The Political Assumptions of Conspiracism

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by Matthew N. Lyons

Radical politics and social analysis have been so effectively marginalized in the US that much of what passes for radicalism is actually liberal reformism with a radical-looking veneer. To claim a link between liberalism and conspiracism may sound paradoxical, because of the conventional centrist/extremist assumption that conspiracist thinking is a marginal, "pathological" viewpoint shared mainly by people at both extremes of the political spectrum. Centrist/extremist theory's equation of the "paranoid right" and "paranoid left" obscures the extent to which much conspiracist thinking is grounded in mainstream political assumptions.

Consider a message sent through a computer bulletin board for progressive political activists. Following an excerpt from a Kennedy assassination book, which attributed JFK's killing to "the Secret Team--or The Club, as others call it...composed of some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the United States," the subscriber who posted the excerpt commented,

===We, the American people, are too apathetic to participate in our own democracy and consequently, we have forfeited our power, guided by our principles, in exchange for an oligarchy ruled by greedy, evil men--men who are neurotic in their insatiable lust for wealth and power....And George Bush is just the tip of the iceberg.

Scratch the "radical" surface of this statement and you find liberal content. No analysis of the social order, but rather an attack on the "neurotic" and "greedy, evil men" above and the "apathetic" people below. If only we could get motivated and throw out that special interest group, "The Club," democracy would function properly.

This perspective resembles that of the Christic Institute with its emphasis on the illegal nature of the Iran-Contra network and its appeals to "restore" American democracy. This perspective may also be compared with liberal versions of the "Zionist Lobby" explanation for the United States' massive subsidy of Israel. Supposedly the Lobby's access to campaign funds and media influence has held members of Congress hostage for years. Not only does this argument exaggerate and conflate the power of assorted Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying groups, and play into antisemitic stereotypes about "dual loyalist" Jews pulling strings behind the scenes, but it also lets the US government off the hook for its own aggressive foreign policies, by portraying it as the victim of external "alien" pressure.

All of these perspectives assume inaccurately that (a) the US political system contains a democratic "essence" blocked by outside forces, and (b) oppression is basically a matter of subjective actions by individuals or groups, not objective structures of power. These assumptions are not marginal, "paranoid" beliefs-they are ordinary, mainstream beliefs that reflect the individualism, historical denial, and patriotic illusions of mainstream liberal thought.

To a large degree, the left is vulnerable to conspiracist thinking to the extent that it remains trapped in such faulty mainstream assumptions.

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