Conspiracies Ancient and Modern

David Aaronovitch. Voodoo Histories: the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. Jonathan Cape, 2009

John Demos. The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch Hunting in the Western World. Viking, 2008.
Nothing happens by chance, behind the apparent randomness and chaos of events, particularly bad events, whether the death of an individual, the failure of crops and machines, to the great catastrophes of war and disaster, lies a vast, implacable will. This is the world of witchcraft and conspiracy theories, a world in which behind all misfortunes are the "terrible others" who are responsible for all the heartache, pain and suffering in the world.

This is where a discussion of witchcraft accusations by an American historian and a discussion of conspiracy theories by a British journalist meet and intersect. Demos starts with accusations against Christians in second century Lyons, gives a couple of chapters on witchcraft accusations in Europe, then proceeds to trace their development and mutation in the United States. The mutations which develop from those early witchcraft accusations, their secularisation, their gradual abandon of misogyny develop into the sort of conspiracy theories discussed by Aaronovitch

There are perhaps two main types of conspiracy theory. First, the Grand Conspiracy, thought to involve vast numbers of actors, who possess supernatural or preternatural powers of control, and operating over vast stretches of time. The second are the petty conspiracies involving a limited number of ordinary fallible human actors over a limited period of time and for limited ends. The latter clearly exist, and contrary to Aaronovitch there is little clear dividing line between them and lone actors. It is the former which concern us here

There are several general themes detectable in these theories, one is that of the conspiracy by the outsiders to take over and supplant our society. This involves the visible enemy: the Others, the Jews, the Communists, the American Imperialists or whatever are out to destroy ‘our way of life’ The threat comes from out beyond the border, or from the depths of society. Its actors are recognisably different from us. The classic conspiracy here is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Closely related, and the one most clearly visible in the witchcraft accusations is the conspiracy of neighbours. These conspirators look just like us, indeed they may be us - can we be really sure that we are not witches ourselves?

Of all the conspiracy theories discussed by Aaronovitch, the one that seems to come closest to classical witch hunts was the Soviet sabotage hysteria and trials of the 1930s. Here we see clear parallels: the crops have failed, they have been blighted by witches/stolen or poisoned by the kulaks, the animals have died, the machinery does not work, they are bewitched/it has been sabotaged by the Trotskyites. Everyone is suspect - those who are the pillars of the Church or the Party - our old friends and comrades may be the worse perpetrators. There is something of this in the McCarthy accusations, though the consequences were far less deadly. Both of these posit the existence of a wild anti-society, totally opposed to the values of normal society.

A third conspiracy is that of the Treason of the Clerks, that the institutions and people who should be protecting ‘our way of life. are really in league with those terrible others. These might be represented by the 9/11 conspiracy theories, or those which allege that Roosevelt planned Pearl Harbor. There are echoes of this at the time of Salem, when members of the elite were accused of selling guns and powder to the Indians attacking the colonists.

The parallels between the two are quite striking, an increasingly divided society, a crisis of legitimacy, and war. Salem occurred at the time of the forgotten, real first world war, a vast transcontinental war between Britain and France, fought in the developing world of North America by proxy forces (colonists and ‘Indians‘, a war in which both sides resorted to ethnic cleansing and torture.

The treasonous clerk slides imperceptibly into the wicked parent, and to the idea that everyone possessing power and authority is engaged in a vast conspiracy. The conspiracy is no longer out there, seeking to overthrow society, but is society itself.

As witchcraft mutated into conspiracy theory it underwent one major transformation, it lost its misogyny. There may be several reasons for this, perhaps in ethnically and religiously homogeneous societies, women were the only visible other to hand; then again there was a vast change in the ideological perception of women, from being wild wanton images of the wilderness, become the sweet little woman, guardian of the domestic habitat. This change may have paralleled the growing control over the mysteries of women's reproducing bodies by male doctors as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed.

Demos argues that at the basis of this misogyny was the role of the mother as the controlling influence on the child. During the nineteenth century this role is increasingly usurped by the new phenomenon of the mass school, which existed to inculcate the official ideology into children from a young age; and the general replacement of the small scale face-to-face society with that of impersonal bureaucracies. The bad state replaces the bad mother as the ‘wicked parent’ image. But this still hides secrets, as parents still hide the secrets of sex and reproduction from their children.

Parental images pervade several of the myths of the fallen heroes. Our ambivalent feelings toward parental figures can be assuage by separating them out into the idealised real parent and the wicked step-parent. Thus good father John Kennedy is taken from us and replaced by wicked step-parents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; good mother Diana is taken from us and replaced by wicked stepmother Camilla. The heroes, the good parents are brought down by the forces of cosmic evil. When relationships between the generations get really broken, then these ideas of the wicked parent gain strength, so the idea of the state as epitome of evil rises at the same time as the recovered memory syndrome, the message of both is the same: the country/parents that I loved have betrayed me in ways you cannot imagine. This was the generation who when young had heard loved parents say things like, ‘if you grow your hair long or wear dirty jeans you deserve to be shot’.

Ideological societies such as the United States and the Soviet Union are both prone to conspiracy theories because both societies saw themselves as the perfect commonwealths. If they are not the shining beacon on the hill or the workers paradise there can be two reactions. One says if things go wrong, it could not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with the organisation of society, but it is because of the machinations of the wicked people who had brought sin into paradise. Or darker still, if the Jerusalem does not live up to promise, then they must be not Jerusalem at all, but Babylon, mother of harlots, ‘Amerika’ the terrible. Both lead to conspiracy theories.

Older witch figures still hang on though. Satanic child abusers, the ultimate anti-parents and anti-carers; the misogyny still breaks through, as witness the venom against feminists (the gays, the feminists, the lesbians, the sexual transgressors, the witches are responsible for 9/11, they have brought God's wrath down on us, as in the rhetoric of the radical Christian right.) In even the petty conspiracy theories radical evil may appear. Much easier to believe that Hilda Murrell was murdered by a sadomasochistic, Nazi paedophile and self proclaimed Satanist from the depths of the underclass, rather than some sixteen year old kid. The conspiracy suspect is the sum of all our fears, the image of the forces of anti-society. The evil parents have conspired with the worst thing there is, the image of the forces of antisocial wilderness, to kill the keeper of the garden.

Not all conspiracy theories are mutated witchcraft allegations, there are also Gnostic visions. There is a secret meaning behind history which only the initiate can understand. Perhaps in tales such as that of the Priory of Sion, the conspiracy theory becomes domesticated, a form of entertainment, as the near-theme parks at Salem and the fairy stories domesticate the images of witchcraft. Here we have the conspiracy theory as entertainment.

Of course there is a danger in the denial of all conspiracy theories. Denying the existence of even petty conspiracies as Aaronovitch comes close to doing, or denying the capacity of all and any human being or human institution to fall into radical evil, given the wrong circumstances, or to deny that desperate people in desperate circumstances can end doing desperate things, is to fly in the face of history. Worse of all is to pretend that only the terrible others can do terrible things and to argue "we are not like that, after all we're British (or American or whatever) and don't do that sort of thing". -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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