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What's Wrong with Conspiracism?

“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.”

Mark Fenster,
Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

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Conspiracism as a Flawed Worldview

by Chip Berlet


Every major traumatic event in U.S. history generates a new round of speculation about conspiracies. . The tendency to explain all major world events as primarily the product of a conspiracy is called conspiracism.

Conspiracism can be used to critique the current regime or an excuse to defend the current regime against critics. David Brion Davis noted that "crusades against subversion have never been the monopoly of a single social class or ideology, but have been readily appropriated by highly diverse groups." When the government and its allies use conspiracism to justify political repression of dissidents, it is called "countersubversion."

Frank Donner perceived an institutionalized culture of countersubversion in the United States "marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness." The article Repression & Ideology explains how conspiracism works when it is part of a campaign against dissidents.

Conspiracism as part of an anti-regime populist movement works in a different fashion. Populist conspiracism sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events. Conspiracism tries to figure out how power is exercised in society, but ends up oversimplifying the complexites of modern society by blaming societal problems on manipulation by a handful of evil individuals.

This is not an analysis that accurately evaluates the systems, structures and institutions of modern society. As such, conspiracism is neither investigative reporting, which seeks to expose actual conspiracies through careful research; nor is it power structure research, which seeks to accurately analyze the distribution of power and privilege in a society. Sadly, some sincere people who seek social and economic justice are attracted to conspiracism. Overwhelmingly, however, conspiracism in the U.S. is the central historic narrative of right-wing populism.

The conspiracist blames societal or individual problems on what turns out to be a demonized scapegoat. Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that portrays an enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good. Conspiracism assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence.

Conspiracists often employ common fallacies of logic in analyzing factual evidence to assert connections, causality, and intent that are frequently unlikely or nonexistent. As a distinct narrative form of scapegoating, conspiracism uses demonization to justify constructing the scapegoats as wholly evil while reconstructing the scapegoater as a hero.

The current wave of conspiracism has two main historic sources, irrational fears of a freemason conspiracy and irrational fears of a Jewish conspiracy. There are many purveyors of the conspiracist worldview and the belief structure is surprisingly widespread. Conspiracist ideas are promoted by several right-wing institutions, the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, and the Lyndon LaRouche networks. These groups are examples of right-wing populism in which conspiracist narratives such as producerism are common.

In Western culture, conspiracist scapegoating is rooted in apocalyptic fears and millennial expectations. Sometimes conspiracism is secularized and adopted by portions of the political left. It is interesting to note that on both the left and the right (as well as the center) there are critics of the apocalyptic style and flawed methodology of conspiracism.

In highlighting conspiracist allegation as a form of scapegoating, it is important to remember the following:

  • All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified with hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice.
  • People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences in the real world.
  • Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and as such are perilous to ignore.
  • Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following.
  • Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively less-threatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits.
  • Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.






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