Here on this blog and elsewhere, I have written of my skepticism towards conspiracy theories. So what, you may ask, do I believe instead?
I don’t dispute that there are hierarchies of influential and wealthy individuals who disproportionately affect the lives of billions of ordinary people around the world. Nor do I deny that actions taken by those individuals can sometimes do great harm. However, I find it far more probable that such figures might be shortsighted or incompetent at what they do, rather than that they are knowingly carrying out a cynical and brutally efficient master plan in service of their own narrow purposes. Modern civilization is an enormously complicated network of interests, ideas, and planned and unplanned processes, any one of which can be altered by the vast number of variables – say, around seven billion – which direct them. There is simply too much going on, at the behest of too many, in too many places, for any single group of plotters to completely control everything that happens, everywhere it happens, and to everyone it happens.
It also strikes me as unlikely that a global community purged of all its supposed conspiracies would tilt back to an equilibrium of perfect peace and freedom for all mankind. You don’t need conspiracies to generate inequality, suspicion, and conflict; those can arise independently of any hidden cabal. And though there are certainly countless “secret”‘ organizations operating under their own private agendas, secrecy alone does not imply malign intent. In a 2002 issue of the left-leaning US magazine Z, Stephen R. Shalom and Michael Albert pointed out, “People often secretly get together and use their power to achieve some result. But if this is a conspiracy, then virtually everything is a conspiracy. General Motors executives meeting to decide what kind of car to produce would be a conspiracy. Every business decision, every university department closed session would be a conspiracy. Conspiracy would be ubiquitous and, therefore, vacuous.” Unless we want to live in a state of universal hunter-gatherer anarchy, it is inevitable that our lives will be in some ways be shaped by the directives of distant, anonymous others. Call that a conspiracy if you wish; I call it society.
The conspiracies posited by some theorists, all the way from Karl Marxʼs capitalist conspiracy, Adolf Hitler’s Jewish conspiracy, and Joe McCarthyʼs Communist conspiracy, to contemporary tales of JFK conspiracies and 9/11 conspiracies, are such sweeping orchestrations of corruption and coercion that to overturn them would require an armed revolt as destructive as the original conspiracies themselves. Paradoxically, too, the conspiracies we are said to be living under have been so poorly coordinated that not only have they been widely exposed and condemned, but somehow they have let recycling programs, seat-belt laws, punk rock, gay marriage, Bernie Sanders and the Internet slip through their webs. Even the most inventive conspiracy theories are pretty tame compared to the shifts and surprises of confirmed history. Phil Molé, writing in the social science quarterly Skeptic in 2006, adds, “[M]ost of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to discuss and disseminate this information.” Again, human affairs may be rife with injustices and imbalances, but the notion that they are being deliberately perpetrated by a few seems much less compelling than the evidence that they are spontaneously developed, debated, and muddled through by the many.
Nothing here means that you can’t still be vehemently critical of authority. You can, but you can likewise presume authorities are decent people doing their best for the common good – crucial qualifier – as they understand it. It makes more sense to target specific leaders for verifiable frauds or manipulations, like Wall Street brokers fudging the numbers or Donald Trump colluding with Russia, rather than to broadly accuse everyone above a particular status of being in on some sinister international racket. Doubting conspiracy theories allows us to better apprehend lies and swindles when they really occur. Resigning ourselves to the dead-end belief that a lying swindle underlies our entire social structure does not.
I subscribe to Karl Marx’ capitalist conspiracy theory. Surprisingly, Adam Smith, the founding father of modern capitalism, appears to have agreed:
“The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order [dealers / businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” (Wealth of Nations, Bantam Classic 2003 edition, p. 339)
“The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations [who makes the law?], while it prohibits those of the workmen . . .We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbors and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things which nobody ever hears of. Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.” (Ibid., pp. 94 – 5)