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Everything is (Somewhat) Connected.
But some things are more connected than others.
Service Announcement. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to receive a number of pledges of money for monthly and annual subscriptions over the past few weeks. This is, apparently, a new process which enables readers to indicate that they would contribute if a paid tier were to be introduced, but doesn’t actually involve paying any money now. I hadn’t originally thought of a paid tier, but what I’m going to do is to leave a period (let’s say a month) for people to make pledges or simply to write to me directly and indicate a potential interest. In the latter case, you can just reply to the welcome message, or, if you’ve deleted it, then to firstname.lastname@example.org. I would not feel comfortable asking for money for essays that are currently free, and, before I put time aside to offer extra material for paid subscribers, I need to be sure the demand is there. If it’s not, I’ll drop the subject for the time being. In any event, I would set the subscriptions at the minimum Substack allows, since this isn’t a money-making exercise. And now back to the studio.
Human beings make patterns in their minds to try to explain and connect things. Otherwise they would go mad. We cannot abide the thought of living in a world where nothing is connected, and so where existence is arbitrary and random. In some cases, the willingness to recognise connections that do exist is helpful, in others, the determination to find connections where none exist is downright dangerous. Here, I attempt to offer a bit of modest clarity on this complex and controversial subject.
Understanding why and how things happen as they do has been an obsession since the beginning of human history. It’s been persuasively argued that religion itself began as an attempt to account for the behaviour of natural forces, and, if we are to believe Julian Jaynes, the origins of human behaviour itself. The idea that life is as it is because that’s what the gods want was deeply ingrained in many cultures and in some cases still is: it’s striking how little of the action of the Iliad, for example, can be ascribed to purely human agency. Even in parts of Africa today, possession by evil spirits is regarded as an entirely acceptable explanation of criminal behaviour, just as in some Muslim countries students will tell you that, no matter how hard they work, it is God who will decide whether they will pass their examinations. (Indeed, it is already written whether they will do so or not.)
All of these factors, like Protestant ideas of predestination, apply to the individual. But there are also traditions which see the very unfolding of collective history resulting from causes and connections, and that’s what this essay is primarily about. I’m going to go through the various ways of thinking about this issue in the most forensic fashion I can, distinguishing between the (useful) attempt to find real connections and the (dangerous) efforts to find false ones. In the second case, which takes up a large part of this essay, I’ll be discussing the ideas of conspiracies and hidden forces explaining historical and contemporary events.
But let’s start with the less controversial and inflammatory end of the spectrum. History is not just One Damned Thing After Another. Anyone who has ever written history, from an undergraduate essay up to an article or a book, knows that some form of organisation inevitably imposes itself. No selection of facts, no matter how well-known or established, is uncontroversial or automatic. What you put in and what you leave out inevitably conveys a message, just like the relative importance you give to different factors. Provided with a twenty-page history of the origins of the Ukraine crisis (which itself, of course, would represent choices and could reflect biases) two students might produce very different summaries of events and causes, depending on the unconscious selection that they make.
In a sense, this is why we have historians. The past, and the origins of the present, need to be given some kind of form and structure if they are to be comprehensible at all, and indeed once you get past the early chronicles (“In this year X killed Y and took the throne”) some form of interpretation, if only by selection, becomes almost universal. And in many traditions history was written with a pedagogic end in view anyway: to teach lessons, to give examples of good and bad behaviour, to show how the gods rewarded virtue and punished vice, and so forth. This type of history is not entirely dead, either: Liberalism has always distrusted history and wanted to abolish it, and the current fashion for making the history of one’s own country a source of nothing but shame and repentance is part of the attempt to destroy history as a source of inspiration and cultural solidarity, just as it is an attempt to destroy any notion of historical progression, except towards purer and purer forms of Liberalism. As George Orwell nearly wrote: who controls the present controls the past. Who can abolish the past can also abolish the future.
This brings us to the first fundamental difference I want to discuss, which applies as much to the present day as it does to history. It is the difference between unicausal explanations and complex ones, or, if your prefer, between ideological explanations and pragmatic ones. Broadly, the first is the application of an external model or frame of reference to real events, whereas the second is the attempt to find explanations for real events from knowledge of the present and the past. (In some cases, the second may lead to the construction of pragmatic explanatory theories, but that’s a different question.)
Again, the origins of this kind of thinking are probably religious. In the Old Testament, God would give the Israelites victory and prosperity, or defeat and exile, depending on how He was feeling that day. For a long time afterwards, it was normal to see divine intervention in the unfolding events of history (the wind that scattered the Spanish Armada in 1588, for example.) Even today, history is often written as though simple concepts (Capitalism, Imperialism, Communism (less so now), Religion itself as a social construct) had agency in themselves, and were the motive forces of history, and complete explanations of historical events.
Such a way of thinking has a lot of attractions, because it provides a prefabricated explanatory framework, which can be imposed onto a situation, no matter how complex that situation may be. In general, if you ask a real expert about the origins of a crisis or a conflict in the world, then that person—diplomat, journalist, intelligence officer, whatever—will begin by saying “it’s complicated.” And it usually is complicated. But governments and the media hate complexity: they want a simple story to tell that will justify or excuse what they intend to do anyway, and they also complain (not without justification) that experts can in practice identify almost infinite layers of complexity, which isn’t very helpful for practical decision-making.
Thus the popularity of a priori frameworks imposed on complex events. Defenders of democracy versus autocratic rulers religious extremists versus people with modern ideas, aggressors versus defenders, perpetrators versus victims, and most of all People Like Us versus People Not Like Us. Often, this involves the effective creation of groups and communities that don’t objectively exist: the famous and ubiquitous “pro-western moderates,” today, for example, or the “Afghan working class” in the time of the Soviet occupation of that country.
The most popular unicausal explanation isn’t really an explanation at all, but a device for producing one: in Latin, it’s cut bono, literally “to whom the good,” or “who benefits.” Now that’s an interesting question, and the answers can be enlightening, but it’s not a logical rule of any kind, nor can it prove anything. Nations do, after all, frequently behave in ways that are negative, or even disastrous, for their own interests. But it remains popular because it’s simple, especially if you restrict your definition of “benefits” to financial ones: “follow the money” as people sometimes say, although money is often a minor factor. So, pharmaceutical companies have made lots of money out of Covid, therefore they must have developed and propagated the disease. So, arms companies may get important new orders out of the Ukraine war, therefore they must have brought the war about, or at least supported it. The problem with unicausal explanations, of course, is that there is no possibility of quality control, and virtually any explanation of virtually any incident can be supported in this way. So, the oil-producing states were the main economic beneficiaries of the 1973 Middle East War, therefore … well, OK, maybe not, but you get the point.
It’s also a way of not learning about the world, or even feeling you have to. If everything in the world was organised by the Soviet Union (during the Cold War) or by the CIA today, then local conditions and circumstances don’t actually matter. You have your explanation. Today, if a lowly State Department employee from Washington passes through a country a week before major political disturbances, then you have your explanation without needing to know anything about the country at all. (Ironically, actual US ability to influence events around the world is as exaggerated by critics of Washington as by people who work there: thus, for example, the inability to understand that Europeans have their own, very powerful, motives for supporting the current regime in Ukraine, which have nothing to do with the US.)
Related to this is what might be considered the artificial construction of unitary causes, which is to say what happens when you take a series of historical events, and infer a causal connection between them, and then between those events and something that has happened in the world. This obviously shades over into conspiracy theory, and I’ll return to it in a moment, but here it’s just worth saying that most significant events in world history have been anticipated or feared before they happened and that people have worked to promote them, and worked against them. But Lenin and the Bolsheviks didn’t “cause” the Revolution in Russia that brought down the Tsar, nor did Ayatollah Khomeini “cause” the fall of the Shah. Likewise, various figures in and out of government in the US have long wanted a change of government in Moscow, and even some kind of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but it’s a giant and unwarranted logical leap to suppose that they are therefore a “cause” of the conflict.
Indeed, the whole question of “causes” of conflict is very complex. If we leave aside attempted unicausal explanations, including those favoured by Liberalism that I’ve discussed elsewhere, then we rapidly fall into discussions of enormous complexity and furious controversy: hence the popularity of simple explanations. Philosophers have been debating “causes” since Aristotle, though in general their work doesn’t apply very much to politics and history. But one way of approaching the question is through the distinction in modern philosophy between Necessary and Sufficient Conditions. Now the distinction is simple enough (or it was until analytical philosophers got hold of it): simply put, if X is true then a sufficient condition is one that allows X to be true, whilst a necessary condition is one that necessarily follows from X. Philosophers like examples such as an elephant: it is a sufficient condition to be an elephant to have a trunk, while it is a necessary condition of having a trunk to be an elephant.
Leaving philosophers to play with such ideas, we can see that in politics and history there is a similar distinction, although inevitably the subject-matter is more complex than elephants, and the words are used in a somewhat different way. We can say, for example, that certain events may be sufficient to provoke a crisis, but that the crisis that actually followed from them was not a necessary consequence. Let’s take a favourite academic example: the outbreak of the First World War. A whole series of factors were sufficient to provoke a dangerous crisis, but the war itself was not a necessary condition of any of them, nor were any of the sufficient conditions actually necessary for the war to break out as it did: other sets of conditions might have brought about the same, or a similar, result. Consider: the desire of radicals in the Court in Vienna to humiliate and punish Serbia was a sufficient cause of seeking a crisis with that country. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a (but not the) necessary condition they had been seeking (others might have been possible), but in itself not a sufficient one for a war, because it required certain reactions from the government in Belgrade. Those reactions were sufficient to permit a declaration of war to be made (although such a declaration was not a necessary consequence). (The cui bono argument would of course suggest that the Austrians had infiltrated the Serbian secret service … but let’s not go there.) And of course the war between Austria and Serbia did not lead, by any chain of causality, to a general European war. Sufficient conditions for that war existed, but there was nothing necessary about its final form. This is why much of the current hysteria about the “inevitability” of nuclear war is misplaced: sufficient conditions certainly exist (as they have long done) but there is no “necessity” following from them.
So history is horribly, horribly contingent, and that applies as much to today as it does to the past. This is something that disturbs and upsets many people, and it leads, inevitably for the search for simple explanations like conspiracies. Now, I began by talking about causal chains, and in most cases, the origin of conspiracy thinking is that certain events which are known to have happened are not, in fact, separate from each other, but causally connected, through mechanisms and people who are unknown, or whose relationships are secret. So if I have understood the Q-Anon theory correctly, it takes two facts that are not really in dispute (the existence of international pedophile networks and hostility to Donald Trump as President from the intelligence community) and weaves them into a (purportedly) coherent narrative with casual connections.
This is typical of how conspiracy theories operate: they essentially propose unexpected connections rather than making up stories from whole cloth. There are some exceptions, though, one of which is the so-called MJ-12 conspiracy. , relating to alleged secret documents from the 1940s, concerning contact with flying saucers and alien civilisations. Investigation has strongly suggested that the documents are fakes by someone and that the committee never existed: inevitably some conspiracy theorists have suggested that the documents were in fact faked by the US government, though for reasons which have never been clear.
So far I have been using the word “conspiracy” without defining it, so let’s pay a bit of attention to definitions. It’s important to realise that a conspiracy is not the same as a secret, not the same as an unavowed organisation, not the same thing as an arrangement between states or for that matter private companies. The Suez episode in 1956, for example, was not a conspiracy, but a concerted, though unacknowledged, attempt by Britain, France and Israel, to bring down President Nasser. It wasn’t a conspiracy because, even at the time, it was obvious to any interested observer what was going on, and relatively quickly the formal denials started to look very hollow indeed. Likewise, all governments have secrets, and organisations whose existence is kept hidden, or at least very discreet. Governments may also try to conceal, or at least not draw attention to, convenient facts. These are not conspiracies.
The ultimate origin of “conspiracy” is the Latin conspiratio, literally “breathe together.” It had some anodyne meanings, such as union or agreement, but the most important sense was of a group of people plotting something nefarious. This is the sense that has come down to us. (Interestingly, conjuration in French has the sense of swearing an oath together to do something.) In most modern legal systems, the definition of a conspiracy is two or more people getting together to prepare an illegal act, and intending to commit it.
The key is therefore that (1) something is being plotted (2) by more than one person and (3) it is illegal and being done in secret. Now modern conspiracy theories take a somewhat wider definition than that, whilst retaining the elements of secrecy and multiple individuals. The best way to describe a conspiracy theory (and I’ll come back to that latter word in a second) is something like the following:
“A conspiracy theory is an assertion, supported or not by evidence, that an event or events normally accepted to have a simple origin or explanation are in fact the product of a purposive series of hidden activities by two or more people.”
To put it even more simply, a conspiracy theory is a theory that there is a conspiracy, and that all is not what it seems, or as we would say these days “the official narrative” says it is. So behind the official narrative of men having landed on the Moon in 1969, or Covid being a natural disease, is a deeper reality, the product of a plot by two or more people.
Now here is where a few more forensic distinctions are helpful. We can distinguish between three things which are often confused, sometimes deliberately:
A Conspiracy Assertion is simply an assertion that a conspiracy exists. It may be very general (“the Freemasons/Jews/Banks/Communists are behind everything,”) or it may be more specific (“the Arab Spring was planned by western intelligence services.”) But it is no more than an assertion, and is in many cases no more than a state of mind either. It does not seek proof, since the assertion is taken to be tautologically true, and for the same reason no amount of doubt or counter-argument can falsify the assertion. Indeed, the very improbability of the claim just proves how vast the conspiracy must be.
A Conspiracy Hypothesis is a suggestion, no more, that an event which is generally assumed to have a straightforward explanation is actually the result of a conspiracy. Perhaps Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy. Perhaps the Skripals were half-murdered by the British government, perhaps Jeffrey Epstein was murdered rather than committing suicide. Such a hypothesis can make for interesting speculation, but cannot by definition be a theory unless testable evidence is offered. It tends to be based on cui bono arguments, and institutionalised distrust of the “official narrative,”rather than anything else.
A Conspiracy Theory is a fully-fledged theory, supported by alleged evidence that can be tested, that transforms the common understanding of an event into a conspiracy. Examples include: the Earth is really flat and this is being concealed from us, the Apollo mission was faked in a TV studio, or the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 were deliberately sabotaged by the US government. In this case, detailed evidence from alleged experts is offered to “prove” for example that a commercial aircraft could not have caused that level of damage, and such evidence can be evaluated.
Most “conspiracy theories” do and always have wandered around between the second and third meanings. (Contrary to what is sometimes supposed, the term “conspiracy theory” is not new, nor was it invented for some purpose by the CIA. It has been traced well back into the nineteenth century.) In addition, people often confuse conspiracy hypotheses and theories with simple assertions about facts and behaviour: (“look, I told you that the government was listening to our phones, now they’ve admitted it!”) Likewise, history is obviously full of actual conspiracies, but of course by definition they weren’t hidden, because we know about them. (Indeed, one of the first recorded uses of the word is by the Roman historian Suetonius describing the conspiracy of Cataline in 63BC.) Many other supposed “conspiracies”, though, were in reality no more than groups discussing, or discreetly agitating for, political change under repressive monarchical or dictatorial regimes.
In spite of accidental and deliberate confusion of the types described above, actual examples of convincing conspiracy theories, in the sense of the term used above, are rare to non-existent. One of the few cases where a respectable conspiracy theory which withstands scrutiny has been put forward concerns the death of Dag Hammarskjold, the then UN Secretary General, in the Congo in 1961. Rumours that the crash was not accidental began circulating immediately, and some indirect evidence, including alleged confessions, has been published. But in the words that conclude almost every conspiracy theory book and investigation: “we will never know for sure.”
A conspiratorial world-view has many attractions, some of which have an obvious political utility. Let’s enumerate a few. The first is a satisfying sense of intellectual, and even moral superiority. As a conspirationist (let’s invent that word), you know how the world really works. You are not naive, you are not deluded. You are too clever, too experienced and too perceptive to be taken in by the “official narrative” on any subject. (This is obviously an example of epistemic closure, by the way.) No evidence can disprove your beliefs, since by definition such evidence would itself be part of the conspiracy. (As Mrs Thatcher is supposed to have said: “don’t confuse me with facts, I know what I think.”) You have a kind of superior wisdom and insight—one’s tempted to use a word like “revelation,” or Gnosis— that gives you a fast track to the real meaning of things.
Such positions are, by definition, impossible to argue with. Indeed, arguing with them marks you out not only as naive but also potentially part of the conspiracy itself. I recall listening some years ago, at an academic seminar in the Middle East, to various distinguished speakers arguing that the then-recent Arab Spring had actually all been planned for at least a decade by western intelligence services. I intervened to point out, mildly, that in my limited experience of such organisations they weren’t remotely capable of doing any such thing. Ha ha! was the response. That’s what they want you to think! You see how fiendishly clever the conspiracy must be if even people who work for your governments don’t think it’s possible! I gave up.
Another attraction is that it simplifies the world radically. In the 1960s, for example, it was possible to dismiss agitation against the Vietnam War or apartheid in South Africa as all part of a Communist conspiracy. It wasn’t necessary to know anything about the countries or the subjects. It had been an article of faith among many French politicians a few years before that the struggle for independence in Algeria was all manufactured by the Soviet Union, in search of a naval base in the Mediterranean and a jumping-off point from which to invade Europe from the South. Think of any divisive international issue today, and you will find the same mind-set. Who would willingly struggle to understand the fiendish internal politics of Lebanon for example, if a simple explanation blaming the US/Iran/Saudi Arabia is conveniently available?
This reminds us that another important use of conspiracy theory is as a political device in unsuccessful countries. Governments like to present themselves as helpless victims of international conspiracies, even as they prove very adept at manipulating the same foreign powers they claim are controlling them. In many parts of the world, the legacy of colonialism, or these days “neocolonialism” is an all-purpose escape clause for governments in trouble: it’s a way of never having to say you’re sorry to your people. In some parts of Africa, such as the francophone West, decades of political and economic failure and consequent humiliation have produced a poisonous political culture in which everything is blamed on the former colonial power, even as that power’s help and money is still solicited for public and private purposes behind the scenes. Which, of course, gives another turn to the conspiracy spiral.
It’s also a continued attraction to journalists, and even to historians. As I suggested earlier, history can never be just a parade of facts, and selection itself imposes a narrative. A journalist with five hundred words to describe a complex issue is going to have to choose one or other angle of attack. But the temptation to go one stage further, and to try to find causal links where none really exist, is a temptation in both disciplines, and it isn’t always resisted. A good example is the disintegration of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 (or 1999 if you include Kosovo.) For those of us who were directly involved in the western response, the main memory is of a time of chaos, confusion, disunity and simple ignorance, as well, quite often, as lack of interest. Yugoslavia was a difficult and complicated subject where there were very few experts, it divided governments internally and against each other. It hi-jacked agendas, and took away effort which was needed elsewhere. It was a problem with no solution, in a country and a region which western officials rapidly grew to profoundly dislike. The West stumbled into military and political engagements for which it was not prepared, and wound up carrying out a bombing war which almost destroyed NATO from within.
Now of course there were recurring themes. Examples would include: institutional and international rivalry, manipulation by locals, the enormous influence of NGOs and the media, the dissociation from reality in many capitals, notably Washington, the sense of helpless drift, and the endless and complex interactions with other agendas such as the future of NATO and the development of a European defence. But trying to write a judicious history, or even article, giving proper weight to all these factors would be a herculean task, and inevitably there are pressures towards telling a simpler story in primary colours, using concepts (like Good Guys and Bad Guys) which everyone is can understand. I remember thirty years ago listening to a journalist from Sarajevo telling a British audience about the “real” reason for German support for the independence of Croatia. It was obvious, he said, that the German objective was a warm-water port for its Navy, which the Croats had already promised in return for German support. The British, who had always feared German naval expansion, were therefore (he claimed) backing the Serbs in order to prevent this. Or something. As I happened to know, the reasons for German support for Croatia were of a sordidly short-term political nature, concerned with upcoming federal elections, and greatly embarrassed German officials who had to defend them. But then, in the unofficial motto of every journalist in history, why spoil a good story?
For this and other reasons, conspirationist thinking is not likely to disappear from the political scene any time soon. The trick, I think, and as I suggested at the beginning, is to keep a sense of proportion. Things are connected to other things, but not infinitely, and not necessarily in a causal chain. There are plenty of secrets and plots in the world, but as an explanation of how history actually develops, they are best avoided. Otherwise, if it’s an exaggeration to say that way lies madness, then at least it’s a way best avoided.