Decline of Conspiracy

It’s widely accepted that politics over the past 5–10 years has taken a turn to the crazy. The political debate has moved significantly from questions of economic interest to questions of identity. Unconventional figures are succeeding in elections: Donald Trump is president of the USA, Boris Johnson is joint favourite to be next Prime Minister of Britain.

The chief mechanism of this shift has been the destruction or bypassing of the old centres of power. The institutions and informal hierarchies that used to be important to politics no longer are. Obama was said to have bypassed the Democratic establishment with an internet and grass-roots campaign (though is that really true?) Trump undoubtedly ran against the Republican establishment and won, and his ad-hoc campaign seriously outperformed the institutional support behind the Clinton campaign. 1

Money is still important, in US politics, but the fund-raising establishments that mediated it are much less so. A candidate can appeal to donors directly, whether rich donors in person or large numbers of small donors via the internet. The money isn’t flowing through kingmaker fund-raisers who could influence the direction of a party with other people’s money.

From the other side, donors can get influence through big-name candidates, or through pressure groups that set the media agenda, better than through party institutions.

In the UK it’s access to media rather than money that gave the party establishments real power, but that power has declined in the same way: the old gatekeepers can be bypassed.

These are material causes, but there are also social causes. The political parties were once socially important — politicians believed in the party as a force in society, and as a kind of class consciousness. Politicians in a party were insiders, everyone else was an outsider, and insiders knew what was going on in a way that outsiders didn’t. The important people in the party were those who could organise and persuade in private2. That has faded: the parties have become more diverse in every sense, and there is much less in the way of solidarity and social ties to political institutions. 3

That’s the first element: the loss of power of political institutions. That certainly goes back more than the timescale of 5–10 years that I referred to. But its effects are still playing out. The new, open, meritocratic political mechanisms have given rise to a new style in politics.

When politics was carried out within powerful institutions with social and organisational coherence, political factions could keep secrets. They could plan to carry out actions, and to present arguments, without publicly announcing what they were going to do. Today that is not the case. Because political factions are open and meritocratic, collective decisions can only be reached in public.

The effects go further: because all communication within a faction is essentially public, the only way to advance within the faction is through public statements. If you can plan privately and then act, you can be responsible for the consequences of your actions. If you can only contribute to a public debate, then you are responsible for nothing but your public statements. The loss of institutional power has led, through the loss of secrecy, to a loss of responsibility.

The other significant effect of the loss of secrecy is a catastrophic decline in dishonesty in politics. It’s no longer possible to pretend to adopt a political position but to secretly work against it. It’s not possible to express a claim confidently as a bargaining position, and yet negotiate to minimise the risks. If you have publicly expressed confidence, you have to publicly act in line with that expressed confidence. And you can only act publicly.4

“It is a feature of any large movement that pretending to believe something is effectively the same as believing it.”5 — though size of movement isn’t the whole point, the lack of selection into the movement is as important.

Because there is no longer a line between political insiders and outsiders, a majority of your faction are people who haven’t been selected by anyone and who aren’t necessarily in a position to understand compromise or complexity. Your public statements — and therefore your actual actions — have to be simple, clear and extreme.

The failed coup against Trump is a good example of the phenomenon: If there was an actual conspiracy it was tiny, and most of the work of making the Russia frame stick on Trump was done by people who genuinely believed it was real, and therefore adopted the wrong tactics. At a stretch, it’s possible there was no real conspiracy at all: Hillary and her team were making up excuses for their failure, and some intel people were just nuts (an occupational hazard) or were showing off to their friends. It’s important to understand that the publicly claimed positions get internalised. Even if they start as cynical lies, in the absence of private meetings where everyone agrees, “yes we said that, but it’s not really true”, people end up really believing what they pretend to believe.6

What this means is that the purity spirals that characterise the Cathedral have now migrated directly into party politics itself. In the old model, the “Modern Structure“, the political agenda is ultimately driven by the Cathedral, meaning elite academia and the prestige media. They set the common understandings of the electorate and society, which in turn compel politicians to follow. But as politics shifts from private compromises to public debate, the distinction between media and politics dissolves. Every politician is a pundit, and not really anything more. This development has been going for years 7, but only reaches its full effect when the politicians become conscious of it, or have carried on their whole careers under these conditions.

So that ultimately is the cause of the insanity: The old political class which followed the ideological line produced from the Cathedral but with a delay and a practical, moderating influence, has been dissolved into the Cathedral itself.

The civil service is still—for now—out of this: it can still form policy in quiet and carry it on. It is now the last remaining holdout against true popular democracy. It used to be able to make deals with the political class in private, though. The exposing to the public of all political decision-making has taken that mechanism away from it—the question of “what is the official advice” is now part of the public debate on every major issue. It’s also worth noting that it has always been more directly influenced by the Cathedral proper than the old political class was.

  1. earlier discussion
  2. In contrast, today they are frontmen, not organisers
  3. See also the discussion of meritocracy versus loyalty
  4. This is the Brexit situation—I don’t know whether no-deal Brexit is an unthinkable disaster or no big deal, but everyone on each side of the debate has publicly expressed total confidence one way or the other, which is fine and normal, and has to act as if they believe it, which is not.
  5. side issue brought up in Bioleninism, Tokenism and the Apex Fallacy
  6. Tweet: I’m beginning to think that people coming to believe their own hype is the most significant understudied phenomenon in political history
  7. See democracy and entertainment

2 thoughts on “Decline of Conspiracy”

  1. [comment moved from subsequent post]

    Unless you are a Senator or Fox News or something, it is a mistake to expatiate on the actions of a conspiracy which only you, or a very restricted section of the population, believe in: the Splodgites, the Annunaki, the Cathedral.

    I realise that you have explained the Cathedral and its scope already and that it is not your personal invention, but for some regrettable reason it has not passed into common discourse and remains a Neo-Reactionary buzz-word, if that.

    “The old political class which followed the ideological line produced from the Cathedral but with a delay and a practical, moderating influence, has been dissolved into the Cathedral itself.” If only you knew how nutty this sounds. When dealing with political classes and parties it is best to confine yourself to the very real Democrats and Republicans and their habits.

    The investigation of spurious conspiracies is as old as the Romans. The orator Cicero set his sights on one Catiline and his followers, an advocate of debt restructuring, which meant there was a natural constituency against him among the money lending class. His denunciations of the party of Catiline was as powerful as it was fictitious (apparently they sacrificed babies), and he eventually succeeded in frightening one of them into taking the necessary seditious steps to allow the Republic, or at least the money lending section of it, to move against him.

    Little good this did for Cicero, as Catiline was part of a wider, popular movement which included the Caesar family, and he ended up decapitated with his head nailed to the benches of the senate and a hat pin through his tongue.

    Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, or at least the Jesuits, continued to teach Cicero as a model of invective prose. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that one of their Universities, Marquette, was attended by one Tail-gunner Joe, aka Joseph McCarthy. Who then proceeded to assert that America was overrun by Communists, in exactly the same way that Cicero had denounced the followers of Catiline. His purpose was to attack and smear any vulnerable member of the Democratic administration of Roosevelt: he himself was a Republican. He also, notoriously, extended his tentacles into Hollywood.

    Interestingly enough, certain of the screen-writers who had been black-listed by McCarthy managed to avoid his ban by writing, pseudonymously, for the BBC, a whole series about Robin Hood, “riding through the glen, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor”, giving their American origin away by the use of the Scottish word ‘glen’ for an English outlaw and their true colours by the “steal from the rich to give to the poor” trope.

    At a later stage this was satirised by Monty Python as Dennis Moore, the highwayman whose efforts at redistribution of wealth in the form of lupins runs into difficulties, leading to him stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

    The theme (with the Monty Python clip) was again brought into use in the fight against Obamacare: it was asserted that this scheme was taking from the poor to give to the rich.

    It is a design fault of the American governmental system that it allows politicians to pretend to act as investigators, which they invariably do in the most blatant and hypocritical partisan fashion. The ongoing investigation thus characterises the whole of certain presidencies. I am too ignorant of American politics to know the exact parameters within which it occurs, but I think it depends on balance of power in the houses of Congress.

    After the McCarthy era was over, the next famous investigation was that of Nixon for the Watergate break-in, allowing the Democrats some measure of revenge for the attack on them under McCarthy. This was extremely successful, in that it managed to depose the President for what in other circumstances would be a run of the mill indiscretion. An American said to me that Nixon did something which he would have got away with any ordinary member of the public, against the Communist Party even, but the Democratic Party was too powerful for them. Wikipedia takes the line that Nixon was not responsible for the break-in, but he departed from well-established sensible politics by not firing his underlings and letting them take the blame, instead attempting to cover their actions up. It has a good line: “Nixon created a new conspiracy—to effect a cover-up of the cover-up—which began in late March 1973 “

    Spurious investigations are very close to what we call ‘rattling someone’s cage’ or ‘a fishing expedition’. The idea is that if you start investigating XYZ for his suspected connection to the Catiline conspiracy, either his actions will lead you to what he is really doing wrong, or he will lose his nerve and start to commit illegalities which he can be prosecuted for. At the very least it will make negative propaganda for him, by revealing how he actually talks and carries on (‘expletive deleted’ being the operative phrase in the Nixon tapes), which may lose him some of the old maid vote.

    The notion of tragedy is that you have a hero and the hero has a small, but fatal flaw which powers his complete downfall. The flaw of Nixon was that he and his entire following had an ethos that was appropriate for Shyster lawyers. It shows a complete lack of confidence in the rightness of your own cause if you see politics about dishing the dirt on the opposition.

    There are certain witnesses that opposing attorneys love to get on the stand because they inevitably lose the whole case for their own side. In a well known game a person is asked questions and must not answer yes or no. The legal game is that you must not, when under investigation or in court, be caught out in a provable lie, as that is perjury. Some people have so thoroughly adopted the lie as their mode of discourse that it is impossible for them to tell the truth, even when they have been told that they must.

    The next major deployment of congress for inappropriate and partisan judicial investigations was the investigation of Clinton for his ‘relationship’ to Monica Lewinsky, unpromising material as it involved investigating something that was not a crime. While it was formally unsuccessful, the amount of distraction it provided to the administration meant that from the Republican point of view it was worthwhile.

    Trump should not have been elected President: he won less of the vote than Hillary Clinton. This incomplete endorsement was a poisoned chalice. It gives him the position of President but no immunity to attack.

    He is a businessman who successfully causes money to flow into his coffers and not flow out of his coffers by the deployment of untruths. (In the latter part of his career anyway, ignoring his earlier bankruptcies) His tax returns are unlikely to survive proper scrutiny.

    He is a person who gets things done. Under his administration we are no longer bothered by North Korea shooting off missiles. It is alleged that he has got more people in work than Obama did. If this is not just massaged figures then he deserves to have the labour vote. His wall—well, he may yet build it, and from the point of view of American labour, it may prove beneficial. But as a diplomat and a witness he is a disaster. He cannot shut up. Asked for an explanation of any discrepancy he gives two mutually contradictory answers, both of which are untrue.

    So what you call “the failed coup against Trump” is hardly over: it has barely begun. No doubt there was a presidential tweet “I have been completely exonerated”. Then there is a 4 page summary of the Mueller Report, which is fairly exculpatory. Then there is the Mueller report itself, which is not.

    But none of this is the traditional Congress examination in the McCarthy/Watergate mould. It was an investigation by the Department of Justice conducted it seems entirely by Republicans. The next stage, the examination of the report in Congress by Democrats, will be something else. Partisan perhaps: but as the Democrats were the intended victims of any illegalities committed they are perhaps justified in being vindictive.

    As for your point of politics as entertainment, it has to be observed that the proceedings will be entertaining only for Americans, possibly only for Democrats. It’s about on a level of a match between the Yankees and the Bulls, interesting only within their own constituency. I expect though that it will run for the whole of the Trump presidency.

    1. Just deleted 349 spam comments, this was the 350th.

      Not for the first time, you have countered my claims by agreeing with them. Yes, the Republican and Democratic parties, when they actually functioned as parties, were conspiracies — they could each organise in private and carry on a plan that they had agreed on. Their demonstrable failure to be able to do that today is what makes them so irrelevant. Hence my title: decline… of… conspiracy.

      The Cathedral is the opposite of a conspiracy. It is what you get when there are no functioning conspiracies. (A few people have got confused and thought it was a conspiracy, but that’s very confused indeed.) The definitive account of what these terms actually mean is in OL4

      “The old political class which followed the ideological line produced from the Cathedral” means that politicians are influenced by what they read in the newspapers and were taught by their professors. That might be wrong, but I refuse to accept that it is “nutty”.

      It’s off-topic, because I’m not talking here about any kind of conspiracy, but of course conspiracies do happen. It is, none the less, very difficult to allege conspiracy because the normal rules of evidence for ordinary arguments break down. Particularly for those with a scientific attitude, there is a normal assumption that evidence isn’t specifically designed to deceive you. To argue for the existence of a powerful conspiracy (of any kind), you generally end up having to argue that some of the contrary evidence was in fact created to be deceptive — the “That’s what they want you to think” gambit. Since nearly any evidence can be dismissed in this way, there’s really no useful way to progress with an argument. Even if it is, by some fluke, correct.

      McCarthy was of course right in a great deal of his specific allegations — that’s pretty much undisputable since the Soviet Union’s records were exposed — and completely wrong about what it all meant. He thought he was dealing with a secret conspiracy of opponents of the United States Government, when in reality he was dealing with the United States Government itself, which had a complex but sympathetic attitude to Soviet Communism at least in principle.

      Don’t really disagree with your view of the problem of politicians/investigators, though for me it’s an unanswered question how that system functions at all — I wondered about it before, also with reference to the Roman Republic.

      In keeping with your general style of sound logical structure based on inaccurate factual claims, the Yankees and the Bulls are in fact very popular over much of the world, even, to a degree, in Britain, though I don’t think that even in New York or Chicago would there be a constituency to watch them play each other — it sounds like some horribly dreary charity event.

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