Conspiracism in the Age of Neoliberalism (Book Review)

By Steve Ellner – Oct 23, 2020

CONSPIRACY AND CONSPIRACY THEORY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP. Conspiracies do exist, though not of the sort that Alex Jones of Infowars and his ilk talk about. There was a conspiracy, for instance, to assassinate JFK. Capitalist rule on a day by day basis, however, counts on more subtle mechanisms. The issue of conspiracies and conspiracy theory has important implications and has been raised in the debate over Marxist theories on the state, such as in the Miliband-Poulantzas debate. The following is a book review essay of mine  published by Science and Society. It’s on the book “Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theory in the Age of Trump” by Daniel Hellinger” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Published in Science and Society Vol. 84, No. 4, October 2020, 536–545

Outlandish conspiracy theories fabricated by the far right have generated distrust in the federal government per se as well as racism, anti-Semitism and ethnic phobias. At the same time, however, far-right news outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart News use the term as a pejorative to dismiss and mock the denunciations formulated by liberals and leftists regarding the role of big money in politics. The conspiracy theory tag has even been attached (by the New York Times, among others) to books which question the veracity of the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination, despite the fact that a majority in the U.S. agree with their thesis. Within the left, the conspiracy theory label has also been employed, as occurred in the debate over Marxist theories of the state initiated by Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas in the 1970s. The degree to which conspiracy theory is relevant to that debate partly depends on the way the term is defined, as will be discussed in this essay.

In the book under review, Daniel Hellinger points out that conspiracy theories have spiked over the last two decades, not only among right-wing zealots on the margins but rational analysts such as Paul Krugman, who nevertheless deny that their arguments can be characterized as such. Indeed, Hellinger demonstrates that conspiracy theory is more than just right-wing babble. The wider scope that he brings to the discussion of conspiracy theory and conspiratorial actions is facilitated by a broader definition of the phenomenon than what is usually formulated. Whereas most analysts define conspiracy as involving the nefarious, secretive and illegal actions of a relatively small group, Hellinger denies that it excludes legal activity.

In a more general sense, the heightened use of conspiracy theory compels those on the left to examine definitions and make distinctions between “rational skepticism” (such as the questioning of the Warren Report – Runciman, 2016) and irrational thinking consisting of implausible conspiracy theories. Indeed, as one article in Jacobin points out, those who dismiss the “rational skeptics” as conspiracy theorists often “seem as prone to conspiratorial thinking as any adolescent dabbling in memes” (Mills, 2018). In addition to vindicating serious “conspiracy theory,” Hellinger sheds light on Marxist analysis of how capitalism works in the age of globalization, as discussed in the latter half of this article.

 Debunking the Myth of Conspiracy Theory as Tantamount to Paranoia

Richard Hofstadter, in his landmark The Paranoid Style in American Politics published in 1964, traced populist movements throughout U.S. history which he claimed were characterized by irrational behavior and were often underpinned by conspiracy theories. Since then, as Hellinger shows, it is Hofstadter’s assumptions regarding the deviant behavior of conspiracy theorists and their followers that have “most informed students” (45) of the subject. Hellinger reviews numerous subsequent writings that claim conspiracy theory “is for losers” (19) and induces “conspiracy panic” (38-73) and points out that the topic has been meticulously explored “in the subfield of political psychology” (13), which dwells on its pathological nature. Even for much of the left, conspiracy theory is “regarded as a form of ‘false consciousness’ that holds the oppressed class back from seeing the root of their exploitation in capitalism” (3).

Hellinger notes, however, that conspiracy theory is not always irrational. He then asks “If conspiracies exist, why do so many studies devoted to ‘conspiracy theory’ seek to deny their importance as political activities, or sometimes even their existence?” (47). In effect, Hellinger disputes the demonization of conspiracy theory just as Ernesto Laclau argued against the demonization of populism.[1] The pejorative use of both concepts opened the doors for pro-establishment writers to dismiss the seriousness of the arguments of progressive movements, leaders and writers – from Juan Domingo Perón and Hugo Chávez, in the case of populism, to writers exposing the influence of lobbies, in the case of conspiracy theory.

One of Hellinger’s main observations is that both conspiracy theorizing and “conspiracy”-type activity have soared over the last two decades, along with the pervasiveness of secret operations in the political sphere. He points out that conspiracy theory has been promoted not only by far-right lunatics like Alex Jones, but by members of the elite. Actually, Hofstadter also showed that ruling elites were the instigators of conspiracy theories from the Salem Witch Trials to the McCarthy-era witch hunts, as well as the claims about Bilderberg Group world domination formulated by far-right Republicans who supported the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nevertheless, there has been a quantitative leap in conspiracy theorizing over the recent past “across the political spectrum (not just on the right)” (p. 56). Never before has a U.S. president actively promoted conspiracy theories as does Trump, while Democratic Party leaders have indulged in the same, as in the case of Russiagate (Kovalik, 2017).

RELATED CONTENT: Behind US Elections: Disinformation, Racism, and Conspiracy Theories

As part of his broad focus on conspiracy theory and conspiratorial activity, Hellinger discusses in the chapter “Dark Money and Trumpism,” the “complicated networks” (p. 186) that facilitate the anonymous campaign contributions of powerful economic interests. For Hellinger, the “deliberate secretive nature” (p. 195) of this money flow is a key component of conspiratorial activity. He adds that the efforts to maintain the secrecy is sometimes overlooked (see also Mayer, 2016, 281, 305-311).[2] The Koch brothers, for instance, “have gone to great lengths to hide this [type of] operation, to misrepresent it as philanthropy” (215). Another reason why surreptitious activity along these lines is conspiratorial is that it is part “a long-term strategy to impact educational and cultural institutions” (186) as well as the nation’s Supreme Court.

Whether legal activity can be considered conspiratorial lies at the center of Hellinger’s attempt to redefine the phenomenon.[3]Hellinger makes reference to well-documented evidence of conspiracies of an illegal nature that right wingers and centrists brushed off as “conspiracy theory.” One of his examples is the role of the Nicaraguan Contras and the CIA in introducing crack cocaine in Los Angeles (Webb, 1998) that the establishment media dismissed, at least initially, as conspiracy theory. Unlike this case, it is not always clear whether dark money in politics, which Hellinger also labels conspiratorial, is legal, semi-legal or illegal. For Hellinger, the Koch brothers’ injection of hundreds of millions of dollars into politics is conspiratorial but “thanks to Citizens United, their political activity is not illegal, [even though]… it is deceptive and unethical” (195) and has a “sinister,  corrupting impact on democracy” (186).

Conspiracy Theory: Instrumentalism and Structural Marxism

Hellinger relates the increased prominence of conspiracy theory to “the global rise of neoliberal capitalism” (24) and “serious problems with liberal democracy” (26). He argues that conspiracy theories are nurtured by the tensions generated by globalization, specifically by “demands that the United States act in the interest of the global capitalism, not in defense… of the national economic interests” (148). Hellinger fails, however, to elaborate on the relationship between neoliberalism and increased acceptance of conspiracy theories. Examination of the relationship between the neoliberal model of capitalism (the structure) and conspiracy theory (“superstructure”) provides an insight into the issue. As David Harvey (2005, 70-86) points out, neoliberalism in recent decades has taken on the form of a political project based, not so much on laissez faire economics, as on the tightening of links between powerful business groups and policy makers, particularly in the area of economic decision making. The increasingly cozy relationship between government and business groups, sometimes referred to as “crony capitalism,” impacts people’s thinking.[4] Crony capitalism breeds distrust toward the state, and with it an unbending belief in conspiracy-type theories among people across the political spectrum, though it is most visible on the far right.

Hellinger’s arguments that conspiracy theory has become increasingly relevant in recent decades and that the use of the term as a pejorative is intentionally deceptive raise important issues related to the instrumentalist theory of the state.Instrumental Marxism and its main proponent Ralph Miliband argued that under capitalism the state’s actions and its very nature were the product of the direct input of the bourgeoisie.Nicos Poulantzas defended a contrasting theory in which the capitalist structure and not the actions of individual capitalists is the determinant factor.[5]

In its emphasis on the tangible links between capitalists and the state, instrumentalism was criticized for being based on personalism (by Poulantzas, among others) and for promoting conspiracy theory (Baltzell, 1969, 412). Detractors of instrumentalism including Marxists accused Miliband’s seminalThe State in Capitalist Society (1969) of containing an important element of conspiracy theory (Boyle, 1985, 723n119;Tietze, 2012). Non-Marxist instrumentalists C. Wright Mills, G. and William Domhoff adamantly denied that instrumentalism had anything in common with conspiracy theory (Sigler, 1966, 39; Gillam, 1975, 496; Domhoff, 1990, 69, 187; Mills, 2018).[6]Domhoff critiqued conspiracy theory on grounds that it exaggerated the qualities it assigned to the conspiratorial elite: its homogeneity, competence, utmost secrecy, the success of its operations, and small numbers (Domhoff, 2005; see also Mills, 2018).

The issue of heterogeneity versus homogeneity is at the heart of the discussion over the connection between instrumentalist theory of the state and conspiracy theory. But rather than focus on the “conspiratorial elite” as Domhoff does, it is necessary to look at the ruling class as a whole. Under normal circumstances the bourgeoisie is beset with internal tensions (thus its heterogeneity), as virtually all Marxists recognize. Fractions of the ruling class secretly “conspire” on a regular basis to advance their interests. Instrumentalists, however, unlike right-wing conspiracy theorists, do not believe that these class fractions as such aspire to achieve world domination as part of a grand scheme.

On the other hand, Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Societydemonstrated the cohesiveness and commonality of the capitalist class. In doing so it debunked the notion defended by pluralists like Robert Dahl (1961) that elite factions are in an ongoing state of sharp rivalry and competition with little to unify them, characteristics which are alleged to be the essence of U.S. democracy (Miliband 1969, 44-48). Ruling class cohesiveness is compatible with another form of conspiratorial activity, referred to by one media expert as “high conspiracy,” in which the ruling class and its intellectual servants know what to do in any given situation with no need to receive anything other than occasional tacit instructions (to be discussed below).

As a skeptic of conspiracy theory, Domhoff also minimized the secret nature of groups, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, that have been considered conspiratorial as well as the existence of a “shadow government” (what today is pejoratively called the “deep state”) that carries out illegal actions (Domhoff, 2005). Miliband, for his part, was far less skeptical about conspiracy theory and questioned the empirical basis of arguments that dismiss it (Miliband, 1982, 79-83). In essence, Miliband’s position is in line with one of Hellinger’s central, though implicit, points: For those attempting to counter pro-system writers who cry out conspiracy theory in order to discredit writings that expose the machinations of members of the ruling class, it is more effective to reject the pejorative connotations of the term than to deny its applicability altogether. Indeed, one may ask, what’s wrong with using the word conspire?[7]

Another issue raised by Hellinger that is relevant to the instrumentalist theory of the state is the relationship between conspiracy theory and neoliberalism. Hellinger’s discussion of big money in politics in the form of the Koch brothers’ campaign contributions would appear to be the way the capitalist system has always worked in democratic settings. The new element, however, associated with the age of neoliberalism is that with Citizens United and similar rulings and the emergence of Super PACS, politics has become flooded with dark money, which is anonymous and semi-anonymous but not necessarily illegal. Furthermore, Citizens United along with other developments, such as the weakening of the political influence of the labor movement, take the United States to the border of crony capitalism with its intricate nexus between capitalists and the political elite. These characteristics of U.S. capitalism in the neoliberal age enhance the appeal of conspiracy theory at the same time that they strengthen the cogency of the instrumentalist theory of the state with its emphasis on the direct political input of the capitalist class.

Final Reflections on Conspiracy Theory from a Marxist Perspective

Preposterous conspiracy theories formulated by Alex Jones and other right-wingers involve small numbers of individuals who carry out horrendous actions. The scapegoating of small groups (Jewish bankers, for instance) by conspiracy theorists who put forward a world view serve as substitutes for class analysis and for that reason (and others) is adamantly rejected by Marxists. Conspiracy theories of a more feasible type also envision decisions coming from elite groups but do not view these actions as part of a larger scheme to achieve world domination.

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Explicit commands are largely absent from the dynamic involving the normal reproduction of ideas. Throughout the book, Hellinger refers to Michel Foucault’s concept of the “regime of truth,” which distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable ideas, or “the boundary of acceptable discourse” (32). In what some media experts have called “high conspiracy,” “news agendas are tightly framed by more hidden forces” (Eldridge, 1995, 9) on highly strategic topics, but in most cases there is leeway. Rather than receiving orders of what to do and say from their superiors, journalists, teachers and politicians are instructed what to eschew, sometimes explicitly but usually by inference. Take, for instance, progressive schoolteachers. If they want to keep their job, they have to know the limits of what they can teach. Hints regarding those limits may be conveyed by the school principal – as opposed to the laying out of a particular line that must be articulated. The boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable or taboo are constantly changing, often as a result of pressure from popular movements. In addition, there are degrees of unacceptableness.[8] An example is the principled rejection of racism and misogyny which until the 1960s was largely outside the regime of truth in the United States and elsewhere. The boundaries have changed as Hollywood and TV networks now produce thousands of movies and shows about the injustices against women and African Americans in the present and throughout history. In contrast, little is said about the victims of McCarthyism and other forms of anti-communism. In a liberal democracy (unlike in a totalitarian state), “liberty” means, in effect, that the realm of truth is extensive, and that writers and artists have much to explore and choose from.

Marxism, and specifically Gramscian Marxism, provides insights into the political decision-making process, which serve as an alternative to conspiracy theory. The bourgeoisie as a whole is more cohesive and assertive than what is envisioned by conspiracy theory adherents who believe in the dominant role played by small elite groups, such as the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group. The bourgeoisie’s worldview is molded and reinforced by participation in exclusive social and political spaces and interactions ranging from forums to social clubs, as examined in much literature going back to C. Wright Mill’s The Power Elite. This common set of class beliefs obviates the need for explicit instructions to come from above, even while at times signals originate from diverse elite-dominated sources that tacitly indicate a given political line and slogans to follow. The distinction between this position and that of conspiracy theory is illustrated by the controversy around the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on the formulation of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel. While conspiracy theory would allege that AIPAC dictates U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a Marxist view would point out that AIPAC’s positions largely coincide with those of more powerful interests, such as the oil and arms industries, along with the ruling class in general.[9]

The discussion of conspiracy theory also helps frame issues regarding the political behavior of the middle class (or the petty bourgeoisie, as opposed to the working class). A simplistic conspiracy theory take coming from the left would argue that the thinking of the middle class as a whole is the product of the viewpoints put forward by the commercial media which has become highly centralized. In essence, a few people at the top are molding the thinking of the entire population, and the middle class in particular, whose thinking largely coincides with that of the bourgeoisie. A Gramscian outlook would provide different explanations and lead to different conclusions. Objective material interests help explain the positions assumed by the middle class, while its fears, anxieties and aspirations are also the result of its relations to the means of production and its location in society. The convictions and prejudices of the middle class would appear to be too ingrained and ardently defended to be passed off as the product of sheer manipulation by the media. The process in which a revolutionary movement achieves hegemony is much more complicated and drawn out than just gaining control of the media and other institutional opinion makers.

Some conspiratorial situations involve small groups acting in secretive and nefarious ways on behalf of the ruling class. Even in these cases, however, the “conspiratorial group” often does not plan an action but rather “lets it happen.” Hellinger claims that it is “highly unlikely” that “the Bush administration allowed or made 9/11 happen” (60). There are, however, degrees of “letting it happen” which Hellinger fails to explore. Top members of the Bush administration evidently had some knowledge that something was being planned but simply failed to prioritize counter-terrorist measures (Clarke, 2004, 243-244, 256) partly due to their belief that a terrorist attack of some nature would be politically beneficial. Other writers have put forward plausible “let it happen” accounts of the role of the secret service in the JFK assassination (Prouty, 1992, 291-94) as well as the role of the police in the assassination of Malcolm X (Marable, 2011; see also Netflix’s “Who Killed Malcolm X”).[10]

In short, Hellinger’s book frames issues which are of great relevance for leftist, and specifically Marxist, analysis in the age of neoliberalism. The right profits from propagating fantasy-like conspiratorial tales which reinforce its worldview, while champions of the status quo use the term conspiracy theory to denigrate those who document the machinations of the ruling elite. For these reasons it is necessary to put forward a well-formulated analysis of both conspiracy theory and conspiratorial activity, and not dismiss the topic as the exclusive preserve of the right.

REFERENCES

Amin, Samir. 2019. “The New Imperialist Structure.” Monthly Review 71 (3): 32-45.

Baltzell, E. Digby. 1969. Review of The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today by Ferdinand Lundberg. American Sociological Review, 34: 3 (June), 411-412.

Berg, Kati Tusinski. 2012. “The Ethics of Lobbying: Testing an Ethical Framework for Advocacy in Public Relations.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 12: 2 (April-June), 97–114.

Boyle, James. 1985. “The Politics of Reason: Critical Legal Theory and Local Social Thought.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 133 no. 4 (April): 686-780.

Chomsky, Noam. 2006. “The Israel Lobby?” ZNET (March 28).https://chomsky.info/20060328/

Clarke, Richard A. 2004. Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. New York: Free Press.

Dahl, Robert 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Domhoff, William G. 1990. The Power Elite and the State: How Policy is Made in America. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

________.2005. “There are no Conspiracies” (March).http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/10/126.html

Eldridge, John. 1995. “Introduction: That Was the World that was.” Pp. 1-26 in Eldridge (ed.), Glasgow Media Group Reader, Volume 1: News Content, Language and Visuals. London: Routledge.

Ellner, Steve. 2017. “Implications of Marxist State Theory and How They Play Out in Venezuela.” Historical Materialism 25:2, 29-62.

Gillam, Richard. 1975. “C. Wright Mills and the Politics of Truth: The Power Elite Revisited.”  American Quarterly 27: 4 (October), 461-479.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kovalik, Dan. 2017. The Plot to Scapegoat Russia: How the CIA and the Deep State Have Conspired to Vilify Russia. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. New York: Verso.

Lundberg, Ferdinand. 1968 The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today. New York: Lyle Stuart.

Marable, Manning. 2011. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Viking Press.

Mayer, Jane. 2016. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. New York: Anchor Books.

Miliband, Ralph. 1969. The State in Capitalist Society. New York: Basic Books.

_________.1982. Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mills, Tom. 2018. “Can the Ruling Class Speak?” Jacobin. (October 14). https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/10/ruling-class-elites-conspiracies-antisemitism-marxism

Prouty, L. Fletcher [the inspiration for “Mr. X” in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK]. 1992. JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy. New York: Carol Publishing Group.

Runciman, David. 2016 “Are Conspiracy Theories Bad for Democracy?” (February 10). Public lecture sponsored by London School of Economics and Political Science.http://www.lse.ac.uk/lse-player?id=3373

Sigler, Jay A. 1966. “The Political Philosophy of C. Wright Mills.” Science & Society 30: 1 (Winter), 32-49.

Tietze, Tad. 2012. “Bourne, Assange and the Politics of Conspiracy” (September 10). Overland: Progressive Culture since 1954https://overland.org.au/2012/09/bourne-assange-the-politics-of-conspiracy/

Webb, Gary. 1998. Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.

NOTES

[1] Laclau’s central thesis is that the salient features of populist strategies are both the polarization and head-on confrontations that their rhetoric sets in motion (referred to as the “politics of antagonism”) and the efforts to unite people with distinct interests, values and demands (the “politics of equivalence”). According to Laclau, the politics of equivalence is what politics is all about (Laclau, 2005).

[2] One example of a writer who plays down the secret dimension embodied in conspiracy theory is sociologist William Domhoff , to be discussed below. In addition, pro-system writers who defend the activity of “interest groups” in the form of lobbying, ignore the secrete nature of much of their activity (Berg, 2012, 111-13).

[3] Hellinger discusses various features of conspiracies and adds that they are “illegal…or unethical” (23).

[4] Samir Amin (2019: 34) points out that application of the term “crony capitalism” should not be reserved to South East Asia and Latin America as it also characterizes the economy of the U.S. and Europe. He adds “in its current behavior this ruling class is quite close to that of the mafia.”

[5] Elsewhere, I have argued that the two Marxist schools of thinking on the state are not incompatible and that the term “in the last instance” to refer to the exclusively fundamental role played by one of the two dynamics (instrumentalist or structural) is misleading (Ellner, 2017, 57-58; for a different version of the article seehttps://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/13386).

[6] Another non-Marxist instrumentalist, Ferdinand Lundberg, also rejected the idea of “unabashed exponents of the conspiracy theory [that] all history is a conspiracy,” but recognized the occurrence of “single conspiracies” (Lundberg, 1968, 273).

[7] In writing these words and reflecting on the loaded nature of the term, I recall a political incident in which I was personally involved in New Haven. At the time of the Chicago trial of the so-called “Conspiracy 7,” demonstrations were held throughout the United States in early 1970 that were called “conspiracy” protests. By employing the term and claiming to be involved in a “conspiracy,” anti-war activists were mocking the establishment’s use of the word for the purpose of maligning leading members of the movement.

[8] Thus, for example, the reaction of the corporate media to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns demonstrates that for the ruling class, advocacy of “democratic socialism” is more acceptable than anti-imperialism, which no Democratic Party leader dares voice support for.

[9] See Noam Chomsky’s critique of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt who argued in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy that AIPAC defends its own particular interests and positions and that its influence in Washington far exceeds that of other lobbies (Chomsky, 2006).

[10] The public debate in the U.S. over whether President Trump’s coded and overtly racist remarks have contributed to hate crimes carried out by white supremacists sheds light on the issue. There are degrees to which those responsible for this type of atrocity are removed from its execution as well as degrees of intentionality. Those who dismiss any discussion along these lines as “conspiracy theory” ignore the phenomenon’s complexity.

 

(Steve Ellner’s Blog)

Steve Ellner

Steve Ellner is currently an Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives. He is a retired professor from the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela where he taught economic history and political science from 1977 to 2003. Among his more than a dozen books on Latin American politics and history is his soon-to-be released edited Latin America’s Pink Tide: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings (Rowman & Littlefield). He has published on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Steve Ellner

Steve Ellner is currently an Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives. He is a retired professor from the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela where he taught economic history and political science from 1977 to 2003. Among his more than a dozen books on Latin American politics and history is his soon-to-be released edited Latin America’s Pink Tide: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings (Rowman & Littlefield). He has published on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.