Challenging Populist Conspiracism

Conspiracism often accompanies various forms of populism, and Canovan notes that "the image of a few evil men conspiring in secret against the people can certainly be found in the thinking of the U.S. People's Party, Huey Long, McCarthy, and others." Criticism of conspiracism, however, does not imply that there are not real conspiracies, criminal or otherwise. There certainly are real conspiracies throughout history. As Canovan argues:

"[o]ne should bear in mind that not all forms or cases of populism involve conspiracy theories, and that such theories are not always false. The railroad kings and Wall Street bankers hated by the U.S. Populists, the New Orleans Ring that Huey Long attacked, and the political bosses whom the Progressives sought to unseat--all these were indeed small groups of men wielding secret and irresponsible power.

The US political scene continues to be littered with examples of illegal political, corporate, and government conspiracies such as Watergate, the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of illegally spying on and disrupting dissidents, the Iran/Contra scandal, and the systematic looting of the savings and loan industry.

The conspiracist analysis of history, however, has become uncoupled from a logical train of is a non-rational belief system that manifests itself in degrees. "It might be possible, given sufficient time and patience," writes Davis, "to rank movements of countersubversion on a scale of relative realism and fantasy," The distance from reality and logic the conspiracist analysis drifts can range from modest to maniacal. Conspiracism also needs a conflict--some indigestion in the body politic for which the conspiracist seeks causation so that blame can be affixed. As Davis observes sympathetically, most countersubversives "were responding to highly disturbing events; their perceptions, even when wild distortions of reality, were not necessarily unreasonable interpretations of available information." The interpretations, however, were inaccurate, frequently hysterical, and created havoc. As Davis observed:

Genuine conspiracies have seldom been as dangerous or as powerful as have movements of countersubversion. The exposer of conspiracies necessarily adopts a victimized, self-righteous tone which masks his own meaner interests as well as his share of responsibility for a given conflict. Accusations of conspiracy conceal or justify one's own provocative acts and thus contribute to individual or national self-deception. Still worse, they lead to overreactions, particularly to degrees of suppressive violence which normally would not be tolerated.

Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power. Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis--an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo. Bruce Cumings, put it like this:

But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with "conspiracy theory." History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities.

Many authors who reject centrist/extremist theory use power structure research, a systemic methodology that looks at the role of significant institutions, social class, and power blocs in a society. Power structure research has been used by several generations of progressive authors including C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar. Some mainstream social scientists, especially those enamored of centrist/extremist theory, have unfairly dismissed radical left critiques of US society as conspiracy theories.

Power structure research is not inherently conspiracist, but conspiracist pseudo-radical parodies of power structure research abound. Examples include right-wing populist critics such as Gary Allen, Antony Sutton, "Bo" Gritz, Craig Hulet, and Eustace Mullins; and left-wing populist critics such as David Emory, John Judge, and Danny Sheehan. There are also a plethora of practioners who have drawn from both the left and the right such as Ace Hayes and Daniel Brandt

The subjectivist view of these critics of the status quo is a parody of serious research. To claim, for instance, that the Rockefellers control the world, takes multiple interconnections and complex influences and reduces them to mechanical wire pulling. As one report critical of right-wing populist conspiracism suggested:

There is a vast gulf between the simplistic yet dangerous rhetoric of elite cabals, Jewish conspiracies and the omnipotence of "international finance" and a thoughtful analysis of the deep divisions and inequities in our society.

Separating real conspiracies from the exaggerated, non-rational, fictional, lunatic, or deliberately fabricated variety is a problem faced by serious researchers, and journalists. For progressive activists, differentiating between the progressive power structure research and the pseudo-radical allegations of conspiracism is a prerequisite for rebuilding a left analysis of social and political problems. Unfortunately, when progressive groups like the Coalition for Human Dignity and Political Research Associates, and progressive journalists including Sara Diamond, Joel Bleifuss, and Jonathan Mozzochi spoke out against populist conspiracism during the Gulf War and its aftermath in the early 1990s, they were harshly criticized in some circles as disruptive fools or agents of the elite.

Radical politics and social analysis have been so effectively marginalized in the US that much of what passes for radicalism is actually liberal reformism with a radical-looking veneer. To claim a link between liberalism and conspiracism may sound paradoxical, because of the conventional centrist/extremist assumption that conspiracist thinking is a marginal, "pathological" viewpoint shared mainly by people at both extremes of the political spectrum. Centrist/extremist theory's equation of the "paranoid right" and "paranoid left" obscures the extent to which much conspiracist thinking is grounded in mainstream political assumptions.

Consider a message sent through a computer bulletin board for progressive political activists. Following an excerpt from a Kennedy assassination book, which attributed JFK's killing to "the Secret Team--or The Club, as others call it...composed of some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the United States," the subscriber who posted the excerpt commented,

We, the American people, are too apathetic to participate in our own democracy and consequently, we have forfeited our power, guided by our principles, in exchange for an oligarchy ruled by greedy, evil men--men who are neurotic in their insatiable lust for wealth and power.... And George Bush is just the tip of the iceberg.

Scratch the "radical" surface of this statement and you find liberal content. No analysis of the social order, but rather an attack on the "neurotic" and "greedy, evil men" above and the "apathetic" people below. If only we could get motivated and throw out that special interest group, "The Club," democracy would function properly.

This perspective resembles that of the Christic Institute with its emphasis on the illegal nature of the Iran-Contra network and its appeals to "restore" American democracy. This perspective may also be compared with liberal versions of the "Zionist Lobby" explanation for the United States' massive subsidy of Israel. Supposedly the Lobby's access to campaign funds and media influence has held members of Congress hostage for years. Not only does this argument exaggerate and conflate the power of assorted Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying groups, and play into antisemitic stereotypes about "dualloyalist" Jews pulling strings behind the scenes, but it also lets the US government off the hook for its own aggressive foreign policies, by portraying it as the victim of external "alien" pressure.

All of these perspectives assume inaccurately that (a) the US political system contains a democratic "essence" blocked by outside forces, and (b) oppression is basically a matter of subjective actions by individuals or groups, not objective structures of power. These assumptions are not marginal, "paranoid" beliefs-they are ordinary, mainstream beliefs that reflect the individualism, historical denial, and patriotic illusions of mainstream liberal thought.

To a large degree, the left is vulnerable to conspiracist thinking to the extent that it remains trapped in such faulty mainstream assumptions. This romanticized vision of US society is mirrored in mainstream conservative criticism of liberalism as well. As Himmelstein notes, "The core assumption" of post-WWII conservatism "is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order--harmonious, beneficent, and self-regulating--disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities."

Progressive conspiricism is an oxymoron. Rejecting the conspiracist analytical model is a vital step in challenging both right-wing populism and fascism. It is important to see anti-elite conspiracism and scapegoating as not merely destructive of a progressive analysis but also as specific techniques used by fascist political movements to provide a radical-sounding left cover for a rightist attack on the status quo. Far from being an aberration or a mere tactical maneuver by rightists, pseudoradicalism is a distinctive, central feature of fascist and proto-fascist political movements. This is why the early stages of a potentially-fascist movement are often described as seeming to incorporate both leftwing and rightwing ideas.

In the best of times, conspiracism is a pointless diversion of focus and waste of energy. Conspiracism promotes scapegoating as a way of thinking; and since scapegoating in the US is rooted in racism, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, conspiracism promotes bigotry. In periods of social or economic crisis, populist conspiracism facilitates the spread of fascist and para-fascist social movements because they too rely on demagogic scapegoating and conspiracist theories as an organizing tool. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from the left.

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