The concept of conspiracy is much maligned by the mainstream media, the government, and random liberals on social media. The phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ is used to dismiss people who are cynical about the motivations of government and corporations.
The Concept of Conspiracy
As stated by leftist analyst Michael Parenti:
Conspiracy is a legitimate concept in law: the collusion of two or more people pursuing illegal means to effect some illegal or immoral end. People go to jail for committing conspiratorial acts. Conspiracies are a matter of public record, and some are of real political significance.
There would be no reason for this to be a concept in law if it was a non-existent phenomenon.
We know that people from all groups and all walks of life can conspire. Everyone is aware of this, as even things like petty office politics can inspire people to get together and plot against each other. To dismiss the idea of conspiracy prima facie is an unwarranted bias. If ordinary people can conspire on a small scale than politicians, bureaucrats, and military intelligence are clearly capable of conspiring on a large scale.
I will address three points that are often invoked by anti-conspiracy analysts, who dismiss the notion of conspiracy as a relevant mode of analysis. I will argue that these arguments are flawed as a reason to reject conspiracy as a relevant factor when examining the operation of government power.
The Invocation of the Ridiculous
The first argument against conspiracy is the ‘Invocation of the Ridiculous’. This involves the anti-conspiracy theorist picking a theory that is absurd, but that has at some point been suggested seriously by a ‘conspiracy theorist’. For example, Alex Jones once suggested that 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supreme court justice, died as a ‘blood sacrifice’ to help the Democratic party get the vote out and to enhance their ‘Satanic energy’.
Anti-conspiracy theorists like to invoke these sorts of examples to dismiss well-reasoned and well evidenced examples of conspiracies, or even critical questions about official narratives. This is a fallacious argument, as it involves attempting to marry the ridiculous to the reasonable in order to dismiss the reasonable.
The Psychological Analysis
Psychological analysis is used as a tool to subtly undermine the concept of conspiracy. I am not trying to argue that analysing why someone believes something, and possible psychological motivations for that belief that stem from other motivations than the factual nature of the belief, is always invalid.
However, these ‘why people believe in conspiracy theories’ articles are generally framed in a particular way. The articles start by dismissing the idea of the ‘conspiracy theory’ prima facie, leaving only possible psychological motives for belief. This is not the same as demonstrating why a belief is incorrect or flawed, and then putting forward suggestions as to why people believe it anyway.
In some cases, they will employ the invocation of the ridiculous in their introduction, by providing a list of conspiracy theories that includes the reasonable with the bizarre.
For example, this article:
When people encounter disparate information, it is only natural to look for explanations that connect the dots. Conspiracy theories offer explanations that provide this connection. They also suggest that the underlying causes are hidden from public view. When confusing things happen, believers can then assume that it is because they are being intentionally deceived by outside forces.
The framing of this paragraph implies that explanations are just confusing because life is confusing. The idea of government manipulators is implicitly dismissed, as is the idea of ‘intentional deception’. The role of deception in government, however, is extremely relevant, the best examples being the lies that drove Western intervention in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
There is also often a tinge of middle-class smugness about such articles. The above article is also quoted as saying:
Lower educational status tends to be associated with higher levels of conspiracy belief.
The most plausible explanation for this is that middle-class people who are doing well out of a particular system have less material reason to question that system.
Such articles also argue that the need to feel special drives a belief in conspiracy theories. For example, this article:
Big events attract conspiracies because the knowledge the theorist possesses wouldn’t be special otherwise. If the knowledge isn’t special, then they aren’t special for possessing it. The suggestion is therefore that a conspiracy theorist wants to feel special, and this desire emerges from self-worth based insecurities.
This argument would suggest that conspiracy theorists would keep their special knowledge to themselves, rather than trying to convince other people. After all, the conspiracist would no longer be special if he or she convinces others to believe in the conspiracy.
(If I were engaging in my own pop psychology argument here, I would suggest the need to feel special is not observable so much in conspiracy theorists as it is in obnoxious middle-class liberals. In their case, a sense of superiority stems from their faith in government. After all, how could any of us be so stupid as to question the authorities?)
The ‘irrelevancy’ argument
This is an argument that has been made by Noam Chomsky. On this issue he is generally compared with Michael Parenti, another left-wing scholar who believes in the relevance and importance of analysing conspiracy.
Take for example all this frenzy about the JFK assassination. I mean I don’t know who assassinated him and I don’t care, but what difference does it make? It’s not an issue of any general political interest. And there’s a huge amount of energy and effort going into that.
He believes that a discussion of issues such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11 are a distraction:
[Conspiracy theories] draw enormous amounts of time and energy away from serious activism on urgent matters (and may well be welcome to those in power for that reason, as the JFK assassination investigations have been, so internal government documents indicate).
I believe that on this issue, Parenti has by far the superior case. Chomsky is fairly hostile to the idea of high-level conspiracies, believing that they do not play an important role in government and that structural factors matter more when analysing the actions of capitalist states. Parenti rightly argues that this is a false distinction, as institutions such as the CIA are “an institutionalized conspiracy.”
As for such issues being a distraction, this argument is a weak one, because the evidence behind such conspiracies can demonstrate the true nature of power. As Parenti states:
To know the truth about the assassination of John Kennedy is to call into question the state security system and the entire politico-economic order it protects.
The Ulterior Motive for Anti-Conspiracy Thinking
Even an anti-conspiracist would have to acknowledge that certain conspiracies happened because they were exposed. Nixon conspired with his aides to cover up the burglary of the Watergate building. In that case we have extensive evidence of conspiracy due to the existence of recordings made by Nixon. We know that there was a conspiracy to undermine the candidate Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primary election due to the emails that were leaked to Wikileaks.
Why, given these proven cases, is it considered illegitimate to speculate about other events such as 9/11, JFK assassination, or the Skripal affair, where the full facts are not available but where evidence and reasoning can lead to reasonable inferences?
The reason is that the anti-conspiracist wants to keep certain topics off limits. According to the anti-conspiracist, criticism of government narratives can only go so far. When it comes to the current capitalist and imperialist system and the players within it, the reality is that no question should be taken off the table and evidence for all forms of evil should be critically considered.
The consideration of the conspiracy when it comes to analysing the function of governments is a valid approach that is unfairly criticised through the label ‘conspiracy theory’. Rather than reject the concept of conspiracy, we need to critically assess the evidence and motives for a conspiracy on a case-by-case basis. While there are some conspiracies that are not grounded in reality, there are many more that have strong evidence to support them. I will end with a quote from this article comparing Chomsky and Parenti, which is recommended to the reader: