The articles on this blog also appear on
Check out Michael Laxer's new blog The Left Chapter

Monday, January 21, 2013

The externalized enemy: Conspiracy theories and the left

Imagine a world of absolutes of black and white. A world where a self-proclaimed group of people have discovered the truth, and have discovered that this truth is hidden from us by a powerful and frightening super-elite who are able to manipulate and control the actions of tens of millions of people and to get the media, the courts, the police and the "state" to do their bidding, seemingly without any serious effort. Imagine that, supposedly, those who are in the "know" but who turn against the powers that be, or those who innocently come across knowledge that they should not have had, are killed off. Imagine that this tiny overclass is responsible for what ails the world. They rig elections, assassinate leaders, pull off "inside jobs" etc.

A world where, presumably, if the people only understood this truth, could only grasp at this light in the midst of the dark night, they could discover how things really work, and then, apparently, do something about it.

Imagine this and you have entered into the realm of the conspiracy theory and conspiracy thinking.
From Sandy Hook to 9-11, from JFK to RFK, from the New World Order to the Zionist Occupied Government. From Masons to Rosicrucians. The narrative is always basically the same, the details matter less than you might think.

The world is governed by hidden and tremendously powerful forces that, to varying degrees depending on the theory, control everything or almost everything. They are capable of making anyone do their bidding, and notions of democracy, an independent judiciary and political class, are simply illusions held by the "sheep" that are the bulk of the population.

These ideas, these "theories" of society, are becoming increasingly widespread with the advent of the Internet and with the consolidation of neo-liberalism. They are permeating and effecting our political discourse. They are also, in one form or another, held by many of those who are on the "left" and they are a larger part of the "left" narrative than they have been, outside of the paranoid delusions of Communist regimes and their sycophants, since the modern left came into existence.

The purpose of this piece is not to attempt, at all, to debunk this or that specific conspiracy theory. That has been done elsewhere. It has also, for reasons we will return to, had little effect.

All grand conspiracy theories are equally and obviously false once subjected to any objective and reasoned analysis (1).  What renders this not obvious to those that hold them is the flawed narrative through which they construct their vision of the world and the way it works. Conspiracy theories are broadly and profoundly damaging to society as a whole. They are even more damaging to the basic socialist idea itself. They take systemic and real issues and transform them into sensationalistic and ultimately liberal fantasies about "dark forces". They provide the illusion that nothing could have been done to stop the "conspiracy" and that, therefore, "we" are not responsible. In doing so, oddly, they also let the liberal democratic system off the hook for social ills, as they basically claim that this system does not really exist.

Further, in an era where labour, both at home and internationally, the peoples of the Third World, and the very fabric of life on Earth itself due to accelerating climate change, are threatened by deregulated global state capitalism, these notions and theories do not at all confront the real problems that lie at the heart of our economic system; problems which are not a conspiracy, they are the basis of our economy.

When it comes to conspiracy thinking and the way it frames the world, no way of thinking could actually be further from the "truth".

The fallacies of neo-conspiracy thinking

Conspiracy theories, or what I think could be termed neo-conspiracy thinking, in that it takes an ages old interpretation of how the system supposedly is structured and simply updates it to a modern context and modern events, manifests itself in several ways, all of which are interconnected. (2)

While notions influenced by conspiracy thinking sometimes infiltrate more minor elements of  political discourse (3), the better known, and more obvious manifestations of it are centered around specific events such as the 9-11 attacks, the JFK assassination, the Sandy Hook shootings, and so on. Theories around these alleged conspiracies are usually way points to the greater narrative that the theorist or "movement" sees as the motives behind the event.

The grand conspiracy narrative is the destination point. These are actually thinly disguised ideologies that claim that the "people" are being oppressed and duped by a relatively tiny cabal that is the real, hidden force behind the complex, disturbing and bewildering tapestry of events and tragedies that is life and society in modernity. This cabal, and it really does not matter who the cabal is, the theories are all essentially identical anyway, "perverts" democracy, the nation, the economy, the constitution, the "race" or whatever it is that the theorist feels is being destroyed.

Related to these very focused notions of specific evil overlords are ideologies that appear and claim to have a broader analytic framework, but whose analysis is so mechanistic and simplistic that they are de facto conspiracy theories. All fascist and neo-fascist ideas are like this, with their talk of "vested interests", the Jews, the Federal Reserve, etc. So too are crass pseudo-"Marxist" narratives or narratives like the notion of the 1 percent (4) that see the state and its structures as some kind of direct arm of the capitalist class and whose concept of how modern society functions seems as if they live in the Moscow of Ivan the Terrible.

In other words, these ideas necessitate a belief in a set of specific "bad guys" whose exposure and overthrow is, presumably, the goal.This is not, at all, how society is actually structured, works or can be changed, a point to which we will return.

In addition, one of the primary and central mythologies of the movements and theories is that no one will listen and that, due to a media blackout (the media is always a key player in conspiracy theories, and all the major figures and outlets of the media have to be seen as tools of those "really" running things in order for the theories to "work" at all) their voices are not being heard. A corollary to this is the notion that if only they were allowed to get the message out, and if only they could expose the "secret" knowledge that they have acquired and accumulated, this would prove that they are right, and everything would change.

Given how widespread belief in conspiracies of one type or another is in North America right now, and given that actual majorities of the population believe in part, or in total, in many specific conspiracies, this is obviously not true. It is, however, an essential component of the conspiracist belief system as part of the appeal is the notion that you "know" truths that others don't and that those who question you or feel that your claims do not warrant discussion (and only people without a real understanding of concepts of science, history and sociology think that all ideas are of potentially equal merit) are either in on it or have been fooled. To paraphrase the tag-line of the paranoid conspiracy theory driven TV series of the 90's, the X-Files, people "want to believe".  It serves a psychological need.

This ties into the dependence of these ideas and theories on credulity. The lack of media coverage is seen as "proof" of what they are saying. Surely, if the media was not in on it they would at least be willing to look at their "claims". This has a satisfyingly democratic ring to it and appeals to those who think that everyone's ideas, no matter how absurd, should be heard. (5)

It is also indicative of how their "evidence" is presented in general. Their theories do not depend on evidence at all. Because the powerful can manipulate everything, in some cases tiny bits of proof are taken as "smoking guns" even when they are massively outweighed by the rest of the evidence, and sometimes the very lack of evidence is actually seen as evidence!

As Steven Novella wrote on the Skepticblog:

The world is a complex and chaotic place, and our ability to make sense of it all is limited by comparison. We like, however, to have a sense of control, so we look for patterns and ways to predict what will happen in this chaotic world. Superstitions are one way to deal with the chaos, and conspiracy theories are another. They are both forms of pattern seeking behavior. The illusion of pattern that leads to the illusion of understanding and therefore control is psychologically appealing. But it is all a neuropsychological illusion.
Rigorous logic and empirical methods need to be applied to let us distinguish real patterns from fake or coincidental ones. Conspiracy thinking is the opposite of rigorous logic. It employs conspiracy logic, which can turn any evidence against a conspiracy or lack of evidence for a conspiracy into evidence for the conspiracy. Conspiracy thinking is a closed  mental feedback loop. There is no way out from within the conspiracy mindset itself.
This is why these ideas, theories and ideological narratives are tremendously resilient versus overwhelming evidence to contradict them. While debunking specific conspiracy claims, and pointing out their absurdity, is still worthwhile as it may prevent people from entering into the mental feedback loop to begin with, it is of only limited effect upon not only those who are already within the mindset, but also against the broader spread of conspiracy thinking socially.

The confusion of the systemic with the "system"

Liberal democratic society, with its illusions of equality of opportunity and its deeply ingrained notion (especially within the North American context) of the power of the individual as an independent agent, has always had problems with a real understanding of class and the nature of systemic oppression.

In so far as most North Americans acknowledge that there are institutional limits and obstacles to individual achievement they most often acknowledge this through narratives that consist of the individual being "screwed" by the "system" in some way, whether it is through bureaucracy, taxes, by-laws, the courts, the police, etc.

North Americans, therefore, are prone to talk about obstacles to the individual, often in a very libertarian way that sees the individual as outside of the system and in struggle against it, as opposed to acknowledging that all individuals live within the same context, that this context is very complex, and that, socially, there is no escape from it.

When Marx famously wrote of how "the generations of the dead weigh like a nightmare upon the brains of the living", this was what he meant. People "make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past".

We act as independent agents within a context, a context that is not of our choosing, and a context that both informs and limits our actions.

This is not a system per se, and it does not directly "govern" our actions or force them. Nor does it directly govern the actions of the courts, media, police, and so on. Rather it frames them.

Systemic injustices of class, sexism, racism and colonialism are very real, and terribly violent and oppressive. That they are real is easily demonstrable. However they are not "controlled" by anyone, nor do they have some committee of the state that tells everyone what to do. They are woven into the fabric of society itself. They are hegemonic in the same way that neo-liberal ideology has become.
To some degree or another they influence the actions of all citizens and movements and turning the tide against them involves not simply working together to overcome social institutions of oppression and power, but also to overcome these ideas within ourselves. It is not a battle against an "other" it is a battle against our own society and our own collectively inherited ideas and institutions. This is what has made it such an historically difficult struggle (6).

In addition, class itself in North America is more complex than it has ever been. The traditional proletariat no longer constitutes anywhere near a majority of the population, and notions of the working and middle classes have become hopelessly entwined in our political discourse.  There is no worker's movement that bears any meaningful class or social relationship to the worker's movements of fifty years ago, and the left has not only to struggle against misconceptions of who is or is not "working class" and who thinks they are or are not "middle class", it also  has to struggle against the elevation of the individual to a pedestal of philosophical predominance socially.

Conspiracy theories and thinking, as well as mechanistic visions of society, inhibit real efforts to understand the amazingly diverse, contradictory and  overlapping strands of various social forces and oppressions. They also obscure the reasons why people seem so often to act against their own apparent social interests.

By seeking to place the individual (whether described as such, or as a part of an enlightened or historically destined group) in an external, almost Atlas Shrugged style battle against the Prometheus of the "state" or the "ruling class" or "vested interests", whatever it/they might be, these ideas are inherently individualistic, alienating and dis-empowering.

It is not at all surprising that these notions have become more widespread with the consolidation of neo-liberalism as a hegemonic ideology, as pillars of community and collectivity have not only been dismantled, they have been vilified. As all mainstream political parties now embrace neo-liberalism, these parties have also aided in creating a sense of personal dis-empowerment among many citizens as well as in the seeming futility of the political process, parliamentary or otherwise.

Why conspiracy theories are harmful to the left 

When confronted by conspiracy theories  there is a temptation, as Noam Chomsky has done, to point out the obvious.

So what? Even if the theories are true, which Chomsky thinks is absurd, who cares? What difference would it make?

And, of course, he is correct.

If you believe, as a majority of the population of the United States does, that JFK was assassinated by a conspiracy, even if this was conclusively proven tomorrow, what difference would it make?

Fifty years later, and given that most of the Oliver Stone myths about how "progressive" he was (the president who was behind the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis) are obviously false, who cares?

The 9-11 Truthers face the same problem. Bush is no longer president. Obama has won two terms and has carried on the "War on Terror" with equal vigour. Not only does it no longer matter if 9-11 was an "inside job", if it was revealed to be so, what would this accomplish? Electing another Democratic president who will continue to do what his predecessors did?

To a degree, however, this misses the point, especially when it comes to the impact of these theories on leftist and socialist movements and ideas.

These theories propose that, even if it is not the Bushes or the long dead people who supposedly engineered the assassination of Kennedy, there is someone who is controlling it all. There is some group of people who need to be thrown out or eliminated, and once they are, the system, society, civilization, the nation, or what have you, will "work" and, presumably, freedom and justice of some kind will reign.

This is entirely analogous to medieval notions that if you kill the "bad" king, then a "good" king will make it all better.

But this is false.

Leftism and socialist thought is about ending systemic injustice through a long and difficult struggle to shift the consciousness of everyone away from the systems of oppression that permeate our discourse and social interaction. It is about fundamentally altering class relations. It is about changing a social order, a task that requires mass collective democratic action and that sees individual action only in the context of a long-term collective democratic struggle.

There is no "good" king or leader. All the kings or leaders within the context of neo-liberalism and capitalism, to one degree or another, are bad.

Conspiracy theories and neo-conspiracy thinking undermine the fight against systemic injustice and towards socialist ideas. They do so by making that struggle about a specific event, group-of-people or simplistically constructed overclass/ruling class. They do so by replacing concepts of systemic injustice with reductionist myths about "the system". They do so by creating narratives that make mass popular action and building a long term alternative to capitalism and systemic injustice seemingly irrelevant and meaningless and instead lay emphasis on the actions of individuals or small groups of individuals in the "know" acting against equally small groups of people who are the "enemy". This is the antithesis of constructive, democratic mass anti-capitalist political parties and movements.

In the end, we cannot defeat capitalism, social stratification, racism and sexism by getting rid of "bad people".

There are no short cuts.

We can only do it by changing people's consciousness and society as a whole.

(1) For clarification, one of the methods that conspiracy theorists use to sow doubt and confuse is to point out that, historically, countless conspiracies have occurred. This is obviously true. They exist today as well. There are criminal conspiracies to do any number of things, and these sometimes involve governments and elected officials. They also involve groups like the CIA and FBI which have, without any doubt, engaged in illegal and secret conduct. For reasons the article will make clear, however, this has nothing to do with the notion of a society and a power elite that is a product of and that depends upon a conspiracy to exist. These two notions are qualitatively different.

Further, while acknowledging that conspiracies have historically existed, the difference between studying actual conspiracies and what conspiracy thinking represents is that the conspiracy theories filter events within the context of a broader overarching grand conspiracy, as opposed to understanding them within the context of broad societal structural and systemic factors.

(2) Often critiques of conspiracy thinking descend into debates about whether they are more often right or left-wing or whether they are more likely to flow out of a left or right analysis. Jonathan Kay's otherwise excellent book, Among the Truthers, for example, is derailed by his totally unnecessary insistence that the left is more to "blame". This is an ultimately uninteresting debate, because in reality they are neither. Left or right conspiracy thinkers and theories have far more in common than do genuine left and right ideologies, and they overlap to such a degree that they function as wings of a worldview entirely separate from mainstream notions of ideology at all.

(3) An example of how these notions, even in a minor context, can stand rational thinking on its head can be found in those who felt that Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal NDP, had been "bought" by the Israel lobby due to the fact that he received a handful of relatively minor donations from some prominent figures within it and because his riding has a sizable alleged pro-Israel voting block. They saw him as an external threat to the NDP who was under the influence of external forces. They never considered the far more likely notion that these donors donated because of Mulcair's already existing beliefs, and  that Mulcair, who had been brought into the party in a leadership role by Layton, was a leadership contender not because of external forces, but due to forces entirely internal to the NDP that had been shifting the party for decades. Mulcair was a symptom, a part of a process, as opposed to the sole or even primary agent of this process. Otherwise, he would not have won the leadership.

(4) I realize that it is highly controversial to describe the 1 Percent slogan of the Occupy movement as a crass narrative or a conspiracy theory, though in every meaningful sense, if taken literally, it is. I have written about this before, and critiqued the slogan in a piece published on Rabble early last year. For those who have and who will claim that the slogan is just a rhetorical tool one only need point out that all such reductionist ideas are rhetorical flourishes. That does not make them any less false and nor does it change that fact that many in the movement or who are supportive of it will see it as the literal truth. A slogan that is basically false as a theory of society is not in the long-term interests of a genuine democratic movement.

(5) As Issac Asimov once said "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.""

(6) The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, as part of its definition of social and systemic oppression puts it this way: " Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behavior directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of blacks and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behavior. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination."