The Origin of the Conspiracy Theory
There is no palace anymore.
The conspiracy theory as an explanation for society and its ills is faring well these days, and no wonder since it always thrives in difficult times. It is always also the greatest enemy of any serious analysis of power. Mostly for those who wield them as explanatory tools, as they by so doing choose to ignore the spontaneous, decentralized and faith-based power structure that actually exists. For normie-critics of conspiracy theories, on the other hand, they become handy tools for dismissing important criticism as “crazy talk”.
For conspiracy theorists “they” are a must, and at least in modern times when faced with claims that “they” are doing stuff the sharp-minded and fact-based empiricist injects: “Who are you referring to?” Who is behind this?” “Give me evidence, names, people involved!”. “Point me to the proof and I will believe there is a regime”.
Quite! By pinpointing, however, the conspiracy theory emerges. For both the self-proclaimed fact-lover and conspiracy theorist see a fractured reality void of context and insight. They see isolated facts and choose to draw conclusions that point to either nothing or a total plan. And both fail to accurately locate power.
Pinpointing who “they” are is a path towards confusion. Both histories of the Frankfurt School and of Neoliberalism deal with this problem: Neo-Marxists undermining the West or scheming figures at the Mont Pelerin Society busting the Keynesian Social Democratic paradigm.
A regime, however, is never a secret society, a coordinated plan or a body. Who, for example, should we point to to clarify the aspect of “planning” within 20th century modernity? There was Socialism, Taylorism, Capitalism, Fascism, Social Democracy. There was Lenin looking towards the German wartime economy (WWI) and American industrialists, while the Nazis were inspired by Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. There were radicals, factory owners, architects, engineers, critics and politicians who were all caught by this spirit. In terms of urban planning this lead to utopianism and iconoclasm in the name of modernization, backed up by science and expertise. In actual fact, however, a spirit that can in retrospect be identified as a “regime of planning”.
And although there is a “they”, this regime cannot be understood as a conspiracy, nor is there anything sinister in its emergence, function and decline.
The origin of “they” and therefore of “regimes” is instead to be found in a shift in sovereignty. Bertrand de Jouvenel noted how government authority grew visibly from the 12th to the 18th century and thus sparked protest and revolt. Since the breakdown of the Old Order from the 1700s onwards power has become increasingly invisible, and accordingly “we no longer react”. In relation to Power, de Jouvenel writes:
Formerly it could be seen, manifest in the person of the king, who did not disclaim being the master he was, and in whom human passions were discernible. Now, masked in anonymity, it claims to have no existence of its own, and to be but the impersonal and passionless instrument of the general will.1
Historically, when things went wrong people knew where to march with their pitch forks, namely to the palace or possibly the local church. The rulers knew this as well. However, with the coming of the revolutions and industrialization sovereignty collapsed and poured out into society, to bureaucrats, industrial magnates and political parties. The sovereign state gave way to the disciplinary state. Power was obscured and it was evermore unclear who was responsible for government. In time socialists wanted to solve this by seizing the market while fascist sought to create a total state thereby restoring the power that had poured out into institutions and private hands. Failures that nonetheless did not eliminate the problems but only removed them from sight.
With modernity, then, power becomes evermore centralized in a powerless state, de-territorialized and dominated by markets and norms. Karl Polanyi’s idea of markets always having been embedded prior to the 19th century, that is, dominated by some other power or community, is indicative of this change.
With the coming of democracy, capitalism and liberalism power was sliced into a formal and non-formal part. Forces previously embedded into political power broke away. Formally, power still resided with the palace, but in practise the situation was forever changed. This is where the conspiracy theory begins to gain purpose as an explanation for the invisibly of power, trying to make it visible once more. By doing so it also brushed aside any meaningful analysis of power in the modern age, replacing it with an idea of a small group having seized power.
For where is it located today? Where will people carry their pitchforks when society slips into decline? Politicians only point to international law, agreements and directives. The EU commissioner feels crippled by bureaucracy and national governments. Corporations and banks bemoan regulation and government policies. Operators and content creators of media companies and universities laugh at the idea of them having any power. Civil servants even more so. They are just honest middle-class citizens like everyone else. Everybody throws their hands in the air. We live in a democracy, it is claimed, you have the power, just vote!
In this way power today appears to be everywhere and nowhere. It is institutionalized and functions automatically and spontaneously. It is religious. Liquid. In the same way that no one could oppose the Christian faith during the medieval period, no one is able to oppose the ideas of virtue, correctness, truth and sociality being enforced today. Because they are being enforced, but not by any central committee. The conformism seen in media, academia, politics and the corporate world are instead to be understood as a kind of group dynamic – a system of faith binding together a certain class.
A class that has now ran into conflict with the nation state, democracy and a people that can no longer aim its discontent correctly. For the palaces, or parliaments, of today form just one node in a network of power. In such a society it is no wonder that ideas of secret plans enacted by Soros, the Koch brothers, Putin or the lizard people become all the rage. We are dealing with a projection where in a hollowed-out democracy people want to hold some fictitious sovereign accountable. It is also a longing for local sovereignty in a world where power actually is constituted of a kind of dogma everybody has to adopt voluntarily.
The conspiracy theory rises precisely when the state loses its sovereign function, or when power pours out into the world and the state holds only an executive role. In today’s world in relation to globalization and the nation state. Still, the old misguided understanding persists which on the one hand is expressed in the conspiracy theory in the idea that somewhere there has to be a powerful “palace” which is responsible and can be stormed. In mainstream society the same point is manifested in the idea that parliaments are still all powerful and that discontents just have to vote if they want change. But how is one supposed to vote for that which does not exist? How to dethrone a paradigm?
The old mistaken ideas of power as fully visible and formal manifested themselves in the reactions to the events at the Capitol (and during the Occupy Wall Street-movement). Namely the idea that a “storming of the palace” (occupying territory) still hold relevance even if the liquid power is not on the side of the agitators. Which it obviously wasn’t. For even without any actions from the police nothing would have changed. With their phones eventually running out of battery the crowd would have walked home and the politicians continued their business elsewhere.
The storming was only serious in a symbolic sense – in the real world a group of internet heroes occupied a piece of prime real estate in the centre of Washington for a period of time. The glorious speeches in the name of the Republic afterwards were largely self-serving politics.
There is no sovereign Palace anymore. Even parliaments, as Agamben has noted, increasingly function just to pass whatever regime-friendly politics needs to be passed. They are here to chew the spirit of the age into manageable chunks that can be passed into law.
The overlap with Foucault’s thesis in Discipline and Punish is interesting. His description of a gruesome execution in France and the shift in the 18th century toward a more hidden disciplinary state. Brutal physical punishments during the ancien régime sparked both outrage and sympathy. Power was unmasked and upheld by force which also caused violent reaction against it in a way the later closed clinics never did.