What is the connection between Ignatius of Loyola, Miley Cyrus, Bertrand Russell, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Aldous Huxley, Stanley Kubrick, Ozzy Osbourne, Nathan Rothschild, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama and Aleister Crowley?
The answer is that many people, a surprising number in fact, believe all of these people to be agents (either willing or unwilling) of a centuries-spanning plot to rule the world. The people who believe this are conspiracists.
It is important to distinguish conspiracists from ‘mere’ conspiracy theorists. All conspiracists are conspiracy theorists, but not all conspiracy theorists are conspiracists. Conspiracism implies something much grander than thinking that, for instance, that the mafia may have killed JFK, or that MI6 killed Princess Diana. Conspiracism is an ideology, a comprehensive system (or rather group of systems) for understanding the world, containing features both of a politics and of a religion. It encompasses theories of politics and power, beliefs about the supernatural, ideas about history, of culture and of the arts. It has its own subculture and its own economy.
Most attempts to understand conspiracism come at it from one of two angles; either that of psychology, or that of political science. The psychological argument is that conspiracy theories exist because of the human need to impose narrative on a chaotic and disordered world; and more subtly, that they seem to proliferate today largely because of the collapse of belief in traditional religion. However, conspiracism predates this collapse, and the psychological argument runs into the same problems as psychological explanations for the belief in religion; that is, why we may be able to posit ideas about why people believe in religion, it is more difficult (given the many and various forms religion takes) to understand why people believe in a specific religion, or to understand religion (and its role in culture and history) on anything but the most superficial and facile level. Thus it is with conspiracism; we are looking at an assortment of ideas and beliefs that are by no means random and disconnected from each other, but are in fact rooted in a common historical reality. The other approach, perhaps best typified by Richard Hofstadter’s influential essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, sees conspiracism more as a sort of overlay or filter that can be applied to other ideologies, rooted in similar psychological or sociological forces. Hofstadter writes that the ‘paranoid style’
“…is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon…a persistent psychic complex.”
This serves to obscure a number of very important facts about conspiracism, in the sense that we are discussing here. Most crucially, it obscures the fact that conspiracism is a political ideology and intellectual current in and of itself; it also mystifies the intimate connections of conspiracism to the wider intellectual milieu of the Western world.
This is not to say, of course, that all the features of conspiracism are entirely distinct unto itself, or that it does not serve a psychological purpose for its adherents. It is not to say that, for example, irrationality and paranoia are absent from other political systems, though we shall attempt to advance a definition of conspiracism that does not rely on irrationality or paranoia as key features. One of the reasons why it is important, as we have stated, is to draw a distinction between conspiracism and any belief in conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theories can emerge under any politics. Stalin was a prominent conspiracy theorist, but he was no conspiracist.
So what do we mean by conspiracism? Conspiracism, as with any ideology, covers a spectrum of imperfectly overlapping ideas. Just as we may find Christians or Marxists or neoliberals who vehemently disagree with each other, so we may find conspiracists who denounce their fellows. However, there are enough common features that the term is far from meaningless.
The most obvious core shared feature that defines conspiracism is belief in what I shall call the ‘Cabal’. The Cabal are the conspirators, the secret rulers or masters of the world. They may consist of open public figures, shadowy agents controlling these figures (perhaps supernatural) or a mixture of both. The Cabal have enormous hidden control over the entire world, or most of it, via finance, media, politics, corporations, courts, police and other more esoteric methods. True power in the world is either absolutely centralised within the Cabal, or is in the process of becoming so, and directed by them towards careful and conscious ends; an ongoing transformation of society, elimination of resistance, and consolidation and extension of power. Even if the Cabal do not have obvious supernatural powers at their disposal, they still almost always have access to certain superhuman capacities (particularly superhuman foresight). The eventual end-point of the Cabal’s plan often involves mass slaughter and human rights abuses. Since the power of the Cabal is absolutely unipolar, one of their key aims, almost always, is to unite the world under a single government.
To facilitate their plans, the Cabal use a second common feature, the construction of a false reality. This false reality, which is created (amongst other means) through media, through institutions of learning, through mass brainwashing and through staged events, is designed to distract people from realising that the Cabal exists and what their purpose is, and to help actualise their schemes. The only people capable of penetrating this false reality are conspiracists, who have ‘awakened’ from their artificially induced slumber. They are guided by the apparently incurable habit of the Cabal to leave esoteric symbols within its works, and to offer clues to its plans. This is either conceived as being an element of the Cabal’s secret religion, a necessary magical or psychological element of their control techniques, or simply evidence of their supreme confidence and arrogance. The identification and decoding of these symbols is a task pursued ardently by many conspiracists, often with extreme ingenuity. Often, conspiracists may believe that other conspiracists whose beliefs do not entirely match their own are either only partially awakened or have been deceived by a more subtle layer of the false reality. The more of these ‘layers’ that are penetrated by a conspiracist, the more grandiose, even cosmic, their conception of the Cabal and its schemes tends to become.
Since power is centralised under the Cabal, conspiracists tend to believe that conventional political distinctions, such as those between the left and the right, do not exist, that they are an element of ‘controlled opposition’ designed to provide the illusion of choice to the masses who are under the sway of the Cabal, and generally they view themselves as existing outside of politics, beholden to no ideology but the truth. In fact, as we shall see, even though individual conspiracists may espouse a worldview that is more liberal or left wing, conspiracism as a whole has a strong tendency towards and affinity for positions that are generally categorised as being right wing, owing partly to consequences of its beliefs and partly to the weight of its intellectual heritage. One of the strongest features that draws conspiracism rightwards is an inherent anti-modernism. Since conspiracists generally believe that the Cabal has tightened its grip on the world most strongly since the 19th century, all features of western culture that have emerged since then are suspect. Even apparently ‘hippie’ conspiracists are often, for example, strongly concerned with ideas such as distinct gender roles and the importance of the nuclear family, and express a reactionary disdain for ‘ugly’ modern and post-modern cultural productions, and for academic and philosophical tendencies such as feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, post-colonialism and so on. Their belief in the Cabal makes them isolated from the critiques of power central to the ideologies of the radical left; for the conspiracists, power is not produced by history, power produces history. Though it is possible to transition from, for example, a Marxist understanding to a conspiracist one (as in the intellectual journey of the LaRouche movement), it is much more difficult to transition the other way. Despite their differing ideas on specific timelines of the Cabal’s operations, my research so far has found no conspiracists whatsoever who do not view Marxism as being part of the ‘grand design.’ Other socialist thinkers, as well as the left libertarians, generally emerge more unscathed, though often through apparent ignorance; some conspiracists do hold positive opinions of Bakunin and Kropotkin specifically, but this must be taken in the context of broader attempts to appropriate these figures by the libertarian right. Specific right wing movements are criticised, particularly neo-conservatism and fascism, though it is also common to try and prove some connection between these ideologies and Marxism.
Finally, though this is not always clear, conspiracism is defined by a certain very specific sort of orientalism. The ideology of the Cabal is perceived as being ‘foreign’, in some deep way, to the ‘natural’ (this means invariably Western) order of things, and they generally seek to create a society that closely resembles the orientalist view of ‘the East’; mystical, heavily controlled, hierarchical, cruel and static. The ultimate origins of the Cabal (when they are not more fancifully rooted in Atlantis, Lemuria, Alpha Draconis etc.) are almost always placed as somewhere in the middle East; Egypt, Babylon, Palestine (either directly or via the Jewish diaspora), Sumer etc. Even the more supernatural versions of the Cabal tend to have made their first earthly strongholds in this area, or else further East, for example in India (though they must still use the Middle East to invade Europe). Naturally, it follows on from this that the conspiracist worldview is intensely Eurocentric.
We can develop a still more clear understanding of the conspiracist worldview by studying its intellectual history. This history is, in fact, almost as grand in scope (and curiously parallel in some ways) to the conspiracist’s history of the Cabal. The roots of conspiracism are buried deep in what Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke describes as the ‘ancient Hellenistic sources of Western Esotericism’; specifically Hermeticism, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Particularly of note is the Gnostic belief in the demiurge, a false deity who has created the physical world in order to blind people to a higher, truthful spiritual reality. Indeed, although most conspiracists express disdain for the ‘mystery religions’, which they see as intimately connected to the Cabal and its aims, they are themselves more or less part of the same tradition, and the archetype of lone scholars or groups of scholars poring over obscure information, teasing out hidden patterns to uncover an ultimate truth is as true for them as for the alchemists.
However, it is important not to overstress this aspect of conspiracism’s make-up. A more down-to-earth heritage can be traced through the medieval witch hysterias, and through the concurrent development of ideological anti-Semitism, which has been fingered by many writers as the ultimate wellspring of modern conspiracism. Certainly, the prevalence of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories historically means that, even when conspiracists are not overtly or covertly anti-Semitic (which a sizeable minority are) their beliefs often contain anti-Semitic elements, and the make-up of many versions of the Cabal often include a disproportionate Jewish element. Once again, however, it is important not to overstress this facet. Although modern anti-Semitism (as well as inimical feelings towards freemasonry and the Jesuits, two other traditional pillars of the Cabal) had developed throughout the 17th and 18th century, the true emergence of modern conspiracism came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, more or less as part of the reaction against the French revolution. The ur-text is often identified as John Robison’s 1797 opus Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies. This was the first widely read text to identify the Illuminati by name. At around the same time, Christian millenialists were developing an interpretation of the Revelation of John the Divine as an ‘end times prophecy’ that placed the implementation of a one-world government, ruled by the antichrist, as a necessary and inevitable step preceding the second coming.
From this point on, charting the development of the conspiracist worldview in detail becomes difficult, as more and more ideas accumulate, evolving and feeding off each other. Banking conspiracies (often centered around the Rothschilds) and later concern about Zionism added a renewed anti-Semitic element, as did the various documents and ideas that would eventually culminate in the publication in 1903 of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which would, until anti-Communist feeling came to ascendancy in the West in the 1950’s, cause anti-Semitism to eclipse almost all other influences in the construction of the Cabal. This forged document, which purports to be the minutes of a meeting in which Jewish leaders lay out their plan for world domination (in fact assembled piecemeal from various 19th century sources, one overtly satirical, probably by the Russian secret police) is so important a foundational text for modern conspiracism that it is often accepted even by those who deliberately eschew anti-Semitism, who can suggest, for example, that it was created by the Cabal partly as ‘revelation of the method’ and partly to deflect suspicion on to the Jews.
As we have said, in the early cold war period, anti-Communism, particularly under the influence of the John Birch society and similiar organisations, began to exert an increasing influence on conspiracism. A resolute cultural vampire, conspiracism has since managed to simultaneously assimilate and repudiate multiple social phenomena, particularly aspects of the ‘new age’, eventually developing into its present form. Charting the specific evolution in more detail at this point becomes increasingly complex, and is best perhaps left for another time. The major shift from a contemporary perspective has of course been the large-scale shift of conspiracist activity to the internet, which has broadened the access to conspiracist materials massively, and has swelled the ranks of conspiracists whilst simultaneously highlighting the fracturing of conspiracism into a number of distinct strands. At the same time, however, certain features and ideas have become strengthened, and shared more broadly as gospel.
The three main schools of modern conspiracism (though there are countless others) can be broadly defined as the ‘rationalist’, ‘Christian’ and ‘mystical’ schools. I am choosing to represent these on a Venn diagram because there is no clear boundary, and indeed considerable overlap between the three, beyond their overarching common features. There are also many subtypes within the different schools.
Realist conspiracism is defined, broadly, by its lack of concern with overtly supernatural forces. Realist conspiracists may still believe that the Cabal follow a secret esoteric or Satanic religion, but they do not believe this religion grants them access to any superhuman entities. They may believe that the Cabal’s magic has an effect, but this effect is seen as a naturalistic psychological one. Their Cabal is mostly a technocracy, heavily peopled with organisations that have recognisable real world power or influence, particularly internationalist groups; the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the European Union, the Bilderberg Group etc. The methods the Cabal uses are physical in nature; drugging via vaccines, fluoridation, chemtrails and adulterated food, assassinations, fake terrorist attacks and so on. If realists do ascribe supernatural abilities (such as mind control or the ability to cause earthquakes) to the Cabal it will be through pseudoscientific methods like powerful radio waves, or perhaps some sort of esoteric technology such as orgone manipulation, though this is more a normal feature of the mystical school. Realist conspiracism is the most mainstream form of conspiracism, and often functions as a gateway to more esoteric forms. The most influential realist conspiracist currently is Alex Jones. Realists tend to be sympathetic with Christians, but often view Mystics as being disinformation agents designed to discredit them.
Perhaps the most traditional form of conspiracism, Christian conspiracism places conspiracist ideology on a theological footing firmly rooted in Christianity, often of a distinctly fundamentalist character. In Christian conspiracism, the ultimate power behind the throne of the Cabal is Satan, and the goal of the Cabal is to bring about the end of the world. There is a certain amount of theological tension caused by the fact that, generally, fundamentalist Christians believe the apocalypse to not just be inevitable, but eventually also highly necessary and beneficial, as it will eventually usher in the kingdom of Heaven. Christian conspiracists are sometimes resigned to the inevitability of events, but most still believe it is their duty to engage in ‘spiritual warfare’ with Satan’s Cabal. At the very least, it is necessary to save as many souls as possible from the clutches of hell. Satan’s wide-ranging powers to manipulate weak and unbelieving minds and shape physical reality in his capacity as ‘Lord of this World’ give an obvious source for the Cabal’s various powers. Although it has retreated somewhat from the mainstream, Christian conspiracism has a degree of political influence, particularly in the US; Pat Robertson is a (fairly mild) Christian conspiracist, who helped popularise the use of the term ‘New World Order’, and has enough political access that others have identified him as part of the Cabal. The Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and 1990’s was a direct result of ideas created within Christian conspiracist circles, and robbed Christian conspiracists of a certain degree of credibility, though within all conspiracist circles the stories of mass child abuse and sacrifice are still widely circulated as if they are true, and have been covered up by the Cabal. They tend to be distrustful of all other conspiracists who do not directly acknowledge Christian scripture, as they could easily be part of Satan’s forces.
Mystical conspiracism is the most diverse area of conspiracism, and can be categorised by its concern with the supernatural and ‘weird’ elements that are often associated with conspiracism in the public imagination; UFOs, crop circles, telepathic mind control, reptilians, shape-shifting, black magic and so on. Mystical conspiracists may believe that the Cabal is run by, or at least reports to, superhuman intelligences; these may be aliens, extradimensional beings, ascended beings from previous ages of the world, immortal magicians, or something else entirely. The Cabal of the mystics not only believes in magic, but has direct access to it. Some mystical conspiracists believe that the Cabal’s black magic rituals must be opposed through mass white magic rituals. There is some crossover between the mystics and other esoteric, but politically rather distinct belief systems, such as discordianism, which evolved partly as a parody of conspiracism. As well as ufology and other contemporary forms of mysticism, mystics borrow heavily from theosophy and anthroposophy, and are thus in danger of absorbing racist belief systems from these sources, or indeed from even more explicit Nazi occult texts, which exist in a similar milieu. The most famous mystic conspiracy theorist by quite some way is David Icke, who is a favourite target for denouncement as a disinformation agent by others, including other Mystics. Mystics are the most eclectic of the schools, freely incorporating ideas from the other schools when they suit them. They generally take the conspiracist obsession with symbolism (including numerology and extremely erratic etymology and word games) to its highest form of art.