Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories


An article appeared recently in the Economist, in which the writer undertakes to provide an explanation for the phenomenon of the proliferation of conspiracy theories after 9/11, by examining the methodological approach of conspiracy theorists, the core assumptions which comprise the underlying context of the conspiratorial worldview and those intellectual characteristics which make conspiracy-based interpretations of events such a lasting popular attraction.[i] It is my view, that penetrating as it was in its overall exposition of the subject, the analytical approach used by the writer also contained fundamental flaws which served to obscure rather than illuminate the real causes of the phenomenon.
To begin with, it tends to confuse conspiracy theories as a theoretical concept that aims at offering an alternative version concerning the reasons due to which certain events occur, with the existence of political conspiracy as such. To examine the spread of conspiracy theorizing as a popular tool for interpreting reality is quite different from denying that intrigue and governmental machination have always been and continue to be an integral part of politics, democracies notwithstanding. Regicide as a form of political activity has been practiced since Brutus conspired to assassinate Julius Caesar, while one look at the turbulent history of the ancient Athenian democracy suffices to make us aware of the instrumental role played in the political process by factionalist conspiracies, which Plato identified as one of the principal vices of the democratic form of government.[ii]
During the historical period of struggle for the establishment of constitutional monarchies throughout the European continent, the most sophisticated theoretical justifications of assassination were developed by thinkers like Karl Heinzen. Heinzen argued that in the face of the ruthless repression exercised by absolutist regimes, democratic reform could only be brought about by means of the systematic exercise of political violence. Indeed, in those days the practice of political murder acquired a complementary philosophical dimension which it hitherto had lacked. This process of legitimation of political violence culminated in the creation of an internationalist radical democratic movement, incorporating a transnational network of underground societies who endlessly labored to destabilize monarchical regimes by fomenting revolution and political upheaval.[iii]
Finally, in 19th century Spain, political conspiracy assumed the status of the normal form for the succession of government. As Hew Thomas observes, the ongoing struggle for power between liberals and conservatives was manifested in the realm of politics through “an endless sequence of coup d’etats (‘pronunciamentos’) of one general against the other”, each strongman acting as proxy for one political camp or the other.[iv]
While the article contains a number of useful insights concerning the spread of conspiracy theories in authoritarian, Arab societies, it nonetheless fails to account for the rising popularity of conspiratorial accounts in the liberal, permissive societies of the West. The writer is caustic towards the paradoxical views held by most Arabs concerning the origins of the perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocities (the Mossad did it, the CIA did it, etc.) but at no point does he discuss the reasons due to which such an unorthodox version of events should captivate the imagination of the cultivated and intellectually advanced French reading public.[v] Could it be that the French have suddenly lost their erudition, or have they fallen prey to the attractions of the “thriving industry”[vi], which the author rightly claims has been created around popular themes of conspiratorial literature? To my mind, this latter explanation seems to beg the question, since one cannot account for the appealing status of conspiratorial discourses simply by alluding to their inherent qualities, which make conspiracies so compelling to the average mind.
One might state as a general rule that conspiratorial scenarios emerge only when there is a breakdown of legitimacy affecting the dominant ideological discourse, that is to say, when the symbolic reconstruction of a real political event by the dominant discourse, is flawed by the persistence of logical deficiencies in its rationale, or questioned by the existence of a body of empirical evidence incompatible with the official line of argumentation (as in the case of the Kennedy assassination).
True, the resilience exhibited by conspiracy theories when confronted by rational criticism and refutation, should be mainly attributed to the unfalsifiable nature of their core beliefs as described by Shalom and Albert. Indeed, the conspiracy narrator can always explain away the empirical failures of his approach, by taking recourse to additional layers of conspiracy which, he argues, are aimed precisely at delegitimizing his perception of events.[vii] Yet, the latter argument pertains more to the manner in which conspiracy theories manage to reproduce themselves once the conspiratorial scenario has been put together, and less to the prime cause in which its emergence originates. In fact, much of the credibility which legitimizes the possibility for the existence of a conspiracy in the minds of the public, results from a failure of the relevant ideological mechanisms to compose a coherent, non-contradictory recount of a particular event, or from the standard practice of governmental agencies to restrict public access to information pertaining to the event in question. The adoption by a government of such policies of secrecy on matters of public concern and the exclusion of public opinion from available resources of information, has contributed a great deal to the perpetuation of the myth of conspiracy in the workings of popular imagination and has elevated conspiracy theories to the position of a standard article of contemporary popular culture (as with Roswell, or the 9/11 attacks).
It follows, that the contemporary trend for the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the rising popularity which they seem to enjoy, can be understood as part of a more general trend for the restructuring and ‘verticalization’ of the public sphere of communication and information in Western democracies, a process considerably accelerated by the inauguration of the ongoing War on Terror.
Far from merely representing a coordinated effort among international security agencies for the purpose of countering the threat of international terrorism, the War on Terror is in fact the ideological codeword referring to the large-scale project for the reorganization of the democratic system of government on a more authoritarian basis. Such a trend cannot but be reflected on the developments currently taking place in the field of popular culture and in the degree of public awareness about political issues and the political process in general. The post-Sept.11th status of the communicative mechanisms of Western societies is characterized by the conscious obstruction by political authorities of the free flow of information pertaining to developments taking place in the sphere of politics. The effort for establishing control over the communicative sphere involves a variety of techniques and practices, ranging from the creation of instruments of government appointed with the task of regulating the flow of information, the monitoring of reports appearing in the global media which are ill-disposed towards the effects which the international anti-terrorist campaign might have upon civil democratic culture, to the use of tactics of extensive disinformation, as evinces from the series of dubious official US reports on the manner after which the Iraqi occupation is conducted, [viii] and of media intimidation, such as revoking the licenses of Arab television networks covering the Iraqi occupation on account of their reporting of atrocities committed by US troops against the Iraqi civilian population. We should add to the above the expansion and normativization of practices of self-censorship in the mode of operation of the indigenous US media, engendered by the adoption of a new, ‘patriotic’ outlook regarding the function and social role of the media in the context of the ongoing war against terror. One of course should not assume that this need for self-censorship is exclusively the product of external coercion exercised by the state against an otherwise impartial informational community. In most cases, this trend is voluntary and intimately connected with the objective political interests and class position of the monopolistic corporate ownership of the media, epitomized in the existence of global media empires like those of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black.
From the constraints imposed upon the normal operation of the communicative institutions of Western democracies, a condition that can be described as a scarcity of information has arisen which takes us a long way in understanding the preeminence of conspiracy theories in the public perception of political events. In fact, the irrational explanations contained in the conspiratorial mode of interpretation of events, point to a shortage of available information, through the use of which members of the public could engage in rational evaluation and make intelligent judgments about ongoing trends and developments. When access to the actual facts is blocked, the audience is left to its own devices to make unfounded assumptions and arbitrary suppositions. Within such a repressive communicative atmosphere conspiracy claims with their self-explanatory qualities are easy to spread and even harder to disprove.
Moreover, the position of conspiracy theorists is even more reinforced by the secretive aspects taken on by the standard practice of democratic government, purportedly as a response to the strategic requirements of the war on terror (attaining higher levels of security), and the ever-greater alienation of the bulk of the citizenry from the decision making process and the sources of political power.[ix] The usual emphasis placed by conspiracy theorists upon the notion of an all-powerful force secretly working to undermine our freedoms and which is effectively beyond any means of popular control, corresponds precisely to the feeling of powerlessness felt intensely by the average citizen in the face of the current political situation.
In addition, the war on terror has been mostly conducted in secrecy and the role played by intelligence agencies in carrying it out has been instrumental. In the US, the public image of the FBI and the CIA has been rehabilitated through an emphatic reiteration by government spokesmen of the unique role they are in a position to play in the struggle against terrorism. Their level of expertise and technical sophistication in the practice of counter-insurgency make them instrumental as guarantors of security of US citizens. As a consequence, the Attorney General (John Ashcroft) completed the gradual reinstatement of the excessive powers of which the FBI had been stripped in the aftermath of the Hoover era without having to worry about the political backlash of such a move or about the way it would be received by the American politically-conscious public. [x] As far as the CIA is concerned, the section charged with organizing operations of foreign subversion, staging coup d’etats and so on has been revitalized by a substantial increase in its funding and a moral mandate by the government. The obfuscation of the citizenry and its inability to deal rationally with this new reality, in which the security services perform an instrumental role as the cornerstone for the defense of the democratic system against its own populace, is reflected in the rising popularity of conspiracy theories. Furthermore, this is quite understandable given that the effectiveness of the modus operandi of organizations such as the FBI, or the CIA is in fact grounded on the degree to which its operations manage to remain impervious to the inquiring public eye. The very logic from which the system derives its legitimacy cannot be empirically attested and defies rational analysis, since it relies not on a positive demonstration of its accomplishments as the concrete indicator for its effectiveness, but it measures its success through its ability to engage in effective preemption and prevention of new terrorist attacks. Under this light, the legitimating ideological mechanisms of the post-Sept.11 system are not much different in their mode of operation from the self-referential logic which presides over the formulation of a conspiracy theory. While the act of an attack on the World Trade Center is a tangible, verifiable fact, regardless of the variety of interpretations to which it may give rise, the absence of attack upon which the security services base their claim of success is a non-event, and as such it is immune to observation and ratification by means of one’s rational faculties. For instance, there is no way for the independent-minded spectator to measure the validity or truth which lies behind the ceaseless terror alerts which the CIA and FBI have been relentlessly issuing ever since Sept.11th or to assess the actual existence or imminence of the purported terrorist threat. It follows, that the operative formulations of the dominant ideology very much resemble a conspiracy theory, in that they are unfalsifiable in principle.
A second explanation for the seeming multiplication of conspiracy theories can be sought not in the social roots of the phenomenon, but within the sphere of the dominant ideology itself. It is conceivable that the proliferation of conspiracy theories should not be attributed to a rising tendency among the population to adopt conspiracy as the main explanatory mechanism by which they interpret their political environment, but should be sought instead in a dominant systemic trend within the political establishment to overextend the definition of what constitutes a ‘conspiracy theory’, so as to accommodate within it the majority of critical thought and unconventional points of view. This practice is only part of a larger institutional drive towards the construction of the framework of an ideological orthodoxy, in the context of which the use of dissident political terminology can be branded as a priori inadmissible.
This ideological function is performed by the establishment and extensive official utilization of what we may call a disciplinary political vocabulary upon the conduct of public political discourse. Within this vocabulary a broad disciplinary categorization of political concepts is carried out which serves either to unfavorably distort the original meaning of a proposed concept and thus inhibit its communicative performance (conditioning the way it is received by the public by predetermining the latter’s attitude towards it), or to legitimate the action of barring it from the communicative sphere altogether. The practical effect of its insertion in the public discourse is comparable to the effect of the system of anti-bodies for the maintenance of the good health of a biological organism.
We can identify these disciplinary terms by virtue of their frequent use and by the vast array and diversity of the theoretical subjects which they are used to describe. Were we to enumerate the foundational concepts of this repressive discourse, we should focus upon terms such as Totalitarianism, Anti-Semitism, Hate Speech and so on. Through the standardized use of such terminology in the context of public political debates the dialogue becomes de-contextualized and the aggressive treatment of dissent is facilitated. What is striking is the disjunction of meaning which characterizes the relationship between the symbolic disciplinary reproduction of an utterance and the original utterance itself.
We might be so bold as to borrow from the conceptual framework of the physical sciences, particularly from the concepts of deconstructive evolutionism, so as to state our case in a clearer, more straightforward manner. The terms reproduced in today’s repressive discourse are subjected to a conscious process of ex-aptation, in the same manner as certain biological characteristics or natural properties of an organism randomly developed in the process of its adaptation to its environment (natural selection), are retained by the organism (in spite of the disappearance of the original natural cause for their emergence) and made to serve a different function from the one they were initially developed to perform. These characteristics in turn become indispensable for the organism’s adaptation and survival in the new natural environment.
Now let us again turn to politics and consider the contemporary meaning assigned to the term ‘Anti-Semitism’. Anti-Semitism has undergone a conceptual transformation which precipitated a shift away from traditional themes of anti-Semitic discourse and its identification with a genus of political praxis that has no affinity, ideological or otherwise, to traditional anti-Semitism. In spite of the disappearance of the intellectual appeal of the doctrine of anti-Semitism among scholars and the gradual suppression of its manifestations in the social sphere, the concept of anti-Semitism has not been abandoned, nor has it fallen into disuse. Instead, it has been rethought, reviewed and redefined so as to symbolically incorporate a type of political activity (anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel vis-à-vis the enslavement of Palestinians), fundamentally alien to the theoretical formulations, the racist ideals and the practical methods of anti-Semitism per se, that is to say, a form of politics which in reality is not anti-Semitic. It has become a vacuous concept, a flexible watch-word transposed as signifier of a type of activity which is theoretically and practically entirely foreign to the phenomenon which the term anti-Semitism was originally coined to describe.
In his examination of the disciplinary function performed by the use of the term Totalitarianism in mainstream political discourse, Slavoj Zizek attributes to it the generation of a Denkverbot in relation to the heterogeneous terms to which this symbolic utterance is applied. According to Zizek, the notion of Totalitarianism is used as a mental sedative, a prohibition of thought which sterilizes the communicative universe and disrupts its unfettered operation by virtue of the delegitimation or even demonization of any further rational reflection upon the proposed subject or any species of militant political praxis which might trace its ideological lineage to the contested concept in question.[xi] Furthermore, the disciplinary efficacy of the new terminology has been reinforced by the institution of a new set of laws (or reactivation of old ones) introduced in the context of the global anti-terrorist campaign, which characterize certain forms of public speech as offenses liable to criminal prosecution. Under the authority of similar legislation, the young Czech nationalist politician Jan Copal found himself facing criminal charges of “abetting a crime” on account of certain public statements which he made in connection with 9/11, in which he was critical and unsympathetic towards the US and openly supportive of Osama Bin Laden.[xii]



[i] In That’s what they want you to believe, The Economist, Dec. 21st 2002-Jan. 3rd 2003.
[ii] Plato, The Republic (Athens; Sideris, 1963).
[iii] The following extract from Karl Heinzen’s, Murder is characteristic of his convictions and philosophy:
“1. It seems that what is decisive in the way history judges a murder is the motive. History does not appear to condemn murder itself.
2. It seems that moral reactions to a murder are closely linked to the self-interest of those reacting, for that which is esteemed a virtue among the ancients would be considered a crime in our age of police rule. None of the teachers who so enthusiastically translate accounts of murderous deeds from the Greek tongue into the German would dare recommend a ‘translation’ of the deeds themselves.
3. The courageous bearing of the murderer seems to be of equal weight in the scales of judgment as the success of the attempt.
4. It seems that murder is only justified when it selects a victim whose elimination also signifies the removal of a representative or upholder of a pernicious principle.
5. It seems that it is not just the ‘petty thieves’ but also the petty murderers who are ‘hanged’, while the big ones get off scot-free.
6. It seems that only the party of freedom has martyrs, the reactionary party having nothing but fools”.
In W. Laqueur, The Terrorism Reader, p.57 (London; Wildwood, 1979).
[iv] In H. Thomas, History of the Spanish Civil War, p.28 (Athens; Tolides, 1971).
[v] This is a legitimate claim, given that following the 9/11 attacks conspiratorial scenarios implicating the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in the atrocities were met with wide-ranging acceptance by French public opinion, or so it would seem by the enormous commercial success of a book dealing with the events of 9/11 and providing an account precisely along the same conspiratorial lines.
[vi] The Economist, op.cit, p.71.
[vii] In S. Shalom & M. Albert, Conspiracies and Institutions: 9-11 and Beyond, ZNet, 02/06/2002.
[viii] Characteristically, the head of Sky News, Nick Pollard, has described US military briefings to journalists as “poor and dominated by spin”. In C. Cozens, ITV Reporter Attacks Military Spin, The Guardian, 05/12/2003.
[ix] As Paul Krugman writes, “…getting information [on government activities] without subpoena power has become much harder because, as a new report in U.S. News & World Report puts it, the Bush administration has ‘dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government’. Since 9/11 the administration has invoked national security to justify this secrecy, but it actually begun the day President Bush took office”. In P. Krugman, Patriots and Profits, The New York Times, 16/12/2003.
[x] A conspicuous activity involving an abuse of FBI power is the surveillance and persecution by federal agents of the domestic political opposition and the anti-war movement. For more details see E. Lichtblau, F.B.I. Scrutinizes Antiwar Rallies, The New York Times, 23/11/2003.
[xi] In S. Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, p.30 (Athens; Scripta, 2001).
[xii] In J. James, Talking Too Tough, Time, 29/10/2001.

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