The Age of conspiracy

Conspiracy thinking flourishes; in fact it is in as rude health as it ever has been. This blog will explore some of the reasons for this before exploring the overlaps between conspiracy theorising and political thinking more broadly. Although conspiracy theory is commonly based in ‘leap of faith’ thinking based in shaky and circumstantial evidence it is also the case that varieties of conspiratorialism encroach on more formal, staid, and academic analysis. This shows us how expansive conspiracy thinking is in present-day public cultures, something that tells us perhaps uncomfortable things about the West’s modernist autobiography.

Knowledge is fear

I spent some time in 2002 reading into conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. When researching Rwanda, I also looked into a conspiracy theory that the current Rwandan government had planned to trigger a genocide in order to allow it to take power by force. Both cases shared a remarkable meticulousness in their assemblage of evidence, both were developed not only by individuals with axes to grind but also by academics and journalists – and both seem to me ultimately unconvincing. The reason why they each stretch credulity is simply that they require excessively partial views of circumstantial evidence, a reified understanding of chains of events, and such heroic characterisations of conspiratorial agency.

Nevertheless, public discourse is replete with conspiracy narratives. Conspiracy has always been with us, but it seems to have endured and even spread in spite or because more information has become more available. If one supposed that a grater availability of information in the public realm might cast a light of transparency over the shady implications of conspiracy theories then one would be mistaken. So massive and unmediated is the ‘infosphere’ that one could in effect assemble some body of ‘grey’ evidence to construct all manner of explanations for an event and – most excitingly for conspiracy narratives – identify who benefitted.

Furthermore, the explosion of information and ‘big data’ has not simply been an enriching of the information commons: a massive amount of data is generated and retained by governments and firms without our permission or knowledge: according to James Bamford exabytes (1018) of data just within the NSA.

Technology has a great deal to do with the flourishing of conspiracy theory. It is both a medium and resource to disseminate and construct conspiracies. And it is a means by which secretive agencies have projected power through knowledge. This I something of a paradox: cyberspace and mass data processing as antagonist and protagonist: both wikileaks and Echelon.

Our enduring superstitions

But, conspiracy theory is not just a product of The Matrix; it is also the product of an overactive and enchanted public imagination. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber says that ‘the fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.’ For Weber, the universalization of science, the Protestant Reformation, and the rational and instrumental techniques of modern states have ushered ‘magical’ ideas (he uses the terms ‘transcendental’ and ‘mystic’) into a marginal and residual realm, akin to the telling of fairy tales on a wintry evening.

Weber’s argument here has been immensely influential in the historiography of European Enlightenment modernity. Indeed, we might see this grand narrative as Europe’s official autobiography: the destruction of superstition under the light of rationality and science. But, like all autobiographies, it flatters and dissembles. Western public cultures are and have always been full of magical beliefs, and one component of these magical belief is conspiracy, a mode of explanation that requires one to relegate causal proof in the name of identifying an omnipotent agency.

It is worth starting a basic definition of what we mean by ‘magic’. Magical beliefs are those that explain a phenomenon with reference to an agency whose causal influence is obscure. When one asserts that something was a result of the power of an agency which we cannot understand, we are invoking some kind of magical belief. One reason for the this definitional point-of-departure is to ensure that we do not start with the Eurocentric normative structure in which ‘traditional’ or ‘developing’ societies have magic and Western societies have science and technology. This is a post-colonial affectation. The definition also readily reveals a cross-over between magical belief and conspiracy thinking, which suggests that the notion of a decline of magic in the West is not perhaps as straightforward as the linear modernization autobiography suggests.

Religious ideas are magical. Faith is a synonym for magical belief. For many religious people, God acts on Earth but not in ways that can be demonstrated through causal evidence. The core meaning of faith is belief in the absence of evidence; without this religious ways of thinking lose their distinctiveness and appeal. In the myriad mysteries of our phenomenal world, religious people see the work of God. And, it is clear that religious belief is not on its way out, although its attachment to large institutionalized churches has been reduced. Magical beliefs associated with ‘alternative medicine’ have experienced a growing prominence in many Western publics even though it is repeatedly demonstrated that they hold slender scientific proof. Belief in extra-terrestrial visitations, ghosts, spiritualism, and a series of metaphysical ideas about intuition, premonition, kharma and so on are replete in our cultures.

And, right at the heart of all this magical discourse is the conspiracy theory. This is where we enter Dan Brown territory. Identifying Fibonacci sequences, secret ratios and symbols, occult texts, and calendrical synchronicities, all as evidence of secret orders of Templars, Masons, Illuminati, or Elders of Zion. There is a huge amount of conspiracy material based in fantastical readings of history and evidence on the internet. It is exciting stuff. It seems to add a contrarian frisson to the relatively moderate or empiricist mainstream narratives about assassination, bombing, organised crime, political scandal and so on. A public culture of conspiracy is aided and abetted, quite transparently, by Hollywood potboilers in which mavericks discover that ‘this goes all the way to the top’.

Degrees of disbelief

Most especially in cyberspace, conspiracy is often silly (lizard covens), sometimes disturbing (anti-Semitism) and sometimes both. But, there are gradations of speculative leap from the extra-terrestrial to a set of conspiratorial sensibilities embedded within more respectable traditions of political thinking. In this sense, conspiracy theory blurs into ordinary respectable political analysis.

Libertarian populism and anarchism are often based in conspiratorial visions of Government which is seen not as a set of institutions but as ‘the system’. Those who follow Michel Foucault’s understandings of power as ‘governmentality’ also sail close to this totalising and rationalised understanding of power connected to a shady or implied source of power. Left-wing analyses of imperialism can rely on conspiratorial imagery: witness the from cover of John Pilger’s The new rulers of the world, complete with the epitome image of conspiracy, the puppeteer’s hand pulling the strings of the world. Even the orthodox economist’s favourite political economist, Adam Smith, stated that ‘people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’.

Conspiratorial thinking infuses into these approaches, albeit with less salaciousness and with more respect for theory and evidence. They each express an anxiety with broad-ranging institutions of power and opaque political processes.

And, of course, there are conspiracies: plots and plans to overthrow governments, support cronies, make people ‘disappear’; private meetings, back channel diplomacy, and hidden agendas. The problem for conspiracy theorists is that these kinds of activity – which often fall within ordinary political analysis – are in good degree in fact just normal politics; they tend also to be quite modest compared with Grand Theories of global domination. And they are as likely to fail or generate unintended consequences as they are to succeed and bring the expected benefits. The world is simply too messy and complicated to sustain conspiracy theory’s retrofitting.

Conspiracy can vary in its representations of power. It is one thing to say the world is controlled by cliques of powerful people in smoke-filled rooms and it is another to say that people in smoke-filled rooms meet to try to control the world. I don’t doubt that conspiracy in the latter sense is a real feature of elite politics. Indeed, it can be taken out of its evocative conspiracy setting and be called ‘green room’ meetings at the World Economic Forum, or a Trilateral Commission or Bilderberg Group meeting.

With some conceptual stretching, government is a ‘conspiracy’ of a kind; what Wilkesite radicals from eighteenth century London might have called ‘politicking’ and ‘plotting’. In Charles Tilly’s historiography of states, governments are exceptionally successful criminal organisations – successful conspiracies made into de jure sovereignties. Less dramatically, there is a more day-to-day narrative of conspiracy immanent in democratic politics as the best ‘shell’ for elite rule, as anyone who reads accounts of the ‘old boy’s network’ within the UK Conservative Party will attest.

Paranoia as anti-politics

Perhaps the enduring popularity of conspiracy theory and especially the most recent instantiations of it can be seen as a kind of neo-technological magical belief system in which the rise of technologies of science and government (Big Data, nanotech, cybertechnology, internet surveillance…) produce a political aesthetic of conservative anxiety that sees the exercise of secret organized power in all of those areas of life in which we passively accept the dominating role of high-tech.

The suggestion here is that, as we relinquish more of our day-to-day lives to corporate and government technologies we cannot understand in even the most rudimentary way, we leave open a space in our ignorance where magical forces might start to play. Who is listening in? Who is tracking our webpages? What information is my IPhone sending to third parties? What satellites are gleaning what information? What happens to my retina or fingerprint scan? What are the purposes of nanotechnology, cybertechnology? Will we all be policed by drones, robots, or GM soldiers that resemble Huxley’s Epsilons? Needless to say, the internet has massively enabled conspiratorial and magical thinking, acting as the enabler of screeds of online conspiratorial text against itself.

I have called this hi-tech conspiratorial magic a conservative world-view not because it is entirely fantastical, but because the sensibility I have characterized above has undeniably generated considerable fear, a flight from discussion about evidence and towards high drama, a sense of political agency that is feeble, and of course a construction of sate and corporate power as immense omnipotent monoliths. It is conservative, then, in the way it represents political realities and possibilities. It is prone to dystopian thinking, or a melancholia for times past. It is cynical about public political processes which are understood as sideshows to distract from where the ‘real’ power lies. It is elitist. It can easily slip into a blanket misanthropy.

The edifice of conspiratorial world-views if that there are ‘omni-powers’ (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent) which leave us little agency but to wonder in a cloud of paranoia about the dark instruments that order our lives. Conspiracy theory is, in this sense, deeply anti-political. The more effectively academics can discuss the secrecy of states or the power of new technologies in ways that do not generate the fear and alienation that conspiracy narratives do, the better.

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