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Communism, Conspiracy, and Surveillance

This entry was posted in Complexity, Public events on 8 June 2014 by

Communism, Conspiracy, and Surveillance

Why do people believe in conspiracies? This is the way our topic is often framed. It sets the scene for psychological studies aimed at finding out why people would entertain conspiracy theories – the nuttier the better – and, more broadly, how to respond to these dangerous misperceptions, false beliefs and paranoid suspicions. These are typically the misperceptions of the masses (and, as the two Joes pointed out the other week, usually selected with a bias against one’s political opponents…)

Perhaps a better question would be: How do people think about conspiracies? Putting it this way seems less likely to point us towards the false beliefs of the masses, and opens up the possibility of investigating – though it’s rarely put like this – the conspiracy theories of the powerful. From this point of view, the hunt for Islamist plotters subverting Birmingham schools, or the unshakeable conviction that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, all bear more than a passing resemblance to conspiracy theories.

The conspiratorial fears and actions of the powerful in American politics have been a focus of historian Kathryn Olmsted’s work. Her book “Real Enemies” charts the rise of the capacity of the American state to behave conspiratorially (spying on its own citizens and such) and the interplay between real conspiracies and conspiracy theories.

A few weeks ago she gave a public lecture here in which she told the fascinating story of two men on either side of the Atlantic in the 1920s and 30s – US Colonel Ralph Van Deman and the British Admiral Reginald “Blinker” Hall – who were convinced that their respective governments were not doing enough to root out communists, and took it upon themselves to build an infrastructure of surveillance to hunt the enemies within. They set up organizations independent from government dedicated to surveillance of leftist subversives. And they waged propaganda campaigns to win the hearts of the not-yet-subverted working classes.

Watch the talk in full below:

Both men had backgrounds in the military intelligence, and were conditioned, so it seemed, to see existential threats to the state. As the Joes might have put it, they were socialized into suspicion, and they directed these suspicions at their political opponents. The fear was that a government led by American progressives or a union-led British Labour Party might not only underestimate the communist threat, but allow them to undermine the British state.

The detail in this story is wonderful. I especially liked the image of the retired Van Deman collecting vast numbers of reports on “subversives” from a network of sympathizers across the country and storing them in his Bungalow in California – a sort of one man NSA database with information on anybody who ever so much as showed up at union meeting. It’s particularly interesting at this moment in time to look at the context of the early emergence of the modern domestic surveillance systems of the UK and the US.

Another fascinating detail was the difference in the styles of anti-communist propaganda. In America, the propaganda is replete with conspiratorial imagery and pushes the emotional buttons of family and racial purity. In the UK, by contrast, the propaganda was dry and rational, appealing to the enlightened self-interest of the working classes.

Why the difference in anti-communist rhetoric on the two sides of the Atlantic? Olmsted tentatively put forward the view that it simply reflected a more general difference in political rhetoric, which may in turn be explained by the fact that the UK had only very recently expanded the franchise to include non-propertied men, and political communication was thus still geared towards a small, literate and reasonable electorate, whereas in America they had already learned that the way to the ordinary man’s vote was through his heart, not his head, a lesson the Brits only later came to appreciate. It sounds plausible, but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by this, if only because there are contemporary examples of political debates in the UK that were intensely emotive and irrational, such as the debate over women’s suffrage. David also made the suggestion that part of the difference may have had to do with the respective successes and failures of the leftist parties in the US and the UK. The UK Labour Party took the reins in 1929 and was heavily defeated a few years later. In the US, by contrast, leftist government had delivered electoral and economic success, narrowing the space for rational right wing arguments about the perils of leftist rule, and leaving only vague insinuations of a communist conspiracy to subvert racial hierarchy, traditional gender roles, and the future of the family.

One of the hugely valuable insights from Olmsted’s research is to focus attention on the way political elites think about conspiracies against the state. It’s worth taking up this line of thought not least because, unlike the citizen who entertains the idea that the moon landings might have been faked, the conspiratorial fears of the powerful have real consequences.