Conspiracy theories are a mythologization of capitalism


From an essay published on May 21 at The New Inquiry and bearing the teaser line “Just because we can hear the black helicopters doesn’t mean they don’t exist”:

The modern conspiracy theory is a mythologization of capitalism. That humanity writhes in the grip of a power alien to itself is so palpable that the expression of this reality assumes countless forms in the popular imagination, permeating pop culture, politics, and the persecution anxieties of our booming psychiatric industry. Films like The Adjustment Bureau and television programs like Burn Notice capture the zeitgeist with the laughable simplicity of its most trite tropes, trench coats and all. The novels of Dan Brown append cheap noir to rich cultural pseudo-histories in order to make them more entertaining. The wildly popular television program Ancient Aliens became a cash cow for the History (!) Channel by attributing the greatest historical achievements of scientific discovery and collective activity to little green neo-Calvinist deities from outer space. And never mind the “9/11 Truth Movement” and the shocking contention by some of its leading ideologues that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could organize a poker game, let alone a secret network of underground internment camps in which Art Bell and Alex Jones will soon argue over the top bunk.

In all these expressions, which blur entertainment and information in a manner consistent with the present cultural imaginary, human or extraterrestrial agents are depicted as consciously directing world events behind the backs of those who live them. Though countless colorful theories fall under the umbrella of “New World Order,” and this canon has enjoyed a febrile explosion since the election of the suspiciously other Barack Obama, their basic structure is largely universal. Most importantly, any good conspiracy theory proceeds from empirical premises which are manifestly true. In the vein of Dan Brown, stray facts are woven into vast interconnected webs by tenuous strings of causality and barbaric modus ponens proofs. Historical and social phenomena which are in fact intimately intertwined by the total social relation of capital are instead linked superficially by cheap literary devices.

. . . The irony of the increasing rationalization of society toward some mythic equilibrium is the intensification of paroxysm, of violent crisis, of catastrophe on a heightening scale which it has ensured. The crises inherent in the capitalist cycle now grip the entire planet, leaving destitution in the wake of periodic booms, leaving entire regions to starve, evacuating capital from entire cities and letting them rot while the local ruling class throws up their hands. In the major developed countries, the transition from hulking welfare state apparatuses to militarized police forces maintaining order indicates the increasingly reactionary tendency of states, faced with simply containing the results of a disordered market by brute force, rather than even pretending to curb the causes of destitution and hopelessness among the poor.

When market “experts” discussing the flow of capital sound like meteorologists groping to account for the weather, this is not a coincidence, nor are they’re being disingenuous. Chaos rules the day, though it is backed by the forces of “law and order,” a “hybrid monster” as the bald man remarked, the former referring to legal statutes aimed at responding to crime, and the latter aimed at extra-legal (and often illegal) intervention preventing hypothetical crimes and generally molding the social terrain. The chaos underlying modern life and the scrupulous social order which protects and enforces it appears as a vast global intrigue against those who reproduce it with their daily work. And in a way, it is.

In short, somebody would have to be bat shit crazy not to develop a conspiracy theory about the centralized interconnectivity of these conditions.

More: “I Want to Believe


Original “All-Seeing Eye” image by de:Benutzer:Verwüstung [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 22, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Economy, Government & Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is to make people believe he doesn’t exist.” The Usual Suspects.

    The idea that people have mythologized capitalism is poetic, intellectual, even beautiful, but ultimately effete. If tobacco had thought about ridicule as a weapon, the idea that cigarettes cause cancer would also be a conspiracy theory, and so Monsanto. J Edgar Hoover did keep secret files and deport or kill people pre-emptively. Project Gladio does exist. Capitalism favors hierarchy. Think of it as a Mafia, and then you see why the regular citizens can never affect change, never have, except within the limited constraints of what was allowed in order for the turmoil to boil down.

  2. There is nothing in the New Inquiry article that has not been done a million times by orthodox Marxist political economists and sociologists: we ridicule the reductionist and deterministic notions of the bourgeoisie about history [god, rulers, nations etc] but we basically replace them with our own deterministic scenario [capital and private property bad, dictatorship of the proletariat good]. To me, there is no difference between attributing the state of the world to interfering aliens and considering historical reality in its totality as the result of moving and expanding capital.

    Reducing complexity down to a single history-shaping factor, indicates the same deep rooted fear and psychological need that give rise to conspiracy theories.

    • You seem to be oversimplifying.

      Marx was against statism and hoped it would one day wither away, and he was for free markets, as are many other socialists, especially anarcho-syndicalists. Heck, many socialists are even for or not necessarily against private property, but they just don’t see theft from the commons as an intelligent, rational or moral definition of private property.

      In anarcho-syndicalism, the workers own the factory. That is private property and it simultaneously respects the ideal of the commons along with the public good. Those most effected by decisions (the workers, the community located near a factory, etc) should be those responsible for the decisions, rather than a CEO living far away (in a gated community or in an entirely different country).

      Why not both socialism and free markets? Thinking in both/and terms requires more complex thinking. It is beyond unhelpful to divide the world with capitalism, private property and free markets on one side and socialism, big government and oppressive regulation on the other side. This is the dualism of fundamentalism, conspiracy theory, and other related worldviews.

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding you. I noticed you did say “orthodox Marxist political economists and sociologists”. That seems to imply your awareness that not all are orthodox. I’d say most Marxists and socialists aren’t orthodox. I’m definitely an unorthodox kind of guy who is attracted to socialist ideas and I don’t think I’m extremely uncommon, although my position isn’t entirely in line with the majority of humans on this planet, certainly not in line with how the majority is portrayed in the mainstream media.

      Dualism is a worldview favored by the ruling elite (or demagogues who are ruling elite wannabes) because it is easy to manipulate people through polarized rhetoric. The sad part about conspiracy theorists is that, in their fear of a ruling elite, they open themselves up to being manipulated.

      There is some strange research about conspiracy theorists as well. They test high for Machiavellianism, the very thing they fear in the ruling elite. When asked in the study, a large number of conspiracy theorists admitted they would act the same way as they believe the ruling elite is acting. So, it is just projection. The mistake the conspiracy theorist has is that they think most people are like them. However, they might be correct that most of the ruling elite are like them. There might be an unacknowledged link between the the Machiavellianism of many in the ruling elite and the Machiavellianism of many conspiracy theorists.

      Conspiracy theorists maybe take dualism further than most. Still, I don’t think they are precisely wrong. It is the dominant worldview. So, our society is ruled by dualistic thinking (and Machiavellisn), even if specific paranoid visions are hilariously false.

  3. Our society has become politically over-seasoned and as such, we tend to incorporate that substance into most every concept and idea… kind of like how some people have to put salt on every food before them at the dinner table.

    This is the result of decades of hard conditioning by a news media that lost its independence and itself became incredibly… and openly polarized.

    Oh, and yes… that too, is a conspiracy theory by its very definition!

    Fortunately, this will pass… just as did the age of Aquarius. The current trendiness of focusing against certain beliefs and peoples will evolve and dissipate. But for now, it’s all handled like a video game; there must be bad guys and as of this moment, they exist not because they are bed, but just to fill that niche.

  4. I’m not sure what to think of the article.

    “For maximum effect we set about prodding the rawest nerve of the modern mind’s bad conscience–the destruction of our ecosystem. A conspiratorial shadow government, Nick and I maintained, would never allow for the planet to destroy its potable water, poison its air, destabilize its climate, and harken an age of flooded coastal cities and apocalyptic super-storms. After all, what is a throne but a plank with red velvet? Even the Rothschilds need air and water.”

    I see a false premise. Power necessitates control of knowledge, but it doesn’t mean those who hold power hold all the knowledge. For example, research shows experts are more prone to the smart idiot effect because experts become overconfident and forget their expertise doesn’t apply beyond their narrow field of knowledge. Robert Anton Wilson talked about this in one of his books. In a hierarchical system, the greater power one gains, the less objective knowledge one has. Few people will honestly speak the truth to their superiors. With multiple levels of a hierarchy, this creates layers upon layers of misinformation that those at the top receive.

    Of course, the various secret shadow governments (shadow Establishment social systems, shadow organizations, etc) don’t want to destroy the world. However, in wielding power based on faulty info, they aren’t likely to make good decisions that are beneficial to humanity and ecosystems.

    I’m sure there are all kinds of conspiratorial shadow governments. It’s obvious that there are many groups at various levels trying to secretly control all kinds of things. Some of them even have well known names such as the CIA. They conspire in secret and hence to theorize about what they are conspiring in secret is a conspiracy theory. If you plan a surprise birthday party, you are conspiring. And if the recipient suspected a surprise birthday party was being planned, they’d be a conspiracy theorist.

    The problem with critics of conspiracy theorists is that they don’t consider how mundane are most conspiracies, including that which is conspired by those with great power. Most conspiracies are simply about maintaining power and its attendant luxuries. These conspiracies become vast for the simple reason that those with power have a common interest in maintaining their lifestyle. Some conspiracies are even simpler than that. People keep secrets because the truth can be embarrassing with one secret leading to another and before you know it there is a whole system of secrecy. Also, most secrets are just bureaucracy doing its thing. The problems is bureaucracy seeks to maintain itself and so gets tied up with those in power seeking to maintain their lifestyle. There isn’t necessarily any grand vision behind it all.

    Part of the problem with this article is that the authors don’t seem familiar with the very subject they are attempting to analyze:

    “the shocking contention by some of its leading ideologues that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could organize a poker game, let alone a secret network of underground internment camps in which Art Bell and Alex Jones will soon argue over the top bunk.”

    No informed person would compare Art Bell with Alex Jones. Art Bell was never a simplistic thinker like Alex Jones. He didn’t naively accept and preach every paranoid delusion that came down the pike. Yes, he had a n entertainment show where he interviewed a diversity of people, including skeptics and scientists. However, what differentiated Art Bell was that he always questioned and he called bullshit when necessary. His was a mind of curiosity, no holds barred.

    However, that is just a minor complaint. It is near the end that the article gets interesting:

    “In a world determined by an advanced and globalized mode of production, everything is in fact connected. The confusion arises when these connections are posited as the result of an exceptional conspiracy, without which they would be disparate social phenomena. This is the last gasp of liberal ideology, which has ceased to believe in itself but still refuses to concede that the world is not a series of isolated atoms which relate to one another only through exchange. Conceding a commonality which transcends mere commensurability, the conspiracy theory is willing to look in the most exotic and improbable places for its cause, anywhere but where it actually lives: the banal mechanisms of daily work, production, circulation, social reproduction, and the promotion and expansion of private property. As in Dr. Langdon’s absurd hermeneutics, the banal truth is actually much more interesting than fantastical narratives which overestimate the power of isolated individuals to make the world, and underestimate the power of a united people to remake it.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this part of their analysis. The problem with conspiracy theorists isn’t that they look at too much data and try to interconnect it in too many ways. I’d say they don’t look at enough data and lack the ability to discern what is relevant. They often try to force a rationalistic logic onto vast data, instead of patiently waiting for the patterns there to become apparent.

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