Artillery Row

In defence of conspiracy theories

Daniel Miller says conspiracy theories should be treated and judged like any theory

In the wake of six months of mixed-messages and baffling government policies, following four years, if not twenty years, of mystifying imponderables, the concept of a “conspiracy theory” has recently reentered the lexicon of semi-criminalized thought.

The problem becomes even more difficult once one concedes that one cannot trust one’s own mind

In August The New York Times stigmatized anti-lockdown protesters in Berlin as a worrying admixture of “neo-Nazi groups, conspiracy theorists as well as Germans who said they were fed up with the restrictions” and similar language was used about the protesters in London, as social media companies began purging accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which conjectures that the world is controlled by a secret global cabal of blood-drinking sex criminals.

Believing conspiracy theories, evidently, is a Bad Thing, but any concept capacious enough to incorporate both the tens, even hundreds of millions of people skeptical about the global political response to SARS-2, and the much smaller number entertaining more involved explanations demands a careful analysis.

Really the first question is who you can trust. One answer is the official authorities, as represented by the esteemed New York Times, but the news website which welcomed the 45th US President to office with three years of spurious coverage of what turned out to be the Russiagate hoax, before pivoting to the historical phantasmagoria of the 1619 Project, no longer strikes everyone as the impeccable source which revealed the existence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD stockpile and links to Al-Qaeda before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or whose Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Duranty discounted rumours of a 1933 famine in the Soviet Union as “an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”

This leaves individuals only to their own wits and devices in the face of a puzzling world in which information is everywhere, much of it questionable, not all the facts are available, and many are ultra-politicized, and meanwhile, unknown agendas are being continually carried out.

What’s really going on? As with any speculative enterprise, the problem is to construct a plausible hypothesis by using various models to interpret limited data. There is no question that, at different moments in history, individuals and groups have worked together in secrecy to launch conspiratorial exploits and there is no obvious reason for thinking this practice has now totally ceased. “People of the same trade seldom meet together,” observed Adam Smith in 1776, “even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” Still, this is not in itself evidence of any specific plot happening now.

The problem becomes even more difficult once one concedes that one cannot trust one’s own mind; the situation faced by Descartes at the beginning of modern philosophy, and faced again by his homonym “Deckard” in the science fiction film Bladerunner. Having submitted his faculties to the razor of radical doubt, and recognized that he could neither rely on his memories, nor on his senses, the philosopher realized he was unable to totally discount the possibility that he was a brain in a vat being deceived by a demon.

How do you know, in an era where memories are dominated by consumer entertainment products, fantasies are delivered by algorithm, and the five senses are stripped down to the speakers and screens of electronic devices, that you are not a replicant, or plugged into the Matrix? Is it significant that among the first reported symptoms of SARS-2 was the loss of the most qualitative senses: taste and smell. In a world of artificial flavors how does one even know what things really taste like?

Descartes ultimately could not refute the evil demon conjecture using deduction alone and there is also no way to refute a conspiracy theory. Any apparently mitigating evidence could theoretically have been fabricated to throw people off the scent, and anyone claiming the theory is a paranoid fantasy could always be brainwashed themselves, or even working for the Enemy.

Nevertheless, and for identical reasons, there is also no way to prove them. Every theoretical construct of how the world works is conjectural: the question is what it implies. Every conception of an omnipotent enemy, for instance, implies that one is impotent oneself, which is no doubt what some people wish to think, if not indeed others to think.

The central idea of a conspiracy is the idea of a purpose, and in this sense conspiracy theories arguably represent necessary theoretical moments

The central idea of a conspiracy is the idea of a purpose, and in this sense conspiracy theories arguably represent necessary theoretical moments. By trying to advance on a view of the cosmos as pure random chaos, a conspiracy theory is at least trying to put things together.

One of the lines used by QAnon is “Trust the Plan” but the plan being invoked here is not purely political but something more like a divine plan, smuggled into politics in an irreligious age. Battling the international cabal of evil, or what an older lexicon called the “prince of this world” is an opposing, quasi-Christian moral order, as represented by the indefatigable Donald Trump.

The thought is comparable to the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius composed by an anonymous cleric in the crumbling Byzantine Empire of the late seventh century, which imagined the Messiah as a crusading Roman emperor who will Make Rome Great Again by defeating her infidel enemies. This Messianic doctrine can be contrasted to the far more officially acceptable, and indeed institutionalized, but no less conspiratorial, paranoid and unfalsifiable neo-Gnostic theories of “systematic racism” which similarly attempt to conceive secular conceptions of evil in the absence of God, which from a religious perspective ironically is evil itself, and this summer helped to provoke rioting across America.

Ultimately the question to ask of conspiracy theories is the same question to be asked of any theory: not whether it is conspiratorial, but whether it is good, in terms of its internal plausibility, its ethical consistency, the extent of its surrender to fantasy, and how intimately it is capable of understanding the enemy. The problem in other words is not exactly to refute conspiracy theories, but to create better conspiracy theories, perhaps along the lines of the legendary Rosicrucian Brotherhood which enchanted the imagination of war-torn seventeenth century Europe with with tales of a mysterious initiatic society devoted only to moral and spiritual good.

And here one should recognize one of the most under-looked elements of the appeal of conspiracy theories: they are entertaining. Any sufficiently incompetent administration is indistinguishable from malice. Better, in a way, to entertain the idea that the world is run by sinister rituals orchestrated by Sadean vampires then face the possibility that its managers are merely weak and thoughtless individuals, pursuing motives that aren’t elaborately malevolent, but only incomprehensibly banal.

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