Truth shall make you free
According to the latest conspiracy theories, Covid-19 is a bioweapon leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, introduced into China by a US spy team or caused by electromagnetic radiation. There have been dozens of attacks on 5G masts and engineers in Britain. Why do people believe in such nonsense? Edmund Griffiths investigates
What is a ‘conspiracy theory’? The naive interpretation would be that it is any explanation of an event that makes reference to a conspiracy - that is, to two or more people planning in secret to carry out some illegal or malign action.
But this does not come close to capturing the distinction between ideas we are inclined to label as conspiracy theories and those we are not. There is, for example, no plausible or even possible account of the 9/11 attacks that does not involve somebody conspiring with somebody else to carry them out (we are hardly to imagine the hijackers all just happening to board those flights on the same day and discovering to their surprise that other people had come up with the same idea). So, if a conspiracy theory simply means a theory that there was a conspiracy, we cannot use it to distinguish the belief that the hijackers conspired with George W Bush from the belief that they conspired with Osama bin Laden - or merely with one another. Every description of 9/11 necessarily mentions a conspiracy, but we would not ordinarily use the term ‘conspiracy theory’ in relation to all of them indiscriminately. (The only circumstances under which we might would be if we were ourselves believers in ‘9/11 Truth’ and wanted to pull a rhetorical move along the lines of ‘All the theories are conspiracy theories - now we only need to decide who we think the conspirators really were.’)
And there are even acknowledged conspiracy theories that barely contain anything we would really want to call a conspiracy. Take the claim that the US government retrieved a crashed flying saucer outside Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and performed autopsies on the bodies of its alien occupants. It is not illegal, or even discreditable, for public authorities to investigate the site of an air disaster, recover the wreckage and carry out appropriate forensic work on the dead passengers and crew - they might even expose themselves to criticism if they did anything else. The Roswell story only becomes a conspiracy theory at all because of the claim that what happened was then elaborately covered up.
And something similar can be said about the widely-rehearsed conspiracy theory to the effect that the Apollo moon landings were faked. It is not a crime to fail to send space rockets to the moon: it is something all governments do most of the time, and most governments do all of the time. Once again, the alleged cover-up is the only conspiracy in question.
It would be understandable to conclude that ‘conspiracy theory’ is simply an insult, and does not point to any definable group of belief systems beyond ones which the person using it wants to portray as deluded. But this is not quite right. I cannot describe any belief I choose as a conspiracy theory, just because I disagree with it: it would sound very strange to call Keynesianism or Methodism a conspiracy theory - or at least you would expect me to justify it with some novel analysis of those belief systems, showing how the label was applicable after all. Conspiracy theories certainly cannot be defined simply as theories involving conspiracies, given that involving a conspiracy is neither a sufficient nor perhaps even a necessary condition; but the term does not function purely as an insult. To see more clearly what these ideas have in common, and why they enjoy such current popularity, we shall need to examine a few cases in slightly more detail.
It makes sense to begin with the widespread group of beliefs in which any disorder, failure or dissent is put down to the secret machinations of professor Moriarty or Dr Fu-Manchu - outside agitators, Russian hackers or the Trotskyite-Zinovievite gang of diversionists and wreckers.
This kind of outlook obviously relies on a very strong sense of the existing authorities’ competence and self-evident goodness. Without that, it loses its coherence. If the government were not so wise, a certain level of accident and conflict would seem natural; if it were not so shiningly benevolent, we would not be surprised to find that some people oppose it. But, if we are firmly convinced that the government - or at least the establishment - is indeed a paragon of excellence, then the hidden spite of its enemies becomes a very useful explanation, whenever difficulties do arise. Nor need this always be a conscious attempt to mislead or make excuses. Very probably a lot of white racists in the American south did sincerely believe that all the fuss about civil rights had been got up by ‘outside agitators’, so as to cause trouble. (In general, people who benefit from a social order are quite likely to regard its rightness and justice as beyond reproach: they will not usually be consciously lying when they affirm that they deserve everything they have.)
The wise and benevolent authorities who feature in these ‘Moriartian’ beliefs need not always be identified with the specific personnel occupying particular political offices. In the Trump-Russia case, believers in the all-powerful machinations of the Kremlin certainly do not intend to shield Donald Trump himself from criticism. On the contrary, they view him as a monstrous anomaly, whom they are reluctant even to acknowledge as their president. The conspiracy theory serves to defend not his honour, but that of the Obama-era status quo, by allowing believers to assert at once that Trump is an abomination who needs to be resisted with all possible vigour and that American politics was nonetheless broadly on the right track up until the very moment when he came down the fancy escalator in the summer of 2015.
The emergence of a victorious mass movement for Trumpism is not, on this reading, symptomatic of any wider social ills that might call for any wider social change to put them right: in fact, it tells us nothing about America. Were it not for the diabolical cleverness of Moscow’s internet-enabled puppet masters, all might have been well.
As it happens, this closely resembles ideas that enjoyed wide circulation among the ‘red-brown’ opposition in Russia itself following the Soviet collapse. For people whose dearest wish was somehow to return to the old days - the old, golden days, when an honest politburo had presided benignly over the affairs of the USSR and the hand of Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko had guided the tiller - it was unsettling to reflect that the whole magnificent system had been only a few years away from spontaneously unravelling. Gorbachev’s rise to high office had already begun. How can the stagnation-era Soviet Union have been the good society we all yearn for, if it contained the seeds of its own destruction in such a state of ripeness? The answer is the familiar one. It did not really collapse: it was cut down by the nefarious plots of its enemies. Perestroika was a trick dreamt up by agents of the CIA. Discontent in the republics and at the centre was artfully fanned by networks of manipulators: Yeltsin-America.
If we now transpose these ideas from the earth to the heavens, so that we are talking about plots against the Kingdom of God rather than (exclusively) against worldly governments, we will obtain a reasonably good account of the ideology that underpinned the great witch-hunts. In itself, belief in the existence of witchcraft is very widespread. The anthropological literature has sometimes distinguished witchcraft from sorcery, on the basis that in one case the alleged power to do harm is innate in the practitioner, while in the other it requires the use of particular magical ingredients. This nicety seems to be more relevant in some cases than in others, however, and it would be a shame to have to insist that the weird sisters’ reliance on eye of newt and toe of frog meant Macbeth had really only met three ‘sorcerers’.
But, while witches have often been thought to be real and while their supposed activities have often been feared and deplored, these attitudes have not generally led to systematic witch-hunting, as we know it from early modern Europe and North America. The extra element required for something like the classic witch-hunts is the proposition that witches constitute an organised movement, with its meetings and internal discipline, under the leadership of the Devil. Witches here are not private criminals motivated solely by greed, malice or vendetta: they are militants in a worldwide (in fact, a cosmic) army, drawn up and placed under centralised command to do battle for evil against good.
Cotton Mather, the theorist of the Salem witch trials, writes in The wonders of the invisible world (1693):
... there is a sort of Arbitrary, even Military Government, among the Devils ... Think on vast Regiments of cruel and bloody French Dragoons, with an Intendant over them, overrunning a pillaged Neighbourhood, and you will think a little, what the Constitution among the Devils is.
I do not have all the evidence to hand, but I would hypothesise that organised, large-scale persecution of alleged witches is only found in the context of a monotheist world view, where there is little room for the existence of minor, independent spiritual powers, and any power that does not come from God must therefore be suspected of coming from Satan.
Witches do not in fact exist, but political activists and foreign governments do - and on occasion they act without advertising the fact, so that the allegation they are behind some particular event will not always be false. Neither will it inevitably be driven by Moriartianism of the kind we have been discussing. The clearest indication that we are dealing with a belief system of the ‘witch-hunt’ or ‘Moscow trials’ type is when the putative underground network of agitators starts spreading out and ramifying from accusation to accusation, in the process becoming ever more powerful - and ever more blatantly motivated by sheer malice, rather than by any identifiable agenda.
“Trotskyism is not what it was, let us say, seven or eight years ago,” said Stalin in a 1937 speech (published as Defects in party work and measures for liquidating Trotskyite and other double-dealers). “Trotskyism has ceased to be a political tendency within the working class” and instead “has transformed into a frenzied and unprincipled band of wreckers, diversionists, spies and killers,” whose real programme is “concealed [...] not only from the working class, but also from the Trotskyist rank and file as well; and not only from the Trotskyist rank and file, but even from the upper Trotskyist leadership, comprised of a small group of 30 or 40 people” (shades of Cotton Mather and the military government among the devils).
The crimes of which Trotsky’s followers are accused have become so multifarious and exotic that they no longer make any sense as attempts to implement Trotsky’s programme: the whole faction is painted as an army of malevolent dupes, seduced by the old Adversary into waging war for its own sake against everything progressive and admirable. And, when ‘Russian hackers’ come to be blamed for an ever wider range of political and cultural phenomena, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the same mental processes are at work. (I have even seen it put forward, in apparent seriousness, that Russia is behind all these conspiracy theories.)
Much of the logic of these Moriartian belief systems is also discernible in the (perhaps more interesting) ‘moon hoax’ or ‘Bush did 9/11’ variety of conspiracy theories - but in these the sinister plotters are identified no longer as an opposition, but as a government. It may be the visible government, but it does not have to be. The visible government in its parliaments and palaces is just as commonly seen as a mere façade, with the real decisions being taken behind the scenes by authorities (the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group) whose control and even existence may be concealed from the trusting population. Either way, the witches and devils and frenzied wreckers are now in power, the Napoleon of crime sits on the throne of the real Napoleon, and we all find ourselves in the unfortunate position of the neighbourhood that was being pillaged by Hell’s bloody dragoons.
If the witches are in power, then it follows that the way the world is publicly presented to us is one vast cover story designed to screen the hellish reality from our eyes; and the truth - the actual identity and purposes of our rulers - must be a closely-guarded secret:
Tell me now [to misquote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow] in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem
(‘A psalm of life’, 1838).
The alleged lies or conspiracies that are exposed do not always need to be very dramatic or even very evil. (They would, in any case, struggle to outdo some of the atrocities governments commit publicly: the most enthusiastic of the ‘9/11 Truthers’ do not claim that Bush killed more people in New York than he uncontroversially admitted to have killed in Iraq, or that the victims in the World Trade Center were any more innocent.) In principle, any secret will do. Any ‘glitch in the Matrix’ is enough to reveal that things are not what they seem, that the world we think we live in is a fabrication; and the main secret truth - the one on which all the others depend - is that there are secret truths in the first place.
Ideas of this kind can best be described as a particular variant of esotericism - the belief in secret truths that are radically distinct from the exoteric public truth. The nature of the distinction varies. In some esotericisms - the mystery religions, the Church of Scientology - the public truth is not exactly a lie: it may be the closest approach to the truth that the uninitiated masses are able to handle. But the type of esotericism that is relevant at present is the type (which it is reasonable to call ‘negative’ esotericism), where the two truths - the public and the private - are indeed fundamentally opposed, where the public truth is a malicious deception.
Just as with Moriartianism, a specific allegation that people in power have been conspiring or lying is neither always esotericist nor always false. Members of the ruling class do sometimes conspire; the left, too, has been known to conspire. Nobody disputes that conspiracies sometimes happen. But, as with Moriartianism, it is when the allegations become systemic and universal, when the particular lie grows into a whole secret world order, that we can conclude we are in the presence of an esotericist belief system.
I do not, incidentally, mean to imply when I use the word ‘esotericism’ that esotericists must always believe they know what the secret truth is. They often do believe so; but all they need to believe is that a secret truth exists and that the public truth is a veil preventing us from seeing it. It is perfectly possible to be an esotericist, to believe that the truth is a secret, without claiming to know it in full: ‘I have no idea who really did kill Kennedy, but it wasn’t Oswald acting alone - that’s just the cover story!’
This is why we should not be surprised to find that people who blame 5G masts for the symptoms of Covid-19 are also open to the idea that, say, the virus does really exist, but it was cooked up in a lab somewhere. The driving emotional force behind such claims is not usually a firm commitment to any specific doctrine in virology or electromagnetic field theory, any more than advocates of ‘9/11 Truth’ typically hold other, unrelated opinions about the properties of structural steel: it is a much more general sense that the authorities are covering up the truth, about this subject as about everything else, so that - whatever the real truth about Covid may be - it will certainly not be the story we are officially told.
Once again, we only need to perform a simple transposition from things earthly to things heavenly to unearth a rich vein of historical forerunners for the belief systems we are examining. Gnosticism (from gnosis - knowledge) is an umbrella term applied to a number of religious movements that flourished in late antiquity, and that have become better known in modern times since a library of broadly Gnostic documents was unearthed in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The Nag Hammadi library contains a range of texts, not all of them originally Gnostic - even an extract from Plato’s Republic is included.
Fortunately, the detailed literary history of the documents does not need to concern us here. For our purposes, the most relevant aspect of Gnosticism is the account of the creation of the world and of humanity, as we find it set out, for example, in Nag Hammadi II, 4 (The hypostasis of the Archons) and II, 5 (The untitled writing). The Gnostic creation story draws heavily on the first chapters of the biblical book of Genesis - but, in sharp opposition to the canonical text, the creator here is portrayed as ignorant, selfish and infantile. The real God is far away, outside the prison world of the creator: his agents can at most occasionally enter this world in disguise, bringing knowledge of the true state of affairs to the souls who are trapped here. Jesus was one such agent, breaking through into the fake world of the ‘rulers’ (archon) and the ‘authorities’ (exousia). But the serpent in the Garden of Eden was another (‘the serpent, the teacher’): why else would it encourage Adam to eat of the tree of gnosis of good and evil? And why else would it be right (“Your eyes shall be opened”, Genesis iii:5) and God wrong (“in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”, Genesis ii:17) about the consequences of eating it (“the eyes of them both were opened”, Genesis. iii:7)? The attitude of the Gnostic writers to the Bible is precisely that of ‘9/11 Truthers’ and so on to the output of the news media. They do not simply disregard it: but they treat it as a tissue of misrepresentations and cover stories - one that must be read consistently against the grain to uncover the real truth about the unattractive being who is presented there as the God of Heaven.
Fully-fledged negative esotericism is analytically distinct from the Moriartian belief in a sinister, plotting opposition: but it can grow out of it - and in fact I suspect that is the usual case. Certainly the floridly esotericist Russian ‘imperial patriotic’ movement of the 1990s subsequently developed like that, as soon as it was no longer possible to believe that any ‘deep state’ was about to come to the rescue.
The historical origins of Gnosticism are obscure. But it would be convenient to agree with the hypothesis of the late RM Grant (Gnosticism and early Christianity, 1959) that it began as a version of Jewish apocalypticism, modified by the experience of defeat in the revolt against Rome in 66-70. The war of the ‘sons of light’ against the ‘sons of darkness’ had finally happened - a war in which the sons of darkness had enjoyed a great preponderance of worldly strength (as it had always been anticipated that they would), but in which the creator and ruling power of the universe had quite unexpectedly failed to intervene on the side of the sons of light. Such an outcome was almost bound to raise difficult questions about the management of creation as a whole. The devils and demons and the powers of the lie were not just a scheming opposition, destined to be crushed underfoot by the true god: perhaps they were themselves the ‘rulers’, the ‘authorities’, of this world, and God was a distant exile.
The similarity between witch-hunting and aspects of Gnosticism was perceived as early as the 16th century by Reginald Scot, whose The discoverie of witchcraft (1584) contains sceptical arguments against the “witch-moongers” of the day, as well as instructions on a selection of conjuring tricks readers could use - if they were brave enough - to amaze and entertain their friends. Scot writes that the Marcionists (followers of the Gnostic or Gnostic-adjacent theologian, Marcion of Sinope) “acknowledged one God the author of good things, and another the ordeiner of evill: but these make the divell a whole god”.
His argument could have been a little stronger if he had had access to the Nag Hammadi material, where we find a variant of cosmological dualism that has more in common with the “witch-moongers” than Marcion’s necessarily does; but the general point is a valid one. And a very clear case of the development from one type of conspiracy theory to the other is provided by the Protocols strand of anti-Semitism, where an image of Jews as secret rulers of the world is superimposed onto the older idea of Jews as saboteurs, criminals and opponents of the legitimate Christian monarchy.
People occasionally say that the appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a kind of comfort: ‘At least there’s somebody in charge.’ This fails utterly to account for the affective or emotional character of negative esotericism, as we find it in the published material. The best explanation I have heard for its prevalence is that it is not really even trying to be an accurate analysis - it is a bit of veiled polemic, designed to annoy conspiracy theorists who hear it (‘You think you’re so anti the system, but really you just want a comfort blanket’).
We should not, however, overlook the fact that believing in negative esotericism can be enjoyable in other ways. A secret is extremely attractive and interesting in itself, even when the actual content is trivial or thin. And well-written esotericist propaganda often interweaves the alleged cover story with the putative inner truth in such a way that we keep recognising things we have always known, but in an intriguingly different context, where the moral valuations are all inverted - Nag Hammadi II, 5 does this brilliantly.
Even in day-to-day life, we are probably all sometimes inclined to imagine that whatever is private and secret is more likely to be true than the things we are told to our faces. If you tell me (very kindly) that you enjoyed my article in the Weekly Worker, and then I happen to overhear you saying to somebody else. ‘What a load of old rubbish. The Weekly Worker’s really gone downhill if it’s printing that’, I will almost certainly conclude that the second one represents your actual opinion. In fact, it may not. Perhaps you want to ingratiate yourself with someone you think has a grudge against me or the paper; perhaps you find a pose of general carping and disgruntlement gains you a reputation as an incisive critic. All I know for sure is that you said one thing to one person and the opposite to another, so that you were certainly speaking insincerely to at least one of us. (It could, of course, be both: you may not have got to the end of the article at all, or have formed no strong view about it.) But the instinct to imagine that people must be lying to our faces and telling the truth behind our backs is not always an easy one to overcome.
And the instinct is much strengthened when the hope that the people in power are competent and benign becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, while non-esotericist explanations (such as Marxism) enjoy only a limited audience. The wide dissemination of negative esotericist belief systems today has the effect of diverting many people’s stirrings of discontent into channels that are potentially highly dangerous (conspiracy theories of both main types have been used to scapegoat innocent or imaginary groups, with catastrophic consequences) and at best ineffectual. If the power of the evil authorities is intimately bound up with their secrecy, if evil power is in fact by its nature a power veiled in secrets and cover stories, then it comes to seem natural that exposing the secret will itself cause the dreaded power to dissolve.
So negative esotericists frequently devote themselves to trying to publicise the secrets they believe they have uncovered: if everybody knew the truth, the secret rulers would be rendered powerless. We would all emerge blinking into the sunlight of a world where we knew who had really assassinated president Kennedy, and where we would therefore be liberated from the reign of the lie. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John viii:32).
A Marxist must retort to this that it will not, or at least not on its own. Power depends on real material relations, not on secrecy and tricks; and the things the conspiracy theories are not telling you certainly include how capitalist society actually works, along with how it might be possible to change it. The challenge for socialists and communists is to find ways of countering the undoubted appeal of esotericist conspiracy theories with this-worldly, material analyses and solutions.