[Paleopsych] Lobster: 'Conspiracy Theories' and Clandestine Politics

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'Conspiracy Theories' and Clandestine Politics
[Thanks to Laird for this.]

                      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

      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

      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.

      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.


      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

      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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