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.