The problems with conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have had something of a resurgence in recent times. Even during the global Occupy movement it was common to meet people who claimed that a secret clique of bankers are running the world, that money is the source of all our problems, or that 9/11 was an inside job.

In general conspiracy theories claim that important political, social or economic events are the products of plots by secret groups that are largely unknown to the general public. They can sometimes ring true because of the fact that banks and big business do exercise an inordinate amount of power over our lives. They can sometimes seem radical because they often attempt to question the way the system is run in the interests of a tiny minority.

Why has interest in conspiracy theories risen?

The global capitalist crisis, the most serious crisis since the 1930s, has dramatically worsened the problems working people face. Jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate and living standards are declining. For many young people a secure job is not even on the cards. In many ways people are questioning why the capitalist system is failing them. People feel like hidden forces beyond their control dominate their world. There is an increasing sense of alienation and this is leading people to search for explanations and solutions.

In the past, people could turn to a strong labour movement, which embodied many critiques of capitalism. Marxism is a highly developed labour movement critique that lays bare the class basis of capitalism. Marxism explains that society is essentially divided into classes: workers who are forced to sell their labour-power in order to live, and capitalists, who pay workers less in wages than the value that workers produce.

Through a materialist understanding of these social relations, Marxism, or scientific socialism, is a theory that analyses both the economic foundations of capitalism but also the political and social processes that take place. It is based on the history and real experiences of the working class going back hundreds of years and it can explain in detail the boom/bust cycle of capitalism.

In the last thirty years however, the labour movement has been under constant attack. Neo-liberalism became the dominant economic ideology and the mass working class political parties that once existed have either shifted to accept this ideology or disappeared. This process was accelerated by the collapse of Soviet Union, which at the time provided a living, but degenerated, alternative to capitalism.

Capitalism, we were told, was the only way of running society. Margaret Thatcher’s phrase ‘There Is No Alternative’ summed up the attitude of this era. Consequently class consciousness has been set back and so has the standing of all alternative ideologies.

The lack of popularised alternative ideas means that newly radicalised people are sometimes starting their search for explanations and solutions from scratch. They find these explanations in the many ‘new’ ideas, principles or theories that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer, including conspiracy theorists.

Real conspiracies versus conspiracy theories

Socialists do not claim there are no conspiracies or that the ruling class does not lie to the public. There is plenty of evidence that they do. One only needs to look at Murdoch’s phone hacking, the lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, or the Watergate scandal. There is no doubt that members or sections of the ruling class ‘conspire’ and manipulate in order to further their own interests.

However, it’s not so much the point that individuals and specific groups conspire to achieve their ends, but rather that behind those individuals are material reasons which cause them to behave in very specific ways. Simply put, these reasons are the necessity for capitalists to maximise profits and accumulate capital, as well as ensuring that the necessary social, political and economic conditions exist to do so.

If one group of capitalists were replaced by another, they would behave in a similar ways, with similar outcomes. This is true for the Rothschilds, Henry Ford, and for Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer. In this sense, the problem is a systemic problem, not one of individuals. In this sense Marxism is actually the best framework for analysing those conspiracies that do actually take place. This is because it looks at them within the objective drives and contradictions of the capitalist system, rather than seeing them as constituting the driving force of the system itself.

Obscuring reality

The most obvious problem with many conspiracy theories is the lack of empirical evidence and the tendency to speculate wildly. Having placed a great deal of effort in showing inconsistencies in media and government accounts of events, conspiracy theories often then simply make up their own interpretations, often relying on ‘hidden’ factual information. This is not a solid basis on which to provide a genuine critique of the complex processes occurring in world politics and the global economy.

The actions and motivations of business owners and world leaders become much clearer when they are viewed within the framework of class. The reality of the contradictory interests between the working class and the capitalist class is particularly evident in this era of economic austerity.

We have witnessed banks and businesses being bailed out with public money, whilst continuing to reap enormous private profit. The result of this has been the piling up of huge sovereign debt, leading to drastic cuts in social spending that has worsened the living conditions of workers in many parts of the world. This is no secret, but cannot be properly understood without a class analysis of how the system works. No singular ‘amazing’ factual revelation will expose or change the fundamental function of global capitalism.

Conspiracy theories are also often inherently implausible. Usually they try to claim that control of the system is exercised by members of tiny groups that are usually countable on one’s fingers. How would it be possible for these individuals to make all the decisions necessary to run a complex modern society? Even if they could, such a system would be extremely unstable and easily overthrown. On the contrary most capitalist societies have been relatively stable since the Second World War.

While socialists would agree that under capitalism a ruling class (those who own and control the means of production) exercises control over the majority of working class people (those who must work for a wage or salary), it is not true that this class is of such a tiny proportion.

The definition of class is based primarily on an individual’s relationship to the economy. Business owners, for example, may compete for market share, but they also have common interests in terms of weakening labour laws, undermining unions, lowing social spending to allow for business tax breaks and so on. Their common interests on the basis of their class position mean many business owners act similarly despite not being members of a secret society.

This minority maintains their control of economic relations through a complex state machine which ensures continuation of their privilege. This is achieved not through an all powerful secret society, but through the laws, courts, and dominant ideology taught in schools and university. Despite this, should their privilege be challenged in a serious way, police, armies and jails are used to quell any resistance.

For example, in 2008 when numerous banks and credit funds were found to have acted disingenuously and were in danger of collapse, they were bailed out by governments with taxpayer’s money. Rather than being taken into public ownership under democratic, taxpayers control, their ‘right’ to continue business-as-usual, profiting with the use of public funds was backed up by courts, parliaments and the dominant economic ideology. On the other hand, when ordinary people started to protest and question why their money was being handed over to private business, many were attacked, pepper sprayed and jailed by police!

These events happened very much out in the open, and very similarly across the world. This is not due to elaborate, underground co-ordination amongst a secret group, but because the crisis of capitalism presented itself similarly in different countries that are part of a highly connected global economy governed by the same ‘free-market’ ideology. This is the logic of capitalism at work, not the arbitrary will of a secret elite.

By having an understanding of how capitalism works we can see what unites the ruling class but also what divides them. While on the one hand the ruling class is united in its quest to exploit the working class, it is divided in the sense that it is competing amongst itself for profits. Understanding this helps us explain, in scientific terms, the causes of wars and inter-imperialist conflicts that have shaped the last century.

Conspiracy theories, including some presented in the ‘Zeitgeist’ films, often claim that a secret group deliberately caused the global economic crisis. This of course begs the question of how it could possibly be in the interest of the system to enter into deep recession, which has wiped trillions off share values, sent production into decline and caused enormous social unrest. The truth is that rather, than being an elaborate conspiracy, economic crises are the result of the internal contradictions of capitalism.

Rather than searching for a secret group with unexplained motivations to ruin the economy, we need to focus on the business owners, banks and politicians who openly oversee and defend a system in which internally created the slumps and crises that ruin people’s lives.

There is a long list of things that are wrong with conspiracy theories. One of the most serious problems is that they often attempt to cut across working class unity, by creating divisions along national, ethnic or other social lines, for example anti-Semitism in banking conspiracies, or the claim that leaders of the Russian revolution were really aiming for Jewish world domination, for example in the hoaxed Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Real solutions

Apart from being a confusing and inconsistent way of trying to understand the world, conspiracy theories do not outline any strategy for practical action to solve the problems we face. It seems many conspiracy theories are solely focused on trying to inform people of a hidden conspiracy, but lack any advice on what to do about it. In this sense conspiracy theories are disempowering and demobilising. History has shown many times that the best way to utilise the power of ordinary people is to unite them in action for social change.

Other ‘solutions’ put forward such as those prominent in the Zeitgeist films, amount to withdrawing from the world to try and build a new society. This is impossible given the unceasing (and militarised) search by capitalism for markets and resources. This rejection of the possibility of changing the world we live in is again contradicted by the history of the workers’ movement. Not only have working people organised and won reforms from capitalism, but they have made revolutions that have fundamentally changed societies.

It is no accident that historically both reforms and revolutions were often guided or influenced by a thoroughgoing Marxist analysis of capitalism. Over the past 160 years Marxism has developed and tested a strategy for achieving social change. Marx’s understanding of class struggle, Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of the general strike, Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, and Lenin’s contributions on the role of the revolutionary party are just some of the component parts of a scientific theory that concretely suggests what should be done to advance the interests of working people. This is something that conspiracy theories completely lack.

Conspiracy theories can sometimes seem quite radical, because they are hostile to bankers or other exploiters, and decry the status quo generally. However conspiracy theories obscure a realistic understanding of important processes and events. Because of this they offer no real solutions. They can often have the effect of serving the system by deflecting blame and attention from where it belongs.

Instead of exposing imagined conspiracies, what is needed is a rigorous scientific approach, one which is capable of laying bare the class nature of the processes that shape capitalist society. This understanding can then inform how and why we struggle against the ruling class and assist in mobilising people to fundamentally change the world for the better.