The politics of the hidden agenda

Spreading conspiracy theories – stories about a world warped by evil forces – remains the pastime of marginalised groups. But conspiratorial thinking, the idea that someone, somewhere is to blame for every misfortune, has become respectable.

Frank Furedi

Topics Books

The term conspiracy theory has become part of everyday life. As I write these lines I discover that ‘conspiracy theories are popping up all over South Florida this weekend’ to explain why a certain baseball player was dropped from a game (1). A commentary about another of America’s favourite sports, basketball, notes that ‘nothing beats a good conspiracy theory, especially when it involves two of basketball’s biggest names’, before reporting on the suspect motives of a ‘group of Chinese investors’ who recently ‘bought a minority stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ (2).

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

The phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ is used in various different ways today. Anyone who questions a particular version of events can be labelled a conspiracy theorist. Sometimes the term is used fairly lightheartedly to dismiss another person’s opinion. For others, conspiracy theories provide powerful evidence that all is not as it seems; adopting and accepting certain conspiracy theories can be a way of communicating ideas about bad faith, malevolent behaviour and morally dubious acts.

The epidemic of conspiracy theory-talk is reflected in the world of publishing. Numerous books have been published on this subject, many of them devoted to exposing some alleged, behind-the-scenes conspiracy to defraud the public and manipulate our behaviour. Such books readily resonate with contemporary popular culture, where Hollywood films and TV shows forcefeed us a diet of revelations about alleged cover-ups and hidden agendas.

When the idea of conspiracies becomes mainstream, then the meaning of the c-word can mutate and lose much of its conceptual utility. That is a pity, because contemporary society needs a full and proper understanding of the conspiratorial outlook on public life today, and why it has such a powerful lure. Indeed, there are now more and more books that try to explain the mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking in the twenty-first century. Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch offers a useful journalistic account of the way conspiratorial thinking has taken hold in recent years. Conspiracy theories are often associated with bizarre right-wing cults, yet as Voodoo Histories points out, today they are not confined to any particular part of the ideological divide. Left-wing conspiracy theories about Trotskyist plotters or neo-conservative cabals now compete with far-right denunciations of worldwide Jewish conspiracies.

Unfortunately, however, much of the current literature that tries to account for conspiratorial thinking lacks a critical edge. It often fails to illuminate the specific features of the conspiracy theory. Too often, any questioning of the official version of events is interpreted as a variant of conspiracy-theory thinking. This idea is forcefully put by Mark Fenster in his influential book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power. Fenster argues that conspiracy theories are based on the correct assumption that ‘we don’t all have equal access to power and capital’, an assumption which then creates a search for evidence of hidden corruption and abuse of power. So the conspiratorial approach to public life is ‘shared not only by the most committed conspiracy theorists’, says Fenster; ‘political novelists and investigative reporters also try to explain and narrate a world of unequal power’ (3). From this standpoint, the conspiracy theory is simply another variant of everyday muckraking exposés of ruling-class intrigue and official deception. That is wrong.

Also, the idea that conspiracy theories convey some essential ‘truth’, only in a perverted form, is frequently put forward by the new analysers of conspiratorial thinking – which again tends to miss what is distinct about conspiracy theories. And often, critics of the conspiracy theory take a very selective approach to their subject matter. As Aaranovitch notes, Fenster is far more understanding about conspiracy theories directed at George W Bush than he is of conspiracy theories aimed at Bill Clinton. Fenster says accusations against Bush are ‘more grounded in logic and fact than those about Clinton’. That’s another way of saying: they have ‘conspiracy theories’ but we have legitimate accusations.

The fact that some authors now erode the distinction between conspiracy theories and legitimate exposés of manipulative behaviour is testimony to the confusion that surrounds this subject. Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as the ‘attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended’. He believes that a ‘conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable’. This definition captures an important aspect of conspiratorial thinking. But is it is far too general to account for the specific features of the conspiracy theory.

Indeed, today, attributing agency to an accidental event is a key and common response to virtually every unexpected episode or act of misfortune. Yet the fact that more and more of us blame our neighbours or employers for some accident we have suffered, or blame officialdom for floods and other acts of nature, should not be seen as simply a milder version of that system of conspiratorial ideas which ‘proves’, for example, that the Jews were responsible for the outbreak of the First World War.

One way to overcome the confusion on this issue is to make a conceptual distinction between conspiratorial theories, conspiratorial thinking, and conspiratorial culture. It is useful to make this distinction because the current use of the term conspiracy theory has become problematic; it lacks clarity and it frequently distracts from the real problem today. That real problem is not so much conspiracy theories, but conspiratorial thinking and culture.

Today, as in the past, there are numerous real conspiracies and plots. Some of them never get off the ground, others never really realise their objectives, while some lead to real acts of sabotage and assassinations. Governments also frequently conspire to realise certain political goals. Sometimes governments raise the spectre of a subversive plot in order to clamp down on their opponents. The British government’s manipulative use of the forged Zinoviev Letter in the 1920s is a good example of how an invented conspiracy can be used to great effect.

However, real existing conspiracies and officialdom’s occasional fabrication of conspiratorial stories should not be seen the foundation or premise of conspiracy theories. Unlike stories about plots to assassinate Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe, a conspiracy theory is a theory because it doesn’t simply claim to provide explanations for a single event, but for much more than that. Most conspiratorial fantasies do not constitute a theory; a conspiracy theory is something quite different and distinct, and should be recognised as such.

A conspiracy theory provides a view of the world that both explains the background to events and, more importantly, provides a warning for the future. Its focus is not merely on behind-the-scenes machinations and plots against groups and individuals; instead it offers a comprehensive perspective that purports to reveal the real workings of the world we live in. The main theme of the conspiracy theory is the heinous act of moral subversion, allegedly carried out by a cabal of powerful people. In order to shed light on the importance of some global conspiracy, conspiracy theorists use the ideology of evil. This ideology offers a view of the world where unexpected occurrences and acts of misfortune are re-presented as the product of malevolent forces. In providing a comprehensive account of the threats that face a community, this ideology of evil seeks to give meaning to an otherwise incomprehensible world. Historically, the concept of evil has helped to explain why bad things happened; it provided an answer to society’s need to understand the cause of misfortune and it provided guidance on who should bear the blame for such misfortune.

Fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century demonology is an important early example of the conspiracy theory. During the early fourteenth century, frightening rumours swept Europe about an impending conspiracy; in some accounts the conspiracies were orchestrated by Jews, in others by Muslims; some demonologists pointed the finger of blame at lepers and witches. In the aftermath of the catastrophe that Europe suffered with the Black Death (1347-1349), fears of impending conspiracies were attached to witches, Jews and ‘plague-spreaders’. It is at this point that the Catholic Church becomes interested in the activities of sorcerers and Satanic cults.

In late fourteenth century, the Catholic Inquisition, originally set up to stamp out heretical practices, gradually began to regard witchcraft as another important form of heresy. The Inquisition constructed an association between witchcraft and heresy, which gradually led to a fundamental reorientation in the church’s doctrine. Eventually, through the contribution of professional demonologists, an ideology of evil emerged which blamed a Satanic plot involving witches for the corruption of the world. This was an early form of conspiracy theory, which successfully captured the imagination of pre-modern Europe.

Since the end of the eighteenth century, conspiracy theories in the West have taken on an increasingly secular form. The growing influence of secular and scientific thinking has undermined the idea of powerful demonic forces. However, conspiracy theorists have not stopped raising the alarm about frightening plots hatched by wicked conspirators – for example, in the 1890s the publication of the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was used to inspire a new spate of witch-hunts, this time against the Jews. Yet, in this form of scaremongering, the ideas of evil and danger were communicated in a non-religious secular form. As Aaronovitch argues, the modern conspiracy of The Protocols successfully influenced significant sections of the inter-war elites on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today, conspiracy theories that insist the world is ruled by a secret cabal, such as the Bilderberg Group, continue to flourish. The idea that there is a New World Order run by a coterie of evil conspirators is most influential in the United States. However, these current conspiracy theories tend to have only a minimal influence over society.

Most of the discussion on conspiracy theories – including that in Voodoo Histories – is actually about conspiratorial thinking. Conspiratorial thinking is about attributing the problems and misfortunes faced by individuals to some intentional malevolent behaviour. In particular, unexpected and unanticipated events are often blamed on irresponsible, and by implication immoral, behaviour. Such thinking is underpinned by a sense of powerlessness and the perception that hidden forces are responsible for people’s predicament. Through conspiratorial thinking, people attempt to give meaning to otherwise incomprehensible events – and unlike conspiracy theories, which are now confined to the most disoriented sections of society, conspiratorial thinking has gone mainstream. Advocacy organisations, political activists and the media are attracted to the idea that behind every headline there lays a hidden agenda. The idea of hidden agendas has influenced discussions on the war in Iraq, the destruction of the World Trade Center, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the outbreak of swine flu.

In previous times, such attitudes mainly informed the thinking of right-wing populist movements, which always saw the hand of a Jewish or Masonic or Communist conspiracy behind major world events. Today, conspiratorial thinking has become respectable; many of its most vociferous supporters are to be found in radical protest movements or within the cultural left. When, a few years ago, Hillary Clinton warned of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ against her husband, then president Bill, it became clear that the politics of the hidden agenda had become part of everyday public life. Today, the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement is as wedded to conspiratorial thinking as are its opponents on the far right.

Conspiratorial thinking gives meaning to otherwise strange events; it offers a sense of coherence and unity to otherwise disparate and unconnected happenings. The normalisation of this kind of thought is one of the most disturbing developments in twenty-first century public life. Indeed, it often appears as if Western societies have regressed and adopted a medieval perspective on acts of calamity. Back in the Dark Ages, people regarded accidents, disasters and other acts of misfortune as the work of hidden forces; accidents did not simply happen, but rather were intentionally caused by either divine or malevolent forces. Misdeeds were often seen as acts brought about by people who had been manipulated by evil forces.

Today, this primitive outlook informs how many people make sense of their personal failures, health problems and the disintegration of their communities. And since conspiratorial thinking encourages the belief that what you can’t see is more important than what you can see, it can be difficult to debunk. That is why even a fine study of this subject, such as Voodoo Histories, is unlikely to challenge it. As Aaronovitch points out, even people who question other people’s fantasies about conspiracies often embrace their own version of a hidden agenda.

Conspiratorial thinking is encouraged by a powerful cultural narrative that depicts people, not as the authors of their destiny, but as the objects of manipulative secretive forces. Life is interpreted through the prism of a Hollywood blockbuster, where powerful evil and hidden figures pull all the strings. The flourishing of this imagination springs from mainstream society’s own inability to give an authoritative account of contemporary events. Virtually every aspect of public life is contested today, and there is little agreement on what are the causes of our current predicament. This crisis of causality continually calls into question the official version of events. Of course, the official version of events often needs to be questioned, but not through embracing a simplistic conspiratorial worldview that blames small cliques of evil people for what happens in the world.

Conspiratorial culture communicates the idea that nothing just happens by accident: somebody is at fault. Fantasies about international terrorist networks, paedophile rings, corporate conspiracies to fool people about an impending environmental disaster and neo-conservative cabals compete with one another to gain public attention. Virtually every misdeed, it seems, is the outcome of a carefully worked-out plot. Conspiratorial culture helps fuel suspicion and mistrust towards public life. It displaces critical engagement with society in favour of a destructive search for the hidden agenda. It distracts from any clarification of genuine differences and helps turn public life into a continuous crusade to unmask the perpetrators of malevolent deeds. The media fuel this attitude by frequently arguing that what is important is not what public figures say but what their real agenda is. The media incite the public to look for hidden motives; that normalisation of suspicion and mistrust is the key accomplishment of today’s conspiratorial culture.

The rise of conspiratorial thinking expresses the loss of causality and meaning in the contemporary world. History demonstrates that nothing is more frightening than when a community lacks a system of meaning through which it can understand the problems it confronts. In such circumstances, people feel powerless and confused and are sometimes drawn towards a simplistic version of events where everything is black and white or good and evil. What is truly disturbing about the contemporary era is that it is not only the frightened and dispossessed who have internalised this cultural narrative, but also significant sections of mainstream society. Who needs The Protocols or other elaborate conspiracy theories when contemporary culture continually incites people to fear invisible forces? What is needed is not so much the debunking of these fantasies, but the elaboration of positive, future-oriented ideals that help people to understand things and take control of their lives. It is all too easy to condemn the simplistic meanderings of marginalised sects; it is far more difficult to question mainstream prejudices about hidden agendas and to overcome our own predilection to gain meaning through blaming.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See Joe Girardi puts to rest talk of Alex Rodriguez’s breather, New York Daily News, 21 June 2009

(2) No conspiracy: LeBron and Yao won’t become teammates in Cleveland, NBA Blog, 20 June 2009

(3) Mark Fenster interview

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