Making sense of conspiracy beliefs

As usual, I am slow off the mark. While I was falling asleep underneath Fenster and Aaronovitch these past six weeks or so, a rich vein of interest in conspiracy theory has been uncovered in the media and blogs. Since this interest comes mostly from one (if broad) political perspective, and I have some other theoretical angles, here is my 2p (and I apologise for a skimpy post which is thin on linkage).

I’m trying to make sense of several theories from different disciplines – history, social psychology, cultural studies. I’m not prepared to pariah-ise conspiracy believers or theorists.

This event, attended by Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth and other micro Truther groups, happened on May Day 2009 outside the Bank of England – click for bigger. These gatherings and pickettings happen not infrequently.


The sparkles at the back are the reflective tabards of the police.


I don’t hate or fear the people I encounter around Bank and Liverpool Street but nor do I have affinity with them or faith in them. I haven’t found a way to communicate with them outside the boundaries of what they are eager to persuade me about. Constrained like this, their minute, obsessive analysis and story-making about the role of power-holders in the world’s ills have no programmatic response. Simply, these people have no proposals (except in the case of We Are Change, below, drastically palingenetic ones) to fix the things they rail against. It seems more than likely that their fears and dreams make them susceptible to the authoritarian extreme right.

So I admire what little I know of Chip Bertlet’s work a good deal – he is somebody who raises the alarm about the propensity of popular conspiracy believers to be overtaken and channelled by the authoritarian right:

“Conspiracy theories encourage demonization and scapegoating of blameless persons and groups—distracting society and would-be agents of change away from the real causes of social and economic injustice.”

However, I am not sure he is right when he argues that “Modern conspiracism is rooted in bigotry, especially antisemitism and racism”. In my experience talking with activists who leaflet the City of London, conspiracy belief is often rooted in a dismay at the global reach of a few power-holders, and a  yearning for a more transparent world with vastly curtailed power structures – see my unsophisticated encounter with We Are Change from a while back, for example. We Are Change believe that power necessarily corrupts, and by change they mean decentralisation of power.

Bertlet’s huge contribution has been a functionalist view of conspiracy beliefs which recognises their origins and how they might be exploited, rather than merely pathologising them. I think that his warnings about the expediency of conspiracy-mindedness to the extreme authoritarian right are convincing and have been borne out (retrospectively-speaking) at various stages in the history of fascism. These times of global economic, environmental and energy pressures lend an urgency to addressing this weakness to exploitation. At the same time though, Bertlet does pathologise conspiracy theories, holding them to be “toxic”, or a “contagion”, and so incompatible with democratic process in ways similar to other consensus political commentators such as Eric Hoftstadter, the great influence in current responses to conspiracy mindedness who coined the phrase “the paranoid style”.

But I don’t think conspiracy mindedness per se is or should be outside democracy. I think I broadly accept Fenster’s (2008) analysis that, where it is a populist explanation of power held by elites, conspiracy theory is an inescapable part of democracy.

When it comes to dealing with the threat of conspiracy-mindedness to progressive politics, I think it’s helpful to understand conspiracy mindedness in a social-psychological way as an expression of disaffection. I know that disaffection often goes with other qualities and attitudes – untrustworthiness, negativity, cynicism, and a marked empathy with the perpetrators in their own conspiracy narratives. But also a deep and painful concern about the state of the world, feelings of political estrangemement from the power bloc and at the same time, responsibility and a desire to be involved.

I think that that power-holders and policy makers should take this populist critique of power seriously, and should allow themselves to be nudged further in the direction of transparency and accountability, because these are good directions and because they will undercut those outside the consensus who hope to rally voters with cries of government corruption, most threateningly an extreme political right looking to enlarge its share of the vote.

If I had time I’d refer to Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories here (because he details the damage done by conspiracy mindedness, whereas Fenster’s preoccupation is to retrieve conspiracy believers from beyond the pale and rehabilitate them into the political community) but for now I’ll end with Fenster wrapping up Part 2 of his book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2008, p194):

“I have suggested that something more than the madness of paranoia is going on in conspiracy theory – specifically, a reckoning by those who consider themselves to be outside the centers of power (however that is defined by an individual or group) with what is deemed to be an inaccessbile, essentially opaque political and social order. In its interpretive practices of desire and production and its ability to narrate a totalizing vision of a world gone wrong, conspiracy theory challenges the individual who engages in it to find new, hidden possibilities lurking in the recesses of history and the daily newspaper. In doing so it offers particular pleasures and opportunities to play, as well as a promise of social interaction, community, and political involvement that it ultimately cannot deliver. It may frequently, or even usually, be “ideological”, under either a Marxist-influenced or non-Marxist approach that would view conspiracy theory as expressing a false consciousness or distorting some fundamental truth. But it expresses a longing for involvement, a desire for political meaning and significance on the part of the political subject”.

So maybe next time I stop to talk with a conspiracy theorist I’ll try to reframe the discussion by asking “What do you want for the world” or “How did you first become interested in this subject”?

But if they do turn out to be scapegoaters (specifically, antisemitic) I’d better have something else to say. Any ideas for constructive wrong-footing?


2 thoughts on “Making sense of conspiracy beliefs

  1. One form of wrong-footing might be to point out that widespread hostility towards, and scapegoating of, Jews is terribly terribly useful for those who really have, or want to gain, power over all of us …..

  2. Yes – the Doctors’ Plot being an important example. It was alleged that a group of Jewish doctors was conspiring to poison the Soviet leadership. There were arrests, confessions were extracted through torture, and show trials were staged as a pretext for a purge of Jews from the Communist Party. But when Stalin died in 1953 this movement against Soviet Jews ended abruptly, showing that it had weak, if any, popular support. Stalin’s successor Kruschev declared the Doctors’ Plot “fabricated from beginning to end“.

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