Inner workings: On Conspiracies

‘This is a coup by the globalist elite’, says a guest on a 2021 Alan Jones segment for Sky News, referring to something known as the Great Reset. ‘It’s happening in your country, it’s happening in my country [the United Kingdom], we’ve seen it happen in America’, the guest continues. ‘These guys are very serious about their plan, which ultimately is to reduce us to the status of serfs’.

The guest is teeing off on the global elites after Jones set the stage, giving a run-down on the Great Reset—a broad conspiracy that members of the World Economic Forum (WEF), including, among others, the then Prince Charles, George Soros, Al Gore, Greenpeace and ‘that schoolgirl’, as Jones calls her, are using the pandemic and global warming to dismantle capitalism and enact a one-world government.

‘This is not a conspiracy, this is what these people are saying’, says Jones, referring to the book that sparked the theories. ‘You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy’ is the sentence that kicked it all off. It was written in The Great Reset by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret, Schwab being the founder of the WEF. This now infamous sentence was part of a prediction about how the world might operate in years to come, when everything you considered a product has become a service and where technology has changed scarcity and you rent what’s needed, when needed. Taken out of context and as a threat, many believe this sentence to be an admission of the WEF’S plan to take people’s property away from them and turn them into slaves. It’s a belief that extends beyond the online world to some of the most widely influential mainstream media, such as Sky News, Fox and Russia Today, which keep stories about the Great Reset in regular rotation.

‘Well … yes … it is a conspiracy, it’s not a conspiracy theory though’, continues Alan Jones’s guest. I watched this video on Sky’s YouTube channel. In the comment section below the video, an upvoted remark reads: ‘The words ‘conspiracy theory’ is [sic] a made-up label to suppress your natural human intuition’.

Jones’s guest was right: there is a difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. ‘Conspiracies are actual covert plots, planned and/or carried out by two or more persons’, writes political scientist Michael Barkun. ‘Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are intellectual constructs, they are modes of thinking, templates imposed upon the world to give the appearance of order to events’. In Conjecture and Refutations, Karl Popper argued, while acknowledging the existence of actual conspiracies, that conspiracy theories are ‘a primitive kind of superstition … older than historicism (which may even be said to be a derivative of the conspiracy theory); and in its modern form, it is the typical result of the secularization of religious superstitions’.

I recently came across a story that contained both an actual conspiracy and conspiracy theories. ‘And you still trust them?? With your babies???’ wrote a concerned citizen about pharmaceutical company Pfizer. The post, which I first saw reposted by a friend who was in the thrall of a years-long left-leaning conspiracy, was spreading a story about the company getting sued in 2009 for ‘bribing doctors and suppressing adverse trial results’. It was part of an anti-vax argument she had been making for some time—stories of microchips in vaccines, of population control, of mass death and adverse effects. But, most foundationally, she reported stories about plans, dark and harmful, made by the powerful at the expense of you and me.

I ‘looked into it’, as is often suggested we do. Pfizer did get sued in 2009. The headlines read: ‘Justice Department Announces Largest Health Care Fraud Settlement in Its History’, a $2.3 billion settlement for various charges relating to four different drugs. One of these drugs was the painkiller Bextra, which, the Department of Justice wrote in a press release, the company promoted ‘for several uses and dosages that the FDA specifically declined to approve due to safety concerns’. For this criminal charge, the company pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $1.195 billion.

It’s important to note that this case didn’t involve ‘suppressing adverse trial results’, as my friend’s post suggested, but there was another Pfizer lawsuit in 2004 that did relate to ‘adverse event allegations’. Although this lawsuit involved Pfizer, however, the actions were those of another company, Warner-Lambert, before it was bought by Pfizer in 2000. Warner-Lambert promoted a drug called Neurontin for seizures ‘even when scientific studies had shown it was not effective’, said the Department of Justice. Experts who reviewed company documents—for the plaintiffs—said they spelled out ‘a publication strategy meant to convince physicians of Neurontin’s effectiveness and misrepresent or suppress negative findings’. In 2004, Pfizer paid $430 million and pleaded guilty to two counts of marketing the drug for unapproved uses, paying another $325 million in 2014 to resolve claims in long civil lawsuits.

There are many examples of such lawsuits in the drug industry. AstraZeneca also settled a $520 million lawsuit in the United States for the illegal marketing of antipsychotic drug Seroquel for uses not approved by the FDA. This was a case started by a whistleblower, James Wetta, who only a year earlier had exposed the pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly for illegally marketing another antipsychotic. The Department of Justice said that from 2001 to 2006, AstraZeneca had promoted the drug for the non-approved treatment of aggression, Alzheimer’s disease, anger management, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar maintenance, dementia, depression, mood disorder, PTSD and sleeplessness. The lawsuit found AstraZeneca had ‘improperly and unduly influenced’ the content of and speakers in company-sponsored medical education programs, and that it had ‘recruited doctors to serve as authors of articles that were ghost-written by medical literature companies and about studies the doctors in question did not conduct. AstraZeneca then used those studies and articles as the basis for promotional messages about unapproved uses of Seroquel’. They also violated kickback regulations.

Overall, these lawsuits show actual conspiracies—plots to increase profits at the expense of the public’s health. The reaction of many people, however, shows conspiracy theory at work, with these stories of real corrupt practices enlarged and disfigured. When asked about conspiracies in an interview some time ago, Noam Chomsky said, ‘First of all, there are conspiracy theories. No questions about it … sometimes it’s true, but usually, in my view, it turns out to be mythology’. Discussing the prevalence of 9/11 conspiracies, Chomsky said he believed such mythologies come from people not liking the way things are, and that people’s fears or obsessions attach to some larger explanation that relates to their concerns. With this comes the belief that there must be a hidden, nefarious hand controlling things, ‘whereas when you look closely, I think you just see the normal workings of institutional structures’.

‘In a world where no one needs to be delusional to find evidence of systematic oppression, to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naïve, pious, or complaisant’, wrote Eve Sedgwick in an essay on paranoia. The essay begins with various stories of AIDS conspiracies that took hold at the time of the epidemic. At the same time as conspiracy theories possibly holding some truth, a lived experience of oppression, corruption, negligence or inequality may make some conspiracy theories seem more plausible, especially given people’s understandable distrust of governments and institutions.

People studying changes in trust often study the popularity of populism, which can be described as, among other things, ‘a worldview that pits average citizens against ‘the elites’’. It’s not surprising, then, given this definition, that populism walks hand in hand with conspiracy thinking. It’s even been said that ‘conspiratorial thinking is a non-necessary subset of populism’. Populism has been on the rise in many countries, heavily linked to changes in trust caused by real developments affecting people’s perceptions. The Edelman report 20 Years of Trust lists some of these: for example, the much-touted benefits of free trade being supplanted by concerns about economic dislocation; the invasion of Iraq, which heavily altered trust in the US and UK governments; the GFC, which challenged faith in governments and institutions and undermined any sense of a recognisable future. ‘Government rode to the rescue after the Great Recession, and the economy recovered’, says the report, ‘but it didn’t return to normal, as wages of middle-income earners were stagnant while the top 1 percent soared’. On top of the bailouts, increasing wealth disparities challenged the belief that if you work hard you’ll have a better life than your parents: ‘for millions of people, a century-old dream died in the 2010s’. The report observes that beginning in 2012, ‘a gaping chasm in opinion of institutions opened in the US, UK and France, the beginning of populist outrage against elites’.

This link between conspiracy and populism as a reaction to inequality has been noted before. ‘Conspiracy theories based on a perceived secret elite domination over and manipulation of the entirety of economic, political and social relations has played a role in many, but by no means all, populist movements’, wrote Mark Fenster in Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture in 2008. ‘But just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong, does not mean they are not on to something. Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society’.

In other words, conspiracy theories are part of a reaction to anxieties caused by the real world (globalisation, mediatisation, technocracy, corporatisation) and the opaque workings of powerful systems.

While there is some dispute about whether populism is or isn’t growing, some suggest it has changed in a new and important way.

The label ‘elites’ has expanded to include ‘experts’, with academic institutions, researchers, scientists and mainstream media now an extension of the distrusted ‘elites’. This reminds me of an incident involving a friend. Some years ago, her Instagram post was fact-checked, and over her shared article about Hillary Clinton going on trial for something (which clearly wasn’t real), a pop-up from an independent fact-checker appeared saying it was false. She posted directly after, saying ‘By hiding information they are showing us the truth’.

My friend’s reaction seems to me an example of ‘stigmatised knowledge’, meaning‘ knowledge claims that have not been accepted by those institutions we rely upon for truth validation’ such as universities, medical and scientific organisations, government agencies and mainstream media. The knowledge is stigmatised because it has been refuted or ignored by these bodies, which have come to be mistrusted by many. Perversely, distrust of these institutions means that when people’s intuitions appear to be rejected, or the knowledge they value undermined, it becomes a type of validation: if they say it’s false, it must be true!

Conspiracy theories are a form of stigmatised knowledge, and the stigma of ‘conspiracy theorist’ as a label can be part of this paradoxical validation through rejection. ‘The words ‘conspiracy theory’ is a made-up label to suppress your natural human intuition’, as the YouTube commenter I quoted above said. Sky’s After Dark commentators hit this note often. At the time of writing, almost a year after the Jones segment, Sky’s Cory Bernardi was also talking about the Great Reset. He said, ‘conspiracy theorist … is actually the name the left give to those who can predict the future with a remarkable accuracy’.

Some argue that the last three decades have seen a mainstreaming of the fringe due, among other things, to the internet and growing distrust of authority. As Michael Barkun put it, ‘stigmatised knowledge losing its stigma’.

Today there’s plenty of commentary on conspiracy theories. But while aiming to debunk, much of that commentary tends to condescend towards the people who believe them. And as much as I agree with attempts to unpack and disprove them, the condescension makes me feel uneasy. The intuition of conspiracy is understandable, even if it is ultimately flawed. ‘As a mode of ‘populist logic’, wrote Mark Fenster, conspiracy theories ‘can … play the role of a productive challenge to an existing order, albeit one that excessively simplifies complex political and historical events’. Nevertheless, while the intuition is understandable, the idea this conspiracy thinking may be losing its stigma is also troubling.

As many have noted, one outcome of conspiracy thinking is the waste of the political and social engagement of those people who are often concerned with real issues but spend their time in empty places. Beyond this misdirection are those worst-case situations in which anger at an unseen hand is directed at those who are in fact victims, such as in the abuse of families of the Sandy Hook shooting victims. More basically, there is a deep problem for culture and society generally with the loss of proven forms of truth validation—forms that would otherwise hold governments to account.

While I understand the pull of conspiracy theories, and wish to find some olive-branch, I fear I fall short. Conspiracy thinking, wrote Peter Knight, ‘provides an everyday epistemological quick-fix to often intractably complex problems’. It is reality flattened, replacing the complexity of our troubles and their causes with a nebulous and unfalsifiable copy.

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About the author

John W. Moyle

John W. Moyle is a freelance writer and journalist whose work focuses on communication and belief in the information age.

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