Saturday, November 25, 2006
Conspiro! posted by Richard Seymour
Conspiracy is suddenly all the rage on the front pages of UK newspapers. Of course, it is a little difficult to resist the possibility that Alexander Litvinenko was radioactively poisoned by Russian intelligence given that they are said to have legalised the killing of people overseas. And given that Litvinenko, having previously worked for the FSB, had previously dished a lot of dirt, perhaps reliable and perhaps not, suggesting that the FSB had been involved in orchestrating terrorist attacks in Mosvow, and that he was reportedly trying to uncovered information about the alleged assassination of the great Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya - well, okay, it has a passing plausibility about it.
I raise it, in part, because no one questions it. There isn't the slightest eyebrow raised, not even a hint of real scepticism except for some slightly eccentric pro-Russians (the anti-conspiracy theorists are the eccentrics now). I also raise it because it strikes me that conspiracy theory has been a part of official ideology for the last century at least. From Reds under every bed to semites in every closet, all the the way to the Yellow Peril and the ocotopoid threat of various Arabs or Muslims (Saddam's gonna invade Saudi Arabia - the Muslim Brothers are gonna conquer Europe), conspiracy theory in the sense of potent, occult operations affecting global politics, has been the official story.
I remember my lecturer on Politics and the Middle East last year explaining (as a good anti-Orientalist liberal) how he had been obliged to explain to some Arab that the conspiracy theories he had learned in the Middle East might work in Cairo, but this is London (he literally phrased it like this). He thought it was quite funny, and he urged us students to resist the temptation to see things in terms of conspiracies. As a general piece of advice, incidentally, this isn't useless. However, the claim that there are conspiracy theories in the Middle East and nowhere else is patently ludicrous and false. Western states, especially European states, have provided the script. What is more, movies love conspiracy. Television loves conspiracy. The Daily Express, with its endless tittilating nuggets of gossip about Diana's death, loves conspiracy.
I think it's worth distinguishing between a few different things when we talk about conspiracy theories, then: there is that which precedes political analysis, that starts from the proposition that the world works through the secretive actions of a nameable few, which is a kind of magical thinking (Robin Ramsay wonders why interest in conspiracies often goes along with an interest in the occult, and this may be why); there is that which is sensationalist, and which haphazardly picks up on topics where there is some salacious interest and where it is politically harmless; and there is that which is strictly historical and provisional, rooted in a deeper and broader political analysis, (for instance, that provided by Daniele Ganser).
Still, as a genre, conspiracy theories emerge directly from the ruling class, whose irrationalism (not irrationality, not inattentiveness to their own interests) is boundless, and it is a mistake for us to accept it as a genre even if only to reverse the value significations (as in, "you're the conspiracy Unca Sammy, whaaaa!"). Is it altogether surprising that people like Alex Jones can take classical Cold War anticommunist, Christian, pro-gun, 'libertarian' politics and now offer it as a form of dissent (in which the Federal government are now the communists)? The genre is tainted at source. This is not to say that you shouldn't dream of considering the possibility that Nato left stay behind terrorist armies in Europe (there is no doubt that they did, and it has senior admission behind it) or that the US organises death squads in Iraq (ditto) or anything else that could plausibly be considered as a secretive operation by powerful ruling class interests. This happens to be one of the ways in which politics is conducted. But let's not forget the politics and the cultural output that has encouraged people to map their whole understanding of the world in this fashion, to make conspiracy the master-signifier. And let's bear in mind that there is usually little we can do about any putative conspiracy beyond strengthening our class and making sure it is capable of minimising the effects of such activities.