There are conspiracies throughout history,
but history is not governed by conspiracies
Conspiracism is a way to view power relationships in the world that does not rely on verifiable facts or logic
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>.