Conspiracy theory has been invoked by Victorian Police commanders to tarnish the reputations of citizens who object to totalitarianism. What is conspiracy theory? It is worth unpacking in these weird times. It turns out that many conspiracy theories are respectable. Indeed, they explain much of the world.
Conspiracy theories generally get a bad wrap.
Especially in these Covid times. People proposing all sorts of sound or crazy ideas are accused of being “conspiracy theorists”. It is an example of the ad hominem fallacy and it isn’t a nice turn of events. It hinders debate over issues susceptible of multiple interpretations. Like whether the climate is changing or whether and how governments can stop viruses.
What is a conspiracy theory, anyway?
The University of Bristol scholar Martin Parker explains:
We live in an age of conspiracies about a world shaped by shadowy plots, secret organisations and deals made behind closed doors. And while they are often viewed as the fictions of sad people wearing anoraks and tin foil hats, they can relate to the real business of global politics.
Parker hints at some of the salient features of a conspiracy – secrecy, plots, control, hiddenness, super organisation. For a conspiracy theorist, the driving belief might be summed up as “things are not what they seem”. He or she might also be thought of as being obsessed by the ultimate causes of things – in Thomist lingo, the “remote causes” as opposed to the “proximate causes” of phenomena.
I have been accused of being a conspiracy theorist this very year, for arguing that scientists and medicos differ massively on Covid and lockdowns, and that those that are listened to by governments are those who are in government employment and/or in favour. I am still flummoxed at the idea that this might be thought a conspiracy theory. Rather, I think it was a case of playing the conspiracy theory card reflexively in an argument. “Conspiracy theorist” is the new “Nazi”, a twenty-first century update of Godwin’s Law.
To claim that not all decision making processes are transparent, and that many are “hidden”, that those in office and in power have interests and agendas, that networks are real and important, as Professor Niall Ferguson (the smart Ferguson) argued in his excellent book, The Square and the Tower, that world government is the declared aspiration of many prominent figures, and has been (at least) since Woodrow Wilson came up with the idea of the League of Nations, is not really all that radical.
Obviously, some conspiracy theories are wackier than others, but, importantly, some are not remotely wacky at all.
The recent tendency of “civil” servants to enter the territory of conspiracy theory accusations has been both disgraceful and dumb. Sinister, in fact. The intellectually lumbering senior police of Victoria are cases in point. The strategy has been twofold, as it usually is, in relation to branding someone a conspiracy theorist. The first is to brand a group holding certain views as conspiracy theorists, and to link at least one, generally discredited or outlandish example of a conspiracy theory to the targeted group. The second is to lump everyone in a group – say, of protesters – in with the chosen, discredited example. Say 5G transmitters. Or anti-vaxxers. These two things achieved, the person making the claim of conspiracy theorist is suddenly and miraculously relieved of the need to argue his own case on its merits.
It turns out, upon reflection, not only that people who see so-called conspiracies as being features of politics and the world generally are often spot on, but that they are also intellectually respectable. They are often, indeed, mere common sense. Three examples will suffice from the intellectual realm – elite theories of democracy and the ruling class, the theory of cartels and of crony capitalism, and the theory of networks.
First, the elite theory of democracy, propounded by such intellectual giants as Vilfredo Pareto, inventor of the famous 80/20 rule, posits that:
… a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power—and that this power is independent of democratic elections. ...
There are other theories of democracy, like pluralism, the theory that democracy is a process of interest groups working the system to get what they want. The bottom up theory – that we-the-people actually rule, is perhaps the least credible. No, the elite theory is both powerful and respectable. We all know that yes, Virginia, there is still a ruling class. From the leftists of the 1970s who saw capitalist control behind everything in politics to the twenty-first century right-of-centre ruling class theorists like Angelo de Codevilla, who see the corporate ruling class as real and now essentially progressivist/leftist.
No lesser observer of human behaviour than Adam Smith opined:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
Anyone who has attempted to figure out what drives petrol price movements could not possibly think that there is no collusion routinely occurring. Cartels exist, and the existence of sophisticated regulations and organisations (like the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, or ASIC) designed to oversight corporate behaviour attests to the fact that governments believe conspiracies exist. What are cartels if not conspiracies? Secretive, purposeful, organised.
Third, the theory of networks.
I have mentioned Niall Ferguson’s book above. Networking is now the chief tool of the modern, career seeking worker and of the self-employed. There is a company called LinkedIn whose very essence is the theory that networks rule the world. All the interesting conversations at conferences, where the deals are done, are done on the side, “offline”, at the bar or over coffee. We all love leaders being caught out with a hot mic. We get to know what they are really up to.
There are plenty of other conspiracy theories that ring true. Like the idea that the Soviet Communist Party has infiltrated the Vatican – after all, it tried to infiltrate everything else, and mostly succeeded, as the examples of Philby, Burgess and Maclean make clear. Another that rings true and is widely believed by respectable thinkers is the idea of cultural destruction through the left’s “long march through the institutions” of the West. When communists like Gramsci actually said that is what they were trying to do, and that the outcome was plainly achieved, the case for a deliberate, well organised plot to change institutions by subverting them from within, is very strong. The arguments about Chinese infiltration of Western societies and institutions advanced by the respected leftist intellectual Clive Hamilton are now widely held to be true. They are certainly plausible, and, post Wuhan, many people believe implicitly that China is seeking to take over the world, and doing so in an underhand (hidden) way.
I have argued many times that hidden networks were a key part of to the George Pell witch-hunt.
Most jobs and who gets them – around eighty per cent, according to those who know these things – are decided without advertising or any open process. Then there is the advertising industry, entirely built on hiddenness.
Every correct guilty verdict where the evidence is circumstantial bespeaks evil perpetrated by hidden evildoers. Of course, every single crime committed, unless committed by a fool, is an orchestration of a conspiracy, against the victim. Corruption, alive and well and living in Australia, as the existence of some sort of Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in most states attests. Corruption is the ultimate conspiracy of powerful, trusted people acting in secret with hidden purposes against everyone not in on the deal. We never want witnesses to our evil deeds.
None of this means that the US Government organised 9/11.
It is astonishing, incidentally, how leftist conspiracy theories like the existence of a ruling class, black lives matter and so on have escaped the opprobrium of conspiracy theory. Marxism, of course, could be argued to be a conspiracy theory from start to finish. Every all-encompassing theory of history can be so described, in fact. These argue that history has a direction, a meaning. Who is doing the driving, if not conspirators? The philosopher Karl Popper called this out as “the poverty of historicism”. Many, many people believe that history has a direction and a meaning. All progressives, to begin with. Yes, there is a lot of conspiracy thinking going around.
So what is the Bilderberg world of this article’s title, then?
The Bilderberg Group is a group of global movers and shakers who meet annually and privately to discuss world affairs. Each year they invite speakers, often politicians and other leaders in their fields. The above mentioned Niall Ferguson has even been a guest on occasions. Stalwarts include Henry Kissinger. Bushes and Clintons attend, as you might expect.
The group has been meeting since 1954, having first met in a little town in the Netherlands, the wonderfully named Oosterbeek, which had a Hotel de Bilderberg. No press are allowed into the meetings, and participants are sworn to secrecy about what is said and what goes on. Australia’s own libertarian Centre for Independent Studies runs a similar annual meeting of perceived movers and shakers, also with Chatham House rules. Yes, even public organisations have their secret meetings. Not many people think these meetings are sinister, though. After all, these meetings – called Consilium – are arranged to promote our freedom, not to take it away.
Here is Martin Parker again:
Haven’t heard of Bilderberg? That’s because security is very heavy, journalists are not invited, and all participants are forbidden from talking about the discussions.
Paul Jeffers’ book, The Bilderberg Conspiracy (2009) might be a good place to start one’s research. He makes a habit of writing about conspiracy theories, having written on the freemasons and on secrets of the Vatican.
The Bilderbergers were initially driven by the desire for a liberal world order, much in the vein of Woodrow Wilson. On this view, world government beats world wars. RR Reno has talked about the liberal world order defeating the “strong gods” of nationalism, only to have these strong gods return in recent years in the form of populist politics with a nationalist bent, with many people fed up to the back teeth with leftist, progressive diktats from supranational bodies and assorted do-gooding billionaires who wish to control aspects of our lives.
Many of the Bilderbergers do meet in the open on a regular basis. It is called Davos. They not only wish to rule the world. They already do.
Martin Parker states:
Conspiracy theorists give conspiracy theories a bad name. Conspiracies do exist, and this is one of them. Politics, at this sort of elite level, is precisely a conspiracy in the sense that Adam Smith meant it. When these people gather once a year, they do not engage in withering self-criticism, but instead reinforce the assumptions that they collectively make about the best sort of economic and political order. This is exactly the sort of process that the psychologist Irving Janis described as “groupthink”, where dissent is marginalised and consensus amplified.
All done in secret. Nothing to see here? I doubt it.
No, refusing to believe conspiracies is the height of gullibility. As several famous people (Baudelaire and Verbal Kint, for a start) have said, the devil’s greatest trick was to make people believe he doesn’t exist.
But surely not governments! Good and true men and women elected in good faith to execute our clearly expressed interests. Good people who always put our interests above all. Who would never take a bribe. Who don’t meet in secret to organise things, then don’t tell the press what they have decided. Really? There is no way that governments would conspire against we-the-people. Well, if you believe this, you would believe anything.
Perhaps the greatest conspiracy of all time – and before time was invented, even – was that perpetrated by those three conspiracy theorists, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Secret, purposeful and revealed only to a few, initially. And still disbelieved by most, who think things only get done in the open.
Parker is right. Some conspiracy theorists give all conspiracy theories a bad name. But why should we pick on them? They are the very least of our worries, I would suggest. And people like David Icke and Alex Jones are such great fun! Everyone, deep down, just loves a conspiracy theory.
The great question remains – conspiracy or stuff-up? The latter usually wins, and rightly so. But to conclude that our leaders are, with increasingly rare exceptions, bumbling, self-interested chancers, does absolutely nothing to negate the critical role that hidden networks play in explaining the world and much that goes on within it. Determining the who, the when, the why, of history is the very essence of that noble and much neglected discipline. We abandon its core tasks at our peril.
No, networks exist, they have objectives and they peddle influence to achieve those objectives. Bilderberg rules. Literally.