Tuesday, 31 December 2013


Conspiracy theories have been popular largely because the human mind responds to the irrational and the intoxicating inexplicable or enigmatic. This is largely because the rational and empirically-based explanation is not nearly as stimulating to the brain that craves excitement to fill the emotional void. It has always fascinated me that people cling to conspiracy theories, even long after empirical evidence is presented to prove them incontrovertibly false. In some cases, however, empirical evidence validates conspiracy theories, thereby providing further ammunition to those that find such theories appealing, especially in cases involving  social, political and economic elites that are involved in scandals, corruption, and "conspiracies". When the World Bank estimates that at least 10 percent or $7.3 trillion of the world's GDP estimated at $73 trillion is black market or subterranean economic activity, how can the average person not accept conspiracy theories and lapse into fatalism?

Why do conspiracy theories have mass appeal regardless of cultural differences? Is this unique of our epoch of widespread cynicism among the masses, or has it always been the case since ancient times? And why do such theories have greater level of acceptability in traditional societies where religion dominates than in secular ones? A conspiracy theory about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example, has as much appeal in Catholic Argentina as it does in orthodox Russia, or Hindu/Buddhist India. A conspiratorial work of fiction about a secret society of powerful individuals would have as much appeal among Japanese readers as among Spaniards or Egyptians. The same holds true for a conspiratorial non-fiction work about the US Central Intelligence Agency carrying out assassination plots, the National Security Agency spying on millions of people within and outside the US, or International Monetary Fund deliberately sinking debtor economies in order to transfer wealth from the periphery to the metropolis and create conditions of massive capital concentration.

Naomi Klein's book about the IMF is an example of populist hollowness that appeals to the masses already suspicious of large organization that impact the lives of millions. Those who have studied the role of the IMF using archival materials realize that this extraordinarily thin account that Klein presents is intentionally designed to appeal to the reader's emotions and sense of cynicism about powerful institutions. While scholarly works about the role of the IMF do in fact reveal that the agency works to sustain and strengthen finance capitalism at the expense of the middle class and laborers, Klein's work has as much relevance to reality as Martians building the pyramids in ancient Egypt. 

However, the book sells precisely because it is not scholarly, takes the reader through a fictional ride of intrigue like a James Bond film, and at the same time, it indoctrinates without providing any redeeming value to the reader interested in understanding the IMF's true mechanisms and relationship to governments and finance capital. That the book is more fiction than non-fiction appeals to people not just in the US but around the world as much as Harry Potter because it reads like Harry Potter, and it has about as much value in terms of entertainment, that is to say, stimulating and satisfying the irrational the mind.

Are people attracted to conspiracy theories because the dominant irrational in the mind craves to be fed; is it because we live in the age of cynicism when institutions from religious and education to political and business thrive by deceiving or at the very least manipulating the public; is it because there is a sense of loss of personal control of the environment and the individual yields to conspiracy to explain the deeper complexities of simple reality; is it that humans have a fundamental mistrust of each other and of themselves and would rather believe the worst; does belief in conspiracy theories makes us feel more intelligent and affords us the illusion that we have control of the situation; or it is because we love heroes and villains and conspiracies feed on such protagonists? No matter how we deconstruct the mass appeal of conspiracy theories, they do fill an emotional gap and entertain the mind like no empirical evidence can.

Many people are favorably inclined to conspiracy because they are conditioned to be cynical by life itself that beats them on the head on a daily basis. Conspiracy theories are not the exclusive domain of any political ideology or political organization or regime. Besides infamous dictators like Hitler and Stalin that have manipulated public opinion by advancing conspiracy theories, leaders of democracies like George W. Bush have done the same to advance policies linked with domestic security and foreign affairs.

How can people not be conspiratorial in their thinking when their politicians, priests, and social leaders either lie or hide the truth and are guilty of hypocrisy. Priests ask their flock to be virtuous, while they are hardly up to the task; politicians demand honesty in citizens, while their acts are hardly exemplary; community leaders using their positions for private gain at the expense of the community. The amazing thing is not that there are so many cynical people, but why isn't everyone in this world that we live in?

The more corrupt and perfidious secular and religious leaders, the greater mass appeal conspiracy theories will have. Everyone must have seen an adult parent instructing the child not to smoke while the parent is holding a cigarette in hand; or not to do drugs while popping sleeping and tranquilizer pills. However, conspiracy theory belief goes beyond such hypocrisy to the core of a sense of fatalism about life itself and the belief that free will has severe limitations. People are so overwhelmed by institutions that determine their lives that they feel powerless. This sense of powerlessness helps to weaken the masses and strengthens the elites. Therefore, conspiracy theories about the elites inadvertently help elite interests as they make the masses feel paralyzed in their fatalism.

In early April 2011, when I wrote the brief piece on conspiracy theories, it was because individuals with graduate degrees were telling me that there is a global conspiracy by the IMF and European Central Bank to lower living standards, and that the method adopted was no different than the CIA used in counterinsurgency operations. To no avail, I tried to argue that CIA operations have their own logic, and IMF austerity measures, now adopted by the European Central Bank, have a different logic that they follow and that analyzing counterinsurgency operations must be a separate enterprise from analyzing monetary and fiscal policy. Even more irrational, some of the same people in Greece that embrace Klein's IMF book also believe that airplanes are constantly spraying cities with chemicals to keep them docile and not resist the IMF austerity measures! When I joked about this with a former banker, his response was that there is validity to the "chemical spraying theory", otherwise, how can we explain the public's lack of resistance to misery?  

Given that I failed to convince even the most rational people, I often ask why they yield to conspiracy theories instead of seeking rational explanations. In correcting my wrong impression, they made it clear that in embracing so-called conspiracy theories, they were indeed more intelligent than the naive person that tried to find a rational-empirical explanations. In probing deeper, it became obvious that belief in conspiracy entailed a degree of intelligence that the 'other' lacked, a degree of cynicism that was baptized 'intelligence'. This too is an integral part of our modern mass culture, given birth by the widespread cynicism in the political and economic arena, among the elites ranging from political and economic to religious and academic. Why do conspiracy theories persist?

Clearly, I am at all expecting the average person beaten down by unjust institutions to accept the synthesis of rationalism and empiricism that I. Kant developed in his philosophy, or his views on causality and free will. However, I am astonished that more than 200 years have passed since Kant warned about human beings clinging to ignorance and superstition, largely because they are intellectually lazy. Here we are in the early 21st century when there are plans for interplanetary colonization and people insist on conspiracy theories that force them into a state of fatalism. Modern science and technology has not had much impact on the mind when it comes to feeding the emotional aspect of the brain what it craves, except that once in a while conspiracy theories do validate those who advocate them, and there are many of those examples.

In examining the "Iran-Mexico plot" of 2011, it is now very clear that there was a rush to judgment by the mass media and US and pro-US governments, before there was a full investigation in the case. Not just the US government, but all of the Western World and its mass media lined up behind US official explanations about an Iranian role where there was none. Today, there is some evidence that an exiled group may have been behind the plot, but that is lost in history and all one remembers is that Iran carried out an "evil act". This is merely one of many conspiracy theories where the only thing remaining is the conspiracy theory while facts, especially in this case that they are damaging to US credibility, are ignored. The lesson here then is not that the individual is intellectually lazy and prone to superstition craving emotional fulfillment through conspiracy theories, but that governments and private  institutions such as religion and the mass media shape the conspiracy minded public to be receptive and remain fatalistic for this fosters docile behavior and acceptance of the status quo.

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