Just because we can hear the black helicopters doesn’t mean they don’t exist
My old co-driver Nick and I would pass the time on interstate furniture deliveries by assessing the incipient mass movements taking off around the world. We debated the potential of the Arab Spring, Occupy, anti-austerity strikes in Europe, daily wildcats in Chinese factories, and other tantalizing glimpses of working class self-activity. And before long, we always reached the same impasse.
“I agree with you” he’d object, “but how can you expect everyday people to get behind all this?”
“Well, you’re just a truck driver,” I’d reply with a smile, “and you seem to know what’s up.”
One day a new co-worker sat grumpily wedged between us, saying nothing as our usual debate took shape. He grew increasingly agitated as we argued, and at long last became unable to stifle his perplexity.
“You guys do know that the world is controlled by a dozen families, right?” he asked us. “Ever hear of the Rothschilds? They run the economy and tell all the governments what to do. Experts agree.”
Nick and I learned that the global political order is coordinated by a tiny cabal whose tentacles extend to every aspect of society — political power, the production of cultural goods, and especially commerce, their center of activity. Centuries of war, social upheaval, euphoric boom, and cataclysmic bust have all unfolded at the behest of this shadow government. Never mind the pageantry of national sovereignty; never mind the illusion of government by the people; and never mind the wiles of particular captains of industry. A hidden structure prefigures these institutions and fixes their course. The perpetrators of this worldwide coterie are a nefarious group of billionaire bankers with untold powers, before whom heads of state cower and fortunes are made and dashed. They are the notorious Illuminati. And nothing anyone, especially a few penniless truck driving nobodies, could ever do could possibly change this.
Familiar as Nick and I were with this tired old canard, and especially wary of the xenophobia and anti-Semitism with which it typically comes packaged, we were still intrigued — and slightly appalled — by the amount of this narrative with which we could actually agree.
Begrudgingly, we conceded that in the present, human events unfold within a limited set of possibilities, and that there is in fact a tenuous global order. We admitted that the actions of sovereign states, the decisions of participatory democracies, and the interplay of “free” enterprises are in fact predetermined by a logic which they cannot defy in their present form, lest it undermine and ultimately destroy them. And while we of course recognized that individuals or groups may wield immense power, take actions with beneficent or disastrous consequences, and create vast masturbatory displays of their own wealth and power, they can only do so under the compulsion of a power higher still. And among the world’s poor, individuals acting as such are powerless, with their powerlessness’ apotheosis in misguided martyrdom or impotent political violence.
As a point of divergence, however, we insisted that this higher power is ultimately not human, no more than it is divine. It has been called many names over the years, but it’s simply the necessity for capital to accumulate, and for capitalism to expand, destroying all barriers which stand in its way, and incorporating all extant social forms into its own reproduction or else wiping them out. Beheading the king, as they say, we maintained that this process is not exactly executed by, but more specifically through humans, whom it forms as subjects through their daily work and behind their backs. As such they are subjects who do not determine this rationality, but only serve to make it function more effectively, and reproduce its material existence. The prefigured roles for humans to act out their will in the world fix them within strict parameters which do not challenge capital. Outside of this is outside of the law, and in the minds of many, outside of the imaginable.
In short, we informed our friend, there are no Rothschilds necessary, nor even possible. At this stage in its historical development, the conspiring businessmen and heads of state are merely vectors through which capital expands, expropriates, and encloses. Particular human actors have a choice to play by these rules or be cast aside, to be replaced by others just like them. Shadowy cabals meet in broad daylight at international summits, as Chomsky is apt to remark, and their meetings are terrifically boring. And the symbol of this “New World Order” is emblazoned on the dollar bill alright, but there’s no need for symbolic decoding.
For maximum effect we set about prodding the rawest nerve of the modern mind’s bad conscience — the destruction of our ecosystem. A conspiratorial shadow government, Nick and I maintained, would never allow for the planet to destroy its potable water, poison its air, destabilize its climate, and harken an age of flooded coastal cities and apocalyptic super-storms. After all, what is a throne but a plank with red velvet? Even the Rothschilds need air and water.
To face the possibility, we concluded, that the international ruling class is nothing more than the wealthiest representatives of a species dominated by forces outside of its control, is to admit that there’s no way out of eminent catastrophe without collective action capable of radically altering the very structure of society. Individuals, we conceded, are powerless as such. But classes are not. And like good conspiracy nuts, Nick and I added, “we know it sounds crazy,” but our version of events has the advantage of being the truth.
“You guys have a depressing view of the world” our new friend concluded, returning to silence.
The modern conspiracy theory is a mythologization of capitalism. That humanity writhes in the grip of a power alien to itself is so palpable that the expression of this reality assumes countless forms in the popular imagination, permeating pop culture, politics, and the persecution anxieties of our booming psychiatric industry. Films like The Adjustment Bureau and television programs like Burn Notice capture the zeitgeist with the laughable simplicity of its most trite tropes, trench coats and all. The novels of Dan Brown append cheap noir to rich cultural pseudo-histories in order to make them more entertaining. The wildly popular television program Ancient Aliens became a cash cow for the History (!) Channel by attributing the greatest historical achievements of scientific discovery and collective activity to little green neo-Calvinist deities from outer space. And never mind the “9/11 Truth Movement” and the shocking contention by some of its leading ideologues that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could organize a poker game, let alone a secret network of underground internment camps in which Art Bell and Alex Jones will soon argue over the top bunk.
In all these expressions, which blur entertainment and information in a manner consistent with the present cultural imaginary, human or extraterrestrial agents are depicted as consciously directing world events behind the backs of those who live them. Though countless colorful theories fall under the umbrella of “New World Order,” and this canon has enjoyed a febrile explosion since the election of the suspiciously other Barack Obama, their basic structure is largely universal. Most importantly, any good conspiracy theory proceeds from empirical premises which are manifestly true. In the vein of Dan Brown, stray facts are woven into vast interconnected webs by tenuous strings of causality and barbaric modus ponens proofs. Historical and social phenomena which are in fact intimately intertwined by the total social relation of capital are instead linked superficially by cheap literary devices.
It is no coincidence that the actual Illuminati, by most accounts short lived and powerless, dates back to 1776. As revolutionary fever gripped the Continent and the colonies, the small group was founded as a secret society of Bavarian intellectuals possessed by the spirit of Enlightenment liberalism and laissez faire social and economic policy. Its erudite members opposed religious superstition and absolutist sovereignty, promoted internationalism through free scientific inquiry and open philosophical debate, and promoted the equality of men and women under the law of liberal states. Evoked as a bogeyman by royalists and reactionaries long after it ceased to exist, the secret society which counted the venerable Goethe among its members was the perfect metaphor for the rise of the European bourgeoisie, a cosmopolitan world driven by Enlightenment values, and the corresponding rise of global capital.
Though the Illuminati itself was disbanded in 1785, the class whose values it embodied was on an irreversible course to achieve world dominance. Particular groups such as the Illuminati were only an expression of this zeitgeist, not its cause. Since the late 18th century, and in plain sight, the entire world has been quite violently molded into one expansive international market and playground for the European bourgeoisie. Nation states have increasingly come to exist solely for the benefit of the markets which function through them, developing vast apparatuses of population management, security technologies, and militarized police forces, which serve the needs of production here and repression there. It is no coincidence that these spectacular agencies of surveillance and population management figure so prominently in conspiracy culture. We may be able to see and hear the surveillance helicopters, but they still exist.
The irony of the increasing rationalization of society toward some mythic equilibrium is the intensification of paroxysm, of violent crisis, of catastrophe on a heightening scale which it has ensured. The crises inherent in the capitalist cycle now grip the entire planet, leaving destitution in the wake of periodic booms, leaving entire regions to starve, evacuating capital from entire cities and letting them rot while the local ruling class throws up their hands. In the major developed countries, the transition from hulking welfare state apparatuses to militarized police forces maintaining order indicates the increasingly reactionary tendency of states, faced with simply containing the results of a disordered market by brute force, rather than even pretending to curb the causes of destitution and hopelessness among the poor.
When market “experts” discussing the flow of capital sound like meteorologists groping to account for the weather, this is not a coincidence, nor are they’re being disingenuous. Chaos rules the day, though it is backed by the forces of “law and order,” a “hybrid monster” as the bald man remarked, the former referring to legal statutes aimed at responding to crime, and the latter aimed at extra-legal (and often illegal) intervention preventing hypothetical crimes and generally molding the social terrain. The chaos underlying modern life and the scrupulous social order which protects and enforces it appears as a vast global intrigue against those who reproduce it with their daily work. And in a way, it is.
In short, somebody would have to be bat-shit crazy not to develop a conspiracy theory about the centralized interconnectivity of these conditions.
The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple. Whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds, the conspiratorial mind clings to the comforting notion of a world controlled by a rational agent capable of exerting its will to guide human events. Somebody is driving this thing … anybody. To the conspiratorial mind we are not alone with ourselves, left to our own devices, which can be the most terrifying prospect of all. The conspiracy fills the seeming vacuum at the center of society, the paralyzing abyss beneath our flimsy facades of order, with a reassuring rational kernel. Beneath the purported chaos of a modern world seemingly driven inexorably toward its own destruction, a secret logic hums away, unseen, yet steering with the circumspection of a protective father. In this way the conspiracy theory is a secularized monotheism which replaces our dearly departed God with an equally shadowy intelligence serving the same omniscient function. Sometimes it even lives in outer space and knows what we’re thinking.
Tempting though it may be to dismiss outright, the modern conspiracy theory moves beyond the illusions of liberal democracy, and in its broad strokes can be more sophisticated than the theology of “progress” through the free market, democratic elections, and the litigious acquisition of rights. Discounting these as fetish concepts prefigured by forces which set their activities within parameters acceptable to an overarching global order, the average viewer of Ancient Aliens may be in a better position to understand capital than an Obamaniac with a PhD in Political Science. Accordingly, it is tempting to imagine these conspiracy theories, which often attract young, energetic, subversive minds, as a short-lived stepping stone between the dead forms of the past and the class consciousness of the future. Indeed, the conspiracy theory might just be a final moment of theology among a class becoming aware of itself and its historic power. In the very least, to evoke a favorite argument of conspiracy theorists, this claim cannot be proven untrue.
In a world determined by an advanced and globalized mode of production, everything is in fact connected. The confusion arises when these connections are posited as the result of an exceptional conspiracy, without which they would be disparate social phenomena. This is the last gasp of liberal ideology, which has ceased to believe in itself but still refuses to concede that the world is not a series of isolated atoms which relate to one another only through exchange. Conceding a commonality which transcends mere commensurability, the conspiracy theory is willing to look in the most exotic and improbable places for its cause, anywhere but where it actually lives: the banal mechanisms of daily work, production, circulation, social reproduction, and the promotion and expansion of private property. As in Dr. Langdon’s absurd hermeneutics, the banal truth is actually much more interesting than fantastical narratives which overestimate the power of isolated individuals to make the world, and underestimate the power of a united people to remake it.
Far from “depressing,” the alternative we face is radically empowering. If in fact the core of our supposedly rational society is a great vacuum, if its present arrangement precludes any contestation to the Thanatos-fueled expansion of capital, then the seizure of power by the working class becomes a necessity for the continuing survival of the species. If the myths we have ceased to believe in are being replaced by those more absurd still and equally fated to unbelief, perhaps the challenge becomes crafting better myths; more convincing myths, myths grounded in the material reality of daily life, of daily work and life in common; myths which smash the artificial divisions between us, myths which know that the past cannot be recaptured but that the future remains unwritten. Or, to invoke a word blasphemous to the relativistic mythology of our time, do we have the courage to offer the truth?
Facing the imminent threat of ecological ruin and unprecedented human suffering which capitalist states are powerless to reverse, the stakes of the proletariat’s historical mission become even higher than its 19th century prophets could imagine. As we cast aside illusions and face the sobering reality that it’s either us or nobody at all, “everyday people” will discover that the biggest conspiracy of all is the one which has undermined their power as a class for so long. Experts agree.