II. The Sociology of Conspiracy
America's Unknown Enemy: Beyond Conspiracy
Editorial Staff of the
American Institute for Economic Research
No matter how imperfectly a particular version of history may
describe past events, it still can influence attitudes and behavior.
What people think happened in the past often may condition
their present attitudes. Therefore, the accurate description of past
events -- and the development of warranted assertions regarding them
-- is an essential requisite of informed behavior in the present.
Inaccurate or incomplete descriptions of historical events almost
invariably foster distorted views of significant historical
relationships, and these in turn may be applied to developing harmful
practices and policies in the present. In short, accounts of
historical events may have tremendous current effects.
Ever since Thucydides, however, historians have practiced their craft
without agreement as to what are useful procedures -- or even as to
what are the main attributes of historical discipline. To a greater
extent than prevails in the behavioral sciences generally, historical
debate has admitted arguments that violate even the most elementary
rules of evidence. Contemporary accounts of the alleged global
conspiracy rebuked by David Rockefeller, which have gained adherents
at both ends of the political spectrum, are a case in point.
This is not to deny conspiracy a legitimate place in the historical
record. Conspiracies and conspiracy theories of history are virtually
as old as recorded history itself. Much of the surviving record of the
pre-modern world is a chronicle of conspiracy, when conspiracy is used
to refer to a secret agreement to commit an unlawful or wrongful act.
Egyptian hieroglyphics depict intrigues in the courts of the Pharaohs;
the Greek tragedians portrayed a world directed by conspiratorial
fates; Roman conspiracies, such as the successful plot to assassinate
Julius Caesar, abounded; and Shakespearean tales of regicide,
patricide, matricide, fratricide, sororicide, and infanticide suggest
the extent to which conspiracy propelled the quest for power in
Medieval European society. Even the foundation of Christianity rests
on what some describe as the most momentous conspiracy of all time.
Since the mid-19th century, "conspiracies" have continued
to influence the directions that world events have taken. One need
contemplate only briefly how history might have pursued a different
course were it not for the documented and alleged assassination plots
(successful and unsuccessful) aimed at various world leaders, among
them: Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy,
Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, Jr., Anwar Sadat, Ronald Reagan,
Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.
Indisputably, conspiracies have been formed in the past, and in all
likelihood they will be forged in the future. At some crucial times,
their fruition has catalyzed events that otherwise might not have
taken place. At other times, their exposure (as in the case of the
plot against Hitler) has had consequences ranging far beyond the
immediate fate of the conspirators.
Such historically verifiable conspiracies, however, have been
narrowly limited in time, space, culture or object. Unless religion
and politics are termed conspiratorial, few recorded conspiracies have
spanned cultural lines. They nearly always are closely bound by class,
ethnic, or other discrete characteristics. Moreover, the secretive
element of conspiracy is severely constrained by both space and time.
The Limits of Conspiracy
The German economic sociologist Georg Simmel postulated that secrets,
as a form of "property" in knowledge or promise, are valued
chiefly according to the immediacy of the risk their keeping (or not
keeping) poses. Secrets themselves may be "timeless," as in
the professed "eternal truths" or goals of secret societies,
but their strength depends on frequent reminders of the risks
associated with not keeping them. Thus, conspirators are "time-specific."
They place high value on time as an occasion for secret intercourse ("we
meet at midnight") and as a signal for the consummation of the
e.g., the "Ides of March"). The great majority of
conspiracies can be measured in days, weeks, or months. Few can be
measured in years, and none can be measured in centuries. Conspiracies
for the most part are neither casual nor long-lived.
They likewise function only in restricted "space."
Successful conspiracies have been confined both geographically and
demographically to the smallest area and numbers required to
accomplish their purpose. They have to be big enough to get the job
done, but not so big as to increase the risk of betrayal.
There are, it seems, critical limits beyond which activities that
could be designated conspiracies become something else. The Ku Klux
Klan in the post-Civil War South and the popular Vigilante
organizations in the Old West, for example, became broader social
movements within their communities. Whether recognized as lawful or
not, when formerly secretive groups and their objectives become widely
recognized, the name conspiracy no longer seems appropriate.
Contemporary global conspiracy theory would require the operation of
a ''conspiracy'' involving thousands of persons, dozens of
institutions and social groups, decades of years, and the entire
surface of the earth. Rather than a conspiracy, the events and
activities described in many conspiracy studies more plausibly
constitute broad institutional and intellectual currents gaining
popular support. That popular adoption of the program would likely
bring disaster to the people does not make the plan a conspiracy.
In the case at hand, the movement toward "global culture"
may be far greater than implied by the advocates of conspiracy theory,
and their narrow focus may distract attention from analyzing
critically the implications of the proposed "global management."
The institutions and ideas offered in support of international
planning and management are today far from secret. The pursuit of
power by those who would dictate to the world through international
agencies is carried on openly in all types of forums - from academia,
to national governments, to international agencies (such as the United
Nations), to self-appointed "commissions."
In short, conspiracy theory views the current process involved in the
acquisition of power backwards. In the late 20th century, the advent
of "mega control" is likely to be hastened not through the
operation of some evilly efficient cabalistic network, but rather
through the widespread public misinterpretation of the significance of
events and a popular acquiescence in bureaucratic "management"
of national problems and international "interdependencies."