Countersubversion Theory and Conspiracist State Repression

Conspiracism is a worldview based on the premise that world history is shaped by a handful of secret conspirators. That conspiracism has flourished episodically throughout US history is well documented.6 When conspiracism becomes a mass phenomenon, persons seeking to protect the nation from the alleged conspiracy of subversives gnawing away at the entrails of the society form counter movements-thus the term countersubversion. David Brion Davis noted that movements to counter the "threat of conspiratorial subversion acquired new meaning in a nation born in revolution and based on the sovereignty of the people," and that in the US, "crusades against subversion have never been the monopoly of a single social class or ideology, but have been readily appropriated by highly diverse groups."7

Donner perceived an institutionalized culture of countersubversion in the United States "marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness."8 This countersubversion hysteria is linked to government attempts to disrupt and crush dissident social movements in the United States.9

The most influential conspiracist theory in the US during the twentieth century was the fear of the Red Menace. Donner argued that the unstated yet actual primary goal of surveillance and political intelligence gathering by state agencies and their countersubversive allies is not amassing evidence of illegal activity for criminal prosecutions, but punishing critics of the status quo or the state in order to undermine movements for social change. A major tool used to justify the anti-democratic activities of the intelligence establishment is propaganda designed to create fear of a menace by an alien outsider. The timeless myth of the enemy "other" assuages ethnocentrist hungers with servings of fresh scapegoats. As Donner noted: "In a period of social and economic change during which traditional institutions are under the greatest strain, the need for the myth is especially strong as a means of transferring blame, an outlet for the despair [people] face when normal channels of protest and change are closed."10

Donner summarized the basic premise:

"The American obsession with subversive conspiracies of all kinds is deeply rooted in our history. Especially in times of stress, exaggerated febrile explanations of unwelcome reality come to the surface of American life and attract support. These recurrent countersubversive movements illuminate a striking contrast between our claims to superiority, indeed our mission as a redeemer nation to bring a new world order, and the extraordinary fragility of our confidence in our institutions. This contrast has led some observers to conclude that we are, subconsciously, quite insecure about the value and permanence of our society. More specifically, that American mobility detaches individuals from traditional sources of strength and identity-family, class, private associations-and leaves only economic status as a measure of worth. A resultant isolation and insecurity force a quest for selfhood in the national state, anxiety about imperiled heritage, and an aggression against those who reject or question it."11

Donner used the term "subversification" to describe the process by which dissidents are made outlaws. In order to justify the continued health of the intelligence empire, new movements would have to go through subversification to "fuel backlash charges that our national security is endangered by a sinister conspiracy of dissidents who have deliberately depleted our intelligence resources to prepare the way for a takeover. Since no evidence of such a conspiracy will emerge, the accusers will exploit, as in the past, its non-existence: Is it not obvious that a cover-up was part of the conspiracy and that the absence of proof demonstrates it effectiveness?"12 There is also evidence that during these periods of repression, propaganda campaigns seeking to demonize dissident movements are adopted by the mainstream media and serve to insulate the repression from public discussion or criticism.13

According to Donner, "Intelligence in the United States serves as an instrument for resolving a major contradiction in the American political system: how to protect the status quo while maintaining the forms of liberal political democracy."14 Donner explained that "intelligence institutions have in the past acquired strength and invulnerability because of their links to two powerful constituencies: a nativist, anti-radical political culture and an ideological anti-communism, identified with Congress and the executive branch respectively."15

Central to rationalizing surveillance and disruption was the fear of revolutionary violence. Donner observed that "appeals relating to collectivism and statism have little power to stir mass response. But the charge of violence, however mythic it has become, is the rock on which the intelligence church is built. It accommodates repression to democratic norms that exclude violent methods."16

Implicit in the rationalizations and justifications for political repression is a package of right-wing countersubversion beliefs with roots deep in xenophobia and nativism. Two key countersubversive theories could be called the theories of the "Slippery Slope" and the "Onion Ring."

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