Posts Tagged ‘University of California at Berkeley’

Lobster on Real Conspiracies Versus Conspiracy Theories: Part One

March 18, 2018

Florence, one of the great commenters to this blog, alerted me the other day about a decision by YouTube. Apparently they’re planning to link any posts about conspiracies to pages in Wikipedia debunking them. She’s understandably very concerned about this because it is the first step to policing our minds, and telling us all what we should or should not believe.

There are indeed some very pernicious conspiracy theories around, which do need debunking. Like the stupid, murderous ideas that the Jews are conspiring through their control of the banks, media and Communism to destroy the White, ‘Aryan’ races. Or that they have been actively trying to destroy Islam and the Arabs since the days of Mohammed. And then there’s all the nutty ideas about the US government being in cahoots with evil reptoid aliens from Zeta Reticulum. And so on.

But there are also real conspiracies. Lobster as a magazine is dedicated to exposing them. Mostly these real conspiracies are about clandestine groups of activists, ideologues, business leaders, lobbyists and various intelligences agencies conspiring towards distinct short-term goals. Like the implementation of a set of policies, like neoliberalism, and attacking and undermining Communism during the Cold War. Or producing suitable pretexts for more western imperialism, like the Neocons in the US and Britain started faking material to suggest Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

These conspiracies certainly exist. And when Al-Jazeera showed Shai Masot at the Israeli embassy discussing with various Friends of Israel the people he wanted in May’s cabinet, Mike rightly called it a conspiracy. But because he used the term, the Blairites and Zionists in the Labour party have accused him of being anti-Semitic, because ‘conspiracy’ = the bogus, malign conspiracy theories of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other malign lies of that sort.

Lobster had published a number of articles over the years on the difference between real and fake conspiracy theories. One of these was by Jeffrey M. Bale in issue 29, entitled ”Conspiracy Theories’ and Clandestine Politics’, on pages 16-17, 19-22. It’s part of the introductory chapter to his Ph.D. thesis, The ‘Black’ Terrorist International: Neo-Fascist Paramilitary Networks and the ‘Strategy of Tension’ in Italy, 1968-1974, University of California at Berkeley, 1994. He begins by discussing why mainstream academic writers ignore real conspiracies. He writes

Very few notions generate as much intellectual resistance, hostility and derision with academic circles as a belief in the historical importance or efficacy of political conspiracies. Even when this belief is expressed in a very cautious manner, limited to specific and restricted contexts, supported by reliable evidence, and hedged about with all sort of qualifications, it still manages to transcend the boundaries of acceptable discourse and violate unspoken academic taboos. The idea that particular groups of people meet together secretly or in private to plan various courses of action, and that some of these plans actually exert a significant influence on particular historical developments, is typically rejected out of hand and assumed to be the figment of a paranoid imagination. The mere mention of the world ‘conspiracy’ seems to set off an internal alarm bell which causes scholars to close their minds in order to avoid cognitive dissonance and possible unpleasantness, since the popular image of conspiracy both fundamentally challenges the conception most educated, sophisticate people about how the world operates, and reminds them of the horrible persecution that absurd and unfounded conspiracy theories have precipitated or sustained in the past. So strong is this prejudice among academics that even when clear evidence of a plot is inadvertently discovered in the course of their research, they frequently feel compelled, either out of a sense of embarrassment or to defuse anticipated criticism, to preface their account of it by ostentatiously disclaiming a belief in conspiracies. They then often attempt to downplay the significance of the plotting they have uncovered. To do otherwise, that is to make a serious effort to incorporate the documented activities of conspiratorial groups into their general political or historical analyses, would force them to stretch their mental horizons beyond customary bounds and, not inadvertently, delve even further into certain sordid and politically sensitive topics. Most academic researchers clearly prefer to ignore the implications of conspiratorial politics altogether rather than deal directly with such controversial matters.

A number of complex cultural and historical factors contribute to this reflexive and unwarranted reaction, but it is perhaps most often the direct result of a simple failure to distinguish between ‘conspiracy theories’ in the strict sense of the term, which are essentially elaborate fables even though they may well be based upon a kernel of truth, and the activities of actual clandestine and covert political groups, which are a common feature of modern politics. For this and other reasons, serious research into genuine conspiratorial networks has at worst been suppressed, as a rule been discouraged, and at best looked upon with condescension by the academic community. An entire dimension of political history and contemporary politics has thus been consistently neglected. (P. 16).

The article goes on to discuss some of the classic, bogus conspiracy theories, like those around the Bavarian Illuminati, or Prince Clemens von Metternich’s claim in the 1880s that there was a central committee in Paris directing all the radicals in Europe in their campaigns to overthrow their governments; and the murderous Tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He distinguishes the common elements amongst these malign conspiracies. These theories state that the members of the conspiratorial group are evil incarnate. They are monolithic and unerring when pursuing their goals. They are omnipresent and virtually omnipotent, and are the motive force of all history.

He contrasts this with real conspiracies, whose members are recognisable human, and very definitely not monolithic. These conspiracies are in competition with many other similar groups trying to pursue their goals. They are also restricted in time and space. He states

There is probably not a single secret organisation anywhere which has existed continuously from antiquity to the present, and only a small number could have had a continuous existence for more than a century. And, with the possible exception of those which are created and sponsored by the governments of major nations and the world’s most powerful business and religious institutions, the range of activity of specific clandestine groups is invariably limited to particular geographic or sectoral arenas. (Pp. 20-1).

Continued in Part Two.