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.