Here’s a conspiracy theory of my own invention. Why did Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald? Readers under the age of 80 may need to know that Jack Ruby was a Dallas bar owner and small-time crook who shot dead Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Nobody has ever thought that Ruby did this out of patriotic indignation. Somebody wanted to silence Oswald for good, and Ruby was the instrument they chose to do so.
But who? There’s evidence that Ruby was a low-level sidekick of the Mafia, so maybe it was the Mafia who shot Kennedy. But why kill Oswald as well? It’s here that my devilishly ingenious theory comes in. There’s no real evidence that the Mob killed the President, but they might have been incensed that someone else had. Not because they had any love for their leader, but because they had intended to assassinate him themselves. After all, they threatened the lives of both Kennedy brothers several times. Before they could get round to it, however, a private entrepreneur called Oswald stepped in and did it instead. By having Oswald bumped off by a known associate of theirs, the Mafia made it look as though Oswald, had he lived, could have revealed their guilt. My theory, then, is that the Mob bumped Oswald off because they didn’t kill Kennedy. They just wanted people to think they had.
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Is this true? Probably not. When it comes to the death of JFK, the hardest question is who didn’t do it. There’s a comically long list of possible candidates: Oswald, the CIA, the FBI, the Dallas police, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s driver or his bodyguard, Right-wing Cubans, the Teamsters Union, perhaps (who knows?) a 21-year-old Harrison Ford. Members of QAnon probably believe they were all in it together. As with equality and diversity programmes, genuine conspiracies must leave nobody out.
One shouldn’t be too cynical about conspiracies. After all, as new UnHerd polling has shown, more people in Britain are conspiratorially-minded than aren’t. But it’s true that there isn’t One Big Conspiracy, largely because there doesn’t need to be; it’s also true that people regularly gather together in private to plot the downfall of their enemies. On the whole, however, liberal capitalist states, like dishwashers, work all by themselves (when they work at all). They don’t depend on people meeting in missile-proof bunkers to plot how to stay in power. Modern societies don’t rely on some kind of collective consciousness to keep themselves afloat, partly because modern citizens are atomised rather than collective. In fact, consciousness or belief hardly comes into it. As long as you don’t try to overthrow the state, you can believe pretty much what you like. This is known as liberalism.
Besides, the more individuals are in the know, the more fragile a conspiracy becomes. One reason why the US moon-landing wasn’t a put-up job is that it would have involved too many people, any one of whom could have blown the gaff. And if the truth (as conspirators see it) had got out, the United States would have suffered the most calamitous loss of credibility in its history. Its reputation would have been trashed beyond repair. Fear of being discovered is a primary reason why some events can’t be faked, just as one reason why most politicians try not to lie is not because they are more angelic beings than the rest of us, but because the consequences of being found out mean that it just isn’t worth it.
If great masses of people maintain a certain belief over long periods of time, one can be fairly sure that there is something in it. This doesn’t mean that the belief in question is true, but it’s unlikely to be complete nonsense either. Myths tend to have a core of truth. For many centuries, everybody thought that the Sun moved around the Earth, which isn’t true; but it was a rational belief all the same, because the evidence seemed to support it. Much the same goes for paranoia. It isn’t true that creatures from Saturn have placed a secret device in your skull to beam your every thought to a control centre in the Glastonbury Tor, but it’s true that a mighty amount of surveillance goes on, much of it secret. Or to put the point more pithily, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to get you. No civilisation in history has ever spied on itself so relentlessly.
Those who genuinely go off the deep end are those who imagine that we live our lives in private. The idea that what we do is covertly directed by a cabal of obscenely wealthy paedophiles is a delusion — but if you drop the “covertly” and “paedophiles”, it us not far from the truth. We are indeed governed by an elite, but there’s nothing particularly secretive about it. You can see them strolling around Davos or read about them in the newspapers. The phrase “Masters of the Universe” isn’t just a piece of flashy science fiction. There is a sovereign superpower whose presence can be felt in every nook and cranny of the globe, but its name is capital, not the Knights Templar. Like all power, what it needs to sustain itself is knowledge. Knowledge is no longer just what is conveyed in seminars, but priceless stuff which people are prepared to kill for.
Conspiracy theorists are convinced that everything hangs together, which is indeed a symptom of paranoia. For the paranoid, nothing happens by chance. Even a gust of wind is secretly intended. The fact that the Prime Minister has five letters in both his first name and surname must surely be trying to tell us something. Freud thought that the nearest thing to paranoia was philosophy, because philosophers (he was thinking of the Hegelian type) also see connections between apparently unrelated items. There must be some way in which my left foot and the Vatican are secretly interrelated.
Once again, this isn’t complete nonsense. Even the most trivial of our actions send ripple effects through the thick mesh of social existence, breeding unexpected consequences in unpredictable places. None of our acts is purely our own. Reading this essay may cause you to tear great clumps of hair from your head, thus making you look too frightful to attend the dinner this evening at which you would have been offered the Governorship of the Bank of England. And don’t just blame me: blame the editors, sub-editors, technical assistants and so on. We all had a hand in tearing your hair out. It was a conspiracy, but not a conscious one.
These ripple effects are random. None of them needed to happen, or to happen in exactly the way they did. And this is where they differ from conspiracies. For the conspiratorial mind, nothing whatsoever is random, any more than it is for the paranoid. This is an alarming thought in one sense but a consoling one in another. A world of chance and contingency is a bewildering one, upending our schemes and thwarting our purposes. Far better to imagine that there’s a plot to it all, in both senses of the word, than accept the fact that a lot of things just happen, without any particular rhyme or reason, and that this is part of the price we pay for freedom. This was presumably what Harold Macmillan had in mind when he remarked to a reporter that the hardest thing about trying to run the country was “events, dear boy, events”.
Ironically, however, American conspiracy theorists are lovers of freedom. “Liberty or death!” ranks among their slogans, and by refusing to wear masks during the Covid pandemic some of them ended up with both. Among other things, conspiracies are symptoms of the anxiety which comes from freedom — from living in the precarious, unpredictable world of late modernity. They are antidotes to the open-endedness of history. Those who spin these yarns are for the most part on the wrong side of that history — those washed up by so-called modernisation, men and women who need someone to blame for their lousy living conditions but who point an accusing finger at fantasises of their own creation.
Conspiracy theories are also reactions to a diffuse, fractured, conflictive society in which there are just too many competing narratives around, so that falling back on a grand narrative which makes sense of everything is profoundly appealing. For a blessed moment, the whole lot falls neatly into place, as an opaque, impossibly complex world becomes luminously simple, purposeful and transparent. Because these myths spring from insecurity, which in turn breeds hatred, the grand narrative in question is almost always a sinister one. Anyone with an eye to how the world is going will have no quarrel with that, even if they don’t believe that Nancy Pelosi is a North Korean spy. They will have no quarrel either with the central assumption of the QAnonites and their ilk — that behind the surfaces of social life there lurks some exceedingly nasty realities, and that the official story is rarely the whole truth of the matter. What you see is most definitely not what you get. The good news is that no conspiracy can be entirely successful, since if it were we wouldn’t know about it.