Towards a Theory of Conspiracy Theories

Good article here, quite germane to the work that we are trying to accomplish.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Towards a Theory of Conspiracy Theories

Cass Sunstein, confidante of Obama, Harvard Law professor, current head of the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, potential Supreme Court nominee - and the latest crusader against those dastardly conspiracy theories

Recently, there was quite a hullabaloo in the blogosphere over a reprehensible academic paper Sunstein co-wrote in 2008 (available for download here), which argued for a Cointellpro-type program of government infiltration of conspiracy theorists, online and in person. Given the incredible scope and flexibility of the powers of his office, as enunciated in this September 30, 1993 executive order signed by Clinton, his proposal should certainly give us pause.

His paper, "Conspiracy Theories," was originally scooped by Marc Estrin at Rag Blog, and covered in short order by Daniel Tencer at The Raw Story and Glenn Greenwald at Salon and pretty much went viral from there. Although Greenwald's piece was the most extensive, none of the reports really examined the paper in great detail.

I took the time to read the whole thing. I've also read the entire academic literature on conspiracy theory and written one of my masters theses on the topic at a Division I research university. If I have the stomach for it, I may offer a more detailed analysis of Sunstein's paper in a future post, but for now I'd like to offer something else.

More important than a detailed analysis of a single essay would be a sustained theoretical critique of the role of "conspiracy theory" in delegitimizing information contrary to the interests and consensus reality of the elite. None of the coverage of Sunstein's journal article offered this broader view. I would like to do so, by posting a revised version of something I posted here a few years back which, unfortunately, remains as timely as ever.

Contemporary America is of two minds regarding conspiracy theory - or "conspiranoia" as I like to call it, a term combining conspiracy and paranoia which I got from a book by Devon Jackson of the same name.

On one hand, it has become the default popular view, one of commodified skepticism towards history and government. It's a sentiment that has proliferated extensively since the 1960s, Watergate, and the Church Committee. With the collapse of the reassuring dualities of the Cold War in the early 1990s, it has culminated into an extremely pervasive apocalyptic teleology. It has become one of the leading intellectual leitmotifs of our time.

On the other hand, the disavowal of conspiranoia has also become an integral part of the conventional wisdom itself, a social technology of control that establishes the boundaries of "responsible discourse" by reflecting elite consensus on the fundamental nature of social reality, in accordance with the elite's own class interests. This makes for an incredibly effective means of establishing ruling class hegemony by controlling dissent, foreclosing alternatives, engineering support, and transmuting the interests of the ruling class into that of the nation as a whole.

As Gore Vidal once said "The way our ruling class keeps out of sight is one of the greatest stunts in the political history of any country" and conspiracy theory is one of their most potent methodologies.

In fact, one is apt to be labeled a conspiracy theorist for merely suggesting that there is a ruling class in this country that seeks to maintain hegemony, to say nothing of the idea that the ruling class might occasionally use conspiratorial methods. Rather than conspiracy theory, most media and intellectual gatekeepers prefer to view elite behavior through the lens of "somnambulist theory," "coincidence theory", "incompetence theory", or "spontaneity theory". No amount of intellectual gymnastics is spared to avoid arriving at the conclusion that the rich and powerful, like the rest of us, might possibly act in support of their own perceived best interests. This is, of course, in spite of a voluminous sociological literature on the power elite and "elite deviance" and a plethora of laws on the books against criminal conspiracy.

True freedom of mind - presumably the bedrock of the informed consent of the governed in a democracy - requires not only the negative absence of constraint but the positive presence of other alternatives. Even though the rich and powerful have repeatedly used conspiracy to get richer and more powerful, to mention this sociological fact immediately draws the most vicious criticism, including charges of conspiracy mongering, and many variations on superstition, cynicism, paranoia, hysteria, and primitivism.

Conspiranoia can and should be a tool of empirical explanation. It is possible to point fingers and name names. The powers that be, perhaps as few as thousands of people enslaving as many as six billion, act not in conspiracy but in tacit collusion fostered by the similarity of their backgrounds, calibrated at key forums and through key organizations in support of a global agenda of domination, economic plunder, and environmental devastation.

Ultimately, however, the appeal of conspiranoia is that of narrative itself: it's ability to explain, predict, motivate, and entertain. Although conspiranoia offers the aficionado an integrated worldview, a weltanschauung, it also provides more than that. When confronted with the potential evidence of conspiracy, one must ask, as in criminal trials: "Is there motive, means, and opportunity?" All too often there is, especially at the intersection of politics, law, high finance, intelligence, diplomacy, covert military operations, narco-trafficking, organized crime, and the media simulacrasphere.

Instead of the usual characterization of conspiracy theory as a branch of group psychopathology, "troubled minds looking for order in chaotic and rapidly changing times" as the academic literature so uniformly spins it, conspiranoia might be better and more accurately thought of as a populist fusion of life writing, historiography, and political science which provides explanatory narratives that void the epistemic warrant of the elite consensus on history, social reality, and the "conventional wisdom." This is a major development in the long tradition of popular resistance to state power and economic oligarchy, not of the right vs. left, but of the bottom vs. the top.

At its best, conspiranoia is a radical exercise of the skepticism and critical reason at the heart of the Enlightenment project. In this sense it represents a last-ditch effort by the supposed repositories of popular sovereignty - the people - to save liberal humanism and the Enlightenment from its demented doppelganger - the program of perpetual war for perpetual peace and the enslavement of the autonomous bourgeois subject under regimes of panoptic control managed by technocrats serving the super rich, using the powerful tools of the nation-state as they've evolved since the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century.

Conspiranoia narratives could be empirical explanations of social reality, since it can easily be argued that, as Carl Oglesby put it in The Yankee and Cowboy War, "conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means...and where there is no limit to power, there is no limit to conspiracy." The knee-jerk denigration of such attitudes by the media and the academy, however, demonstrates that their disavowal has become a vital social technology of control in the late modern age.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, virtually all pre-capitalist and anti-capitalist systems have been colonized by "global monetocracy", a transnational corporate socialism that socializes the costs and privatizes the profits. This is kleptocracy by any other name, albeit a far more sophisticated version than that practiced by hacks like Marcos, Duvalier, Mobutu, and their ilk.

Although seemingly at its moment of universal triumph, this system may in fact be teetering on the brink of economic, political, social, and environmental collapse. This collapse may even already be underway. It seems likely usher in an extremely reactionary, corporate-managed pseudo-populism and overt police state fascism in all of the core states of global capitalism - perhaps even a hybrid of revolution and civil war.

It is precisely the dramatically escalating accumulation of these fundamental contradictions within the global capitalist system that "coincidence theorists" try to deflect public attention away from with their hysterical vilification of conspiracy theories. Their relentless disparagement continues even though, ala Occam's Razor, conspiracy theories often provide the simplest, most rational explanation for much of history and current events.

The power elite deliberately obscure the structural limitations on free will (that they themselves largely created) to mask the sad fact that, as human civilization has evolved from slavery to feudalism to democracy, we have traded kings and tsars for presidents and prime ministers but the money power behind the scenes has remained the same. The king, the theocrat, and the money changers have conceded just enough to stave off revolution, and these small victories have only been won by long and arduous struggle.

Their regime of capital accumulation can only survive by feeding off the subject body and stupefying the subject mind with the myth of individual agency and the "society of the spectacle" while simultaneously doing everything in their power to ensure that this alleged agency can't be used in any meaningful way. In such an environment, denigrating conspiranoia becomes a means of cordoning off from the masses the fact that they are being lied to every day of their lives by the very authority figures they trust to give them the "good life," and that the consumerist hydrocarbon-based industrial civilization they live in is arguably psychopathic and quite possibly in terminal decline.

While the provisional government of politicians does the lying, they do so in the service of a permanent government above and behind political power, a secular oligarchy working in tacit collusion. In America they are the great commercial dynasties, the Fortune 500 companies and their lobbyists, the media simulacrasphere, the civil and military services, the large research universities, law firms, charitable foundations, and their ilk.

They hire the politicians and frame the boundaries of the politicians' agenda - even the boundaries of "reasonable" political discourse itself. They authorize the production of regular election pageants to protect the brand name of American democracy. They convince a large enough portion of the general population that the system still works, so that the machinery of oppression, theft, enslavement, murder, and incarceration can continue without interruption.

This oligarchy makes effective use of such groups and forums as the Bilderberg Group, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Economic Forum at Davos, Bank of International Settlements, World Trade Organization, Council of Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission, Bohemian Grove, Group of Eight, Trans-Atlantic Business Council, and other organizations to calibrate their rhetoric, achieve consensus, and even set policy superceding that of sovereign governments. This isn't done in singular smoky star chambers, as the straw man argument against conspiracy theories routinely and condescendingly jokes.

Instead, there are many camps within this oligarchy. Sometimes they compete, sometimes they cooperate, but all are unified by a miasmic group-think that stems from the similarity of their backgrounds, class interests, and institutional positions, and their sensitivity to the behavioral cues given off by the institutional structures within which they seek to advance. Pursuing a misguided sense of their own self interest, they pursue the interests of the global "capitalist" system as well.

As the key nations of transnational corporate imperialism degenerate into police states, they slowly strip citizens of their rights by periodically manufacturing crises to enact the Hegelian dialectic of "crisis-response-resolution," with each new "resolution" bringing them greater control and pushing the world's resources into what George H.W. Bush has called "higher, tighter, and righter hands."

Although conspiranoiacs exist in great variety, many share a belief in the rough outline of this dystopian nightmare. If true, it is the truth which cannot be spoken. For that reason, the media and academic gatekeepers of "credible" information will continue to dismiss anything that challenges the conventional wisdom as a "conspiracy theory" until some catalyst finally reveals enough of the horrible truth to enough people, facilitating a paradigm shift of world historical importance, a tipping point, the 100th monkey effect.

The ills of society can neither be ameliorated nor even adequately described by means of the law alone. Nevertheless, progressive efforts to ameliorate these ills cannot succeed without committed work in the legal field. However, such work will be necessarily defensive in posture until such time as substantial extraparliamentary pressure is brought to bear on the system by means of "either grassroots citizen participation in credible progressive projects or rebellious acts of desperation that threaten the social order," as one of America's greatest public intellectuals, Cornel West, put it.

With adequate reach into a broad enough segment of the general population by leaking past the media oligarchy, and armed with adequate credibility by weeding itself of the pervasive disinformation that so often taints it, conspiranoiac analysis has the potential to precipitate and consolidate a very significant portion of that extraparliamentary pressure of which West speaks.

I believe it was the inimitable psychonaut philosopher Terence Mckenna who said "Like it or not, the people of the fringe are in an apocalyptical struggle: either the elite techniques of control will be perfected to the level where dissent can be abolished, or heretics will mutate to some level of consciousness where they can do holy and miraculous works to resurrect the old dream of freedom for all."

Although this may seem a millennial hope, it may also be a cogent empirical analysis of a decisive historical crossroads, and certainly a large number of us have our eyes on December 21, 2012. In any event, until our individual consciousness (and our collective unconscious) is liberated, and we can finally establish abiding regimes of peace, social justice, and sustainability, as Rousseau said "Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains."