The Conspiracy Problem

Everyone who has spent any passing amount of time in leftist movements, especially ones with a relatively weak leadership, will have encountered a good many cases of the conspiracy problem. By this I mean those cases in which one encounters people who have developed on the one hand an appropriate skeptical notion of the state, bureaucracy, the newspapers and television, and so forth; who are aware that the purpose of our states is to manipulate, lie, and cajole us into the perpetuation of the rule of the few; and who go beyond mere apathy or platitudes in response to this in order to seek out underlying causes. Yet these people, for whatever reason, develop a deformed kind of consciousness. In a sense, they overdo it. Where they know the mendacious, superficial, and pointless talk of international diplomacy and the proclamations of national leaders to be such, they do not seek out the underlying forces, but proclaim it is all conceived of by the secret agents of the Illuminati. Where they correctly perceive the forces of capital to move ever further to a unified form of rule, compelled to ever greater concentration by the power of competition, they do not look into the political economy of the matter, but blame the New World Order. Where they have done away with the superstitions of organized religion and no longer accept orders from obscurantist clergymen, they do not proceed to understand religion as a social phenomenon, but ascribe devilish conspiratorial powers to the Vatican or to Islam. Instead of understanding capitalist rule as a class phenomenon, they blame the Jews. And rather than meaningfully trace the origins of the military-industrial complex to the transformations wrought by the Second World War and the impact of the rise of ‘organisational research’, they hunt for UFOs. And so forth.

This can easily lead some to despair; it is no joy to work to organize large numbers of people around common principles which will bring them in confrontation with the logic of capital, and to try and get them to recognize this as such, only to be interrupted by those who assure you it’s no use because all things are controlled by Bill Clinton via the Bilderberg Group. Equally, some are quite happy just to shrug this off and to ignore the loonies, as one ignores the religious fanatics intent on making converts that flock to any large public meeting or activism, especially longer term ones like the Occupy movement. But there is more to it than this. Precisely because these people often have quite good political instincts, and because they are capable of critical thought in a larger range, it will not do just to throw them away over the limited range on which they descend into the inane. After all, a UFO-hunter may well laugh at Jew conspiracies, and a believer in the New World Order is hardly bound to accept homeopathy, and so forth. Political or nonpolitical, these kind of fads and crazes are not necessarily mutually supportive. It would be more interesting if socialists could come to a better understanding of the mechanisms that cause people to be diverted in the first processes of developing a critical consciousness.

I have no readymade ideas or recipes for this myself, but I think it is something not often enough talked about, despite the frequency of such confrontations not only in left-wing meetings and working groups, but also on mailing lists, websites, and forum discussions. It can be very frustrating how one nutcase can disturb the productivity of a debate or meeting on a serious issue such as international relations or monetary policy (and I certainly count the gold standard fanatics under this); but equally, the left itself often is derided as crazy and dangerous for its critical notions. Ideally, we should develop good ideas on how to distinguish ourselves from conspiratorial lunacy while equally developing tools on how to re-divert such conspiracy craze of one sort or another into more meaningful political and social thought, even if we don’t necessarily agree with the specifics. There are certainly reasons to believe that the stronger such conspiratorial type thinking, the more this is a sign of an underdeveloped critical left, one in embryo but not (yet) able to be born fully. This is how Friedrich Engels briefly alluded to similar phenomena in his day, in the context of the rise of early Christianity compared to the rise of early socialism:

Everybody who has known by experience the European working-class movement in its beginnings will remember dozens of similar examples. Today such extreme cases, at least in the large centres, have become impossible; but in remote districts where the movement has won new ground a small Peregrinus of this kind can still count on a temporary limited success. And just as all those who have nothing to look forward to from the official world or have come to the end of their tether with it — opponents of inoculation, supporters of abstemiousness, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, nature-healers, free-community preachers whose communities have fallen to pieces, authors of new theories on the origin of the universe, unsuccessful or unfortunate inventors, victims of real or imaginary injustice who are termed “good-for-nothing pettifoggers” by all bureaucracy, honest fools and dishonest swindlers — all throng to the working-class parties in all countries — so it was with the first Christians. All the elements which had been set free, i.e., at a loose end, by the dissolution of the old world came one after the other into the orbit Christianity as the only element that resisted that process of dissolution — for the very reason that it was the necessary product of that process — and that therefore persisted and grew while the other elements were but ephemeral flies. There was no fanaticism, no foolishness, no scheming that did not flock to the young Christian communities and did not at least for a time and in isolated places find attentive ears and willing believers. And like our first communist workers’ associations the early Christians too took with such unprecedented gullibility to anything which suited their purpose that we are not even sure that some fragment or other of the “great number of works” that Peregrinus wrote for Christianity did not find its way into our New Testament.

(1) (By Peregrinus, Engels is referring to the story of a swindler who reportedly became a popular Christian bishop among the early Christians in Asia Minor.)

Similarly, it has been suggested that the “paranoid style” is popular particularly in the United States, and if true, this could well be a product of a sort of embryonic or quasi-stillborn socialist consciousness. It is hard to find any objective data on the persistence or frequency, let alone the origins, of conspiratorial and nonpolitical silliness; after all, it is too much in the eye of the beholder for most social scientists to deal with. But as people with a clear political view and a materialist philosophy, socialists should be able to politically engage with this, at least subjectively. This is not to suggest that political conspiracy is in any way unique to the left – see, for example, the astonishing popularity of the opportunistic conspiracy nonsense about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Nonetheless, we must especially develop tools to prevent ourselves from opportunistically jumping on a conspiracy bandwagon because it happens to fit our preconceived political scheme – an interesting example of this can be found in the case of Daniel Estulin’s visit to Cuba. An equal threat is the ability of cultist-type leaders to disorganize real political movements by creating conspiracy sects around themselves, as in the case of Lyndon Larouche. It behooves us as those often derided as crazy ourselves, as people who are outside the political mainstream, and equally as critical thinkers about society, to have a manner of dealing with the question.

1) Friedrich Engels, “On the History of Early Christianity” (1894-1895).

Greece: The Domino Falls?

KKE banners on the Akropolis

KKE banners flutter on the Akropolis, calling on the peoples of Europe to rise up. A general strike has paralyzed the country; hundreds of thousands are on the march or stopped work; foreign leaders express their dismay; the government considers a national unity cabinet. Surely this must have been the scenario feared by the Royalists and reactionaries in the Greek Civil War, and by the colonels in their coup of 1967. But thanks to the greatest economic crisis capitalism has caused since the 1930s, it has become reality in the Hellenic Republic in these staid times of ‘liberal democracy’. With the financial and economic crisis hitting the debtor nations the hardest, the Greek government has been utterly unable to pay its outstanding debts and in order to save the European common currency it has to negotiate with its creditors in Europe and the IMF for a ‘bailout’ rescue plan if it is not to declare bankruptcy altogether. In first instance, it seemed a rescue package worth several billions spread over several tranches would be sufficient to save the Greek government’s financial position, but with economic conditions deteriorating by the day even these have not sufficed. The latest negotiations have seen creditors and ‘rescuers’ forced to accept an effective partial default of Greece on all its outstanding bonds of at least 50%, probably more.

However, such things are not done out of the goodness of the hearts of the friends of civilisation and freedom in Paris and Berlin. The penalty is to be paid by the people of Greece, as well as those of other southern European countries put at risk by the domino effect of ever diminishing bondholder confidence. The capitalist system knows no mercy, only the harsh demand that every debt is a credit, and this equation must equalize at whatever cost. With the threat of wholesale European monetary and credit collapse looming over them, the social-democratic government of Georgios Papandreou has seen no other choice but to implement the harshest programme of austerity Greece has known since the 19th century. This has led to a general strike against him and a chaotic confrontation outside the Greek parliament, in a sense the true ‘mother of all parliaments’, with KKE unionists and other demonstrators clashing with each other as well as riot police, while the assemblage of MPs passed the measures which would present the costs of the credibility of the eurozone in times of crisis to the Greek people. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage their democratic credibility, the PASOK leadership under Papandreou announced, without even informing their own cabinet, that a referendum was to be held on the question of continued Euro membership.

The very notion of a democratic decision on the economic future of the country was met with howls of outrage from the creditor’s governments abroad, as well as the liberal opposition party ND and even Papandreou’s own Finance Minister, Evangelos Venizelos jr. Papandreou was forced to withdraw the proposal. Even as I write, he has narrowly survived a confidence vote but is effectively forced to create a ‘national unity’ government with the opposition under Venizelos’ leadership, which will use its great majority of MPs (never elected under such a platform) to pass futher punitive measures on the Greeks. As always, when in a ‘liberal democracy’ liberalism and democracy come into conflict, it is the latter that loses. All the parliamentary formalities that normally hide the operation of the bourgeois state are thrown aside – the veil is lifted, and briefly all can see that the interests of small numbers of bondholders in Athens, Berlin, Paris and Washington supercede anything the Greek people may desire.

But such moments in which liberalism shows its true face are always moments of crisis in the double sense of the word. The Greeks themselves bequeathed this word to us, and it means a moment of confrontation, a moment where all can go wrong but also a moment of decision. All eyes are now on Greece as the first of the debtor nations which may buckle and collapse under the force of capitalism’s crisis. If it does so, others are expected to follow, such as the severely weakened economies of Italy and Spain. For the Greek people themselves, however, the cure is worse than the disease. To resolve the crisis of capitalism by capitalist means implies the restoration of the profitability of the banks, the credibility of the Euro bonds, and the victory of the creditor over the debtor: it means the great suffering of the majority in the interest of the wealthy minority whose property and interests are at stake. Now is the moment the Greek people and all of us decide whether we choose this path.

An alternative path exists. While most Greeks still have faith in the Euro as the guarantee of peace in Europe and the stability of their savings, a withdrawal from the currency would give Greece the opportunity for an independent policy. For this to be meaningfully on an international scale, it is not sufficient simply to devaluate under a Drachma and in so doing wipe out the creditors and the people’s savings alike. It must go further: the only opportunity is for Greece to declare a general default, to announce what David Graeber has biblically called a ‘Jubilee’ cancelling all outstanding non-commercial and state debts, and to prepare the way for an independent, socialist Greece which will never again risk its people’s living standards by hitching it to the destructive Juggernaut of international capitalism. This, too, means a better use of the state’s finances: instead of spending a proportionally massive percentage of its budget on sabre-rattling on the Turkish border, it would do better to restore Greek industry, improve the lamentable condition and inequality of Greek healthcare and education, and to disempower the monopolistic shipbuilders as well as the reigning political cliques. It also means the willingness of all Greeks to contribute their share to the reconstruction of the country, which in turn can only be done when a new government with a new approach regains the people’s trust. Only in this way can Greece have a lasting future.

One should not be so naive as to expect the powers in Washington, Berlin and Paris will allow this, nor will the ruling elites in Greece itself. It is no coincidence that the outgoing Papandreou government replaced, by surprise, its military commanders. The Greeks have all too fresh a memory of the Colonels’ Regime of 1967-1973, when right-wing militarists seized powers out of fear for the victory of the left; thousands were tortured, imprisoned, exiled and murdered in order to assure NATO her frontline base in the Cold War and the shipbuilders and landowners their property. Such a thing is not inconceivable even today. While it is not in the interests of Merkel or Sarkozy to drop liberal democracy just like that, big business interests may consider the option – Forbes already ‘jokingly’ suggested it. More likely is the ability of a ‘unity government’ to declare a state of emergency and in so doing attempt to destroy the unions’ and the demonstrators’ independent ability to resist the programme of austerity. Only the organised power of the Greeks can oppose them and prevent this, and in this they will need all the practical support from their friends in Germany, France, the United States and elsewhere they can get.

One should not imagine this crisis has seen its worst yet, and no Chinese deus ex machina will step in to save capitalism – it cannot be saved but at a cost so great that it is not worth paying. In the 19th century, the bankruptcy of many minor and middle-level powers, consciously engineered by their Western creditors, allowed the colonial or quasi-colonial takeover by Britain, Germany or France. In the 1930s, the Great Depression could only be overcome by the destruction of the Second World War, the greatest military cataclysm the world has ever seen. Only this wholesale destruction could destroy enough value to restore profit rates to the survivors so the system could continue. Shall our motto once again be: Vae Victis? Or shall we finally do away with this system, and say this time: Workers of the World, Unite?

NB: There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the article I wrote on the effects of the crisis in Greece in February 2010, when the effects were only just being fully felt. I was right to predict the necessity of a bailout for the EU major powers, but sadly the individual pressure on an isolated Greece I warned against has come to pass.