Yes, You Too
In fairness, in the 18th century actual conspiracies were the only real mode of politics. In the pre-democratic era there was no legal public space for second-guessing the monarch, so political discussion had to take place in private spaces, mainly limited to aristos or upper bourgeois. In ancien regime France, for e.g. your options were the secret fraternities, like the freemasons, or the slightly less boozy (and openly insurrectionary) salons. The two gendered forms of private political discussion were complementary in many ways, but the actual business of plotting enemies demises was mainly done in the "revolution starts at closing time" bro-hood drinking clubs. Napoleon used the freemasons as his unofficial political party structure. And anyone to the left of the Bonapartist war machine leaned on the Carbonari/Charbonniers, etc. All of the early socialists were masons, carbonari, etc. Blanqui may have been the most extreme example, but all late 18th / early 19th C political actors were involved in actual conspiracies-as-politics. That doesn't really speak to the continuing appeal of conspiratorial ideation as a widespread popular tendency in the here-and-now, but back in the day it was less paranoia and more established custom and practice
What about the old Marxist idea that of all systems of oppression, capitalism and its wage-slavery are the hardest to understand? The middle/working classes don’t understand that they are exploited labor, not simply free agents in the labor market. When you can’t really explain so well to yourself or your family and friends why life never seems to go very well for you and so much of your labor is wasted and your job sucks, and your children are getting into drugs and alcohol, and so forth.
Our social and cultural norms say that you’re given all sort of natural resources so that you can lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. And, so, it’s your own fault if things don’t go well for you. But there is something in that that doesn’t seem right to you because so much of what it takes to achieve “success” seems inaccessible and monopolized by the “suits” and others of the “washed.”
In this state of being, it’s no wonder that paranoia strikes deep. It’s no wonder that one and one’s family and friends have to create narratives and understandings that don’t align with what we elites think of as reality or as “normal.”
I would propose that Trump’s approach to governing — to middle/working class and poor people —seems no different in its operation than what they have experienced from our country’s governance forever: Trump acts for these people or, at least puts on a good show of doing so, just as our “normal” system of governance acts for those in the elite.
So this becomes not so much about autocracy versus democracy. It’s more about two different styles of plutocratic governance that use formalistic democratic processes and ”The Rules of Law” and Accepted Truth to maintain our particular capitalist system of exploitation. ANd these things being essentially equivalent in their experience, it’s not surprising that the WC/MC and poor would rather have the Plutocrats working for THEIR benefit -- and against that of the “libs” and Deep State that has given them such a bad deal for so long.
This, in the end, is still a struggle with the exploitative dynamics of advanced capitalism. A win for “Truth” and “The Rule of Law” in this especially fraught era -- as we, the privileged, have normalized these for our own benefit over the course of our history -- would be a great loss for the prospects of democracy going forward.
If we learn nothing from the plight of the MC/WC and poor in this moment -- and fall into subscribing to insubstantial theories of paranoia, stupidity, etc. -- we will deserve the dystopia that we are creating. The middle/working class and poor are telling us something we don’t want to hear: we have betrayed them, we don’t deserve their respect, our norms need to be blown-up and recast, our Truths need to be tested not against privileged, bourgeois ideation, but against the realities of the lives of the vast majority of our people.
If we can begin to learn this, then we can begin to look to a future where democracy is more than a cover for ever-more elaborate and obscure forms of exploitation.
In the 1832 presidential election, the Anti-Free Mason party won 8% of the popular vote and carried Vermont....So, as you discuss in your essay, even in its most bizarre manifestations, this really ain't a new thing in America.
I think sometimes this is where a larger comparative perspective helps. There have been a fair number of elections in majority-Islamic countries in the last 30 years where fundamentalist parties have won or performed strongly because they were seen as the most coherent opposition to an existing corrupt ruling elite (military or civilian) but not necessarily because a large majority were fundamentalists in any way--arguably that goes back to the Iranian Revolution. It's the *coherency* that matters, e.g., liberal oppositions to political classes perceived as corrupt or ineffectual tend to focus on proceduralism and technocracy in a way that feels incremental and situational, rather than systematic and coherent--the objection to corruption or incompetence is based on being less corrupt and more competent, which is more or less believable depending on who is fronting the party at that moment.
Ganz, this is a very impressive collection of arguments solidly grounded in history and philosophy. Bien fait, indeed, Trés bien fait I've sent it out to the usual suspects. I'm a retired philosophy prof and I think your roping in Descartes here is quite insightful, and curiously surprising. Tnx for that!
Jefferson of course was through and through Lockean; but then, Locke was through and through Cartesian. And transitivity holds.
Loved this post. It's especially interesting how the paranoias of the Enlightenment era seem to challenge straightforward dichotomies of 'wholesome Enlightenment' vs. 'unwholesome irrationality,' regressive conspiratorialism vs. progressive class consciousness, conspiracy as somehow atavistic vs. conspiracy as in some ways disarmingly modern, etc. That's not to imply that, if the dichotomies are flawed, the content deserves rehabilitation or a sympathetically 'leftist' gloss, ofc.
I'm interested in if you see any connection here with Arendt's "Truth and Politics" and the distinctions she draws between various forms of deceit - knowing lies vs. self-deceptions, lies as early modern statecraft vs. image-making for mass domestic consumption, some healthy paranoia toward 'reason of state' claims vs. a cavalier attitude towards truth itself, etc. Seems like it could be a relevant analytical tool here, in drawing out how the delusional insanity baked into American liberal democracy itself could relate to the very un-liberal ways it often manifests today. I also think she has an interesting account of solutions here, namely that it requires political action and not recourse to some neutral 'fact-checking' authority. Thanks again!
Fascinating, especially the irony of contrarianism and conspiracism having gone mainstream (again) and it’s unfortunate grounding, throughout American history. No need to apologize for your output. I like that you don’t inundate readers with content as if it were mass produced. Seems having other projects ongoing is a plus rather than hindrance. Or maybe I’m just a Ganz bro.
To your last point, Karl Popper, in “On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance” said that the optimistic doctrine of the Enlightenment, that truth was manifest so long as you sought it out and found it, was mirrored by a pessimistic explanation for why people did not believe the manifest truth: the conspiracy theory of ignorance. People actively working to keep the masses in the dark.
Rereading this and its truly brilliant. Thank you.
Noticing Descartes vs tech bro “living in a simulation” is also a theme I picked up on in my less cogent, more spiritually focused piece on my free blog, advising against nihilism. From a different angle for sure, but also some same themes.
Great post, thank you. I'm interested in your notion of rationalist paranoia, where one assumes too much agency and deliberate action on the part of others, and wonder if it might be usefully contrasted from anti-rationalist paranoia, where the Enemy is more an inscrutable alien force akin to a monster or profane curse. Even if they both amount to paranoid conspiracy, the latter seems to rely on a quasi-spiritual logic of purity or disgust while the former holds that "logic" in contempt.
Seen that way, maybe the path to non-paranoid thinking (measured vigilance?) could be framed as a sort of Aristotelian golden mean. Have you read much of John Dewey on inquiry, like Human Nature and Conduct? I am reminded of that and of The Public and Its Problems, his attempted response to Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion and its pessimism about democracy. Dewey tried to argue that rational deliberation depends upon cultivating pre-rational habits of good inquiry and that while the intransigent habits of the masses could be a threat to democracy, the malleability of habits through education was the answer. It might be an interesting source from a passionate defender of democracy who was a pragmatist about rationality.
This is really good! I remember being amazed, but not surprised when, four or five years ago, I learned that Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 had elements driven by antisemitic and anti-catholic conspiracy theories that would fairly easily slot into the QAnon worldview.
A catchy diversion on the paranoid style in American politics:
I have been amazed by this for awhile. You have to believe something close enough to a conspiracy theory if not an outright conspiracy theory to debunk a variety of conspiracy theories. If you don’t want to believe the ‘Russia hacked the 2016 election’ theory, then you have to believe a conspiracy theory about how some people conspired to create the ‘Russia hacked the 2016 election.’ If you want to reject anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, you have to believe the massive misinformation is a conspiracy. If you want to understand conspiracy theories, you kind of have to look at various ways they get created, which often does involve conspirators.
The most hilarious conspiracy theory to me is that the CIA invented the term ‘conspiracy theory.’
Of course, it will depend on the definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ what counts as a conspiracy theory. It’s less troubling and disorienting if ‘conspiracy theory’ is by its nature false and incoherent. Some of the debunkings of conspiracy theories that require explaining as a conspiracy of right wing think tanks coming up with bullshit and spreading it (often using flotsam and jetsam from the grassroots) could certainly be true and provable. It might be question-begging to define ‘conspiracy theory’ as false and incoherent by its very nature but it’s less disorienting to suppose something is not a conspiracy theory if it is based on more standard evidential grounds. But as evidence becomes more easily manufactured by AI tools the warrant we have to believe the evidence will be weaker so things will become less and less provable on standard evidential grounds. (Documents and videos, etc. will be easily faked). We’re going to get much more nuts over time, and much more politically fragmented as a result.
At the moment, there is no way to understand our political discourse or even our politics without some kind of explanation that involves conspiratorial elements. What’s really fascinating about the current moment is how fast they are produced and how various and free-floating they are.
This MIGHT be because there is no overarching narrative at the moment that really works well. We don’t have a grand ideological justification for most of the political forms we see, or these justifications have broken down in various ways. Besides the new tools of disseminating conspiracy theories is a greater uncertainty about what we are doing and why, and a weaker sense of connection with others, which I think is probably what makes it so much easier to believe conspiracy theories--because we simply don’t trust anyone.
If you subtract the money, famous name, and political context, Kennedy’s public utterances are indistinguishable from what you would hear from a mentally ill homeless person on a random street corner. Even Trump is just a predictable criminal sociopath running a game. Kennedy is an endless slurry of incoherent, blubbering idiocy and madness, and the tech billionaire/libertarian “left’s” fondness for him buttresses plausibility for my own favourite conspiracy theory - that the end game is to undermine rational thought itself, and by extension the very possibility of any rationally planned and managed social order with distributivist priorities. Kennedy is probably crazy, but as a saboteur he has a certain utility.
I like the concluding thought: we're finally realizing our birthright.
Less theoretically, RFK has acknowledged he was a heroin addict for 11 years. In my experience, people who manage to get out from under an addiction often generate (had to generate) certain styles of thinking. Many seem to need to eliminate contingency, chance, and other similar forces that make it easy to look at the world and see meaninglessness. They had been all too aware of what it could feel like to exist in apparent meaninglessness, and they react by finding unbending certainty and by believing in Manichean or large-scale power struggles.
My two brothers are deep down conspiracy rabbit holes, and so this whole are has been my personal obsession for some years. This is a wonderful piece that touches on so many things I think about all the time, with so many of my favorite references all in one place. Thank you.
Here’s a half-formed question that my be something for your mailbag:
Several times in here I feel like you bumped up against the suddenly-hot hypothesis of “elite overproduction” (Peter Turchin) as the (real? main?) driver of social instability.
Have you written about this somewhere I missed? What do you think about it. I buy it as one of many influencing factors, but I feel like it is being over-applied by the usual grasping pundits who trust too much in their own ability to logic their way through big questions (exactly like what you are describing in this piece).