Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 2: “Conspiracy Theorism”

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

When journalist Michael Hastings died in a June 2013 car crash, many people saw possible foul play behind his death. According to news reports, Hastings, most famous for a Rolling Stone story that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, had been harried and behaving erratically before his death. The day before the crash, Wikileaks tweeted that Hastings had sought their attorney’s help, claiming to be under investigation from the FBI. The strange circumstances around his death included the fact that his new-model car was capable of being externally hacked. Speculation was further fueled when former federal counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke said that Hastings’ accident was “consistent with a car cyber attack.” In response, Noam Chomsky claimed that “conspiracy theories” around Hastings’ death were counterproductive, and it was a better use of one’s mental energies to focus on the plight of imprisoned activists like Barrett Brown.

Here, Chomsky is recommending that people not speculate on a tentative matter when they could be focusing on something that’s been decisively proven, and this sort of recommendation is standard operating procedure for the professor. To be sure, it’s possible for investigations rooting out “conspiracies” to go wildly wrong. This is what happened in the case of Marcel Lehel, the Romanian better known as the hacker “Guccifer.” Guccifer gained illicit access to the private online accounts of Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and George W. Bush, amongst many others. As he was reading then-Secretary of State Clinton’s personal emails, many exchanged with the CIA on the subject of Libya, Guccifer was looking for evidence of Illuminati connections. In Guccifer’s case, the bad conspiracism was blinding him to the valid conspiracism—he was watching the regime change-sausage get made, and he was distracted in his search for a non-existent cabal. This is an object lesson in the dangers of attributing blame to one set of actors in contravention of existing evidence. The most insidious such theory in history is likely anti-Semitism: an idea that attributes the predatory behavior of a capitalist ruling class to a group that has been victimized throughout history, namely Jews. The perversion of class-based analysis earned anti-Semitism the nickname “the socialism of fools,” and similar tropes pop up in many instances. Any time that blame is taken off the ruling class and diverted onto a set of bad apples is an example of bad theorizing—like the minimizing focus on Saudi Arabia and the Bush family in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, or the crypto-anti-Semitism of popular misinformation agit-prop Zeitgeist.

The “conspiracy theorism” accusation is an effective one because it renders an idea, and those who believe it, as patently insane and unworthy of attention. The label makes those engaging in the task of criticism (and the constituent marshalling of evidence) axiomatically worthy of expulsion from the bounds of normalcy. Chomsky offers what sounds like a tentative defense of informed speculation against accusations of conspiracy theorism. In the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky says “If I give an analysis of, say the economic system, and I point out that GM tries to maximize profit and market share – that’s not a conspiracy theory; that’s an institutional analysis. It has nothing to do with conspiracies. That’s precisely the sense in which we’ve been talking about the media. The phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ is one of those that’s constantly brought up, and I think its effect simply is to discourage institutional analysis.” I got called a conspiracy theorist in real life last year, around the time of the Sony leaks. I’d made the claim that The Interviewgetting pulled from theaters was awesome, since Hollywood is an American propaganda (or “soft power,” in the politically correct parlance) factory, and a film depicting the murder of a head of state of a perennial regime change target was extremely repulsive. I was a “conspiracy theorist” for believing that cultural products pumped out by multi-billion dollar corporations carry cognizable messages, and these messages are for the benefit of their creators. The idea that this was a “conspiracy theory” speaks to Chomsky’s point about how systems work—it is not absurd to believe such a thing, but the natural outcome of how these systems are set up and whom they exist to serve.

However, Chomsky’s premise is at least partially incorrect. Chomsky says that his GM example “has nothing to do with conspiracies,” but a corporate board colluding to subvert the public interest for their own sake is literally a conspiracy, if the word means anything at all. Moreover, his “defense” of conspiracy analysis is actually very limited. Chomsky focuses on the functioning of systems while excluding individual actors. Under the Chomsky definition, suspicions of foul play perpetrated by individual agents are a distraction; this is why the professor cautioned his listeners to ignore counter-theories about the death of Michael Hastings. Similarly, while Chomsky sees the birth of ISIS as an outcome of US involvement in the Middle East, he derides the idea that the US played a more direct role as an absurd conspiracy theory, “one of the thousands of them that goes around the Middle East.” (Elsewhere, Chomsky sees the fact that Iraqis believe the 2003 invasion to be about oil as proof of how obvious it is; here, it’s proof of Arab irrationality) Chomsky’s dismissal of this particular theory is strange, given the extensive history of US aid to al Qaeda—from the “Afghan Arabs” of the anti-Soviet jihad to the covert alliance with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group during the NATO attack on Libya. There is also the fact that ISIS was born in US military prison camps in Iraq at the same time the US government decided to destroy Syria through more covert military action. So while Chomsky’s defense of conspiracy analysis in certain circumstances is reasonable, he is just as quick as the New York Times to relegate certain plausible theories to the realm of the absurd (“conspiracy theories still circulat[e] that the CIA is secretly behind the same extremists that it is now attacking” –NYT, 20 Sep 2014)

Here, the example of The Interview is useful once more. Behind the scenes, The Interviewlooked less like a silly stoner movie and more like a PsyOp against the government of North Korea. The film was initially supposed to take place in a fake dictatorship, but that was changed to North Korea after discussions between Sony executives and members of the national security state. Leaked Sony emails revealed that an analyst named Bruce Bennett of the RAND Corporation, author of Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapsehad been in consultation with the studio pushing for an ever-more gruesome ending. Bennett advised that “while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North.” According to the leaked emails, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton was simultaneously in consultation with additional high-level State Department personnel, and both Lynton and the unnamed officials signed off on Bennett’s assessment. In other words, the film was made more bellicose, on the suggestion of government agents, in hopes that it would make Koreans more receptive to regime change. The month of the film’s initially abortive release, star Seth Rogen claimed that he “made relationships with certain people…who I’m convinced are in the CIA.” Researcher Tom Secker points out that of all the studios, Sony has perhaps the deepest CIA and Defense Department connections, with studio head Lynton having the “biography of a textbook intelligence asset.” What this attests to is the fact that conspiracies carried out by individual actors, supplementing the larger systems, happen all the time. Institutional analysis is necessary, but institutions are staffed by people who carry out all manner of clandestine chicanery, including very real and extensively substantiated conspiracies like assassinations,  non-consensual human experimentation, and false-flag terror attacks.

It’s worth noting that everyone who believes anything about power believes in all manner of conspiracy theories. The biggest and most reputable Western newspapers will print any patently absurd conspiracy theory when the target is one of Washington’s designated enemies. Any serious liberal with an opinion on Syria will repeat an easily disprovable conspiracy theory that Bashar al-Assad created ISIS. In addition to the conspiracy theories that target foreign demons, Walter Glass explains that “there are three essential characteristics that render a conspiracy theory acceptable to the kind of people who read The New York Times: 1. the theory ignores inconvenient and confusing context; 2. the theory is partisan; 3. the theory is harmless [to the ruling class].” So in addition to Vladimir Putin and Assad, acceptable perpetrators of conspiracies include the Koch brothers, Blackwater/Xe/Academi, the Heritage Foundation, the Project for a New American Century, and other frequent members of the MSNBC rogues’ gallery. Among high-status clerks, mainstream tastemakers, and other very serious people, there is simply a list of people and groups who axiomatically do not engage in conspiracies, due to their decency and acting in good faith. These entities include popular Democratic politicians; “good” billionaires like George Soros, Bill Gates, and Pierre Omidyar; “liberal” institutions like the CIA and State Department; and “humanitarian” organizations like Teach For America, Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch.

This is essentially an injunction against inductive reasoning applied to a large swathe of the ruling class and their servants, and it has a stranglehold over the permissible left. The Future Journalism Project, for example calls the well-documented NSA subversion of encryption “tinfoil hat” territory, in a story on Reuters reporting this news. For a very serious liberal outfit like the FJP, even an extremely well-substantiated story, reported on by a mainstream journalism outfit, is as outré as a faked moon landing when the US regime’s secret police are the culprit. Black Lives Matter-celebrity turned Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray McKesson has made a career as a “ruthless administrator” for school privatization-outfit Teach For America. On the web site for his candidacy, McKesson claims that his well-documented TFA connections are equivalent to speculation about Illuminati membership, and boils down objections to his neoliberal politics as “akin to me being part of a CIA operation.” The underlying idea here is that while systems operate, individuals play little-to-no role. Of course, individuals do operate, so if this is absurd then it’s surely no stretch to smear all criticism as mere craziness. Tarzie points out that “we hear variations on this all the time on the Left, among people desperate to align themselves with the serious people for good radical reasons, no matter how blatantly non-analytical it requires them to be. A variation on the above is that conspiracy theories ‘ignore/obfuscate systemic analysis,’ which if you haven’t noticed is a concept that’s all the rage among people who like to tell people to shut up in fancy schmancy ways, not just about conspiracies. Surely the most dramatic manifestation of this bullshit—and surely the inspiration for a lot of it—is Noam Chomsky’s famous insistence that it really doesn’t matter who brought down the World Trade Center [or killed John F. Kennedy]. ‘Who cares?‘ the world’s most important intellectual said around the time.”

In contrast to Chomsky’s stunning incuriosity, Michael Parenti has written the best material in defense of substantive conspiracy analysis—really, inductive reasoning—as has been produced in the English language. Deploying his trademark wit in a speech titled “Understanding Deep Politics,” Parenti explains:

Whenever you ascribe conscious intent and pursuit of self interest at the top, you will hear someone say: ‘What are you, a conspiracy theorist?’ You can say farmers consciously organize to pursue their interests and everybody will say ‘Uh huh, farmers are organized.’ You can say machinists or auto workers are organizing and everybody will say ‘Uh huh, they’re consciously organizing and pursuing their own interests,’ or school teachers, and other people. But if you say the people who own most of America and most of the world – if you say they consciously organize and pursue things to get what they want, then you hear people say ‘Oh, you have a Conspiracy theory? You think they really do that?’

The alternative to a conspiracy theory is an Innocence theory. That is, they do all of this stuff but they’re not pursuing self interest. They just do it, you know. The other alternative is a Somnambulist theory. Somnambulism is the tendency to walk in your sleep. David Rockefeller gets up in the morning and says, ‘What am I going to do, to advance and protect my interests? No, no, that would be conspiratorial.’ Another alternative would be Coincidence theory: it’s just coincidence that this happened. A variation of coincidence theory is Uncanny theory. Then there’s Stupidity theory and Incompetence theory. There’s also Stochastic theory. It means everything happening by random… there’s really no causality, as such. Stuff just happens. History is just these eventualities that tumble down on top of each other.

Parenti is particularly dismissive of the artificial boundaries between structural causes and individual conspirators pushed by people like Noam Chomsky. In his book Dirty Truths, Parenti writes that

left critics like Cockburn and Chomsky allow that some conspiracies do exist but they usually are of minor importance, a distraction from the real problems of institutional and structural power. A structural analysis, as I understand it, maintains that events are determined by the larger configurations of power and interest and not by the whims of happenstance or the connivance of a few incidental political actors. There is no denying that larger structural trends impose limits on policy and exert strong pressures on leaders. But this does not mean that all important policy is predetermined.

It is an either-or world for those on the Left who harbor an aversion for any kind of conspiracy investigation: either you are a structuralist in your approach to politics or a “conspiracist” who reduces historical developments to the machinations of secret cabals, thereby causing us to lose sight of the larger systemic forces. As Chomsky notes: “However unpleasant and difficult it may be, there is no escape from the need to confront the reality of institutions and the policies and actions they largely shape.”

I trust that one of the institutions he has in mind is the CIA. In most of its operations, the CIA is by definition a conspiracy, using covert actions and secret plans, many of which are of the most unsavory kind. What are covert operations if not conspiracies? At the same time, the CIA is an institution, a structural part of the national security state. In sum, the agency is an institutionalized conspiracy.

As I pointed out in published exchanges with Cockburn and Chomsky (neither of whom responded to the argument), conspiracy and structure are not mutually exclusive dynamics…Conspiracies are a component of the national security political system, not deviations from it. Ruling elites use both conspiratorial covert actions and overtly legitimating procedures at home and abroad. They finance everything from electoral campaigns and publishing houses to mobsters and death squads. They utilize every conceivable stratagem, including killing one of their own if they perceive him to be a barrier to their larger agenda of making the world safe for those who own it.

Parenti even eviscerates the smeary insinuations of people like Marcy Wheeler, who sought to stigmatize critics by including “cue scary Hollywood villain music” in a defense of her boss’s involvement in the Maidan color revolution. Wheeler’s jab was a typical tactic of anti-conspiracism, meant to paint critics as simpletons who have arrived at their worldview after watching too many cartoons. In response to this substance-free nonsense, Parenti says in his “Conspiracy and Class Power” talk “Conspiracy theorists, how do you like that? ‘I mean do you think there’s actually, do you think there’s actually a group of men sitting in a ROOM? Who sit there and are plotting these things, for some reason? Do you think there’s a group of people sitting around in a room?’ Because somehow that image is supposed to be–very compelling, you know, it’s so improbable, and I always say ‘oh no no they don’t sit around in a ROOM! They meet on carousels and they talk to each other that way. Or they go skydiving, they all lock arms, what do you think they are talking about when they lock arms like that? That’s where they meet. OF COURSE THEY MEET IN ROOMS! Where the hell else you think they’re gonna meet?

In “Conspiracy Theories and Conventional Wisdom,” Charles Pigden explains that the stigma attached to certain theories is a way of cordoning off certain critiques as beyond the realms of mainstream acceptability. This is done, Pigden claims, through a traditional appeal to status quo ideas about conventional wisdom. They are also extremely pernicious, “For the idea that conspiracy theories as such are intellectually suspect helps conspirators, quite literally, to get away with murder (of which killing people in an unjust war is an instance).” If the mainstream ideas about what constitutes “conspiracy theories” were to be believed, “We would be allowed to understand natural phenomena and open actions, openly arrived at. And we might even treat ourselves to unintended consequences provided these did not involve secret plotting. But we would be officially blind to covert actions and secret plans.” Only when a plot was openly acknowledged would it become an acceptable idea. “Again it is worth stressing just how catastrophic the strategy of conspiratorial skepticism would be if we applied it consistently, rather than using it from time to time to get out of political difficulties or to rubbish allegations that we find inconvenient,” writes Pigden, “But epistemically disastrous as conspiratorial skepticism would be, its political consequences would be catastrophic. For when it comes to conspiracy we would be both officially blind and officially incurious.”

If I am right, the conventional wisdom on conspiracy theories is not just misguided, but absurd. For it implies an epistemic principle that flies in the face of history and would be politically catastrophic if put into practice. It would blind us to the machinations of torturers and scheming politicians, and would convert a large part of the political realm into a chaos of incoherent effects whose causes were beyond the reach of rational enquiry.

Of course, this is not an unfortunate outcome, but by design. The idea that any idea too critical of the ruling class should be automatically disqualified is extremely appealing to the ruling class. Anti-communist intellectuals Karl Popper and Richard Hofstadter popularized the idea of “conspiracy theorism,” and their idea found so much support since it was used to delegitimize Marxist governments as driven by “conspiracy theories,” and thus identical to Nazism. It was given a further boost by the CIA in the 1960s—even the oh-so-knowing serious folks on Skeptics.com concede that the “crackpots” are supported by academic evidence that the label “was deliberately deployed by the CIA.” Conspiracy theory as it’s used today does not mean an evidence-free, insane idea; rather, any idea the ruling class wants placed outside of the realm of consideration. That’s why powerful apparatchiks like David Cameron and Cass Sunstein publicly mull some kind of state sanction for those they label “conspiracy theorists.”

Ultimately, the average conspiracy theorist has a better grasp of how the world works than the average liberal. Even the most outlandish “conspiracy theory” in existence—that people like George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth are shape-shifting, extra-dimensional reptilians—is closer to the truth than what liberals believe. The reality is that the ruling class and its public servants really do have a parasitic and predatory relationship to the vast majority of humanity; if anyone should be laughed at and publicly excoriated for their wacky ideas, it’s those who think Hillary is su abuela and Barack Obama is a nice guy who would enjoy hanging out with them. When it comes to conspiracy theories, Noam Chomsky’s ideas comfort power and Michael Parenti’s ideas expose it.

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  1. Pingback: The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti | Popaganda

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