Conspiracies in Revolutionary Times

Conspiracy theorists seem to lurk behind every door or near every URL. Are conspiracy theories more commonly held by those on the left or the right? Are our times uniquely beset by such theories? If so, why we are beset with conspiracy theories? And should the answers to such questions worry us? Can we answer these questions without ourselves becoming conspiracy theorists?

Conspiracy theorists reject the obvious or standard explanation for why an event happened and instead assign responsibility to a covert, nefarious mastermind that has successfully carried out a plot. The surface is a smokescreen for a deeper, uglier reality.

Examples abound. FDR invited the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was an inside job. The FBI, an agent of the Deep State, conspired with the FISA court to frame Carter Page. Jeffrey Epstein did not kill himself—he was about to spill the beans on the whole cabal or was working under deep cover and luring Democrats into compromising positions with underage girls so he had to go. President Trump is gaming the postal service to undermine election integrity.

Some conspiracy theories go mainstream: Claims about systemic or institutional racism partake of the elements of conspiracy theories, especially in being unfalsifiable. Differences between ethnic groups exist. Instead of tracing those differences to different subcultures and choices (the common-sense assumption), systemic-racism conspiracy theorists posit that a secret, unconscious set of structures make the oppressed commit crimes or have children out of wedlock or perform worse in schools.

It could be that conspiracy theories have always been with us. Tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists used to live apart from one another, though. Society shunned and shamed such lunatics, if mildly. Modern communications like the internet, which compromise old-fashioned, face-to-face shunning and shaming, make it easier for lunatics to find and fuel one another. As people suppose many others to entertain the same conspiracy theory, they hold that opinion more strongly and it has greater practical influence on their conduct. Shaming and shunning no longer attach themselves to those who offer conspiracy theories. Nothing stops them from going mainstream or sowing themselves into political parties or factions. Such theories are more openly and confidently avowed now than before, even if there may not be more conspiracy theorists. That in itself is interesting.

Then again, perhaps conspiracy theories are particularly endemic to modern representative democracy and popular government as such. Democracies organize themselves for political action through electoral fights for office. Electoral fights foster particular hatreds, though they keep the government in touch with the people. Conspiracies are a particularly insidious form of political hatred endemic to democracy. They are a form of partisan propaganda. People see conspiracies because they want to think the worst of their political enemies or (more cynically) because they want to get their partisans to think the worst of their political enemies. Democrats aren’t just wrong; their leaders are pedophiles! Republicans aren’t just wrong; their leaders are actively undermining the mail service!

But we need to remember another thing: not all conspiracy theories are of a kind. Conspiracy theories that contradict available evidence should never be believed because the obstacles to executing conspiracies are so vast. Carrying out a conspiracy requires prophetic forethought, great competence, tight-lips, and steely nerve in the face of long odds and stern opposition. Ockham’s razor should be applied here: simpler explanations are better. Some conspiracy theories can’t survive such a test.

The Pearl Harbor conspiracy theorists, for instance, argue that FDR’s administration provoked the Japanese to attack or that they had gathered intelligence on the Japanese attack but did nothing to stop it out of a desire to get the United States into the war. There are dots here and there in the form of off-hand remarks by low-level officials to support this view. The factor most likely to connect those dots is the incompetence and wishful thinking of FDR’s associates. Can’t FDR just be incompetent instead of an evil genius? No one is good enough to get their enemies to act just as one wants: if FDR wanted war with Germany, getting Japan to attack Pearl Harbor was an odd way of getting his wish.

But what of conspiracies that are consistent with the surface of things? What of conspiracy theories that pass the test?

After all, the fact that partisans want to think the worst of their political opponents doesn’t mean those opponents are not conspirators. Sometimes the conspiracies are right out in the open. In his “House Divided” speech, for instance, Abraham Lincoln implied that Stephen Douglas and his fellow Democrats “Roger, Franklin, and James” had initiated a “conspiracy” to extend slavery throughout the nation. Lincoln was roundly criticized as a conspiracy theorist as a result. Does that make Lincoln wrong? Jefferson saw Hamilton and the Federalists conspiring to introduce a British-style prime ministership to America. Indeed, Hamilton had no little affinity for that style of governance. Joe McCarthy thought there were many communist spies in the U.S. government, but there were more than a few.

Revolutions, especially modern revolutions, involve conspiracies of a sort—suppressed intentions and a peaceable surface combined with a determined adherence to the revolutionary cause. Sergey Nechayev, a father of modern revolutionary terrorism, puts conspiracies at the center of his thought. He concludes his Catechism of a Revolutionary, wherein he describes no end of scheming and pretending, like this: “To weld the people into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force—this is our aim, our conspiracy, and our task.” Note that conspiracy is the central factor in modern revolution. It’s not paranoid lunacy if people really are out to get you.

This gives rise to an unpleasant thought. Perhaps conspiracy theories are more common today because conspiracies themselves are more common today.

A new, rising regime must upset the stability and confidence of the old one. Conspiracy theories grease the skids: Revolutionaries explain their opposition to the old regime with a conspiracy theory that seeks to discredit it.

Consider the modern Left, insofar as it is inspired by Marx. On its view, politics is inherently conspiratorial since what on the surface appears to be a debate about justice and the good is in reality a hidden power struggle over the means of production (or, in today’s iteration, power struggles between sexes or races). For this disposition, the norm of social trust is a class conspiracy—nothing but a power play whereby the strong hoodwink the weak into obeying.

But you don’t need to be a Marxist to grasp that there are times when politics really is all about power. Lenin’s questions about the nature of politics—Who? Whom? (as in “who” is doing what “to whom”?)—matter especially in times of revolution or regime disintegration. Conspiracies arise when regime changes upset established ways and seek to introduce a new way, or when social trust and genuine concern about the common fate wane. Those leading this regime change are not apt to be more upfront about their intentions or motives than they need to be, so they are quiet about it or disguise their actions and intentions in more palatable words.

Much of this is clear from the very words and actions of those who seek regime change. Revolutionaries and conspirators were afoot in Russia during Nechayev’s time and in the years following. It was difficult to differentiate the terrorists from the liberals or the population at large, and difficult to distinguish natural disasters from terrorist actions. In unsettled times, conspirators can use the ambiguous surface of things to their advantage. The whole political movement was an open conspiracy, but retail conspirators often disguised their intentions and means in order to bring it about. 

Old regimes represent stability. Its citizens recognize that the repose and confidence afforded by the old regime are the chief blessings of civil governments. New rising regimes must upset that stability and confidence. Conspiracy theories grease the skids: those seeking to change the regime explain their opposition to the old regime with a conspiracy theory that seeks to discredit it. We can apply these thoughts to our situation. Opposition to the old regime is couched in terms of a conspiracy, critical race theory, which decries what it sees as “systemic racism.” This undermines the confidence in the old and makes people ready for the new. Minions within this new rising regime then actually conspire to punish those associated with the old regime, in order to detach honor from it and make it difficult to serve (e.g., the prosecution of Carter Page). The overall aim to destroy and build anew is pretty clear, but sometimes the means are unclear or open to generous interpretation.

Meanwhile, those who oppose this regime change are likely to misapprehend it because the fog of revolution makes it difficult to navigate. They cannot see well, though they feel in their bones what is going on. This problem is evident today. Every brush fire out West seems to have been started by Antifa. Or so someone says. For the QAnon conspiracy theorists, the open conspiracy to change the regime is a smokescreen for a salacious one where the pedophilia of power brokers is a central concern. The intentions of the open conspirators are clear, but those sniffing out conspiracies in the general atmosphere of regime change see machinations where there are none. Conspirators exploit those mistakes to prove that no open conspiracy is happening.

Conspiracy theorists will be with us as long as we struggle over election outcomes and as long as people would upset our regime. A successful big-time conspiracy, however, will likely put an end to conspiracies! And that cure would be worse than the disease.

Reader Discussion

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on October 14, 2020 at 07:36:23 am

This is not a useful essay. Calling a claim a “conspiracy theory” is a cheap way of avoiding addressing the claim and discrediting (slandering) one’s opponent.

To qualify as a theory about historical or current events, a claim should be falsifiable. “Conspiracy theorists” who provide evidence and pass such tests don’t deserve the slander. It’s human nature to conspire, people are always up to something, especially in politics, and surface/standard explanations are often just fluff to avoid disturbing the masses.

Ockham’s razor is generally useless. What’s the “simplest” explanation? That depends on one’s priors, one’s basic understanding of how the world works and basic facts - on which humans hardly agree.

Either a claim passes reasonable tests or it doesn’t (one might argue this is a matter of degree) but absolutely nothing is gained by dividing claims into categories “conspiracy theory” and “not conspiracy theory” and pretending this is reasonable epistemology. It isn’t.

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Charles N. Steele
on October 14, 2020 at 09:55:18 am

Well, this seems like a reasonable if but general approach to the subject. One aspect of the problem that is not touched upon is that we've allowed ourselves to become consumers of images rather than discriminating and devoted surveyors of the word. The latter requires an active intelligence, requires sober minded probity and probative depth, a certain gravitas, to be applied to the subject matter at hand. The former, being consumers of images, results in a certain passivity of those faculties of judgment and discernment, of probity and probative bearing, of more serious and substantial modes of engagement.

A large part of the problem is technological and cultural; we are bombarded with images 24/7 like no other generation before. But the other side to that coin is simple lazy mindedness, sloth, a failure to cultivate habits of the mind applied to the word. One symptom of this is the displacement of the very idea of truth with mere narratives and counter-narratives; both a symptom and a cause in a kind of downward spiraling. Narratives in this sense are mere images in the form of words, they merely play with words whether in an artful or less artful fashion, they are wordplay, given more to incitement rather than probity and discernment that results in a more conscientious and constructive engagement.

The remedy is a certain consciously cultivated iconoclasm within our media and technological epoch. In these terms, we would have to want to humble ourselves before the word, as ratio, as logos. But at this juncture lazy mindedness is winning out.

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Michael Bond
on October 14, 2020 at 12:04:26 pm

This is an entertaining essay as a general overview of aspects of the nature conspiracy, but it cannot suffice as a theory of conspiracy theory.
It seems that from experience two conclusions can be universally drawn: 1) Because man is by nature a social being bent on self-defense and survival, man has an innate suspicion of conspiracy; i.e., he is more or less naturally paranoid, particularly in times of personal and social stress; and 2) Life teaches us a hard lesson, that sometimes, perhaps often, our paranoia about conspiracy is not delusional but, rather, is well-grounded in reality. One need not suffer paranoia (which we all do, more or less) to learn that one acquires real enemies and that when the option is available to them, those enemies will cooperate (conspire) to achieve a common objective.

In that regard, each of the serial waves of attack aimed at destroying President Trump alleged a criminal conspiracy by Trump. The media promoted those conspiracy theories, and the media were believed. In his defense, Trump first alleged that he was being "wiretapped" and then he alleged that he was the victim of conspiracy. In response, the media accused Trump of paranoia and lying. The media were believed.

As if to prove the truism that even paranoids have real enemies, the facts proved that Trump was right. Each allegation of conspiracy by Trump's enemies and their allies was but psychological projection; i.e., those crying conspiracy were, themselves, engaged in conspiracy and using false allegations of conspiracy to disguise their conspiratorial criminality.

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Image of paladin
on October 14, 2020 at 12:45:28 pm

You really display your ignorance of history when commenting on FDR and war.

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Image of Tom
on October 15, 2020 at 11:34:30 am

William of Ockham may be in need of updating.

1) The simplest explanation is the best; EXCEPT when it is NOT!
There can be more than one SIMPLE explanation, as in "The Deep State - FBI nexus may be attributed to a) the evil of the players or b) the incompetence of the players. Both are simplistic explanations AND both are NOT the best explanations.
Consider also that Ockham in his quest for simplicity became a voluntarist and, like the Asharite Islamic theologians before him, posited a God that was Willful, arbitrary and disdainful of Reason.
Simple ain't what it is cracked up to be, mates!

2) A second update:
Occam’s Shoehorn: What you use to fit the data to your narrative, no matter how difficult or apparently contradictory.
This may also be described as "wokefulness."

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Image of gabe
on October 15, 2020 at 14:32:26 pm

Following your recommendation, I bought and read Robert Reilly's America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. He struck me as writing two books in one: a history of Western civilization and a straw man about defending the founders when they did not really seem to need any defending.

But Cameron Hilditch at NRO ( https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/08/the-american-misunderstanding-of-natural-rights ) also brought Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism [2014; 2017] to my attention, another book covering much of the same territory. But Seidentop treats Occam more sympathetically than Reilly. He also provides a good understanding of the patriarchal nature of pre-Greek, Greek, and Roman attitudes about family and citizens vs. slaves and other non-citizens who are not granted any human rights. This provides a good background to seeing how the Christian developments altered attitudes about the individual and his/her inherent rights as a human "in the image of God". Siedentop also skips around (back and forth) in time while trying to interweave cultural, political, and legal threads, so some developments were a little harder to follow. He also emphasizes how Richard Hooker argued against Occam's voluntarism and in turn became a key source for Locke.

Also on the stack to read are Tom Holland's Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World [2019] and possibly deeper dives into Brian Tierney and Harold Berman. Seems a lot of "modern" ideas were pretty well established long before the Enlightenment, which I am finding enlightening.

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Image of R2L
on October 15, 2020 at 17:55:33 pm

[email protected]:

Glad you read and enjoyed it. As to Straw Man, it may not have been needed for folks such as Law& Liberty readers BUT there are many who would denigrate and diminish the Founding whilst others allege that the Founding itself is to blame for our current malaise. For them, Reilly sought to provide historical evidence that the likes of Deneen et al are woefully mistaken.

BTW: Reilly also wrote "The Closing of the American Mind" If one were to take "The Closing" as a prequel to "Trial" perhaps the latter book would demonstrate the fate of those voluntarist / Hobbesian types reflected in modern Islamisms' theology and "ANTI-philosophy".

Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism [2014; 2017] - I may have to add this to ever growing reading list.

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Image of gabe
on October 15, 2020 at 19:52:25 pm

Of course Allan Bloom wrote Closing of the AMERICAN Mind; Charles Freeman wrote The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason; and Reilly wrote The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. I read the latter back in 2013 and was thus in sync with you about understanding Allah as a god of will, rather than one of love or law or natural law.

I probably need to refresh my understanding of just which "Muslim" thinkers were investigating nature on their own initiative, in nominal contradistinction to the Quran, etc. of portraying Allah as a god of will, able to change the universe and its laws on a whim and thus negating any merit in scientific study of nature laws, per se. Some say those investigators were really former Jews or Christians who were thus not "real" Muslims at their core. Some study of mathematics and of medicine may have occurred under Islamic auspices, so categorical statements of denial about their achievements may not be justified. But clearly nowhere near the effort of understanding Nature and Nature's God were made by Muslims, in contrast to the early European "scientists" trying to learn more about their Christian God by the study of His nature and natural laws.

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Image of R2L
on October 14, 2020 at 07:22:10 am

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