In Defence of Conspiracy Theory

In Defence of Conspiracy Theory

[By Colin Thin (He/Him)]

[Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash]

Content Warnings: Discussions of racism, drug use, anti-semitism and rape

What do you think when you hear the term ‘conspiracy theorist’? A young and lonely man in a basement, typing frantically into a forum that ’JET FUEL CAN’T MELT STEEL BEAMS’? The term certainly has these connotations – people on the fringes, obsessed with crazy beliefs, completely removed from reality. ‘Conspiracy theorist’ today is often a label used to brand people as unreliable and dismiss them as fanatics. But is it really so crazy to believe in conspiracy theories? Or is it, in many ways, quite reasonable to believe that the powerful in society might act in secretive and nefarious ways?

Conspiracies are a very real part of history and without them the conspiracy theory, as we know it today, would simply not exist. All through the cold war, the US and other western governments organised military coups and assassinations all around the globe as part of their global war on ‘communism’. At home in the US, the CIA conducted wide-ranging experiments with the apparent aim of discovering secrets about ‘mind control’. In the programme known as ‘MK-Ultra’ people in psychiatric facilities and prisons were experimented on using psychedelics and electro-shock therapy. The program included an operation known as ‘Midnight Climax’ in which the CIA created brothels where agents would watch behind two-way mirrors (whilst drinking cocktails), as prostitutes spiked men with psychedelic drugs. Here in the UK, the metropolitan police infiltrated at least 1000 (mostly left-wing) political groups from the late 60s onwards. Undercover police remained in these groups for years, deceiving many women into relationships, and some even created families. A list of historical conspiracies could go on for pages: the Watergate scandal, the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations, the Iran-Contra affairs – all were real conspiracies, and modern conspiracy theory was hugely influenced by their revelations.

However, a majority of today’s conspiracy theorists are not focussed on real history. Rather, the real-world events and fears which fuel these theories have been harnessed by the far-right to promote their racist ideology. This serves only to create bogeymen who obscure where real power lies. One can see this clearly in conspiracy theorists’ antisemitic obsession with George Soros and the Rothschild family. The theories around these people are arguably a symptom of understandable suspicions around finance and the power it has over our society. After all, very similar conspiracy theories became popular after the crisis of the 1929 Wall Street crash. However, rather than lending themselves to understanding the structures and history behind the power of finance, these conspiracy theories focus their attention on racist, fictional theories around individual figures. The Rothschilds, though once a very powerful banking family, have had their wealth significantly diluted through inheritance over the generations. George Soros, though undoubtedly very wealthy, is by no means one of the most powerful men in the world. Why then, do conspiracy theorists obsess over these figures rather than Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, or the Walton Family, the wealthiest family in the world? By attributing the problem to Jewish individuals, conspiracy theorists are able to overlook the problematic distribution of wealth and power, and in turn avoid the difficult process of critiquing our economic landscape. 

Conspiracy theories can often also serve as a money making scheme for opportunistic grifters. 5G conspiracy theories, for example, originate in justifiable suspicions around companies hiding the potential health risks of their products. One only has to look to tobacco, fossil fuel, or pharmaceutical companies to see how this has already occurred. However, rather than driving its adherents to campaign for greater transparency, or to decrease the power of these large companies, 5G theories are used to sell people protection (in the form of oils, crystals, etc.) from their invented fears.

Conspiracy theories and theorists are very easy to mock. However, the ways in which people come to conspiracy theory can often be tragic. Admittedly, some conspiracy theorists are hard to sympathise with, sometimes being very privileged people who turn to racist theories to understand their loss of power over others in society. However, for many others conspiracy theory is a response to worsening economic conditions, alienation and a real sense of losing control over their lives. One useful historic example of this is 1980s US farm crisis, when huge levels of debt led to land foreclosures amongst farmers in the midwest. In this atmosphere of desperation, the far-right Christian nationalist group ‘Posse Comitatus’ became very popular amongst white farmers. The group blamed the farmer’s problems on the ‘Zionists’ in Washington, and profited off their desperation through selling them cassette tapes from conspiratorial radio shows and fake legal advice to avoid foreclosures. The far-right profited, whilst the desperate farmers were pointed away from any real understanding of their own exploitation. However, this story isn’t altogether unhopeful. The Posse were pushed back in many regions, and their support gradually fell off. A significant part of this was the influence of farmer’s unions who, rather than pointing the farmers towards fictitious enemies, allowed them to return agency to their lives, in turn preventing foreclosures by fighting in solidarity with black farmers and landless labourers. Perhaps, rather than fact checking and mocking conspiracy theorists, we should provide a real alternative to their theories – an alternative which would fight alienation with a collective effort to create a more just and transparent society.

Conspiracy theories are a much maligned, but understandable, response to the confusing world we live in. It can be fun to go down a rabbit hole now and again and researching confirmed conspiracies throughout history can tell us a lot about who has power and how far they are willing to go to maintain it. However, to view your whole reality through a conspiratorial lens will only alienate you from the people around you, and never provide a productive way to tackle injustice. Overall, conspiracy theory is not something that should be dismissed as entirely untrue. Instead, it should be seen as a symptom of the diseases of alienation, inequality and racism – which all of us must treat together.

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