Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

It’s not the first time I have seen this particular meme on Facebook. It is rather striking and these days I see it (or something like it) perhaps every other week.  It involves a sinister looking, decrepit old man in a black suit, grinning luridly, affixing the camera with a furtive stare.  The background has been blacked out so that the man’s features achieve a heightened definition; the large-domed forehead, the few straggly white hairs which draggle from it, and the long pronounced nose.  Next to him are a few lines of plain white text which are equally striking in the dark. ‘My name is Jacob Rothschild’, the reader is informed. ‘My family is worth 500 trillion dollars.  We own nearly every central bank in the world.  We financed both sides of every war since Napoleon. We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.’  And then finally, with a sinister flourish:  ‘You have probably never heard of me.’

What is the point of this meme?  It presents you with a conspiracy theory.  Like most conspiracy theories, it seeks to draw you in with dark theatrics, to provide the sense of revelation which comes from the exposure of hidden sinister forces working inexorably behind the scenes, the invisible puppet master whose dark, gothic machinations are the real driving force behind world historic events such as global wars.  It delivers such revelations through the medium of a pure and pronounced antisemitism.  And, like most conspiracy theories, it also implies that vast swell of ordinary people are dupes of the conspirators – playthings of the powers-that-be – such that we remain blind to the forces which are really determining our existences.  That final flourish, that sinister but triumphant – ‘You have probably never heard of me’ – is both a reference to the ignorance of the man on the street who has had the wool pulled over his eyes and also an exhortation to finally wake up, to recognise the true nature of the conspiracy which is being played out always behind closed doors, always in the mysterious corridors of power.

Why is it effective?  Why does this kind of thing gain some level of purchase on the popular imagination?   To say the least, it’s hardly well thought out.  This particular meme (with its unequivocal statement of Rothschild wealth standing at ‘500 trillion dollars’) was unleashed in 2015. But that same year, the world’s total circulating currency was estimated to be 5 trillion by the Bank for International Settlements, while at the same time the US government estimated that the amount of broad money (money in any form) wouldn’t have amounted to more than 80 trillion.   In other words, the conspiracy theorists who were so enthusiastically weaving tales of Rothschild financial power had described that power in terms of an amount which exceeded the totality of the world’s money supply several times over.  In addition, in 2015, the Rothschild Group’s annual revenue was estimated at roughly 500 million dollars (compared with, for instance, the largest company at that time, which was Walmart whose yearly revenue stood at around 500 billion dollars). Last, but by no means least, according to Forbes magazine, that same year only one member of the Rothschild family actually made the list of the world’s billionaires – Benjamin de Rothschild – who was ranked at number 1121 with a net worth of 1.61 billion dollars.

A few minutes reading online would acquaint a reader with the facts and easily debunk memes like the one mentioned above, thereby revealing the sheer absurdity of the anti-Semitic claims being offered up.  But conspiracy theorists are rarely au fait with the facts.  Indeed, it is part of the modus operandi of the conspiracy theorist to actively dismiss them.  If they happen to stumble across a statistical survey carried out by a bank which estimates the world’s wealth in more modest terms than the conspiracy proclaims – well hey presto, that’s easy.  The Rothschild’s own that bank.  If one were to point out that no Rothschild is listed on its board of directors, nor is any Rothschild linked to its creation – well that’s easy too, the board of directors are merely the front which the Rothschilds have set up and which allow them to remain invisible and behind the scenes.  Forbes say that only one Rothschild ranks as a billionaire?  A no brainer, clearly the Rothschilds own Forbes magazine as well and are using it to disseminate their own forms of malign misinformation. Such reasoning allows for the type of dogmatism which is quasi-religious in tenor and works to inure the conspiracy against all and every type of factual refutation.

At the same time the conspiracy theorist himself or herself is relieved of any burden of proof vis a vis the actual conspiracy they are propagating, for if such proof were available for examination, the Rothschilds (or the Bilderberg Group or the New World Order or whatever else) wouldn’t be fulfilling their role as the dark and anonymous puppet master orchestrating events from the shadows.  As Jovan Byford notes in a worthy and comprehensive study of the phenomenon: ‘conspiracy theorists, by definition, deal with imperfect evidence: they are concerned with matters that are inherently secret and which the most powerful forces in the world are working hard to suppress. Conspiracy theories can, therefore, never offer incontrovertible proof’.    Because they know the ‘truth’, and they do so without any recourse to concrete evidence, debating with these people is an intriguing but surreal proposition; they all tend to have the same rather manic air, the same glow of otherworldly certainty in their eye; you have the strong impression that they are never all that far from digging bunkers in their backyards or carousing through the streets with a sign strapped to their chests, wailing and hollering that the ‘truth is out there!’

There is a scene in a Philip Roth novel where a young boy, the central character, discovers his mother has a secret sum of money saved up.  To his child’s mind the money seems like a vast almost unlimited amount; he asks his mother incredulously as to why she has it. She responds in a soft voice, she explains it is for when they (the family) need to leave.  The family – the mother, son and husband – are a rather ordinary bunch, quiet, decent, hardworking etc….and they also happen to be Jewish, living in the US after the Holocaust.   The mother does not reference pogroms or concentration camps, but the shadow of them is cast across her softly-spoken words.  The scene remains in my mind to this day because I found it so moving.  When one thinks of the 6 million Jewish people who were murdered it is, on some fundamental level, simply incomprehensible; the sheer dimensions of the horror repels one’s ability to gauge it, expect in terms of a clinical, prosaic and somehow inhuman set of statistics.   The event itself cannot be encountered directly, any more than one might directly encounter a Black Hole. Instead its true essence can only be glimpsed, hinted at.  I think that is why the exchange between mother and son is so intensely moving.   It provides a glimpse into the nature of the event and what it was for Jewish people living in the aftermath.  A feeling of something that can never really leave you.  The sense that even if the reality you are inhabiting seems relatively stable, that your day-to-day routine feels normal and coherent and ordinary and safe, nevertheless all of that can peel away in any given moment, revealing the cracks in existence and the ravening black maw which opens so suddenly underneath.  That sense of setting up a family, watching your children grow and go to school, getting to know your neighbours and your community, and yet always knowing at the back of your mind that the basic fact of your survival can never be taken for granted, that a time will likely come when you have to gather up your kids and flee into the night.  A sense of never being truly at home in the world.  It’s something contained in the soft whisper of a mother to her young boy and it carries an almost unbearable degree of pathos, for behind it lies the dark outline of an event which marks a suffering like no other.

Conspiracy theories in general tend to be crude and simplistic, more often than not reflecting the nature of the people who indulge them.  But when the conspiracy theory is mingled with antisemitism – as with the Rothschild rot – it represents a particular failure of the imagination, a particularly null and void exercise in dehumanisation. For it seeks to perpetuate a racial stereotype in which a group of people who have been so systematically displaced, persecuted and murdered are transformed into the persecutors on a global scale by way of a vulgar fiction which lacks any trace of humanity or self-awareness.  It is perhaps the most obscene of all inversions, the most perverse of all caricatures.

Why has antisemitism been such a dominant refrain in the formation of so many conspiracy theories? Well, for the following perhaps.  A conspiracy theory is almost never about the attempt to explain a particular conspiracy in isolation.   Rather it would be better be described as a world view; the endeavour to make sense of history more broadly by exposing and revealing its prime mover – the elite agency or group which is veiled and yet at the same time seems to have almost unlimited power and is thus capable of directing the stream of world historic events, channelling them in its favour.  For this reason, the conspiracy theorist needs to alight on an entity which has some type of historical pedigree, which has exerted its power over time. This is why Enlightenment era secret societies often find favour: the Illuminati, the Freemasons and so on.  These groups can be conceived of as having pulled history’s strings for centuries.

The Rothchilds too provide a compelling target in this regard. Their family name can be traced back to the late sixteenth century and their rise to prominence occurred in the late eighteenth.  In addition, however crude a conception of modern history the typical conspiracy theory mobilizes – it can rarely remain indifferent to the development of capitalism itself and the way a generalised market economy has more and more eroded and undermined traditional communities and the collective traditions and social bonds which hold them together.   Institutions like the Freemasons might have had their own ideological quirks and peccadilloes but they nevertheless acted as a powerful nexus which could help unite prominent small town businessmen with one another and thus facilitate capital expansion in the context of a rising bourgeoisie which lacked the network of patronage and bloodline the traditional aristocracies of old could always fall back on.

The way in which an emergent capitalism is facilitated by a rising bourgeoisie – the separation of the feudal peasant from the means of production on the land, the breaking down of the guilds and local tariffs of old, the creation of markets which more and more draw together on a national basis – such processes are often crystallised over centuries and are extremely nuanced, contradictory and complex. But what the conspiracy theory takes from them is the power of money in the abstract, before then hypothesising a semi-mythological entity which has an absolute control over the money supply (and the means by which it is facilitated in and through the activities of state and banking).  The complex historical processes by which a capitalist economy begins to attain shape and form from within the interstices of the old feudal world – the formation of new social groups and classes, new methods of exploitation and new modes of conflict – are dissolved in favour of a generic and transcendental power which operates behind-the-scenes and consciously and successfully manipulates and controls every population, state and class in order to perpetuate its control over the world’s finances and resources.  Concrete social categories and historical interests are replaced by an abstract and quasi-mythological narrative in which dark forces are counterpoised to the light.

But every potent mythology requires a foundation story.   And this, again, is where the Rothchilds come in handy.  The story runs as follows: Nathan Rothschild, the founder of the London branch of the Rothschild bank, was present at the battle of Waterloo where Napoleon and the French Army were vanquished.  Armed with the knowledge of the defeat, Nathan high-tailed it to England – galloping up to the coast of Belgium, boarding a ship in the dead of the night and braving churning, stormy waters, finally making it back to London in one piece before anyone there had knowledge of Wellington’s victory. He used what he knew to make a killing on the Stock Exchange, millions upon millions, and this became the means by which Rothschild capital was able to penetrate every bank, every state, and the Rothschild dynasty – constantly spreading, continually proliferating – was able to attain its hidden but iron-like grip on the levers of history forevermore.  In fact these ‘events’ were ‘revealed’ several decades after the Napoleonic wars in the form of a mysterious and anonymous pamphlet whose writer signed off as ‘Satan’.  Again, the anti-Semitic dimensions are writ large; not only in the sense of the Jew as ruthless and astute, prepared to risk anything in the pursuit of money, not only as a war-profiteer par excellence working from behind the scenes – but also that ‘Satan’ quite clearly taps into an earlier form of malignant anti-Semitism, that of the Jew as in some way demonic, as representing the figure of the anti-Christ.

Once more, when the anti-Semitic claims of the ‘Rothschild libel’ are scrutinised in any detail they collapse.  Nathan Rothschild was never at Waterloo. He wasn’t even in Belgium at the time.   He did not cross the sea during a great storm.  He was not the one to have brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat to London.   As a banker he received the news before most people simply because, like all bankers of the time, he had a network of professional contacts. But he received the news on the same day it broke in several papers.  He did indeed buy some shares and would have made profit on them once the victory had been confirmed more widely.  And yet, in this respect he was no different to many other investors of all different shades and stripes.  Above all, Nathan Rothschild did not make any type of fortune that day; indeed the people who made the real money were those who had bought government securities earlier, for a much cheaper price and in much greater number.    Eventually, the author of the libel who had written under the pseudonym ‘Satan’ was revealed to be the controversialist and crank Georges Dairnvaell, someone who also happened to be a raving anti-Semite to boot.

In the 19th century the Rothschilds were an immensely powerful and successful banking family, and what’s more, they were so on a global scale. There is no doubting this. It is the case that they made loans to major religious and state institutions; so, for example, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars they had worked with the Austrian government in order to stabilise the financial currency and had also provided loans to the Papal States one of which occurred after the collapse of Mazzini’s radical Republican government in 1849 (in today’s money the latter would have reached the 44 million dollar mark).   But while it is fair to say that the Rothschild’s banking enterprise provided financial succour to certain states and political institutions at certain points in time, many of the great banking houses of the 19th century were, of course, doing the very same.

Nor could the Rothschilds have orchestrated any of the historical events which set the basis for their financial speculation.   The economic convulsions in the Italian peninsula, for instance, were very much the result of a process of lots of different regions and statelets gradually beginning to knit together in a higher national unity; a unity which was also part and parcel of an independence movement struggling to free the region from the imperial grasp of Austria and France – two powers locked into combat with one another, desperately trying to deepen their own control over the territory through Habsburg domination in the North and Bourbon influence in the South.  While the Rothschild Bank was able to profit from such a historical phenomenon, they themselves had about as much control over this complex, bloody and protracted birth of a nation as they did over the weather. (That, however, might not be the ideal comparison to use in the presence of one of the ‘truthers’; in 2018 a council member of the district of Colombia – harnessing the very purest lunacy conspiracy theory has to offer – announced that the Rothschilds were responsible for controlling the climate too).

In the 20th century, Rothschild economic prestige went into a marked decline.   That was partly due to the fact that individual banking houses were ceasing to play the same role they did in the previous century vis a vis state investment.  The global wars of the 20th century had led to the creation of entities like the League of Nations and its successor, the International Monetary Fund; governmental organisations which regulated loans to foreign states across the board in a way which transcended the immediacies of localised and private commercial interests.  In addition, the rise of the Nazis decimated the business interests of the Rothschilds in Austria, seizing their assets and driving them into exile in the US.  A particularly ugly line in conspiracy theory flows from this: the Nazis expropriated Rothschild assets, and the Nazis later enacted the Holocaust – hence Rothschild wealth was used to fund the Holocaust, ergo the Rothschilds were the secret power behind the event.  Of course this is not only imbecilic but also obscene – once again shifting emphasis from perpetrator to victim – and yet it does serve to show how flexible and fantastical the strands which weave together in a given conspiracy can be. How in the hot, fevered mind of the conspiracy theorist almost any irrational convolution is possible, how the power said to drive the conspiracy can be implicated in almost any historical evil.

But perhaps the most important reason why the Rothschild business interests no longer have the financial clout they once did is simply due to the nature of capitalist production itself.   The conspiracy theory nearly always proposes that the power behind the conspiracy has an absolute control over the historical events it directs, but, in fact, the forces which drive the capitalist social system are often impersonal, blind and highly chaotic.  Millions upon millions of discrete economic actors locked into a perpetual and never-ending cycle of investment and competition which assumes the form and outline of a vast global market, a market which attains a ghostly and artificial existence over and above the billions of human beings whose activities set the basis for it. A market which sucks all those lives into its own inexorable vortex of boom and slump, crisis and crash as the decades melt into the centuries. The 2008 global economic crisis was not the conscious and willed product of any given governmental agency or elite secretive organisation and nor could it have been; rather it was the expression of the fact that the global market is largely unregulated and the system of production and distribution is compelled by the blind laws of competition and accumulation rather than being consciously and rationally organised in terms of specific and genuine human needs.

For the same reason, any given company is subject to the coercive and erratic drives of capitalist accumulation; today it might be carried forth on the crest of a wave, tomorrow it can disappear from sight, melting away in the spume.  It is true (as Lenin famously posited) there is a centrifugal drive toward monopoly (the more powerful companies of any given period tend to gain advantage and swallow up the smaller ones).  But in the same moment, blind capitalist crises actuated by the furious collision of companies and also the struggle of states in competition for resources on the world stage tend to shatter those larger blocs of capital periodically in and through global crashes and wars.

This is another reason why the very idea of the Rothschilds as a coherent and uniform entity which has persisted throughout the modern age is an entirely fictitious one; certainly in the context of the 19th century many of the people who bore the Rothschild name were, by and large, visible because they were integrated into a more or less single corporation with many different international branches.  But given the choppy, multifarious, complex and uneven currents of capitalist development, it no longer makes sense to speak of the Rothschilds as a complete and unified entity which a single and centralized pool of wealth.   As Dan Evon points out, ‘the Rothschilds began acquiring their wealth in the 1700s, and since then the family has spawned hundreds of descendants, so there is no longer any centralized Rothschild family wealth.’   Even when you have companies which were once founded by Rothschilds and still bare the family name, you often find that there are no longer any Rothschild family members sitting on their board of directors, as is the case with Rothschilds Continuation Holdings AG, a Swiss company that manages interests in many Rothschild-founded institutions.

Despite all of this, conspiracy theories seemed to have strengthened their grip on the popular imagination in the last several decades, a fact both depressing and fascinating in its way.  The destruction of the Twin Towers in particular, one feels, certainly energised the conspiracy theory with a whole new lease of life, one virtually unbounded by reason or thought.  Following the attacks, the Bush regime hastily prosecuted a series of vicious imperial wars, lighting up the Middle East in a fire which rages on today.  The conspiracy rationale goes that the Bush regime itself was responsible for bringing down the two towers as a means to secure a popular mandate which would allow it to reignite the smouldering conflict in the Middle East – which would allow son to complete the unfinished business of father.  The CIA, so the most common narrative ran, smuggled explosives into the basements of the buildings, with the aim of detonating them in the moments the planes hit – a controlled demolition job which would occur under the radar because the world’s attention would be concentrated on the exploding planes above.  Such a narrative credited the Bush regime with an almost supernatural sense of malevolence and foresight (as we have seen a standard feature of the conspiracy theory – the quasi-omnipotence of the power which sets it into motion).

And yet, in reality, the Bush administration was less than all powerful.  This was a regime which had hastily cobbled together a clumsy set of fraudulent claims regarding weapons of mass destruction.  If it had had the powers and foresight the conspiracy theorists attribute to it, the Bush government would simply have smuggled weapons of mass destruction into the rolling desert plains of Mesopotamia in order for them to be retrospectively ‘discovered’, thereby ‘corroborating’ its own fiction.  If ever a government had need to concoct a conspiracy, it was at that moment, for that reason.  But in actual fact, the Bush regime – both bellicose and bumbling – was incapable of affecting such a conspiracy even in conditions of relative isolation in a country faraway.  Compare that with the elaborate nature of the imaginary conspiracy the ‘truthers’ impute to the Bush government vis a vis the Twin Towers.  Here a sizable group of G-men smuggle large amounts of explosives into the buildings in front of the very eyes of thousands of office workers, cleaners, commuters, tourists, street sweepers etc.  They do this day after day or night after night, right in the city’s heart.  A group of them detonate the explosives on the day itself, on September 11th.  A further legion of government emissaries are responsible for removing all the evidence of explosives in the aftermath of the collapse of the towers and presumably even more are involved in the transportation and destruction of said evidence after the fact. But nobody ever speaks up, nobody ever confesses.

In the words of the late, great journalist Alexander Cockburn, the conspiracy theory generated from itself a network of ‘[t]ens of thousands of people, all silent as the tomb to this day.’   Cockburn punctured the conspiracy theories which surrounded 9-11 with lacerating wit and logical elegance, but there was a note of weary resignation which crept into his voice, for he understood that no amount of clear-sighted critical refutation would succeed in penetrating the mental fog of the average ‘truther’.  Why did none of the thousands of people involved in the conspiracy, or their friends, or the families ever say a word?  That’s easy, say the ‘truthers’, the government rewarded their silence.  Why did none of the people who saw the strange sinister spectacle unfurl in the run up to 9-11 never come forward? Another no-brainer, the CIA got to them – all of them – first.   There is no anomaly, no absurdity, no improbability which cannot be assimilated into the conspiracy theory narrative by way of postulating an absolute power which subverts any possible testimony in advance.   In a rather Orwellian way, it is the utter lack of evidence for the conspiracy which proves just how powerful, how far reaching, how dangerous the orchestrators of it – the CIA/Rothschilds/Illuminati – actually are.

Cockburn referenced something else of importance in his article.  For him, the proliferation of conspiracy theories was linked to a broader inertia in the political landscape: ‘Where was the American left in the campaign that ended in recapture of both houses of Congress by the Democrats on November 7, 2006? Was it in the streets, fomenting opposition to the war in Iraq? Not at all. The anti-war movement has been inert for months.’  The attenuation of active and widespread social movements which could transform politics on a practical level had also led to a reconfiguration in theory; whereas once leftists were more inclined to locate the problems of capitalism in the clashes between social classes and tendencies, ‘the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition’  – now the impulse was to discover more localised ‘rogue’ agencies which operated largely independent of broader social interests and attained a dark and spectral power therein.  History understood this way at once takes on a Manichean hue; a clash between light and the shadows; the ordinary, everyday world, and the sinister, all powerful agency or group which manipulates events from behind-the-scenes.

Beyond its almost cinematic flavour, beyond all its dramatic panache – this is, ultimately, a vision of despair.  When the forces of the mass movement are deflated and fatigued, when union strength is either subverted or corrupted by the development of bureaucracies and elites, when radical and revolutionary organisations are increasingly isolated and lost in space – the sense that structural forms of oppression and exploitation can be overcome fundamentally by the people taking politics to the streets and the workplaces feels ever more illusory and improbable and hopeless.  Conspiracy theory represents the translation of such a mood into a specific theoretical purview.  It represents a faithlessness in the masses, in the movements from below; the reason why the Rothschilds or the CIA or the Builderburg group attain such unassailable power on the stage of the conspiracy is because the power of the masses has dwindled to nowt.

For the same reason, the conspiracy theorist, however ‘left-wing’ or ‘radical’ they consider themselves to be, will always have an aura of Nietzschean elitism which surrounds them; they are elevated above the bovine and quiescent rank and file who simply imbibe the lies and distortions of those who mastermind the conspiracy – for they themselves can see behind the veil, they are the individuals who are not subsumed by the dull uniformity and drudgery of the herd.  Conspiracy theory generates a specific psychological type; the average ‘truther’ is someone who exists in the interstices of politics, who disdains political activity on the basis of collective action, whose wink-wink, nod-nod mentality is the expression of a person in the know, who has the inside track, who won’t be drawn into the absurd pantomime of practical struggle, because they understand – with the cynical savvy of a high-end grifter – that the deck has been stacked well in advance.   You are unlikely to find such a person chanting at a strike or clutching a banner on a march, but rather to discover them as a lonely outline before a flickering screen, connected with likeminded ‘truthers’ scattered around the world through their internet proxies, salivating over this or that pixilated black and white image of a smouldering building which purport to reveal ‘the hoax’, warmed by the knowledge that they and their co-thinkers are superior to the ‘sheeple’ – the ordinary, banal brand of worker-drones who continue to prop up the system and buy into its illusions day after day.

Be warned! These types more and more move among us.  They are awful hard to spot, but there is one sure-fire way to be certain if someone you know is one of them.  They always, and at all times, keep a copy on their person of the god awful sci-fi movie The Matrix.  For that is the secret code by which they recognise one another!


Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony