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'Conspiracy Theories' and Clandestine Politics

by Jeffrey M. Bale From Lobster 29

Very few notions generate as much intellectual resistance, hostility, and derision within academic circles as a belief in the historical importance or efficacy of political conspiracies. Even when this belief is expressed in a very cautious manner, limited to specific and restricted contexts, supported by reliable evidence, and hedged about with all sort of qualifications, it still manages to transcend the boundaries of acceptable discourse and violate unspoken academic taboos. The idea that particular groups of people meet together secretly or in private to plan various courses of action, and that some of these plans actually exert a significant influence on particular historical developments, is typically rejected out of hand and assumed to be the figment of a paranoid imagination. The mere mention of the word 'conspiracy' seems to set off an internal alarm bell which causes scholars to close their minds in order to avoid cognitive dissonance and possible unpleasantness, since the popular image of conspiracy both fundamentally challenges the conception most educated, sophisticated people have about how the world operates and reminds them of the horrible persecutions that absurd and unfounded conspiracy theories have precipitated or sustained in the past. So strong is this prejudice among academics that even when clear evidence of a plot is inadvertently discovered in the course of their own research, they frequently feel compelled, either out of a sense of embarrassment or a desire to defuse anticipated criticism, to preface their account of it by ostentatiously disclaiming a belief in conspiracies. (1)

They then often attempt to downplay the significance of the plotting they have uncovered. To do otherwise, that is, to make a serious effort to incorporate the documented activities of conspiratorial groups into their general political or historical analyses, would force them to stretch their mental horizons beyond customary bounds and, not infrequently, delve even further into certain sordid and politically sensitive topics. Most academic researchers clearly prefer to ignore the implications of conspiratorial politics altogether rather than deal directly with such controversial matters.

A number of complex cultural and historical factors contribute to this reflexive and unwarranted reaction, but it is perhaps most often the direct result of a simple failure to distinguish between 'conspiracy theories' in the strict sense of the term, which are essentially elaborate fables even though they may well be based upon a kernel of truth, and the activities of actual clandestine and covert political groups, which are a common feature of modern politics. For this and other reasons, serious research into genuine conspiratorial networks has at worst been suppressed, as a rule been discouraged, and at best been looked upon with condescension by the academic community. (2) An entire dimension of political history and contemporary politics has thus been consistently neglected. (3)

For decades scholars interested in politics have directed their attention toward explicating and evaluating the merits of various political theories, or toward analyzing the more conventional, formal, and overt aspects of practical politics. Even a cursory examination of standard social science bibliographies reveals that tens of thousands of books and articles have been written about staple subjects such as the structure and functioning of government bureaucracies, voting patterns and electoral results, parliamentary procedures and activities, party organizations and factions, the impact of constitutional provisions or laws, and the like. In marked contrast, only a handful of scholarly publications have been devoted to the general theme of political conspiracies--as opposed to popular anti-conspiracy treatises, which are very numerous, and specific case studies of events in which conspiratorial groups have played some role -- and virtually all of these concern themselves with the deleterious social impact of the 'paranoid style' of thought manifested in classic conspiracy theories rather than the characteristic features of real conspiratorial politics. (4)

Only the academic literature dealing with specialized topics like espionage, covert action, political corruption, terrorism, and revolutionary warfare touches upon clandestine and covert political activities on a more or less regular basis, probably because such activities cannot be avoided when dealing with these topics. But the analyses and information contained therein are rarely incorporated into standard works of history and social science, and much of that specialized literature is itself unsatisfactory. Hence there is an obvious need to place the study of conspiratorial politics on a sound theoretical, methodological, and empirical footing, since ignoring the influence of such politics can lead to severe errors of historical interpretation.

This situation can only be remedied when a clear-cut analytical distinction has been made between classic conspiracy theories and the more limited conspiratorial activities that are a regular feature of politics. 'Conspiracy theories' share a number of distinguishing characteristics, but in all of them the essential element is a belief in the existence of a 'vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character', acts which aim to 'undermine and destroy a way of life.' (5)

Although this apocalyptic conception is generally regarded nowadays as the fantastic product of a paranoid mindset, in the past it was often accepted as an accurate description of reality by large numbers of people from all social strata, including intellectuals and heads of state. (6) The fact that a belief in sinister, all-powerful conspiratorial forces has not been restricted to small groups of clinical paranoids and mental defectives suggests that it fulfills certain important social functions and psychological needs.(7)

First of all, like many other intellectual constructs, conspiracy theories help to make complex patterns of cause-and-effect in human affairs more comprehensible by means of reductionism and oversimplification. Secondly, they purport to identify the underlying source of misery and injustice in the world, thereby accounting for current crises and upheavals and explaining why bad things are happening to good people or vice versa. Thirdly, by personifying that source they paradoxically help people to reaffirm their own potential ability to control the course of future historical developments. After all, if evil conspirators are consciously causing undesirable changes, the implication is that others, perhaps through the adoption of similar techniques, may also consciously intervene to protect a threatened way of life or otherwise alter the historical process. In short, a belief in conspiracy theories helps people to make sense out of a confusing, inhospitable reality, rationalize their present difficulties, and partially assuage their feelings of powerlessness. In this sense, it is no different than any number of religious, social, or political beliefs, and is deserving of the same serious study.

The image of conspiracies promoted by conspiracy theorists needs to be further illuminated before it can be contrasted with genuine conspiratorial politics. In the first place, conspiracy theorists consider the alleged conspirators to be Evil incarnate. They are not simply people with differing values or run-of-the-mill political opponents, but inhuman, superhuman, and/or anti-human beings who regularly commit abominable acts and are implacably attempting to subvert and destroy everything that is decent and worth preserving in the existing world. Thus, according to John Robison, the Bavarian Illuminati were formed 'for the express purpose of ROOTING OUT ALL THE RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS, AND OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS IN EUROPE.' (8)

This grandiose claim is fairly representative, in the sense that most conspiracy theorists view the world in similarly Manichean and apocalyptic terms.

Secondly, conspiracy theorists perceive the conspiratorial group as both monolithic and unerring in the pursuit of its goals. This group is directed from a single conspiratorial centre, acting as a sort of general staff, which plans and coordinates all of its activities down to the last detail. Note, for example, Prince Clemens von Metternich's claim that a 'directing committee' of the radicals from all over Europe had been established in Paris to pursue their insidious plotting against established governments. (9)

Given that presumption, it is no accident that many conspiracy theorists refer to 'the Conspiracy' rather than (lower case)conspiracies or conspiratorial factions, since they perceive no internal divisions among the conspirators. Rather, as a group the conspirators are believed to possess an extraordinary degree of internal solidarity, which produces a corresponding degree of counter solidarity vis-a-vis society at large, and indeed it is this very cohesion and singleness of purpose which enables them to effectively execute their plans to destroy existing institutions, seize power, and eliminate all opposition.

Thirdly, conspiracy theorists believe that the conspiratorial group is omnipresent, at least within its own sphere of operations. While some conspiracy theories postulate a relatively localized group of conspirators, most depict this group as both international in its spatial dimensions and continuous in its temporal dimensions. '[T]he conspirators planned and carried out evil in the past, they are successfully active in the present, and they will triumph in the future if they are not disturbed in their plans by those with information about their sinister designs.'(10)

The conspiratorial group is therefore capable of operating virtually everywhere. As a consequence of this ubiquitousness, anything that occurs which has a broadly negative impact or seems in anyway related to the purported aims of the conspirators can thus be plausibly attributed to them.

Fourthly, the conspiratorial group is viewed by conspiracy theorists as virtually omnipotent. In the past this group has successfully overthrown empires and nations, corrupted whole societies, and destroyed entire civilizations and cultures, and it is said to be in the process of accomplishing the same thing at this very moment. Its members are secretly working in every nook and cranny of society, and are making use of every subversive technique known to mankind to achieve their nefarious purposes. Nothing appears to be able to stand in their way--unless the warnings of the conspiracy theorists are heeded and acted upon at once. Even then there is no guarantee of ultimate victory against such powerful forces, but a failure to recognize the danger and take immediate countervailing action assures the success of those forces in the near future.

Finally, for conspiracy theorists conspiracies are not simply a regular feature of politics whose importance varies in different historical contexts, but rather the motive force of all historical change and development. The conspiratorial group can and does continually alter the course of history, invariably in negative and destructive ways, through conscious planning and direct intervention. Its members are not buffeted about by structural forces beyond their control and understanding, like everyone else, but are themselves capable of controlling events more or less at will. This supposed ability is usually attributed to some combination of demonic influence or sponsorship, the possession of arcane knowledge, the mastery of devilish techniques, and/or the creation of a preternaturally effective clandestine organization. As a result, unpleasant occurrences which are perceived by others to be the products of coincidence or chance are viewed by conspiracy theorists as further evidence of the secret workings of the conspiratorial group. For them, nothing that happens occurs by accident. Everything is the result of secret plotting in accordance with some sinister design.

This central characteristic of conspiracy theories has been aptly summed up by Donna Kossy in a popular book on fringe ideas:

Conspiracy theories are like black holes--they suck in everything that comes their way, regardless of content or origin...Everything you've ever known or experienced, no matter how 'meaningless', once it contacts the conspiratorial universe, is enveloped by and cloaked in sinister significance. Once inside, the vortex gains in size and strength, sucking in everything you touch. (11)

As an example of this sort of mechanism, one has only to mention the so-called 'umbrella man', a man who opened up an umbrella on a sunny day in Dealey Plaza just as President John F. Kennedy's motorcade was passing. A number of 'conspiracy theorists' have assumed that this man was signalling to the assassins, thus tying a seemingly trivial and inconsequential act into the alleged plot to kill Kennedy. It is precisely this totalistic, all-encompassing quality that distinguishes 'conspiracy theories' from the secret but often mundane political planning that is carried out on a daily basis by all sorts of groups, both within and outside of government. It should, however, be pointed out that even if the 'umbrella man' was wholly innocent of any involvement in a plot, as he almost certainly was, this does not mean that the Warren Commission's reconstruction of the assassination is accurate.

However that may be, real covert politics, although by definition hidden or disguised and often deleterious in their impact, simply do not correspond to the bleak, simplistic image propounded by conspiracy theorists. Far from embodying metaphysical evil, they are perfectly and recognizably human,

with all the positive and negative characteristics and potentialities which that implies. At the most basic level, all the efforts of individuals to privately plan and secretly initiate actions for their own perceived mutual benefit --insofar as these are intentionally withheld from outsiders and require the maintenance of secrecy for their success--are conspiracies. Moreover, in contrast to the claims of conspiracy theorists, covert politics are anything but monolithic. At any given point in time, there are dozens if not thousands of competitive political and economic groups engaging in secret planning and activities, and most are doing so in an effort to gain some advantage over their rivals among the others. Such behind-the-scene operations are present on every level, from the mundane efforts of small-scale retailers to gain competitive advantage by being the first to develop new product lines to the crucially important attempts by rival secret services to penetrate and manipulate each other. Sometimes the patterns of these covert rivalries and struggles are relatively stable over time, whereas at other times they appear fluid and kaleidoscopic, as different groups secretly shift alliances and change tactics in accordance with their perceived interests. Even internally, within particular groups operating clandestinely, there are typically bitter disagreements between various factions over the specific courses of action to be adopted. Unanimity of opinioon historical judgements. There is probably no way to prevent this sort of unconscious reaction in the current intellectual climate, but the least that can be expected of serious scholars is that they carefully examine the available evidence before dismissing these matters out of hand.

Footnotes

1. Compare Robin Ramsay, 'Conspiracy, Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Research', Lobster 19 (1990), p. 25: 'In intellectually respectable company it is necessary to preface any reference to actual political, economic, military or paramilitary conspiracies with the disclaimer that the speaker "doesn't believe in the conspiracy theory of history (or politics)".'This type of disclaimer quite clearly reveals the speaker's inability to distinguish between bona fide conspiracy theories and actual conspiratorial politics.

2. The word 'suppress' is not too strong here. I personally know of at least one case in which a very bright graduate student at a prestigious East Coast university was unceremoniously told by his advisor that if he wanted to write a Ph.D. thesis on an interesting historical example of conspiratorial politics he would have to go elsewhere to do so. He ended up leaving academia altogether and became a professional journalist, in which capacity he has produced a number of interesting books and articles.

3. Complaints about this general academic neglect have often been made by those few scholars who have done research on key aspects of covert and clandestine politics which are directly relevant to this study. See, for example, Gary Marx, 'Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant', American Journal of Sociology 80:2 (September 1974), especially pp. 402-3. One of the few dissertations dealing directly with this topic, though not in a particularly skilful fashion, is Frederick A. Hoffman, 'Secret Roles and Provocation: Covert Operations in Movements for social Change' (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation: UCLA Sociology Department, 1979). There are, of course, some excellent academic studies which have given due weight to these matters--for example, Nurit Schleifman, Undercover Agents in the Russian Revolutionary Movement: The SR Party, 1902-1914 (Basingstoke: Macmillan/ St. Anthony's College, 1988); and Jean-Paul Brunet, La police de l'ombre: Indicateurs et provocateurs dans la France contemporaine (Paris: Seuil, 1990)--but such studies areunfortunately few and far between.

4. The standard academic treatments of conspiracy theories are Richard Hofstadter, 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics', in Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 3-40; Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981 [1969]); J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972); Johannes Rogallavon Bieberstein, Die These von der Verschwrung, 1776-1945: Philosophen, Freimaurer, Juden, Liberale und Sozialisten als Verschwrergegen die Sozialordnung (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1976); and Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici, eds., Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy (New York: Springer, 1987). See also the journalistic studies by George Johnson, Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and paranoia in American Politics (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1983); and Jonathan Vankin, Conspiracies, Cover-Ups, and Crimes: Political Manipulation and Mind Control in America (New York: Paragon House, 1992).

5. See Hofstadter, 'Paranoid Style', pp. 14, 29.

6. Although conspiracy theories have been widely accepted in the most disparate eras and parts of the world, and thus probably have a certain universality as explanatory models, at certain points in time they have taken on an added salience due to particular historical circumstances. Their development and diffusion seems to be broadly correlated with the level of social, economic, and political upheaval or change, though indigenous cultural values and intellectual traditions determine their specific form and condition their level of popularity.

7. As many scholars have pointed out, if such ideas were restricted to clinical paranoids, they would have little or no historical importance. What makes the conspiratorial or paranoid style of thought interesting and historically significant is that it frequently tempts more or less normal people and has often been diffused among broad sections of the population in certain periods. Conspiracy theories are important as collective delusions, delusions which nevertheless reflect real fears and real social problems, rather than as evidence of individual pathologies. See, for example, Hofstadter,'Paranoid Style', pp. 3-4.

8. See his Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies, Collected from Good Authorities (New York: G. Forman, 1798), p. 14. This exhibits yet another characteristic of 'conspiracy theorists'--the tendency to over-dramatize everything by using capital letters with reckless abandon.

9. See his 'Geheime Denkschrift nber die Grundung eines Central-Comites der nordischen Machte in Wien', in Aus Metternichs nachgelassenen Papieren, ed. by Richard Metternich-Winneburg (Vienna: 1881),vol. 1, p. 595, cited in Rogalla von Bieberstein, These von der Verschwrung, pp. 139-40.

10. Dieter Groh, 'Temptation of Conspiracy Theory, Part I', in Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, p. 3. A classic example of conspiratorial works that view modern revolutionary movements as little more than the latest manifestations of subversive forces with a very long historical pedigree is the influential book by Nesta H. Webster, Secret Societies and Subversive Movements (London: Boswell, 1924). For more on Webster's background, see the biographical study by Richard M. Gilman, Behind World Revolution: The Strange Career of Nesta H. Webster (Ann Arbor: Insight, 1982), of which only one volume has so far appeared.

11. Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief (Portland: Feral House, 1994), p. 191.

12. For more on P2, see above all the materials published by the Italian parliamentary commission investigating the organization, which are divided into the majority (Anselmi) report, five dissenting minority reports, and over one hundred thick volumes of attached documents and verbatim testimony before the commission. Compare also Martin Berger, Historia de la loggia masonica P2 (Buenos Aires: El Cid, 1983); Andrea Barbieri et al, L'Italia della P2 (Milan: Mondadori, 1981); Alberto Cecchi, Storia della P2 (Rome: Riuniti, 1985); Roberto Fabiani, I massoni in Italia (Milan: L'Espresso, 1978); Gianfranco Piazzesi, Gelli: La carriere di un eroe di questa Italia (Milan: Garzanti, 1983); Marco Ramat et al, La resistabile ascesa della P2: Poteri occulti e stato democratico (Bari: De Donato, 1983); Renato Risaliti, Licio Gelli, a carte scoperte (Florence: Fernando Brancato, 1991); and Gianni Rossi and Franceso Lombrassa, In nome della 'loggia': Le prove di come lamassoneria segreta ha tentato di impadronarsi dello stato italiano. Iretroscena della P2 (Rome: Napoleone, 1981). Pro P2 works include those of Gelli supporter Pier Carpi, Il caso Gelli: La verita sulla loggia P2 (Bologna: INEI, 1982); and the truly Orwellian work by Gelli himself, La verita (Lugano: Demetra, 1989), which in spite of its title bears little resemblance to the truth.

13. For the AB, see Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, The Super-Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1978); and J.H.P.Serfontein, Brotherhood of Power: An Expose of the Secret Afrikaner Broederbond (Bloomington and London: Indiana University, 1978).Compare also B. M. Schoeman, Die Broederbond in die Afrikaner-politiek (Pretoria: Aktuele, 1982); and Adrien Pelzer, Die Afrikaner-Broederbond: Eerste 50 jaar (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1979).

14. See his Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 74-8.


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