I am a conspiracy theorist, of the common-sense variety: I "theorize" that shared interests make for alliances; and if those interests are served by secrecy, then secrecy there will be. The larger the stakes, the greater the interests, and so too the greater the need for secrecy. Because high stakes tend to be available only to players who are already powerful, they will also tend to have greater opportunities for secrecy. But conversely: the greater the stakes, so too the greater the likelihood of alliances breaking, and greater the difficulty of secrecy.
Those could be a sort of rough-and-ready set of axioms of any Conspiracy Theory 101. They aptly sum up both why it is reasonable to expect conspiracies, why they are likely to succeed in the short- to medium-run, likely to be unstable in the long run, and why they are likely to eventually come to light. And they do come to light: everyone knows what the Mafia is, and everyone knows what the Illuminati is too. The fact that most people believe in the one and few people believe in the other is incidental.
Conspiracy theory is fun to malign, until you need it. The notion that Democratic Party officials were complicit in a child-sex-trade cartel under a pizza restaurant seemed a little too good/horrible to be true, but the notion that Russian trolls have conspired with certain renegade wannabe movers-&-shakers on the political right, abetted by a cartoon frog, to place a New York pretend-billionaire in the Oval Office has become the bread and butter of the 24-hour news cycle. As I type, rumors are again rife that this-week-for-sure, we'll see the long-promised Mueller Report. I have no doubt that when it finally drops, the report will be full of Important Findings; those who have the patience and the obsession will be kept busy for a long time filling in the gaps. But while all of this has happened, it has remained sufficient to call someone a conspiracy theorist to discredit them -- as though nothing else need be said. What we believe in are collusion, and cover-ups, and maybe, when pressed, conspiracy. What we disdain is conspiracy theory.
I started reading conspiracy theory in the late 1980's and early '90s, before the X-Files, and before the internet dialed all this stuff up to eleven. I am entertained by it, but not dogmatic about it. Among my friends, at various times, have been a bitcoin-buying anarchist who refused to talk with me while my cellphone lay on the table; a former intelligence operative who has assured me that threatening messages had reached him via little details in the daily press; and fellow who looked me in the eye with an if-you-have-to-ask-you'll-never-know sigh, and told me, from his own personal experience, that once you have seen proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, it changes your life. Well that, at least, I could well believe.
I also was once invited along to drop off Richard Hoagland, author of The Monuments of Mars, at the airport after a presentation he'd given. Hoagland had not expected me, however, and when my friend who was driving took an unexpected detour, Hoagland became notably alarmed. "Wait -- what? -- where are we going?" There followed an awkward moment when it was suddenly very clear that he found it completely plausible that my friend and I might intend to murder him. How we moved past that uncomfortable impasse I don't remember; we wound up having a very interesting conversation about Bode's law, Copernicus' cosmology (all those nested platonic solids) and what it would take for Hoagland to acknowledge that his hypothesis of ancient Martian civilization had, Karl Popper-style, been falsified. (I was relieved to discover that there was indeed an answer to this -- he assured me that a complete absence of "lawn furniture"-sized artifacts on the Martian surface would convince him he'd been wrong).
Hoagland's scare underscores something, though. After all, one rises to prominence in the world of conspiracy theory by fostering suspicion and paranoia. This means that the higher one's profile, arguably the more paranoid you are; and the more warily you must regard everyone else, including -- perhaps especially -- your compatriots in the conspiracy-theory subculture. These, in turn, must of course regard you with the same arm's-length wariness. Thus Alex Jones, Jim Keith, David Icke, Robert Anton Wilson, Jim Marrs, Mae Brussel, Miles Mathis, Whitley Strieber, Art Bell, and on and on, have each been publicly suspected (not infrequently by one another) of being a psy-ops provocateur. (Mathis has voiced this suspicion of pretty much everyone). In a milieu in which paranoia is the modus operandi, atomization is a natural side effect. After all, if THEY are so powerful, then the higher your profile, the more you must be useful to THEM. Otherwise, why are they letting you make so much noise? Why haven't they offed you yet? The only real street-cred legitimization is -- death; not just any death, but the bullet-with-your-name-on-it kind. Don't trust anyone above the ground. Thus William Cooper, author of Behold a Pale Horse, gunned down by the Feds in true you'll-never-take-me-alive style, and Danny Casolaro, found with his wrists slashed ten times each when hot upon the trail of the sprawling conspiracy he called The Octopus, are among the only near-untouchables in this subculture. (Even they have not been immune.)
Well, then: Call no man reliable until he is dead.
That's one side of the paradox. The other side is more liberating. Like all theory, conspiracy theory aspires to explain; its explanatory mechanism, however, also conceals. A conspiracy must act in secret. The more powerful the (postulated) conspiracy, the greater the explanatory power; but also the greater its (hypothetical) capacity to deceive. And thus, the more your conspiracy theory explains, the less you can know; and a conspiracy powerful enough to control everything would undermine your capacity to trust anything, including the rationale that leads you to believe in the conspiracy.
The low-hanging fruit here would be: conspiracy theory is nonsense. This critique is easily parried: conspiracies are not regarded as all-powerful (indeed, narratively speaking, their allure partly depends upon the critics being scrappy, indefatigable heroes who could win; the meddling kids to the Illuminati's woulda-gotten-away-with-it); but the deeper point, beyond the betcha-never-though-of-that, is further-reaching, a kind of immanent critique: go deep enough into paranoia, and you cannot help but come out the other side. Ultimately, fear can contain the seeds of its own dissolution.
I thought of all this, again, in the wake of the death of Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche is a splendid cautionary figure for political philosophy, and maybe for philosophy as a whole, and if this claim is puzzling it is because philosophy has become too tame. Whatever his (sometime) weirdness and blame-mongering, LaRouche clearly aspired to be taken for a genuine intellectual. Look through the publications of his foundation, the Schiller Institute. That's Friedrich Schiller, my friends, not Adam Smith or Edmund Burke or any of a dozen likelier candidates for patron saint if you were aiming for a respectable-sounding political movement. What first strikes you when you flip through any copy of Fidelio (the Institute's glossy magazine) isn't the politics; it's the undeniable breadth of topics: Lincoln's presidency, the Newton-Leibniz dispute, cold fusion, Bach's compositions. This breadth is a sign of far more than middlebrows aspiring to high culture; there are good guys and bad guys in LaRouche's account of history, and those who are not for us are against us. Nothing is neutral. Euler's mathematics is evil, Riemann's is good. Bach's music is not just uplifting, it's a force for truth; Russell's philosophy is the opposite. And remarking upon any of it is, obviously, relevant to the cause. The same is clear from the dozens of essays produced by Miles Mathis: the ruin of culture since modernism turns out to be part and parcel of how everything you know from science and math is wrong (pi=4, for instance), and that almost nothing you read in the national news actually happened. That is: everything is connected.
I was first discovering this stuff at the same time as Derrida was crossing my radar, and I couldn't help but see the way Derrida would turn a stray comment from Rousseau into the lynchpin of a whole essay that seemed to show that everything you thought you knew was subtly undermined. Later I read Agamben, and there it was again: an obscure figure in Roman law becomes the thread that when pulled turns out to drag the entirety of European civilization behind it, from Byzantine theology to the architecture of Auschwitz. But you didn't have to be a cool European thinker that got cited in all the right grad programs; the same point had been made by Freud, after all (to say nothing of Jung and his eye for synchronicity): everything could turn on the most inoffensive-looking little detail. Or, as Richard Weaver (who was certainly not getting cited in all the right grad programs) had already said: ideas have consequences. But because history never proceeds in a straight line, tracing those consequences always looks a little ... paranoid. Guido Preparata is right to say: conspiracy theory is too important to be left to conspiracy theorists. The only thing that differentiates paranoia from the Socratic following the logos wherever it leads, is that Socrates is not afraid.
"Everything is connected" is both a banal bit of pseudo-profundity, and a truth the full weight of which no one really feels in their soul unless they are in the throes of a bout of enlightenment. It is, to be sure, not just easy to roll your eyes at; it practically elicits this response just by being said aloud. At least one reason for this reaction is not the pseudo-profundity but the fact that when acted upon, this truth winds up creating a lot of paranoid effects.
I don't presume to know whether LaRouche ever got within spitting distance of satori; that's certainly not my claim here. All I want to emphasize is that philosophy can look crazy from the outside. (Indeed, Socrates would say, it is crazy; but madness -- the right kind of madness -- is the greatest of all gifts.) It looks crazy because it's trying to do the impossible: to think the Whole. The more you attempt this, the more you get tangled in epicycles, which are not a bug but a feature of the very notion of system. Philosophy deploys system against systematicity. Most paranoia, alas, stops with the tangle.
Besides paranoia, the other extreme of fear is panic. Right away this name is a clue: panic is the all-encompassing, paralyzing or dissolving, fear in the face of Pan, the All. Of course. The All overwhelms.
Paranoia, the "it's-all-connected,-man" urge, is the attempt to hold panic at bay, to tame the threat by mapping it. To be sure, one can decide it was all a waste of energy, and return to a healthy agnosticism or one of the more standard-issue forms of paranoia peddled by the brand-name "Major Parties" ("Yay Republicans;" "Yay Democrats;" "Yay CNN;" "Yay FOX;" "Yay Science;" "Yay Family Values;" "Yay, Jihad;" "Yay Jesus;" "Yay [insert pop idol];" and so on). But if you want to really get out of paranoia, you have to go through, and that means it gets worse before it gets better.