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Must a conspiracy always go right up to the top?

This entry was posted in Complexity, Concealment, Conspiracy Theories on 2 February 2015 by

“This goes all the way to the top” is one of the great clichés of conspiracy theory. It conjures an image of a group of cackling evildoers hatching a nefarious plot in a smoky room, swearing an oath and then secretly carrying out their elaborate design. In this model of a conspiracy, a small secret group is imagined to control the course of events, to bend reality to their will. There is supposed to be a plan, a grand design, and a group with the will and the power to carry it through.

This is what we might call the top-down model of a conspiracy. It is certainly the sort of thing many people seem to think of when they think of conspiracy. But does every conspiracy have to be the product of such a grand design? Does every conspiracy have to be a top-down conspiracy?

One of the things I took from our reading group last week was that it may be worth distinguishing between what we can call top-down and bottom-up conspiracies. The bottom-up conspiracy emerges when a group of individuals with a common interest begin to coordinate their action without necessarily needing to be told. It does not need to begin with an explicit agreement. Nor does it have to involve anything so grand as making reality conform to a prior design. This second model of conspiracy is bottom-up in the sense that it can begin from the voluntary coordination of a group of individuals without necessarily an explicit agreement or design. But it becomes a conspiracy in the sense that the actors involved know that they are bound together in collective action that is illegal or wrong, they know they are bound together, and that their activities depend on their ongoing – and secret – cooperation. The end effect is intentional deception and hidden coordination by the participants, even though there was no original plan.

I was thinking of this while reading a story in this week’s New Yorker about corruption in the Alberquerque police department. The story focuses on the killing by police of an unarmed civilian and the struggle by the victim’s family to hold the officers to account for their behaviour. What is interesting about this story is not so much the killing itself, but what happens next. Or what doesn’t happen. An eyewitness to the shooting was ignored by the official police account of the killing, and was never contacted about the incident by the police. Yet ‘she noticed a police car parked on the street in front of her house almost every day for seven months. “He could have been there for another reason,” she said. “But I found it very strange that when I walked out to see what was going on he would drive away.”‘

The wife of the victim’s brother thought the rest of the family were being paranoid. Then she began to notice Albuquerque police cars in their suburb outside the city limits. She believed she was being frozen out of meetings and denied promotion (she’s a psychologist at the county juvenile detention centre, and her work involves contact with the chief of police and the mayor) because she spoke up at city council meetings on the subject of the killing. In classic conspiracy-movie style, she reports finding a note under her windscreen wiper saying “Shut up and watch what you’re doing.”

When the district attorney hinted that she would bring charges against Albuquerque police officers (in a different shooting – this time of a homeless man who the police were trying to move on from an illegal camp site) she suddenly found herself and members of her family being investigated by the Albuquerque Police Department. ‘When I asked her if she saw the investigation as a form of intimidation, a way to prevent her from indicting the officers who shot Boyd, she said, “I think right now it’s best if other people connect the dots.”‘

The story reads a bit like the plot of a conspiracy movie. But what sort of conspiracy? Surely not top-down. The idea that a small group of officers plotted the killing, or even explicitly sat down in a room and agreed and coordinated a cover-up, is the sort of thing that gives conspiracy theories a bad name. But the idea of a bottom-up conspiracy doesn’t need everything to be part of a grand design. A bottom-up conspiracy can emerge accidentally, as it were, and yet still solidify into something with all the hallmarks of secret coordinated collective action.

The top-down type of conspiracy dominates the conspiratorial imagination (think of House of Cards). The bottom-up type of conspiracy is far more plausible, probably far more common, but not nearly so well understood. It opens up a range of ways in which characteristically conspiratorial outcomes can emerge without anybody necessarily planning or intending them, and it suggests that we need to pay more attention to the different forms and combinations of conspiracy, collusion and complicity in collective action.

What would be the catchphrase of the bottom-up conspiracy? Instead of ’this goes right to the top’, it might be something like, ’this goes right to the incentive structure, institutional design, and organisational culture’. Needs a bit of work, I know.