Aside from augmenting narcissistic personality disorders, bloggery is a collosal globalisation of the ego. Alongside the great hope of the internet can be placed the bloggified reduction of discourse to a tussling amorphous mass of mewling 'voices'. So many bloggers - where they are not giving free reign to personal obsessions, paranoid delusions of persecution, teenage bullying, hokey mysticism, fantasies of omnipotent power and despotism, and languorous self-adoration - are merely engaged in petty entrepreneurial exercises, combining lurid self-display with outrageous self-promotion. I only now proceed to blow my own horn with that proviso: my talk at Marxism yesterday, entitled 'What's Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?' went rather well, or so I imagine. An audio version of it will be online at some point, and those attending can order any talks on CD (three quid a piece) if they missed anything, but I'll outline (a brushed up version of) some of what I said.
First of all, what is a conspiracy theory? I don't think we have a working definition that we would be satisfied to use consistently. It is at best a short-hand for poorly supported theories based on speculative leaps and suffused with paranoia. Obviously, the term is used to refer to quite ordinary facts of politics (that state leaders might wage war for reasons other than advertised, or that corporations might not have the well-being of humanity at heart), while it is not used to refer to quite extraordinary conspiracies (to commit genocide, ethnic cleansing and so on). The fact that the term connotes more than it denotes inclines some pursuing the investigation of what might be called a conspiracy to prefer the language of criminology - see, for example, Hitchens' book on Kissinger. I tried, then, to see if historical examples could illuminate the matter: for instance, the iconoclasm during the Dutch Revolt being put down to a tiny conspiracy; the French Revolution being described by Burke and others as a conspiracy of Freemasons and secret revolutionary organisations; anti-Jesuit myths in 19th Century France. In fact, early-modern Europe contains dozens of such examples, and usually they are a form of elite thought when faced with revolt: in other words, there can be nothing fundamentally wrong with the system, so a small group of conspirators must be behind it.
The twentieth century has plenty of similar examples, usually involving theories of groups conspiring to subvert the nation: Hitler and Stalin were the world-champions of this kind of paranoia, but consider Truman’s claim during the Korean War that "the communists in the Kremlin are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world". By the same logic, he was engaged in a conspiracy to promote capitalism. At the same time, the Supreme Court was busily beefing up the ‘clear and present danger rule’ because of the activities of socialist educators who held informal meetings to discuss politics and strategy – the court said that it didn’t matter that they weren’t actually planning a communist takeover: "It is the existence of the conspiracy which creates the danger". Similarly, Hoover’s account in The Masters of Deceit, accused communists of "trying to influence and control your thoughts": this from the head of a politically repressive FBI that would engage in assassinations, political repression, spying etc precisely in order to influence and control American thoughts. Ruling class conspiracism often involves a serious amount of transference. We have our contemporary examples of anti-Islam conspiracism, one egregious example of which is the claim that the Muslim Brothers plot to take over Europe, and then the whole world - in other words, while Western armies invade and take over mainly Muslim countries, it is seriously entertained in various ways that 'they' seek to invade and conquer 'us'.
The interesting thing about this is that this kind of conspiracism is not recognised in the classic liberal-conservative account of Richard Hofstadter, 'The Paranoid Style of American Politics'. Instead, he sees it as largely a temporary phenomenon associated with the far right, whose moral claims are incompatible with the bargaining and give-and-take style of American politics. Political fear is thus reduced to a 'style', a cultural pathology. Cory Robin's excellent 2004 book 'Fear: the history of a political idea' takes issue with this. He points out that fear had a very real basis in the structure of American society, particularly at a time when between one and two of every five American workers was subject to some kind of political investigation or loyalty oath. The trouble with the standard conception of political fear is that it is seen as emanating from a despotic political leadership crushing civil society – whereas McCarthyism operated precisely through those civil society organisations. Widespread political inhibitions and real persecution can thus operate very effectively in a liberal polity.
Arguably, conspiracism - which I would describe as the attempt to comprehend, or map social structure by collapsing it into conspiracy, has deep roots in American culture in general, and liberal political theory in particular. The belief in conspiracies and the existence of actual plots was important in the fighting during the American Revolution, and the ongoing worries about alien influence, agents, subversive forces etc manifested themselves in different ways: as David Brion Davis points out in his collection of "images of un-American subversion", there was the anti-Masonism of the 1820s and 1830s; in the 1840s, there was anti-Mormonism; William Wu points out that much of the literature on the Chinese in the 19th Century was suffused with paranoia about the ‘yellow peril’. Counter-subversive movements were thus a way to restore collective, national self-confidence: either on racial grounds - paranoia about Indian cannibals, the KKK as a racial ‘counter-conspiracy’; on sexual grounds – McCarthyites saw forms of sexual ‘deviance’ as ‘un-American’; or on class grounds – communist plots, left-wing sympathies etc. Since then we have had conspiracist engagements with the problems of globalisation – Pat Buchanan’s thesis that the Bilderbergers, the UN and Manhattan money interests were all in on it together. This is classic John Birch Society stuff.
Ralph Waldo Emerson warned that "society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members". It is the individual that is assailed by the conspiracy, and the political polyvalence of conspiracism is thus a result of the fact that it less the result of a clear political analysis than a defence and hubristic munification of the individual against the manipulations of the state/elite. Thus in rightist variants, (patriotic militias, Klan, minutemen, Birch Society etc), the ‘counterconspiracy’ often takes the form of what Richard Slotkin called "regeneration through violence", a masculinist assertion of rugged individualism and self-reliance against social communication and interdependence which is seen as feminising. Yet, there were also leftist accounts that – while not exactly conspiracy theories – stressed the crushing of the individual. Culturally in Heller’s Catch-22, Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and politically in Vance Packard’s ‘The Persuaders’, the large-scale efforts to channel our unthinking habits by advertisers, social engineers etc. The fear was of a mass-produced individual.
However, liberal theory makes itself felt in other ways too, especially in the facile opposition between conspiracy and cock-up. For a start, the idea that, as Rummy put it, stuff happens, is a classic dogma of free market thought: life is simply a lottery. The Smithian ‘invisible hand’ may be no more sophisticated than the ‘hidden hand’ of conspiracism. On the other hand, conspiracy theories rely on a liberal individualist account of agency – tightly knit cabals of interlocking vested interests acting independently of structure. Or, which is actually a little more vulgar, social structure collapses into these networks of conspiracy.
Of course, some of these fears are based on a very accurate appreciation of reality. It has been pointed out that the growing profile of conspiracism emerges in the background of precisely the roll-back of the New Deal since the 1970s and a sense of betrayal and disillusionment that resulted. Further, some of the current wave of conspiracism that really took off in the 1990s can be seen as a ‘blowback’, resulting from the revelations about COINTELPRO, and Watergate, and later Iran-Contra. One of the most disturbing obsessions of the 1990s was with what the New York Times called "black paranoia". Black Americans have been more willing to charge the state openly with crimes than some other social groups, largely because they have been the victims of them. WEB Dubois and Paul Robeson’s "We Charge Genocide" petition to the UN, about the reign of terror in the south is one example. Carmichael and Hamilton, of the Black Panthers, famously wrote that the system was such that, though its effects weren’t the result of a conspiracy, they may as well have been because the effects were still the same. The willingness of black Americans to believe that the Oj trial was inflected with deep racism, and that the state was involved with crack in the ghetto, and that – as both Bill Cosby and Spike Lee believed – AIDS was someone’s attempt to wipe out undesired social groups, was interpreted as paranoia. Often this was discussed in a patronising way that suggested that while there were legitimate historical reasons for suspicion – not least slavery, Tuskegee, the anti-black component of COINTELPRO, the ‘social hygiene’ programmes – it was no longer rational to hold that the society was fundamentally racist. Dinesh D’Souza maintained that black Americans were "pathological" in their predilection for "racial paranoia". It is all too easy to see this as a form of transference – for it was the white bourgeoisie that was to a large extent fearful of black people, especially in light of the riots after the Rodney King verdict. And if – as was maintained – black people had no legitimate grievance and were deluded about their condition, then their reaction had to be a manifestation of paranoid excess, and thus they could blow again. In fact, there is a very real basis for many of these beliefs – in respect of the crack in the ghetto theme, Gary Webb’s reportage later revealed that funding for the Contras had partially been raised by selling crack in African American districts. And as Cockburn & St Clair wrote in their account, the rhetoric about 'black paranoia' ignored the "long history of the racist application of US drug laws".
We also have to register the fundamental difference between ‘supernatural’ theories and parapolitical ones – although the two shade into one another at a certain point: Robin Ramsay wonders in his book about conspiracies why an interest in conspiracies is often accompanied by an interest in the supernatural, and part of the reason would seem to be in the conception of power as importantly being wielded by small groups of elite individuals manipulating large numbers of other people at great remove – this permits the possibility of magical channels allowing the manipulation of events and people by people operating in an occult fashion. Part of its roots may also be in the great historical roots of conspiracism: the Satanic conspiracy.
We would not be willing to easily dismiss certain forms of parapolitical theories. Conspiracies of such a category arguably include: 1) Operation Gladio; 2) Operation Northwoods: "We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized"; 3) Various alleged plots against Harold Wilson, (Operation Clockwork Orange; attempted coup); 4) allegations of FSB involvement in the blowing up of Moscow apartments; 5) Hitchens’ allegations about 1968 election plot; 6) Foot’s investigation into Pan Am Flight 103; 7) the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. One could add that a state which sort of loses trillions of dollars in its myriad covert operations across the planet does plenty to invite suspicion onto itself.
Yet, for all of the above, there is a growing willingness to believe certain poorly supported, speculative and improbable theories, in large part because of the breakdown in authority of political elites and knowledge-producing institutions. For example, I was recently asked to 'prove' that an organisation named 'Al Qaeda' existed. Well, who could 'prove' that except by going through the books - by Lawrence Wright, Jason Burke, the media reports on PBS and CNN, and so on? (By the same token, of course, one can only 'disprove' it with these same sources, and if you think you could write a book indicating that there was US government hand in 9/11 without citing that repertoire of material, including the 9/11 Commission Report, I recommend you get some of the recent books attempting to do so, and check their annotations). Some commentators talk about an epistemological crisis which is somehow a facet of postmodernity. I think this mistakes the map for the territory: postmodernism, if it has any meaning, is an attempt to account for the breakdown in confidence in the forms of knowledge associated with modernity, whose calamities – genocide, colonialism, racism, enslavement programmes, eugenics, gender repression – clearly called them into question. Still it is true, as Jodi Dean points out, that it isn’t only alien abductees who are suspicious about news items or other forms of information: to some extent, we are all afflicted with that, (especially when faced with war coverage). And we can only overcome it by producing our own forms of knowledge, as a class, through self-confident institutions working in the labour movement. However, it isn’t only a lack of trust in political elites: historically, conspiracism has been attached to a breakdown of trust in others, which is less healthy. This is evident in a lot of the cultural manifestations of conspiracism in which the world is seen as a bleak, dog-eat-dog, place in which at most, there can be small, fraught bonds between familiars. Of course, this is frequently Hollywood capital's version of conspiracism, but not always: a tour of the websites devoted to the topic of 9/11, for example, would yield, amid some resourceful and interesting sites (but ones I still disagree with), a wide array of serious paranoids (like Michael Ruppert), some of them antisemitic (like Eric Hufschmid), some of them merely stuck on the obsessions of the Buchananite old right (like Alex Jones), and some of them off-the-wall (like Rick Siegel and his nuclear strike theory).
So what about 9/11 theories? Are there any good ones, aside from the 'official conspiracy theory' - which, after all, is embodied in a report that was directed by a political appointee and which deliberately suppressed certain conclusions (such as the idea that US Middle East policy was co-responsible for the attacks; and that NORAD and the Pentagon had supplied false or misleading information)? You will not be astonished to hear that I conclude there aren't any - and that there can't be. I went through a small sample of the dozens of examples of arguments made by people like Michael Ruppert, David Ray Griffin, Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, and others, which are actually refuted by looking at the source evidence they themselves supply. I'll reproduce these in the comments boxes if someone asks. However my point is not that this is adequate in itself to prove that the Bush administration had no hand in 9/11. You could never prove such a thing, and what would be the point in trying to do so? After all, you can't possibly know - you don't get speak to the insiders, you don't have access to anything that might be written down on paper marked 'Cosmic: Eyes Only', if indeed anything of that kind would be written down on paper, and what's more, the only way to get that close would be to become an insider. You can only go on what you think the balance of probabilities is. No, my points about this handling of evidence would be as follows: 1) whatever problems we have with understanding properly what happened on 9/11, they are made worse by these authors and these websites because of the profusion of misleading claims, hyperbole and sometimes sheer unalloyed fantasy; 2) there must be a reason for plainly unsupported claims being offered with appended sources that actually contest the claims being made - I don't believe this is because all of these writers are hoaxsters and moneyspinners and seeking to bask in unearned limelight. I think that's probably true of some of them, but I don't think that, for example, Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed is deliberately trying to mislead anyone. The answer must be that the evidence is to some extent irrelevant, or at least subordinate to the suspicion. Why else should it be, for instance, that you can read on Cooperative Research about Bin Laden and the CIA training the KLA together, only to check the reference and find that it says nothing like this? It's only a click away, so why would it be offered as support? It's a little harder to check references listed in the back of a book, but not that much. So, again, there must either be an expectation by some hucksters that their references won't be checked by gullible readers, or there must be a sense that even if the source doesn't say what you claim it does, the audience is willing to deduce that meaning from it.
I concluded, nicking points made by contributors from the audience, that if there are really grounds for thinking that the Bush administration had a hand in the attacks on September 11th, then the demands for an independent inquiry are a pointless distraction. There will never be such a thing. If this really happened, and they really helped kill thousands of people in Washington and New York, and they managed to keep the secret restricted to a small core of state personnel, then they will kill you before they let you get that close, precisely as they are now killing reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is only one way to find out if the attacks on the World Trade Centre were really in whole or in part orchestrated, directed, funded, guided or even simply permitted intentionally by the US government, and that is to overthrow it. If you are not prepared to countenance doing that and encouraging others to do so, then your theory or suspicion leads you simply to disabling horror and fear at what the state can do. If you are prepared for that, you have to be prepared to end the system that perpetuates these structures of extremely concentrated, secretive power. If you want to do that, then you have to organise against the system and its defenders without moralism, without losing sight of the goal, and attack it at its weakest points. At the moment, their weakest points are not the cities they may or may not have helped defile in the United States, but the cities they are definitely, deliberately, openly defiling in Iraq. The activism around the highly speculative hypotheses about what happened on 9/11, with its clutter of exaggerations and falsehoods and half-truths, is thus a massive displacement activity. The main focus of the left in my view should be first and foremost on what the US state and its principle constitutency - the American capitalist class - is definitely, obviously doing to the people on this planet and has been doing for more than a century now.