted the Sandinistas to cry "uncle," and Secretary of State Shultz promised to "cast out" the Sandinistas from "our hemisphere." Yet, when the beleaguered Managua government charged that the United States wanted to overthrow it, ABC news dismissed the com- plaint as "Sandinista paranoia" and the Washington Post, as "Nicaraguan paranoia."29 Then in June 1985, Reagan and Shultz announced that the
' United States might have to invade Nicaragua before too long, thereby giving demonstration-if any more was needed-that the Sandinistas were not imagining things.


But systemic imperatives are not neutral forces. Like the cultural biases discussed earlier, they are shaped in part by power and interest. In other words, the social order itself and its various institutions and much of its culture are not without intent. Society is not just an undirected conglomerate of individuals in a mass, interacting haphazardly out of private motives. Much of social intercourse is prestructured by interested parties. What is considered personally generated behavior is often be- havior evoked by imperatives within the social system itself. But the system, or important parts of it, are dominated by powerful interests. As we noted in chapter 7, formally structured social institutions do not just exist with the innocence of mountains. They are there because they serve some purpose and someone's interests-or, as in the case of the state, the interest of preserving the entire system itself. Once we understand this, we can better understand the connections between immediate experience and the larger structural forces that shape that experience.


Institutions and classes do not exist as disembodied, self-generating, abstract forces. They are populated by flesh and blood people, engaged In "the Furies of private interest." There is no institution or class power that is devoid of human agency-although the human input may be obscured by the complexities of institutional structure. In 1907, the sociologist E. A. Ross noted that as society develops so does sin. With commerce comes piracy and smuggling; with banking comes embezzle- ment and forgery. Many latter-day sins are impersonal. The victimizer is far removed by an elaborate organizational system from the victim. Rather than using the gun or bludgeon, as might the brigand, the im- peccable gentlemen who preside over great business empires resort to bribery, false claims, safety violations, child labor, toxic dumping, war profiteering, and the like, causing material loss, physical injury, misery, and death to persons whom they never see. While their actions and decisions may harbor no malicious intent toward specific individuals, they are guilty of neglect, deception, illegality-and liability. Still, these estimable individuals never think of themselves as criminals, nor does the press or any other established opinion-maker. On the contrary, the "sys- temic sinners" sit on the boards of foundations, museums, churches, and universities, are given honorary degrees, and are welcomed into the best clubs.39

So, too, with the state and its wars and various other crimes. Those who plan, do not kill; and those who kill, do not plan.40 Thus, everyone can feel free of responsibility for the oppression they inflict on trouble- some people at home and abroad.

The task of the investigator is to penetrate appearances and see the inner qualities and moving forces of things. "All science," Marx once said, "would be superfluous if outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided." Indeed, the reason so much of modern social science is super- fluous is because it settles for the rigorous tracing of outward appearances. Tb move from appearance to essence means we gain a greater awareness of the realities that play upon us. We discard fatalistic resignations and do more than "rage, rage against the dying light." We try to liberate ourselves from the mythologies of spurious appearances and turn away from false idols-so better to struggle toward real democracy.

I love Parenti...

"We've been offered a unique opportunity and we must not let this moment pass."

— George W. Bush - State Of The Union Address - January 29th, 2002


Perfect. Succinctly captures the failed thinking of the academic Left and the populist Right. I especially like "spontaneity" and "aberration" theories as excuses for the consistent way in which elites tend to get their way. Y'know, shit just happens (over and over again, to the benefit of the same people).

It bothers me that so many academics arduously reject "conspiracy" as a concept, but happily endorse "hegemony", "class consciousness", models of the unconscious, and other expressions of, well, "conspiratorial" models of society. "Hegemony", of course, is in the title of Chomsky's recent work. :-)

Do you like...


"We've been offered a unique opportunity and we must not let this moment pass."

— George W. Bush - State Of The Union Address - January 29th, 2002

I can't say I know enough

I can't say I know enough about Parenti's work in total to say whether I like him, but I'll try to check out the lecture you posted.

I'll read this tomorrow,

I'll read this tomorrow, should be excellent!

Thanks Danse.

I've read a few Parenti articles and like what I've seen.



"We've been offered a unique opportunity and we must not let this moment pass."

— George W. Bush - State Of The Union Address - January 29th, 2002

Isn't Parenti like Chomsky

I'm not all that familiar with Parenti's writings but i have heard he is in line with Chomsky when it comes to 9/11 truth.

No. Parenti wrote an

No. Parenti wrote an endorsement blurb for Barry Zwicker's book. He hasn't focussed much on 911 -- which he should -- but he's not a gatekeeper.

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