Must Read Essay on Capitalism and Conspiracy Culture
I Want to Believe, by Jarrod Shanahan, is a brilliant essay on the intersection between capitalism and the trappings of conspiracy culture. I’m not too familiar with The New Inquiry, but I give them credit for being willing to engage this topic.
The essay is in two parts. You’ll have to click the first link for the whole thing, but below I’ve included the first part.
from I Want to Believe
My old co-driver Nick and I would pass the time on interstate furniture deliveries by assessing the incipient mass movements taking off around the world. We debated the potential of the Arab Spring, Occupy, anti-austerity strikes in Europe, daily wildcats in Chinese factories, and other tantalizing glimpses of working class self-activity. And before long, we always reached the same impasse.
“I agree with you” he’d object, “but how can you expect everyday people to get behind all this?”
“Well, you’re just a truck driver” I’d reply with a smile, “and you seem to know what’s up.”
One day a new co-worker sat grumpily wedged between us, saying nothing as our usual debate took shape. He grew increasingly agitated as we argued, and at long last became unable to stifle his perplexity.
“You guys do know that the world is controlled by a dozen families, right?” he asked us. “Ever hear of the Rothschilds? They run the economy and tell all the governments what to do. Experts agree.”
Nick and I learned that the global political order is coordinated by a tiny cabal whose tentacles extend to every aspect of society—political power, the production of cultural goods, and especially commerce, their center of activity. Centuries of war, social upheaval, euphoric boom and cataclysmic bust have all unfolded at the behest of this shadow government. Never mind the pageantry of national sovereignty; never mind the illusion of government by the people; and never mind the wiles of particular captains of industry. A hidden structure prefigures these institutions and fixes their course. The perpetrators of this worldwide coterie are a nefarious group of billionaire bankers with untold powers, before whom heads of state cower and fortunes are made and dashed. They are the notorious Illuminati. And nothing anyone, especially a few penniless truck driving nobodies, could ever do could possibly change this.
Familiar as Nick and I were with this tired old canard, and especially wary of the xenophobia and anti-Semitism with which it typically comes packaged, we were still intrigued—and slightly appalled—by the amount of this narrative with which we could actually agree.
Begrudgingly, we conceded that in the present, human events unfold within a limited set of possibilities, and that there is in fact a tenuous global order. We admitted that the actions of sovereign states, the decisions of participatory democracies, and the interplay of “free” enterprises are in fact predetermined by a logic which they cannot defy in their present form, lest it undermine and ultimately destroy them. And while we of course recognized that individuals or groups may wield immense power, take actions with beneficent or disastrous consequences, and create vast masturbatory displays of their own wealth and power, they can only do so under the compulsion of a power higher still. And among the world’s poor, individuals acting as such are powerless, with their powerlessness’ apotheosis in misguided martyrdom or impotent political violence.
As a point of divergence, however, we insisted that this higher power is ultimately not human, no more than it is divine. It has been called many names over the years, but it’s simply the necessity for capital to accumulate, and for capitalism to expand, destroying all barriers which stand in its way, and incorporating all extant social forms into its own reproduction or else wiping them out. Beheading the king, as they say, we maintained that this process is not exactly executed by, but more specifically through humans, whom it forms as subjects through their daily work and behind their backs. As such they are subjects who do not determine this rationality, but only serve to make it function more effectively, and reproduce its material existence. The prefigured roles for humans to act out their will in the world fix them within strict parameters which do not challenge capital. Outside of this is outside of the law, and in the minds of many, outside of the imaginable.
In short, we informed our friend, there are no Rothschilds necessary, nor even possible. At this stage in its historical development, the conspiring businessmen and heads of state are merely vectors through which capital expands, expropriates, and encloses. Particular human actors have a choice to play by these rules or be cast aside, to be replaced by others just like them. Shadowy cabals meet in broad daylight at international summits, as Chomsky is apt to remark, and their meetings are terrifically boring. And the symbol of this “New World Order” is emblazoned on the dollar bill alright, but there’s no need for symbolic decoding.
For maximum effect we set about prodding the rawest nerve of the modern mind’s bad conscience–the destruction of our ecosystem. A conspiratorial shadow government, Nick and I maintained, would never allow for the planet to destroy its potable water, poison its air, destabilize its climate, and harken an age of flooded coastal cities and apocalyptic super-storms. After all, what is a throne but a plank with red velvet? Even the Rothschilds need air and water.
To face the possibility, we concluded, that the international ruling class is nothing more than the wealthiest representatives of a species dominated by forces outside of its control, is to admit that there’s no way out of eminent catastrophe without collective action capable of radically altering the very structure of society. Individuals, we conceded, are powerless as such. But classes are not. And like good conspiracy nuts, Nick and I added, “we know it sounds crazy,” but our version of events has the advantage of being the truth.
“You guys have a depressing view of the world” our new friend concluded, returning to silence.