Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Is The Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

From the July 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ever heard the rumour that Paul McCartney was killed in a road crash in 1966? Apparently he was replaced by a double and surreptitious references to this are included on the cover - and in the songs - of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. If not, perhaps you've heard that the moon landings were really shot in the Nevada desert? Or that Elvis faked his death and was seen, a few years back, working in a Burger King in Kalamazoo?

If you're familiar with any of these rumours then you've come across a major contributory factor in the persistent blurring of truth and fiction now prevalent throughout society: the conspiracy theory. From the Latin word conspirare, conspiracy means literally "to breathe together", but its most common interpretation is more pejorative than that, hinting at secret plots, clandestine illegal activities and mysterious doings away from the public gaze.

It has been a feature of late twentieth and early twenty-first century politics that conspiracy theories have been given more prominence and credence than almost ever before. Indeed, not since the Nazi rise to power in 1930s Germany, with their scare-mongering about "Jewish international finance capital", has the conspiratorial view of the world been in such vogue.

There's someone looking at you
It's not that conspiracy theories are in any way a novel phenomenon - far from it. They can be traced back to biblical times and beyond, with widespread and pervasive conspiracy theories probably arising for the first time during the Crusades. The difference between previous times in history and the modern era is twofold - firstly in the extent to which baseless conspiracy theories have recently proliferated and taken hold even amongst otherwise sophisticated and well-educated sections of the population, secondly because of the way in which virtually no major event or phenomenon can currently unfold without someone crying "conspiracy!" from the rooftops and finding a ready audience. Name a recent historical event - and it was a "conspiracy". Diana's death? A conspiracy, of course. European monetary union? A fiendish conspiracy hatched by un-elected, shadowy forces. September 11? Quite an obvious conspiracy (though by the US government itself apparently, not Al Qaeda).

Indeed, in recent times we seem to have entered an era of paranoid politics. For a whole series of complex reasons that have been charted previously in the pages of this journal, interest in real political ideas seems to have declined in the last ten or twenty years, especially in the so-called "advanced" capitalist states, and hand-in-hand with this has gone a suspicion of all those engaged in the political process.

We live in a technologically complex, sophisticated and supposedly "meritocratic" society and these are influences which have helped strip away much of the mystique previously surrounding our supposed elders and betters in the political elite, in the royal family and among others in the public spotlight. This distrust, which has been fuelled by very real revelations of wrong-doing in high places, has tainted the popular perception of not just the individuals involved but of the entire political process - and this is not just a phenomenon confined to Britain either. Mainland Europe, Japan and the United States (not to mention many of the more developing industrial states) have been gripped by the same distrust. And as any pop psychologist knows, distrust - in the right environment - breeds paranoia.

Postmodernist junk
The "right environment" in question is the one presented by postmodernism, that loose body of thought which contends that interpretation is everything and the truth an ephemera, and that science and reason are merely particular interpretations of events, being "narratives" with no more claim to validity than any other. It is postmodernism and the parallel distrust of science and progress that has arisen in recent years that has opened the way for conspiracy theories to multiply - whether they have a basis in reality or not. At the same time - and without coincidence - various New Age and occultist ideas and practices have gained ground. Postmodernism, irrationality and conspiracy theories now unite to form a bizarre trinity that informs much popular interpretation of historical events and processes.

Given this, it comes as no surprise that those most attracted to New Age and occultist theories are typically those who also give most credence to conspiracism as a systematic way of interpreting events. These are people who do not merely contend that conspiracies of some sort have taken place or have been uncovered (whether it be the JFK assassination or the Roswell UFO crash) but whose entire worldview is a conspiratorial one.

The Nazis, whose worldview was one drenched in anti-semitism to the extent that they thought the world dominated by a cabal of Jewish bankers, were steeped in a mysticism and occultism that had been handed down to them by fellow initiates of secret societies like the Vril Society and Thule Society in the period after the First World War. Modern day paranoid conspiracists are typically little different, blending the irrational theories and practices of the New Age with their conspiracist worldview.

In fact many have gone one step further than the Nazis and earlier conspiracists in thinking that all major conspiracies - real or imagined - together with all secret societies, are intrinsically linked, being but different aspects of the same age-old conspiracy. The current favourite is that they are all linked to the Illuminated Ones or "Illuminati" who were, amongst many other things, allegedly behind the founding of the United States (and its Federal Government), the United Nations, the European Union and other supposedly "centralising", "controlling" bodies.

So it is that in this theory, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, the Knights Templar, etc are all slowly working towards the achievement of some kind of centralised, totalitarian New World Order, and the clues - as always - lie in their occultist practices. For instance, here's the late William Cooper, a former US naval intelligence operative in his conspiracy-lovers' bible Behold A Pale Horse, illustrating the psychological tie-up beautifully:
"The numbers 3,7, 9,11,13 39 and any multiple of these numbers have special meaning to the Illuminati. Notice that the Bilderberg Group has a core of 39 members who are broken into 3 groups of 13 members in each group. Notice that the core of 39 answers to the 13 who make up the Policy Committee. Take special notice that the 13 members of the Policy Committee answer to the Round Table of Nine. You know that the original number of states in the United States of America was 13. The Constitution has 7 Articles and was signed by 39 members of the Constitutional Convention. The United States was born on July 4, 1776. July is the 7th month of the year. Add 7 (for July) and 4 and you have 11; 1+7+7+6 =21, which is a multiple of 3 and 7. Add 2+1 and you get 3. Look at the numbers in 1776 and you see two 7s and a 6, which is a multiple of 3. Coincidence, you say? I say "Baloney!" and I'd really like to say something a lot stronger". (pp.92-3).

In a similar vein, David Icke's recent works (notably The Robots' Rebellion and The Biggest Secret) are a case study of how spiritualist, astrological, numerological and conspiracist ideas (with a bit of "hollow earth", gaia and ufology thrown in for good measure) can interlock and reinforce one another. He too has jumped on the Illuminati bandwagon, upping-the-ante as only he knows how, claiming that the initiates of this secret group of "controllers" are really shape-shifting reptilians, notably including Ted Heath and the British royal family. And lest anyone think that David Icke and others of his ilk are an irrelevant political joke, his books sell tens of thousands of copies and his public meetings across the world are full and booked-up often months in advance - this being fairly typically of the genre.

Strange world
In some respects, we do indeed live in strange, puzzling and disconcerting times. Mass starvation exists amongst plenty. Wars constantly rage across the globe even though everyone says they want peace. And when "too much" is produced by the factories and farms, people get made unemployed and are plunged into dire poverty, presumably for being too successful.

In this environment, it is no wonder that people look for irrational explanations for seemingly irrational problems. Conspiracy theorists take the view that such a complex organism as modern world society must be controlled from the top - someone, somewhere must be pulling the strings. For instance, unfamiliar with the analysis of Marxian economics, they are yet to realise that at the heart of the capitalist economy is a genuine "anarchy of production" based on ruthless competition, where firms produce goods with only profit in mind and not the needs of other firms or the limits for their particular market - and without an overall external controlling force. This particular blind spot in their conspiracists' perspective can lead them to make ridiculous, unsupported claims like the following, quite typical of its kind:
"In 1929, the Brotherhood [Illuminati] bankers crashed the Wall Street stock-market and caused the Great Depression. From this problem came the solution, the 'New Deal' economic package offered by Roosevelt which won him the Presidential election of 1933. The 'New Deal' was a replica of the economic package offered by Hitler to the German people to solve their manufactured economic problems . . . Soon afterwards, with the American economy now completely under Brotherhood control, Roosevelt put their symbol, the pyramid and all-seeing eye, on the dollar bill. He was saying to the American people 'Gotch-yer'" (The Biggest Secret by David Icke, pp.230-1).

No explanation of this type of argument is ever put forward beyond a re-iteration of the inter-connectedness of some sections of the capitalists class (the Rothschilds and Rockefellers usually attracting particular attention) combined with the hoary old myth about the "mystical" power of the banks being able to create multiples of credit from a given deposit base. And needless to say, while all the evidence points to the economy being essentially beyond the control of politicians, bankers and economic forecasters too, the conspiracy theorists interpret every event (even contradictory ones) as being evidence that everything is under political control to the last detail and that the forecasters are just "playing the game".

In truth, very little concrete evidence is ever put forward for the more far-reaching conspiracy theories that imply a conspiratorial worldview. The stock-in-trade of the conspiracy writers is rumour, innuendo, guilt-by-association and half-knowledge passed off as fact. Take Bilderberg and its ilk as an example. Yes, there is plentiful evidence that organisations like the Bilderberg group exist. Yes, there is evidence that their members are rich and powerful people with their own agendas and quite some influence. But no, there is no evidence that such organisations "rule the world" and carefully manipulate states and economies at will - and no-one has yet provided any.

The dispossessed and disenchanted
Who are the real believers in conspiracy theories like these anyway? Conspiracy theorists are fond of quoting selected people "in the know" to show that the conspirators themselves occasionally admit what they are up to. Carroll Quigley, renowned expert on Anglo-US relations and mentor to Bill Clinton is a favourite, especially his book Tragedy and Hope, though in reality it is a weighty tome that says plenty about cross-Atlantic ruling class networks (The Round Table, Royal Institute for International Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations) but little about global conspiracies. Former British Tory Prime Minister Disraeli is another favourite, especially his statement that "the world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes" (Conspiracies, Cover-ups & Crimes by Jonathan Vankin, p.265) but that is a quote that is familiar due to overuse more than anything else that there is to commend it. Disraeli had in fact been intrigued by conspiracy theories and secret societies from his youth and was apt to make phrases like this whether he really believed them or not.

Most conspiracy theories are really believed not by those who come into closest contact with the conspirators but by those at the bottom of the pile who are typically furthest away from them, metaphorically speaking - the disenfranchised and dispossessed. They are most likely to be found on the extreme fringes of capitalism's political spectrum, on the far left and the far right, whether they be anti-globalisation crusties of J-18 fame or the US militiamen polishing their guns in the hills of Montana and Arizona.

Interestingly, many if not most of the famous real-life conspiracies that have been documented beyond reasonable dispute have been hatched not by large, elaborate networks of the rich and powerful (who have a tendency and opportunity to use more subtle means, at least on the whole) but by comparatively small, well-organised groups of political dissenters, from those behind the Gunpowder Plot through to the Bolsheviks and in recent times the perpetrators of 11 September. That can be no surprise - the fewer people that know of a secret, the more chance there is of it being kept under wraps until the appropriate moment arrives.

Conspiracies everywhere?
So do conspiracies actually exist at present? Of course - from minor political conspiracies and plots (e.g. the Tory Party plot a few years ago to depose Margaret Thatcher) to the more renowned activities of political dissenters meeting in secret (the actual origin of most secret societies). There are of course plots and conspiracies by the rich and powerful to cover-up their misdeeds too on occasion (like Watergate) and it almost goes without saying that there have been well-documented clandestine activities by the ruling class and its agents against the organised labour movement, even from before the days of the First International. But we can also say with a fair degree of certainty that:
1. No reliable evidence has ever been furnished in support of a conspiracy "worldview".
2. Such views are typically the product of misplaced theories and perspectives that interlock with, and reinforce, other erroneous ideas (such as with the Illuminati and numerology; anti-semitism and the occult).
3. Postmodernist culture has helped open the floodgates to a swathe of unsound conspiracy theories that seek to systematically interpret world events in a non-rational and unscientific manner.
4. Conspiracy theorists' assertions that a complex, technologically advanced society like capitalism cannot be at root "anarchic" in many of its operations, are misplaced.

So the conspiratorial worldview is certainly not helpful in promoting an understanding of modern society and is itself, in large part, a product of the times we live in.

The organisation of society as it currently exists - capitalism - is certainly not a conspiracy, even if its structure means that conspiracies exist from time to time within it. And for those interested in overthrowing the system which now seemingly leads to secrecy and paranoia almost like night leads to day, a more fundamental approach is needed than that exhibited by the conspiracy theorists. A truly democratic society, where power no longer resides in the hands of a few, and where the incentive for power struggles and subterfuge will decrease accordingly, cannot be built within capitalism, by its very nature. Instead, a democratic socialist revolution, carried out by the majority and in the interests of the majority, will be the time in history when the conspiracy worldview is finally put to bed.

Meanwhile, for those struggling with the complexities and contradictions of life in capitalist society we can certainly say this: the truth is out there somewhere. It is just that it is not generally to be found in the New Age literature and conspiracy quackery currently invading the shelves of high street book stores across much of the western world. And there's definitely no mystery about that.
Dave Perrin

For more information about the World Socialist Movement, email spgb@worldsocialism.org

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