Andrew drew our attention to this article on beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories. It shows that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to believe contradictory conspiracy theories – i.e. that Diana could have both been murdered by the secret services and be still alive – than in the ‘official’ line. So a rejection of authority is the main factor in belief formation here. This reminded me of Nietzsche’s coinage of the term ‘misarchism’ in The Genealogy of Morality, namely the ‘democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate’. Are conspiracies more likely to proliferate in democracies because of the mistrust in authority that is ingrained in the democratic mind-set?
The paper also suggests an intellectual parentage between Marxism, the Frankfurt School and conspiracy theories. The authors write:
If Adorno’s explanation for contradictory antisemitic beliefs can indeed be applied to conspiracy theories, conspiracist beliefs might be most accurately viewed as not only monological but also ideological in nature. Just as an orthodox Marxist might interpret major world events as arising inevitably from the forces of history, a conspiracist would see the same events as carefully orchestrated steps in a plot for global domination. Conceptualising conspiracism as a coherent ideology, rather than as a cluster of beliefs in individual theories, may be a fruitful approach in the future when examining its connection to ideologically relevant variables such as social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism.
There are a number of things to unpack here but I just wanted to raise a couple of points. The first concerns whether a certain way of thinking about politics – we are back to mindsets here – over the course of the 19th and 20th century, namely through the prism of suspicion (the three ‘theorists of suspicion’ Nietzsche, Marx and Freud are the main culprits here), has seeped itself into popular culture in such a way as to make it the default way in which people approach politics. Alfred in his post quotes Bruno Latour, who asks whether there is a ‘real difference between conspiracists and a popularised…version of social critique’? So an intellectual history of conspiracy theory – a term coined, according to the OED, in 1909 – perhaps going back as far as the Enlightenment’s project of debunking what it considered to be the prejudices and superstitions of the old order, would help to shed light on the subject. Alfred and I are working on this.
The second is whether those inclined to see the world in black-and-white terms are more likely to also believe conspiracy theories. Hofstadter is his classic study of The Paranoid Style in American Politics had already suggested that the religious right in American, more inclined to see the world in the categories of good and evil, were an important segment in the drive towards this paranoid style. This binary form of thinking can be mapped back onto Marxist thought (capitalist versus proletariat).
Two lines of enquiry appear to converge here: on the one hand the rise of a certain mind-set that is suspicion of official explanations and wants to look behind the scenes for the ‘real’ explanation of what is happening, allied with a binary vision of the world. Seems like we have our work cut out for us then.