I've been thinking about the idea of a 'conspiracy theory'. This seems to be used as a phrase of condemnation these days, suggesting that anybody who does not believe the official version of events, the spun version of reality, is some kind of nutter. I began to wonder whether it is time to rehabilitate the conspiracy theory - perhaps have some t-shirts printed saying 'We are all conspiracy theorists now?'
We could take this further, and suggest that the cognitive dissonance that is required of us to live in a world where the Conservatives can claim to be the greenest government ever and yet focus the political strategy on returning to growth and cutting funding to renewable energy, the only available intellectual response is an inherently mistrustful one. Is it that in the era of mass democracy and an educated electorate politicians are avoiding the explicit political debate and engaging in deception instead? Perhaps consideration of their real motives, whether conspiracy theory or conspiracy fact, is the sanest response.
In 1928 Edward Bernays published a book called Propaganda. It is hard to get historical framing right, but my understanding is that at the time this was not seen as a problemtic title, and that Bernays felt no need to be ironic. Much is made of the fact that he was Freud's son-in-law, but whether or not this is important he certainly relied heavily on the insights of psychology, and how these could be used for what he considered beneficial socio-political ends. In the book he claimed that:
‘If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it . . . Mass psychology is as yet far from being an exact science and the mysteries of human motivation are by no means all revealed. But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion . . . by operating a certain mechanism.'*
In this thinking lies the origin of nudge, the avoidance of political debate by lazy or insecure policy-makers so expertly dissected by Andrew Dobson in a recent report for Green House. Perhaps the origin of the conspiracy theorist's enthusiasm can also be found in this determination by those with power to subvert democracy without our really understanding how.
*quotes in Ewen, S. (2001), Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: Basic Books), pp. 83-4.