Conspiracy Theories vs Conspiratorial Politics

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Rereading Jeffrey McKenzie Bale’s Ph.D dissertation, The “Black”  Terrorist International: Neo-Fascist Paramilitary Networks and the “Strategy of Tension” in Italy, 1968-1974, has inspired this post. It provides a much-needed distinction between the elaborate fables of conspiracy theorists and a common feature of modern politics. In this way, maybe public discussion of political events can take a more nuanced and thoughtful consideration of goings-on in the world.

Bale’s impressive and extensive research into an incredible conspiracy opens with such a desideratum. He has to convince the reader that he’s not some paranoid quack but instead a serious historian. The problem, he rightfully acknowledges, is that the subject matter is often deemed deranged interpretation and marginalized, instead of being understood as historical fact that the evidence supports. In order to assuage the skeptics, he lays out the following before presenting the well-documented evidence.

The defining feature of a conspiracy theory, Bale states, is the essential belief in the “existence of a ‘vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character,’ acts which aim to ‘undermine and destroy a way of life.'” Moreover, conspiracy theories have a few more defining features. First, is that the alleged conspirators are usually considered to be evil incarnate. Second, that the conspiratorial group is considered monolithic, relentless, and unerring in the pursuit of its goals.

The third feature is that the conspiratorial group is considered omnipresent; the fourth is that the group is thought of as omnipotent. And, finally, that these conspiracies are the motive force of all historical change.

Before, listing the differences, Bale points out that the word conspiracy comes from the Latin word to conspire which literally means, “to breathe together,” and he points out that there need be nothing sinister in such an act – that it amounts to nothing more than a meeting between people. “Thus,” he writes, “every times officers of a company participate in a board meeting to plan a marketing strategy they are ‘conspiring,’ and in this sense there are literally millions of conspiracies occurring every single day.”

In contrast to conspiracy theories, conspiratorial politics – those activities of actual political groups, clandestine or otherwise – share the following, contrary features. First, members of conspiracies are human and contain the range of human features. Second, covert politics is anything but monolithic – “at any given time,” Bale writes, “there are dozens if not thousands of competitive groups engaging in secret planning and activities… in order to gain some advantage;” and even within these groups, there are differences of opinions and goals as evidenced by factions.

A Third feature is that the operational sphere of any conspiratorial group is restricted in time and space. There is no single conspiratorial group that spans more than 100 years that operates towards the same ends as when it started – the world, people, and goals change. The final characteristic of political conspiracies is that they are narrow in scope, restricted in their effects, and of limited historical significance. This last condition, however, carries with it a caveat. Namely, that if the conspirators are powerful political figures, the effects of the clandestine activities can have a profound effect on history. False flag operations such as the Mukden Incident, The Reichstag Fire, or the Gleiwitz Incident, to name but a few, are perfect examples of conspiratorial politics that have had a significant impact on history.

So what’s the point of all this explication? To make the distinction between conspiracy theory and conspiratorial politics. The former is an imaginative indulgence which may or may not contain some elements of truth; the latter is an ubiquitous political reality, one in which various groups vie for power or the expression of their myriad agendas. And how could we think differently? As Bale puts it, “How, indeed, could it be otherwise in a world full of intelligence agencies, national security bureaucracies, economic pressure groups, secret societies with hidden political agendas, and the like?”

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