The Political Power of Conspiracies 

Photograph Source: Mike Licht – CC BY 2.0

The promotion of illusionary conspiracies remains a vital means by which the ruling-class throws sand in the eyes of ordinary people – a history taken up in Colin Dickey’s enlightening book Under the Eye of Power: ​How Fear of Secret Societies Shapes American Democracy (2023). In introducing this legacy of elite-backed paranoia Dickey argues that:

“At nearly every crucial juncture of American history… conspiracy theories about secret groups were deployed out of anxiety about those transitions and developments. At key moments when we have undergone major cultural or political shifts, fears of secret groups with hidden agendas are stoked to stymie and blunt the effects of those shifts. Conspiracy theories have also been a regular tool in maintaining and regulating how America will accept and integrate new populations, from religious to ethnic groups. Every time a traditionally marginalized segment of America has attempted to fight for equity, conspiracy theories have been used to suppress or curtail that fight.”

This weaponization of conspiracies serves to atomize and disorientate the working class. Conspiracies, instead of helping people understand the world, serve to occlude reality and erect scapegoating smokescreens that inhibit workers from uniting against their real institutionalized oppressor, capitalism. For this reason, “many… conspiracy theories originate on the right of the political spectrum—and are used to sabotage progressive change in favor of conservative, reactionary, and often outright racist, sexist, and homophobic ideals”.

Yet conspiracy theories “exist on the left as well,” and Dickey says that such leftish theories are defined by their tendency “to exaggerate existing power structures rather than inventing new ones.” And while it is true that some, less democratic, elements of the left lean towards a conspiratorial view of history, it remains the case that socialists have always had to oppose the lie that a simple class-based analysis of society represents a conspiracy theory in and of itself.

Secrecy Amongst Workers

Despite the existence of conspiracies, human history can be largely defined by the resistance of ordinary people to exploitation waged upon the by conspiratorial elites. For much of human existence people have been debarred from organizing independently and collectively to defend their own interests and were expected to accept the divine rule of their appointed rulers. Democratic reforms therefore had to be forcibly extracted from our ruling elites by the militant struggles of the working class. This meant that when workers did get organized, they had to do so secretly to avoid persecution. And it is this need for secrecy that ruling elites and their supporters have used as the raw material for spinning all manner of lurid conspiracies.

A case in point is the ruling-classes fixation upon the secretive rites associated with freemasons, a group of what were initially skilled stoneworkers whose clandestine organizing practices evolved as a means of forming “what were essentially illegal trade unions”. Organizing from the mid-14th century onwards, these early freemasons united to take advantage of the labor shortages caused by the Black Death. As Dickey explains:

“The true origin of the secrecy of the Freemasons originated from an attempt to secure better paying wages among the working class. The outlawing and vilification of such meetings came from the government acting on behalf of the church and the aristocracy. The foundation, then, is set here: when the public world is controlled by the elite, working openly to ensure an unjust world, those who want a more equitably distributed world meet in secret. And they are often demonized for this reason.”

As centuries passed, freemasonry of course adapted to meet the changing needs of its members, and by the eighteenth century it “had completed its transition from being a guild of laborers and artisans to a fraternal organization defined primarily by its secrecy and a love of esoteric symbolism and rituals.” And so it was that in a world dominated by kings and serfs, the secrecy associated with freemasonry meant they were well positioned to incubate new movements of (mostly wealthier) workers seeking to transform society in a more rational and democratic direction.

But freemasonry’s secrecy also meant that their furtively organized fraternities could easily be scapegoated for causing every revolt or uprising that upset the status quo. This was particularly true in the wake of the momentous French Revolution, which was quickly blamed on evil freemasons, or as George Washington put it, on “the nefarious and dangerous plan and doctrines of the Illuminati”.

By 1798 this handy excuse for belittling popular discontent had spread to the United States in what became known as “the Illuminati panic” – a panic which…

“…was born largely of a concern that the masses could not be trusted with philosophy. Those in power feared what would happen if the traditional loci of power were abandoned, and they saw in the possibility of radical democracy not progress but conspiracy. It was a panic of the elites.”

At first these elite-driven panics focused on foreign freemasons, and so homegrown masonic lodges (which were filled out by many members of the ruling class) “continued to grow and flourish through the early decades of the nineteenth century, and they were still seen as a well-respected cornerstone of American society.” But an exclusive obsession with foreign, mainly European, freemasons changed in the lates 1820s as popular anger, inspired by the unfulfilled promises of democracy, was turned more broadly against all masons. A widespread anger led directly to the creation of America’s first genuine third party – the Anti-Masonic Party. As Dickey puts it: “It was the first major populist crusade, spurred not by politically connected men but in opposition to them.”

Not coincidentally the Anti-Masonic Party’s crusade in defence of Christian Republicanism mainly spread throughout the northern industrial states, that is, in the part of the country where people’s lives were most degraded by new and disruptive capitalist forms of exploitation. And as part of this new populist insurgency, the intensification of anti-masonic propaganda served to fuel nativist trends by fixating on the existence of so-called devilish papal conspiracies: conspiracies which were further popularized in the 1850s by the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party — a secretive movement “whose general demographic profile skewed slightly more well-off than the general population” (much like Donald Trump’s supporters today). In later years the combined forces of these anti-masonic popularists and anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” conspiracists would join forces with abolitionists of all political persuasions in the fight to end slavery in those southern states where freemasonry had previously had something of a free ride.

The Slavocracy: Capitalism as Conspiracy

At this point, Dickey, in arguing that conspiracies shaped American history then overreaches somewhat when he asserts that the American Civil War was driven by what was known as the “Slave Power conspiracy”. In setting out his case for a conspiracy, he asks three rhetorical questions:

“Was the Slave Power conspiracy really a conspiracy? Was there, in other words, a secret, organized plot by enslavers that operated behind the scenes to dominate and control American politics and shape the nation’s history? And was such a belief driven by paranoia, or was it a simple recognition of the structure of the antebellum United States?”

And socialists, like many other well-informed commentators would answer no to the first two questions but yes to the last one – i.e., socialists (including myself) would affirm that the belief that slave owners exerted a decisive influence over American democracy should be interpreted not as a conspiracy but as the simple recognition of the structure of the antebellum United States.

Later, Dickey asks a few more questions. He writes, is the…

“…Slavocracy conspiracy just another term for capitalism? People with power are able to affect legislation and increase their power and wealth. Democracy is imperfect, and money buys lobbyists and public relations campaigns, and can sway the votes of politicians. This is distasteful, often corrupt—but is it a conspiracy in the same way as Watergate or Iran–Contra? Were slave-owning interests in the first half of the nineteenth century an aberrant intrusion into the workings of democracy, or was it just awful business as usual?”

And it seems clear that, yes, the Slavocracy conspiracy was just the type of “awful business as usual” that characterizes capitalist exploitation. Nevertheless, despite his informative questions Dickey continues to interpret the Slave Power thesis as a conspiracy instead of the belief of ordinary people that a slaveholding oligarchy ran their country.

Of course, without the benefit of applying a class-based analysis to society, many Americans did end up adopting a more conspiratorial understanding of Slave Power. A misunderstanding that was actively encouraged by the racistestablishment who were happy to use this issue to undermine the ongoing efforts of the working class to overcome ethnic divisions by organizing together in trade unions. As Dickey makes clear, this attack upon working class unity is intimately related to the prosecution of two particularly famous conspiracy trials that followed in the wake of the American Civil War — trials that were “used to blunt progressive change at a crucial moment in America’s labor history.”

Demonizing Resistance

The first of these conspiracies revolved around the 1876 trial of the Molly Maguires and the second concerned the Haymarket Trials of 1886. In both cases militant workers, fighting in defence of their lives, were maligned as engaging in anti-democratic secret societies. The Molly’s engaging in militant organizing efforts in their fight for fair pay and an end to their boss’s extreme violence within the coal mining industry. And the Haymarket Trials occurring at the peak of the labor movements first “Great Upheaval” which represented as an effort by the ruling class “to destroy the labor movement” – a movement which at the time was at the forefront of the fight for an eight-hour workday.

In each of these historic trials, the capitalist class used their power over the legal system to insist that it was ordinary workers and not the owning class who were the real purveyors of violence in society. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Furthermore, as Sidney Lens explained in his book The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit Downs (1973), we should remember that at the time when the Irish mine workers who stood accused of organizing as the Molly’s were found guilty in the courts “union leaders and unions were still subject to prosecution under the doctrine of ‘conspiracy’” such that the mine workers own leader (John Siney) “was indicted for this ‘crime’ in 1875.”

Instead of exploited workers’ focusing their anger upon their bosses, the ruling class have always preferred that workers do anything else other than organize (preferably nothing) and for these same workers to put their faith in anything else… ideally conspiracies. Here a prime example of the ruling class using conspiracies to deflect the working class away from organizing is provided by the activities of Henry Ford, an immensely powerful man who throughout the 1920s helped turn the Jewish community into the scapegoat for all the world’s problems. Notably, Ford’s paranoid ravings also helped popularize newly hatched anti-Semitic conspiracies that were swirling around the formation of the Federation Reserve — a troubling financial conspiracy which remains a mainstay of the far-right to this day. Dickey reminds us that:

“This increasing turn to a racialized form of anti-Semitism [at the turn of the twentieth century] coincided with two other rising forms of paranoia: fears of socialists and anarchists on the one hand, and a distrust of bankers and the financial system on the other. Both of these involved fears of internationalism. International anarchists and international banking both invoke a series of subterranean networks (one nominally subversive, the other nominally legal) that run through the United States (and other countries, for that matter), ignoring boundaries. And for American anti-Semites, increasingly it became the Jews, and not the Catholics, who best exemplified this.”

As part of this propaganda effort, Ford’s prolific publishing empire felt at ease popularizing the elite conspiracy that was imported from Russia as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here Dickey surmizes:

“Written for an audience of Russian aristocrats who benefited under the Russian imperial government, the Protocols is pro-aristocracy, and pro-monarchy; it attempts to not only identify Judaism with democracy, but also argue that there are worse things than authoritarianism. If we allow democracy to take its course, the Protocols suggests, it will degenerate into a perverse autocracy. We’re better off, paradoxically, by putting our faith in the repressive authoritarian governments that are fighting against democracy.”

In America these anti-democratic ideas proved immensely serviceable to the ruling class who remained enamoured by the anti-worker ideology of the growing fascist movements in Europe. “Populist nativism had been building for decades,” Dickey writes, “coalescing around various conspiracy theories involving Catholics and Jews, as well as international finance and foreign Bolsheviks.” This then led to a revival of reactionary ideas which were amplified by secretive paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan who acted “to brutally enforce the status quo” for the powers that be.

State Driven Paranoia 

With the conclusion of World War II and the eventual defeat of the Nazis, the capitalist class were now able to return their full attention to their ingrained fear of the power of the organized working class. Dickey explains:

“The fear of subversive Communists infiltrating the country would… enable two organizations that would—far more than anything else this country has seen—embody our fear of secret societies. These two groups were well funded, extremely powerful, and possessed vast secret networks that covered every square mile of the country. They operated with near impunity, they broke laws and attempted to manipulate the consciousnesses of law-abiding Americans. They sought techniques of mind control and saw the human mind as a battlefield to be dominated. And these two organizations, each in their own way, sought to undermine the basic principles and values of America, in pursuit of ends that were kept obscured from the American public.

“And while they used code names, dummy corporations, and front organizations, neither went by any names as baroque as ‘The Illuminati’ or ‘Freemasons.’ They were known simply as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Little wonder then that the eventual exposure (in the 1970s) of the CIA and FBI’s anti-democratic intrigues would make the working class paranoid, further contributing toward a generalized climate of fear that prepared the way for the Satanic Panics of the 1980s that served as a recent pre-cursor to the QAnon phenomena.

And here it is worth noting that in the case of the unwarranted public panic revolving around the alleged Satanic abuse of children, it is significant (although overlooked by Dickey) that a former leading member of the FBI who was obsessed by the Illuminati would play a leading role in the McMartin Pre-School trials. These trials revolving around the case which “would become one of the longest and most sensationalized legal battles in American history and would come to stand in for a whole series of occult conspiracies and allegations about day-care workers that swept through the country like a virus.”

The guilty individual in question in this case was the former Bureau Chief for the FBI in Los Angeles, a man named Ted Gunderson, who famously organized an archaeological dig beneath the McMartin Pre-School buildings in order to “prove” the existence of Satanic torture chambers. Needless-to-say no secret torture chambers were ever found because no children were being sacrificed. (This lack of evidence however didn’t stop talk shows hosts like Oprah Winfrey from continuing to promote this satanic conspiracy even after it had been thoroughly debunked.)

Solutions and a Question of Democracy

In terms of combatting the serious democratic problems identified in Under the Eye of Power, Dickey says society must focus on “understanding the psychological need that drives the conspiracist to seek out alternative stories.” And at various points Dickey succeeds in highlighting how alienation from the current political system can push people towards believing in conspiracies as “a simplified narrative to dispel chaos in one’s life.” This type of analysis makes a lot of sense, as certainly capitalism is quite adept at inflicting chaos on ordinary people’s lives.

But leaving aside explanations that tend to individualize the institutional causes of mass paranoia, the primary value in Dickey’s book lies in his ability to show how the widespread belief in conspiracies (particularly right-wing ones) owes much to the fact that the ruling class benefit from the promotion of such fictions. With this process of anti-democratic interference being aided by establishment politicians and capitalist media outlets who work symbiotically to allow political confusion to wreak havoc in our communities.

Now with the ascendance of widely held baby-eating conspiracies like QAnon and the far-reaching influence of far-right populists like Donald Trump, the “problem of conspiracy belief and paranoia has taken on a renewed urgency in the past few years”. But as Dickey correctly affirms…

“…these eruptions are never new; rather, they are part of a long-standing continuum. But for such moral panics surrounding secret groups to be successful, each one must be treated as singular and unlike anything that’s come before it, which is why they are allowed to be quickly forgotten as soon as the moment has passed. The history of American democracy involves a kind of deliberate historical amnesia, such that each generation can be free to imagine that the moral panic that grips them in their time is a new singularity.”

Elite-driven moral panics are therefore “allowed” to be forgotten by elite propagandists precisely because it serves the interests of the powerful. As Dickey adds, this process of forgetting is “an almost state-sponsored amnesia designed to treat each emerging moral panic as entirely new.” In this way each “new” conspiracy can be used “to moderate or prohibit social change, to resolve tensions inherent in the democratic process in the most regressive way possible.” This leads Dickey to conclude that this deep-seated problem needs to “be attacked not in terms of technical fixes by the media or Facebook, but in a wholesale awareness of how we approach the question of democracy.”

In searching for a solution to this problem Dickey states that “The point, to paraphrase Karl Marx, is not just to describe the world, but to change it.” This is something that Marxists would agree with. But Dickey unfortunately only calls upon his readers to hold on to hope and reject despair, because as he continues, “radical hope… is the only thing that has ever changed anything in this country.” This of course is partly true, but passive hope without a commitment to active organizing will get us no-where, especially if we are serious about changing the world by following Marx in striving to expunge capitalism from our lives.

So, in addition to radical hope, let’s do everything in our power to ensure that workers are prepared to strike back against the ruling class in the epic fight that lies ahead of us all. And let’s hope that ordinary people will succeed in dispelling all fear and conspiracies from our collective lives, so we can succeed in bringing about the necessary transition to a democratic and socialist world that is devoid of paranoia.


Michael Barker is the author of The Occult Elite: Anti-Communist Paranoia and Other Ruling-Class Delusions (2022).

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).