Conspiracy Theories and Rationality By Professor David Coady

http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6005

 

I have been interviewed by the media several times since my edited collection Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate came out. On each occasion the questions I was asked presupposed that conspiracy theories are invariably false and that the people who believe them (i.e., conspiracy theorists) are irrational. Every interviewer has expressed the hope that I could explain why people persist in this form of irrationality.

In retrospect this should not have been surprising. The expression “conspiracy theory” has strongly negative connotations; it is almost invariably used in a way which implies that the theory in question is not to be taken seriously. However careful consideration of what a conspiracy theory is reveals that this dismissive attitude is not justified.

A “conspiracy” is simply a secret plan on the part of a group of people to bring about some shared goal, and a “conspiracy theory” is simply a theory according to which such a plan has occurred or is occurring. Most people can cite numerous examples of conspiracies from history, current affairs, or their own personal experience. Hence most people are conspiracy theorists.

The problem is that when people think of particular examples of conspiracy theories they tend to think of theories that are clearly irrational.

When asked to cite examples of typical conspiracy theories, many people will refer to theories involving conspirators who are virtually all-powerful or virtually omniscient.

Others will mention theories involving alleged conspiracies that have been going on for so long or which involve so many people, that it implausible to suppose that it could have remained undetected (by anyone other than the conspiracy theorists).

Still others refer to theories involving conspirators who appear to have no motive to conspire (unless perhaps the desire to do evil for its own sake can be thought of as a motive).

Such theories are conspiracy theories and they are irrational, but it does not follow, nor is it true, that they are irrational because they are conspiracy theories. Thinking of such irrational conspiracy theories as paradigms of conspiracy theories is like thinking of numerology as a paradigm of number theory, or astrology as a paradigm of a theory of planetary motion. The subject matter of a theory does not in general determine whether belief in it is rational or not.

People do conspire. Indeed almost everyone conspires some of the time (think of surprise birthday parties) and some people conspire almost all the time (think of CIA agents). Many things (for example, September 11) cannot be explained without reference to a conspiracy. The only question in such cases is “Which conspiracy theory is true?”.

The official version of events (which in this case I accept) is that the conspirators were members of al-Qaida. This explanation is, however, unlikely to attract the label “conspiracy theory”. Why not? Because it is also the “official story”.

Although it is common to contrast conspiracy theories with the official non-conspiratorial version of events, quite often the official version of events is just as conspiratorial as its rivals. When this is the case, it is the rivals to the official version of events that will inevitably be labelled “conspiracy theories” with all the associated negative connotations. So, “conspiracy theory” has become, in effect, a synonym for a belief which conflicts with an official story.

This should make it clear how dangerous the expressions “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” have become. These expressions are regularly used by politicians and other officials, and more generally by defenders of officialdom in the media, as terms of abuse and ridicule.

Yet it is vital to any open society that there are respected sources of information which are independent of official sources of information, and which can contradict them without fear. The widespread view that conspiracy theories are always, or even typically, irrational is not only wrongheaded, it is a threat to our freedom.

Of course, no one should deny that there are people who have an irrational tendency to see conspiracies everywhere, and it would, of course, be possible to restrict the expression “conspiracy theorist” in such a way that it only referred to such people. But if we do this, we should also remember that there is another form of irrationality, namely the failure to see conspiracy, even when one is confronted with clear evidence of it, which is at least as widespread, and which is far more insidious.

We need a name for people who irrationally reject evidence of conspiracy, to give our political discourse some much needed balance.

think the expression “coincidence theorist”, which has gained a certain currency on the Internet, is a suitable candidate. A coincidence theorist fails to connect the dots, no matter how suggestive of an underlying pattern, they are.

A hardened coincidence theorist may watch a plane crash into the second tower of the World Trade Centre without thinking that there is any connection between this event and the plane which crashed into the other tower of the World Trade Centre less than an hour earlier.

Similarly, a coincidence theorist can observe the current American administration’s policies in oil rich countries from Iraq and Iran to Venezuela, and see no connection between those policies and oil.

A coincidence theorist is just as irrational as a conspiracy theorist (in the sense of someone excessively prone to conspiracy theorising). They are equally prone to error, though their errors are of different and opposing kinds. The errors of the conspiracy theorist, however, are much less dangerous than the errors of the coincidence theorist. The conspiracy theorist usually only harms himself. The coincidence theorist may harm us all by making it easier for conspirators to get away with it.

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The subculture of Conspiracy Theory: The logic behind the thinking and its social operation

Excerpt from the book, Who rules the World? An Analysis of Conspiracy Theory By Tony Sobrado

 

Conspiracy theory is like any other world view. It takes the ontology of the social-political world, and often metaphysical world, and postulates theories with regards to the world that the theorists themselves live in. It is an alternative philosophical position to espouse that is controversial and radically challenges conventional conceptions of government, society and existence itself.

Conspiracy Theory is a discourse. The key theoretical element behind this discourse is that what appears to be unequivocal categorical phenomena, liable to intellectual and analytical scrutiny from within the social and natural sciences is anything but under the conspiracy schools. Conspiracy Theory provides some distorted and perverted alternative explanations for “goings on” and phenomena observed. The popularity of conspiracy theories, and their penetration of contemporary society, has even produced academic programmes in the subject matter. Jim Marrs, a prominent conspiracy theorist, has even taught classes in the Assassination of Kennedy at the University of Texas.

However Conspiracy Theory, itself, is severely defective as a credible discourse and theoretical discipline. This is with regards to the subject matter it attempts to engage. This is because it is disjointed, contradictory and often illogical. Furthermore it is rendered inept by complete paradoxes. Conspiracy Theory is deprived of annexing unifying principles or arguments. It is incoherent and various conspiracy theories do not, in any way, support other tenets in other conspiracy theories that engage the same subject matter. This problem becomes even more apparent in recognising the analytical difference between historically continuing conspiracy theories, modern conspiracy theories and meta-conspiracy theories

For a comparison, take quantum physics. As a modern discipline there are radically different positions to adopt in quantum physics. Yet at fundamental levels, there are mathematical principles and theoretical paradigms that are completely adhered to by its scholars. There is variation, but it is variation in one general direction. This also applies to the paradigm of evolutionary theory in the natural and social sciences. This, however, is not the case for Conspiracy Theory regarding the same subject matter whether it is 911, the Kennedy assassination or the Illuminati and freemasons. Here the conspiracy theory regarding one event or orgnaisation is scattered and contradictory. It has no overarching or unified principle. You probably could not get more than three conspiracy theorists to agree on the nature of the particular conspiracy theory in question and what it entails. As where in quantum physics, despite the diversity, scholars adhere to widely accepted theoretical and mathematical principles.    

Moreover, the Conspiracy Theory culture is an industry field and genre itself; where people verily disagree and attempt to desecrate one another’s conspiracy theories and principles. Consequently, because of the nature of the subject matter, fellow conspiracy theorists, in their own proposed conspiracy theory, accuse their rival conspiracy theorists of being in collusion with the “powers that be”. This makes both individual conspiracy theories and overarching conspiracy theories, simultaneously, seem untenable and nonsensical. For instance Eric Phelps and others accuse Alex Jones of being a shiel. You would not get a historian or a quantum physicist accusing another fellow scholar, even if in disagreement, of not being a historian or a quantum physicist. However the broad paranoid nature and the theoretical, abstract and subjective fantasy of many conspiracy theories breed these radically accusative philosophical positions.

Conspiracy theorists, however, depend and hide behind circular logic in order to discredit their rival’s opinion in certain fields of Conspiracy Theory. This is because conspiracy theorists start with the presupposition, and thus incipient principle, that what they are observing is a conspiracy. From this schema, it logically follows that every other phenomena and actor must also be part of that particular conspiracy theory. This even includes rival conspiracy theorists that do not agree with their own proposed conspiracy theory.

 This again illustrates that Conspiracy Theory is just another world view and philosophy to adopt, with controversial elements of ontology and epistemology. The issue that conspiracy theorists argue amongst themselves, with regards to which conspiracy theory is correct, and accuse each other of being conspirators themselves; is reinforced by the analysing of group formation within social psychology. This is “in groups” and “out groups” and what groups and individuals are perceived as threats to a particular ethos or ideal; regarding a certain philosophy. Conspiracy Theory is a political opinion that is contended in its own circles like any other opinion regarding the social world.

Many academic works have analysed Conspiracy Theory in the format of social phenomena and socio-cultural opinions. In an article by Anita M. Waters, published in 1997 in the Journal of Black Studies, Vol 28 No.1 entitled Conspiracy Theories as Ethosociologies she writes “attributing social maladies to deliberate plots by hostile conspirators is an American tradition dating back to the 1760s, beginning with the rumours of a British plan to remove colonists’ rights and continuing through to the John F. Kennedy assassination theories”.

Undoubtedly, at the turn of the millennium, the Bush Administration, 9/11 and the Iraq war increased the propagations, popularity and success of conspiratorial publications and ideas. One of the biggest successes is the documentary Loose Change, which is internationally acclaimed as was even released as a full length motion picture at cinemas. In light of new evidence and changing social circumstances and phenomena, old conspiracy theories of secret societies and “secret world control” become adapted. As Obama is the first President of the United States that is not fully white and mixed race, new conspiracy theorists have come to involve the black Freemasons: a branch of Freemasons for black successful people. This includes politicians, lawyers and musicians. The first black man in the White House must have been pre planned by some conspirators! Or else conspiracy paradigms begin to fall apart.

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The schema and ideological belief system of Meta conspiracy theorists

Excerpt from the book, Who rules the world? An analysis of Conspiracy Theory By Tony Sobrado

 

Meta conspiracy theories are a form of ideology. They posit alternative political and social explanations to Governmental and social theory akin to the political philosophy of Liberalism or Socialism for at their very root they postulate an ontological framework for how society, politics and the economy operate. But what is it about this form of political ideology that makes Meta conspiracy theories untenable in the light of other political ideologies. With fantastical claims comes the need for rigorous evidence, which Meta conspiracy theorists dramatically fail to produce. Meta conspiracy theories of secret Governmental world rule function in a haphazard and non systematic manner. They amalgamate disparate sources of information and convolute them in desirable ways to felicitate conspiratorial paradigms. To invoke their conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists pick and choose what they will with regards to information.

However the use of data and inference of evidence and what constitutes “proof” is far more difficult, if not impossible, to assimilate in the social world, due to the unpredictability of social agents and events. For it is men that make their social world and their choices, behavior, and motivations cannot be predicatively pinned down like particles and atoms can be in natural science, for the latter do not posses reflexive cognition. One can look at social phenomena through many lenses, be it Marxism, Liberalism, Anarchism, Postmodernism or Structuralism. The fact that conspiracy theorists play the analytical card of Meta conspiracy theory to explain a range of seemingly unrelated events from the death of JFK, to alien abduction, to the faked moon landings and 911 simply illustrates that they operate with their own schema and belief system.

In this respect we are all the same as cognitive thinking creatures. From the internal position of Meta conspiracy theory, logic and rationale operates in concordance with beliefs that connect the dots and answers conundrums to social phenomena. You have to ascribe to the belief system of Meta conspiracy theory for it to be rationally acceptable and applicably consistent just as religious people play the game of rationality when justifying the belief in a deity – a term often described as “reasonable faith”.

This analysis of belief systems, world views and psychological schemas are the focus of much study in Social Psychology. A schema can be loosely described as a mental structure that represents some aspect of the world. Schemata are an effective tool for understanding the world. Through the use of schemata, most everyday situations do not require effortful thought – automatic thought is all that is required. People can quickly organise new perceptions into schemata and act effectively without strenuous conscious labour. The social world can be understood and represented via internal rationale and self sustaining logic. This produces a disposition to perceive phenomena in a particular way through a particular perspective.

So what can be said about the schema of Meta conspiracy theory? Does the cynical disposition in adhering to Meta conspiracy theory say something psychological about the believer or the social and cultural values of a specific community in anthropological, sociological and social psychological terms? Research conducted at the University of Virginia concluded that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in others. Unsurprisingly there is a good chance that someone who believes the moon landings were faked will also believe that JFK was killed by a second gunman upon that infamous grassy knoll. Dr Karen Douglas at the University of Kent goes one step further. In her article entitled Does it take one to know one? Published in The British Journal of Psychology she explains how belief and endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by a personal willingness to conspire.

How endemic are Meta conspiracy theories and belief in general Conspiracy Theory? Meta Conspiracy theories themselves have a long and distinguished history. This was made evident by books propagating conspiracy theories, with regards to Government, in the nineteenth and twentieth century. One book of notoriety is Nesta Webster’s Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. In it Webster argued that the secret society of the Illuminati were occultists, plotting communist world domination whilst simultaneously using the idea of a Jewish cabal, the Masons and Jesuits as a smokescreen. The 1920’s also saw the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was a fraudulent anti-Semitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for achieving global domination and naturally propagated by the Nazis and Stalin for political reasons decades later.

 Conspiracy theories also have historical veracity in claiming metaphysical and transcendental elements. For instance, in medieval times social randomness, mishaps and unexplained events, both natural and political, were often explained, and accounted for, as being the direct work of the devil. This, in analytical and definitive terms, is a pre-ordained transcendental Meta conspiracy theory. Before the advent of scientific methodology, both social and natural phenomena were explained via supernatural elements and this applied to conspiracy theories as well, with unmarried women often the scapegoat for witch hunters.

 Conspiracy theories have been around as long as man has been a social animal. The tenets of psychology, sociology and anthropology academically account for groups or individuals in society adhering to, and depending on, conspiracy theories. A study carried out in 2002 by Bruce Scheiner explored a way of thinking called “major event – major cause” reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging itself. Social structures, intentions, causes and meaning can have greater saliency, in terms of order and purpose, when aligned with conspiratorial explanations than they do when they merely presented as social randomness and ad hoc events. Conspiracy theories give socio phenomena some additional meaning that would otherwise be a product of socio randomness, in terms of actor/situation dynamics and thus eventually meaning and intention. No matter how perverse or fantastical the explanatory conspiracy theory is, for its adherents, it is often more comprehendible than random and spontaneous occurrences. In a dappled and unpredictable social world conspiracy theory is often better than no theory  

As well as certain anti-government conspiracy theories having a historical presence and vicissitude themselves, there are also dividing and distinguishing conspiracy theories across the political spectrum – reinforcing the overlap between Meta conspiracy theories and political ideology. This is with regards to conspiracy theories of the State, individual liberty within society, and certain religious and transcendental elements that pertain to conspiracy theory. For instance, with regards to the One World Government conspiracy theories, generally speaking, those on the left on the political spectrum see the conspiracy as a globalist, fascist and authoritative State conspiracy. In this context, the One World Government conspiracy is the antithesis of the natural rights of man as a social being and animal. This is the philosophy of political liberalism expanded to realm of conspiracy theory. Those on the right of the political spectrum perceive the same conspiracy of world domination and authoritative State control as being a threat to America’s Republicanism and constitutional liberties. They often employ dogmatic Christina values in defending their conspiracy theories. This includes the much popularised idea that the Freemasons and Illuminati as devil worshippers. They also see those on the left of the political spectrum as their foes, often believing that that there is a Marxist conspiracy to “rule the world” in the form of totalitarian State control.

 These two radically different positions, with regards to the conspiracy to “rule the world”, adds to the confusion regarding this Meta conspiracy theory paradigm. One is left with no clarity as to what the One World Government conspiracy is; and who or what is responsible for it, or how it is draconian to individual liberties and the rights of man as a being. Both schools in the political spectrum are suspicious of one another and blame one another for the One World Government conspiracy. This not only demonstrates the ideology of Meta conspiracy theory but highlights what happens when world views and belief systems collide in the political-conspiratorial realm.

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A Very American Conspiracy Theory By Professor Kathryn Olmsted

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/11/a_very_american_conspiracy_theory?page=0,1

Whether or not Jared Loughner is mentally ill, it’s clear that his shooting rampage last weekend, which took six lives and critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was motivated, at least in part, by his conspiratorial views of the U.S. government. According to his friends, he believed that Washington faked the moon landing and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks; that the Federal Reserve was a Jewish plot; and that the government was trying to control his brain through grammar.

Wacky as they may seem, the anti-government conspiracy theories that appear to have partially inspired Loughner have a long tradition in the United States. Conspiracy theories may be a globalized phenomenon, but Loughner’s particular brand of government paranoia is purely all-American.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans primarily worried that their republic was vulnerable to foreign conspirators. They particularly feared Masons, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, viewing them as seditious groups that followed the instructions of an alien power.

These conspiracy theories produced some powerful political movements in the United States: The Anti-Masons dominated New England politics in the 1830s, and the anti-Catholic American Protective Association boasted hundreds of thousands of members in the 1890s. Sometimes, conspiracy theories had lethal consequences: Some paranoiacs lynched alleged plotters and burned their churches.

Suspicion of other races, religions, or ethnicities is still the common currency of conspiracy theories elsewhere in the world — the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that thrive in Arab countries are a case in point. In the 20th century, however, American conspiracy theories underwent a fundamental transformation. No longer were conspiracy theorists chiefly concerned that alien forces were plotting to capture the federal government; instead, they began to argue that the federal government itself was the alien force.

Some Americans had very legitimate reason to believe that the government was conspiring against them. Beginning in World War I, the U.S. government began to create and expand the agencies it needed to carry out secret operations. The modern surveillance state was born during World War I, as the government criminalized dissent with the Espionage Act and Sedition Act and empowered Bureau of Investigation agents to spy on potential dissidents. As the government grew, it gained the power to conspire against its citizens, and it soon began exercising that power.

After the end of World War II, new, more powerful secret agencies — including the CIA — sprang up to wage the trench battles of the Cold War. Locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union, the country’s secret warriors believed in using any means necessary to fight the forces of godless communism. But because the government plotters were not accountable to anyone except their fellow agents, their plans sometimes distorted into bizarre form.

By the height of the Cold War, government agents were plotting with the mafia to kill Fidel Castro, dropping hallucinogenic drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting Americans at random bars, and debating the possibility of launching fake terrorist attacks on Americans in the United States. Public officials denied potentially lifesaving treatment to African-American men in medical experiments, sold arms to terrorists in return for American hostages, and faked documents to frame past presidents for crimes they had not committed.

Given the U.S. government’s commitment to openness and democracy, light was eventually cast into the dark corners of the secret state. In 1975 and 1976, the special Senate investigating committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, known as the Church Committee, exposed and documented crimes and abuses by the CIA and FBI. For many Americans, the most popular and most distressing revelations involved the CIA program of drug-testing and mind-control experiments known as MKULTRA. The news of these experiments inspired generations of psychotics to wonder whether the voices in their heads really came from CIA headquarters.

The Church committee spurred a series of congressional and journalistic investigations of other secret government conspiracies. Many Americans were now ready to believe their government could be involved in nefarious plots. Church and his successors had hoped to restore faith in government by revealing its mistakes, but instead they helped accelerate Americans’ post-Vietnam spiral into apathy and cynicism.

By the 1990s, conspiracy theories about the government transcended race and ideology. Suspicions about long-hidden government plots appealed to black separatists and white supremacists, to left-wing activists and right-wing militias, to anarchists and neofascists. Conspiracism bent the political spectrum and fused its extremes into an endless circle of paranoia.

The Internet allowed conspiracy theorists to find and link to one another’s ramblings, giving hope to those who believed, in the words of The X-Files, that “the truth is out there.” To spread their theories, skeptics in the early 20th century needed to crank hand-operated printing presses and, in one famous case, fling their tracts from the windows of tall buildings. But by the late 20th century, anyone with a computer could potentially address an audience of millions.

As the 20th century neared its end, the anti-government skeptics infused their theories with a millennial sense of urgency. “The wolf,” said popular conspiracy writer Milton William Cooper, “is at the door.” The X-Files‘ many devoted fans agreed with one character’s assessment of the federal government in the show’s fifth season: “No matter how paranoid you are,” she explained, “you’re not paranoid enough.” No one could say that about Jared Loughner, cluttered with a toxic jumble of left- and right-wing conspiracy theories, his sources ranging from Marx to Hitler to heavy metal.

In fact, Arizona has, by some measures, become a ground zero for anti-government conspiracy theories. Loughner lived in a politically polarized state in which the federal government’s policies, from health care to immigration, were excoriated by mainstream politicians as evidence of a tyrannical plot against liberty. And these theories took root beyond Arizona’s borders. Throughout the United States, conspiracists rage against the alleged subversion of their country by “un-American” forces that reside in the U.S. government itself.

Conspiracy theories may seem to thrive on the margins of American politics: When historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed a “paranoid style” in American politics in the 1960s, these views were easily characterized as fringe. But they become central when they gain powerful sponsors in the media and politics who inject their paranoid theories into the body politic. These conspiracy theories can be ridiculed in pop culture, but they will eventually lash out against reality — as they tragically did last Saturday.

 

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The Ontological Status of Conspiracy Theory By Hakim Bey

http://hermetic.com/bey/conspire.html

Is conspiracy theory a delusion of the Right which has infected the Left as well? Leftist Conspiracy Theorists sometimes make uncritical use of the texts of Rightest Conspiracy Theorists-delving into the work of the Liberty Lobby for JFK Assassination tidbits, picking up Birchist notions about the CFR/Bilderberg/Rockefeller “liberal” internationalists, etc., etc. Since anti-semitism can be found on the Left as well as the Right, echoes of the Protocols may be heard from both directions. Even some anarchists are attracted to “Historical Revisionism”. Anticapitalism or economic populism on the Right has its counterpoint on the Left in “Red Fascism”, which broke the surface of History in the Hitler/Stalin Pact, and has come back to haunt us in the bizarre European “Third Wave” amalgamation of Right and Left extremism, a phenomenon which emerges in the USA in the libertine nihilism and “satanism” of anarcho-fascist groups like Amok Press and Radio Werewolf — and conspiracy theory plays a big role in all these ideologies.

If conspiracy theory is essentially right wing, it can only be so because it posits a view of History as the work of individuals rather than groups. According to this argument, a Mae Brussel-type theory (she believed that Nazis had penetrated American Intelligence and Government at policy level) may appear Leftist but in fact provides no sustenance for genuine dialectical analysis, since it ignores economics and class struggle as causal forces, and instead traces all events to the machinations of “hidden” individuals. Even the anti-authoritarian Left may sometimes adopt this low opinion of conspiracy theory, despite the fact that it is not bound by any dogmatic belief in economic determinism. Such anarchists would agree that to believe in conspiracy theory is to believe that elites can influence History. Anarchism posits that elites are simply carried by the flow of History and that their belief in their own power or agency is pure illusion. If one were to believe otherwise, such anarchists argue, then Marx and Lenin would be correct, and conspiratorial vanguardism would be the best strategy for the “movement of the social”. (The existence of vanguardism proves that the Left-or at least the authoritarian Left — has not merely been tainted accidentally with conspiracy theory: vanguardism IS conspiracy!) The Leninists say the state is a conspiracy, either of Right or Left-take your choice. The anarchists argue that the state does not “have” power in any absolute or essential sense, but that it merely usurps the power which, in essence, “belongs” to each individual, or to society en masse. The state’s apparently conspiratorial aspect is therefore illusory-mere ideological wanking on the part of politicians, spies, bankers and other scum, blindly serving the interests of their class. Conspiracy Theory is therefore of interest only as a kind of sociology of culture, a tracking of the delusory fantasies of certain in-groups and out-groups-but conspiracy theory itself has no ontological status.

This is an interesting theory with a great deal of merit, especially as a critical tool. However, as an ideology , it suffers from the same flaw as any other ideology. It constructs an absolute Idea, then explains reality in terms of absolutes. The authoritarian Right and Left share a view of the ontological status of elites or vanguards in History; the anti-authoritarian response is to shift the ontological-Historical weight to individuals or groups; but neither theory has bothered to question the ontological status of History, or for that matter of ontology itself.

In order either to confirm or deny conspiracy theory categorically one must believe in the category of “History”. But since the 19th century “History” has fragmented into dozens of conceptual shards- ethno-history, psycho-history, social history, history of things and ideas and mentalities, cliometrics, micro-history-these are not competing ideologies of History, but simply a multiplicity of histories. The notion that History is made by “great men”, or that History is the outcome of blind struggle between economic interests, or that History “IS” anything specific at all, cannot really survive this fragmentation into an infinity of narratives. The productive approach to such a complex is not ontological but epistemological; i.e., we now ask not what “History” “is”, but rather what and how we can know of and from the many many stories, erasures, appearances and disappearances, palimpsests and fragments of the multiple discourses and multiple histories of the inextricably tangled complexities of human becoming.

Thus we might posit (as an epistemological exercise if nothing else) the notion that although human beings are carried along or moved by class interests, economic forces, etc., we can also accept the possibility of a feedback mechanism, whereby the ideologies and actions of both individuals and groups can modify the very “forces” which produce them.

In fact it seems to me that as anarchists of one sort or another we must adopt some such view of matters, or else accept that our agitation, education, propaganda, forms of organization, uprisings, etc., are essentially futile, and that only “evolution” can or will bring about any significant change in the fabric of society and life. This may or may not be true of the long duree of human becoming, but it is manifestly not true on the level of individual experience of everyday life. Here a kind of rough existentialism prevails, such that we must act as if our actions could be effective, or else suffer in ourselves a poverty of becoming. Without the will to self-expression in action, we are reduced to precisely nothing. This is unacceptable. Therefore, even if one could prove that all action is illusion (and I do not believe that any such proof is available), we would still face the problem of desire. Paradoxically we are forced (on pain of utter negation) to act as if we freely choose to act, and as if action can bring about change.

On this basis it seems possible to construct a non-authoritarian theory of conspiracy theory which neither denies it altogether nor elevates it to the status of an ideology. In its literal sense of “breathing together”, conspiracy may even be thought of as a natural principle of anarchist organization. Face to face, unmediated by any control, together we construct our social reality for ourselves. If we must do so clandestinely, in order to avoid the mechanisms of mediation and control, then we have perpetrated a kind of conspiracy. But more: we can also see that other groups may organize clandestinely not to avoid control but to attempt to impose it. It’s pointless to pretend that such attempts are always futile, because even if they fail to influence “History” (whatever that is), they can certainly intersect with and impact upon our everyday lives. To take one example, anyone who denies the reality of conspiracy must face a difficult task indeed when attempting to explain away the activities of certain elements within Intelligence and the Republican Party in the USA over the last few decades. Never mind the Kennedy Assassination, that spectacular boondoggle; forget the remnants of the Gehlen Org who were lurking around Dallas; but how can one even begin to discuss Nixon’s plumbers, Iran/Contra, the S&L “crisis”, the show-wars against Libya, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq, without some recourse to the concept of “conspiracy”? And even if we believe that the conspirators were acting as agents of blind forces, etc., etc., can we deny that their actions have actually produced ramifications on the level of our own everyday lives? The Republicans launched an open “War on Drugs”, for example, while secretly using cocaine money to finance right wing insurgency in Latin America. Did anyone you know die in Nicaragua? Did anyone you know get caught up in the hypocritical “war” on marijuana? Did anyone you know fall into the misery of crack addiction? (Let’s not even mention the CIA’s heroin dealing in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan.)

As Carl Oglesby points out, sophisticated conspiracy theory posits no single, all-powerful, over-riding cabal in charge of “History”. That would indeed be a form of stupid paranoia, whether of the Left or the Right. Conspiracies rise and fall, spring up and decay, migrate from one group to another, compete, collude, collide, implode, explode, fail, succeed, erase, forge, forget, vanish. Conspiracies are symptoms of the great “blind forces” (and hence useful as metaphors if nothing else), but they also feed back into those forces and sometimes even affect or effect or infect them. Conspiracies, in effect, are not THE way history is made, but are rather parts of the vast complex of myriads of ways in which our multiple stories are constructed. Conspiracy Theory cannot explain everything but it can explain something. If it has no ontological status, nevertheless it does have its epistemological uses.

Here’s a hypothesis:

History (small “h”) is a kind of chaos. Within history are embedded other chaoses, if one can use such a term. Late “democratic” Capitalism is one such chaos, in which power and control have become exceedingly subtle, almost alchemical, hard to locate, perhaps impossible to define. The writings of Debord, Foucault, and Baudrillard, have broached the possibility that “power itself” is empty, “disappeared”, and been replaced by the mere violence of the spectacle. But if history is a chaos the spectacle can only be seen as a “strange attractor” rather than as some sort of causative force. The idea of “force” belongs to classical physics and has little role to play in chaos theory. And if capitalism is a chaos and the spectacle is a strange attractor, then the metaphor can be extended: — we can say that the “Republican” conspiracies are like the actual patterns generated by the strange attractor. The conspiracies are not causal- but, then, nothing is really “causal” in the old classical sense of the term.

One useful way in which we can, so to speak, see into the chaos that is history, is to look through the lens provided by the conspiracies. We may or may not believe that conspiracies are mere simulations of power, mere symptoms of the spectacle-but we cannot dismiss them as empty of all significance.

Rather than speak of conspiracy theory we might instead try to construct a poetics of conspiracy. A conspiracy would be treated like an aesthetic construct, or a language-construct, and could be analyzed like a text. Robert Anton Wilson has done this with his vast and playful “Illuminati” fantasy. We can also use conspiracy theory as a weapon of agit-prop. Conspiracies of “power” make use of sheer disinformation; the least we can do in retaliation is to trace it to its source. Indeed we should avoid the mystique of conspiracy theory, the fantasy that conspiracy is all-powerful. Conspiracies can be blown. They can even be defeated. But I fear they cannot simply be ignored. The refusal to admit any validity to conspiracy theory is itself a form of spectacular delusion-blind belief in the liberal, rational, daylight world in which we all have “rights”, in which “the system works”, in which “democratic values will prevail in the long run” because Nature has so decreed it.

History is a big mess. Maybe conspiracies don’t work. But we have to act as if they do work. In fact the non-authoritarian movement not only needs its own conspiracy theory, it needs its own conspiracies. Whether they “work” or not. Either we all breath together or we each suffocate on our own. “They ” are conspiring, never doubt it, those sinister clowns. Not only should we arm ourselves with conspiracy theory, we should have our own conspiracies-our TAZ’s-our ontological guerilla commando hit-squads-our Poetic Terrorists- our chaos cabals-our secret societies. Proudhor said so. Bakunin said so. Malatesta said so. It’s anarchist tradition.

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Making Case for Jobs Bill, Obama Cites Europe’s Woes By Jackie Calmes of The New York Times

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/us/politics/obama-says-he-would-accept-a-surtax-on-high-incomes.html?_r=1&ref=politics

WASHINGTON — In perhaps his most sober remarks about the economy this year, President Obama on Thursday described the weakening economy as “an emergency” and made the case for his jobs bill as “an insurance policy against a possible double-dip recession.”

“Our economy really needs a jolt right now,” Mr. Obama said at the White House, in an abruptly scheduled morning news conference timed to pressure Republicans before the Senate begins debate on his bill, which is scheduled for next week.

“This is not the time for the usual political gridlock,” the president added. “The problems Europe is having today could have a very real effect on our economy at a time when it’s already fragile.”

Mr. Obama repeatedly cited the findings of independent economists that his $447 billion package, which calls for tax cuts, public works spending and federal aid to reduce teacher layoffs, would reduce unemployment and bolster economic growth. He challenged Republicans to offer a plan that likewise could be assessed by outside analysts and win similarly good marks. And Mr. Obama said that if his full plan fails, Democrats will press for votes on its individual parts.

Timothy F. Geithner, the treasury secretary, echoed Mr. Obama in testimony on Capitol Hill, and said the jobs bill could help increase business and consumer confidence.

The White House scheduled the news conference not only to set up next week’s Senate debate but also to get in front of Friday’s release of September employment numbers. The report is expected once again to show job growth too anemic to significantly reduce a jobless rate that has hovered at 9 percent.

For all of Mr. Obama’s pressure over the past month — a speech to a joint session of Congress, coast-to-coast travel and a pugnacious new stump style — prospects for the jobs plan remain uncertain. Republicans, who control the House and can filibuster bills in the Senate if they remain united, generally oppose the plan; they say temporary tax cuts and spending will not create jobs, and they oppose raising taxes on affluent individuals and corporations.

To allay the concerns of Senate Democrats, Mr. Obama said that he could support their proposal to pay for the jobs plan by imposing a 5.6 percent surtax on individual taxpayers’ income above $1 million. A number of Senate Democrats had objected to Mr. Obama’s proposals to offset the cost of his plan by limiting tax deductions, including for charitable contributions, that could be taken by individuals making more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000. And oil-state Democrats opposed his plans to increase oil companies’ taxes.

Even as Mr. Obama took reporters’ questions, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, rebuked him for his more confrontational tack. “Nothing has disappointed me more than what’s happened over the last five weeks, to watch the president of the United States give up on governing, give up on leading and spend full-time campaigning,” Mr. Boehner said during a public forum in Washington.

Mr. Obama, when asked by a reporter whether he should be talking to Congressional Republicans rather than traveling the country like a presidential candidate, responded that he had tried repeatedly to compromise with Republicans. His efforts, he said, were “sometimes to my own political peril and to the frustration of Democrats,” and Republicans rebuffed him even when he offered ideas, like business tax cuts, that Republicans had proposed in the past.

“What I’ve done over the last several weeks is to take the case to the American people so that they understand what’s at stake,” he said. “It is now up to all the senators, and hopefully all the members of the House, to explain to their constituencies why they would be opposed to common-sense ideas that historically have been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past.”

The president even returned to the point, unbidden, when he closed the 74-minute news conference. “I would love nothing more,” he said, “than to see Congress act so aggressively that I can’t campaign against them as a do-nothing Congress.”

In prodding Republicans, Mr. Obama plainly had in mind the small number of moderates in the party who might join with the 53 Senate Democrats and independents to get to 60 voters and overcome a filibuster. Citing examples of how he believed his jobs plan would help, he named a Boston teacher with long experience and a master’s degree, who has been laid off three times because of budget cuts in Massachusetts — the home of Senator Scott P. Brown, a Republican facing a re-election race next year. Mr. Obama also cited a bridge that he said was falling apart in Maine, which is represented by two Republican senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins.

Republicans have not produced any alternative jobs bills, reflecting their arguments that past stimulus measures have not worked. Instead, they say that to create jobs it is crucial to roll back federal regulations, pass free-trade bills and cut spending.

Mr. Obama said that while he agreed with some of the Republicans’ proposals — for example, he recently sent three trade bills to Congress for its approval — he said they would not help the economy in the short term. Economists at private-sector forecasting firms agreed.

While economic forecasts are not definitive, in that they are predictions, Macroeconomic Advisers, a St. Louis-based firm that the Federal Reserve often uses, has projected that the Obama jobs plan could increase economic growth by 1.25 percentage points and add 1.3 million jobs in 2012. Moody’s Analytics, another firm, has estimated it would add two percentage points and up to 1.9 million jobs.

Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, said Republicans had “reasonable ideas” but not ones that could be measured by the firm’s forecasting model. He said he believed the proposals “would have little immediate effect relative to a plan that stimulates aggregate demand” — that is, a plan like Mr. Obama’s, with tax cuts and spending programs.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, similarly said the Republican proposals “are generally good longer-term economic policy, but they won’t mean much for the economy and job market in the next year.” He continued: “Given the high odds of another recession in the next few months, it is vital for Congress and the administration to provide some near-term support to the economy.”

By confirming that he would embrace the Senate Democrats’ proposal for a millionaires’ surtax, Mr. Obama tried to unify Democrats before the Senate debate on the jobs bill. Some senators, led by Charles E. Schumer of New York, had argued that Mr. Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on income above $250,000 would hit too many taxpayers who are not truly rich.

“I’m fine with the approach that they’re taking,” Mr. Obama said. But he added that he still wanted Congress to overhaul the tax code to close loopholes and many tax breaks so that the new revenues could be used both to lower tax rates and to reduce annual budget deficits.

The Democrats’ agreement on the proposed surcharge suggested that Mr. Obama could have trouble later keeping a prominent campaign promise: to let the Bush-era tax rates expire after 2012 for households with taxable income exceeding $250,000. As Republicans pointed out, the Senate Democrats’ stance indicated they would oppose letting taxes rise for individuals with incomes under $1 million.

In the Senate, the Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, tried for the second time this week to force a vote on Mr. Obama’s jobs plan immediately, given Democrats’ acknowledgment that they do not have the 60 votes needed to pass it. But he failed again on a procedural vote. Instead the Senate is expected to take up the Democratic jobs package on Tuesday.

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The European Union By The New York Times

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/e/european_union/index.html

The European Union evolved out of the European Coal and Steel Community, formed in 1950 by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to help revive heavy industry in a region still staggering after World War II. While the organization had a practical side, just as important was its broader vision: that economic cooperation could bring an end to the region’s centuries-old history of national conflicts. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community, or Common Market.

Thirty years later, in 2007, Europeans took great pride in what the union had become, with 27 nations, about half a billion people and the world’s largest economy. The euro, the common currency created in 1998 and shared by 15 of the European Union’s members, was on its way to becoming the world’s strongest currency, rising steadily as the dollar has slipped. The union had taken on a number of the structures of a sovereign state, including a Parliament that meets in Brussels.

Three years later, the debt crisis sparked by Greece has deeply shaken Europeans’ confidence in the union and the euro. Months of wrangling led to a series of progressively larger aid packages, none of which succeeded in calming fears of contagion.

With markets wavering around the world, Europe’s leaders on May 9 agreed to a huge rescue package. Officials were hoping the size of the plan – a total of $957 billion – would signal a “shock and awe” commitment to such troubled countries as Greece, Portugal and Spain. In addition, central banks began buying euro zone government bonds directly – an unprecedented move to inject cash into the financial system.

But the new loans, combined with the effect of the austerity measures demanded of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, drove them into recession and did little to ease their debt burden — Greece’s debt load even increased. As the debt crisis renewed over the winter of 2010 and spring of 2011 it led to the fall of governments in Ireland and Portugal, and saw unrest rise in Spain, where unemployment remained close to 20 percent.

By the summer of 2011, it was clear that Greece would need a second big bailout package, and worries rose again about contagion, as Italy and Spain saw the interest rates charged on its borrowing rise steeply. The European Central Bank responded by buying large amounts of Italian and Spanish bonds, as leaders put together a plan that would increase the powers of the European Financial Stability Facility to head off a “run” on governments seen as in danger of default.

By September, with growth slowing, stalled or in reverse across the continent, European leaders were increasingly discussing the creation of a central financial authority — with powers in areas like taxation, bond issuance and budget approval — that could eventually turn the euro zone into something resembling a United States of Europe.

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A new set of laws were drafted to address a fatal flaw in the construction of its common currency: the lack of fiscal rules tough enough to provide a foundation for the euro.

While steering far clear of transferring actual authority over national budgets to Brussels, the revamped rules, are described as tougher, more credible and more sophisticated than the original set, on paper at least.

Laid out in six pieces of legislation and known as the six pack, the rules contain the same targets for euro zone members as the old one: budget deficits of no more than 3 percent of gross domestic product, and a maximum debt level of 60 percent of G.D.P.

But this time, the drafters hope the policing system will be more credible. In part, that is because countries that break rules will face potential sanctions sooner, and a new voting system will make it harder for finance ministers to block them, as has happened in the past.

Background

At the very beginning, when the euro was created, France met the rules laid down by the currency’s founders thanks to a windfall from the state-owned utility, France Télécom. Overnight, the French budget deficit shrank by 0.5 percent of G.D.P.

In 2003, Paris and Berlin both exceeded the deficit limits set in the rule book, officially called the Stability and Growth Pact. Faced with the prospect of sanctions and potential fines, Paris and Berlin used their political muscle to tear up the pact, and a weakened version was adopted in 2005.

The new sanctions system is even tougher than in the original, because countries that break rules will be pressured early on to put up a cash deposit — in a noninterest-bearing account — worth 0.2 percent of G.D.P.

If they then fail to correct their course, the deposit is converted to a fine and forfeited.

And, while the finance ministers still have to give the European Commission permission to punish errant countries, the voting system has been tweaked to make this significantly harder to block.

In another innovation, countries with high debt that resist bringing levels down by a specified amount can also be fined in a similar way. Had such a system been in place before, Italy — with a debt ratio of twice the maximum target — would have been required to consolidate more rapidly.

The package is expected to pass the European Parliament, its final hurdle, though opposition to some parts from the Socialists could make for a close vote. Once enacted, it would begin to take effect in stages in January 2012, with the rules on debt delayed until 2015.

If approved, an early warning system would be set up to spot developments like asset bubbles, including the housing booms that later collapsed in Spain and Ireland. Countries thought to be at risk could find themselves in an “excessive imbalance procedure” that could also lead ultimately to sanctions.

Though targets apply to all 27 E.U. members, fines can be levied only on the 17 countries in the euro zone.

Perhaps the more pressing question is whether the European Commission’s recommendations will be pushed through once they encounter inevitable political opposition.

The very culture of E.U. politics discourages countries from being tough with each other, since every country knows that it might one day need to call in favors.

In the wake of the financial crisis only four E.U. members — Estonia, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden — currently meet the bloc’s targets, a reminder to the rest that, at some point, they might find themselves in the dock.

Some countries appear worried about this too. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, recently proposed a system under which a powerful economic figure would be able to intervene in a member country’s finances in the way that the European commissioner responsible for antitrust could act independently in his domain.

That reflects fears among some of the small and midsize countries that Germany and France cannot be trusted to obey the rules if life gets tough for them again.

Some also continue to have trouble understanding the logic of fining a government in financial difficulty. Others say that the E.U. should be trying to construct broader tools to integrate economic policy, including developing a common Treasury and issuing bonds backed by the collective weight of all the countries in the euro zone

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