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).