Anti-Masonic Conspiracism

Chip Berlet & Jeffrey Croteau, 2013.“Anti-Masonry in the United States,” (translated into Spanish) Papeles d Masonería, Centro Ibérico de Estudios Masónicos, Madrid.

Chip Berlet. 2004. “Anti-Masonic Conspiracy Theories: A Narrative Form of Demonization and Scapegoating.” In Arturo de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris, eds., Freemasonry in Context: History, Ritual, Controversy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.



Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

Holly Sklar

New Internationalist: You have given several interviews where you make a clear distinction between your work and the work of conspiracists. Why is this imporant to you as a progressive analyst?

Sklar: When I write about influential elite planning groups such as the Trilateral Commission, I don’t portray them as omnipotent puppet masters manipulating politicians and policies in a vast conspiracy. Elite planning groups work to forge consensus among their own members on key issues and then work to put shared views into practice. These power players are more successful when they face less opposition from other elite national and international planning groups, and when progressive opponents are distracted, divided and ineffective.

When progressives grab onto conspiracy theories it undermines effective strategic analysis, planning and action. It plays into the hands of nonprogressive forces looking to sway more people with their absurd and malicious antisemitic conspiracy theories and underlying antisemitism. And it makes progressive change even more difficult to achieve.

Books by Holly Sklar

Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

Penny Rosenwasser
(Penny Rosenwasser is active with Jewish Voice for Peace and the Middle East Children’s Alliance)

New Internationalist: How do we find the proper balance between our concern for justice in the Middle East and resistance to antisemitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories?

Rosenwasser: Both Jewish Israeli people and the Palestinian people have a right to land, resources, dignity, security, peace, and most important…justice.

It is important to understand why some Jews, in Israel and around the world, are terrified. There is a very real legacy of historical persecution, and the resulting fears have been carried down through generations. And there are reminders. In downtown Berkeley I recently learned of graffiti that read “kill the Jews,” and saw swastikas, and that is disturbing.

These fears have been manipulated by us Jewish leaders and Israeli Jewish leaders and right-wing leaders reinforcing a Jewish victim mentality. But we are no longer victims–and believing we are victims keeps us from healing our historical fears, and distorts our present thinking. This is not our fault, but I do think it is incumbent on us as Jews to examine and heal those fears. This will make our lives much better and will also make us more effective community leaders and teachers and activists.

I have a friend, Irena Klepfisz, who teaches Jewish studies at Barnard, and who is a holocaust survivor. Her father was a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and he died in that struggle. So I take it to heart when she says that our fears as Jews are real, but we cannot let these fears get in the way of doing justice.

For me, this obligation to seek justice is drawn from our Jewish prophetic tradition. It is important to me as asocial justice activist to not only speak out against any kind of oppression or bigotry against Jews, but also to speak out for justice for all people, including speaking out against ant-Arab and anti Muslim racism. And this is an obligation, in part, because as Jews, we know what its like to be targeted, deported, and attacked.

In that same vein, just as I will always stand against real antisemitism-the blanket condemnation of Jewish people just for being Jews-I don’t believe that criticizing Israeli policies is inherently antisemitic. In fact as progressive Jews were are called upon to speak out against any human rights abuses against any people; and to speak out against any violations of international law including violations by the U.S. government.

I feel it is important to speak out against any anti-Jewish bigotry and important for us as U.S. Jews to speak out against ant-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Sometimes when people on the left criticize Israeli government policies they step over the line. I think it is mostly because of ignorance, of being misled. I was at a peace demonstration recently and I saw someone with a sign that had a Nazi swastika inside a Jewish Star of David. It breaks my heart what the Israeli government and army and settlers are doing to Palestinians. Some of these things are similar to what was done to Jews by the Nazis-but it’s not on the same scale as the Nazi genocide. And this is an example of how some people blur the distinction between the Jewish people and the policies of the Israeli government. So I try to make it a teaching moment, and I went up to the person and pointed this out and explained that it doesn’t help anyone or anything to have those types of hyperbolic signs.

Some people have even started blaming a Jewish cabal for us foreign policy. They point out that some prominent neoconservatives in the Bush administration are Jews. Hey, there is nothing new in blaming Jews for a worldwide conspiracy-but now some people on the left buy into it, and they should know better. This is scapegoating, and it confuses people because it shifts the focus away from where the real power is, which is not held by some mythical Jewish cabal.

Antisemitism has been historically used to divert attention from the people who really make the decisions. Historically Jews have often been set up as buffers, as the visible faces of the oppressor–whether as tax collectors, small landlords or business owners, teachers or social workers (and sadly, sometimes individual Jews have colluded in making unjust decisions). When we blame U.S. foreign policy on Israel or some Jewish cabal it divides the left and takes the heat off those who are the real decision makers. We need to aim our criticism at the proper targets. U.S. foreign policy is influenced more by corporate interests, the Christian right, and the arms manufacturers than by the Israeli government. It’s U.S. foreign policy that has to be changed. Blaming scapegoats diverts us from our work for human rights and justice.

At the same time, when all protests of Israeli government policy are called antisemitic, I think it takes something away from facing real antisemitism-real targeting of Jews, real bigotry and scapegoating. Since 9/11 I have been deeply upset at the increase in the scapegoating of Jews, along with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim scapegoating. We need to challenge oppression, injustice, and bigotry wherever we see it, and support human rights for all people. That is what Tikkun Olam– the healing of the world-is all about.


Books by Penny Rosenwasser

Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

Lee Quinby

New Internationalist: What is the relationship between apocalyptic thinking and conspiracism?

Quinby: The crux of the relationship between apocalyptic thought and conspiracism is a paradoxical attitude toward truth and power. On one hand, both stances hold that the full truth is beyond them. For apocalyptic believers, this is usually divine, “capital T,” Truth, that transcends human knowledge. For conspiracists, the truth “out there” is a secular plot in which a powerful group is perceived as capable of pulling the strings that control the rest of us. On the other hand, there is a sense in which each of these self-designated underdog groups — the apocalyptic Elect or the conspiracy Exposers–themselves hold a truth that others either miss or reject. Hence, both believe that they hold a special status in relation to the truth. For apocalyptic believers, this comes from a revelation from the divine source, often appearing by way of a vision that is then recorded in sacred scripture for true believers to discern.

Conspiracism also holds to this idea that they are the people “in the know,” the ones who have not been duped by the powerful plotters who seek to take over. In both instances, there can be efforts to convert others to this belief system even as there is an insistence that evildoers–whether Satan, an antichrist figure, or a manipulative political leaders–will do everything in their power to deceive the masses. In both of these systems of belief, the ultimate reward is a complete triumph over the enemy, a convergence of power and truth in which the believers not only acquire full truth but also full power over the forces of deception. This may be an eternal heavenly reward or a secular victory.

New Internationalist: Do you really think that the apocalyptic style breeds scapegoating?

Quinby: The tendency for the apocalyptic style to breed scapegoating stems from a “we vs. them” kind of thinking that is integral to the narrative of a final end in which the true believers will attain salvation. Apocalyptic belief is a story of cosmic Good versus Evil that gets manifest in the world by followers of each camp. The Elect cleave to the Good whereas those who follow Evil are of necessity the enemy, those who must be defeated. Scapegoating occurs when a particular group is designated as sufficiently distinct, different, “other” from the true believers. This group’s belief system and practices of daily life are seen to threaten the well-being and ultimate salvation of the Elect and thus must be conquered, even annihilated.

New Internationalist: Why should progressive people be sensitized to the issue of apocalyptic thinking and conspiracism?

Quinby: Progressive thought falters under the weight of apocalyptic and conspiratorial thinking because both of those perspectives rely so heavily on being the only holders of the truth rather than admitting that there really are many sides to any given story. In other words, disagreement and dissent are disallowed, democratic debate is precluded, and differences of opinion are penalized.

Progressive activists become overly narrow when they engage in conspiratorial thinking or apocalyptic righteousness because they latch on to the belief that they are the ultimate holders of the supreme truth and come to see themselves as arbiters for others, rather than being able to listen to dissenting points of view that not only deserve to be heeded but may well provide necessary information about issues of concern.

New Internationalist: Doesn’t it help build a constitutency that challenges that status quo?

Quinby: The energies that are marshaled together under apocalyptic and conspiratorial belief tend to seek a sudden and complete transformation in which the enemy is utterly defeated. So, although there may be a strong challenge to the status quo, it is unlikely to be able to continue in the face of transition, modification, and compromise. Democratic practices involving coalitions tend be perceived as selling out to the enemy.

New Internationalist: What do you mean by “Coercive Purity?”

Quinby: Both apocalyptic and conspiratorial discourses draw on images of purity–both of bodies and ideas. In apocalyptic writings, a body unstained by or washed clean of sin is the goal to achieve. In conspiricism, pure truth is in danger of being contaminated by lies. In each case, there is an intimate link between the concept of total truth and that of absolute morality. Differing ethical conceptualizations are thus seen as threatening. They are scapegoated as impure and the people holding them are often cast as physically unclean or sullied as well as debased and malignant in thought. This functions coercively by mandating obedience to what is perceived as the only proper morality. Compliance to the decreed truth becomes a prime virtue and any challenges to that authorized belief are then seen to justify punishment and/or ostracism. The discourse of purity hence coerces or compels adherence to a sense of certainty that forecloses on dissent.

New Internationalist: Is it really fair to say it is rooted in a male dominated view of the world?

Quinby: The notion of purity that is integral to western apocalyptic thought has a history of misogyny that represents most women as impure, like Eve in the book of Genesis or Jezebel in the Book of Revelation, for example. Women are seen as agents of deception and contamination of men, who must overcome their tempters, oftentimes by brutal action which is seen as just retribution. This world view emerged out of patriarchal culture in which men were dominant and it reflects the belief that women must be submissive to men for their own good and the good of their children. Women’s sexuality in particular is singled out as threatening to men, hence the edicts to cover themselves so that men won’t be tempted to impurities. This view continued over millennia of male dominance–indeed, the feminist challenge to male dominance is of relatively recent history. Despite the anachronism of such views in contemporary democratic society, a belief that women should be subordinate to men has been retained in fundamentalist readings of these ancient religions texts.

Books & Articles
by Lee Quinby

Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

Sonali Kolhatkar

New Internationalist: As an alternative journlaist, how do conspiracy theories affect your work?

Kolhatkar: Well, I don’t really hear conspiracists in the mainstream. Then again, I don’t hear too much good investigative reporting on the mainstream either… But in alternative media, I don’t think the conspiracists have crowded out the serious journalists – not yet.

I think the real problem is when serious journalism is mixed in with conspiracy theory. For example conspiracists will start talking about perfectly reasonable things like the CIA and FBI spying on citizens, and then take that into the nether realms. So they start out sounding reasonable, suck in innocent listeners, and then draw far out conclusions. It’s hard to resist unless you are a complete skeptic and willing to do lots of homework to check their facts and dubious claims.

Another problem is when journalists discuss serious and verifiable issues but are heckled by a few extremely vocal audience members to stretch their thinking to include the conspiracies in their journalism. That’s pretty disheartening. It happens to me often, when I talk about the war in Afghanistan, which is my specialty – one or two people will question the whole premise of the topic by bringing up the 9/11 attacks as some sort of “inside job” which implies that my talking about Afghanistan is a moot point when I should really be talking about the “much bigger story” of the 9/11 attacks. That really depresses me.


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism



Evan Harrington

New Internationalist: Why do some people appear to be overly suspicious or even paranoid about plots and conspiracies, especially in high places or by people in positions of authority?

Evan Harrington: To some extent I believe that suspiciousness is part of human nature. Within the field of evolutionary psychology, researchers have attempted to link observable trends in human behavior to our distant collective evolutionary past. Seen in this light, it makes sense that distant ancestors who were suspicious of strangers would have had an advantage over those who were overly trusting. But suspiciousness can backfire too, evolutionarily, in that individuals who were obsessively suspicious would not have traded anything with anyone and so would have been at a distinct disadvantage. Humans evolved in small societies, not unlike chimpanzees and bonobos, who are our closest relatives. If our evolutionary ancestors trusted all strangers, they likely would have been taken advantage of quite often. However, if they trusted members of their own social groups while being suspicious of strangers, then they would have advanced their own interests and the interests of their social groups, while remaining safe from predation by strangers. Of course this is completely conjecture and not open to empirical testing.

From a more social perspective, in America it is common to see leaders who are narrow-minded and greedy. There have been numerous examples recently of corporate leaders whose actions benefited themselves to the detriment of the company and stockholders. The Bush White House has been called one of the most secretive administrations in our history. So there may be some very good reasons to distrust authority figures. When you have a lack of information on a topic that people feel strongly about, the situation is ripe for rumor and gossip. Rumors tend to grow when people feel strongly about the issue (remember the “Paul is Dead” rumor after the release by the Beatles of the Abbey Road album?). I see gossip, rumors, and conspiracy theories as a sort of continuum. What sets conspiracy theories apart is that there must be a will to believe where people suspend disbelief, much the same as when reading a book or watching a movie. Only then do you get people endorsing what appears to be a silly or foolish conspiracy theory. A person probably has to be deeply involved in an issue before they accept a conspiracy theory as truth. Extreme events, such as being in the center of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, might lead to a suspension of disbelief. I understand there were quite a few conspiracy theories used by residents of New Orleans to explain the incompetence of the rescue efforts.

New Internationalist: How is it that many conspiracy theorists grasp onto extraordinary claims put forward by self-described “truth-tellers” while rejecting, or not even seeing, copious solid evidence that undermines these claims?

Evan Harrington: I think there is a leap of faith that occurs, and this is quite similar to a religious conversion experience. A person may spend months or even years thinking an issue before they come to endorse it. Within cults, the conversion experience happens at a much faster rate. I once spent 2 weeks at a summer camp run by the Unification Church, otherwise known as the “Moonies”. I was engaged in participant observation of their cult recruitment techniques. I witnessed troubled people from New York City being initiated into the fold within the course of several days, culminating in a religious experience for them. Once an individual makes such a deep investment in a belief system, whether it is a religion or a conspiracy theory, it can be very difficult to dissuade them. Experiments have shown that we all, to some extent, have a “disconfirmation bias” in which we try to explain away information that doesn’t fit what we already believe. When it comes to a strongly held belief system, disconfirmation bias will be bolstered by the threat to personal identity that destruction of the belief would entail. Some clinicians would call this a threat to ego identity.

New Internationalist: The brain seems to like solving puzzles, but some people can’t accept that some puzzles can’t be solved with the available evidence. Do we as humans have a need to “fill in the blanks” or “connect the dots” to resolve ambiguity or lack of information? Are some people more prone to this than others?

Evan Harrington: Humans are excellent at seeing patterns. Part of our evolutionary heritage is that we are amazingly adept at seeing patterns in the events that happen around us. Cognitive psychologists have studied this for years. The need to see patterns, or to “resolve ambiguity” is not really detrimental. In fact, it is to our advantage that we humans are able to take enormous amounts of information from our social worlds, process this information quickly and efficiently, and then act accordingly. The price we pay for being so efficient at organizing social information is that we often to make errors in certain predictable areas. Some cognitive psychologists have spent their careers identifying what these areas are and how they operate. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were pioneers in this research. People routinely overestimate the risk of flying in airplanes (I do this myself) and underestimate the risk of driving on the freeway. According to Tversky and Kahneman, it is much easier to imagine a plane crash than a car crash, for the simple reason that plane crashes are more dramatic. Flying in airplanes is much more rare for most people. Since it is easier for us to recall dramatic plane crashes, and because our own experiences with planes are rare (compared to driving), we tend to overestimate the risk associated with planes. Swimming pools are far more deadly to children than is having a loaded gun in the house, though many people will say that the gun poses a greater risk, simply because gun accidents are very easy to remember. So we have a strong tendency to make associations between events, though we often ignore base rate information, causing our errors when thinking about risk.

On the other hand, there has been some psychological research indicating that some people have a greater need for resolution of puzzles than others. Some people do appear to have a greater intolerance for ambiguity than others. Researchers working with patients exhibiting anxiety disorders have found that intolerance for ambiguity is associated with higher levels of worry and anxiety. This would make an interesting psychology study: does intolerance for ambiguity correlate with willingness to believe irrational things? One might hypothesize that a good conspiracy theory reduces ambiguity, thus reducing anxiety for those who are intolerant of ambiguity. Believing in a conspiracy theory might be expected to increase anxiety, but paradoxically it might reduce anxiety for these people. This might be a good topic for someone’s dissertation.

New Internationalist: Do some people tend to see the world in dualistic ways with little appreciation for nuance or complexity?

Evan Harrington: Milton Rokeach, a personality theorist active in the 1960s, identified rigidity of thinking as a personality style, but there hasn’t been a lot of research specifically on this topic. The 18th French chemist and tax collector Antoine Lavoisier noted that the mind tends to get “creased” into certain ways of looking at the world. Lavoisier was certainly correct to an extent – it’s easy to get into a routine and follow it. Changing one’s path through life on a daily basis can make things more exciting, but it can also be bothersome. Ellen Langer has studied what she calls mindlessness, which is essentially this tendency to adopt an autopilot approach to the mundane areas of life. If you think of mindfulness as a basic yearning for novel experiences and a desire to learn new things, then it makes sense that people high on mindfulness would have more appreciation for ambiguity and detail.

New Internationalist: How is dualism related to demonization?

Evan Harrington: Categorization, what you term dualism, is another commonly seen element of human nature. That’s not to say that we have to see the world in terms of us-and-them, but it occurs quite frequently and at a young age. Psychologist Henri Tajfel did in the lab what Jane Elliot did in the classroom with her blue-eyed and brown-eyed students. Tajfel divided children into groups based on meaningless variables such as a coin toss, or the estimate of how many dots were on a wall. Placed into groups, the children tended to support other members of their own group even to their own detriment, apparently out of a desire for their group to succeed. We’re the good group and, by extension, you must be the not-so-good group. If dichotomies are set up then differences will tend to be accentuated, although research indicates that members of the more powerful of two groups will be somewhat oblivious to disparities of power, or will come to believe that their accumulation of power is justifiable and based on merit rather than oppression. To the extent that disparity of power is seen by the weaker group as being unjustifiable, members of the weaker group may attempt to change the situation by joining the more successful group, changing the power dynamic, or in rare instances through social conflict (e.g., riots or terrorism). When you think of the global conflict being encouraged by Salafists like the al Qaeda organization, it is clear that the roots are in dualism and the different values held by modern Western countries and the types of fundamentalist Muslims who seek a return to the power of the Islamic Caliphate. Those who join the Jihad appear to be more educated than average, usually with secular educations, who feel powerless within industrialized European countries, and seek to address the global power imbalance through terror. They appear to have convinced themselves that in this way they will return Islam to the superpower status it enjoyed during the European medieval period. I would hypothesize that conspiracy theories are extremely common at al Qaeda training camps.

One point that Tajfel made is that group identity is transitory and shifts from one situation to the next. One thing that absolutely astonishes me is that cultures in which genocide was practiced can, within a few years time, go back to an apparent state of peace. If no one fans the flames of ethnic division then the group identities of former rivals might shift so that being a member of a nation becomes more important, for example.

New Internationalist: I argue that when conspiracy theories flourish in a community they are a “narrative form of scapegoating.” Why are demonization and scapegoating mechanisms that are so common among humans? We all seem to be tempted by demonization and scapegoating, but some people embrace it wholeheartedly. Why?

Evan Harrington: I think the answer lies in the allure of sadism. Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo recently published an excellent book examining the events at Abu Ghraib prison, and how social forces can compel people to do things they ordinarily would never dream of doing. When I think of the abuses at Abu Ghraib I think of children who pull the tails of cats, oblivious to the distress they are causing. To some extent, children need to be socialized to be empathic (e.g., Timmy, how do you think Fluffy felt when you pulled his tail?). There is an allure to cruelty, and with children the answer is to ask them to be both empathic and to ask them to be self-reflective. If children see the animal as something with feelings, and if they consider themselves to be kind natured, then they won’t want to hurt the cat. At Abu Ghraib people with no experience in corrections were acting as prison guards and they had no rules regarding how to handle prisoners. These soldiers were tired from massive overtime duties, they were anxious from all the hostile action outside the walls of the prison, they were bored, and they had no oversight from commanding officers. As Zimbardo says, it’s not a question of if abuses will happen, it’s a question of how bad will they be? I believe the tendency to scapegoat is always there; empathy and self-reflection prevent most of us from acting on these impulses. The power of the situation to set aside empathy and self-reflection cannot be overstated. The guards at Abu Ghraib for the most part had been known as good people prior to being in the prison setting. One guard, interviewed for Rory Kennedy’s documentary The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, said that that setting foot in the prison was like going into another world, one in which the old self was left behind. It is the situation that brought out these behaviors where people wholeheartedly acted in a heartless manner and, judging by the photos, with amusement and glee.

Conspiracy theories may indeed be related to scapegoating, but I doubt it is a one-to-one relationship. Many examples of historical scapegoating exist where conspiracy theories were absent. In my days as a graduate student I attended conferences held by fringe therapists who believed in a massive conspiracy of incestuous satanic cannibals. These cannibals were thought to have killed 50,000 people a year in the USA, or so these therapists believed. This was a situation in which conspiracy theories flourished yet there was little scapegoating (and needless to say, no evidence for the grand cult). Conspiracy theories may at times act to justify a larger aggressive agenda such as genocide, or they may help individuals justify instances of cruelty they are committing, but at other times conspiracy theories may simply be beliefs that do not lend themselves to skeptical analysis. Perhaps the most powerful tool against conspiracy theories is the skeptical mind, but skepticism and the scientific approach is sadly not one of the primary values in the American educational system.





Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

Robert Alan Goldberg

According to Robert Alan Goldberg, antipathy toward Jews as a religious and ethnic group has been a pernicious periodic theme within European Christianity for two millennia. Apart from this, but often interconnected is the more specific idea of an international political conspiracy that gains ground in the turmoil of revolutionary challenges to European church-state oligarchies in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As Goldberg explains:

“Scottish professor John Robison and French ex-Jesuit Augustin de Barruel were monarchists who defended the aristocracy, and they argued that the Revolution was not rooted in poverty and despotism, but instead was the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons, a fraternal group that valued science and reason.”

Another arm of the conspiracy named by Robison and Barruel was the Order of Illuminati, a secretive philosophical society (with a membership that overlapped with the Freemasons) that challenged the status quo, especially church power over political institutions.

New Internationalist: Why does conspiracist thinking persist? Does it serve some type of social function?

Goldberg: Many commentators dismiss conspiracy thinking as the province of the marginal or fanatical. Better to understand it as a refuge in time of crisis and tragedy. Conspiracy theories offer much to believers. They order the random and bring clarity to ambiguity. They provide purpose and meaning in the face of the chaotic. They also tender support to the traumatized who cry for vengeance and demand the identities of those responsible. Conspiracy thinking, similarly, offers a cure for powerlessness. It lifts the despair of vulnerability by arming believers with tantalizing, secret knowledge to understand and defeat the enemy. Conspiracy plots appear so credible because they are filled with details – names, dates, numbers – hard data that seemingly can be not be denied.

Moreover, in the face of a decline in faith and trust in authorities, conspiracy theorists pose as competing authorities who offer the facts of a new history, a new version of the past. In it, are revealed who has betrayed America’s promise, traditions, and beliefs. Conspiracy theorists thus create a counter history which tells us how and why America has lost its way. This pits conspiracy theorists with traditional authorities in a struggle for power – a struggle for the control of history and therefore the present and future.

New Internationalist: Isn’t conspiracism really harmless, and aren’t its critics just defending the status quo?

Goldberg: In a culture of conspiracism, opponents become traitors and enemies are stripped of their humanity. The world divides between good and evil, black and white. In such an atmosphere, compromise – so vital to the health of democracy becomes impossible. Faith in core institutions is lost and they lose both popular support and their ability to govern is weakened.

New Internationalist: How can you tell the difference between a “healthy skepticism of authority” and conspiracism? Where do you draw the line?

Goldberg: Healthy skepticism of authority is essential to democracy. The key is to maintain logical consistency while demanding evidence in support of an argument. Conspiracy theories are slippery in their logic and careless of facts and assumptions. They work from a premise or preconception of conspiracy and deny other possible explanations of events. Circumstance, rumor, and hearsay serve as evidence and are deemed sufficient for proof. Conspiracy theorists think magically. They create super powerful antagonists who exercise their will without constraint. Human error, chance, and bureaucratic process have no place in their narratives. In these tellings, everything can be explained. The result is a fanciful world that is rigorously coherent and ordered and subject to the whim of a diabolical few. Recall also, easy accusations of high crimes and mass murder sell books and movie tickets. True credibility demands testimony based on more than innuendo.

Books by Robert Alan Goldberg

Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

Mark Fenster

Mark Fenster describes how some people use conspiracy theories to construct a theory of power that fails to recognize how real power relations work in modern society, and argues the phenomenon “should not be dismissed and analyzed simply as pathology.”

He suggests that “conspiracy theory and contemporary practices of populist politics require a cultural analysis that can complement an ideological and empirical ‘debunking’.”

“Conspiracy theory as a theory of power, then, is an ideological misrecognition of power relations, articulated to but neither defining nor defined by populism, interpellating believers as ‘the people’ opposed to a relatively secret, elite ‘power bloc.'”

“Yet such a definition does not exhaust conspiracy theory’s significance in contemporary politics and culture; as with populism, the interpellation of ‘the people’ opposed to the ‘power bloc’ plays a crucial role in any movement for social change.”

“Moreover, as I have argued, just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something.”

“Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm.” (Conspiracy Theories 67-74).

New Internationalist: Aren’t you just finding another way to defend the status quo and marginalize people who believe in conspiracy theories as an explanation for power relationships in society?

Fenster: That assumes an either/or proposition that is the basis of most conspiracy theories, and mainstream political thought as well: Either you defend the status quo or you commit to a simplistic theory of power. Presuming that to be the only choice leads to quiescence or misconceptions about the structures of power, as well as to a notion that those who disagree are either paranoids (the pluralist view of conspiracy theorists) or the willfully blind and part of the conspiracy itself (the conspiracy theorists’ view of their critics).

New Internationalist: If all social movements are created to oppose a power bloc that is relatively secret and elite, how can social movements develop strategies, frames, and narratives that point at the actual underlying causes of social, economic, and political oppression, rather than blaming everything on a handful of bad people plotting behind the scenes?

Fenster: An oppositional social movement that attempts to avoid conspiracy theory is seeking to counter both a prevailing, omnipresent narrative of limited vision (that it seeks to oppose) and a simple, easily discernible narrative of limited vision (that it seeks to avoid). Given such powerful competition, there is no simple way to succeed. It has to be a process of using both simple and complicated ways of communicating facts about the present and a story of the future.

Consider, for example, “outsourcing” and the effects of globalization on manufacturing jobs (I’ll leave behind the debates over whether outsourcing is as fundamental a problem as it is often made out to be — let’s consider it a problem for the sake of argument). Let’s assume we agree that the problem emanates from the structures of global capitalism, and that the best way to attack it is through a mix of national and international political movements that seek both to enable developing countries to develop in democratic, equitable, and environmentally sensitive ways, and to redistribute wealth and income here (or some other more complicated, structural set of solutions — the point being that the problem is complex, and any solutions need to be as well).

New Internationalist: How do we build a movement around these issues?

Fenster: Mainstream discussions of the subject either see the loss of manufacturing jobs and outsourcing of service sector jobs as no problem at all (the market is working itself out and any effort to intervene is futile or will have negative consequences to all concerned) or as a minor market failure that can be dealt with through some regulatory or distributional fix (we’ll tax companies that outsource or move or we’ll give subsidies and retraining to workers who are adversely affected). That’s pretty much the range of descriptions and prescriptions provided by the political parties and mainstream media — somewhat complicated but still relatively simple and requiring little in the way of any large-scale shift in political economic structures or priorities.

Conspiracy theorists see these problems as parts of a larger effort to create a one-world government or as parts of some other purposive project by some boogeyman or other. Easy to explain, simple, powerful.

Alternatively and better, though still to my mind a bit simple, one could describe it as part of a purposive class warfare by capital against labor. Although seemingly positing a conspiracy, this is not only closer to the truth, but also a more useful effort to construct arguments around international labor solidarity, efforts to use multinational NGOs and governing bodies to affect change, etc. At least it sees the relevant actors in the larger structural problems arising from capitalism, and constructs a powerful and useful narrative around them. But if that simple, populist narrative slips and becomes racist or anti-semitic or exclusionary, then its power to affect positive social and economic change disappears.

Meanwhile, my own wonkish explanation of the causes and potential strategies to confront them stumble on the steppes of complexity. There’s no agency there, no narrative, no way to intervene directly. Just a long march to a marginally better world.

So the point is, Don’t fear populism, don’t fear relatively simple ways of understanding the causes behind prevalent political issues, but don’t embrace them without understanding their downside risk. And always educate about the complex structures that affect what often appear to their victims as simple dynamics. At bottom, it’s an issue not simply of finding the best political theory for a particular set of empirical data but of finding the best mode of political persuasion for the particular situation. And those moments when the American left had some success in the twentieth century (in the 30s and 60s/70s) was when it was able to harness persuasive narrative elements of populism while neutralizing its exclusionary, hateful, and overly simplistic elements.

Faced with the Great Depression, the left coalesces around movements and ideas like Upton Sinclair, the Popular Front, radical elements of the early New Deal, and the like. Faced with southern apartheid, the Vietnam War, and a disaffected and large generation of young people, the left coalesces around the civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements. All of these had both simple and quite complicated messages, and all of them had at their core populist conceptions of the relationship between themselves and power.

I think Michael Moore understands this really well, and much of the success of the anti-Bush movement (especially can be attributed to it also. (This leaves aside the question of whether Moore himself is a “conspiracy theorist,” or the extent to which has a positive political program or is merely anti-Bush.)

New Internationalist: So as people become more alienated and feel more powerless, conspiracy theories become more attractive. This suggests that the rise of conspiracy theories can be traced in part to the erosion of ways for people to engage in actual democratic participation that shapes governance, and the increase in government secrecy and political repression, both related to globalization on behalf of corporate interests and the backlash it creates as social movements mobilize. Is this part of the dynamic?

Fenster: Well, mostly yes. It can’t quite explain the differences between the Clinton and Bush II years, for example. On the surface and in most relevant senses, the Clinton Administration — say what you will about it in other respects — was less secret than the current administration, and yet at least as many wild conspiracy theories surfaced about it than about Bush.

Of course there are plenty of theories about Bush circulating on the left, many of which seem quite simplistic and unsupported, but it just doesn’t compare to the Clinton haters. (Maybe I just don’t notice the Bush conspiracies as much as I did the Clinton conspiracies because the former seem more grounded in logic and fact than those about Clinton, which often seemed so utterly beside the point.)

I do think a sense of powerlessness, that includes a sense of powerlessness in the market and in politics, plays an important role in making individuals and groups open to populist politics. If you’re worried about your job, your house and car payments, your health care, the schools your kids attend, etc., and you find your local, state, and federal government unresponsive to your concerns but you don’t have the capital to buy your own solution, someone who comes along and persuasively explains to you in a simple and direct way that there are certain causes and solutions for your predicament may seem quite attractive. Not necessarily more attractive, but possibly so.

Books by Mark Fenster

Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism

G. William Domhoff

New Internationalist: Don’t you study how power elites conspire? How can someone tell the difference between conspiracism and criticism of the status quo based on power structure research?

Domhoff: I think I study how elites strive to develop consensus, which is through such publicly observable organizations as corporate boards and the policy-planning network, which can be studied in detail, and which are reported on in the media in at least a halfway accurate manner. I think this is the opposite of a small, secretive, illegitimate conspiracy because this large group called the power elite is known to the public, clearly states its aims (profit, profit, and more profit, and less government), publishes its policy suggestions, and is seen as legitimate by a great majority of the public.

I also study the way in which elites in the United States and other democracies have agreed for a few hundred years now to settle the issues where they can’t reach complete consensus, namely, through elections, which are also public and legitimate, and which can be observed by researchers in a fair amount of detail, including on the issue of campaign finance, and which are reported on fairly well in the media.

The interesting thing with elections, in terms of addressing the conspiracy kind of stuff, is that rival elites have in effect agreed not to get into all out violence and war with each other, although Americans elites did so only 144 years ago in the bloody Civil War. Political scientist John Higley talks of elites coming to “settlements” or “pacts” that lead to elections, but this is not through conspiring, historically speaking, but through sitting down to talk in frustration and exhaustion, usually after fighting each other to a draw over decades.

For the U.S., where there was no fight among elites in the 18th century, partly because they had a bigger common enemy in King George, the elite pact is the Constitution, which cuts all the key deals on property and slaves and government structure, and which is well known for the process of its creation, and was put to the people for a vote, which forced a Bill of Rights, so this is a very visible and legitimate elite pact. Within its context they agree to disagree. Once again, this is just about the opposite of a conspiracy.

Within that broad context, we all know that all of us plot and plan to further our interests on specific issues, not just elites, and we sometimes try out ideas in confidentiality. And within government there are discussions and plans that we do not know about, and there is often an attempt to mislead us, but that is not what I would mean by a conspiracy.

One of the great mistakes of conspiracy theorists is to take these everyday machinations as evidence for some grand conspiracy at the societal and historical levels. These theorists ignore all the evidence that such planning is usually discovered, whether in the media or by elite opponents, and sometimes leads to prosecutions.

There is no falsifying a conspiracy theory. Its proponents always find a way to claim the elite really won, even though everyday people stop some things, or win some battles, or have a say so through elections in which factions of the power elite win political power.

How to tell the difference from power structure research? We study visible institutions, take most of what elites say as statements of their values and intentions, and recognize that elites sometimes have to compromise, and sometimes lose. Conspiracists study alleged behind the scenes groups, think everything elites say is a trick, and claim that elites never lose.

New Internationalist: Why should progressive people be sensitized to the issue of conspiracism? Doesn’t conspiracism help build a constituency that challenges that status quo? That’s what people like Michael Parenti argues.

Domhoff: Conspiracism is a disaster for progressive people because it leads them into cynicism, convoluted thinking, and a tendency to feel it is hopeless even as they denounce the alleged conspirators.

Conspiracism is so contrary to what most everyday people believe and observe that it actually drives people away because they sense the tinge of craziness to it.

What social psychologists who study social movements say is that a social movement definitely needs a clear and visible opponent that embodies the values that are opposed, and which can be vilified and railed against. But in opposition to the conspiracists, these opponents are readily identifiable and working through visible and legitimate institutions.

So, I would say that the opponents are the corporate conservatives and the Republican Party, not the Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderbergers, and Bohemians. It is the same people more or less, but it puts them in their most important roles, as capitalists and political leaders, which are visible and legitimate…If thought of this way, then the role of a CFR as a place to try to hear new ideas and reach consensus is more readily understood, as is the function of a social club as a place that creates social cohesion. Moreover, those understandings of the CFR and the clubs fit with the perceptions of the members of the elite.

Books by G. William Domhoff


Back to the home page for Antisemitic Conspiracism in the US
Understanding the relationships
linking antisemitism to conspiracism and apocalypticism