The term “conspiracy theory” was first used in a pejorative sense by the philosopher Karl Popper. Detecting dark plots behind untoward events, he said, was a substitute for religion, a secular attempt to read meaning, purpose and connections into a frighteningly indifferent universe. But, by the same token, theism is also a “conspiracy theory”, and the phrase itself is question-begging: it can be used as a gagging label by the establishment – and sometimes, as with Watergate, a “conspiracy” really is a conspiracy.
Thomas Milan Konda, emeritus professor of political science at SUNY Plattsburgh, mentions such problems only perfunctorily. His main concern is with paradigm conspiracy theories, and what he considers their 21st-century permutation – conspiracism: the outlook that explains all social phenomena as resulting from conspiracies, which are seen as not only ubiquitous but also overarchingly connected. In various combinations, the Knights Templar, the Illuminati (an 18th-century religious sect), Jews, Freemasons, Catholics, Communists and proliferating others are part of a plot to take over the world.
Unoriginally, Konda diagnoses conspiracists as paranoid and narcissistic, powered by a sense of powerlessness. While vaunting distrust of authority, and disdain for the “sheeple” so complacently hoodwinked by it, they themselves, he says, tend to be authoritarian and fearful of non-conforming otherness. For them, reality is a Manichaean narrative of good (us) versus evil (them). It is hatred, rather than the purported thirst for truth, that inspires conspiracists; hence their rampant inconsistencies. The Jews, apparently, are both Bolsheviks and bankers – although they sometimes turn out not to be Jewish. According to the Khazarists and British Israelites, the Jews among us are descendants of Turkish Khazars or Mongols; the true Jews, with properly biblical lineage, are white Northern Europeans. Differences of narrative and label, of course, prove irrelevant: the very same people are stigmatised.
Conspiracy theories may take the form of “denialism”, as with global warming. Always (Konda echoes Popper) they are intransigently unfalsifiable. Any atrocity with an apparently obvious explanation (Pearl Harbor, 9/11) has to be a “false flag” perpetrated by its ostensible victims. “That’s what they want you to think” is the mantra of all conspiracy theorists. But if “they” are so cunning, why do they invariably leave quite unnecessary clues and codes to their inscrutable plots? To tease us, the cognoscenti, say conspiracists.
Offbeat beliefs that elude scientific or government attention (the Loch Ness monster, the yeti) never quite hatch into conspiracy theories. Ironically, though, Konda describes how some UFOs were in fact genuine sightings of secret aircraft; subsequent cover-ups by the CIA only exacerbated the myth-making, soon leading to alien encounters and the involvement of the Illuminati.
Just as clerics invoke God’s mysterious ways whenever convenient, yet are somehow privy to the intricate and arbitrary rules of conduct He requires, so conspiracists unearth impenetrable secrets for which they produce the most detailed, convoluted solutions. Their vaunted lack of credulity in one area is matched by an overabundance of credulousness in another. Konda doesn’t analyse this lopsidedness or consider why, where the standard theist discerns hidden benevolence in the world, the conspiracist decries malignity. Conspiracies of Conspiracies is short on philosophical and psychological analysis; overly academic and detailed. I felt the conspiracy theorist’s craving for an overarching structure and message, for clues in a plethora of detail and for something more startlingly new.
Jane O’Grady is a co-founder of the London School of Philosophy and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London. She is the author of Enlightenment Philosophy in a Nutshell: The Complete Guide to the Great Revolutionary Philosophers, including René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume (2019).
Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America
By Thomas Milan Konda
University of Chicago Press, 456pp, £23.00
Published 29 March 2019