The most consequential false conspiracy theory of the last twenty years in the United States centered on fabricated accusations raised against the Iraqi state in 2002-3. These claimed that Iraq maintained secret stores of “weapons of mass destruction” intended for use against the West, perhaps imminently. Most versions insinuated the Saddam regime was involved in some vague manner in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks, putting it in league with its sworn enemies: the jihadi movements that at the time were doing business as al-Qaeda. That is what the vice-president running the U.S. regime, Cheney, repeatedly said. His president, Bush, just repeated the magic words 9/11, Saddam, 9/11, Saddam, 9/11 for months, until enough people saw the urgency of an attack on Iraq to allow a smooth start to the carnage. The claims were actively fabricated by officials and assets at several agencies of the U.S., UK and other national security states, by various client groups and allied journalists, and by freelance assholes looking to get a piece of the action. The fabricators of each particular knew they were lying, and they knew they lied so as to sell a planned, unprovoked war of aggression to the American, UK, and other western publics. A large slice of the political class, including near all Republicans and half the Democrats in Congress, adopted the conspiracy theory and voted to enable hostilities. The resulting war destroyed a nation, led to more than a million deaths, and accelerated the establishment of an archipelago of torture centers under U.S. control.
In short, the “Saddam-WMD-9/11” conspiracy theory was a top-down psychological operation conducted by state-based agents against the public, and freely trumpeted by nearly all organs of the U.S. corporate media. It was debunked thoroughly in real-time in the foreign and alternative press, and by UN weapons inspectors who had overseen the dismantling of all Iraqi WMD programs nearly a decade earlier. The narrative has been completely discredited, but rarely will you hear it referred to as a conspiracy theory, let alone a 9/11 conspiracy theory, which it also was. None of the perpetrators of the campaign have been prosecuted. They did not suffer, and most continued their career trajectories unhindered by their participation in this well-known crime. A few, like John Bolton, even got new turns at high office. Today many of the Iraq war conspirators — and conspiracy theory mongers — have been embraced by the Democratic establishment as heroic fighters against Trump. The same Democratic establishment always seeks distance from actual fighters and movements against Trump, which come from the bottom up and from the left (such as it is), because these are also movements more or less against the political status quo.
The most consequential American conspiracy theories ever were the Red Scares of 1919-21 and the late 1940s and early 1950s. Both met with a degree of popular enthusiasm and broad fear-based assent, but both were initiated and run by state and corporate-based elements as top-down psychological operations against the public, specifically targeting the left, labor organizers, and journalists, artists, celebrities and teachers who showed insufficient anti-Communist fervor. Both of the Red Scare campaigns succeeded in transforming American society and politics in a right-wing direction, and helped in partly dismantling the progressive, leftist and honestly liberal movements of their respective eras.
A recent top-down campaign to promote an unfounded conspiracy theory, #Russiagate, presented a mythic (and facially laughable) explanation for how the Democrats managed to lose the unloseable 2016 election. Facially it appears to have been intended to weaken Trump, or to knock him out of office. If so, it backfired completely, presenting a fictional distraction from the far-worse realities of the Trump regime’s violent policies and incipient fascism, and dealing in arcane and trivial details remote from any interest held by the vast majority of Americans. Every time that the ludicrous and byzantine accusations fell apart (predictably, in every case), Trump’s position was strengthened, and that of real opposition to Trump’s barbarities was weakened.
Given the establishment Democrats’ failure to fight Trump on most points of actual policy; and given their embrace of Bushian politics and Bush-era war criminals, and of austerity and imperialism; and given their propping-up of a right-wing presidential candidate who has his own degree of involvement in Trump-style nepotism and is visibly suffering from cognitive impairment, by all applicable laws of American political science Trump would be cruising to reelection in 2020. Cruising, that is, except for the unpredictable outbreaks of Covid, of a new Great Depression, and of the organized fascist street violence that he praises. Beyond these factors, a real revulsion and active opposition to this regime’s particular horrors exists, and has never been surrendered. (If they lose, the Democrats will blame the real opposition, and are already doing so preemptively.) Thus, for the moment, Trump is well behind in the polls, despite the four-year favor to him delivered by the #Russiagate conspiracy theory promotional campaign, with its suffocating demand for 24/7 media coverage, its designation of enemies among any who doubted it, its predictable serial failures, and its denouement in the ill-advised Ukrainian impeachment strategy. All of these in the end served to strengthen Trump’s political positioning.
However, the #Russiagate conspiracy theory campaign has also succeeded, insofar as it has functioned to condition most Democratic-type liberals (and some of the left) to uncritically accept a xenophobic explanation for the rise of an all-American fascism, and insofar as it has gained much support among them for a bellicose, new-Cold War stance and widepread favor for censorship measures, run by private mega-corporations, to combat “propaganda” and “conspiracy theory” in whatever fashion the Internet giants and their dubious advisors (like the Atlantic Council and the Daily Caller!) decide to define these concepts. (If this goes on, guess how leftist publications will be defined. Wait, that already started years ago.)
It cannot be known at this time, but facially the “QAnon” narrative appears also to have originated with the action of a Trump-friendly political outfit, or with an intel operation, with the design of casting noise over a story that sounds like a smaller version of the QAnon plot, but is actually true. Trump, Bill Clinton and various celebrities and intellectual hooligans were all tied to the long-time human trafficking and rape-ring run by likely intelligence asset and “billionaire” Jeffrey Epstein. He was convicted long ago, and his co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell now stands accused. Their projects’s apparent purpose was to gain material for political blackmail, whether for themselves or unseen sponsors. Besides being a former long-time friend and sometimes visitor to Epstein’s parties, Trump appointed a labor secretary, Acosta, who as a Florida prosecutor made a deal to allow Epstein, convicted of charges that would spell decades of prison time for anyone else, to walk free in 2008. The deal ordered that records concerning clients of the Epstein rape ring be sealed, and that the unnamed parties be considered immune from prosecution. It’s fine to condemn QAnon, but when you spend your hours talking about how ridiculous and hateful and wrong that story is, you are not talking about Epstein and Trump and Clinton (and the various other Epstein “friends”). You are not talking about or acting on a million other things that are true and that matter. From the perspective of the QAnon propagators, you are helping to promote and reinforce their confusionist ruse.
America, like many places, is home to fantastically, facially false grand conspiracy narratives positing that the political economy (so evidently managed by a ruling class of owners and corporations and policy-makers reigning over large instituions, who act mostly in the open) is secretly run by a single, smaller, invisible cabal of satanically-inclined mystery men who just want to do evil because they hate America, or maybe because they want to destroy Trump’s beautiful white race. There are other varieties of grand-global conspiracy theories, which often pander to hateful or exterminationist politics. The latter kind are sometimes modeled on the old European anti-Semitic blood libel, or, in fact, repeat the old European anti-Semitic blood libel.
Grand-global conspiracy narratives can appeal to a common socio-psychological make-up that hankers for denial and magic and simplicity, for stories that attribute social ills and human troubles to a single corruption that can be theoretically excised, restoring a normality that never existed as it is now imagined. In this, they are akin to other quick-fix narratives, many of them based in religious dogmas (e.g. bad things happen because people reject Jesus and commit acts the Bible supposedly prohibits; or, to take a now-abandoned version, alcohol consumption is the true primary cause of social ills and prohibition can fix it). For most, the reality that their society is systematically rotten, burning the planet, and heading for a predictable fall, and that any change to this reality must be impossibly revolutionary or will amount to nothing, is much harder to process, above all emotionally. Saying such things also subjects one to accusations of pessimism, radicalism, cynicism, extremism, or, currently the worst of the lot, “conspiracy theory.”
I dispute the common pop-sociological trope that a significant number of people change their politics or prejudices or world-view as a result of being exposed to one of the global-type conspiracy theories. On the contrary, these narratives are more often devised and sold so as to aggrandize and manipulate already-existing political tendencies. People tend to believe what they were long-ago socialized and conditioned to believe, and they tend to see and accept what they already believe. Furthermore, as argued above, the most effective and consequential conspiracy theories in the modern milieu are rarely products of autopoeitic convergences of mass psychology. They have original authors who know that they are inventing this shit, like QAnon. More often than they are genuinely insane inspirations, they are the products of modern public relations and professional management of popular moods, or of opportunistic merchandisers horning in for a market share, like Alex Jones.
Granting that grand-global conspiracy narratives exist, the use of the phrase “conspiracy theory” in American discourse has always been rotten as fuck. Whether true or not, whether or not believable or grounded in evidence, any claims that attribute malfeasance to members of the American ruling class and policy-making power elite, or to the actual owners and runners of a system in which high-level crime was long ago legalized, is derided as “conspiracy theory” by the very same ruling class, power elite, corporate media, punditry, and liberal-authoritarian establishment. This applies even to routine and accustomed matters of statecraft and business, like the occasional assassination of an inconvenient head of state by his own security agencies, or the planned plunder of the banking sector in a mass bust-out operation, as in the years before the 2007-2009 crash.
However, claims that mirror the same kinds of narratives, but allege them against an officially designated enemy, are never called conspiracy theory. In fact, once the latter tales are circulated within the corporate news media, to question them comes itself to be classified as conspiracy theory. You are a conspiracy theorist if you reject the outlandish #Russiagate conspiracy theories. And, once called a conspiracy theorist, you are supposed to be automatically and forever discredited from participating in public discourse. Increasingly, you are seen as the bearer of a dangerous and highly contagious disease, associated loosely with all other persons categorized as “conspiracy theorists,” and treated as fair game for censorship.
In the above, I have sought to distinguish between two types of top-down campaigns that play upon the notion of conspiracy. The first type is the creation and promotion of official, quasi-official, and hegemonic *conspiracy theories,* such as the WMD-Saddam-9/11 narrative promoted by the government in 2002-2003, and the #Russiagate narrative about Trump since 2015. Although these qualify by any definition, they are never hegemonically termed conspiracy theories, even after they are exposed as false. The second type is *conspiracy panic,* meaning efforts and campaigns to promote official, quasi-official, and hegemonic over-reaction, condemnation, and political exploitation of unwanted conspiracy theories. Such panics target obvious red-herring operations, like QAnon, and other right-wing grand-global conspiracy theories. However, conspiracy panics also tend to label systemic criticism generally as the bad kind of ‘conspiracy theory’, the kind that merits contempt and even censorship. The two propaganda streams — theatrical panic about unwanted conspiracy theory on the one hand, and promotion of hegemonic conspiracy theories on the other — converge when rejection of a hegemonic conspiracy theory is itself condemned as unwanted conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy panic is a propaganda weapon that props up an overall portrayal of the mass of the people (and especially critics of the ideological hegemony, of whatever stripe, good or bad) as ipso-facto stupid, preemptively discredited, crazy, irrational, unworthy of participation in discourse, and potentially dangerous. Conspiracy panic nowadays is a go-to for liberals to deny and distract and divert potentially radical struggles into incremental bullshit. That way they need think less about systemic irrationality, falsehood, evils, and failures, and how most of the unfolding disasters — including Trump himself — are not aberrations or surprises but predictable products of the “American way” and the global capitalist system. It’s easier and more comforting to affect being appalled at the stupidity of QAnon (or the supposed millions who were moved to vote for Trump only because they saw a “Russian” post online), and to virtue-signal that you are different from the dumb right-wing patsies who eat that shit up, than to spend too much time being aware that the billionaire and corporate and ensconced policy-making ruling class as a whole — their names are known and plastered in the headlines — is by definition a predator class, professionally incapable of mercy, with overwhelming power over the rest of us, acting in ways that guarantee capitalism and its “ways of life” will continue burning the planet, literally, until the ecosystem’s capacity to sustain the present human civilization and population collapses. Which, speaking in historical lengths, is imminent, and possibly no longer reversible. Fight this anyway.
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