Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory Definitions
A conspiracy, according to the dictionary, is a group of two or more people who get together for some criminal or illegal purpose (it is thus different from a plot, which is the plan that the conspirators draw up). It follows that it naturally has to be secret, though this isn’t a central part of the definition. Etymologically it comes from the Latin conspiratio – people agreeing as in one breath on a particular aim or object – applied specifically to people doing this for an illegal purpose. An older, now obsolete synonym would be ‘cabal’, which has its equivalent in some other European languages as well.
In other languages it has a slightly different slant. The German Verschwöring implies that the central aspect is the swearing of an oath (similarly the French conjuration) binding the participants to common action. The Italian congiura has a similar implication, as does the Spanish conjura. This may possibly refer back to medieval times, when sealing an agreement with an oath invoking God or one or more of the saints was thought of as the most effective way of binding the conspirators together and ensuring their loyalty. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, swearing an oath reflected perhaps the roots of conspiracy in the rituals of guilds and confraternities; these had an influence for example on the carbonari.
Conspirators are in collusion with one another (there’s an Italian translation that has collusione for conspiracy) or, more colloquially, in cahoots with one another. They may be engaged in an intrigue but this isn’t necessarily for criminal or illicit purposes and doesn’t always have to be kept secret, though it usually is. Thus an intrigue or plot within a government, to overthrow the Prime Minister and replace him with another, as happens frequently, though usually unsuccessfully, in the UK, is not a conspiracy because it is usually open (ultimately the plotters have to obtain MPs’ votes), and even if it is not, it sticks to legal procedures (as for example in the overthrow of Mussolini by the Fascist Grand Council in 1943).
As the Latin root suggests, conspiracy has a long history, most famously of course denounced by Cicero in his oration against the Catiline conspiracy, a plot to murder a large number of Roman Senators. Since then, there have been countless numbers of conspiracies stretching through the medieval period to the present day. The key thing they have in common is the fact that they have an illegal or criminal aim. There might be a conspiracy to prepare and stage a coup d’état and illegally overthrow a government, replacing it with another (or, in the case of anarchists conspiracies, none at all); or a conspiracy by a government or a faction within it to subvert the legal rights of the people; or a conspiracy by some group in society, such as banks or cartels, to rob the people, or the government, of its legally earned money. But always the conspiracy has to be secret and criminal with the aim of breaking the law in order to achieve its aims.
In attempting to determine what constitutes a conspiracy, there are hopefully no objections if, rather than immediately launching into an abstract definition, I point to a concrete historical example rich in implications for a general study of conspiracies and conspiracy theories. On the 20 June 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate, finding their entrance into their assembly chamber barred, retired to a tennis court where they swore an oath to continue to meet until they had given the country a constitution. When it came the turn of comte de Mirabeau to swear the oath, he did so, but only reluctantly: “I sign because otherwise you would mark me out for public hatred … but I tell you that we are signing a conspiracy.”
Obviously the understanding of what constitutes a conspiracy is subject to historical change. Furthermore, this change does not occurs in a uniform manner ensuring that at any one moment there is a consensus about the meaning attached to the term conspiracy. Instead, different understandings of the same term overlap. It is perhaps not overly fanciful to imagine that Mirabeau, as a member of the nobility who found himself now among the third estate, was more attuned to older notions of conspiracy than his fellow delegates. His statement reminds us that for a long time simply swearing an oath unsanctioned by higher authority was sufficient to provoke the charge of conspiracy. There was no need for secrecy or any evil plan. In other European languages, the connection between conspiracies and oaths is still apparent in the word itself (Verschwörung, conjuration, congiura, etc. (though French and Italian also possess conspiration and conspirazione)). Perhaps in English we are predisposed to overlook this since ‘conjuration’ fell into disuse, but it seems to me that the concept of conspiracy is for large stretches of its history intertwined with the cultural practices and rituals associated with swearing oaths. To a large degree, that relationship still awaits more thorough exploration.
Whether Mirabeau’s third‐estate colleagues shared this understanding of conspiracy might be doubted simply on the grounds that Mirabeau felt the need to make the statement in the first place. Mirabeau effectively identified a conspiracy of which the other deputies as his ‘co‐conspirators’ seemed blissfully unaware. For us, their obliviousness to the alleged conspiracy is comprehensible. This was after all meant to be a highly public event, or, at any rate, an event whose participants were keen to find the public they equated with the nation; indeed, the fear of incurring the hatred of this public is what compelled Mirabeau to also swear the oath. For those who regarded conspiracies as secret machinations hidden from public view – and the fears articulated by third party delegates in subsequent weeks about an aristocratic conspiracy appeal to just such an understanding of conspiracy – then there
was no reason to represent the impromptu public ceremony culminating in the tennis court oath in these terms. If there was secrecy associated with this conspiracy, then it was of a paradoxical kind which kept the actual conspirators in the dark (with, of course, the exception of Mirabeau).
This episode indicates that the term ‘conspiracy’ has not always had a simple or stable relationship to the phenomenon it denotes. A consideration of the complexities which thereby result pushes the discussion in a philosophical direction which some social scientists might argue we are not obliged to follow. After all, why make things unnecessarily complicated? The first impulse might therefore be to simply put forward a workable definition – something along the lines of the definition put forward by the philosopher Charles Pigden: a conspiracy is “a secret plan on the part of a group to influence events partly by covert action.” (“Revisiting Popper, or What is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?” in: Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25: 3 (1995), 5).This definition obviously is at odds with Mirabeau’s statement. But does the social scientist really have to choose between the understanding of conspiracy formulated by a contemporary New Zealand philosopher and the alternative understanding contained in a statement made by the notorious eighteenth‐ century libertine and celebrated orator? And is the social scientist implicitly declaring both to be ‘wrong’ by putting forward another more ‘accurate’ definition? In response to these incredulous questions, the next impulse might be to propose a different brief for the social scientist; rather than submitting his or her own definition, the task is to register and explain the different understandings of conspiracy espoused by others. But this approach is beset with its own naiveties which arise when we limit observation to only cases where we find explicit use of the term ‘conspiracy’. Thus, Stauffenberg and his collaborators seem to have avoided use of the term ‘conspiracy’ to describe their plot to kill Hitler; and on the one occasion where one does find explicit use of the term, the conspirator Urban Thiersch invokes it to expressly rejected the validity of applying it to their undertaking: they were not conspirators but simply men seizing the opportunity to act (Peter Hoffmann, Claus Schenk Graf von Staffenberg (Munich, 2008), 420). This attitude reveals the weight of negative connotations carried by the term ‘conspiracy’, particularly in a culture such as that which existed in the officer corps of the German military. But of course, a study of conspiracies should have few qualms about also treating the attempt to kill Hitler as a conspiracy, even if the term was either studiously avoided or expressly disavowed. This would then imply that the author of such a study is employing a certain understanding of ‘conspiracy’, even if it remains unarticulated. We have therefore returned to the question of definitions.
One way of looking at conspiracies is through the legal angle. In our democracies today there are laws against both civil and criminal conspiracies, which both take on a similar enough form: namely that two or more parties decide to come together to break the law sometime in the future, even if the ultimate aim is lawful. Not all participants need to know every detail of the plan, although they are all equally guilty in front of the law. Sometimes an overt act is needed to prove the crime, but not always. Interestingly, in the US a criminal conspiracy does not need to be decided in private for it to count as a crime.
Cicero’s orations during the Catiline conspiracy-perhaps the paradigmatic case of conspiracy-were legal in nature: he was asking for the instauration of martial law and his investiture of absolute power as consul so as to put down the conspiracy and save the republic. This poses the question of whether political-as opposed to civil or criminal-conspiracies can only be dealt with outside the legal structure.
What, then, of conspiracy and democracy? Plato’s metaphor of the ‘ship of state’ to describe democracy in The Republic can be read as akin to a conspiracy: the ‘sailors’, namely the Athenian politicians, conspire to influence the strong but short- sighted ship-owner (the Athenian people), through drugs and wine to hand over the helm of the ship, instead of to the stargazer (philosopher) who knows how to navigate. So our first description of democracy in the western tradition is one of democracy as a conspiracy against those ‘who know’, with the end-result being that the sailors just plunder the ship’s cargo for their own enjoyment, and wander aimlessly.
But is the image of the squabbling sailors who are only interested in feathering their own nests, instead of steering the ship of state, also a description of the workings of (ancient) democracy? Is their conspiring against one another-and their willingness to throw one another overboard if they get too successful-the way democratic politics must work? Does democracy then offer the only (legal?) framework which justifies conspiracy as a method of rule, as opposed to other forms of government that see conspiracy solely as a threat?
When two or more people secretly plot to break the law we are dealing, in a legal sense, with a conspiracy. From Fawkes and Catesbyʼs plot to assassinate King James I to the terrorists who planned the attacks of September 11 2001, some of the most striking conspiracies have been those against the state. Yet secret coordination to break the law can just as well be found within the state itself. The recent phone hacking scandals in the UK have revealed collusion between police officers, journalists and members of the government. And campaigners in Northern Ireland who believed that British soldiers conspired to lie about the events of Bloody Sunday were largely vindicated by Saville inquiry in 2010. Though conspiracies within the state or perpetrated by agents of the state seem to be prosecuted with less alacrity than those of supposed terrorists, in terms of the formal structure of secret agreement between two or more parties to break the law there is little to choose between them.
Conspiracies, however, need not involve plots to break the law. ʻGetting people we know and trust is vital…ʼ wrote Phil Jones in an email to his colleagues at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia on the subject of identifying peer reviewers for the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This statement came from a cache of emails that were leaked or stolen in November 2009. Those who seized on this comment, among others, as evidence that a group of scientists were secretly coordinating to manipulate scientific claims in support a political agenda, were not primarily making a claim that they broke the law. But they were suggesting a conspiracy (though we must note that not all climate science critics believe there is a conspiracy).
This gives two and a half necessary conditions for conspiracy. There must be more than one person involved. The conspirators must be coordinating in secret. And they must have a malign motive. I call this half a condition because some – such as David Coady – do not think ill intent is a necessary feature of conspiracy. But it does seem that reference to malign motive is important to the idea of conspiracy, for it suggests the importance of social conflict and antagonism in the background of conspiratorial events and practices.
Legal: “An agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. Criminal law in some countries or for some conspiracies may require that at least one overt act must also have been undertaken in furtherance of that agreement, to constitute an offense. There is no limit on the number participating in the conspiracy and, in most countries, no requirement that any steps have been taken to put the plan into effect”. (Wikipedia)
Civil: (sometimes referred to as collusion). An agreement between persons to deceive, mislead, or defraud others of their legal rights, or to gain an unfair advantage.
Political: a group of persons united in the goal of usurping or overthrowing an established political power.
‘Conspiracy’ can be used to describe either an agreement between a group of people or the group itself.
3. Essential ingredients:
- A group
- Malign or illegal intent
What is a conspiracy?
A conspiracy must involve two elements: secrecy and malign intent. These are not enough separately to create a conspiracy: not all secrets are conspiracies and not all evil schemes are conspiracies either. Nor are they always enough together: these are necessary not sufficient conditions. When Apple was developing the IPhone, the plan was secret and it was also designed to inflict harm on the company’s competitors (deprive them of revenue). But it was not a conspiracy. The reason is that the desire to inflict harm of this kind was not itself a secret: Apple was not trying to conceal the sort of business it was in. It could offer a public defence: the harm was incidental to the greater good it was pursuing. A conspiracy requires that the nature of the malign intent is itself being concealed. Or to put it another way, conspirators try to keep secret the fact that they are trying to keep something secret. This is not true, for instance, of terrorist organisations, which are known to be plotting, even if the details of the specific plots are not known. So there is reason to doubt that Al Qaeda counts as a conspiracy. There is no secret about the business Al Qaeda is in. It can (and does) offer a public defence of its actions. But on this count the Nazis’ Final Solution can count as a conspiracy, because although the malign intent was known (no one could doubt these people intended harm to the Jews), the nature of the harm was being concealed. They did not want people to know what sort of enterprise they were engaged in, and went out of their way to conceal it.
Another feature of a conspiracy is that it must involve a relatively small or at least limited group of people. If so many people are involved that it is hard to say who is in and who is out, then the conspiracy lacks identity. You can stumble into a conspiracy, but you cannot have inadvertent conspiracies. Conspiracies require members, so if the group has an ill‐defined membership it can’t be a conspiracy. This means it does not make sense to talk about democracy itself as a conspiracy, since the membership of any real democracy is always fuzzy around the edges. But it does make sense to talk about conspiracies against democracy. What counts as a conspiracy against democracy depends on what is and isn’t acceptable by the rules of a given democratic society. Not all small groups working against the public interest are conspiracies. But when they are doing it in a way that would be undermined if it were revealed, then it may be a conspiracy.
To define conspiracy, it may be useful to consider what is not a conspiracy.
If Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating JFK (as a lone gunman), then there was no conspiracy, but if others were involved (e.g. a second shooter on the grassy knoll), then there was a conspiracy. So a conspiracy must be plural.
The fact that numerous diamond merchants are clustered in Hatton Garden does not indicate a conspiracy there are good reasons why an individual diamond dealer might independently choose to set up shop near others (a large number of customers looking for diamonds, collective security against robberies, etc). Such situations may simply emerge from the structural forces of the environment. So a conspiracy must involve intent.
However, if the diamond dealers never lower their prices below a certain floor, there may be conspiracy on an implicit level. The dealers might be engaging in a tacit agreement to preserve their profit margins, without ever actually saying so. So a conspiracy does not have to involve explicit discussions, merely collusion. (The difficulty of deciding when a set of nods and winks crosses the boundary into full- blown conspiracy, and of finding the evidence for it, is what makes the OFT’s job so difficult. Are energy companies merely responding legally to market conditions, or are they illegally conspiring to fix high prices?)
On the other hand, the OPEC organization openly seeks to fix the world price of crude oil by setting quotas for the amount of oil its members produce. This is a cartel, rather than a conspiracy. So a conspiracy’s actions must be secret.
Ed Miliband and his lieutenants undoubtedly have a plan for unseating the ruling Conservative Party which is not public, but one would not call that a conspiracy. After all, it is his job title to be the Leader of the Opposition. If the openly leftwing Guardian newspaper joined in his plan, one would hardly be surprised either. However, if he managed to secretly arrange for a nominally-independent body such as the Bank of England to issue a report unfavorable to David Cameron, this would rise to the level of conspiracy. So a conspiracy’s members must also be secret.
Some climate skeptics have accused scientists of a conspiracy to convince the public of the existence of climate change. Since the identity of climate scientists are generally public, their actions are the open publication of papers, and they coordinate openly through public conferences and journals, something seems to be missing from our definition so far. The key here is the hidden agenda – climate skeptics accuse scientists of promoting global warming in order to create a global government, to destroy the West, or more prosaically, to protect their research funding. So if none of the other elements are secret, a conspiracy’s aims must be secret.
Similarly, voting in elections is secret, and certainly has the ability to overthrow governments, yet is not considered a conspiracy. However, a conspiracy might occur if, for example, Democrats voted in a Republican primary election in order to select a weaker candidate, who would go on to lose. In this case, the secret aim would apply. Note that a secret aim is not a necessary requirement, as many of the preceding conspiracies have public aims: e.g. protecting profits, assassinating JFK, etc.
One may further distinguish between a conspiracy and a secret conspiracy. For example, the 7/7 bombings were carried out by a group whose members were initially unknown, and whose actions were initially hidden. However, once the bombings took place, their coordinated nature immediately revealed the existence of a conspiracy. In a secret conspiracy, however, the conspiracy continues to conceal its very existence, by hiding its role in events. For example, did former PLO leader Yasser Arafat die of natural causes, or was there a conspiracy to kill him? It is this type of conspiracy which lends itself most readily to the creation of a conspiracy theory.
The various definitions of ‘conspiracy’ seem to share at least three characteristics. Conspiracy requires: (1) a secret agreement (2) between at least two persons (3) that is malevolent in nature to some other party, usually the ruling political powers, or society and the public order more generally. While contributions on the subject have discussed the origins and definitions of the term, criminal laws designed to control and suppress conspiracies – influenced by law makers and judicial activity as well as by that of police, prosecutors, law reformers and academics – also contained inherent definitions of conspiracy that differed from one another, and attached varying degrees of culpability and punishment to involved parties. These laws related also to the dangers conspiracies were considered to pose to existing states and society at different points in time. The distinctions offer insight into the regional experience of conspiracies in modern history.
In the nineteenth century in America and England, for instance, an agreement to undertake conspiracy in addition to an overt act that furthered the undertaking was used as evidence for indictment (since early-modern statues of treason developed in Britain and from the late eighteenth century in America, where free association laws protected against the criminalisation of simple association). In contrast, laws in France and Germany referred to Roman and canon traditions and often also responded to recent major social and political events. Rather than ‘conspiracy’, these laws understood the threat of crimes perpetrated by groups under the concept of ‘criminal association’.
While notions of conspiracy pervaded Roman criminal law (which forbid the foundation of all societies without express permission), canon law in medieval and Renaissance Europe expressly punished conspiracies. Reflecting the inherited legal customs and, perhaps more significantly, the fresh experiences of the French Revolution, since 1810 French law prohibited criminal organisations with clear hierarchical and organisational structures. Legal measures in nineteenth century German states went even further. In 1819, the German Confederation responded to anxieties about the threat of revolution allegedly posed by student fraternity groups – members of which had made assassination attempts on political and public figures in previous weeks – by passing resolutions against secret societies; these notions were codified in the German Empire in the Imperial Criminal Code of 1871, which required that the existence, constitution and object of
societies not be concealed, and prohibited promises of obedience to a known or unknown commander. Incitement to conspiracy, also in the case of unsuccessful attempts to incite, both in French and German law, were also punished as attempts to conspire. Moreover, agitating one segment of the people against another, or defaming one segment of the population, was punished in Germany as conspiracy.
Overall, whereas in America and England conspiracy required some proof, either of an agreement or an act that furthered a prohibited association, in France and especially in Germany conspiracy to commit an act was more nearly equalised with the commission of the act itself. These distinctions are certainly worth considering.
The Conspiracy/A Conspiracy Theory
In a small Himalayan town on India’s borderland with Tibet, a man-eating leopard is in operation. The big cat has killed at least half a dozen humans in two months. Town residents claim that the big cat has been sent up from the plains by the Indian state in order to “eat up” the mountain-people. The arrival and continued presence of the big cat is widely described by townspeople as a conspiracy against the Himalayas and its inhabitants by an oppressive Indian state operated by plainspeople. Government officials posted in the region, however, dismiss this event as a ludicrous conspiracy theory constructed by the rather simple and paranoid mountain-people. They, instead, produce more ‘scientific’ explanations – climate change or the old age of the cats – for why human-big cat conflict is on a rise in this region of the Indian Himalaya.
David Coady has tentatively defined conspiracy as “a group of agents acting together in secret” and a conspiracy theory as “an explanation that is contrary to an explanation that has official status at the time and place in question” (2006: 3). In the example above, the arrival and operations of the man-eating big cat would fit into the definition of a conspiracy (by the state against a certain section of its citizenry). But precisely what was widely postulated as a conspiracy by town residents was described as a conspiracy theory, in Coady’s definition of the term as well as the state’s official response to allegations of conspiracy, by government officials. In the anthropological literature there is little categorical distinction posited between conspiracy and conspiracy theories, rather they fluidly move between one and the other. As my own little ethnographic vignette shows, one person’s conspiracy is another’s conspiracy theory. In fact, the labeling of something as a conspiracy theory is undertaken with great care given how “Crucial [it is] to keep in mind the political- economic parameters that shape how some narratives are admitted to official regimes of truth and how others become conspiracy theories (Briggs 2004: 181).”
I am going to briefly discuss this case of the man-eating leopard further in order to expand on what I consider conspiracy/conspiracy theories to be and, relatedly, why they are important to study.
Town residents living under the ‘reign of terror of the big cat’ (as this period was popularly described) were of the firm opinion that the man-eater originated from a zoo in a large city in the distant plains of India. They believed that when leopards and tigers grow old in their zoos in the plains then the plainspeople send them up to the mountains to die. As these big cats are used to being provided with meals and are, in any case, too old to hunt wild animals, they turn on the easiest prey of all: humans. This particular belief has to be understood in the historical context of the mountain- plains animosity that continues to dominate this region. In 2000, this Himalayan
region – Uttarakhand – had attained statehood after an extended struggle had been waged. The agitators for a separate Himalayan state had militated against the “internal colonization” of the mountains by the plainsmen, which they believe had been going on for centuries. Releasing old leopards and tigers from zoos up to what the plainsmen merely consider ‘a jungle’ or ‘wilderness’ with no heed paid, as usual, to the perils this posed for its inhabitants was considered just another event in a long list of exploitative and negligent actions – commercial forestry, extraction of minerals and ores, damming of the rivers, the poaching and trafficking of wild animals, neglect of specific developmental requirements in the post-independence era, greater social inequality evidenced in weakening indicators in health and education and high levels of unemployment – that that the Himalayas have historically suffered from at the hands of the plainspeople. In a parallel observation, Jalais (2005) documents the wide-spread belief that tigers in the Sundarbans forests in West Bengal became man- eaters and started specifically targeting lower class and caste Bengali refugees once the tigers realized that the state has granted them greater citizenship rights and entitlements to live in Bengal than they have to the unwanted refugees from Bangladesh.
The case of the man-eating leopard can be read as a conspiracy theory that highlights prevailing senses of inequality, which emerge from and are located within larger, sedimented histories of struggle and oppression. Residents of this marginal Himalayan town on India’s distant frontier feel a profound sense of marginalization from the Indian state that is believed to reside far away in distant New Delhi. Their increased immiseration into poverty and the ecological fragility of this region are felt to arise directly from the extractive operations of the state. The conspiracy of the man-eating big cat is just one example through which this could be verbally articulated, elaborated upon (‘theorized’) and concretely discussed in the public sphere. Conspiracy theories such as this one, then, “express social imaginaries and political anxieties that remain unspeakable or unheard (Fassin 2011: 41).” Instead of dismissing conspiracy theories or ridiculing them for their irrationality, a serious description, combined with a discursive, historical and political-economic examination of them has proven to be extremely fruitful in the study of epidemics – AIDS (Fassin 2008, 2011), Cholera (Briggs 2003), and Tuberculosis (Packard 1990). As Fassin writes on the productivity of inquiry into conspiracy theories, “They are a window on the embodiment of memory – they way in which the past is lived in the present – in postcolonial contexts (2011: 48).” Anthropologists have long focused on rumour, gossip, and scandals for their capacity to open out windows into otherwise unexamined social worlds. Conspiracies/conspiracy theories have thus always been part of their corpus even if they have not been termed so. The trick now is to focus clearly on them and to mine them as ethnographic data that possess the capacity to overcome erasures or that which might otherwise remain hidden from view.
Briggs, C. 2004. Theorizing Modernity Conspiratorially: Science, Scale, and the Political Economy of Public Discourse in Explanations of a Cholera Epidemic. American Ethnologist 31(2): 164-187
Coady, D. 2006. An Introduction to the Philosophical Debates about Conspiracy Theories. In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate (ed.) D. Coady. London: Ashgate
Fassin, D. 2008. The Embodied Past: From Paranoid Style to Politics of Memory in South Africa. Social Anthropology 16(3): 312-328
__2011. The Politics of Conspiracy Theories: On AIDS in South Africa and a Few Other Global Plots. Brown Journal of World Affairs XVII (II): 39-50.
Jalais, A. 2005. Dwelling on Morichjhanpi: When Tigers Became ‘Citizens’, Refugees ‘Tiger-Food’. Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 1757-1762.
Packard, R. 1990. White Plague, Black Labour: Tuberculosis and the Political Economy of Health and Disease in South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Conspiracy theories are harder to define. In so far as they involve claims about conspiracy they share something with the formal definition of conspiracy. That is, conspiracy theories involve explaining some event or practice in terms of the hidden coordination of malevolent actors. But conspiratorial thinking is typically associated with a wide range of features.
One such feature is pedantry. Conspiracy theorists claim detailed knowledge of conspiracies and plots. They tend to be obsessed with factual details, and with inconsistencies or discrepancies in official accounts. Where some might see an innocent mistake, conspiracy theorists seize on errors as momentary glimpses behind the veil. Another is the construction of coherent narrative. Conspiracy theories often have a neat and logical structure, and seem to generate a sense of order. Where some might see more or less well-intentioned actors muddling through in complex situations with unpredictable outcomes, conspiratorial thinkers see the hidden hand of a coordinating intelligence. There are no accidents or coincidences. And conspiracy theories are highly resistant to falsification. They have, as Cass Sunstein puts it, a ʻself- sealingʼ quality in that they deny their targets the basic trust required to credibly refute the claims made against them. There is much more to be said, not least about psychological and social conditions that support conspiratorial thinking.
However, I would emphasise one further feature. Conspiratorial thinking (at least today) seems to honour the ideal of publicity. By decrying the secret machinations of certain actors, conspiratorial thinkers often purport to unmask interests and motives that could not be made public without undermining authority altogether. They radicalize the sort of suspicion and mistrust that is often considered central to current democratic practice. Thus, while secrecy is one of the essential features of conspiracy, conspiracy theories seem in some non-trivial way to involve values and practices of publicity. Plotting to malevolent ends requires secrecy. The language of conspiracy theories, by contrast, addresses a public audience and works to persuade.
This would suggest that conspiracy theories are democratically ambivalent, invoking the value of publicity at the same as they try to deny their targets the means of public persuasion.
The situation becomes even more intractable when it comes to the term ‘conspiracy theory’. In a 1966 issue of the New York Review of Books, the historian Richard Popkin published an article with the title: “The Second Oswald: The Case for a Conspiracy Theory”. It is important to point out that Popkin was submitting an explanation of the Kennedy assassination which he insouciantly referred to as a ‘conspiracy theory’. This was 1966. Since then, things have changed, and it is not only seldom but almost unheard‐of for someone today to say: ‘I think the best way to explain this is by a conspiracy theory …’ (I know of a few counter‐examples, but they can be counted on one hand). instead, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ is used to describe and especially disqualify explanations put forward by others. In fact, it is also unusual to even find within those explanations labelled as ‘conspiracy theories’ use of the term ‘conspiracy,’ quite possibly because casual ‘conspiracy theorists’ are canny enough to avoid the overt markers and signals (such as the term ‘conspiracy’) which would justify an a priori dismissal of their explanations on these grounds. The tipping point in this development is expressed by the title of a book which undoubtedly merits the label ‘conspiracy theory’ and which emerged in 1971 from the American far right milieu associated with the John Birch Society: None Dare Call it Conspiracy. (I am however glad to see that in more recent times my compatriot Julian Assange has not been afraid to buck the trend).
In response to these challenges I don’t have any real final answers but I have a few ideas which I hope to explore in greater detail elsewhere. With regard to conspiracies themselves, I have often toyed with the idea of putting forward not so much a definition but rather a model (or perhaps even and ideal‐type) which would serve as a point of reference in measuring variations among conspiracies as they are conceived and practiced. This model is based on two moments in the sequence of events constituting the conspiracy: (i) the oath and (ii) the deed. The oath I have already mentioned above. By the ‘deed’, I simply mean the culminating point in the conspiracy – which in many cases, is an act of violence coinciding with the moment at which the conspirators step from behind the curtains and the conspiracy comes to light. These two moments do not need to be either both or even singly present, or they might be present in some modified form. If one reads, for example, Machiavelli, then his whole analysis of conspiracies revolves around the deed; the oath as a means to bind the conspirators in a manner which goes beyond the observance of their individual interests in power or survival is not expressly discounted by Machiavelli but is as a feature certainly downplayed and this seems to be consonant with his pessimistic anthropology. Other visions of conspiracy do not posit any deed at all but imagine instead a form of manipulation perpetuated by clandestine powers who seem to follow no rationale other than the preservation of their power.
As far as conspiracy theories are concerned, I still find the analytical break‐down put forward by Geoffrey Cubitt to be insightful (“Conspiracy Myths and Conspiracy Theories,” in: Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 20 (1989)). Cubitt saw conspiracy theories as made up of dualism, occultism, and intentionalism. Expressed more simply, where actors are posited who are evil, who act secretly and who follow a plan, then one can legitimately talk of a conspiracy theory. Once more, this is not so much a definition on the basis which one can say whether a conspiracy theory exists or does not exist. The analytical decomposition allows us to be more subtle. Thus, we might have cases where there is a dualism and occultism but no intentionalism (in the sense of events unfolding in a non‐supernatural manner and in accordance with a plan); I believe many pre‐modern ‘conspiracy theories’ (e.g. fears of witchcraft) might be described in this manner. We are not dealing with fully‐ fledged conspiracy theories here but that does mean they are irrelevant, particularly for genealogical analysis.
Finally, we need to consider the relationship between notions of conspiracy and conspiracy theory. There is much which can be said here, but let me restrict my last comment to an attempt to paint the general trend with the broadest brushstrokes imaginable. Genuine conspiracy theories exist in the eighteenth century, but they are often surprisingly sparse in employing the term ‘conspiracy’; to describe the general subversion perpetrated by evil forces an alternative vocabulary was in use. With the French Revolution, propagandists on both sides of the ideological divide latched onto ‘conspiracy’ as the term of choice and the nineteenth century was in many ways the hey‐day of conspiracy theories where there was a prolific and untroubled use of the term. In the first part of the twentieth century the term ‘conspiracy theory’ began to emerge; indeed, just as the modern science of astronomy emerged by shedding the association with astrology and chemistry was born by dissociating itself from alchemy, modern social science constituted itself (at least in part) by distinguishing itself from another view of social and historical processes which it labelled as the ‘conspiracy theory’. In the second half of the twentieth century, the critique of conspiracy theories began to filter through to the ‘conspiracy theorists’ who rejected the description of their explanations as ‘conspiracy theories’ and began to refrain from using the term ‘conspiracy’. Thus, contemporary ‘conspiracy theories’ are similar to their eighteenth‐century forebears in the relative paucity with which the term ‘conspiracy’ is employed. In a certain sense, we have come full circle.
Thoughts about conspiracy theories
1. A conspiracy theory is a way of making sense of the world – “a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons—the conspirators—acting in secret… a conspiracy theory deserves the appellation “theory” because it proffers an explanation of the event in question. It proposes reasons why the event occurred… [it] need not propose that the conspirators are all powerful, only that they have played some pivotal role in bringing about the event… indeed, it is because the conspirators are not omnipotent that they must act in secret, for if they acted in public, others would move to obstruct them… [and] the group of conspirators must be small, although the upper bounds are necessarily vague.”1
This is ok as far as it goes, but it ignores the question of intent – i.e. the intent of the conspirators, which we assume is regarded by the theorists as malign.
2. Since conspiracy theories are (i) putative explanations (which may be rational and/or correct) and (ii) very widespread, we need to be careful not to fall into the conventional wisdom which views them with contemptuous disdain. We’re interested in the natural history of conspiracy theories and we should proceed in that spirit.
3. Related to that is Fenster’s contention2 that two propositions currently dominate discussion of CTs. The first maintains that they circulate solely on the margins of society. Conspiracy Theorists are political extremists and unsavoury characters — Oliver Stone, for instance, or members of the John Birch Society. The second proposition is that conspiracy theories have come to dominate American political culture – in movies, pop fiction, TV shows, video games, and more gullible news media. And then there’s cyberspace — “the Petri dish for paranoids”. If true, that highlights an interesting implicit contradiction: conspiracy theories are marginal, but also pervasive.
4. It’s striking that so much of the literature about conspiracy theories seems to be essentially about US society and politics. Hofstadter is partly to blame for this with his 1963 “Paranoid style” lecture (entertaining though it is), but it is also a product of the peculiar history of the US. (After all, where did the ‘separation of powers’ come from but a fear of an overweening executive conspiring against the people?) Given the range of our postdocs’ backgrounds we’re probably immune to this overly- American bias, but it’s something to watch.
5. There’s also an interesting distinction to be made between vast over-arching conspiracy theories (Holocaust denial, or Joe McCarthy’s version of General George Marshall’s motivation, say), and much more specific theories (e.g. WHO and the re- definition of ‘pandemic’).
1 Keeley, Brian L. (1999) ‘Of Conspiracy Theories’, Journal of Philosophy 96, 109-26.
2 Fenster, Mark (2008), Conspiracies: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, University of Minnesota Press.
In contrast to conspiracies, conspiracy theories are a modern phenomenon: the Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of the term to a 1909 article of The American Historical Review.1 At first a seemingly neutral term, it became derogatory in the 1960s, perhaps linked to the appearance of the term ‘conspiracy theorist’, first dated by the OED to an article in The New Statesman of May 1964.2 Both these terms are used to discredit the views expressed, especially the latter, which suggests its progenitor is somehow unsound of mind. However this negative meaning it has taken on might mask its trivialisation in everyday life: studies suggest that at least Americans-who may have a particular relationship to conspiracies and conspiracy theories-broadly accept some aspects of conspiracy theories, namely that political events are not what they seem, being instead conducted behind the scenes by a powerful group and often to the detriment of the people.
There are a number of conspiracy theories about individual events, but perhaps more interestingly are the more systematic ones such as ‘New World Order’, which holds that a global elite is attempting to set-up an authoritarian world state. This harks back to a unitary view of the world, where everything can be explained from one single root. Bruno Latour has suggested that conspiracy theories have taken up all the intellectual tools of critical theory, and this remark is suggestive in terms of how post-Marxist thinking has evolved after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Has conspiracy theory become a fundamental category through which people think about politics today, and what are the consequences of this if it is true? Has it replaced older transcendental reasoning behind why the world-in particular a democratic world, where the people are supposed to rule-does not work out the way it was meant to? Is this notion based upon fear of the unknown, and does it detract intellectually from understanding what is really happening in world politics today? Why are conspiracy theories that are proven to be true subsequently called other things such as ‘investigative journalism’ (Watergate)? Should we also be talking of ‘theories of conspiracy’ in contradistinction to ‘conspiracy theories’?
1 1909 Amer. Hist. Rev. 14 836. ‘The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A. Parker of Virginia in 1880’. This asks the question of whether we can talk of, for instance, conspiracy theories and the Freemasons during the French Revolution: are we using a paradigm that they did not share?
2 1964 New Statesman 1 May 694/2 ‘Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction’.
The term conspiracy theory dates from the decades before the First World War and first came into use in the USA, but since then it has shifted its meaning until current usage overwhelmingly defines it as mistaken. When Washington Post journalists began to investigate a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington D.C. during the Presidential election campaign of 1972, and discovered that it had been staged by a conspiracy led by President Richard Nixon, who wanted his agents to steal documents they hoped would cast the Democrats in an unfavourable light and thus help his re-election, some might have described this as a conspiracy theory, but the moment it was proved correct and Nixon forced to resign, the term was no longer used to describe the journalists’ allegations. However, it may well be the case that the uncovering of genuine conspiracies such as this has fuelled the spread of conspiracy theories in the late 20th and early 21st century.
A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain an event, or a series of events, as the outcome of a secret plot hatched by malign individuals aiming to deprive the people illegally of money, liberty or power. Current definitions see conspiracy theories as exclusively directed by the powerless against the powerful, whether the latter are politicians, bureaucrats, bankers or generals. In this sense, they are a democratic form of political discourse. Conspiracy theories are a form of popular knowledge that regards knowledge produced by experts on events as the product of the corruption, intimidation or co- optation of the experts by the conspirators themselves, whether consciously or not; conspiracy theories posit an ‘establishment’ that produces ‘official’ knowledge with the ulterior motive of covering up the ‘real truth’ about something. They are a form of the popular assertion of democratic primacy in the production of knowledge. Those who devise and purvey conspiracy theories frequently assert that ordinary people are dupes of ‘official’ knowledge, and that they, the theorists, alone have access to the truth.
Conspiracy theory is a way of making sense of the world at a time when the overproduction of knowledge creates confusion. It rests on the belief that nothing happens by chance, and operates on the cui bono principle, that anyone who stands to benefit from a crime must have planned it. It posits agency in everything as a mode of explanation; thus for instance in late 19th- century Germany, many artisans whose products were undercut by mass- produced goods blamed this impersonal economic process on the hidden machinations of a conspiracy of Jewish bankers and businessmen.
Conspiracism is usually taken to mean the use of conspiracy theory to explain virtually everthing in history, over a very long period, sometimes by very long-standing conspiracies. It’s a way of giving meaning to history, and by ascribing everything to the deliberate purposes of individuals or secret cabals, it promises the possibility of counteracting them.
What is a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy theory is both a theory defined by its object (a conspiracy) and its form or type (conspiracy theories are resistant to empirical or other conventional forms of refutation). Perhaps these two features do not have to go together. You could have a conspiracy theory that theorizes the existence of a conspiracy but then tests the theory and abandons it when evidence to the contrary is presented. But it is likely that the relationship between the two is more than contingent. If you believe there is a conspiracy at work in the world, you are bound to think that some of what passes for knowledge is unreliable. You are also likely to think that what counts as knowledge needs to be understood in terms of power: someone must have the power to conceal what they are up to for the conspiracy to be effective. So belief in a conspiracy is likely to lead you to question whether conventional standards of evidence can be taken at face value. If this leads you to doubt whether anything the passes for knowledge can be trusted, then you might end up with a total conspiracy theory, in which everything becomes evidence of the hidden powers at work in the world. It may be that all conspiracy theories have a tendency to go in this direction, because they create grounds for doubting conventional distinctions between what does and doesn’t pass for knowledge.
Once a conspiracy has been uncovered by the standards of conventional evidence (e.g. the historical evidence of the Holocaust), these arguments no longer apply. Then the conspiracy is not a theory; it is a fact. For it to become a conspiracy theory again, there has to be a suggestion of a conspiracy behind the conventional explanation (e.g. Holocaust denial).
One interesting question is whether the relationship between the object and form of the theory goes both ways i.e. whether as well as believing in conspiracy making you resistant to empirical evidence, being resistant to empirical evidence makes you likely to believe in a conspiracies. If you believe in Intelligent Design, or doubt the reality of climate change, you are required to doubt certain kinds of conventional empirical or scientific explanations of how the world works. But you don’t have to believe there is also a conspiracy at work: people might just be wrong. However, if you do think that science is unreliable, it is hard to explain its hold on public discourse without supposing some kind of conspiratorial behavior on the part of scientists. So climate change deniers do not have to be conspiracy theorists. But they may have a tendency to become conspiracy theorists.
A modern standard German dictionary, Duden, defines ‘conspiracy theory’ as ‘a notion, believing or assuming that a given conspiracy, or a conspiratorial undertaking, is the beginning or root of something else’. It is noteworthy that according to this definition, and in contrast to ‘conspiracy’, a ‘conspiracy theory’ has as a prerequisite an actual (or what is believed to be an actual) conspiracy, or a starting point for the requisite ‘base’ conspiracy point about which conspiracy theories develop. More significantly, the definition conveys the idea that a conspiracy theory includes the belief of extended implications as a result of the original, starting conspiracy; in other words, the past conspiracy-endeavour effects a future time-line of events, or paves the way for the undertaking of additional secret enterprises (about which the adherer to a specific conspiracy theory should presumably be concerned). While a definitive definition of what a conspiracy theory ‘is’ is more complicated, we can say something about when conspiracy theories tend to emerge and around which groups, how they spread and what they looked like in history.
Historically, conspiracy theories have appeared to be most prevalent when tensions run high and change occurs rapidly, unexpectedly or in an undesirable fashion for a particular group, whether in terms of social, political, economic or military contexts. Nearly every major event of the last two thousand years has prompted conspiracy theories. While conspiracy theorists in early modern Europe linked events such as plague and famine to witchcraft and sorcery or other forms of moral or religious depravity, in the nineteenth century the revolutions in America and France as well as nationalist movements in Italy, Greece, Germany and elsewhere were connected variously with the intrigues of Freemasons and Illuminati, socialists and anarchists, Catholics and Jews.
Another way to consider the question of defining conspiracy theories is to consider the ways in which they have been propagated and spread in modern history: orally, through rumours, hearsay and public addresses; in texts, including pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, works of fiction; and imagery, importantly paintings and, later, mass produced images such as political cartoons and propaganda posters. Considering the latter means, the artistic representations of conspiracy theories, let me give three examples:
For instance, a caricature from a painting of 1882 depicts the ‘evil Wall Street plutocrats as scapegoats’, communicating nineteenth century myths of ‘Anglo-American interests’ and the currency war. Reprinted in January 2012 in the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, editors used the image to relate the myths of the 1880s to the recent conspiracy claims that the American rating agencies aimed to destroy the Euro through rating agency downgrades.
An Axis political poster represents the international ‘Jewish conspiracy against Europe’ and the Anglo-Soviet alliance, with Churchill and Stalin’s alliance depicted as orchestrated by the overseeing Jew. In the Axis propaganda and anti-Semitic iconography more generally Jews were generally shown to be ‘pulling the strings’ behind the scenes of visible events.
Finally, the painting, ‘Conspiracy’ (1955), by Edward Biberman depicts a cabal of four men donning suits, and whispering amongst one another. While none of their faces or pairs of eyes is in the full view of the onlooker, their lips are entirely concealed from the audience, visually conveying the concealed nature of their discussion. The secrecy is underlined again in the gesture of a single man to silence the nearby microphone and stop the spread of their discussion from continuing outside of the circle. And yet, given their stances towards each other – with not more than two men appearing to speak directly to one another and, at the centre of the painting, with their arms touching the other’s back – it almost seems as though each man could easily be conspiring against the others. In this case, the image arguably tells as much of a story as the life of the artist in the context of contemporary national political anxieties. Painted during the post-World War II climate of the Red Scare in America, Biberman himself was indicted (unsuccessfully) in the early 1950s by adherents of the US Senator Joseph McCarthy, while the painter’s brother, a recognised Hollywood director, was jailed for refusing to answer congressional inquiries about his socialist political affiliations.
In the above images, a conspiracy theory seems to require the same three components of a conspiracy: (1) a secret agreement (2) between at least two persons (3) that is malevolent in nature to some other group, directed against another ‘outside’ group (particular social, political, economic or other, including the ruling political power, society, the public order). Additionally, and seemingly separate from a conspiracy, a conspiracy theory appears to require a third party (aside from the conspirator group and conspired-against group) that observes the phenomenon with some sort of perspective on occurrences.