Religion and Philosophy

Conspiracy Theories as Modern Mythology

By Larry Gambone

The term “conspiracy theory” is used by the media to suppress critical thought. The fact is, where you have coercive power, you will automatically have conspiracies – by those with power to maintain and increase it, by those without power to gain it. These are “conspiracy facts” not conspiracy theories. But there are also conspiracy theories in the pejorative sense of the term, wild-eyed stories about Illuminati and reptile people from outer space. It is this sense of conspiracy theory that I wish to examine.

Conspiracy theories are like the great myths. They are attempts to explain and give meaning to the complex, ofttimes frightening and contradictory world humans find themselves in. Like mythology, these theories, if taken literally, appear ludicrous. They are essentially coded narratives. Encoded within the story told, whether it is the “Fall of Man” or David Ickes’ lizard people, is a message that is not without value.

The message or rational core that underlies even the wackiest conspiracy theory includes:

* The powerlessness and subsequent alienation of the people

* our domination by a small, violent and exploitative group

* that these dominators lack empathy and regard the rest of us as prey.

* media manipulation and manufactured consent

* habitual lying on the part of government and the authorities

* cover-ups and persecution of whistle blowers

* governments and corporations conspiring against the people.

Conspiracy theories are the new mythology of the contemporary world. They are rooted in a section of the population that still mentally resides in the pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment world. A population that does not think systemically and for whom emotions play a vastly more important role than logical argumentation. That a large portion of the population does not accept a scientific, rational world view, is in no small measure, a result of the ruling class need to maintain its power. They must promote scape goats, irrational fears, superstitions and prejudices to keep the population controlled. If the entire population had a scientific outlook, they would not be susceptible to this manipulation.

There is more to it than ruling class manipulation. Contemporary society, based ultimately on technics and science, is a terrifying place. Thanks to capitalism and the state, the Enlightenment did not fulfill its promise of a peaceful, humane world ruled by Reason. No wonder some people take refuge in the mythic. There is also the fact that to be human is to be a myth maker. Events and individuals soon become “larger than life”, become part of a meaning – full narrative told around camp fires and tavern tables. Think only of the labour movement, Joe Hill and Ginger Goodwin, now virtual archetypal figures of the Murdered Hero. This from the most rational and systemically-thinking section of the populous.

The problem then is not myth making in and of itself. It is rather the type of myth. Atavistic responses such as racism and anti-Semitism woven into contemporary myth are the danger, not the myth making. The idea that all-powerful groups like the “International Bankers” or the Illuminati control everything and the rest of us are mere victims, only aids our subjugation – a response to our powerlessness that only abets our powerlessness. Blaming groups or individuals keeps us in a trap, preventing us from thinking in systemic terms and therefore getting a clearer understanding of how the system works. We are chasing a scary puppet and not confronting the real causes which lie in capitalism and the state.

Like the in field of history, myth is an area of contestation, of a struggle for hegemony. There are myths that keep people in subjugation and there are those that point to liberation. It is the latter we need to develop, not the former.

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