Must Read Essay on Capitalism and Conspiracy Culture

by lizard

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.

  1. lizard19

    here’s a key paragraph from the second part worth highlighting; it articulates something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now:

    The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple. Whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds, the conspiratorial mind clings to the comforting notion of a world controlled by a rational agent capable of exerting its will to guide human events. Somebody is driving this thing … anybody. To the conspiratorial mind we are not alone with ourselves, left to our own devices, which can be the most terrifying prospect of all. The conspiracy fills the seeming vacuum at the center of society, the paralyzing abyss beneath our flimsy facades of order, with a reassuring rational kernel. Beneath the purported chaos of a modern world seemingly driven inexorably toward its own destruction, a secret logic hums away, unseen, yet steering with the circumspection of a protective father. In this way the conspiracy theory is a secularized monotheism which replaces our dearly departed God with an equally shadowy intelligence serving the same omniscient function. Sometimes it even lives in outer space and knows what we’re thinking.

    • NamelessRange

      I thought this was a really great essay as well. Though, I think it should be noted that it does little more than psychologize, which is always something to be highly skeptical of.

      Say the premise that, “the conspiratorial mind clings to the comforting notion of a world controlled by a rational agent capable of exerting its will to guide human events” is a true one, in regard to conspiratorial minds. How do we test that? How do we verify that this is actually the cause of the beliefs many “conspiracy theorists” hold to be true?

      This is a problem with psychologizing. Note the conspiracy theorist can do the same damn thing, filling in then God-void with what they see as modern man’s epistemic virus – the mainstream media.

      I think it is far more useful to discuss different bias in human cognition that we know exist and can discuss and observe, when we talk about conspiracies. I think too, that it is more useful to talk probabilities, which is what all history and induction reduces to, and point out why the evidence doesn’t overcome the prior improbabilities in a sufficient way as to make their claims probable.

      Also. I think these types of points of view fuel a false dichotomy. Just because someone adheres to a “conspiracy theory” does not mean they are wrong. Appeals to consensus or authority are fallacious. It is easy to slip into “conspiracy theorist” = irrational. When it may not be the case. A priori dogmas are not exclusively held by the religious. The skeptic can be just as guilty, and the evidence and arguments should speak for themselves.

      It really was a great article and an interesting idea, but psychologizing can be seductive.

      • lizard19

        psychologizing can certainly be a clumsily used tool when it comes to interpreting behavior.

        that said, I find the link between capitalism and conspiracy theory put forth in this essay to be intriguing

        for example, this: …any good conspiracy theory proceeds from empirical premises which are manifestly true. In the vein of Dan Brown, stray facts are woven into vast interconnected webs by tenuous strings of causality and barbaric modus ponens proofs. Historical and social phenomena which are in fact intimately intertwined by the total social relation of capital are instead linked superficially by cheap literary devices.

        the “total social relation of capital” is the crux of it, something I’m still chewing on and would rather just spit out to live in blissful ignorance. how total is total anyway?

        anyway, thanks for commenting NamelessRange. I especially like this part:

        Just because someone adheres to a “conspiracy theory” does not mean they are wrong. Appeals to consensus or authority are fallacious. It is easy to slip into “conspiracy theorist” = irrational.

        as the unofficial conspiracy theorist blogger here at 4&20, I certainly agree. and those of us who try to write seriously on this subject will sometimes go to great lengths to separate ourselves from the sometimes embarrassing diversity of the fringe, which, if I want to be honest with myself, is one of the reasons I posted this essay.

        I have watched one particular member of the fringe, Tomato Guy, descend into the crisis actor meme, and though I don’t share his certainty, I also don’t automatically discount the possibility that aspects of recent “terrorist” acts and mass shootings have been planned, or staged.

        there is so much cognitive dissonance scrambling our collective signals, who is to say what the hell is really going on?

  2. I loved this essay! Thanks! Most want to believe in some rational agent even if it’s evil rather than sheer chaos.

  3. Long before “secular monotheism” replaced God, it stamped out philosophy. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. To reallign human values with human actions individuals will need to rediscover a personal
    philosophy and spirituality. State-corporate powers will fight this tooth and nail for fear of losing monopoly power over individuals’ moral authority. One should never outsource one’s own conscience.

  4. mike

    You guys crack me up. Piling on some nut spouting conspiracy theories while spouting conspiracy theories using your “superior” knowledge of human nature is hilarious

    Several decades ago I had a notion that the federal gov could influence outcomes in a positive fashion. History proves that notion is for the most part a pipe dream. It doesn’t matter which political tribe rules the roost, big government is outlandishly inefficent because it has no skin in the game. They face no consequences for stupid decisions.

    Case in point is the Dept of Education. Do you really think the multi billion dollar budget of this joke agency will get a better result than tax dollars spent locally with local control? We send billions to DC, the bureaucracy sucks up it’s take and we get whats left with strings attached, requiring extra administrators to deal with the strings. I agree people should be outraged at the inflation of admin and dollars not spent on educators and the classroom, but you guys don’t get that this is a result of Fed creep in local affairs. Given the general position of folks on this blog about local control it’s hard for me to take you seriously when you overlook stuff like this.

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