John Gloster-Smith delves deep into the history of conspiracy theories and tries to address the reasons behind the recent upsurge in what has been traditionally the relm of  extremists.

It is striking how widespread at the moment are conspiracy theories. It appears no longer to be something amongst small, eccentric-seeming groups but to have invaded the public sphere and is even the subject of large demonstrations and being adopted by radical political leaders. It is perhaps important to take a closer look at what is going on in order to understand the impact such trends can have on our political and social life, especially as such movements can be potentially disruptive and damaging.

To raise the question of conspiracy immediately takes one into a different zone of awareness. One talks of such things in slightly hushed tones, casting a metaphorical eye over one’s should in case of being overheard by “them”, whoever is the object of the theory. One might speak of it as if it is real. For the speaker it is real, and is a present and real threat. “They” might be in the next room, have taken over your computer, have bugged your house, are watching your every movement, and might be about to pounce and take you away to some unimaginable horrors.

The Paranoid Style in politics

Those who lived in East Germany under the Stasi would know this all too well as a reality lived by many people. The Stasi in post-war communist East Germany were one of the most effective and repressive of secret police in the world. Under totalitarian regimes, total surveillance was or is an everyday fact of life. However, in Western democracies, it’s not like that, or at least you’d like to think it isn’t, unless of course as you read these words there’s a nagging doubt in your mind and you might find yourself reaching for the comment box about this article to point out for example ways that Western democracies monitor aspects of people’s lives. The point here is to be aware of where your mind goes when you are confronted with the question about what might be really going on.

Richard J Hofstadter in 1964 wrote a well-known essay on the subject. He called it “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and his historical survey of the subject ranged back to late 19th Century agrarian populists concerned about the silver base of the currency, and forward to the work of Joseph McCarthy and the fear of Communism. McCarthy led a witch-hunt in Congress against suspected Communist infiltrators in the US government and other public institutions from 1950, one that extended to homosexuality. Many were in fact innocent and eventually McCarthy was denounced in 1954 but the “McCarthyite” era left a long-running scar in American life. This was the time of the Cold War and there was a widespread fear of Communism, the “Red Scare”. What Hofstadter did was draw attention to a tendency in US politics to adopt a “paranoid” or conspiratorial view of politics.

Conspiracy and the power of fear in history

Conspiracy theory has a long history and there are many notable or infamous examples. One such dramatic one was the Grand Peur or Great Fear of July-August 1789 at the start of the French Revolution and just after the storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July. There had been widespread unrest due to the poor harvest, one of the causes of the Revolution, and rumour spread like wildfire across the country that the peasants were about to be attacked by the aristocracy. The peasantry rose up, seized the local chateaux and burned the papers that detailed the seigneurs’ feudal rights over them. There was no such plot but in the heightened emotions and events that brought down the feudal Ancien Régime it was widely believed, with dramatic results.

Other examples so often in history were about religion, such as in 17th century England when there were conflicts over belief, both between Protestants and Catholics but also within Protestantism, and there were fears of a belief being imposed by a governing elite that clashed with one’s own. During the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) and after, more extreme versions of Puritan Protestantism were promulgated that probably did not sit right with most people. A notable example was the outbreak of millenarianism. The Civil Wars had led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 which for very many people was seen as a terrible and deeply troubling act against “God’s Anointed” and likely to have dire results in a very religious age devoted to a hierarchical order. Millenarianism was a belief in the Second Coming of Christ and devotees, the radical Fifth Monarchists, believed that the upheavals of the English Civil Wars portended Christ’s arrival and it was their duty to prepare for His coming. Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Puritan army rulers during the political instability following the execution were persuaded in 1653 to try an unelected Nominated Assembly, known as the Barebones Parliament to history, to enable “Reformation and Healing” to take place. Little progress was made, and the Assembly was dissolved, but to historians it marked the high point of what is called the English Revolution, after which religious radicalism diminished. It didn’t stop religious fear however. Anti-Catholicism was widespread in 17th Century England and there was a succession of both one actual (the Gunpowder Plot, 1605) and several supposed plots by Catholics to seize power. Catholics were seen as the “Anti-Christ”, plotting with foreign powers like Spain and France to overthrow the Protestant monarchy and impose a Catholic absolutist regime.

Epidemic disease is another such case. During the Black Death (1347-51), the bubonic plague that wiped out up to half of the population in many countries, such was the fear generated that there were massacres of Jews, so often the target of angst in times of upheaval, who were blamed in many places for the pandemic. The Black Death was widely seen as God’s punishment and many people became “flagellants” and walked around whipping themselves until they bled in public displays of penance for their supposed sins.

The upheavals and socio-economic dislocations after World War One led to the rise of Fascism in Italy and later, with the Great Depression, Nazism in Germany. Notoriously the Jews were central to Nazi belief, in that it was supposed that the Jews, who were already believed to hold a lot of wealth, were in league with Communism in plotting to take over power. Such beliefs were commonly held. In 1903 a forged document called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia and purported to suggest a Jewish plot for world domination. If one fast-forwards to populism today one can find similar theories, such as those held against George Soros by the Hungarian regime of Orban. One can also observe today the antagonism being directed towards Muslim immigrant communities in various Western countries. In Trump’s USA today, there is a theory that the supremacy of the whites is about to be brought to an end and that immigration and multiculturism is part of a plot called The Great Replacement.

It need not necessarily be ethnic or strictly religious however but gender-related. One should think of the fear of witchcraft, often targeting lone elderly women, and the waves of witch-trials that took place across medieval and early modern societies, culminating in the notorious Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692-3.

Conspiracy theories in a time of crisis

These episodes from different times in the past have certain striking themes. They are characterised by widespread fear and tend to come at a time of considerable upheaval or change, often religious or socio-economic but also political, and they impact people’s fundamental beliefs. They often focus on minorities who are deemed a threat to the established position of the dominant social group. They often tend to involve a belief in a threat in the form of a perceived conspiracy against a prevailing order of things.

Arguably today the prevalence of conspiracy theories has come at a time of pandemic disease which results in heightened fear and anxiety. Yet, many conspiracy theories predate the pandemic. Some might suggest that the Great Recession and the economic crisis of 2008 have been followed by heightened unrest and a growth in political extremism, in particular right-wing extremism and populism. It is suggested that conspiracy theory is preceded by a fall in trust in government, such that there is a disbelief in the efficacy and motives of government, and the authority of institutions, experts and even whole elites associated with it. Populism is all about a dichotomy between the virtuous “people” and a corrupt, self-interested “political class” who hold power. Charismatic populists like Trump or Farage lead movements that aim to take control, purge the governmental “Establishment” and disrupt the nexus of power in order to control it. “Drain the swamp”, Trump said of Washington in his 2016 Presidential election campaign. Thus there is already a conspiratorial belief system at work undermining faith in institutions and traditional leaders. News reporting is also distrusted, dismissed as “fake news”, which is a difficult matter since there is a large amount of inaccurate and misleading news “reporting” taking place, at times fed by “troll farms” of foreign regimes like Russia and China. Radical right wing populism feeds on a belief in an alien “other”, like “liberals”, “lefties” “hidden forces”, or ethnic minorities in general. Some of course suggest that such belief in conspiracy serves as a diversion from the activities and failings of those in power or from socio-economic issues like inequality.

Recently there was a wave of demonstrations against the Covid-19 restrictions in a number of countries and it is instructive to observe the wide range of conspiracy theory movements that coalesced in protest, such as anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, QAnon, and the Anti-5G movement. Far-right groups have been seeking to make common cause with these movements and have become more conspiratorial in turn. In Berlin there was an attempt by one such group to storm the Reichstag, a sensitive issue for many in Germany given that it was the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 that gave Hitler the pretext of an alleged Communist threat to establish the Nazi dictatorship. Social media is perhaps exacerbating this trend, with its ability in the wrong hands to facilitate division, heighten emotion and stress, and support collaboration with others with similar conspiratorial tendencies in “bubbles”, while all the time being fed “news” that might be of a dubious origin.

Being conspiratorial is a powerful pull, since it feeds our distrust and a tendency to seek for other explanations than what we are told in a world seemingly going crazy, such is the heightened emotion of these times. Caught up as one can be in what is occurring, it can be hard to be mindful of it, to step back and observe and reflect on what is going on, both for ourselves and for others and in the world out there.


John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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