Conspiracy Theories vs. Exercising Power

Around a year ago, I produced a video about the philosophy of conspiracy theories. One comment several people made elsewhere is one I want to discuss here. I won’t repeat what I say in the original paper, but reading that will make what I am about to say much more sensible.  Read it here.

Several people responded that some conspiracy theories don’t fit what I describe because powerful people in industry and government are engaged in conspiracies. Therefore, these people claim, we should listen to conspiracy theories because they are usually true.

My Response to this Response

Their claim is incorrect, but these people put their fingers on something I neglected to address in my paper. That is the difference between conspiracy theories and power exercising power. I’ll refer to them as CTs and PEP.

First, a brief note about power. In simple terms, there are two types of power: hard power and soft power. Hard power, or economic power, is the control of land and resources, including money and personnel, and the power to enact policies. Soft power, or social power, is the capacity to affect social recognition norms and people’s perceptions and interests.

Hard power and soft power are inextricably intertwined in human society. For example, a marginalized minority group is deprived of both hard and soft (economic and social) power—seldom, if ever, only one or the other. Economic power gives one social power — hard power enables soft power.

A fundamental truth about power is that people with power will exercise that power. People with power will take advantage of their greater access to economic resources and their greater ability to influence society, especially the media.  Those who have power will often exercise it to maintain and increase their power.

The difference between CTs and PEP is that they are different expressions of power and therefore different manipulations of soft power. They are each in their own ways self-aggrandizing efforts to separate society. The character and goals of that separation are quite different.

PEPs are not CTs

PEPs are almost inevitable consequences of concentrations of power. The old adage applies that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Machiavelli was on to something about how power is as power does and power needs to act to maintain itself. that is what we see in PEPs. That in no way excuses unethical and illegal activities by powerful people and corporations. It only explains what is behind these actions. Having power increases one’s opportunities for ethical and legal abuses. We see that all the time.

But these abuses of power are not “conspiracies” as a CT peddler uses the term. There is a legal term “conspiracy” used to define illegal exercises of power. Former President Trump will be indicted with conspiracy charges, but his treasonous acts are PEPs and do not fall under the character and goals of a CT. Like all PEPs, Trump’s acts were self-serving attempts to oppress others with the goal of preserving his own power.

A conspiracy theory is an accusation against someone else and a claim that you have figured out a secret that “normal” people have not. There are three dimensions to every conspiracy theory: paranoia that one is being persecuted, arrogance that one possesses superior knowledge, and a cliquish fellowship with CT believers that comes from the belief in their superior knowledge.

CTs are sold. They are propagated, and sometimes invented, by people not to maintain or increase their hard or social power so much as simply to make money or feel less bad about themselves. In my paper, I described that CTs are driven by two different types of people: CT merchants, who I label “con(spiracy) artists, and earnest meaning seekers.

The CT merchants are con artists who make money off of people by selling CTs and materials about them. The earnest meaning seekers are the marks of the con artists who buy the CTs and the materials supporting them. It’s a con, an economic activity.

Selling and buying of CTs is not power exercising power but coming from a place of a lack of power. A CT is an example of what Friedrich Nietzsche called “slave morality.” Lacking power, earnest meaning seekers will gravitate toward believing reasons for their lack of power. CTs evolve to fill that need—they are stories of deep dark secretive plots that explain why one lacks power. And of course, believing in the CT is the self-deception that one possesses superior knowledge.

The secretive aspect of CTs is a core difference from PEPs. A PEP is a naked exercise of power. The CT merchants cry out for attention. PEPs usually have no need to draw attention to it, no need to “figure something out” and sell the belief in it to others. Power is; power does. They aren’t advertising what they do, but they aren’t hiding it either. True, they may try to minimize their legal exposure. But I point to the example of organized crime. Pretty much everyone knows who’s in the organization and what they do. It’s a conspiracy in the legal sense, but not a CT, a PEP.

Then there is the simple matter that the vast majority of CTs are complete nonsense without truth. NASA didn’t fake the moon landings, the COVID vaccines didn’t kill more people than COVID did, the Pope is not a secret satan worshipper, Jews do not control the world, the military doesn’t have crashed alien spaceships, Black people aren’t plotting to replace white people, and so on ad nauseum.

PEPs are real. Dictators are oppressing and imprisoning people, crime bosses are extorting from people, corporations are exploiting workers and consumers, and so on ad nauseum.

PEPs do exploit CTs and even actively cultivate them. It is a strategy to have oppressed peoples believing in deep dark secretive CTs to distract them from the naked exercises of power that are actually going on. Pay no attention to what the people with actual power are doing, be afraid of the boogeymen in CTs.

I wrote earlier that what is termed political populism is in actuality CT mongering. In these cases, selling the CTs are PEPs. The political reality that power uses CTs to deceive and manipulate people, for example the absurd white replacement theory, is why some people mistake PEPs for CTs.

Anyway, my thinking on these topics continues to develop, but I hope this helps clarify. I encourage people to think about these topics, because they are very important, and their effects are real.

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