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According to political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theory was once a general definition for any conjoint operation of persons, whether it was civil, criminal, or political (Barkun, p. 7). But particularly after the events in the United States on September 11, 2001, the term has become a derisive one for those who believe that some secretive group is responsible for a significant and/or tragic event. Thus, for example, University of Florida Law School professor Mark Fenster defines conspiracy theory as “the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order or some part thereof” (Fenster, p. 1).
Central to much of the discussion of conspiracy theory today are the events of 9/11/01 in the U.S. Those whom Fenster calls “conspiracy theorists” reject the official 9/11 Commission Report on the grounds that the actual events could not have been perpetrated in the manner the Report describes: that nineteen men hijacked planes and flew them into the towers and Pentagon, causing the former to collapse and causing massive damage to the latter. The “conspiracy” dimension occurs when an analyst maintains that the events of 9/11 were intended to serve as a “precipitating event for some larger, more nefarious project” (Fenster, p. 241).
Perhaps the best example of a conspiracy theorist today—one connected directly with 9/11 analysis—is David Ray Griffin, emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Claremont School of Theology, in Claremont, California. As a self-proclaimed reluctant conspiracy theorist, Griffin regularly engages in vocabulary that portrays 9/11 as was what he calls “an inside job” (Griffin, 2004, xvii-xviii; Griffin and Scott, 2007, Chapter One). From there, he attempts to show how some nefarious agents, likely governmental, had to be involved in the events of 9/11.
Fenster responds to this by saying that conspiracy theorists are paranoid because they draw conclusions that are too strong on the basis of the scant evidence they provide, and their explanations of events are either too simplistic or too complex to explain the phenomena they seek. In essence, they bring totalizing explanations to events that move well beyond the standard norms of inference. Thus, conspiracy theory is paranoid because it explains events through a master narrative. In fact, for Fenster, conspiracy theories really function to replace political engagement with a circular narrative of conspiracy, propelled by its insatiable need to find information to justify conspiratorial assertions.
Adding to Fenster’s criticisms, Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert reject conspiracy theory on the grounds that a “proper” leftist critique concerns institutional analysis only. For both authors, there is an exclusive disjunction between conspiracy theory and their own preferred method that scrutinizes structural or institutional phenomena. For them, conspiracy theorists fail to recognize how “the normal operations of some institutions generate the behaviors and motivations” that lead to events such as 9/11. As Albert puts it, the primary assumption of his model (and that of Chomsky) is that “if the particular people hadn’t been there to do it, most likely someone else would have.” Thus, individual agents and their interests are only facts about the institutions. Policies arise from institutions, not persons, in this perspective.
But the institutional analysis of Chomsky and Albert, as legitimate as it is, is unwarrantably suspicious about evidence that might indicate the role of human agency within institutional activities. Their commitment to institutional analysis results in their own reduction of human agency to little or no merit in significant events.
This brings us to the position of Peter Dale Scott, whom Fenster identifies specifically as a conspiracy theorist. Scott argues empirically that the events of 9/11 and after demonstrate the “deep politics” that have been expanding in U.S. government operations since the end of World War II. The institutional movement in this direction was precipitated by individuals who sought to increase their own wealth and power. If Scott is correct in his analysis, then the confidence that Fenster, Chomsky, and Albert have in institutional analysis is misplaced, as are their criticisms of conspiracy theories.
What differentiates the conspiracy analysis of Peter Dale Scott, in comparison to the features of conspiracy theory delineated and rejected by analysts like Barkun and Fenster, is that Scott does not presume a totalizing narrative. Nor does he seek an endless loop of information to support a position that can never be proven definitively anyway. But what makes him a conspiracy theorist, according to Fenster’s analysis, is that he aims to trace out historically the movements, events, and “secret” decisions that “small cabals” of persons within our (public) governmental institutions. These secret decisions of persons are deliberately intended to replace the “public” dimension of U.S. foreign (and domestic) policy with what Scott calls the “deep state:” an elite, authoritarian politics whose concern is with global hegemony. By this blending of agency and institution, Scott produces a narrative that has historical and factual documentation, and finishes with the kind of conclusion that so repulses Fenster and Chomsky. Because Scott’s analysis is at once historical, factual, non-totalizing, and non-paranoid, his analysis is plausible. And if his analysis is plausible, his may represent the most cogent place to situate oneself between Fenster’s rejection of conspiracy theories and those who embrace conspiracy alone, such as David Ray Griffin.
In conclusion, whatever one’s views of justice are the practices of dominance and the self-interested motives of power and wealth will be repudiated as incongruent with justice. But if conspiracy theory aims at anything, it aims to expose the actions of a powerful elite engaging in nefarious activities for their own benefit, and this is an element of political analysis that all parties of the debate can agree to in order to begin dialogue about what needs to be done.
Robert P. Abele
Diablo Valley College
Albert, Michael, “Conspiracy Theory,” Z Magazine, August, 1995.
Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Chomsky, Noam, “9-11: Institutional Analysis vs. Conspiracy Theory,” Z Magazine, October, 2006.
Clark, Steve. “Conspiracy Theories and the Internet: Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development,” Episteme 4, 2, 2007, 167-180.
Coady, David. Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate (London: Ashgate Publishing, 2006).
Fenster, Mark, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
Griffin, David Ray, and Richard Falk. The New Pearl Harbor (Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., 2004).
Griffin, David Ray, and Peter Dale Scott. 9/11 and American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out (Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., 2007).
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).
Keeley, Brian L., “Of Conspiracy Theories,” Journal of Philosophy, 96, n. 3, 1999, 109-126.
Parenti, Michael. Dirty Truths (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1996).
Scott, Peter Dale. The Road to 9/11 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).