‘Conspiracy Theory’ is a phrase invented by the CIA to stop people questioning the official version of events.
These are the words of former CIA operative, Steven Julius Bakerfield, regarding his department’s attempts in the 1960s to frustrate all independent investigations into the assassination of JFK.
Although some of us are more wary than others, we are all programmed to believe what we are told (and so what we read). Unless there is something that raises our suspicions the default is to think the other person is telling the truth. This makes sense. Too much paranoia isn’t just physically unhealthy, most of the time people do actually tell the truth, or at least what they think is the truth, so paranoia tends to leave us isolated from, not closer to, reality.
This is why, if you didn’t know that the quote that starts the article is a deliberate lie, you most likely believed it. You might have even seen it before. Yet it is not true. Not in the slightest. I made up the name Steven Julius Bakerfield too.
I hope you forgive me. I wanted to drive home the important starting point that gullible IS in the dictionary and it can be applied to anyone, at times. If you are aware that you, like all humans, are fairly easy to fool, then you are already on the way to being one of the least easy to fool.
Conspiracy theories are much older than the 60s and are identifiable products of certain ways of thinking.
Firstly, our amazing ability to see and indeed create patterns. So, you can probably think of something to link Microsoft and dragons, although there is no real world link. For example, dragons are huge powerful creatures who hoard great wealth. That just came to my mind.
Secondly, a tendency to think that big events must have big causes. If the President is shot, the reason must be a huge story to do with the Russians and the Mafia, right? The Russians and the Mafia are part of the background after all, they MUST be the reason. But why, when you think about it? Because we think big events must have big causes. But sometimes they don’t. One man shot John Lennon. One man probably came up with the plan to shoot JFK and carried it out. (I’m not saying he wasn’t a terrorist. Terrorists can act alone and they are still terrorists). We think that it can’t just be about one person because we are looking to make sense of the world. If one person can cause such shockwaves, that’s scary. It’s also true. Sometimes one person can.
A Socialist does have the tools to make sense of this. Though we cannot control the world, we can have the understanding that small causes – Timothy McVeigh, Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson, or even an ISIS cell – are also symptoms. They are signs of the socio-historical forces that influence us all. The Cold War DID contribute to killing JFK, after all, and Jack Ruby WAS influenced by the Mafia. Not directly, most probably. Not in opposition to patriotic motives. One can see how, though, that an organisation exploiting working class deference (and the Mafia, for all intimidation, can’t function without exploiting working class deference) and operating as its own (self-interested) police force could influence Jack Ruby. Individuals can be canaries, their motivations a pocket of concentration of widespread anxieties, showing us little images of the waves and echoes of history at work in a localised sense. Even Donald Trump is a symptom. The forces that installed him are more important than his venality, low cunning, narcissism, disinterest, lack of concentration. Hyperconsumerism (eg Reality TV), alienation, white power, cronyism and various effects of late capitalism are the Why of Trump. Trump’s personality reflects what Capitalism is doing to us as a people.
So there are big causes but they are NOT, most often are not, the deliberate and convoluted plans of vast secretive networks. If something happens that shocks us, the Socialist analysis is not to assume “it can’t be like that” but to look at why it might be like that. It can be that “senseless shootings” happen in American schools. Yet they do make sense in the context of a seam of thinking that runs throughout US history and is perhaps best encapsulated by Ayn Rand. The extreme tiny-state libertarianism of the wealthy US elites is a way of securing their future at the expense of the less powerful. They sell this ‘dream that can become reality for You’ as “Freedom”, but of course it is “might makes right”. Those who own not just the means of production but the means of mass militarisation tell the people that their puny militias of one are the means of liberation. Yet they are ultimately the means of subjugation. The alienation that results does makes sense. You don’t even have to be poor for the dream not to come true. As long as you’re not a square chinned industrialist, you’ve failed. Now this facet of alienation is only a partial explanation of school shootings but there’s a brutal sense here, not a world that is so outside comprehension that tragedies must be staged by crisis actors.
The conspiracy theory is itself only allowed to flourish through alienation. Once we can find a way to accept that awful things happen, or that those who oppose the right/West are often not progressive, or that the Russian Revolution was usurped and went sour, or specifically that ANY Socialism in Russia died a good two decades ago, that the world isn’t fairy tale simple so sometimes even Tory governments tell the truth, or that there might be some nuance regarding the BBC, then we are starting to be Socialist commentators. Only then do we need to bear in mind that “false flags happen” and the like. That is, we understand not only are they rare but we are now beginning to have the tools to engage with such complexity. Before that we are cowering at the messiness of the world and refusing to see it as it is.
Further reading on the etymology of “Conspiracy theory”: https://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/nope_it_was_always_already_wrong