Conspiracism and Social Conflict

Conspiracism needs a conflict to flourish–some indigestion in the body politic for which the conspiracist seeks causation so that blame can be affixed. As Davis observes sympathetically, most countersubversives “were responding to highly disturbing events; their perceptions, even when wild distortions of reality, were not necessarily unreasonable interpretations of available information.”[1] The interpretations, however, were inaccurate, frequently hysterical, and created havoc.

Since conspiracist thinking flourishes during periods of political, economic, or cultural transformation, Davis observed that “[c]ollective beliefs in conspiracy have usually embodied or given expression to genuine social conflict.”[2] Davis identified four primary categories of persons who join conspiracist countersubversive movements:

  • Persons who are “defenders of threatened establishments;”
  • Persons being displaced, “put in new positions of dependency,” or facing oppression;
  • Persons with “anxieties over social or cultural change;” and,
  • Persons who see “foreign revolution or tyrannical reaction,” and who search for “domestic counterparts on the assumption that fires may be avoided if one looks for flying sparks.”

When people are mobilizing in defense of disproportionate privilege and power, they often devise rationalizations that divert attention from their underlying self interest. Scapegoating in the form of conspiracist scapegoating can provide the needed protective coloration. No matter what the form, Conspiracist rhetoric in mass movements emerges as a response to concrete power struggles.

Although the specific allegations about the plots and plans by the alleged conspirators frequently are complex–even Byzantine–the ultimate model is still simple: the good people must expose and stop the bad people, and then conflict will end, grievances will be resolved, and everything will be just fine. Conspiracist thinking is thus an action-oriented worldview which holds out to believers the possibility of change. As Kathleen M. Blee has observed through interviews with women in White racist groups, “Conspiracy theories not only teach that the world is divided into an empowered “them” and a less powerful “us” but also suggest a strategy by which the “us” (ordinary people, the non-conspirators) can challenge and even usurp the authority of the currently-powerful.”[3] Thus conspiracist scapegoating fills a need for explanations among the adherents by providing a simple model of good versus evil in which the victory over evil is at least possible.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, p. xiv.

[3] Kathleen M. Blee, “Engendering Conspiracy: Women in Rightist Theories and Movements,” in in Eric Ward, ed., Conspiracies: Real Greivances, Paranoia, and Mass Movements, (Seattle: Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment [Peanut Butter Publishing], 1996).

Conspiracism and Countersubversion

When conspiracism becomes a mass phenomenon, persons seeking to protect the nation from the alleged conspiracy of subversives gnawing away at the entrails of the society form counter movements—thus the term countersubversion.

David Brion Davis noted that movements to counter the “threat of conspiratorial subversion acquired new meaning in a nation born in revolution and based on the sovereignty of the people,” and that in the US,” crusades against subversion have never been the monopoly of a single social class or ideology, but have been readily appropriated by highly diverse groups.”[i]

Frank Donner perceived an institutionalized culture of countersubversion in the United States “marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness.”[ii] This countersubversion hysteria is linked to government attempts to disrupt and crush dissident social movements in the United States.[iii] Conspiracists in the government and private sector periodically create a “countersubversive” apparatus as a response to dissent. The FBI’s counterintelligence program of illegally spying on and disrupting dissidents from the 1950s to the 1970s, dubbed COINTELPRO, is an example of an operational conspiracy ironically based on a conspiracist worldview that suspected widespread subversion by leftists.

Davis points out that:

===”genuine conspiracies have seldom been as dangerous or as powerful as have movements of countersubversion. The exposer of conspiracies necessarily adopts a victimized, self-righteous tone which masks his own meaner interests as well as his share of responsibility for a given conflict. Accusations of conspiracy conceal or justify one’s own provocative acts and thus contribute to individual or national self-deception. Still worse, they lead to overreactions, particularly to degrees of suppressive violence which normally would not be tolerated.”[iv]

The most influential conspiracist theory in the US during the twentieth century was the fear of the Red Menace. Donner argued that the unstated yet actual primary goal of surveillance and political intelligence gathering by state agencies and their countersubversive allies is not amassing evidence of illegal activity for criminal prosecutions, but punishing critics of the status quo or the state in order to undermine movements for social change.

A major tool used to justify the anti–democratic activities of the intelligence establishment is propaganda designed to create fear of a menace by an alien outsider. The timeless myth of the enemy “other” assuages ethnocentrist hungers with servings of fresh scapegoats. As Donner noted: “In a period of social and economic change during which traditional institutions are under the greatest strain, the need for the myth is especially strong as a means of transferring blame, an outlet for the despair [people] face when normal channels of protest and change are closed.”[v]

Conspiracism and Social

[i] Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, pp. xv–xvi.

[ii] Donner, Age, p. 10.

[iii] In addition to discussions of repression in Bennett, Levin, Donner, Higham, Preston, and Rogin, see also Robert J. Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America, 1870 to Present, 2nd edition, (Rochester VT: Schenkman Books, Inc. , 1978); Athan Theoharis, Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan, (Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1978); Kenneth O’Reilly, Hoover and the Unamericans: The FBI, HUAC and the Red Menace, (Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1983); Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); Ward Churchill & Jim Vander Wall. Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, (Boston: South End Press, 1988); Kenneth O’Reilly, ‘Racial Matters:’ The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960—1972, (New York: Free Press, 1988); Ward Churchill & Jim Vander Wall. COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, (Boston: South End Press, 1989).

[iv] Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, p. 361.

[v] Donner, Age, p. 11.

How Conspiracism and Apocalypticism are Linked

In Western culture, conspiracist narratives are significantly  influenced by metaphors from Biblical apocalyptic prophesy. Stephen O’Leary in Arguing the Apocalypse contends that the process of demonization is central to all forms of conspiracist thinking.[i] Leonard Zeskind argues it is impossible to analyze the contemporary political right, without understanding the “all-powerful cosmology of diabolical evil.”[ii] To Zeskind, conspiracy theories are “essentially theologically constructed views of events. Conspiracy theories are renderings of a metaphysical devil which is trans-historical, omnipotent, and destructive of God’s will on earth. This is true even for conspiracy theories in which there is not an explicit religious target.”[iii]

  1. L. Gardner points out that many current “conspiracy theories directed against the government are part of a rhetorical strategy genuinely intended to undermine state power and government authority,” but this occurs in a “metaphysical context” in which “those in control are implicated in a Manichean struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. That they are the agents of the devil is proved by the very fact that they control a corrupt system.”[iv] The fear of a subversive conspiracy to create a collectivist “one world government” is rooted in this religious apocalyptic view, but now spans a continuum of beliefs from religious to secular.

The narrative of most conspiracist thinking is that the government is controlled by a relatively small secret elite. This fits the general paradigm of scapegoating because despite the actual size of the government and the power of the state, the conspiracists picture a handful of secret elites manipulating behind the scenes–a tiny cabal who would be no match for the sovereign “We The People” mobilized against them.

Conspiracism and countersubversion manifest themselves in degrees. “It might be possible, given sufficient time and patience,” writes David Brion Davis, “to rank movements of countersubversion on a scale of relative realism and fantasy,”[v] The distance from reality and logic the conspiracist analysis drifts can range from modest to maniacal.

[i] O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse, pp. 20-60.

[ii] Zeskind, “Some Ideas on Conspiracy Theories,” p. 16; see also, pp. 11, 13-15, 16-17.

[iii] Ibid., 13-14.

[iv] S. L. Gardiner, “Social Movements, Conspiracy Theories and Economic Determinism: A Response to Chip Berlet,” in Ward, Conspiracies, p. 83.

[v] Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, p. xiv.

What is Conspiracism?

Conspiracism

It is very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast insidious conspiracy against the common good. The conspiracist worldview sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events; makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to “prove” connections, blames social conflicts on demonized scapegoats, and constructs a closed metaphysical worldview that is highly resistant to criticism.[i]

When conspiracist scapegoating occurs, the results can devastate a society, disrupting rational political discourse and creating targets who are harassed and even murdered. Dismissing the conspiracism often found in right-wing populism as irrational extremism, lunatic hysteria, or marginalized radicalism does little to challenge these movements, fails to deal with concrete conflicts and underlying institutional issues, invites government repression, and sacrifices the early targets of the scapegoaters on the altar of denial. An effective response requires a more complex analysis.

The Dynamics of Conspiracism

The dynamic of conspiracist scapegoating is remarkably predictable. Persons who claim special knowledge of a plot warn their fellow citizens about a treacherous subversive conspiracy to attack the common good. What’s more, the conspiracists announce, the plans are nearing completion, so that swift and decisive action is needed to foil the sinister plot. In different historical periods, the names of the scapegoated villains change, but the essentials of this conspiracist worldview remain the same.[ii]

George Johnson explained that “conspiratorial fantasies are not simply an expression of inchoate fear. There is a shape, an architecture, to the paranoia.” Johnson came up with five rules common to the conspiracist worldview in the United States:[iii]

“The conspirators are internationalist in their sympathies.

“[N]othing is ever discarded. Right-wing mail order bookstores still sell the Protocols of the Elders of Zion…[and] Proofs of a Conspiracy [from the late 1700’s].

“Seeming enemies are actually secret friends. Through the lens of the conspiracy theorists, capitalists and Communists work hand in hand.

“The takeover by the international godless government will be ignited by the collapse of the economic system.

“It’s all spelled out in the Bible. For those with a fundamentalist bent, the New World Order or One World Government is none other than the international kingdom of the Antichrist, described in the Book of Revelation.

Conspiracism can occur as a characteristic of mass movements, between sectors in an intra–elite power struggle, or as a justification for state agencies to engage in repressive actions. Conspiracist scapegoating is woven deeply into US culture and the process appears not just on the political right but in center and left constituencies as well.[iv] There is an entrenched network of conspiracy–mongering information outlets spreading dubious stories about public and private figures and institutions. They use media such as printed matter, the internet, fax trees, radio programs, videotapes and audiotapes.[v]

[i] Although they often disagree with my conclusions, my thinking on conspiracism has been shaped by comments and critiques from S. L. Gardiner, Loretta Ross, and Leonard Zeskind.

[ii] Higham, Strangers, pp. 3-11; Hofstadter, Paranoid Style, pp. 3-40; Davis, Fear of Conspiracy, pp. xv-xviii; Bennett, Party of Fear, pp. 1-16; George Johnson, Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics, (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1983), pp. 17-30.

[iii] George Johnson, “The Conspiracy That Never Ends,” The New York Times, 4/30/95, Sec. 4; p. 5. The full text of Johnson’s rules is longer and far more erudite and entertaining.

[iv] On Christian right fears of a liberal secular humanist conspiracy, see Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley, “Theocracy & White Supremacy: Behind the Culture War to Restore Traditional Values,” chapter in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, Chip Berlet, ed. (Boston, South End Press, 1995) p. 60–61; On growing right/left conspiracism, see Michael Kelly, “The Road to Paranoia,” The New Yorker, June 19, 1995, pp. 60–70; Janet Biehl, ”Militia Fever: The Fallacy of “Neither Left nor Right,” Green Perspectives, A Social Ecology Publication, Number 37, April 1996; Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?…Not!,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, Jan., 1992, pp. 17–19; Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?…Not, Again,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, May,. 1992, pp. 86–88.

[v] Kintz & Lesage, Culture, Media, and the Religious Right. Detailed articles on the general theme of right-wing media can be found in Afterimage (Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY), special issue on “Fundamentalist Media,” 22:7&8, Feb./March 1995; and Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), special issue on “The Right-Wing Media Machine,” March/April 1995. Jim Danky and John Cherney, “Beyond Limbaugh: The Hard Right’s Publishing Spectrum,” Reference Services Review, Spring 1996, pp. 43-56. For radio conspiracism, see Leslie Jorgensen, “AM Armies,” pp. 20–22 and Larry Smith, “Hate Talk,” p. 23, Extra! March/April 1995; Marc Cooper, “The Paranoid Style,” The Nation, April 10, 1995, pp. 486–492; William H. Freivogel, “Talking Tough On 300 Radio Stations, Chuck Harder’s Show Airs Conspiracy Theories,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 10, 1995, p. 5B; David McHugh and Nancy Costello, “Radio host off the air; militia chief may be out,” Detroit Free Press, 4/29/95, p. 6A; Far Right Radio Review online at <http://www.clark.net/pub/cwilkins/rfpi/frwr.html>. For Internet, see: Devin Burghardt, “Cyberh@te: A Reappraisal,” The Dignity Report (Coalition for Human Dignity), Fall, 1996, pp. 12–16;. A regularly updated list of links to web pages of various groups on the right is posted by Political Research Associates. at <http://www.publiceye.org/lnk_dem.html> and by Hatewatch at <http://hatewatch.org>.

The Political Assumptions of Conspiracism

by Matthew N. Lyons

Radical politics and social analysis have been so effectively marginalized in the US that much of what passes for radicalism is actually liberal reformism with a radical-looking veneer. To claim a link between liberalism and conspiracism may sound paradoxical, because of the conventional centrist/extremist assumption that conspiracist thinking is a marginal, “pathological” viewpoint shared mainly by people at both extremes of the political spectrum. Centrist/extremist theory’s equation of the “paranoid right” and “paranoid left” obscures the extent to which much conspiracist thinking is grounded in mainstream political assumptions.

Consider a message sent through a computer bulletin board for progressive political activists. Following an excerpt from a Kennedy assassination book, which attributed JFK’s killing to “the Secret Team–or The Club, as others call it…composed of some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the United States,” the subscriber who posted the excerpt commented,

“We, the American people, are too apathetic to participate in our own democracy and consequently, we have forfeited our power, guided by our principles, in exchange for an oligarchy ruled by greedy, evil men–men who are neurotic in their insatiable lust for wealth and power….And George Bush is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Scratch the “radical” surface of this statement and you find liberal content. No analysis of the social order, but rather an attack on the “neurotic” and “greedy, evil men” above and the “apathetic” people below. If only we could get motivated and throw out that special interest group, “The Club,” democracy would function properly.

This perspective resembles that of the Christic Institute with its emphasis on the illegal nature of the Iran-Contra network and its appeals to “restore” American democracy. This perspective may also be compared with liberal versions of the “Zionist Lobby” explanation for the United States’ massive subsidy of Israel. Supposedly the Lobby’s access to campaign funds and media influence has held members of Congress hostage for years. Not only does this argument exaggerate and conflate the power of assorted Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying groups, and play into antisemitic stereotypes about “dual loyalist” Jews pulling strings behind the scenes, but it also lets the US government off the hook for its own aggressive foreign policies, by portraying it as the victim of external “alien” pressure.

All of these perspectives assume inaccurately that (a) the US political system contains a democratic “essence” blocked by outside forces, and (b) oppression is basically a matter of subjective actions by individuals or groups, not objective structures of power. These assumptions are not marginal, “paranoid” beliefs-they are ordinary, mainstream beliefs that reflect the individualism, historical denial, and patriotic illusions of mainstream liberal thought.

Conspiracism as Parody of Institutional Analysis

The conspiracist analysis of history has become uncoupled from a logical train of thought. . .it is a non–rational belief system that manifests itself in degrees. Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power. Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis–an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo. Bruce Cumings, put it like this:

“But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with “conspiracy theory.” History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities.”[i]

Many authors who reject centrist/extremist theory use power structure research, a systemic methodology that looks at the role of significant institutions, social class, and power blocs in a society. Power structure research has been used by several generations of progressive authors including C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar.[ii] Some mainstream social scientists, especially those enamored of centrist/extremist theory, have unfairly dismissed radical left critiques of US society as conspiracy theories.[iii]

Power structure research is not inherently conspiracist, but conspiracist pseudo–radical parodies of power structure research abound. Examples include right–wing populist critics such as Gary Allen, Antony Sutton, Bo Gritz, Craig Hulet, and Eustace Mullins. Left–wing populist critics include David Emory, John Judge, and Danny Sheehan of the Christic Institute. Conspiracism tarnishes the artistic work of filmmaker Oliver Stone. A recent book by the respected left analyst Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths, contains a very problematic defense of conspiracism.[iv] There are also a plethora of practitioners who have drawn from both the left and the right such as Daniel Brandt and the late Ace Hayes.

Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power.[v] Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis–an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo.

The subjectivist view of conspiracist critics of the status quo is a parody of serious research. As Lyons observes, “To claim, for instance, that the Rockefellers control the world, takes multiple interconnections and complex influences and reduces them to mechanical wire pulling.”[vi] As one report critical of right–wing populist conspiracism suggested:

“There is a vast gulf between the simplistic yet dangerous rhetoric of elite cabals, Jewish conspiracies and the omnipotence of ‘international finance’ and a thoughtful analysis of the deep divisions and inequities in our society.”[vii]

Separating real conspiracies from the exaggerated, non–rational, fictional, lunatic, or deliberately fabricated variety is a problem faced by serious researchers, and journalists. For progressive activists, differentiating between the progressive power structure research and the pseudo–radical allegations of conspiracism is a prerequisite for rebuilding a left analysis of social and political problems.


[i] Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 2, The Roaring of the Cataract 1947–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 767.

[ii] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. G. William Domhoff, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979, (1978)); Domhoff, Who Rules America Now: A View for the ‘80’s, (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1986, (1983)); Holly Sklar, ed., Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management, (Boston: South End Press, 1980); Sklar, Reagan, Trilateralism and the Neoliberals: Containment and Intervention in the 1980s, (Boston: South End Press (Pamphlet No. 4), 1986); Sklar, Chaos or Community: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics, (Boston: South End Press, 1995).

[iii] For example, David Brion Davis includes articles by progressive investigative reporter George Seldes and radical Black power advocates Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in his collection of conspiracist writings, David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un–American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971).

[iv] Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths: Reflections on Politics, Media, Ideology, Conspiracy, Ethnic Life and Class Power, (San Fransisco: City Lights, 1996.)

[v] Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?…Not!,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, Jan., 1992, pp. 17-19; Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?…Not, Again,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, May,. 1992, pp. 86-88.

[vi] Matthew N. Lyons, working draft of chapter segment in Berlet & Lyons, Too Close for Comfort.

[vii] Jonathan Mozzochi and L. Events Rhinegard, Rambo, Gnomes and the New World Order: The Emerging Politics of Populism, (Portland, OR: Coalition for Human Dignity, 1991), p. 1.

Conspiracism and Right-Wing Populism

Conspiracism often accompanies various forms of populism, and Canovan notes that “the image of a few evil men conspiring in secret against the people can certainly be found in the thinking of the U.S. People’s Party, Huey Long, McCarthy, and others.”[1] Criticism of conspiracism, however, does not imply that there are not real conspiracies, criminal or otherwise. There certainly are real conspiracies throughout history. As Canovan argues:

“[o]ne should bear in mind that not all forms or cases of populism involve conspiracy theories, and that such theories are not always false. The railroad kings and Wall Street bankers hated by the U.S. Populists, the New Orleans Ring that Huey Long attacked, and the political bosses whom the Progressives sought to unseat–all these were indeed small groups of men wielding secret and irresponsible power.”[2]

The US political scene is littered with examples of illegal political, corporate, and government conspiracies such as Watergate, the Iran/Contra scandal, and the systematic looting of the savings and loan industry.

The dilemma for the left is that right-wing populist organizers weave these systemic and institutional failures into a conspiracist narrative that blames “secret elites.” In a lengthy article on snowballing conspiracism in The New Yorker, Michael Kelly called this “fusion paranoia.”[3] With the rise of “info–tainment” news programs and talk shows, hard right conspiracism, especially about alleged government misconduct, jumps into the corporate media with increasing regularity.[4] As Kelly observes,” It is not remarkable that accusations of abuse of power should be leveled against Presidents—particularly in light of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran–Contra. But now, in the age of fusion paranoia, there is no longer any distinction made between credible charges and utterly unfounded slanders.”

This confusion of left and right populism also occurs in Europe with magazines such as Lobster in England. The subject is discussed in detail in the book Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience by Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier.[5]

The US now exports globalist neocorporatism—a world economy controlled by corporate interests—as the hegemonic model that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. However, not all critics of globalist neocorporatism champion democracy and equality. We must be careful to draw a distinction between critiques that extend economic and social justice, and those that claim economic privilege for middle class consumers at the expense of social justice. Outsider factions composed of business and financial sectors with common goals regularly seek to displace the sectors in control of political and economic power in the US. A common tactic in this endless power struggle is to use populist rhetoric and anti–elite scapegoating to attract constituencies in the middle class and working class.

Some of the forces in the US that oppose neocorporatist globalism are outsider factions of business nationalists who favor protectionist trade policies and oppose international cooperation in foreign policy. In the past, business nationalism has also been the main sector in the US from which emerged campaigns promoting union–busting, White supremacist segregationism, the Red Scares, anti–immigrant xenophobia, and allegations of Jewish banking conspiracies.[6] When populist consumer groups such as those lead by Ralph Nader forged uncritical alliances with outsider faction of business nationalists to rally against GATT and NAFTA, the anti–elite rhetoric of right wing populism quickly emerged.

Why is this a problem? Because the conspiracist scapegoating of right wing populism masks a history of xenophobia and repressive authoritarianism on behalf of the majority. Right wing populist movements in the US have used scapegoating allegations of wrongdoing to rationalize White supremacy, antisemitism, and patriarchal heterosexism.[7]

The main scapegoats of right wing populism are people of color, especially Blacks. Attention is diverted from the White supremacist roots by using coded language to frame the issue in terms of welfare, immigration, tax, or education policies.[8] Women, gay men and lesbians, youth, students, and environmentalists are also frequently scapegoated.[9]

The removal of the obvious anti–communist underpinnings assisted left wing conspiracists in creating a parody of the fundamentalist/libertarian conspiracist critiques. Left wing conspiracists strip away the underlying religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, and economic social Darwinism, and peddle the repackaged product like carnival snake oil salesmen to unsuspecting sectors of the left. Those on the left who only see the antielitist aspects of right-wing populism and claim they are praiseworthy are playing with fire. This is a time for progressives to be wary of attempts by the political right to woo the left.[10] As one anti–racist group warned:

Left analysts and activists like Alexander Cockburn who are attracted to one or another point put forward by militia–led groups about “freedom,” such as the Fully Informed Jury Association . . .need to be aware of the poison pill of racism and anti–semitism covered by that sugar coating.[11]

Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer in New York, has commented on the resurgence of fascist ideas around the world. Henwood cited Karl Polanyi’s, The Great Transformation, which listed symptoms for a country infected with fascism, including “the spread of irrationalist philosophies, racialist esthetics, anticapitalist demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the ‘regime,’ or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set–up.” Henwood writes that “the list is a good description of the political scene in much of the world today—the denunciation of Coca–Cola capitalism by German skinheads, chanted between attacks on Turks and Mozambicans; the racist welfare–baiting of our own demagogues; and ubiquitous, vague, and nihilistic denunciations of ‘the system’ that offer little hope for transformation.”

Radio host David Barsamian who produces the syndicated Alternative Radio interview series from Boulder, Colorado warns that personalities who harp on conspiracies are providing entertaining confusion rather than helping people focus clearly on complex issues. He says progressives should not fall for “left guruism” where sensational anti–government theories are accepted without any independent critical analysis.

Barsamian feels some on the left have been “mesmerized by the flawless dramatic presentation” of people such as Daniel Sheehan of the Christic Institute. This demagoguery distracted attention from the “substance of the allegations which don’t all check out.” This created a climate—even a demand—for elaborate conspiracy theories to flourish. Barsamian acknowledges “we all are longing for simple comforting explanations, but by focusing on The Secret Team, or the Medellin Cartel, we ignore the institutions that keep producing the problems.”

There are differences between US and European right wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons says the following:

“Unlike the European countries, capitalism [in the US] did not emerge from feudal society, but rather was imposed abruptly through a special kind of mass colonial conquest. . .primarily the rule of White nationalism,”

“In the US the populist vision of cross–class unity is related to the dominant US ideology of classlessness, social mobility, and liberalism in general, but populism tends to break with political orthodoxy by circumventing normal channels and attacking established leadership groups, at least rhetorically.”

“White nationalism has meant (a) the absence of feudal remnants and the pervasiveness of liberal capitalist doctrines and institutions, and (b) a racial caste system that made working–class Euro–Americans part of a socially privileged White collective.” [12]

Progressive conspiracism is an oxymoron. Rejecting the conspiracist analytical model is a vital step in challenging both right-wing populism and fascism. It is important to see anti-elite conspiracism and scapegoating as not merely destructive of a progressive analysis but also as specific techniques used by fascist political movements to provide a radical-sounding left cover for a rightist attack on the status quo. Far from being an aberration or a mere tactical maneuver by rightists, pseudo-radicalism is a distinctive, central feature of fascist and proto-fascist political movements. This is why the early stages of a potentially-fascist movement are often described as seeming to incorporate both leftwing and rightwing ideas.

In the best of times, conspiracism is a pointless diversion of focus and waste of energy. Conspiracism promotes scapegoating as a way of thinking; and since scapegoating in the US is rooted in racism, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, conspiracism promotes bigotry. In periods of social or economic crisis, populist conspiracism facilitates the spread of fascist and para-fascist social movements because they too rely on demagogic scapegoating and conspiracist theories as an organizing tool. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from the left.

[1] Canovan, Populism, p. 296.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Kelly, “The Road to Paranoia,” The New Yorker, June 19, 1995, pp. 60–70.

[4] Kelly, in his New Yorker article, writes of this seepage phenomenon from alternative to mainstream in terms of conspiracist anti–government allegations.

[5] Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, (Edinburgh: AK Press, 1995).

[6] “Whiteness” is an ethnic identity, not a race or skin color, thus I capitalize “White.”

[7] By spelling antisemitism without a capital “S” or dash, I seek to recognize and respect the historic term while rejecting the false implicit idea that Jews are a race.

[8] Amy Elizabeth Ansell, New Right, New Racism: Race and Reaction in the United States and Britain, (New York, NYU Press, 1997) pp. 49–73; Anna Marie Smith, New Right Discourse on Race & Sexuality, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 18–70.

[9] People can be straight, gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual—this is descriptive rather than an ethnic reference; but when referring to an ethnic identity, movement, or specific organization, I will refer to Gayness, Lesbian identity, the Gay and Lesbian Rights movement, the Lesbian Avengers group, and the Digital Queers group.

[10] Tarso Luís Ramos, “Feint to the Left: The Growing Popularity of Populism,” Portland Alliance, (Oregon), Dec. 1991, pp. 13, 18; Chip Berlet “Friendly Fascists,” The Progressive, June 1992; Berlet, Right Woos Left: Populist Party, LaRouchian, and Other Neo– fascist Overtures to Progressives and Why They Must Be Rejected. (Cambridge, MA: Political Research Associates, 1990, (revised 1994)).

[11] People Against Racist Terror (PART) Turning the Tide, (“a quarterly journal of anti–racist activism, research and education,”), Summer 1995 Volume 8 #2; Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons, “Militia Nation,” The Progressive, June 1995, pp. 22–25.

[12] Matthew N. Lyons, woking paper for Too Close for Comfort.

What is the Sucker Punch?

A “Sucker Punch” is when someone poses as a friend and then when they get close they knock you to the ground with their fist.

So when right-wing ideologues and organizers suggest a coalition on any topic other than broad-based civil liberties, just say no.*

Why? Read the following:
Right Woos Left:
Populist Party, LaRouchite, and Other Neo-fascist Overtures To Progressives, And Why They Must Be Rejected 


* The exception is important, because civil liberties for all is what allows democracy to be built in the first place

Pro-Republican fanatic Denounces Hillary as Communist

A writer for the vicious Islamophobic website Front Page run by ex-leftist David Horowitz has smeared Hillary Clinton as a communist.  According to writer Daniel Greenfield, described as an expert on “radical Islam” Clinton in her nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic convention on Thursday gave “a speech that could have been given in Moscow during the Cold War

“Yesterday’s crazy radical idea is tomorrow’s Democratic slogan. Yesterday’s Alinsky disciple is tomorrow’s moderate Democrat. Yesterday’s Communist notion is tomorrow’s DNC speech.”

The headline for Greenfield’s hit piece is “Welcome to the Communist Party, U.S.A.”

According to Greenfield, “Hillary Clinton embraced wealth redistribution and re-appropriation from people who aren’t her. She embraced it with verve and gusto. She pushed Communism dressed up in references to the Founding Fathers. It takes a village to take away all our political and economic freedoms.

The sneering essay by Greenfield concluded with the charge that there is a name for the ideology behind Clinton’s speech and apparently the Democratic Party platform:

It comes with a hammer and sickle, with the color red, with gulags and firing squads, with little red books and big black prisons, and the death of the human soul.”

Read the full Greenfield essay here

Ode to Trump

(Use a Talkin’ Blues cadence)
 
Trump suffers from TMS
Testosterone Madness Syndrome’s pest
At Trump’s rallies, shake his hand
You’re pumping up an inflated gland
Trump’s Hard Rain better not fall
 
Trump compares himself to Tricky Dick
and makes Mike Pence his VP pick
Women in the kitchen, gays back in closet
Pence is the Christian Right’s deposit
Trump’s Hard Rain better not fall
 
Trump’s slapping his phallus on the table
We have to stop him if we’re able
Trump’s nasty rhetoric provokes violence
Which corporate media tunes to silence
Democracy, freedom? We’re in trouble
 
Time to organize, on the double!
Trump’s Hard Rain better not fall
 
(apologies to Bob Dylan)
 


p.s.
Pacifica Radio needs some bread
So write a check before we’re dead
 
-Chip Berlet
CC: by-nc-nd/4.0