The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Conspiracy in the shadow of hierarchy

Despite some recent indulgences, I'm not much of a one for conspiracy theories. In general they hinge on misapplications of the principle of cui bono. Who shot JFK? Lee Harvey Oswald must surely top the list of suspects. Who benefitted from the shooting of JFK? The list is as long as your arm, but the beneficiaries may have been as surprised as anyone else. The term 'conspiracy theory' is sometimes used as a dismissal, but this usage is odd.

For instance, to say that the 9/11 attacks were the work of a small team whose members were part of a vast clandestine network of terrorists led or inspired by Osama Bin Laden is not usually called a 'conspiracy theory', although that is exactly what it is: it attributes the events to a conspiracy. It is also almost certainly true. Nobody doubts that conspiracies, sometimes on a large scale, exist. What is loosely called a 'conspiracy theory' is any theory that purports to explain an event or events by some kind of covert action, or a motivation other than those admitted publicly.

The respectability of conspiracy theories in that sense (leaving aside sheer insanities) is surprisingly relative. In the 1920s Nesta Webster's theory that the Bolshevik Revolution was the work of the Illuminati was quite respectable, but is now taken seriously only by cranks. In the 1930s the theory that Trotsky, Bukharin, and other Bolsheviks conspired with certain Red Army officers, themselves in contact with the Germans, to overthrow Stalin was considered quite respectable. It was believed by, among others, the US ambassador to Moscow (Joseph Davies) and the New York Times. Today the respectable conspiracy theory is that Stalin contrived the murder of Kirov, and invented out of whole cloth the previously mentioned conspiracy, to get rid of his Bolshevik rivals, who were innocent of anything but peaceful (though clandestine and illegal) opposition. Some recent historians dispute both conspiracy theories, and suggest instead that the whole ghastly bloodbath may have been the unintended outcome of an intelligence snafu.

The theory that Roosevelt allowed Pearl Harbour to happen in order to bring the US into the war is unrespectable, but not beyond the pale of respectable discussion. Likewise the theory that the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities had more to do with warning off the Soviet Union than defeating Japan. The theory that Stalin held back the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw to allow the Germans to destroy the anti-Communist Polish Home Army (and with it much of Warsaw) is highly respectable. Soviet historians always denied it, claiming (e.g.) that the Red Army was too exhausted of men and materiel to help the Polish insurgents. The theory that the same Home Army, for highly discreditable reasons, had previously stood by and done nothing much to help the heroic Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was respectable when Leon Uris wrote Exodus, but may no longer be.

Likewise, the theory that Clinton tried to kill Osama Bin Laden to distract attention from his own domestic woes is now less respectable than it was.

In short, the respectability of a conspiracy or hidden-hand theory - sheer insanities always excepted - is variable, and largely a matter of political prejudice. That Mossad agents in the US spied on Islamic extremists who happened to include the 9/11 hijackers is plausible enough, whether or not it's true (and, as I've said, it's quite possibly not). That some consequences of the attacks - e.g. the invasion and occupation of Iraq - were to the perceived advantage of Israel is hard to dispute. That they also advanced the agendas of people in and around the US government who had long sought to settle accounts with Iraq and had wider plans for the region is likewise true. The idea that elements within the US or Israeli state apparatuses had some foreknowledge of the attacks (if not necessarily their exact nature) but allowed them to proceed is a highly unrespectable conspiracy theory, and one that goes beyond any evidence I've seen, but not, I think, a sheer insanity. To attempt to refute it by lumping it in with crackpot and/or malevolent theories (of which, of course, there are plenty) only muddies the waters. The real problems with it are deeper.

One problem with it is that from the point of view of opponents of the Reptilian Party and critics of the War on Terra, it's too good to be true. Smoking Gun Found. We Name the Guilty Men. Dream on. Another problem is that conspiratorial explanations may seriously over-estimate the abilities of the best and the brightest. Gabriel Kolko, in a review of some recent memoirs on intelligence and the Vietnam War, persuasively depicts a situation where time after time, the intelligence apparatuses simply get it wrong, and those within them who get it right are ignored when they aren't crushed underfoot like bugs. Policy decisions shape intelligence, not the other way round. It reads like something straight out of the works of Robert Anton Wilson. Not his conspiracy theory spoofs, but his account of the effect of hierarchical structures on information. Far from concentrating raw data into usable intelligence, they degrade the data. The farther up you are, the less you know. According to Kolko, towards the end of the war in Vietnam this applied as much to the Communists as to the US and the Saigon regime. The NVA left as much heavy equipment behind them in their unexpectedly rapid advance as the ARVN dropped in their retreat. Luckily for Hanoi, they had a general who knew how to wing it.

It's possible, then, that even if some people in the security agencies did have some idea that something like 9/11 was in the pipeline, their information was ignored or passed over for entirely bureaucratic reasons rather than a Machiavellian plan. The same line of argument works on the other side of the war. I've sometimes speculated that Osama Bin Laden set up the attacks precisely to draw the US empire into a quagmire. Create two, three, many Afghanistans! This would attribute to him a better understanding of the US than he seems to display. He clearly believes that a culture that permits women and homosexuals to run around freely, just like normal people, is on the verge of collapse from sheer moral degeneracy. Being bombed out of Tora Bora was probably not part of his cunning plan. He may not be a bureaucrat, but like anyone at the top of a hierarchy he has the problem of being told what people who defer to him think he wants to hear.

Hierarchy was invented to regulate human relations with imaginary beings, and it still performs that function quite admirably. In the shadow of that pyramid, conspiracy theories are little grassy knolls.


Post a Comment