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
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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