Monday, April 30, 2007

New term of the day: "conspiracism"

as defined here.

It is very effective to mobilize mass support against a scapegoated enemy by claiming that the enemy is part of a vast insidious conspiracy against the common good. The conspiracist worldview sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events; makes irrational leaps of logic in analyzing factual evidence in order to "prove" connections, blames social conflicts on demonized scapegoats, and constructs a closed metaphysical worldview that is highly resistant to criticism.1

When conspiracist scapegoating occurs, the results can devastate a society, disrupting rational political discourse and creating targets who are harassed and even murdered. Dismissing the conspiracism often found in right-wing populism as irrational extremism, lunatic hysteria, or marginalized radicalism does little to challenge these movements, fails to deal with concrete conflicts and underlying institutional issues, invites government repression, and sacrifices the early targets of the scapegoaters on the altar of denial. An effective response requires a more complex analysis.

The Dynamics of Conspiracism

The dynamic of conspiracist scapegoating is remarkably predictable. Persons who claim special knowledge of a plot warn their fellow citizens about a treacherous subversive conspiracy to attack the common good. What's more, the conspiracists announce, the plans are nearing completion, so that swift and decisive action is needed to foil the sinister plot. In different historical periods, the names of the scapegoated villains change, but the essentials of this conspiracist worldview remain the same.

(jump to another page)

...Conspiracism can be used to critique the current regime or an excuse to defend the current regime against critics. David Brion Davis noted that "crusades against subversion have never been the monopoly of a single social class or ideology, but have been readily appropriated by highly diverse groups." When the government and its allies use conspiracism to justify political repression of dissidents, it is called "countersubversion." Frank Donner perceived an institutionalized culture of countersubversion in the United States "marked by a distinct pathology: conspiracy theory, moralism, nativism, and suppressiveness." The article Repression & Ideology explains how conspiracism works when it is part of a campaign against dissidents.

Conspiracism as part of an anti-regime populist movement works in a different fashion. Populist conspiracism sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events. Conspiracism tries to figure out how power is exercised in society, but ends up oversimplifying the complexites of modern society by blaming societal problems on manipulation by a handful of evil individuals. This is not an analysis that accurately evaluates the systems, structures and institutions of modern society. As such, conspiracism is neither investigative reporting, which seeks to expose actual conspiracies through careful research; nor is it power structure research, which seeks to accurately analyze the distribution of power and privilege in a society. Sadly, some sincere people who seek social and economic justice are attracted to conspiracism. Overwhelmingly, however, conspiracism in the U.S. is the central historic narrative of right-wing populism.

The conspiracist blames societal or individual problems on what turns out to be a demonized scapegoat. Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that portrays an enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good. Conspiracism assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence. Conspiracists often employ common fallacies of logic in analyzing factual evidence to assert connections, causality, and intent that are frequently unlikely or nonexistent. As a distinct narrative form of scapegoating, conspiracism uses demonization to justify constructing the scapegoats as wholly evil while reconstructing the scapegoater as a hero.

...In Western culture, conspiracist scapegoating is rooted in apocalyptic fears and millennial expectations. Sometimes conspiracism is secularized and adopted by portions of the political left. It is interesting to note that on both the left and the right (as well as the center) there are critics of the apocalyptic style and flawed methodology of conspiracism....


This page on logical fallacies could come in handy. (I'm still reading around the whole site).

Sequence does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.

Congruence in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements. Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered chalk?

Association does not imply agreement, hence the phrase "guilt by association" has a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks, coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument. The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity unrelated to the one being probed.

Participation in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.

Similarity in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however, the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.

Anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a thesis, not to prove it....

17 comments:

Alon Levy said...

I question whether conspiracism is mostly a right-wing phenomenon. Left-wing radicals are just as capable of this behavior, as seen in Howard Zinn's claim that 99% of Americans have the same political interests but are just duped by the establishment, or in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

The difference between the left and the right lies elsewhere. The US has a huge radical right-wing contingent in the religious right, while its radical left is restricted to the fringe of society: college campuses, black organizations, small parts of organized labor, the netroots. Outside the US, conspiracy theories about globalization and the US run rampant; in Europe, the radicals blame the US for every local problem almost as much as they blame Muslim immigrants.

Sassywho said...

i have a conspiracy theory that aliens actually use the same DNA to produce our pop-tarts. Evidence is early Debbie Gibson looks disturbingly similar to early Brittney Spears...

there may be some proof in aliens creating porn stars too, but i'm not sure that can hold.

and let's say one wanted to sign up to be a part of a conspiracy, is there a section for that on craigslist?

Iamcuriousblue said...

Alon –

You're correct about the left-wing conspiracism being widespread these days. Historically, though, that was less true, and elaborate conspiracy theories were mainly the province of the far right. (Of course, back when Stalinism was more influential on the left, bizarre conspiracy theories involving "Trotskyists" had a lot of currency.)

There's been a growth of conspiratorial thinking on the political left over the last 30 years, something Doug Henwood has been very critical of. It has to do with the marginalization of the political left since the 1960s and the adoption of the same "loser" mentality that characterizes the far right. There seems to be a belief that the failures of the left to gain significant power are the result of vast corporate/government conspiracies rather than simply their own inability to adapt to changing circumstances.

There's also the related phenomenon of "new anti-Semitism", which seems to have some unfortunate currency among hard-line antizionists.

belledame222 said...

The difference between the left and the right lies elsewhere. The US has a huge radical right-wing contingent in the religious right, while its radical left is restricted to the fringe of society

That's actually more or less where the author's coming from, if you read around the site. That and what iacb said. but yeah, he talks about David Icke and so forth as well; he clearly mostly sees right-wing conspiracism as more of a threat in the U.S. because it's more prevalent and powerful.

ballgame said...

I think it's important to point out that the article cited is not saying that all conspiracy theories are bunk:

As such, conspiracism is neither investigative reporting, which seeks to expose actual conspiracies through careful research; nor is it power structure research, which seeks to accurately analyze the distribution of power and privilege in a society.

Emphasis mine. I think the article makes many excellent points. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that the average person will be able to distinguish between a valid conspiracy theory and one that's a product of 'conspiracism', as the nub of difference lies buried in the details and the analytical precision and objectivity with which those details are assembled.

The average person is not privy to those details, however. When confronted with someone who is, they are likely to see the possession of such knowledge as evidence in and of itself of deranged thinking (unless the theory has been officially sanctioned by the corporate mass media, in which case the label 'conspiracy theory' is removed). Sadly, the concept of 'conspiracism' thus becomes little more than an ad hominem discounting of anyone whose opinions about shadowy coordinated activities have not been 'legitimized' in that manner.

In many cases such 'discounting' is perfectly legitimate. It's important to point out, though, that the vast majority of us subscribe to 'conspiracy theories' though we don't, as noted, refer to them as such. The idea that a former president conspired with his staff and hired goons to disrupt the opposition party's campaigning efforts, and to cover up those disruptive activities, is a conspiracy theory. It just so happens to be a perfectly valid one that we now know of as Watergate. Many others could be cited.

There are two important phenomena that one should keep in mind when discussing 'conspiracism.' One, concurrent with the increasing concentration of wealth that you, yourself, have documented, belledame, the corporate mass media has become increasingly concentrated over the last couple of decades (see Bagdikian et al). Two, the internet 'explosion' is posing a powerful democratic challenge to the informational hegemony wielded by the conglomeratized media. I believe an increasing number of valid observations about coordinated political criminal activities will be treated with sneering disdain and accusations of 'conspiracy theory!' by corporate media types as they seek to delegitimize the internet. Some of those sneers will no doubt be fully justified.

But not all.

Trinity said...

I'm so tired I probably not reading carefully enough, but I definitely think there's a lot of this going on on the v. v. extreme left.

I have a hunch why you might've posted this and: yeah. yeah. but it's not just them. I think there's always been a left like that, too.

cuz all you need to do is construct a specious "system" for ending oh pressh un

and there y'go

belledame222 said...

well yeah, it was in the interest of extrapolating from the specific to the general, as it were.

i guess the way i was looking at it is--he's talking about a -dynamic- that happens. i'm looking at it from a group psychology perspective, i guess--what i'm interested in is at what point the need to believe in a conspiracy becomes the driving force, and why--why the idea of a sinister Mastermind or evil conspiracies everywhere is somehow more comforting (for i believe it can be) than the alternative...

and how we might get past that.

i mean--well okay, there are a few things going on here, but one has to do with one's basic beliefs about human nature. It gets more complicated at the group level, but groups of course are made up of individuals, and individuals have personalities...

eh, it's late, i'm too tired to articulate what i wanted to say, i think. later.

belledame222 said...

p.s. anyone read "Them!" by Jon Ronson? it's kind of perfect really.

Cassandra Says said...

The really extreme left manifested this kind of behavior throughout the twentieth century. It happened in Russia, it happened in China. I'm inclined to think that it happens whenever people start to enshrine political theory in their lives in the same way that religion is usually enshrined. Such movements tend to implode after eating their own tails, an end brought about in part by the tendency to see enemies behind every door and conspiracies in every corner.

Cassandra Says said...

"i guess the way i was looking at it is--he's talking about a -dynamic- that happens. i'm looking at it from a group psychology perspective, i guess--what i'm interested in is at what point the need to believe in a conspiracy becomes the driving force, and why--why the idea of a sinister Mastermind or evil conspiracies everywhere is somehow more comforting (for i believe it can be) than the alternative..."

Because the alternative is accepting that maybe the reason that one is unable to effect the change one wants is that one's ideas are not popular, and that most people are aware of what one's ideas are but disagree with or even actively oppose them. It's far less depressing to imagine that the reason you're not getting anywhere is that your efforts are being sabotaged.
Also because when one becomes a "true believer" and associates almost exclusively with other true believers one loses perspective. Closed social groups naturally create a dynamic where outsiders are not to be trusted, and as they become more closed the number of people defined as outsiders keeps rising. The basic dynamic lends itself to paranoia.

belledame222 said...

well, I was thinking it's even more fundamental than that: That it's better to think that the world has some sort of structure, order and meaning, even a malign one, than (what seems to be the alternative) none at all.

belledame222 said...

Also because when one becomes a "true believer" and associates almost exclusively with other true believers one loses perspective. Closed social groups naturally create a dynamic where outsiders are not to be trusted, and as they become more closed the number of people defined as outsiders keeps rising. The basic dynamic lends itself to paranoia

well, yeah, the vicious cycle.

and the tighter and more paranoid it becomes (as the less "hardline" leave or are pushed out), the more it withdraws from the rest of the world; and the more it withdraws from the rest of the world, the stranger it becomes; and pretty soon its "they're all out to get us" business becomes self-fulfilling prophecy...

bint alshamsa said...

If you're interested in logical fallacies, the best website I've ever found is the one on the Nizkor Project site. You ought to check it out. I think it should be required reading for high school students.

Nizkor Project: Fallacies

Alon Levy said...

Because the alternative is accepting that maybe the reason that one is unable to effect the change one wants is that one's ideas are not popular, and that most people are aware of what one's ideas are but disagree with or even actively oppose them.

Precisely.

And I'll add that if the reason that you can't effect the change you want because your ideas are unpopular, it puts the burden on you to try and tailor them to the population's wants, or at least understand why you're rejected. More importantly, it puts the burden on you to find a way to succeed, which might require you to ditch longstanding beliefs.

Conspiracy theories are then one mechanism of being able to interpret both successes and failures in ideology-compatible terms. So if a socialist country registers vigorous economic growth then it's due to the success of socialism, while if a socialist country registers sluggish growth then it's due to the fact that the success of socialism is causing the CIA to destabilize the country.

On the other hand, an even better mechanism is to shift responsibility to someone else. If a policy fails to succeed in its original goal, then it can be defended using purely abstract language concerning responsibility. Libertarians and conservatives do it all the time, saying that their policies on race and poverty encourage opportunity in some setup even though they appear to increase the rate of poverty and worsen racial inequality. It's not the government's responsibility to help people succeed, but rather the people's responsibility to provide bibliogenic rags-to-riches stories. Leftists do it more subtly and infrequently, by invoking power relations or even the responsibility of the establishment; hence, if a leftist policy on race fails, it's all because whites are racist.

Trinity said...

"is at what point the need to believe in a conspiracy becomes the driving force, and why--why the idea of a sinister Mastermind or evil conspiracies everywhere is somehow more comforting (for i believe it can be) than the alternative..."

I suspect (but don't know) it comes about when what you're doing doesn't get results. The whole supposed story about the birth of radical feminism (and I'm not sure how true this is either, not having been around then and not having read MacKinnon in years) was that "liberal feminist" solutions, trying to change laws concretely etc., didn't help women as much, materially, as everybody hoped --

and also of course there were the issues that it didn't touch, like DV which was supposedly a "private matter", so I'm not saying it was entirely a wrong move. a lot was very good --

-- but I suspect women got to that point and went "shit, now what, how do we REALLY THROW ALL THIS SHIT OUT THE WINDOW since it doesn't look like the current system enables us to do that? We've gotta figure out what predisposes people to devalue women

*sniff sniff* I've caught the scent!

PRAAAAAAAAAWN!

I think what it is is that when you're looking for One Overarching Source of the oppression in question, you're never gonna find it. you'll find something that looks like it might be bad and worth discarding, but never The Sekrit.

And you're gonna come up with loopiness like "because porn and prostitution are often demeaning, getting rid of them is the true way to liberation."

R. Mildred said...

Conspiracy theories are then one mechanism of being able to interpret both successes and failures in ideology-compatible terms. So if a socialist country registers vigorous economic growth then it's due to the success of socialism, while if a socialist country registers sluggish growth then it's due to the fact that the success of socialism is causing the CIA to destabilize the country.

however on the gripping hand such conspiracy theories tend to grow exponentionally alongside the existence of such organisations like the KGB, FBI and CIA who would do incredibly insane things for very little gain, based themselves on conspiracy theories that work.

So that conspiracy theorists breed conspiracy threorists, who feed off of each other once the enviroment becomes filled with enough of them.

hence, if a leftist policy on race fails, it's all because whites are racist.

That's not a conspiracy theory actually, it's just an ad hom attack. Possibly it's even just an application of occam's, the most likely thing to fuck up a race policy will be racism - if it's your "racist" opponents and their "racist" backers in the multimillion dollar "making a sucka out of whitey" business, then it's a conspiracy theory.

What's notable however is that the rise of left wing conspiracies go hand in hand with a rampant ignorance of left theory.

Something that increased considerably in the west during the period when the right wing is well documented as actively suppressing left wing writings.

Left wing conspiarcy theorists, are therefore something of a result of right wing conspiracies.

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