Conspiracism: A (Further) Definition

Since the publication of CounterPunch or Suckerpunch?, my Twitter feed has been bombarded with attacks from people who take issue with some aspect or other of my critique of fascist and white-supremacist ideology and ideologues. Many of those who have been offended by the article take me to task for things that really merit no detailed refutation, such as the claim that I equate opposition to US-Israeli crimes with white supremacism. No examples of statements by me that would support such charges are forthcoming, because none exist.

However, much has been made of my use of the concept of conspiracism, and that, I think, does merit some response in order to differentiate between how I am accused of using the term (despite defining it quite explicitly) and how I actually define it. Although those who have attacked my use of the concept have made it clear that they do not do so in the best of faith, some might well be confused by their distortions. As such, I will endeavour below to set out my working definition of conspiracism even more explicitly.

It seems worthwhile to start with what conspiracism is not. Conspiracism is not, first of all, any interpretation or explanation of events that conflicts with an official narrative, even if that interpretation or explanation should ultimately prove false. Nor does the concept of conspiracism extend to all investigation and examination of actual or suspected conspiracies. Conspiracies certainly exist; listing examples is trivial (Watergate, the overthrow of Allende in Chile, COINTELPRO, or the conspiracy of the  US consulate and embassy in Santiago to kill Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, recently demonstrated following a lengthy judicial inquiry in Chile).

In short, then, a hypothesis does not constitute conspiracism merely because it posits the existence of a conspiracy, nor does it become conspiracism simply because it ultimately proves false. These are empirical questions that can only be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

Nor does the concept require a person to believe in every conspiracy ‚theory‘ that’s going. Indeed, to require that would be patently absurd, since such ‚theories‘ are often mutually exclusive. A person who believes the Nazi myth about the power of the Rothschild family is no less a conspiracist because she does not buy into controlled demolition. To say otherwise would be akin to calling the pope an atheist because he believes in Catholicism, but not Hinduism.

Rather, conspiracism is a habit of thought, or analytical mode, as I have described it elsewhere. It is a profoundly Manichaean view that sees the plotting of shadowy elites as the motor of human history. It is characterised not so much by specific ‚theories‘ (for conspiracists are a deeply sectarian lot and jealously defend their own beliefs against the proponents of alternate versions), as by a specific style of argument and a highly particular brand of ‚activism‘. From my own observations of, and interactions with, these circles, I have found the following characteristics to be consistent features of the conspiracist worldview:

  • The preference of an individualistic, moralising view of power over any form of class analysis. Conspiracists see the evil of a handful of individuals behind the injustices of capitalism rather than a set of material social relations giving rise to specific classes with specific interests and a specific array of forces between them. This is an essentially conservative worldview where the problem is the venality of the court, rather than monarchy itself. As such, it lends itself to conservative solutions, e.g., replacing those in power rather than abolishing the system that allows them to wield power.
  • Non-falsifiability: There is no evidence that is capable of refuting a conspiracist’s pet narrative. Indeed, the lack of supporting evidence – or the existence of contrary evidence – serves only to prove the awesome power and foresight of the conspirators. An example of this thinking can be seen in the Pentagon Papers, the classified internal record of the US occupation of Indochina. One pet project of US intelligence was to prove that the indigenous peasant resistance in Vietnam was armed, funded, and controlled by Moscow, ‚Peiping‘, or both. After years of evidence gathered in the field showed that the National Liberation Front were only using weapons they had captured from the French and US occupation forces, or had improvised themselves, the intelligence analysts concluded that this proved that Moscow and/or ‚Peiping‘ had such total control that there was no need to issue orders or send weapons.
  • Strict binarism: Either one buys into the particular narrative a conspiracist espouses, or one bust support the ‚official story‘. The possibility that someone might reject both is excluded a priori. This gives conspiracists a perceived monopoly on dissent.
  • No good-faith, informed scepticism: Conspiracism leaves no room for the possibility that someone might consider the available evidence and reach a different conclusion. The conspiracist’s preferred version is a Self-Evident Truth, and anyone who does not see that is either a dupe (’sheeple‘) or – if their counterargument is good – actively working for the enemy. This creates a cult-like solidarity (in the face of an exponentially growing conspiracy) combined with immense in-group pressure not to express any dissent. If you dissent, you must be One Of Them.
  • The absence of concrete proposals: Conspiracists rarely have much in the way of concrete solutions to offer. Mostly, they believe that things will sort themselves out if only the ’sheeple‘ learn ‚the truth‘. Beyond platitudes like ‚WAKE UP‘ or the call to ‚take back America‘ (often paired with the invocation of a past age of goodness and legitimate government), conspiracism offers no real programme of action. Because conspiracism is, however, never short on convenient scapegoats, it provides a fertile ground for fascism and other reactionary ideologies that seek to pre-empt any revolutionary social change, as well as ‚good-faith distraction material‘ (to quote a leaked Booz Allen Hamilton memo on declassification policy) to keep people busy who might otherwise organise in a fashion more threatening to power.