Conspiracy theories have been given more prominence and credence than almost ever before. It's not that conspiracy theories are in any way new – far from it. They can be traced back to biblical times. But, in recent times we seem to have entered an era of paranoid politics. The difference now is, firstly, in the extent to which baseless conspiracy theories have recently proliferated and taken hold even amongst well-educated sections of the population, secondly because of the way in which virtually no major event or phenomenon can currently unfold without someone yelling “conspiracy!” and finding a ready audience.
We live in a technologically sophisticated society and that has helped strip away much of the mystique previously surrounding our supposed elders and betters in the political elite. This distrust, which has been fuelled by very real revelations of wrong-doing in high places, has tainted the popular perception of not just the individuals involved but of the entire political process. And as any psychologist knows, distrust – in the right environment – breeds paranoia. The “right environment” in question is the one presented by postmodernism, that loose body of thought which contends that interpretation is everything and the truth an ephemera, and that science and reason are merely particular interpretations of events, being “narratives” with no more claim to validity than any other. It is postmodernism and the parallel distrust of science and progress that has arisen in recent years that has opened the way for conspiracy theories to multiply – whether they have a basis in reality or not. At the same time – and without coincidence – various New Age and occultist ideas and practices have gained ground. Postmodernism, irrationality and conspiracy theories now unite to form a bizarre trinity that informs much popular interpretation of historical events and processes.
Conspiracy theorists often gain plausibility by taking established fact and embellishing it, so that one can’t tell where truth ends and fiction begins. In truth, very little concrete evidence is ever put forward for the more far-reaching conspiracy theories that imply a conspiratorial worldview. The stock-in-trade of the conspiracy writers is rumour, innuendo, guilt-by-association and half-knowledge passed off as fact. There are undoubtedly shadowy societies of the super-rich which are well-documented. The Skull and Bones in America includes many senators and past presidents, while in Britain we have the Masonic Lodge. Take Bilderberg and its ilk as an example. Yes, there is plentiful evidence that organisations like the Bilderberg group exist. Yes, there is evidence that their members are rich and powerful people with their own agendas and quite some influence. But no, there is no evidence that such organisations “rule the world” and carefully manipulate states and economies at will – and no-one has yet provided any. But of course, they can’t be very secret or we wouldn’t know about them. What’s really interesting is why some people need to believe the world is really controlled by a secret society, when it is fairly obviously controlled by the not-very-secret capitalist class. The capitalist class is not a conspiracy, not because it is open and, more or less, above board, but because it is not united, as the Illuminati presumably are. Many unfamiliar with the analysis of Marxian economics, they are yet to realise that at the heart of the capitalist economy is a genuine “anarchy of production” based on ruthless competition, where firms produce goods with only profit in mind and not the needs of other firms or the limits for their particular market – and without an overall external controlling force. This particular blind spot in their conspiracists' perspective can lead them to make ridiculous, unsupported claims. The disunity of the capitalist class is their Achilles heel, a weakness workers could use. If you believe your enslavers have no weaknesses, you won’t struggle against them. The conspiracists could do with some illumination on that point!
In some respects, we do indeed live in strange and puzzling time. Mass starvation exists amidst plenty. Wars rage across the globe even though everyone says they want peace. In this environment, it is no wonder that people look for irrational explanations for seemingly irrational problems. Conspiracy theorists take the view that such a complex organism as modern world society must be controlled from the top – someone, somewhere must be pulling the strings. Most conspiracy theories are really believed not by those who come into closest contact with the conspirators but by those at the bottom of the pile who are typically furthest away from them, metaphorically speaking – the disenfranchised and dispossessed. They are most likely to be found on the extreme fringes of capitalism's political spectrum, on the far left and the far right.
So do conspiracies actually exist at present? Of course – from political plots to the more renowned activities of political dissenters meeting in secret. There are of course plots and conspiracies by the rich and powerful to cover-up their misdeeds too on occasion and it almost goes without saying that there have been well-documented clandestine activities by the ruling class and its agents against the organised labour movement. But we can also say with a fair degree of certainty that:
1. No reliable evidence has ever been furnished in support of a conspiracy “worldview”.
2. Such views are typically the product of misplaced theories and perspectives that interlock with, and reinforce, other erroneous ideas (such as with the Illuminati and numerology; anti-semitism and the occult).
3. Postmodernist culture has helped open the floodgates to a swathe of unsound conspiracy theories that seek to systematically interpret world events in a non-rational and unscientific manner.
4. Conspiracy theorists' assertions that a complex, technologically advanced society like capitalism cannot be at root “anarchic” in many of its operations, are misplaced
The organisation of society as it currently exists – capitalism – is certainly not a conspiracy, (even if its structure means that conspiracies exist from time to time within it) . And there's definitely no mystery about it.