Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

Interview: Mark Fenster

by Chip Berlet, September 2004


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 moveon.org) can be attributed to it also. (This leaves aside the question of whether Moore himself is a "conspiracy theorist," or the extent to which moveon.org 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.

 

New Internationalist

The Complete Interviews

Books by Mark Fenster

Other Resources

Systems of Oppression

What to Do!

 

Spotlight On
Explore

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections