Rich as honey dew – 4

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 4. (Covering point 5, and – confusingly – the fifth post in the series overall.)

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

I’ve got to admit, when I first heard that there were people on the Left circulating anti-semitic conspiracy theories I found it very hard to take seriously. I’ve been interested in conspiracy theory and in unconventional belief systems for thirty-odd years; between the two of them, I could hardly fail to be aware that there are such things as anti-semitic conspiracy theories. But then, there are people out there who think the measurements of the Great Pyramid have cosmic significance, or that the Book of Daniel tells us the date of the Second Coming, or that the Lost Tribes of Israel are in fact the British. (Hebrew: ‘brit’ = ‘covenant’, ‘ish’ = ‘man’. Coincidence?) As for conspiracy theories, people in search of a world-historical criminal mastermind may put the blame on the Elders of Zion or Mossad; equally, they may blame the Masons, the Illuminati, the Annunaki or the late Aristotle Onassis.

What all those more or less delusional theories have in common is that their devotees are patently irrational – sometimes laughably so, sometimes tragically – and that there are very few of them. Hence why I didn’t take the news of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists on the Left very seriously; my reaction was, essentially, you’re always going to get a few nutters. I now think there’s a bit more to it than that, and it’s worth taking a proper look at.

According to a widely-held argument, recently voiced (as we’ve seen) by Jonathan Freedland, conspiracy theory itself is part of the problem. Conspiracy theory is a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to irrational thinking and thence anti-semitism: you start by doubting the official version, you go on to blaming somebody behind the scenes, you end up discovering that it’s you-know-who behind the scenes. This isn’t a hypothetical worry; depressingly large numbers of people have gone down something like this route, and not only the Left – try searching for ‘Rothschild’ on Twitter if you want a bad time. But I wonder if the conspiracy theory is what’s doing the work here. As I wrote a couple of posts ago, it’s not as if no conspiracies have ever taken place, or the official version of history has always been correct; sometimes theorising about conspiracies is a useful and responsible way of doing history.

So what makes a conspiracy theory a bad conspiracy theory? What makes the difference between (e.g.) Dorril and Ramsay’s Smear! and the late Bill Cooper’s Behold a pale horse? Apart from the fact that Behold a pale horse consists largely of wildly implausible, near-psychotic ravings, I mean. But what makes one theory plausible (e.g. “in the mid-70s, elements of the security and intelligence services conspired with groups in and around the Tory Party to smear Harold Wilson as a KGB asset, so as to get him out of office”) and another implausible (“since the 1960s the CIA have been brainwashing mental patients into carrying out mass shootings so as to get gun control legislation passed and disarm the people, thus enabling the New World Order to take power”)? Apart from… OK, I see the problem.

Clearly, there are conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories. Thinking about it a bit more systematically, a full-on, florid Conspiracy! Theory! like Cooper’s – or like the “the Rothschilds ran the Nazis” babble that’s all too easy to find online – has four characteristics:

  • Scepticism – distrust of official information and received opinion
  • Mechanics – interest in how social structures work, including structures whose workings are not apparent
  • Vision – belief in a coherent alternative way of looking at the world and being in the world
  • Blame – tendency to scapegoat individuals or groups

To be a capital-C Conspiracist isn’t just to distrust the official record; it also means having ideas about how things really work (mechanics), about who’s really in charge (blame) and – perhaps the biggest hit of all – what’s really going on (vision). This last element explains why David Icke is so keen to tell us that the Moon is hollow or that Satan is from Saturn (coincidence?), even though neither astronomy nor folk religion has any obvious relevance to politics in any form. It’s not just a way of looking at the world we share that Icke is selling – it’s a whole new world, a ‘red pill’ conversion experience that you can never undo or go back on. (Or not without feeling really embarrassed.)

But if you define conspiracy theory in terms of the full package of capital-C Conspiracism – Scepticism + Mechanics + Vision + Blame – you rapidly run into similar problems to adherents of the canonical definition of terrorism, which requires (a) violence to be used to (b) achieve political ends by (c) causing terror to (d) someone other than the victim. Some terrorist acts fit the whole definition – just as some examples of conspiracy theory fit the whole of that definition – but many don’t. Was every tit-for-tat killing in the Troubles part of an attempt to achieve a broader political goal? Did every IRA volunteer who ever fired at an RUC man or a British squaddie do so as an attempt to terrorise witnesses? Clearly not. What we call ‘terrorism’ is violence with a political motive somewhere in the picture; some of it has short-term political goals; some of it’s designed to make an impact on third parties. You can’t really generalise much more than that, I suspect. Similarly, if I spend my spare time reading all about Jack Ruby and Officer Tippit and Alex or Alick Heindel or possibly Hidell, the chances are that I don’t entirely believe the Warren Report (Scepticism), and that I at least suspect that there were covert machinations of some sort (Mechanics) going on in Dallas that day. I may also believe that the guys who offed Kennedy were part of a century-spanning conspiracy on a global scale, and that I know just who’s behind it – but then again, I may not. In point of fact, most of the authorities on the classic ‘conspiracy’ topics – JFK, MLK, RFK, the October Surprise, Iran/Contra – show very little interest in setting out a new model that explains everything (Vision), let alone uncovering the ‘secret rulers of the world’ (Blame). Scepticism + Mechanics is the usual toolkit – and some good and useful work has been done by people who get by on scepticism alone, and don’t even show much interest in the mechanics of what may or may not have gone on.

So, conspiracy theory properly understood doesn’t get you to the Protocols mentality, or to what I’ve been calling Conspiracism. Conspiracy theory properly understood – the question of who entered into what agreements with whom, contrary to their own overt and official positions – is a branch of political history, no more and no less. Indeed, the two elements of Conspiracism that aren’t part of conspiracy theory – Vision and Blame – can stand on their own: This is how things should be and/or how things really are! And these are the people stopping it and/or hiding it from us! Call it the paranoid style; call it the pogrom mentality; you could even call it “The Screwfly Solution”. Whatever you call it, it’s not conspiracy theory. In fact, the main elements of conspiracy theory – rational scepticism and curiosity about mechanisms – are, ultimately, antithetical to the lurid panoramas and simplistic finger-pointing of the paranoid style. Compare and contrast: on one hand, “Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Oswald was almost certainly related to Ruby’s mob connections, which in turn should be seen in the context of organised crime’s involvement with the Cuban exile community and LBJ’s own suspect business dealings, investigations into which – not coincidentally – stopped soon after November 22nd”; on the other, “the Rothschilds owned Hitler, just like they now own Jeremy Corbyn”. One of these things is very much not like the other. If anything, conspiracy theory is a cure for the paranoid style, or a big part of a cure.

But now I’ve got problems; in fact, I’m coming close to contradicting myself. Didn’t I begin by saying that the primrose path from pukka conspiracy theory (Scepticism + Mechanics) to full-on Conspiracism (Scepticism + Mechanics + Vision + Blame) is one that many people do in fact tread? How can that be, if the paranoid style (Vision + Blame) is so different from, and so inferior to, conspiracy theory proper?

Perhaps there aren’t four elements to Conspiracism but two; perhaps Scepticism and Mechanics aren’t simple antitheses of Vision and Blame, but are involved with them rather more intimately. Perhaps, in other words, Vision is what Scepticism decays into, when the would-be sceptic lacks the application or the patience to keep track of all the “Smith received donations from Jones” and “Jones shared a letterhead with Evans” circumstantial evidence – never mind the suggestive details and the telling omissions, they’re all in it together, that’s what we’re saying, isn’t it? And perhaps you can say something similar about a drift from Mechanics to Blame – you start with a patient and necessarily open-ended grappling with ways in which things, perhaps, are actually getting done, but you end with the trap snapping shut on who is actually getting things done. There is still such a thing as Conspiracism, on this reckoning, but it’s the name we give to the process of drifting, or degenerating, from ‘conspiracy theory’ (characterised by sceptical but open-minded curiosity) to the paranoid style (characterised by grand overviews and declarations of anathema).

We’re getting close to an explanation for why Corbynism in particular may have attracted substantial numbers of people whose thinking is characterised – and marred – by the paranoid style, and to a possible solution. Simply, Corbynism has attracted substantial numbers of people – attracted them into politics and into activism, made them feel that they had a voice worth hearing; specifically, it’s attracted people inclined towards scepticism about official stories and an interest in the mechanics of how the world works. So far, so good; the problems start when, for a minority of those people, resentment and intellectual laziness triumph over the open-minded, generous curiosity of political inquiry – and conspiracy theory – done properly. Let’s be clear, conspiracy theory done properly is hard work with very little short-term reward; discovering that Fred Bloggs was on the boards of a charity that donated to the Conservative Party and a think-tank with links to the Economic League is unlikely to make your name, bring in any money or even give you much of a buzz. Discovering that Bloggs, behind his mild-mannered exterior, was a powerful operator with connections to people in high places – that’s much more fun. Letting Vision prevail over Scepticism and Blame prevail over Mechanics – that’s how conspiracy theory goes bad; it’s also a standing temptation for anyone who likes an intellectual shortcut and wants to let out a bit of rage. Which is to say, for everyone some of the time, as well as for some (a few) people all of the time.

As for the solution, that’s simple: push the sliders back the other way, from the comfortable froth of Vision and Blame back to the hard work and indefinitely-delayed gratification of Scepticism and Mechanics. This is the sense in which we need more conspiracy theory, not less. We also need more free and undominated political discussion – to challenge stereotyping and support sceptical curiosity – and more activism. Jean-Pierre Voyer was right, before he became an ultra-left antisemite (an irony I could have done without):

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life – contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other – are simultaneously abolished

Anyone who’s been on a picket line can confirm: there’s an odd sense of lightness and simplicity, which I think is at bottom the sense that “what your life is about” doesn’t have two meanings any more, but one. It’s a profoundly healthy experience. There’s a reason why you see a lot more of the paranoid style on Twitter than you ever do on banners, and it is the obvious one.

I can’t leave this subject without noting that there is more than one political force which has recently activated large numbers of previously passive citizens. Unless Jeremy Corbyn had a particular appeal to people who were likely to be resentful and intellectually lazy, we’d expect to see that there was also more than one political area in which a minority was prone to thinking in the paranoid style. And, of course, this is the case; if we’re quantifying, the Brexit-voting Right is a far greater danger to public discourse than Corbynites could ever be. They, too, feel sceptical towards official accounts and have an interest in the mechanisms whereby things really get done; compared to the Corbynite Left, however, the position from which the Brexit Right starts is far closer towards simplistic Vision and outcasting Blame. Nor do the same corrective mechanisms apply. Brexit politics is something that happens in private life and on social media – the twenty-first century equivalent of shouting at the TV – and very rarely makes it into the public square. Jeremy Corbyn has been repeatedly criticised, not for failing to discourage personal attacks and one-sided fantasies, but for doing so in what are taken to be qualified or double-edged words; but compare the tribunes of the Brexit Right, who have openly and consistently encouraged both of these things, from a far more prominent position. The Left at its very worst – Alan Bull, say – could never pollute the public discourse in the way that Nigel Farage and Paul Dacre already have.

Summing up, then: anti-semitism in the Labour Party is being instrumentalised, and will almost certainly continue to be instrumentalised, by people who want to hang it on the Left. What makes this situation all the more annoying is that it’s an odd sort of problem: if the words “anti-semitism in the Labour Party” are interpreted along the same lines as, say, “racism in the Conservative Party”, we could reasonably say that it wasn’t a problem. (Do Jewish members of the party have trouble getting selected as Labour candidates, or face repeated jocular references to their Jewish background, or have to smile gamely through Jewish jokes at party social events? Huge if true.) A lack of attention to and respect for Jewish identity (or identities) is a real issue in the party, however, partly because of a widespread vulgar-Marxist perception that exploited and oppressed minorities are the only minorities that need respect or solidarity. This needs to be corrected. Related to this, we need to have nothing to do with a knockabout “does this offend you yeah?” approach to Zionism, which parts of the Left have borrowed from parts of the Jewish anti-Zionist Left; we need to be clear that we have no quarrel with Jewish people or Judaism, whether we’re calling for a temporary freeze to settlement building or the replacement of the state of Israel by a secular democracy. Lastly – and least importantly – conspiracy theory in general, and certain very well-worn conspiracist tropes in particular, are becoming an issue in parts of the Corbynite Left. This, though, is because the people involved aren’t doing conspiracy theory properly – or politics, for that matter; and the cure for that is more activism, more discussion, more politics. Which is something that the Corbynite Left, almost uniquely in contemporary politics, is well-equipped to offer.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. metatone
    Posted 23 April 2018 at 20:30 | Permalink | Reply

    I found this post to be really useful. I’ve been thinking about the “conspiracy vs Conspiracy” problem a lot recently, esp. the differences between social media and public sphere of discussion.

  2. Guano
    Posted 28 April 2018 at 15:28 | Permalink | Reply

    Your classification (Scepticism, Mechanics, Vision, Blame) is very useful. It is why I think that the term Conspiracy Theory has no value, because it covers a multitude of different styles of analysis with different characteristics. If we follow Jonathan Freedland’s line of thinking (in one of your previous posts) then any distrust of received opinion will lead to another Holocaust. I gladly admit that I distrust received opinion (from hard experience) so I am disturbed by the implied conclusion that we shouldn’t question received opinion.

  3. Guano
    Posted 29 April 2018 at 17:08 | Permalink | Reply

    Some questions:- Do the various assertions about Russian bots swinging elections count as Conspiracy Theories? Do they fit Jonathan Freedland’s definition? Would he think that they are signs of conspiratorial thinking?

    I don’t like the label “Conspiracy Theories” but, in my view, there is a great deal of similarity between the stories about Russian bots and what are usually labelled as “Conspiracy Theories”:- a vision of “what is really going on” extrapolated from scanty data. Blame is placed on external actors, which avoids looking at reasons closer to home (which avoids learning from our own mistakes).

    One lesson is that it is very easy to fall into this way of thinking. The existence of Russian bots that are able to swing elections has become a real phenomenon by repetition rather than good analysis. The risks of communication by social media to democracy is that different groups of people receive different (sometimes contradictory) messages without others knowing and being able to correct them: Vote Leave was able to make contradictory promises in the open with little effort by media gatekeepers to correct them.

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