A Culture of Conspiracy

I read “A Culture of Conspiracy” by Professor Michael Barkun a few years ago. In it, he describes several broad categories of conspiracist belief, and traces the development of a variety of beliefs from their origins through to the time of writing as they branch and mutate and recombine.

I started this post not too long after reading it but I’ve let it languish for several years now. I hope I’m not misrepresenting its contents due to my failing memory, but I would recommend you read it yourself and find out - it’s definitely worthwhile, and I’m only picking out a few bits of it to talk about that were most interesting to me personally.

Conspiracy Types

Barkun identifies three types of conspiracy theories based on their scope:

  1. Event conspiracies - limited to a specific event, such as the assassination of JFK.
  2. Systemic conspiracies - concern the plans of a specific organisation or group with broad goals, such as taking over the world.
  3. Superconspiracies - this type of conspiracy links together various other conspiracies of the event and systemic varieties in a hierarchical manner (e.g. the CIA assassinated JFK, but the CIA are a tool of the Illuminati and his assassination served their purposes, but really the Illuminati are in thrall to Satan etc.)

Mostly this makes me wonder if systemic or event conspiracies ever really exist on their own in anybody’s mind anymore, because they all seem to espouse and nod along with such a mish-mash of ideas. He does note that superconspiracies have been on the rise since the 1980s. But is something like QAnon even separable from the web of conspiracist ideas in which it seems to be embedded?

Stigmatised Knowledge

Barkun identifies the origin of conspiracist thinking in stigmatised knowledge:

By stigmatized knowledge I mean claims to truth that the claimants regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error.

Stigmatised knowledge is not exclusive to conspiracism, but it is inevitably a feature of it, and I think it leads to it readily even when it initially exists without it. For example a believer in a discredited alternative medical treatment might not initially believe in any specific conspiracy in connection to it, but eventually they will have to explain why it is not accepted into the mainstream, and an easy answer is that it is being suppressed by a conspiracy of insiders who benefit from it not being adopted.

With this concept in mind it is easy to understand the origin of “pipelines” into conspiracism from any pseudoscientific field, fringe religious movement, or even from political ideologies that see their righteousness as obvious and their victory as inevitable. When their distorted worldview meets reality and they have to explain their failures, conspiracism is right there. Once they’re understanding one piece of stigmatised knowledge as being suppressed by a conspiracy, it’s a small step to accepting other such claims.

Fact is Fiction, Fiction is Fact

The commonsense distinction between fact and fiction melts away in the conspiracist world. More than that, the two exchange places, so that in striking ways conspiracists often claim first that what the world at large regards as fact is actually fiction, and second that what seems to be fiction is really fact.

Anybody who has spent any time listening to conspiracists will recognise the truth of this statement right away.

First of all, all conspiracy theories necessarily involve claims that one or more generally accepted truths are actually lies intended to pacify or deceive the sheep. Often any information coming from an institution is dismissed without consideration, because it is a given that institutions - be they governments, universities or the “mainstream media” - are “in on it”.

With fact rendered fictional, it becomes very easy to point to fiction to fill gaps in their evidence. Sometimes this takes the form of taking fictional sources as literal accounts, and Barkun describes some of these instances. Other times fictional stories are said to contain encoded messages or to be for the purpose of softening up the masses to accept some coming revelation or societal change - nothing can ever be somebody’s neat idea for a sci-fi concept, or allegory, or their opinion of where society is or is going, unplanned.

In some accounts, I believe that describing their literal plans in fiction is believed to have an occult purpose for the conspirators, much like is claimed about symbols on currency or on buildings (e.g. Denver airport). Advertising their plans in a way that will only be understood by an enlightened few is somehow a part of bringing them to fruition. This is how Alex Jones is interpreting H.G Wells’ “Time Machine” when he talks about Eloi and Morlocks, saying “it’s all right there folks” - and similarly for the other pop cultural works he references, of course.

Emergency Management

One of the things I was most eager to learn about from this book was FEMA camp conspiracy theories. I find these theories amongst the most frustrating (and amusing) because of how they look past the very real historical precedents of concentration camps, and the present day realities of mass incarceration and political repression in the United States and elsewhere, and focus instead on a long running conspiracy that is always just on the cusp of rounding up those troublesome “patriots”.

Of course, the longer this conspiracy has been in the milieu the more absurd it becomes. Barkun identifies the origins of this theory as a pamphlet by a man named William Pabst, written sometime prior to 1979. Pabst warns: “your country and way of life [will be] replaced by a system in which you will be a slave in a concentration camp”.

As such, more recent incarnations of this theory imply that the US government (acting on behalf of some hidden puppet-masters, perhaps) has been building and maintaining a network of secret camps for over 40 years without ever putting their nefarious plans into motion!

Historical instances of the use of internment and concentration camps by governments are of course very real. However, they have never required such extensive periods of preparation. When the British government decided to round up Irish Nationalists in Northern Ireland, they built temporary structures in the weeks prior to doing so, and more permanent structures over the next few years after that. The United States forced 120,000 Japanese Americans into camps during WWII, first in hastily converted racetracks and fairgrounds, and then in more permanent facilities built over a few months in 1942. Even the horrifying machinery of the Nazis did not require decades to construct, instead comprising a mix of repurposed buildings of many types, and camps newly constructed during the course of the war - a system that imprisoned and exterminated millions.

The Speed of Lies

When this book was first published in 2003 it had already been updated from the largely completed manuscript to include chapters concerning the explosion of conspiracism after the 9/11 attacks. The second edition, published in 2013, which is the one I read, had been updated with chapters about birtherism and millenarian conspiracies about the year 2012.

In a testament to the veracity of the saying that “a lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on”, many of the conspiracies considered in the book, even the later additions, seem quaint and out-of-date from the vantage point of 2023. Of course any book on the constantly shifting, slippery world of conspiracism will be out-of-date (in some ways) within a few years of coming out.

Nonetheless, the analysis is still useful to understanding the process of the creation and dissemination of conspiracist ideas. Indeed there is no amount of time and lack of confirmation that will kill many conspiracies - the reason I was so focused on FEMA camp conspiracies in this post was because somebody told me just a few years ago that Hillary Clinton would have put everybody in camps, and similar rhetoric arose even more recently when the language around COVID-19 mitigation measures was claimed to be intended to “make us feel like we’re in prison” - a FEMA camp of the mind I guess.

The only writing of Barkun’s that I’ve read concerning more recent developments in the conspiracy sphere is an article in “Foreign Policy” about QAnon which examines the efforts of its adherents to cope with its failed prophecies. As far as I’m aware QAnon is still going strong despite its predictive failures.

QAnon has been described by some as a “big tent” conspiracy theory because of its ability to adapt and incorporate new claims. However, it’s hardly unique in that regard - NWO conspiracy theories and many others have been interpreting events through their particular lenses and adapting and incorporating new claims for decades. QAnon might be unique in terms of its longevity despite having made specific, dated predictions that failed to come to pass, but to me it seems more like a systemic conspiracy that conspiracists have been rolling into their own long-existing superconspiracies. It only seems like QAnon is the “big tent” because it broke so spectacularly into the mainstream. As it breaks down under the weight of its failures it seems like it is adapting to include other theories, but it is actually the other theories that are absorbing it into themselves and trying to salvage the parts of it that are useful.

More Conspiracism

I started listening to the Knowledge Fight podcast during Alex Jones’ defamation trials to get the scoop on developments, and I haven’t been able to stop listening since. Dan and Jordan’s analysis of Jones’ bullshit is excellent, and it’s a great way of keeping up with what he’s saying. It’s also incredibly entertaining.

I have been meaning to check out the QAnon Anonymous podcast as well for a while to get a more general view, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.