November 15, 2011
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). http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/early-christianity/index.htm