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June 3, 2009

A brief note on the sociology of conspiracy theories

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,Philosophy,State — rmangum @ 4:37 am

In “Austrian and Marxist Theories of Monopoly Capital: A Mutualist Synthesis“, Kevin Carson laments that speaking in terms of a “Power Elite” from a leftist, non-Marxist standpoint tends to brand one a conspiracy theorist.

In making use of the “Power Elite” model of Mills and Domhoff, one must be prepared to counter the inevitable “tinfoil hat” charges from certain quarters. Power Elite theory, despite a superficial resemblance to some right-wing conspiracy theories, has key differences from them. The latter take, as the primary motive force of history, personal cabals united by some esoteric or gratuitously evil ideology. Now, the concentration of political and economic power in the control of small, interlocking elites, is indeed likely to result in informal personal ties, and therefore to have as its side-effect sporadic conspiracies (Stinnett’s Day of Deceit theory of Pearl Harbor is a leading example). But such conspiracy is not necessary to the working of the system–it simply occurs as a secondary phenomenon, and occasionally speeds up or intensifies processes that happen for the most part automatically. Although the CFR is an excellent proxy for the foreign policy elite, and some informal networking and coordination of policy no doubt get done through it, it is essentially a secondary organization, whose membership are ex officio representatives of the major institutions regulating national life. The primary phenomenon is the institutional concentration of power that brings such people into contact with each other in their official capacities.

I would say that “right-wing conspiracy theories” serve as a sort of poor man’s class conflict analysis, and I would defend them as having an advantage over Marxist in that they make history the realm of human action, where individuals and groups have goals and pursue them, rather than the realm of impersonal, abstract, and deterministic historical forces. The weakness of such theories is their moralizing, and tendency to ascribe far too much power of groups to control events (not to mention sloppy induction from historical research, however meticulous, riddled with logical fallacies). Like Marxism, they give little weight to forces of contingency, chaos, entropy, and simple human error, but unlike Marxism they also ignore what we might call “structuralism”, or the influence of institutional forces (which is the advantage of the more sociologically sophisticated “power elite” school of thought).



  1. […] The Sociology of Conspiracy Theories by Ray Mangum […]

    Pingback by Attack the System » Blog Archive » Updated News Digest June 7, 2009 — June 7, 2009 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  2. Reminds me of something Andrew Gelman said about contingency vs determinism in history vs evolutionary biology and how the “left” and “right” take different positions on each. I’m consistent in having a determinist take on both.

    Comment by teageegeepea — June 7, 2009 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  3. I certainly admire your consistency in being deterministic, since popular ideology on both left and right seems to embrace nature or nurture depending on whatever is politically convenient. Ideology is a priori. But in the end I don’t think I can follow you down the determinist path (although I’m always willing to be convinced). When it comes to human nature and its daughter, history, I feel we walk a fine line with an abyss on either side: social constructionism and evolutionary/genetic determinism. Not even a combination of the two can suffice to explain the dynamics of individual personality. To me it has nothing to do with left vs. right, though you have to be aware that in our current discourse it certainly does.

    A short but interesting book on the Left’s troubled relationship with Darwinism is Peter Singer’s “A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation”. Singer tries to reclaim a social philosophy consistent with Darwin for the Left. He begins by addressing the Is/Ought problem, originally formulated by Hume. This says that it is not legitimate to derive values from facts. Because it is, does not mean that it is good. I agree, but there is a problem with any philosophy which attempts a drastic cleavage of facts and values. This lead me to compose the following aphorism: “We ought not, starting from Is, derive Ought. Whence cometh Ought- from Not?”

    Comment by rmangum — June 8, 2009 @ 12:18 am | Reply

  4. My conclusion is that there is no Ought, objectively speaking. We call things “good” and “bad” because of our subjective attitudes. This is the case whether we are discussing morality or aesthetics.

    Comment by teageegeepea — June 8, 2009 @ 1:18 am | Reply

    • It’s true enough that there is probably no transcendent, objective moral truths, but that leads back in to the question of 1)how do we make ethical arguments? and 2)where do our “subjective attitudes” come from? The second question leads us right back into the nature versus nurture problem. A subjectivist/determinist can say that 1) “We don’t: that would be normative, and we must remain positive” and 2) appeal to an evolutionary or social “genealogy of morals”. But we are still left with the problem of what to do then, and in practice even the subjectivist/determinist argues for some moral preference. Nietzsche faces this problem. He clearly dislikes the “slave morality” but gives us no good reason why we should not prefer it.

      Comment by rmangum — June 8, 2009 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  5. Im just an American, that is pissed off at all of this govt takeover

    Comment by themadjewess — June 9, 2009 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

    • Take heart. We’re a significant minority.

      Comment by rmangum — June 10, 2009 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  6. All I am operating on now, is a wing and a prayer. 😦

    Comment by themadjewess — June 11, 2009 @ 1:32 am | Reply

    • I recommend stocking up on knowledge and bullets. Useful if things go to hell or even if they don’t.

      Comment by rmangum — June 11, 2009 @ 2:18 am | Reply

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