What’s wrong with conspiracy theories?

In recent months I have noticed conspiracy theories popping up with increasing frequency around, and sometimes within, the left. There is, I think, a serious reason for this. The world is in turmoil, society is breaking down in many different ways – the economic crisis or crises, the environmental crisis, the crisis of political alienation, the proliferation of scandals, the riots and so on.

By John Molyneux

It is very scary for many people and if, as in Ireland at the moment, the working class movement is not offering a clear way forward, they can turn in all sorts of directions looking for answers. This is particularly the case when people are newly radicalised in a situation where the left is relatively weak.

But however understandable this phenomenon is, it is also a problem because conspiracy theories are an obstacle either to making sense of the world or to changing it. This article, therefore, will look at what is wrong with the conspiracy theory approach to the world.

It will do this in general terms, explaining the differences in principle between a Marxist analysis and a conspiracy theory, and showing why the former is rooted in much deeper understanding of the structure of society and how power works than the latter.

I have adopted this approach because there are several difficulties involved in dealing with conspiracy theories. One is that there are a lot of them about so no sooner have you produced a credible answer to one theory than another is advanced to take its place. Another is that the amount of effort and knowledge required to disprove any theory, no matter how outlandish, is very considerable, e.g. try disproving the theory that aliens built the Pyramids. A third is that the difference between a Marxist analysis and a conspiracy theory is NOT that Marxists think there are no conspiracies. On the contrary it is plainly the case that politicians, business , media, police etc DO conspire from time to time, in the phone hacking affair for example, or to mislead the public over the Iraq war.

So what are the key differences between conspiracy theories in general and Marxism ? I suggest there are four that are pretty fundamental

1. Conspiracy theories rely on ‘special’ or ‘hidden’ knowledge. In contrast the case for socialism and for Marxism can (and should) be made on the basis of widely known and publically available facts. Clearly a book like ‘Capital’, or Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ or Chris Harman’s ‘People’s History of the World’ contains a lot of information that most ‘ordinary’ people don’t know but it is the interpretation of the facts, the interconnections between them , that distinguish these classic works – not ‘amazing’ factual revelations. This matters because if a radical criticism of the existing system is to reach and influence a mass audience it has to connect with working people’s experience; in an important sense Marxism is a generalisation of and from working class experience. By the same token it is never going to be possible to win mass support for ideas which DEPEND on hours of special research to uncover buried evidence. This is by no means the central or key characteristic of the conspiracy theory but it is a useful first signifier.

2. Marxists and conspiracy theorists have a very different view of how society is run and who runs it. At the heart of most conspiracy theories lies a vision of the world being run by a very tiny, and secret, elite, all in touch with one another and controlling more or less everything important that happens. Marxism argues that societies are run by ruling classes who while constituting a small minority of total population, say 1%, nevertheless consist of quite a large number of people, maybe 40,000 in Ireland or half a million in Britain. Moreover they rule with the aid of state machines (army.police, courts, government departments etc) which are hierarchies headed by members of the ruling class. The conspiracy theory view is inherently implausible because such a tiny group would not be able to take or even monitor the multitude of decisions involved in running a complex modern society, and even if it could would be enormously unstable and easily overthrown. In reality the regimes of the major capitalist countries (especially the United States) have been remarkably stable and secure since the Second World War.

3. Underpinning the conspiracy theory view of the power structure is the idea that the ruling group cohere through personal contact and by all being ‘in on it’. Underlying the Marxist view is the idea that what holds the ruling class together is their common interests, especially their common interest in exploiting the working class. Grasping this enables us to understand why businesses and governments behave as they do without continually discovering secret conspiracies. They are both constrained and driven by the objective logic of capitalism which is the logic of competitive accumulation of capital. In conspiracy theories the system has no objective logic, which makes any understanding of its development dependent on uncovering the latest plot.

4. Grasping the logic of competitive capital accumulation, which Marx explored in such depth in ‘Capital’, enables us to understand not only what unites the ruling class but also what divides them, both one capitalist against another, and one capitalist state against another. This in turn is necessary for understanding the recurring inter-imperialist conflicts and wars which have played such a major role in modern history. Conspiracy theories consistently overestimate the unity (and the strength) of our rulers. Moreover, lacking any analysis of the objective contradictions of capitalism which drive it into crisis (such as the Marxist theories of overproduction and the falling rate of profit) conspiracy theories have to fall back on entirely ad hoc explanations of economic crises and often fall into the fanciful notion that they must be deliberate (because everything significant MUST have been planned by the secret rulers) as if it were in the interests of the system to plunge into a major recession in which trillions are wiped off share values and productive activity goes into decline. In general conspiracy theories greatly exaggerate the degree of control our rulers have over history in contrast to Marxism which explains why, in the final analysis, the system is not under the control of anyone.

5. Conspiracy theories are not founded on any overall theory of historical development beyond the conviction that history is a succession of hidden conspiracies. They are therefore no use at all in charting or explaining the broad patterns of social and historical change, such as the origins and rise of class society, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the causes of the industrial revolution and such like. Specific Marxist analyses of current situations are founded on historical materialism – a general theory which has made possible innumerable historical studies of the highest quality such as Geoffrey de St.Croix , ‘The Class Struggle in the Ancient World’, E.P. Thompson, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, and Christopher Hill, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, as well as such a powerful synthesis as Chris Harman’s ‘People’s History of the World’. Conspiracy theories have nothing intellectually comparable to their credit.

6. Conspiracy theories generally do not generate any strategy for practical action to change the world, beyond trying to inform people of the conspiracy. In contrast Marxism has developed over one hundred and sixty years of continual practice a comprehensive strategy for revolutionary change which rests on Marx’s theory of class struggle, supplemented by, for example, the theory of the mass strike (Rosa Luxemburg), of permanent revolution(Leon Trotsky), of the role of the revolutionary party (Lenin) , of the united front ( Lenin and Trotsky) and much else besides. Marxism, therefore, has over conspiracy theory the great advantage of possessing a perspective for achieving the eventual overthrow of capitalism and the ability to say concretely what should be done today and tomorrow to advance the interests of working people. Conspiracy theories are completely lacking in this ability.

7. One of the most typical characteristics of conspiracy theorists is that they operate with blatant double standards of proof when it comes to comparing official interpretations of events with their own. They often poor considerable effort into casting doubt on, or showing inconsistencies in the government or media account of an event or situation, in the belief that having done this they can simply make up their own interpretation or explanation without any serious proof or evidence. For example, many conspiracy theorists seem to think that if they can establish that, contrary to official denials, an Unidentified Flying Object flew over Dublin last week, this then entitles them to declare with confidence (but without evidence) that it must have come from Mars. In contrast Marxists, while they certainly critique the standard bourgeois explanations of events put even more effort into establishing their own interpretations: the immense labour involved in Marx’s ‘Capital’ is the classic example of this but there are a multitude of other works that could be sited such as Lenin’s ‘Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, Trotsky’s ‘History of The Russian Revolution’ or Tony Cliff’s ‘State Capitalism in Russia’ or Chris Harman’s ‘Zombie Capitalism’.

8. Last but not least many conspiracy theories have at their heart an element of racism, usually anti-semitism. Very often it turns out that ‘the secret inner government’ claimed to be controlling the country or the world is actually a conspiracy of Jews or Zionists (though sometimes it is Catholics). One sign of this is the recurring obsession with the Rothschild family and the fantasy that that they own and control all or most of the world’s major banks. This notion of an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world has nothing to do with the Marxist and left wing critique of Zionism as a political movement leading to the establishment of the state of Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians. Rather it is a long standing feature of vile anti-semitic prejudice which is both nonsense and politically dangerous and which should be vehemently opposed by all progressive people.

These then are the main differences between the conspiracy theory approach as a whole and the Marxist approach. To return to points made at the beginning the popularity of conspiracy theories at present is very understandable, indeed Marxism contains a theory (the theory of alienation) which is very useful for explaining exactly why people would feel that the world is dominated by hidden forces beyond their control. It also constitutes the best framework for analysing the conspiracies that do exist, i.e. locating them within the fundamental objective drives and contradictions of the capitalist system, rather than seeing them as constituting the central drive of the system in themselves. In contrast conspiracy theories both get in the way of understanding the world and tend to leave people passive with no perspective for resistance or changing it.