One of the uncompelling aspects of “conspiracy theories” is that they attribute too much agency to people in positions of power. It is true that many “conspiracy theories” seem to suggest that history might have unfolded differently if it were not for the activity of relatively few ill-willed conspirators, who secretly steered events a certain way. In this sense “conspiracy theory” resembles what historians sometimes call a “voluntarist” approach to history, wherein individuals and small groups can change the course of events.
Marx understood that we have the power to make our world different, but in the Marxist study of history, social change relies on the collective action of large groups, power blocs and classes. Marx invites us to consider the broad forms of material and ideological cooperation required to maintain the status quo. To overturn it, the oppressed must share class consciousness. Meanwhile, the ruling class will continue to tailor and promote ruling ideas that are convenient to their ongoing reign. Many of these ideas mystify power relations, even among members of the ruling class.
We could almost say the ruling class conspires, except that in Marxian analysis no one individual has the complete knowledge of the totality required to see the big picture and plot a decisive intervention (except for perhaps Marx himself!). A Marxist approach stresses the way systemic forces and power structures (and the dialectics between them) affect possibilities for individual and collective agency, such that no one person’s ideas and actions can be understood as entirely “voluntary”.
Part of the challenge in addressing “conspiracy theory” is that the way we tend to use the phrase itself betrays how systems of power distort our ideas. If criteria that are usually used to define a “conspiracy theory” were applied consistently, then George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction would be considered a conspiracy theory, and a particularly dangerous one as it unleashed a two-decades long war. Indeed if there is any one thing that is consistently true about “conspiracy theory” it is that the phrase is used to disqualify amateur theories of power from respectable consideration. Meanwhile, some legitimate critique or questioning of authorities gets dismissed by associating it with irrationality, paranoia, and supernatural or anti-Semitic elements. We have seen this happen during the pandemic: important concerns about increasing state surveillance may be dismissed by mainstream commentators by associating these with the bogus positions of “anti-vaxxers.” A Marxist can’t help but notice how this ideological dynamic ultimately serves the ruling class, who have a vested interest in increasing the repressive powers of the state.
Maybe the real conspiracy is about the origins and use of the idea of the “conspiracy theory” itself. There are indeed offical documents demonstrating how the CIA sought to propound “conspiracy theory” as an everyday term of derision in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Now, a “conspiracy theorist” might point out that the CIA invented this term and foisted it upon us to “hide the truth.” A Marxist, by contrast, would counter that today’s constellation of conspiracy theories, and also the way we use the phrase itself, are outcomes of many historical contingencies, including but not limited to that of the CIA’s very real, but always incomplete efforts to secure American-led global capitalism.
This text, published on ISSUE 19 ANTICRISTOS Extrablatt, is the result of a dialogue between AWC and the Deutsche Historische Museum (DHM), in the frame of the upcoming exhibition Karl Marx und der Kapitalismus.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Kara Walker, Untitled, 2016, from a 57-part series: Untitled, Ink and gouache on paper, 26 x 18,1 cm, Private Archive Kara Walker © Kara Walker