A long time ago if someone was beginning to draw conclusions that all was not right with the world they might have bought a pamphlet or gone to a meeting, or debated with people down the pub or at work. Today unfortunately the path of least resistance for many people is to go on Youtube and watch some mental little video.

A few lads have told me that the problem with the world economy is interest-bearing debt. Everything flows from this and anyone who doesn’t highlight this, however radical they may seem on other issues, is either a coward or is in on the plot. They got this all from Youtube.

Some Videos

The ultra-monetarist arguments aren’t the worst of the theories, by a long shot, but there’s a point at which they shade into more sinister territory. From the financial system to Jewish people is for some reason often a short step for conspiracy theories. I found one video which started by touching on the history of the Jewish mafia in Illinois. Of course Obama has spent a lot of time in Illinois and  Chicago’s zip code is 60606. The chilling conclusion, via some photoshopped images the author found online and some quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, no less, is that Obama was appointed president by the Rothschild family! And God tried to warn us..! At that point I changed to another video. Life’s too short.

The next video, The Money Masters, was a bit more sober, but only a bit. It laboured the point for ages about how the US Federal Reserve is bad and is a private institution. I started getting bored and skipped ahead two hours or so – the video is 3½ hours long! – and was greeted by grainy Russians waving placards of Lenin. But all was not as it seemed! I was informed that the Russian Revolution was financed and created by the Fed. “The Wall Street-London axis” controlled all Communist groups by “feeding them vast quantities of money when they obeyed”. The evidence for this was as follows:

1-      A quote from a “Gary Allen, author”, in which by a superficial and abstract argument he proves that “Communism, or more accurately socialism, is not a movement of the downtrodden masses but of the economic elite” whose purpose is to concentrate all wealth and power in their hands.

2-      A quote from Lenin saying “The state does not function as we desired… It moves as another force wishes.”

3-      Evidence that international banks gave loans the Soviet government to build a hydroelectric dam in Ukraine in 1927-32.

Sound compelling? No? Well the massive gaps between these pinpricks of “evidence” are filled in by the narrator.

None of this is new, of course. Lenin spent 1917 under constant accusations of “German gold” from all his political opponents. Later the Nazis resurrected the charge in a new form, claiming that Communism was a Jewish conspiracy. This video rehashes the same charge: if you don’t like mass movements and revolutions, claim they are not authentic and are being funded by something else you don’t like. As well as the fact that it’s convenient, if you can’t conceive of history being decided by ordinary workers, soldiers and peasants then you’d rather invent a conspiracy, however far-fetched.

The “vast quantities of money” evidently supplied by the banks/Germans/Jews, by the way, was never in evidence. The Bolsheviks were incredibly cash-strapped and had to fund themselves off donations from supporters. Trotsky recalls Lenin poring over the party newspaper, counting every line to make sure it didn’t go over their financial limits.

Lesson #1 for conspiracy theorists: Ignore History

We’ll stick with the Russian Revolution just for a second, just to give an example of how very many conspiracy theories are formulated. Firstly, a total ignorance of the actual facts can lay the groundwork. But more than this is required to create a truly compelling conspiracy theory. Never mind that the Bolsheviks dispossessed, disenfranchised, exiled, imprisoned or killed the “economic elite” of their country; never mind that the landowners and capitalists returned in force and waged a vicious and bloody civil war to crush Bolshevism – to crush, apparently, their own conspiracy. Never mind that the Bolsheviks’ opponents in this civil war were bankrolled and supported by the “economic elites” of America, Western Europe and Japan. Never mind that the Bolsheviks’ base of support was indisputably the Russian working class.

For one thing, the intellectual climate of the last 20 years or so has made it possible to say pretty much anything you like about any socialist movement in history, as long as it’s bad. For another, an examination of the facts of history might necessitate and inconvenient re-thinking of one’s world-view. But more crucially a conspiracy theory must be creative, answering the immediate political needs of the day and according with a certain world-view which we’ll define later.

Today- a great time to be a conspiracy nut

Conspiracy theories of our time can spread very far, very fast through the internet. I own a book from the ‘80s which combines Catholicism, anti-Capitalism and a credulous attitude toward the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I can’t think where the average person would ever come across this book or have much time to read it. Youtube, because I watched a few of these mad videos out of curiosity, now drops something equivalent to this book into my lap every time I go online. This is one feature of the current period in history that affects the question of conspiracy theories.

The extreme difficulty for the majority of living a happy life under a crisis-ridden Capitalism, the widespread hatred of the banks and the absence of class-consciousness and socialist ideas are all outstanding features of people’s attitudes today. The sell-out of Social Democracy and the massive crimes of Stalinism have in the eyes of many discredited the ideas of Socialism, the logical solution to the failure of Capitalism. It is today’s special hopelessness and confusion that breeds belief in conspiracy theories, but Capitalism generally gives rise to them.

A feeling of being on the outside with no control over what happens in society; a sickened attitude towards parliamentary democracy; frustration at people around you who are just focused on their own lives, livelihoods and lifestyles without regard for the bigger picture; contempt for those who swallow the tales told by the media and politicians; above all a humiliating sense that you and all those around you are being played for fools.

All these feelings flow naturally from living in a society in which our “democratic rights” don’t seem to channel our needs at all; in which the economy is totally out of our control; in which a small class owns most of the wealth and makes most of the decisions.

But if you don’t try to get to the root of the problem from a scientific perspective of class and of the actual facts about the ownership of wealth and the conditions of survival under capitalism, you’re not going to understand what’s going on. On the points listed above the average Marxist is in full agreement with the conspiracy theorist; on the points below there is fundamental disagreement.

A Scientific World-View

While the owners of property and wealth are the most privileged and powerful class in society, they are not in control. Each capitalist competes against all others; each company against all others; each nation with all others. Conspiracies obviously exist in such a system but the system itself couldn’t be further from a conspiracy. It’s chaos and while some are more powerful, nobody is in control.

History is not determined by the wonderful plans of powerful people sitting behind closed doors. It flows through processes which we have to describe in terms of science and impersonal nature, because they involve so many people with such contradictory desires and ways of seeing the world. History is, like nature, observable and up to a point predictable, but not conscious.

The desires and consciousnesses of people living in similar conditions and playing similar roles in society and doing similar things to put bread on the table are, not all, but generally, identical in how they behave socially and politically. A Marxist speaks in terms of classes because we call a forest a forest even if there are a couple of clearings. Likewise we call a class a class because, while everyone is a beautiful and unique snowflake, etc, etc, we call a class a class because economics – questions of survival, prosperity, how you feed yourself and the kids – ensure that a class acts generally as a whole.

So Capitalists are not secretly evil lizards who sacrifice children; they are a class of normal warm-blooded human beings who are capable of doing great harm without ever bloodying their fingers, and without us having to prove that a single one of them is consciously evil. Competition and the profit motive punishes them for not acting in an anti-social way, for not exploiting and corrupting.

The predominant role in history is played by classes, and only by institutions and people insofar as they are representatives and instruments of a class. To be a Capitalist, an exploiter, demands of the human conscience a cycle of convenient myths that justify that position – rugged individualism, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, job-creator, a rising tide lifts all boats, the wealth trickles down, all that crap. All classes in fact need myths to justify their position. These myths are the source of all off-the-wall conspiracy theories. A growing realisation that these myths are false can be the spur to the creation of a new myth that is fundamentally rooted in the same assumptions.

They Must be up to Something!

The next objection to the conspiracy-theory scene, not just of Marxists but of the vast majority of people, is: For fuck’s sake, leave the Jews alone. For every Jewish person occupying a high position in the US in business, media, finance or politics I’ll name you five Irish-Americans, five German-Americans, five Italian-Americans and twenty WASPs. If you follow the logic of “Jewish conspiracies” even two steps you’ll immediately multiply your first absurdity by a hundred. This might seem painfully obvious to a lot of people out there, but anti-Jewish attitudes permeate conspiracy theories. The Freemasons, a glorified old-boys’-network-cum-church, is another common target. Medieval mapmakers used to put scary monsters in to fill up the blank spaces on maps, and this is basically the same thing.

Power of the Working Class

The greatest objection of Marxists to conspiracy-theorising is that it’s a view of the world that totally ignores the potential power of the working, downtrodden majority. To return briefly to Russia: events there were not determined by “gold” from whatever sinister foreign source but by the self-organisation and activity of tens of millions of otherwise powerless and unremarkable people.

“Lectures, debates, speeches – in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks… Meetings in the trenches at the front, in village squares, factories… What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov Factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune […] gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, ‘Did you bring anything to read?’” (John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, Penguin, page 40).

Capitalist countries can fund armies of millions, nuclear weapons and missions to the moon. They can’t fund that. They can only create such a situation by the unintended and unforeseen consequences of their own system.

“Look how that turned out,” says the cynic. The masses of the former Russian Empire, who made the Revolution, were destroyed, dispersed and demoralized by the Civil War and the isolation of Russia, which laid the basis for the Stalinist dictatorship. It was not the organisation and militancy of the working class but rather the absence of that mobilisation which allowed the Stalinist clique to rise to power. But the conspiracy theorist is generally demoralized and it does not occur to them that such mobilisations can take place at all, and they are willing to believe that the whole thing was a conspiracy.

Lesson #2 for conspiracy theorists: Create a compelling metaphor

If a conspiracy is being cooked up by those in power, and we find irrefutable proof of it, as for example with the contents of the Wikileaks cables, we should of course make it public. For instance, it would be fascinating to know what is said at the secret Bilderberg Group meetings. But it’s very different to believe a story which is not adequately proved, and which is inherently far-fetched because it assumes the Capitalists and their lackeys have more power, knowledge and foresight than they actually do. There is nothing rebellious or subversive in insisting, on flimsy or no evidence, that rich and powerful US citizens rape and kill children at Bohemian Grove, in between Satanic and Pagan rituals, and as a warm-up to plotting world domination.

Fundamentally this is an example of religious thinking. I mean that people who don’t understand the world try to explain it in terms that make sense to them. In ancient times, when as a species we had no way of scientifically understanding or explaining the natural world or human society, we invented myths. That’s why we needed a god of thunder, of the ocean, of war: to explain vast impersonal forces in simple, human, personal terms.

In the same way today in the mind of the conspiracy theorist a person or institution acquires godlike power and significance. The Federal Reserve caused the Russian Revolution! The US government controls the weather! Rothschild appointed Obama as president! The US government packed a building full of thousands of tonnes of explosives without anybody seeing, then flew a hologram plane into it! With a sweep of its mighty hand it knocked down the twin towers and WTC 7 and punched a hole in the Pentagon and swatted another plane right out of the sky.

What is thunder? A big man in the sky with a hammer. What is revolution? A conspiracy by Jews and financiers. Why do wars happen? Mars inflames the passions of mortals. Why did 9/11 happen? The US government did it.

A Conspiracy Theory is a Metaphor

A good conspiracy theory takes root because there is a demand for it. The 9/11 theories do not have their roots in any great amount of evidence. There are no more strange occurrences and coincidences than you would associate with any event so huge. I believe that to say “9/11 was an inside job” is unconsciously to speak in metaphors. What you want to say is “The establishment’s narrative of a ‘War on Terror’ is bullshit.” You can intuitively sense this latter point, but not prove it or spell it out because your political understanding is at a very low level. If you oppose US foreign policy but accept the establishment claim that the 9/11 attacks would justify invading another country, then you are compelled to believe that the 9/11 attacks were a false flag operation. One very prominent 7/7 conspiracy theorist told author Jon Ronson that it was racist to say that Muslims committed the 7/7 attacks (Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test).

I should qualify my earlier comments about Bohemian Grove by making the point that Jimmy Saville was probably just the tip of the iceberg. Abuse flows from unaccountable power. But the Bohemian Grove myth is a fine example of the conspiracy theory as a metaphor. Yes, there is a ruling class that has inordinate control over our lives. Yes, their actions are largely hidden from us. Yes, in many indirect ways, they abuse our children, in some cases even literally and directly. People without a scientific understanding of how and why this happens, and how we can end it, follow their intuition further than anyone is supposed to. They dream up a “theory” which is actually a metaphor. They portray the rich literally meeting up and conspiring and raping children. For good measure they hedge this around with sinister rituals.

In ancient times people had a literal belief in gods that had been simply dreamt up as a substitute for science. Today liberal Christians cling to a god they freely admit has no substance except as a personalized metaphor for love. Likewise, today the conspiracy theorist actually believes their own metaphors. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone described Goldman Sachs as a vampire squid latched onto the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. Imagine if he meant this literally! Then you get an idea of what in my view a conspiracy theory is.

In at least two cases that I know of leading conspiracy theorists have also believed at some point in their lives that they were Jesus. This shows us not only an additional link to religion but proves that some of the most dogged compilers of conspiracy theories are in fact insane. However, perfectly sane people, because the metaphor and the symbol are attractive and confirm their world-view, and in no small part thanks to the vast array of “evidence”, believe.

The Conspiracy-Theorist Mindset

To conclude I should make it clear that I’m willing to believe anything that there is enough evidence for. I believe the US ruling class has done worse things than the September 11th attacks and are capable in a “moral” sense of carrying out such an atrocity. But there is no compelling and decisive evidence that they actually did and nor does it make much sense in context. I don’t want to say that everyone who believes in a conspiracy theory must fit my model, because I’m open-minded about what might happen at the top rungs of society where so much wealth and power are concentrated. The test is whether you can prove it by evidence.

My aim in this article has been to expose the conspiracy-theorist mindset itself, which rejects a scientific understanding of society in favour of symbols and metaphors. To this mindset I counterpose the Marxist method. If you want to understand what’s happening behind all the propaganda, you don’t need to prove that the elite are all paedophiles or that a secret society is controlling everything. Just look at what happens when you go to work and create wealth you only get a percentage of back. Look at the open division, which is absolutely no secret, between those born rich and the rest of us. Listen to the politicians when they say we have to satisfy the markets and incentivise investment, but when it comes to our jobs, our services and our pay, it’s “unpopular” and “a difficult decision” to slash it all to hell, so they deserve a pat on the back for doing so.

These are things we don’t have to theorize on; we don’t have to sneak into Bohemian Grove or examine every frame of every 9/11 video. We live in an oppressive, exploitative, unequal Capitalist society. But we are many while they, the Capitalist class, are few. The only thing standing between us and a democratic socialist society is a realisation that we can fight and win. The conspiracy-theory mindset pretends the rich and powerful are gods, and portrays the working class as sheep, not dormant lions.

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