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Politics and the Paranoid Style

This entry was posted in American Conspiracies, Conspiracy Theories on 11 June 2013 by

Politics and the Paranoid Style

We’ve had quite a lively debate about Hofstadter in the last meeting, as is witnessed by the wonderful blogs by Alfred and Andrew, who very much help in placing him in his context. What I wanted to do was to extract from the piece the abstract conceptual tools Hofstadter affords us in his analysis of the paranoid style, with a view to developing an intellectual framework for understanding conspiracy theory.

Some points need to be clarified first. Both Alfred and Andrew are quite right in highlighting the issue of style, but this doesn’t appear to be too hard to conceptualise once one thinks of it as a style of ‘doing’ politics, in the same way as there may be a communist, religious or even democratic style of doing politics, with their own reference points (Marxism/communist party, God, the people etc.). In the paranoid style the reference point is a vast conspiracy against a certain way of life. The politics behind Hofstadter’s article appear to be accusing the paranoid style, with its vision of an all-or-nothing victory or defeat, of not doing politics at all: it is a type of ‘anti-politics’, in the sense that it refuses to participate in the give-and-take that Hofstadter sees as defining politics (‘interest’ as opposed to ‘status’ politics), and that we might accept as encapsulating one aspect of what politics is (ie compromise).

Nor is it problematic that the focus of his study is the right-wing, which suggests that the paranoid style is the preserve of the right. Methodologically I don’t see the problem in stating that the phenomenon is universal but then focusing on one aspect of it, on the basis that this is one’s field of specialisation, as Hofstadter readily admits (‘I’m an Americanist’). But in any case while the contemporary analysis does focus in on the right, when Hofstadter discusses the historical conspiracy theory surrounding the Freemasons in 18th century America, that appears much more left-wing, in the sense that the ‘paranoids’ where the poor who saw Masonry as a ‘standing conspiracy against Republican government’.

So what insights can we glean from Hofstadter’s study? There is an encapsulating view of what conspiracy theories look like in Hofstadter’s contemporary American (1960s, McCarthyism): that there is a sustained conspiracy, running from Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine American free capitalism and pave the way to socialism/communist; that the US government has been so infiltrated by Communists since at least Pearl Harbour that the American national interest has been sold out; and that Communists control the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press etc so as to muzzle true patriotic Americans from expressing themselves. This may be interesting in of and itself, in particular if one wishes to trace the history of conspiratorial thinking in the US over the course of the 20th century. But I’m more interested in trying to identify what we can abstract from Hofstadter’s piece for analysing conspiracy theories in a more universal fashion.

A few elements present themselves:

– A world-wide conspiracy: conspiracy theorists view the world, and indeed history, as a ‘vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life’.

– Millenarianism: the fate of the world is seen in apocalyptic terms: that the conspiracy can only be overthrown by an all-out crusade, and can’t be compromised with in the usual sense of political give-and-take. There is thus a strong link with religious, black-and-white visions of the world, linked to religious millenarianism, of which conspiracy theories are a form of secularised forms of Adventism. Because of this conspiracy theorists often see themselves at a turning point in history – ‘time is running out’ being a common refrain.

– Militant leader: the conspiracy theorist is a militant leader, in that he (and yes it is often he) leads the fight against the forces of evil.

– Projection of the self: The conspiracy theorist sees the enemy as a ‘perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving’. The enemy is an idealised but also unacceptable (or lacking the courage to be) project of the self – much sexual fantasies are projected upon the enemy.

– History is willed: history is distinctly personal as it is the result of someone’s will, rather than a ‘comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence’.

– Imitation: the conspiracy theorists imitate what they see to be their enemy – the Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism in its donning of priestly attire, the John Birch Society emulates Communist ‘cells’.

– The renegade: the figure of the renegade is important in a two-fold manner: both confirming there is indeed a conspiracy, and offering the promise of redemption and victory, in that their side is wining the spiritual war.

– Self-sealing quality: the conspiracy theorist accumulates evidence – there is a strong element of pedantry here – which is linked to aping the ‘scholarly’ type. Beyond possible dodgy references, what marks out a conspiracy theorist is the ‘curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events’. The example Hofstadter offers is of the role of the Illuminati in the French Revolution, so if evidence is compiled to prove the existence of the Illuminati, there is a leap of faith in claiming they caused the French Revolution. But the evidence is mounted not to start a two-way conversation, but rather as a ‘defensive act’ against the outside world, to use to protect oneself from refutation of a theory one has developed from conviction about how the world works, instead of an objective study of it.

– Exclusion from power: conspiracy theorists often find themselves at the margins of power, and see only its consequences and not its machinery: ‘feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister and malicious fully confirmed’. From this exclusion comes a simplification of the world of power, thus the world of the conspiracy theorists is much more coherent than reality.

So, much to go on. Hofstadter is indeed offering a ‘diagnosis’ of the paranoid mentality, instead of engaging in an argument against the right-wing, but we can see from the penultimate point that one can’t rationally argue against them. Their position is ‘un-falsifiable’, much like certain types of vulgar Marxism, which explains why Popper was so enraged with them and pumped the two together (The Open Society and its Enemies). The popularity of Hofstadter’s piece is most likely linked to the fact, as Andrew has pointed out, that he was already preaching to the liberal converts in Harper’s Magazine and Oxford, but what he does add is an analysis of the ‘enemy’, which is a useful endeavour. And the reason he backs down from just dismissing them on clinical grounds is that rational people are also taken in by this style. Perhaps his work has something to say to them (Hofstadter speaks of ‘lowbrow’, ‘middle-brow’ and ‘high-brow’ paranoiacs), showing why the paranoid style is not a reasonable way of doing politics. Nonetheless, there probably is an ‘anthropological constant’ of people – in particular religious people – who will find this style of doing politics attractive. (We haven’t broached the issue here that many rulers are indeed paranoid, always fearful as to who might try to overthrow them, as purges – in both authoritarian and indeed democratic [‘government re-shuffles’] – attest to).

Of course the test of whether Hofstadter’s model is still useful for us today depends on whether we are able to take it out of its context and apply it to different situations. As Alfred has already indicated, Houchang Chehabi is coming to talk to us tomorrow on ‘The Paranoid Style in Iranian Historiography’. Sounds promising.