CONSPIRACY THEORY: PAST AND PRESENT
by Harvey Wheeler
Parenti, in defending the usefulness of conspiracy theories, said that
anti-conspiracy theorists should be referred to as "coincidence
theorists". He also suggested that conspiracy theories have a different
level of analysis than "systemic" theories. He noted that even if
problems are systemic, someone somewhere is implementing actions to achieve the
ends that further the existence of the system.
Progressive Magazine's review of Stone's film said it was too
hagiographic in its depiction of JFK. It overstated his "good
intentions", but a military industrial conspiracy probably did carry out a
"coup d'état", as Stone suggested.
There were internal disagreements among the various power elites; it was not
that Kennedy suddenly became a "man of the people".
It was suggested that Edward Kennedy "knows." and that he may tell
us some day.
As far as focusing on industrial society, the magazine Anarchy: A Journal
of Desire Armed has published a lot of anti-technology, and even
anti-civilization articles recently. These articles have been in the tradition
of John Zerzan (on the Eden myth), who views the transition from a
hunter-gatherer Biblical society to a horticultural one to be the
The Post-Industrial Revolution is our "FALL."
Political scientists often favor quasi-conspiracy theories because politics
is chock full of cabals and conspiracies of all sorts. Other people tend to say
yes, conspiracies exist all over the historical lot, but they are epiphenomenal
and get nowhere, or have no permanent effect unless they represent authentic
underlying social forces, in which case it is the underlying forces that are at
work and not their surface conspiratorial manifestations. This is the
historicist criticism of conspiracy theory as being the institutional version
of the "great man" debate, which often comes down to a Lyndon Johnson
type maxim that "it takes a lot of hard work to build a barn but any
jackass can kick one down."
Conspiracies certainly can pull off assassinations with large institutional
consequences but the real nature of those apparent consequences depends upon
the underlying forces the assassination releases. Note that the number of
"unexpected deaths" rose rapidly following the Camelot Assassinations
of the Kennedy Era; and rose rapidly also under Clinton.
The times make a difference. When a society is in a fundamental transition
there may be no univocal triangulation of underlying forces, in which case the
argument for the independent role of conspiracies is strengthened. Russia after
World War I, Germany in the 1930s and France after World War II are plausible
examples — as is the U.S. today.
"Great Men" do make a difference. It is conceivable that three
different candidates for President might actually be able to chart three quite
different pathways to the future. After World War II, if Eisenhower had
possessed more energy (he was mortally ill the last few years of his life) he
might have forestalled the institutionalization of the "Military
Industrial Complex," rather than merely bemoan its christening.
All the above is plausible, but people like McLuhan and Ellul are also
We are in a post-industrial Information Age in which the
"software" supplements the "hardware" as one of the
independent variables in the constellation of underlying social forces. This
means that "ownership of the means of programming", so to speak
— and hence the control thereof — could legitimately figure as an
autonomous "underlying force," to speak in terms of the Newtonian
mechanics of social thoughtware analysis.
I and many scholars interpret the 'factions"of Federalist #10 as
euphemisms for conspiracy. This is argued in books by Bernard Bailyn, Richard
Hofstedter (two books) Leonard Levin and Daniel Sisson; especially Sisson,
throughout. His book is a thorough discussion of these points. (See my
Introduction to the Sisson book) Many scholars disagree and state that Madison
was not talking about clique-secrecy but about large scale open interests like
slave holders, bankers and farmers. But this may be merely the public face of
entitled oligarchs who, when not "entitled" work in private cliques.
Federalist #10 begins: "Among the numerous advantages promised by a
well-constructed Union none deserves to be more accurately developed than its
tendency to break and control the violence of faction." And later:
"The violence of faction is the MORTAL disease under which popular
governments have everywhere perished." The "violence" factor
seems to imply more than farm states vs. merchant states.
And concerning the different understanding those times had of terms hear
Bolingbroke: "party is a political evil and faction is the worst of all
Faction was a broader term than cabal and conspiracy but was used in the
same context with conspiracy; sometimes, but not always meaning a cabal to do
something against the law, such as a coup d'état.
The strength of the suspicion of conspiracy, shared by Jefferson and Madison
grew gradually stronger and was expressed in a score of letters. Bailyn said it
had been Hamilton's aim for decades. Bailyn: "Governor Bernard's [Mass.]
fear of a conspiratorial faction is the main theme that runs through his
extensive correspondence of the 1760's".
Sisson wrote: "This fear of a conspiratorial faction, one of the
principal themes which we have already examined, also ran through the entire
decade following the revolution. It was characteristic of the period under the
Articles of Confederation and the era immediately following the Constitution.
And this style of politics, dominated by faction, continued through the
remainder of the 1790's. It is the purpose of this chapter then to point out
how the politics of faction grew into a politics of revolution —
ultimately climaxing in Jefferson's accession to power in 1801"
To repeat: the struggle against conspiratorial faction provided the
foundation of Jefferson's "political revolution of 1800."
Jefferson said: "The Revolution of 1800 was as real a revolution in the
principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." This also
shows that Jefferson, in calling for a revolution every generation, meant by
"revolution" fundamental structural transformation, not violent
Conditions for a Jeffersonian Revolution exist today.
[See the LA Times series debunking the charged connection between crack
cocaine and CIA]
Today, though the situation is bad enough on its face, the problem is
complicated by the "counter-intuitive" principle of Jay Forrester.
[MIT Systems Theorist]
One problem with criticisms in terms of "the government" is that
government is an institutional "who" type object, not a physical
"what" type object. And we naturally, like Madison, try to look for
the "who" as hidden individuals inside the government, the Beltway
Elite, and the pressure group combines as the responsible "who"
agent. The conspiracy.
Keep Madison always in mind: politics IS conspiracy but keep Forrester in
mind: it is SYSTEMIC.
Publicity is one antidote to conspiracy — where publicity is possible.
Under the media moguls it is not. Remember Muckraking — what was that?
What would it be today?
Applied Conspiracy Theory.
Usually, it's rightwingers trying to demonize the left who claim that
there's no difference between Holly Sklar's Trilateralism and the
Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Conspiracy theories are in vogue again and the Tri-Lateral Commission has
always been prominent culprit. Council on Foreign Relations, Club of Rome,
(Illuminati charges, like the Rosecrucian and Zion) have been around for
centuries.) The factual basis for Tri-Lateral, CFR, and Club of Rome is that
they all, explicitly, attempted to influence foreign and social policy of
nations on the assumption that if one could influence the elites one could be
more effective than by merely publishing alone. The Club of Rome had one big
success back in the late sixties and that was the Jay Forrester-inspired book
(by Dennis and Donella Meadows, then married) called Limits to Growth.
It had great vogue in those days when nations were adopting environmental and
resource protection policies but it has paled in significance since then.
Tri-Lateral was an effort to compensate for the failings of NATO by
incorporating the Pacific Rim with the Atlantic Community (with the US as the
hub, of course.)
Query: Was NAFTA a "conspiracy"?
Foreign Policy Association — old School Tie Ivy Leaguers, largely well
to do, largely Eastern prep school, largely banking ties — the Rockefeller
types as distinguished from the Bechtel types. They remain effective and
influential, but in a clubby sense. The C. Wright Mills book of the sixties,
The Power Elite is still the best source for the understanding of these
kinds of activities. Fletcher Prouty's book of the 1970s The Secret Team
is something else again, carrying the Mills approach into the so-called MIC
— military industrial complex. Eisenhower was no leftist nor was Malcolm
Moos, the speech writer for the Farewell Address, but Ike said, in effect,
watch out for a clique capable of conspiring against the public interest. The
underlying fact is that politics — in the day-to-day, clique, association,
pressure group, faction (Madison's conspiracy theory), is all about
conspiracies — and always has been.
Noam Chomsky is today's most sophisticated conspiracy theorist.
Aristotle's definition of corruption, and the basis for his famous six-type
classification of state forms, was in effect, conspiracy: government in the
interest of those with influence rather than in the public interest.
All this being said, it remains that there does seem to be a lot more
conspiracy politics going on today than normal.
Recall again: Federalist #10 begins: "Among the numerous advantages
promised by a well-constructed Union none deserves to be more accurately
developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction."
And later: "The violence of faction is the MORTAL disease under which
popular governments have everywhere perished."
The struggle against conspiratorial faction was the foundation of
Jefferson's "political revolution of 1800."
Jefferson: "The Revolution of 1800 was as real a revolution in the
principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form."
[Two of my books also deal with these matters.]
ASIDE: For a brief period of time around the Revolution, there was a high
level of idealism which allowed a degree of false optimism, not unlike that
which youngsters in the 60s felt. In both cases, I would argue, the idealistic
vision had a basis in potential, but an insufficient appreciation of the
special circumstances which allowed them even to visualize it, much less
In backlash to that period of Enlightenment-inspired politics, there came a
dual resurgence of materialism and religious fundamentalism, and the first big
wave of conspiracy politics — the Illuminati Conspiracy, followed by the
more general Masonic Conspiracy.
Whenever secrecy reigns conspiracies flourish — it is their nutrient.
So an intelligence community — which is by charter in the conspiracy
profession — turns its professional skills on all objects it can find
— especially turning it inwards as "domestic diplomacy" under
the notorious conspiracists, Bill Gates and Ollie North, who operated a
carefully orchestrated conspiracy against the law and hence the Constitution.
Moreover, speaking to the race issue, when the politics of a state is
restrictive and unreflective of public needs and interests, those who suffer
have a general feeling of anxiety — about the future, health, earning
power, children, neighborhood, schools, crime, — and are unable to adopt
actions to ameliorate their fears and anxieties.
On the individual level, as is well known,
Frustration = aggression; when our aims and efforts are frustrated,
like cornered rats we have genetically based mechanisms that respond with
aggression. On the social level, when the social environment turns hostile we
have an innate (culturally induced) adaptation of the genetic
frustration/aggression syndrome and experience: a generalized anxiety (our
social environment fails to provide us the security for which a social
environments evolved), we respond with the social equivalent of aggression:
anxiety = agency. he most common experience of the agency syndrome is
But remember the maxim of that great psychoanalyst after the Capone era:
"anybody in Cicero, Illinois, without paranoia is insane."
When our ills are caused by some person or persons who conspire against us,
anxiety induces us to attribute its cause to a personal "agent"
responsible for our (pace Carter) sense of malaise.
This reaction is similar to the one we have when feeling any sense of pain
or injury: we seek the causal agent for any sense of pain. That is, quite
naturally, we seize upon the symptom and attribute its cause to the intuitively
apparent agent. Hot stoves burn fingers. That's the level of sophistication
possessed by our genetic sense of cause: "post hoc ergo propter hoc;"
whatever happened immediately before my injury was the cause of it.
Suppose we go homeless. At first it is our fault and we suffer torments of
self-criticism for our failure. Death of a Salesman. Then we see
millions going homeless. They are just like ourselves. We begin to say, [with a
Forrester-type intuition] it was not their personal fault; nor our own personal
fault; it is "the economy" ('stupid'). But "what" is the
economy? How does one make it work right? One cannot touch the economy like a
thing, one must touch it through the government. The government is not a
"what," it is a "collective who" — a great big
anonymous black helicopter-flying "who." It is against us and is
causing our problems. That is, the "people behind the scenes" (moving
the puppets and the UFO's) are the agents of our ills.
Wasn't it the French Revolution that was originally set in motion by
"parties?" — banquets? conspiracies?.
Why is there so much conspiracy theory today? Well, more factions and
"special interests" (the 'good' Republican word for conspiracy) and
private interests and lobbyists and big donors. But the main reason is that our
post-industrial society is also Forrester-like "counter-intuitive",
hence a post-intuitive society. Our intuitive impressions about causes are
wrong. We experience painful symptoms and "side effects" and seek to
apply remedies at the pain points. We see crime and want prisons. We see
addiction and preach "just say no."
We live in a society of highly complex functions performed in densely
concatenated structures. It is a post-intuitive society. Inter-relationships
are so complicated that no single individual, experiencing a malfunction at a
point in the global circuitry, can possibly effect a solution at the point
where the problem is observed and felt.
Systemic ills cannot be cured with local therapies. There are no local
problems. In other words, it takes a Systems-Village. People who suffer from
systemic disorders seek symptomatic agents rather than underlying systemic
causes. In politics, this is the breeding ground of conspiracy theory. The fact
that conspiracy theory is inadequate however does not mean it is erroneous.
Indeed, so long as dissidents focus only on personal conspiracies, systemic
conspiracies are safe.
All that being said, keep Madison and Aristotle always in mind: politics IS
conspiracy. All "political" history is the history of how various
groups, cliques, factions, classes, etc. attempted to get their way — as
secretly as possible.
But as Rubashov said in Darkness at Noon, there is a lag of a
generation or so before the dictatorial potentials of newly invented
technologies of conspiratorial controls can be constitutionalized with
It is about time for Rubashov's Law to take effect.