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
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."
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
the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to
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:
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
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,
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
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,
and environmentally sensitive ways, and to redistribute wealth
and income here (or some other more complicated, structural set of
-- 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
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
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
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
Meanwhile, my own wonkish explanation of the causes and potential
strategies to confront them stumble on the steppes of complexity.
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
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
set of empirical data but of finding the best mode of political
persuasion for the particular situation. And those moments when
left had some success in the twentieth century (in the 30s
and 60s/70s) was when it was able to harness persuasive narrative
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,
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
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
New Internationalist: So as people become more alienated and feel
more powerless, conspiracy theories become more attractive. This suggests
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
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.