A key consequence of [society's] harsh structural reality is that those who possess highly concentrated wealth and power have remarkable capacity to exploit crises.
Misunderstanding Power: Refuting and Explaining the Popularity of Conspiracy Theories
by Paul Street
June 06, 2002
Thanks in part to recent disclosures that a minimally competent federal security establishment would have had reasons to know and act on intelligence predicting something like what occurred last September, conspiracy theorists are having a field day with 9-11. It didn't take such disclosures or the current Congressional inquiry into what the relevant federal officers knew and when they knew it, however, to put the great American conspiracy industry into high gear. From the beginning, really, a small army of conspiracy-thinkers offered variations on the basic theme that Washington (and in some versions Tel Aviv) were somehow in on the terrible September attacks.
In the mild version of 9-11 conspiracy theory, Washington merely knew about the impending attacks and chose not to act. In the hard-core version, Washington (and/or Israel) actually plotted and conducted the attacks.
The motive(s)? To provide the perfect excuse for the subversion of democracy, to serve the interests of Big Oil and the military industrial complex, to strengthen Israel's grip on its Palestinian subjects, and to expand the reach of US military power yet further across the globe. To create, in short a pretext for developments pretty much along the lines of main historical currents since September.
Many of the conspiracy charges, it seems, come from somewhere on the "left" side of the political spectrum, where conspiracy thinking is more common than some radicals like to admit. The far right, it is becoming increasingly clear, has no monopoly on the paranoid and crackpot interpretation of historical events past and present.
September 11th conspiracy theorists advance some truly bizarre ideas, including the notions that the World Trade Center was actually destroyed by explosives, that the planes were actually commandeered by American military remote control, and that WTC Tower 2 was hit by a missile. According to one web-site, the Pentagon was not actually hit by an airplane.
Conspiracy theorists also make a number of accurate and uncontroversial observations that they would like to think provide circumstantial evidence for their strange interpretations. They note Washington's (Cold War) history of training and equipping El Qaeda, Bush's father's role as former CIA chief, and the huge influence of Big Oil and the "defense" industry on the current White House. They point to the creepy circumstances of Bush's 2000 "selection" by the Supreme Court, the Bush administration's initial oil-driven overtures to the Taliban and the White House's equally petroleum-related suspension of serious investigation of the Saudi-connected bin-Laden network. They note that Bush senior and Dick Cheney were consultants to the Carlye group, which advised the bin Laden family and which has made out quite well from the post 9-11 expansion of the Pentagon budget. They point to friendly historical relations between the US petroleum executives and the Taliban, reflecting the global oil corporations' determination to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. They note America's long history of secret intervention in the internal politics and policies of other nations. They point, of course, to growing evidence that top CIA and FBI officials failed to act on abundant evidence that should have sparked them to prevent the attacks.
"Left" conspiracy theorists put special emphasis on regressive and repressive policy developments since 9-11. Look, they say, as if this (below) is all you need to know, at:
--· The overnight media transformation of Bush from incompetent illegitimacy to supposed grand statesman and the related suppression and distorted reportage on the real facts of the 2000 presidential "election."
--· The closing of meaningful debate on the harshly regressive domestic policy agenda of the Bush administration and allies in Congress.
--· The restriction of civil liberties at home and abroad, in the name of a new permanent War on Terror, really a permanent war of US and US allied state terror.
--· The massive new Pentagon budget, transferring an unprecedented windfall of taxpayer money to politically connected high-tech "defense" corporations, granting them a practically blank check to build massively expensive weapons and support systems that often have nothing to do with protecting the nation against terrorism.
--· The construction of new US military bases and the expansion of America's military presence in Southwest Asia, providing new imperial protections for US-based petrochemical interests in the region
--· The US government's lockstep support for Israel's vicious and criminal assault on the Palestinian people, justified in part by the notion that 9-11 gave Americans a new appreciation for virtuous Israel's struggle with dastardly suicidal mad men! The list goes on.
"Come on, man," one conspiracy theorist recently told me, with a sneering grin, incredulous at my inability to sign on with his dark, all-knowing interpretation of the above developments, "the Bushies and all their rich buddies have got everything they ever wanted from this thing. You know they cooked it up."
In one case, the suggestion of high-level US complicity has come from a progressive US Congressperson - Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). Last April, McKinney noted that "persons close to [the Bush] administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new [9-11-provoked] war." McKinney pointed especially to the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based and defense-related investment firm that employs a large number of high-ranking government officials and retains the senior George Bush as a leading advisor. McKinney noted that the Carlyle Group and other firms close to the White House "directly benefited from the increased defense spending arising from the aftermath of September 11."
There is not space here to list and refute the various specific claims of 9-11 conspiracy theories, but three points of rebuttal should suffice. First, it is incredibly unlikely that the necessary network of players and operatives would or could have undertaken such a complicated and insanely risky enterprises as conducting the attacks or even of covering up evidence of their likely occurrence. Even on the incredibly dubious assumption that the required high-level players were so uneasy in their very privileged pre-September lives that they felt compelled to concoct such schemes of mass murder on American soil, the likelihood of discovery would have made it prohibitively dangerous.
Second, conspiracy theorists of the hard version forget that the likely perpetrators - the bin-Laden network - had both the independent means and (un-controversially) the motive(s) to conduct the operation. There's something practically racist in the notion that only people of European ancestry could have carried out something on 9-11's scale. The operation, moreover, is deeply consistent with threats made and targets marked by the likely culprits for quite some time.
Third, the idea that the elitist consequences of 9-11 - more wealth and power for the few and less of both for the many - somehow prove that 9-11 was the product of an elite US conspiracy is incredibly naïve. Conspiracy theorists of the sort who sneered at me fail to understand that aristocratic outcomes from crises are basically written into America's economic and sociopolitical structure. Democracy is a political system where each person has an equal vote and equal policy influence. It cannot meaningfully exist in a society structured along the lines of the contemporary US, where 1 percent of the population owns 47 percent of the nation's wealth and considerably more of its politicians, policymakers, and media. It cannot exist where ordinary people lacking cohesive organization, meaningful institutions of autonomous power, popular expression, and democratic organization, and even a sense of common interests face off against highly organized and extremely class-conscious wealthy interests. It cannot exist where such people are worked, commuted, and shopped to the point of exhaustion and must rely on a highly concentrated privately owned media for basic information. It is especially absent from the making of foreign policy, which is even more insulated from popular influence than domestic policy and whose largely hidden conception and execution carries vast consequences for the entire planet without anything but the slightest input from world citizens.
The structure of media ownership is especially pivotal in the current era. The owners and managers of the highly globalized corporate media, who have strong linkages with the military and oil industries and the national security-state, possess awesome, structurally encoded power to shape popular perceptions of current events. It does not serve their interests to translate the meaning of events in ways that question elite privilege and the related American imperial project. The outcome - incredibly biased coverage that favors war, imperial expansion, military expenditure, reduced civil liberties at home over critical democratic examination of US foreign policy and its role in making terror attacks on US targets predictable - is itself remarkably predictable, without resort to conspiracy theory.
A key consequence of this harsh structural reality is that those who possess highly concentrated wealth and power have remarkable capacity to exploit crises. They act on their special, structurally enabled capacity to turn terrible events and developments, including especially foreign attacks and domestic rebellions, into pretexts for policies that further their own wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.
Such is the traditional and consistent goal and behavior of those who sit atop society's leading institutions. As Noam Chomsky noted last February, the privileged "relentlessly" search for pretexts to advance their standard agenda, summarized in what Adam Smith called "the vile maxim of the masters - 'Everything for me and nothing for everyone else.'"
"Crises," Chomsky noted, "make it possible to exploit fear and concern to demand that the [people] be submissive, obedient, silent, distracted, while the powerful use the window of opportunity to pursue their own favored programs with even greater intensity." They are a means for "disciplining the population," which tends to look with disfavor as policies embodying the "vile maxim," and "shifting wealth and power even more" into "the master's" hands.
The aftermath of 9-11, Chomsky noted, is "typical" in this regard. As John Pilger has recently noted in his important work, The New Rulers of the World, ""the attacks of September 11, 2001 did not 'change everything,' but accelerated the continuity of events, providing an extraordinary pretext for destroying social democracy." They have provided the post-Cold War era's most spectacular excuse to date for the ongoing "reduction of democracy to electoral ritual: that is, competition between indistinguishable parties for the management of a single-ideology state."
As when applied to other events, conspiracy theories regarding 9-11 reflect two core misunderstandings of power and how it operates in the US. The first, broadly encouraged by the American educational, political, and media establishments, holds that the US is in fact a democracy. People who accept this fairy tale - the Founding Fathers' (most of whom agreed with John Jay that "those who own the country ought to run it") and the modern business class's ultimate shared nightmare - cannot easily grasp policy outcomes that dramatically serve the interests of the few over the many. For them, the temptation is strong to see such outcomes as the product of a dark conspiracy operating behind the back and against the wishes of their elected representatives and other leaders of the society's main institutions.
The second misunderstanding is of a different, even opposite nature. It wraps itself in an all-knowing sneer of cynicism yet holds a curiously wide-eyed and fantastic view of the masters or at least some part of the ruling class. Common among those who have been disabused of democratic myths and feel especially powerless in the face of concentrated power, it holds that dastardly elites manipulate the course of history from on high, pretty much in accordance with their own wishes. Little happens in the course of human events, some conspiracy theorists think, without the approval and intervention of an all-powerful but strangely secret elite.
Real understanding of power is found outside these poles of illusion. Those who possess it know that the weight of dominant influence over sociopolitical decision-making and public information (mass persuasion) is rooted in historically developed structures of concentrated power, "state and private, closely inter-linked" (Chomsky). They do not conclude from this that certain select members or designated operatives of the master class have been granted limitless potency to shape history from above. History, they know, is full of remarkable developments, some inspiring - the early phases of the Russian Revolution, the anti-Vietnam War movement, for example - and others quite horrific (9/11 for example) from a radical-democratic perspective, that took place much to the surprise and against the wishes of the power elite.
That elite, they are aware, possesses exceptional capacity to make unexpected and initially unwelcome developments into pretexts for the expansion of their wealth and power. In the past, for example, it turned the initially unwelcome (for the privileged) existence of the Soviet Union into a pretext for the (welcome) historically unparalleled expansion of the military-industrial complex. It turned the antiwar movement, urban racial unrest, and antipoverty programs of the 1960s into pretexts for the expansion of a rigidly authoritarian criminal punishment state and workfare regime that enforces harsh class and race inequality in contemporary America. Now, with special assistance from an initially unwelcome and truly historic and evil terror attack last September, it has made the threat of terrorism into a pretext for an endless expansion of imperialism, militarism, and class privilege.
To note these outcomes, rooted in structurally encoded inequalities of ideological and policy power, however, is very different from saying that the masters have "cooked up" the developments they were able to exploit. The latter conclusion reads history through the rear view mirror and exaggerates the power and foresight of the ruling elite.
In truth, ordinary people would be fortunate if the masters of war and wealth needed to work behind or otherwise undermine the United States' leading institutions to achieve regressive and repressive policy results like those we have seen since 9-11. At the same time, we can be thankful that those masters have not become the God-like manipulators of history and consciousness, capable of creating historical events like something out of a bad X-Files episode. History lurches forward, in all its horror and glory, full of possibilities that continue to be chained, and tragic consequences that remain predictable - unless and until we develop and act upon an appropriate understanding of power and how it operates.
-- Paul Street is a social policy researcher and freelance writer in Chicago, Illinois.
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