Theory of political power.
In many or all social and political situations, there is a small group of people who deliberately, in concert, and in secret pursue an objective of their own. They do so under cover of the ostensible constitution or political arrangements.
Conspiracy theory has variously identified communists, Jews, the secret service, business, Masons, and many others as the principal actors. Paradoxically, conspiracy theory which attributes overwhelming power to small groups has often been used to justify the power of other groups and the persecution of minorities.
Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London,1982)
Etymology and usage
The Oxford English Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event”. It cites a 1909 article in The American Historical Review as the earliest usage example, although it also appeared in print as early as April 1870. The word “conspiracy” derives from the Latin con- (“with, together”) and spirare (“to breathe”).
Robert Blaskiewicz comments that examples of the term were used as early as the nineteenth century and states that its usage has always been derogatory. According to a study by Andrew McKenzie-McHarg, in contrast, in the nineteenth century the term conspiracy theory simply “suggests a plausible postulate of a conspiracy” and “did not, at this stage, carry any connotations, either negative or positive”, though sometimes a postulate so-labeled was criticized. The term “conspiracy theory” is itself the subject of a conspiracy theory, which claims the term was popularized by the CIA in order to discredit conspiratorial believers, particularly critics of the Warren Commission, by making them a target of ridicule. In his 2013 book Conspiracy Theory in America, political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith suggested that the term entered everyday language in the United States after 1964, the year in which the Warren Commission published its findings on the Kennedy assassination, with The New York Times running five stories that year using the term. However, deHaven-Smith’s suggestion has been criticized by Michael Butter, a Professor of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen, on the grounds that a CIA document which deHaven-Smith referenced, Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report – which was publicly released in 1976 after a Freedom of Information Act request – does not contain the phrase “conspiracy theory” in the singular, and only mentions “conspiracy theories” once, in the sentence “Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organisation [sic], for example, by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us.”
Difference from conspiracy
A conspiracy theory is not simply a conspiracy, which refers to any covert plan involving two or more people. In contrast, the term “conspiracy theory” refers to hypothesized conspiracies that have specific characteristics. For example, conspiracist beliefs invariably oppose the mainstream consensus among those people who are qualified to evaluate their accuracy, such as scientists or historians. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as having privileged access to socially persecuted knowledge or a stigmatized mode of thought that separates them from the masses who believe the official account. Michael Barkun describes a conspiracy theory as a “template imposed upon the world to give the appearance of order to events”.
Real conspiracies, even very simple ones, are difficult to conceal and routinely experience unexpected problems. In contrast, conspiracy theories suggest that conspiracies are unrealistically successful and that groups of conspirators, such as bureaucracies, can act with near-perfect competence and secrecy. The causes of events or situations are simplified to exclude complex or interacting factors, as well as the role of chance and unintended consequences. Nearly all observations are explained as having been deliberately planned by the alleged conspirators.
In conspiracy theories, the conspirators are usually claimed to be acting with extreme malice. As described by Robert Brotherton:
The malevolent intent assumed by most conspiracy theories goes far beyond everyday plots borne out of self-interest, corruption, cruelty, and criminality. The postulated conspirators are not merely people with selfish agendas or differing values. Rather, conspiracy theories postulate a black-and-white world in which good is struggling against evil. The general public is cast as the victim of organised persecution, and the motives of the alleged conspirators often verge on pure maniacal evil. At the very least, the conspirators are said to have an almost inhuman disregard for the basic liberty and well-being of the general population. More grandiose conspiracy theories portray the conspirators as being Evil Incarnate: of having caused all the ills from which we suffer, committing abominable acts of unthinkable cruelty on a routine basis, and striving ultimately to subvert or destroy everything we hold dear.
A conspiracy theory may take any matter as its subject, but certain subjects attract greater interest than others. Favored subjects include famous deaths and assassinations, morally dubious government activities, suppressed technologies, and “false flag” terrorism. Among the longest-standing and most widely recognized conspiracy theories are notions concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 1969 Apollo moon landings, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as numerous theories pertaining to alleged plots for world domination by various groups both real and imaginary.
Conspiracy beliefs are widespread around the world. In rural Africa, common targets of conspiracy theorizing include societal elites, enemy tribes, and the Western world, with conspirators often alleged to enact their plans via sorcery or witchcraft; one common belief identifies modern technology as itself being a form of sorcery, created with the goal of harming or controlling the people. In China, one widely published conspiracy theory claims that a number of events including the rise of Hitler, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and climate change were planned by the Rothschild family, which may have led to effects on discussions about China’s currency policy.
Conspiracy theories once limited to fringe audiences have become commonplace in mass media, contributing to conspiracism emerging as a cultural phenomenon in the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The general predisposition to believe conspiracy theories cuts across partisan and ideological lines. Conspiratorial thinking is correlated with antigovernmental orientations and a low sense of political efficacy, with conspiracy believers perceiving a governmental threat to individual rights and displaying a deep skepticism that who one votes for really matters.
Conspiracy theories are often commonly believed, some even being held by the majority of the population. A broad cross-section of Americans today gives credence to at least some conspiracy theories. For instance, a study conducted in 2016 found that 10% of Americans think the chemtrail conspiracy theory is “completely true” and 20-30% think it is “somewhat true”. This puts “the equivalent of 120 million Americans in the ‘chemtrails are real’ camp.” Belief in conspiracy theories has therefore become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore.
Conspiracy theories are widely present on the Web in the form of blogs and YouTube videos, as well as on social media. Whether the Web has increased the prevalence of conspiracy theories or not is an open research question. The presence and representation of conspiracy theories in search engine results has been monitored and studied, showing significant variation across different topics, and a general absence of reputable, high-quality links in the results.
One conspiracy theory that propagated through former US President Barack Obama’s time in office claimed that he was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii– where he was born. Former governor of Arkansas and political opponent of Obama, Mike Huckabee made headlines in 2011 when he, among other members of Republican leadership, continued to question Obama’s citizenship status.
A conspiracy theory can be local or international, focused on single events or covering multiple incidents and entire countries, regions and periods of history.
Walker’s five kinds
Jesse Walker (2013) has identified five kinds of conspiracy theories:
- The “Enemy Outside” refers to theories based on figures alleged to be scheming against a community from without.
- The “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.
- The “Enemy Above” involves powerful people manipulating events for their own gain.
- The “Enemy Below” features the lower classes working to overturn the social order.
- The “Benevolent Conspiracies” are angelic forces that work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.
Barkun’s three types
Michael Barkun has identified three classifications of conspiracy theory:
- Event conspiracy theories. This refers to limited and well-defined events. Examples may include such conspiracies theories as those concerning the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, and the spread of AIDS.
- Systemic conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is believed to have broad goals, usually conceived as securing control of a country, a region, or even the entire world. The goals are sweeping, whilst the conspiratorial machinery is generally simple: a single, evil organization implements a plan to infiltrate and subvert existing institutions. This is a common scenario in conspiracy theories that focus on the alleged machinations of Jews, Freemasons, Communism, or the Catholic Church.
- Superconspiracy theories. For Barkun, such theories link multiple alleged conspiracies together hierarchically. At the summit is a distant but all-powerful evil force. His cited examples are the ideas of David Icke and Milton William Cooper.
Rothbard: shallow vs. deep
Murray Rothbard argues in favor of a model that contrasts “deep” conspiracy theories to “shallow” ones. According to Rothbard, a “shallow” theorist observes an event and asks Cui bono? (“Who benefits?”), jumping to the conclusion that a posited beneficiary is responsible for covertly influencing events. On the other hand, the “deep” conspiracy theorist begins with a hunch and then seeks out evidence. Rothbard describes this latter activity as a matter of confirming with certain facts one’s initial paranoia.