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The Conspiracy Myth

By Charles Eisenstein / charleseisenstein.org
May 22, 2020
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The Conspiracy Myth

The other day I was amused to read a critique of The Coronation in which the author was absolutely certain that I am a closet conspiracy theorist. He was so persuasive that I myself almost believed it.

What is a conspiracy theory anyway? Sometimes the term is deployed against anyone who questions authority, dissents from dominant paradigms, or thinks that hidden interests influence our leading institutions. As such, it is a way to quash dissent and bully those trying to stand up to abuses of power. One needn’t abandon critical thinking to believe that powerful institutions sometimes collude, conspire, cover up, and are corrupt. If that is what is meant by a conspiracy theory, obviously some of those theories are true. Does anyone remember Enron? Iran-Contra? COINTELPRO? Vioxx? Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

During the time of Covid-19, another level of conspiracy theory has risen to prominence that goes way beyond specific stories of collusion and corruption to posit conspiracy as a core explanatory principle for how the world works. Fuelled by the authoritarian response to the pandemic (justifiable or not, lockdown, quarantine, surveillance and tracking, censorship of misinformation, suspension of freedom of assembly and other civil liberties, and so on are indeed authoritarian), this arch-conspiracy theory holds that an evil, power-hungry cabal of insiders deliberately created the pandemic or is at least ruthlessly exploiting it to frighten the public into accepting a totalitarian world government under permanent medical martial law, a New World Order (NWO). Furthermore, this evil group, this illuminati, pulls the strings of all major governments, corporations, the United Nations, the WHO, the CDC, the media, the intelligence services, the banks, and the NGOs. In other words, they say, everything we are told is a lie, and the world is in the grip of evil.

So what do I think about that theory? I think it is a myth. And what is a myth? A myth is not the same thing as a fantasy or a delusion. Myths are vehicles of truth, and that truth needn’t be literal. The classical Greek myths, for example, seem like mere amusements until one decodes them by associating each god with psychosocial forces. In this way, myths bring light to the shadows and reveal what has been repressed. They take a truth about the psyche or society and form it into a story. The truth of a myth does not depend on whether it is objectively verifiable. That is one reason why, in The Coronation, I said my purpose is neither to advocate nor to debunk the conspiracy narrative, but rather to look at what it illuminates. It is, after all, neither provable nor falsifiable.

What is true about the conspiracy myth? Underneath its literalism, it conveys important information that we ignore at great peril. 

First, it demonstrates the shocking extent of public alienation from institutions of authority. For all the political battles of the post-WWII era, there was at least a broad consensus on basic facts and on where facts could be found. The key institutions of knowledge production -- science and journalism -- enjoyed broad public trust. If the New York Times and CBS Evening News said that North Vietnam attacked the United States in the Gulf of Tonkin, most people believed it. If science said nuclear power and DDT were safe, most people believed that too. To some extent, that trust was well earned. Journalists sometimes defied the interests of the powerful, as with Seymour Hersh’s expose of the My Lai massacre, or Woodward & Bernstein’s reporting on Watergate. Science, in the vanguard of civilization’s onward march, had a reputation for the objective pursuit of knowledge in defiance of traditional religious authorities, as well as a reputation for lofty disdain for political and financial motives. 

Today, the broad consensus trust in science and journalism is in tatters. I know several highly educated people who believe the earth is flat. By dismissing flat-earthers and the tens of millions of adherents to less extreme alternative narratives (historical, medical, political, and scientific) as ignorant, we are mistaking symptom for cause. Their loss of trust is a clear symptom of a loss of trustworthiness. Our institutions of knowledge production have betrayed public trust repeatedly, as have our political institutions. Now, many people won’t believe them even when they tell the truth. This must be frustrating to the scrupulous doctor, scientist, or public official. To them, the problem looks like a public gone mad, a rising tide of anti-scientific irrationality that is endangering public health. The solution, from that perspective, would be to combat ignorance. It is almost as if ignorance is a virus (in fact, I have heard that phrase before) that must be controlled through the same kind of quarantine (for example, censorship) that we apply to the coronavirus. 

Ironically, another kind of ignorance pervades both these efforts: the ignorance of the terrain. What is the diseased tissue upon which the virus of ignorance gains purchase? The loss of trust in science, journalism, and government reflects their long corruption: their arrogance and elitism, their alliance with corporate interests, and their institutionalized suppression of dissent. The conspiracy myth embodies the realization of a profound disconnect between the public postures of our leaders and their true motivations and plans. It bespeaks a political culture that is opaque to the ordinary citizen, a world of secrecy, image, PR,  spin, optics, talking points, perception management, narrative management, and information warfare. No wonder people suspect that there is another reality operating behind the curtains. 

Second, the conspiracy myth gives narrative form to an authentic intuition that an inhuman power governs the world. What could that power be? The conspiracy myth locates that power in a group of malevolent human beings (who take commands, in some versions, from extraterrestrial or demonic entities). Therein lies a certain psychological comfort, because now there is someone to blame in a familiar us-versus-them narrative and victim-perpetrator-rescuer psychology. Alternatively, we could locate the “inhuman power” in systems or ideologies, not a group of conspirators. That is less psychologically rewarding, because we can no longer easily identify as good fighting evil; after all, we ourselves participate in these systems, which pervade our entire society. Systems like the debt-based money system, patriarchy, white supremacy, or capitalism cannot be removed by fighting their administrators. They create roles for evildoers to fill, but the evildoers are functionaries; puppets, not puppet masters. The basic intuition of conspiracy theories then is true: that those we think hold power are but puppets of the real power in the world. 

A couple weeks ago I was on a call with a person who had a high position in the Obama administration and who still runs in elite circles. He said, “There is no one driving the bus.” I was a little disappointed actually, because there is indeed part of me that wishes the problem were a bunch of dastardly conspirators. Why? Because then our world’s problems would be quite easy to solve, at least in principle. Just expose and eliminate those bad guys. That is the prevailing Hollywood formula for righting the world’s wrongs: a heroic champion confronts and defeats the bad guy, and everyone lives happily ever after. Hmm, that is the same basic formula as blaming ill health on germs and killing them with the arsenal of medicine, so that we can live safe healthy lives ever after, or killing the terrorists and walling out the immigrants and locking up the criminals, all again so that we can live safe healthy lives ever after. Stamped from the same template, conspiracy theories tap into an unconscious orthodoxy. They emanate from the same mythic pantheon as the social ills they protest. We might call that pantheon Separation, and one of its chief motifs is the war against the Other.

That is not to say there is no such thing as a germ -- or a conspiracy. Watergate, COINTELPRO, Iran-Contra, Merck’s drug Vioxx, Ford’s exploding Pinto coverup, Lockheed-Martin’s bribery campaign, Bayer’s knowing sale of HIV-contaminated blood, and the Enron scandal demonstrate that conspiracies involving powerful elites do happen. None of the above are myths though: a myth is something that explains the world; it is, mysteriously, bigger than itself. Thus, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory (which I will confess, doubtless at cost to my credibility, to accepting as literally true) is a portal to the mythic realm. 

The conspiracy myth I’m addressing here, though, is much larger than any of these specific examples: It is that the world as we know it is the result of a conspiracy, with the Illuminati or controllers as its evil gods. For believers, it becomes a totalizing discourse that casts every event into its terms. 

It is a myth with an illustrious pedigree, going back at least to the time of the first century Gnostics. Gnostics believe that an evil demiurge created the material world out of a preexisting divine essence. Creating the world in the image of his own distortion, he imagines himself to be its true god and ruler.

One needn’t believe in this literally, nor believe literally in a world-controlling evil cabal, to derive insight from this myth -- insight into the arrogance of the powerful, for example, or into the nature of the distortion that colors the world of our experience. 

What is it that makes the vast majority of humanity comply with a system that drives Earth and humankind to ruin? What power has us in its grip? It isn’t just the conspiracy theorists who are captive to a mythology. Society at large is too. I call it the mythology of Separation: me separate from you, matter separate from spirit, human separate from nature. It holds us as discrete and separate selves in an objective universe of force and mass, atoms and void. Because we are (in this myth) separate from other people and from nature, we must dominate our competitors and master nature. Progress, therefore, consists in increasing our capacity to control the Other. The myth recounts human history as an ascent from one triumph to the next, from fire to domestication to industry to information technology, genetic engineering, and social science, promising a coming paradise of control. That same myth motivates the conquest and ruin of nature, organizing society to turn the entire planet into money -- no conspiracy necessary.

The mythology of Separation is what generates what I named in The Coronation as a “civilizational tilt” toward control. The solution template is, facing any problem, to find something to control -- to quarantine, to track, to imprison, to wall out, to dominate, or to kill. If control fails, more control will fix it. To achieve social and material paradise, control everything, track every movement, monitor every word, record every transaction. Then there can be no more crime, no more infection, no more disinformation. When the entire ruling class accepts this formula and this vision, they will act in natural concert to increase their control. It is all for the greater good. When the public accepts it too, they will not resist it. This is not a conspiracy, though it can certainly look like one. This is a third truth within the conspiracy myth. Events are indeed orchestrated in the direction of more and more control, only the orchestrating power is itself a zeitgeist, an ideology… a myth.

A Conspiracy with No Conspirators

Let us not dismiss the conspiracy myth as just a myth. Not only is it an important psychosocial diagnostic, but it reveals what is otherwise hard to see from the official mythology in which society’s main institutions, while flawed, are shepherding us ever-closer to a high tech paradise. That dominant myth blinds us to the data points the conspiracy theorists recruit for their narratives. These might include things like regulatory capture in the pharmaceutical industry, conflicts of interest within public health organizations, the dubious efficacy of masks, the far-lower-than-hyped death rates, totalitarian overreach, the questionable utility of lockdown, concerns about non-ionizing frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, the benefits of natural and holistic approaches to boosting immunity, bioterrain theory, the dangers of censorship in the name of “combatting disinformation,” and so forth. It would be nice if one could raise the numerous valid points and legitimate questions that alternative Covid narratives bring to light without being classed as a right-wing conspiracy theorist. 

The whole phrase “right-wing conspiracy theorist” is a bit odd, since traditionally it is the Left that has been most alert to the proclivity of the powerful to abuse their power. Traditionally, it is the Left that is suspicious of corporate interests, that urges us to “question authority,” and that has in fact been the main victim of government infiltration and surveillance. Fifty years ago, if anyone said, “There is a secret program called COINTELPRO that is spying on civil rights groups and sowing division within them with poison pen letters and fabricated rumors,” that would have been a conspiracy theory by today’s standards. The same, 25 years ago, with, “There is a secret program in which the CIA facilitates narcotics sales into American inner cities and uses the money to fund right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.” The same with government infiltration of environmental groups and peace activists starting in the 1980s. Or more recently, the infiltration of the Standing Rock movement. Or the real estate industry’s decades-long conspiracy to redline neighborhoods to keep black people out. Given this history, why all of a sudden is it the Left urging everyone to trust “the Man” -- to trust the pronouncements of the pharmaceutical companies and pharma-funded organizations like the CDC and WHO? Why is skepticism towards these institutions labeled “right wing”? It isn’t as if only the privileged are “inconvenienced” by lockdown. It is devastating the lives of tens or hundreds of millions of the global precariat. The UN World Food Program is warning that by the end of the year, 260 million people will face starvation. Most are black and brown people in Africa and South Asia. One might argue that to restrict the debate to epidemiological questions of mortality is itself a privileged stance that erases the suffering of those who are most marginalized to begin with.

“Conspiracy theory” has become a term of political invective, used to disparage any view that diverges from mainstream beliefs. Basically, any critique of dominant institutions can be smeared as conspiracy theory. There is actually a perverse truth in this smear. For example, if you believe that glyphosate is actually dangerous to human and ecological health, then you also must, if you are logical, believe that Bayer/Monsanto is suppressing or ignoring that information, and you must also believe that the government, media, and scientific establishment are to some extent complicit in that suppression. Otherwise, why are we not seeing NYT headlines like, “Monsanto whistleblower reveals dangers of glyphosate”? 

Information suppression can happen without deliberate orchestration. Throughout history, hysterias, intellectual fads, and mass delusions have come and gone spontaneously. This is more mysterious than the easy conspiracy explanation admits. An unconscious coordination of action can look very much like a conspiracy, and the boundary between the two is blurry. Consider the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fraud that served as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq. Maybe there were people in the Bush administration who knowingly used the phony “yellowcake” document to call for war; maybe they just wanted very much to believe the documents were genuine, or maybe they thought, “Well, this is questionable but Saddam must have WMD, and even if he doesn’t, he wants them, so the document is basically true…” People easily believe what serves their interests or fits their existing worldview. 

In a similar vein, the media needed little encouragement to start beating the war drums. They knew what to do already, without having to receive instructions. I don’t think very many journalists actually believed the WMD lie. They pretended to believe, because subconsciously, they knew that was the establishment narrative. That was what would get them recognized as serious journalists. That’s what would give them access to power. That is what would allow them to keep their jobs and advance their careers. But most of all, they pretended to believe because everyone else was pretending to believe. It is hard to go against the zeitgeist. 

The British scientist Rupert Sheldrake told me about a talk he gave to a group of scientists who were working on animal behaviour at a prestigious British University. He was talking about his research on dogs that know when their owners are coming home, and other telepathic phenomena in domestic animals. The talk was received with a kind of polite silence. But in the following tea break all six of the senior scientists who were present at the seminar came to him one by one, and when they were sure that no one else was listening told him they had had experiences of this kind with their own animals, or that they were convinced that telepathy is a real phenomenon, but that they could not talk to their colleagues about this because they were all so straight. When Sheldrake realised that all six had told him much the same thing, he said to them, “Why don’t you guys come out? You’d all have so much more fun!” He says that when he gives a talk at a scientific institution there are nearly always scientists who approach him afterwards telling him they’ve had personal experiences that convince them of the reality of psychic or spiritual phenomena but that they can’t discuss them with their colleagues for fear of being thought weird.

This is not a deliberate conspiracy to suppress psychic phenomena. Those six scientists didn’t convene beforehand and decide to suppress information they knew was real. They keep their opinions to themselves because of the norms of their subculture, the basic paradigms that delimit science, and the very real threat of damage to their careers. The persecution and calumny directed at Sheldrake himself demonstrates what happens to a scientist who is outspoken in his dissent from official scientific reality. So, we might still say that a conspiracy is afoot, but its perpetrator is a culture, a system, and a story. 

Is this, or a deliberate conspiratorial agenda, a more satisfying explanation for the seemingly inexorable trends (which by no means began with Covid) toward surveillance, tracking, distancing, germ phobia, obsession with safety, and the digitization and indoor-ization of entertainment, recreation, and sociality? If the perpetrator is indeed a cultural mythology and system, then conspiracy theories offer us a false target, a distraction. The remedy cannot be to expose and take down those who have foisted these trends upon us. Of course, there are many bad actors in our world, remorseless people committing heinous acts. But have they created the system and the mythology of Separation, or do they merely take advantage of it? Certainly such people should be stopped, but if that is all we do, and leave unchanged the conditions that breed them, we will fight an endless war. Just as in bioterrain theory germs are symptoms and exploiters of diseased tissue, so also are conspiratorial cabals symptoms and exploiters of a diseased society: a society poisoned by the mentality of war, fear, separation, and control. This deep ideology, the myth of separation, is beyond anyone’s power to invent. The Illuminati, if they exist, are not its authors; it is more true to say that the mythology is their author. We do not create our myths; they create us.

Which side are you on?

In the end, I still haven’t said whether I think the New World Order conspiracy myth is true or not. Well actually yes I have. I have said it is true as a myth, regardless of its correspondence to verifiable facts. But what about the facts? Come on, Charles, tell us, is there actually a conspiracy behind the Covid thing, or isn’t there? There must be an objective fact of the matter. Are chemtrails a thing? Was SARS-COV2 genetically engineered? Is microwave radiation from cellphone towers a factor? Are vaccines introducing viruses from animal cell cultures into people? Is Bill Gates masterminding a power grab in the form of medical martial law? Does a Luciferian elite rule the world? True or false? Yes or no? 

To this question I would respond with another: Given that I am not an expert on any of these matters, why do you want to know what I think? Could it be to place me on one side or another of an information war? Then you will know whether it is OK to enjoy this essay, share it, or have me on your podcast.  In an us-versus-them war mentality, the most important thing is to know which side someone is on, lest you render aid and comfort to the enemy. 

Aha -- Charles must be on the other side. Because he has created a false equivalency between peer-reviewed, evidence-based, respectable scientific knowledge on the one hand, and unhinged conspiracy theories on the other. 

Aha -- Charles must be on the other side. Because he has created a false equivalency between corporate-government-NWO propaganda on the one hand, and brave whistle-blowers and dissidents risking their careers for the truth on the other. 

Can you see how totalizing war mentality can be?

War mentality saturates our polarized society, which envisions progress as a consequence of victory -- victory over a virus, over the ignorant, over the left, over the right, over the psychopathic elites, over Donald Trump, over white supremacy, over the liberal elites.... Each side uses the same formula, and that formula requires an enemy. So, obligingly, we divide ourselves up into us and them, exhausting 99% of our energies in a fruitless tug-of-war, never once suspecting that the true evil power might be the formula itself. 

This is not to propose that we somehow banish conflict from human affairs. It is to question a mythology -- embraced by both sides -- that conceives every problem in conflict’s terms. Struggle and conflict have their place, but other plotlines are possible. There are other pathways to healing and to justice. 

A Call for Humility

Have you ever noticed that events seem to organize themselves to validate the story you hold about the world? Selection bias and confirmation bias explain some of that, but I think something weirder is at work as well. When we enter into deep faith or deep paranoia, it seems as if that state attracts confirmatory events to it. Reality organizes itself to match our stories. In a sense, this IS a conspiracy, just not one perpetrated by humankind. That might be a third truth that the conspiracy myth harbors: the presence of an organizing intelligence behind the events of our lives. 

In no way does this imply the New Age nostrum that beliefs create reality. Rather, it is that reality and belief construct each other, coevolving as a coherent whole. The intimate, mysterious connection between myth and reality means that belief is never actually a slave to fact. We are facts’ sovereign -- which is not to say their creator. To be their sovereign doesn’t mean to be their tyrant, disrespecting and over-ruling them. The wise monarch pays attention to an unruly subject, such as a fact that defies the narrative. Maybe it is simply a disturbed trouble-maker, like a simple lie, but maybe it signals disharmony in the kingdom. Maybe the kingdom is no longer legitimate. Maybe the myth is no longer true. It could well be that the vociferous attacks on Covid dissent, using the “conspiracy theory” smear, signal the infirmity of the orthodox paradigms they seek to uphold.

If so, that doesn’t mean the orthodox paradigms are all wrong either. To leap from one certainty to another skips the holy ground of uncertainty, of not knowing, of humility, into which genuinely new information can come. What unites the pundits of all persuasions is their certainty. Who is trustworthy? In the end, it is the person with the humility to recognize when he or she has been wrong. 

To those who categorically dismiss any information that seriously challenges conventional medicine, lockdown policies, vaccines, etc., I would ask, Do you need such high walls around your kingdom? Instead of banishing these unruly subjects, would it hurt to give them an audience? Would it be so dangerous to perhaps tour another kingdom, guided not by your own loyal minister but by the most intelligent, welcoming partisans of the other side? If you have no interest in spending the several hours it will take to absorb the following dissenting opinions, fine. I’d rather be in my garden too. But if you are a partisan in these issues, what harm will it do to visit enemy territory? Normally partisans don’t do that. They rely on the reports of their own leaders about the enemy. If they know anything of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s or Judy Mikovitz’s views, it is through the lens of someone debunking them. So give a listen to Kennedy, or if you prefer MD’s only, to David KatzZach Bush, or Christiane Northrup

I would like to offer the same invitation to those who reject the conventional view. Find the most scrupulous mainstream doctors and scientists you can, and dive into their world. Take the attitude of a respectful guest, not a hostile spy. If you do that, I guarantee you will encounter data points that challenge any narrative you came in with. The splendor of conventional virology, the wonders of chemistry that generations of scientists have discovered, the intelligence and sincerity of most of these scientists, and the genuine altruism of health care workers on the front line who have no political or financial conflict of interest in the face of grave risk to themselves, must be part of any satisfactory narrative.

After two months of obsessively searching for one, I have not yet found a satisfactory narrative that can account for every data point. That doesn’t mean to take no action because after all, knowledge is never certain. But in the whirlwind of competing narratives and the disjoint mythologies beneath them, we can look for action that makes sense no matter which side is right. We can look for truths that the smoke and clamor of the battle obscures. We can question assumptions both sides take for granted, and ask questions neither side is asking. Not identified with either side, we can gather knowledge from both. Generalizing to society, by bringing in all the voices, including the marginalized ones, we can build a broader social consensus and begin to heal the polarization that is rending and paralyzing our society. 

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