That’s what they want
Who’s afraid of conspiracy theorists? Not Paul Demarty for one
The world is abuzz with talk of conspiracy theories.
There are two immediate causes. Firstly the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal is back in the news; British intelligence services now claim that they have pinpointed the lab from which the nerve agent used came. The finger definitely points towards Russia, with the two remotely plausible options being that this was an authorised Russian state hit or the work of ‘rogue elements’ in the Russian security services. However, the dark soil of espionage and counter-espionage was ever fertile ground for more exotic explanations of events, and so people (notably the former ambassador Craig Murray) continue to talk about Porton Down and the Ukrainians and MI6 and whoever else.
Elsewhere, the anti-Semitism scandal continues to spread outside of even its notional bounds, never mind the bounds of reason. We highlight in this connection, firstly, Nick Cohen, whose increasingly one-note output seems to have even exhausted the patience of the Observer and New Statesman, leaving him only the Spectator’s website to froth out of. In yet another shrill fusillade on the subject of supposed left-wing Jew-hatred, Cohen cited not softness on dreadful Islamists as the problem for once, but hostility to “high finance”, “every denunciation of [which] on the modern left sooner or later invokes ‘the Rothschilds’ rather than ‘the Goodwins’”.1 A similar note was struck by Brendan O’Neill, the editor of the Spiked! website, in an article arguing that the left’s anti-Semitism ‘problem’ stems from its conspiratorial critique of capitalism, as exemplified by the Occupy movement which O’Neill despised from beginning to end.2
Both Cohen and O’Neill are guilty, ultimately, of cherry-picking; Cohen is somehow still obsessed with this blasted mural in East London, believing it somehow represents the truth about the left; O’Neill picks out four or five isolated incidents in order to build up an image of leftwing Jew-hatred, necessarily ignoring 99.9% of all the goings-on in his hated Occupy camps, and on his hated pro-Palestine demonstrations. There is something interesting about this procedure, to which we shall return.
There are two aspects to this question, then: one is the role of conspiracy theory in the intellectual life of the political non-mainstream, especially in this connection the left, but also the right; the second is the role assigned to conspiracy theory in the polemics of the political mainstream against its opponents.
The first thing that needs addressing is - why do people believe conspiracy theories? But that in turn is unanswerable without first asking: what is a conspiracy theory?
We could list examples of the genre that all would agree on: the stories, for example, that the moon landings were faked for Cold War propaganda purposes; that the leaders of world Jewry are conspiring to dominate the world through the banks and the socialist movement; that the September 11 attacks were an operation of the US deep state; and so on. The through-line would appear to be the explanation of some set of complex world phenomena by the referral to some super-powerful cabal operating in the shadows.
The trouble with leaving it here, of course, is that by the same token the idea that the Democratic presidential campaign of 1972 was systematically sabotaged by a clique of people around the president, including senior staff at the FBI and CIA, is equally a conspiracy theory. However, it happens to be true. In short: there really are conspiracies, sometimes involving very powerful people who really ought to know better. (An even greater illustration would be post-war Italian history, in which prominent actors included the far-right elite Masonic lodge Propaganda Due, state-sponsored fascist terror groups and the Vatican bank; only David Icke’s lizards are missing.)
I feel confident in citing these two examples because neither are in any real doubt. There are probably more flat-earthers than there are believers in Richard Nixon’s innocence; the literature around P2 and Operation Gladio is also extensive, although it shades into the esoteric at points. An important feature of real-world conspiracies is that they are devilishly difficult to keep secret. The security of any system is the vulnerability of its weakest link; human beings are very weak links, however, and if their moral qualms don’t get them, their cowardice will when asked tough questions by prosecutors.3 You can, of course, nobble the prosecutors; but that merely introduces more human beings into the system, and thus more points of weakness.
The conspiracy theorist, then, must be the person who believes in conspiracies in which it is not reasonable to believe; there is ample evidence that things happened more or less as they are said to have done, yet somehow no evidence will ever be enough. The conspiracy theorist relies on rhetorically impressive but logically weak arguments; any evidence given by, say, a state agency about the sequence of events on September 11 2001 is dismissed on the ad hominem basis that ‘they would say that’; any snag in the official theory is presented as a knockdown argument for its general falsity; responses to snags in the conspiracy theory lead not to more economical explanations but ever more layers of baroque complexity, as befell the defenders of geocentric cosmology in the late middle ages.
Now some of this sounds familiar - indeed, we have enumerated among these features precisely the sort of cherry-picking we previously identified in the articles by Cohen and O’Neill, but they are not usually called conspiracy theorists.4 So to meet the common-sense definition of the term, one needs also to escape the protective umbrella of official politics. That leaves some of our more simple-hearted comrades on the left, and a rum old crew on the right.
The right-wing form of the conspiracy theory is not a new phenomenon, and it has real social roots.
The right’s opposition to the extension of democracy and economic egalitarianism is, on the face of it, a problem for it; for the very small numbers of people rewarded by such inequality cannot of themselves provide enough social weight to support the structure. They thus demand, in general, false beliefs to promote to putative plebeian supporters, of which conspiracy theories are merely one particular variety (the timelessness of the British constitution and the efficiency of markets are others). This contradiction has the result that plebeian rightism is dominated by a few individuals, with the ordinary folks playing the role of ‘angry mob’. It is thus quite atomising; it does not provide a truly satisfactory collective life, creating a kind of ratchet effect in which, for some, the circle enclosing ‘the enemy’ gets wider.
The conspiracy theory in its ‘usual’ rightwing form finds its place here, drawing a link between tyranny and the left (or liberals - there is usually scarcely much difference so far as these believers are concerned), and ultimately to traitorous mainstream rightists.
The model here is the aforementioned Protocols, which was aggressively promoted by the tsarist regime to the great misfortune of Russian Jews and socialists - never mind when the Hitler movement got hold of the same basic ideas in Versailles-crippled Weimar Germany. Yet it persists today, most clearly in elements of the American right, whose national plebeian ideology of hatred of (especially foreign) tyranny leads to the phenomena of ‘survivalists’ hiding out in the hills of Montana from the New World Order, armed far-right movements of the sort that gave rise to Timothy McVeigh, and now the alt-right, which frequently indulges in anti-Semitic conspiracy theorising.
Perhaps this also illuminates the parts of the left that overlap with the conspiracy-theory counterculture. The enlargement of this layer in recent years coincides with an extended period of defeats for the left and the workers movement, with the result that leftist politics suffered from atomisation itself. In Britain, the Corbyn surge represents a partial reversal; but the insistence on the part of its leadership - both in Corbyn’s inner circle and in the form of Momentum - on Bonapartist and plebiscitary political forms retards the cultural recovery we might hope for.
We speak in the last paragraph specifically of leftists who explicitly endorse 9/11 trutherism and suchlike; but the likes of Cohen and O’Neill address themselves in reality to a vast amalgam of their own creation, which ultimately includes leftist sentiment against bankers, oil companies and whoever else.
It is clearest perhaps in O’Neill’s case, when he writes:
There have been many outbursts of left anti-Semitism in history. The latest one can really be traced to the post-Cold War moment, to the strange 1990s and the emergence of a new, moralistic, anti-intellectual left outlook that viewed capitalism less as a relation of production than as a conspiracy of the wealthy, or ‘the 1%’ as they would come to be known.
Note that, for all his implicit huffing in defence of some sort of Marxism (“capitalism ... as a relation of production”), his explanation for this phenomenon is purely a matter of its promotion by certain unnamed anti-intellectuals (he does go on to mention Adbusters, mainly so he can smear Occupy by association with a single article of theirs he finds dodgy from 2004). The fact that it is really the case that the financial industry has become much more directly politically influential in the core imperialist countries in that period, that wealth inequality has widened to a point that ‘1%’ is actually a pretty mealy-mouthed estimate of the proportion: all these factors are invisible to O’Neill.5
But then his own political response to the end of the Cold War - along with the rest of the then Revolutionary Communist Party, as they rather unconvincingly put on a show of liquidating themselves into a network of think-tanks - was to set himself up as an anti-liberal troll on the basis of a naive enthusiasm for capitalist progress; for the RCP, and now for Spiked!, it is an article of faith that it is better to be a climate change denier than a green, because greenism is ‘misanthropic’, and in general it is worse to have an unsophisticated critique of capitalism than not to have one at all.
By enforcing a hard distinction between analysis of capitalist social relations and talk of ‘conspiracies of the wealthy’, however, O’Neill prima facie rules out any critique of capitalism with any purchase on the world as it actually is, which is to say, full of human agents pursuing agendas. Corrupt interrelationships between elements of the elite are part of how capitalism works, and the error of Occupy-type left-liberalism is merely that they are not the whole of how capitalism works. If O’Neill genuinely believes that there is no link between the bloated US military budget and the careful strategising of arms industry flacks, or that Goldman Sachs’s Washington connections did not help it at all in the 2007-08 crash, then perhaps he might consider investing in my initial coin offering.
So this is the essential dilemma of generalised anti-conspiracy-theorism: that, by refusing to acknowledge the limited real basis of its target, it inverts itself pretty rapidly into a hysteria about a specific group of people promoting unreason among wider society, in an exact mirror image of tinfoil-hat ramblings about CIA black propaganda fooling the ‘sheeple’. Wild leaps of intuition - between protests against rising inequality, Palestine solidarity and Jew-hatred - are made, just as for the conventional conspiracy nut, ‘everything is connected’. The fact that a growing part of bourgeois ideological aggression takes the form of conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories is presumably not unconnected to the fact that the usual diet of lies and unexamined assumptions is hardly doing the job, in the age of Trump, Corbyn, Orban and Sanders.
As for the health of our own movement, we frankly need to get some perspective. Leftwing opinion is, occasionally, disfigured by conspiracy-theorism in its correction-resistant forms; but this is merely one of a vast range of heteroclite admixtures, from nationalism to identity politics to social imperialism to religion, and hardly the most serious. In all cases, the answer surely lies in part in a positively attractive alternative becoming available; but we can hardly expect a ranter like Cohen, or an ex-leftist and self-appointed unsatisfiable Freudian father like O’Neill, to help us out with that.
3. I’m arguing here on the basis of cybersecurity best practice, which is illustrative, for in spite of the usual media image of a young gentleman in a hoodie hunched over a laptop “hacking into the mainframe”, it is much more common that a human operator of the target system is fooled into giving over their password, allowing the gentleman in the hoodie to swan right in the front door.
4. We leave aside, this time, Spiked!’s initial spur to creation, when its predecessor was shut down by libel action stemming from their promotion of conspiracy theories about the Bosnian war, and its long (possibly ended) history of climate change denialism, which also probably counts as a conspiracy theory according to ‘common sense’. The point is that O’Neill is not called a conspiracy theorist on account of his belief that the left is anti-Semitic.
5. As is the fact that agitational focus on a named subset of the capitalist class long predates the end of the cold war; it was a standard feature of western European Stalinism, for example, to propose alliances with parts of the capitalist class against the “hundred families”, the big monopolies, or whatever else you like. This was hardly a good idea from the point of view of Marxist strategy, of course, but it makes a nonsense of O’Neill’s periodisation.