We Must Pay Attention to the Powerful Political Force of Conspiracy Theories
Where does one draw the line between conspiracy theories, and politics-as-usual? Anthropologist Erica Lagalisse warns that we ignore conspiracy theory at our peril in Occult Features of Anarchism.
Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples
Are you one of those people who brushes off conspiracy theories? If so, think again. Whether you believe in them or not, conspiracy theories matter – and anthropologist Erica Lagalisse reminds us why in her remarkable study, Occult Features of Anarchism.
"[A]s a university professor I may respectably discuss Central Intelligence Agency involvement in drug trafficking, yet a truck driver who says the same thing is often tossed off as a 'crazy conspiracy theorist,'" Lgalisse observes.
The book is really a sort of extended, two-pronged essay. The first half offers a historical survey of the connection between occultism and leftist thought; the second part zeroes in on conspiracy theories in the contemporary era and what they say about popular feelings of disenfranchisement.
Some of the anarchist organizational debates with which the book opens may appear arcane to the average reader, but Lagalisse draws on her own pre-doctoral activist background to critically examine two tendencies in leftist thought. On the one hand, there are activists who harbour an obsession with conspiracy theories. Sometimes this obsession emerges as an attraction to particular conspiracy theories (9/11 is a rich source of conspiracy theories for both the left and right); at other times it emerges in the opposite form, a determination to keep the activist movement 'pure' by keeping conspiracy theorists out. Lagalisse developed an interest in the topic while studying, and then debunking, a comrade's interest in anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist conspiracies about the global banking system. This offers a prime example: yes, global banking and free trade may very well be characterized by a lattice of conspiracies (if we consider 'conspiracy' to simply be a form of manipulative elite politics), but hardly one orchestrated by Jews or any single identity group.
The other tendency she explores is the unhealthy obsession with secularism among some left thinkers, itself an offshoot of this tendency toward puritanical rationalism. This manifests as a tendency among left activists to scoff at religion and spirituality as primitive and unworthy of modern progressive thought. The problem with this is both conceptual and strategic, she argues. It's driven a wedge between two erstwhile allies: Indigenous activism (which is often expressed in spiritual terms) and non-Indigenous left activism, which tends to maintain a disdainful sense of superiority toward activism that draws on earth-centred spirituality. Even when non-Indigenous leftists espouse decolonizing solidarity with Indigenous activists, the cultural and spiritual beliefs Indigenous activists bring to the table are all too often thinly tolerated, if not the subject of outright disdain.
Her critique of secularism is spot-on, provocative and refreshing. When western Europe, muddling through its own "Enlightenment" and revolution of 'rational' thought, embarked down the road of colonization and encountered the Indigenous 'Other', it repackaged much of its own set of theological and cosmological beliefs and rebranded these 'secular', labelling in turn non-Western cosmological paradigms as 'religion'. The point here is that what westerners often refer to as secularism is in fact not devoid of faith-based cosmological ideas and set beliefs about why and how things happen in the universe. It's just that secular westerners pretend their founding beliefs and paradigms are different in quality and substance from non-western cosmologies and belief systems.
A prime modern-day example of this can be witnessed in the intense political debates over secularism in the Canadian province of Quebec. A bevy of recent legislation has sought to ban religious attire and symbols in public institutions (schools, hospitals, legislatures). And while this has led to the enforced exclusion of Muslims, Sikhs, and others who refuse to abandon their religious apparel, many institutions retain crucifixes and other Christian symbols, labelling them "historical" and "cultural" as opposed to religious. It's a double standard, yet one which is much more common and deeply rooted in western culture and secular thought than is often realized.
Moreover, many of the people we consider key figures in the history of modern science and the Enlightenment, in fact did not see a necessary distinction between 'science' and 'magic'. Copernicus, Newton, and other key figures in the 'scientific revolution' dabbled in astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, and other forms of knowledge pursuit now widely discredited as 'occult'. But for those figures, the line between spiritual cosmology and scientific rationalism was not as clear cut as it is made out to be today.
Even many of the core – and seemingly secular -- political debates in western society can be found to have their roots in the theological, spiritual debates of early Christianity. For instance, does human society require a firm guiding hand (the rule of law; authoritarianism; a benevolent or fascist dictator)? Or are we all fundamentally good, and have the capacity to govern ourselves (as anarchists and other left radicals might believe)? These questions were debated by bishops and theologians long before they were grappled with by so-called rational thinkers. They reflect preoccupations shared both in the western religious sphere as well as the political sphere, and it's important to recognize the two are not necessarily as separate as we might think. The point here is that the 'secular' is more deeply rooted in the 'spiritual' than many realize.
Conspiracies and Illuminati
Proceeding from this point, Lagalisse charts a fascinating genealogy of secret organizations, many of whom straddled this complex thin line between politics and spirituality. The fragmentation of proletarian guilds in the medieval period gave way to the formation of elitist secret organizations such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati. Comprised not so much of actual working masons (unlike the trade guilds which preceded them) but rather of literate elites, they nonetheless offered a forum in which ideas about equality and humanism circulated. Sometimes the ideas that circulated in these societies were considered radical by the powers that be; in other cases the societies' radicalism was deliberately conflated by the state and other reactionary forces out of fear (one can't help but see parallels in the way so many change-seeking organizations in today's political milieu run the risk of being labelled 'terrorists' or 'extremists' by fearful governments that aren't sure what to make of them, much like the secret masonic and occult organizations of yore).
It's a fascinating historical sketch, but what is the point of all this to the present? Here contemporary radicals might learn from the Illuminati. The historical Illuminati were an offshoot of Freemasonry, and while they only ever constituted a minority they encouraged their members to continue their involvement in mainstream masonic lodges – not just to proselytize and find new recruits, but also to nudge the mainstream lodges in directions that aligned with the more radical Illuminati ideas. This, in essence, is the role played by more recent radicals and anarchists, and why they often participate in 'reformist' projects (such as Occupy, or labour union strikes). The idea held by occult or masonic lodges that they were the bearers of secret knowledge and enlightenment, with a responsibility to guide less evolved society in the right direction, has a striking parallel in radical politics (for both the left and the right). By engaging in mainstream politics, radicals aspire to nudge the mainstream further to the left or right, according to their beliefs. Is this conspiracy? Or is it simply politics?
Lagalisse notes that the line between the two is a thin and tenuous one. Indeed, labour unions were once prosecuted under 'anti-conspiracy' laws. There may not be time-traveling aliens or lizard-men involved, but in modern politics one will still find ample evidence of the "conspiracy of kings" on the right and the "conspiracy of peoples" on the left.
Trump and the Illuminati
The final essay in this fascinating study takes aim at the more contemporary era. Why is it, Lagalisse asks, that so many intellectuals and other elites insist on making fun of conspiracy theorists (she refers to them as 'popular theorists') and dismiss them as ludicrous, silly, and lacking any sort of legitimacy? After all, conspiracy theories have wide purchase. Marginalized in mainstream (elite-run) media, they dominate YouTube and social media. The integral role played by conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists in propelling Donald Trump to the White House offers further evidence of their popular and political potency. And many of them tell a story not too different, in its broad contours, from that told by 'scientific' leftists, about the manipulations of power by elites, elite control of global capitalism and national/transnational institutions, and so forth. The facts may differ, but once we remove the lizard-men and time-traveling aliens, sometimes the message is starkly similar.
The quick dismissal of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists, and their conflation in the Trump era with the image of racist poor white folk, reflects a certain classism on the part of intellectual elites, she warns. It's not just a few marginal rednecks dabbling in conspiracies – any scan of social media shows they have far wider purchase. Conspiracy theories express an important dimension of popular culture, and they ought to be treated more seriously by scholars and activists alike. Even if they're not active believers, millions of people are drawn to the conspiracy theorists of social media sites.
There is a popular and political power in this, and progressive activists ignore it at their peril. Trump's election as president of the United States is a case in point – in many ways he was the candidate of conspiracy theorists, who represent an under-examined voting bloc which crosscuts both left and right. Her argument is that activists should not ignore or disengage from conspiracy theories and the people who subscribe to them. Activists need to engage, to respectfully ferret out fact from fiction and nudge those who (correctly) believe something is not right with the world in a more productive and progressive direction.
"They might discuss with them how the new neoliberal world order is indeed controlled by conspiring elites, including bankers, yet the bankers are not specifically Jewish or lizards nor associated with the Illuminati. They might explain further how it serves the real 'blue-blooded' parasites in power to have people believe that they are," she writes.
Lagalisse is one of those exceptional scholars who manages to follow a clear line of argument while also dropping profound commentaries on a variety of other topics as she goes. She provides, almost in passing, a brilliant and ruthlessly incisive take-down of the performative allyship of academic elites toward persons of oppressed identities (this, she says, all too often "consist[s] in valorizing one's self vis-à-vis one's peers… instead of constituting tangible benefits for the persons with whom one is 'allied'"). There's also an excellent critique of performative politics – "good politics" – and its racist consequences. Identity-policing and call-out culture is more often than not a matter of semantics, where the people being called out are not necessarily trying to be racist or oppressive, but simply lack the sophisticated verbiage of the people doing the calling out. "As a consequence," she writes, "articulate students of Edward Said or well-spoken sexists may enjoy 'good politics' simply because they cite and reiterate their bourgeois self-detachment ('reflexivity') by way of choicefully framed speeches."
The people who lack the sophisticated language necessary to engage in performative politics are more often than not the poor and working class. Put another way, she continues, "it is common for diverse professional-class activists to enjoy locating racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. among (diverse) working-class subjects… as in this way they may take the critical lens off themselves."
This, she observes – bringing the argument back to her primary topic with a masterful flourish – is not so far off from what's going on with conspiracy theories. The broad public understands they are being manipulated, but lack the sophisticated language of intellectual elites with which to articulate that process. "[A]s a university professor I may respectably discuss Central Intelligence Agency involvement in drug trafficking, yet a truck driver who says the same thing is often tossed off as a 'crazy conspiracy theorist,'" she observes.
Lagalisse acknowledges that her book is mostly a cursory historical survey, coupled with some provocative argumentative essays, but it's a rewarding, thought-provoking and densely intellectual one. There's a tremendous amount packed into these few short pages, which offer superb and valuable reading for the academic theorist and the on-the-ground activist alike. The takeaway message for both is this: the next time your neighbour or taxi driver starts spinning what you think is an incredulous conspiracy theory, don't just glaze over or change the subject. Instead, try and listen to what they're saying, and maybe engage with them. By filleting away the anti-Semitism and the lizard-men, you might discover you've got more in common than you think.