The text of a talk given at Occupy Wellington, New Zealand, on October 27 2011. Around 55 people attended the talk, organised to try to counter the prevalence of conspiracy theories amongst the local wing of the Occupy movement.
Kia ora kotou, thanks everyone for coming. Firstly, a brief run-down of how this workshop will work: first, I’m going to give a brief talk, followed by an open discussion which anyone can contribute to. I also want to make it clear that I’m not here today to debunk or debate any specific conspiracy theory. I’ve got no interest in doing that, I don’t think its particularly productive. What I want to be doing is talking about the title of the workshop is – why our activism must be based in reality. So we’ll be talking about the whole conspiracy world-view, we’ll be talking about what I think is a much better alternative to that, but I’m not going to sit here and argue with you over whether the Government is secretly poisoning us from the skies, or whether shape-shifting reptilian lizards are controlling our lives, or whether or not you can cure cancer with baking soda.
First up, who am I? For those of you who don’t know me my name is Asher, I’m born and bred in Wellington, though I have also spent a few years recently living in Christchurch. I’ve been involved in activism and radical politics for around about 7 years, in a variety of different campaigns and struggles.
If we’re going to talk about conspiracy theories, the first important question is obvious: what is a conspiracy theory?
Now, if you go by a dictionary definition, a conspiracy is just a group of people who get together to plan something, and don’t tell others about it. If I’m organising a surprise birthday party for my friend, then I am conspiring with others. But that’s not a particularly useful definition for the purposes of a discussion like this.
So, for this discussion, the way I’m defining a conspiracy theory is thus: a conspiracy theory is a theory based in supposition, one that flies in the face of evidence or science, often one that claims its correctness can be shown by the paucity of evidence in favour of it, in the sense that ‘this conspiracy goes so far that they’ve even buried all the evidence that proves it!’ Conspiracy theories often encourages an ‘us few enlightened folk versus everyone else’ world view. This creates an atmosphere where conspiracy theorists look down on people, or sheeple as they are often called, and ignores the fact that people, by and large, are actually pretty intelligent. In and of itself this world-view is hugely problematic for as I will discuss later, mass social change requires the participation of the masses and therefore, we have to have faith in the ability of people to decide things for themselves, to come to correct conclusions and ultimately to change the world.
Why am I interested in conspiracy theories, or at least arguing against them? Firstly, because I’m passionate about science and rationality, and I find it fascinating how and when these things are ignored.
Secondly, because I’m Jewish, and many conspiracy theories are antisemitic – whether directly and obviously (eg: Jews run the world, or the media, or the banks). Sometimes its more subtle – people might not talk about Jews explicitly but they may use Zionist as a code word, or talk about the Rothschilds, or an elite cabal of shadowy bankers who all coincidentally have Jewish surnames.
Lastly, I’m interested in conspiracy theories because I want radical social change, and to have radical social change, we need to have an understanding of how society actually works.
We are here at Occupy because we want to see change. What we want differs: some want new regulations on the financial sector, others want to change taxes or the minimum wage, while others still want to destroy capitalism and bring in a new form of production and distribution. Regardless of which of these boxes you fit in, if you fit in any of them at all, we all want change.
We’re also here because we know we can’t simply rely on Government to benevolently grant us the changes we desire. If we believed that, we’d sit at home and wait for the Government to give us these gifts. We’re here because we know that those with power won’t give it up lightly, and that it is only through our collective strength that we can win reforms, or create revolution.
But what do I mean when I say ‘our collective strength’? I think it’s important to clarify who is contained within the word ‘our’. While people involved in the Occupy movements around the globe frequently refer to it as the 99%, I actually think that’s a really imprecise term. So, instead, I refer to the working class. When they hear the term working class, some people think simply of male factory workers, but this is not what I mean. The working class is not limited to blue collar workers in factories, but instead it includes all of us who are forced to sell our labour power to survive. This includes people who are in paid employment, whether in a factory, office, café or retail store. It also includes those who are unable to find paid employment, or have chosen to refuse the drudgery of paid work in order to attempt to live on the meagre benefits supplied by the state, and who provide a vast potential pool of labour that enables the ruling class to further keep wages down. The working class includes stay at home parents, doing vital unpaid work to raise the next generation of human beings. It includes people who are too sick or unable to work for other reasons. In short, if you don´t own a business, if you aren’t part of the Government, if you aren’t independently wealthy (such as from an inheritance), then chances are you are a part of the working class that I’m talking about, this collective ‘our’.
If we agree that we can’t simply rely on Government to benevolently grant us gifts, and that we need to fight for it using our numbers and our power, then it becomes necessary to understand how society is structured and how capitalism actually functions, in order to know where our collective strength comes from, where we have the most power, and where we need to apply the metaphorical blowtorch.
So, why are conspiracy theories not helpful here? Why are conspiracy theories not useful for developing that understanding? There’s a variety of reasons.
Some conspiracy theories, such as those around 9/11, even if they were true, which I don’t believe they are, would only tell us “Governments do bad things”. That’s not actually news to anyone. We know that the British Crown & the New Zealand Government stole vast tracts of land from Maori. We know that the Crown and the Australian Government engaged in genocidal acts against Australian aborigines. We know that Governments the world over have repeatedly sent people overseas to fight, kill and die in wars. There’s so, so much more, but to cut a long story short, everybody knows that sometimes Governments do bad things. So theories that only serve to prove that, even if they were true, aren’t actually particularly useful.
Some conspiracy theories are simply bizarre and the logical conclusions from them, don’t fit with what their believers do. If you actually believed that the majority of people in power around the world was a blood-sucking shape-shifting reptilians from another solar system, then you wouldn’t limit your activity to promoting one guy’s book tours around the globe and chatting with other believers on the internet.
Conspiracy theories often feed on people’s mistrust and their fear. They claim to provide simple answers to complicated questions, but actually when you examine them in detail they’re highly complex themselves. For example, with 9/11, it seems like a simple solution to say ‘it was an inside job by the US Government’. But actually, when you look into what would be required for this to be true, the thousands upon thousands of people who would need to be lying, it becomes incredibly implausible.
Some conspiracy theories, such as many of the shadowy financial cabal conspiracies, only serve to mystify capitalism and falsely suggest a level of control that doesn’t actually exist. Additionally, they remove any sense of our own power, whether real or potential. A theory which suggests such overwhelming power and control over the entire way we live our lives is actually a catalyst for inaction – if a group has such a high level of control over everything, then there’s not really anything we can do about it. On the contrary, capitalism is not a static system, it is dynamic and changing and constantly adapts in response to threats. The threat of working class power has resulted in a number of changes to the functioning of capitalism over time, including the introduction of Keynesian and Neoliberal economics in the late 1930s and 1970s respectively.
Even if conspiracy theories can sometimes seem relatively harmless on the surface, they play a role of absorbing us into a fictional world, somewhat like a dungeons and dragons enthusiast. Once you are in this fictional world, it becomes really easy to get lost in it and to be defensive when challenged, even when challenged on a logical, rational basis.
I’ll quote British political blogger Jack Ray:
The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they’re all rendered pointless by one fundamental, unarguable element of capitalism. That it is, whatever else you have to say about, positive or negative, a system of elites. It has elitism coded into it´s DNA, from the smallest company, to the largest multinational, from the political system to the culture. It’s purpose is to promote elites. It does this legitimately within the logic of the system. It does this publicly, lording super-capitalists like Bill Gates or even for a time, Enron boss Ken Lay. It lays its theories of elitism out for all to see, in policy projects, in university research, through political theorists.
It has no interest in secret cabals, or conspiracies. It has no need for them. It is a system openly, and publicly, run by elites. They might go home at night and secretly dine with their illuminati, lizard-jew, Bilderberg Group friends, and laugh about how they’ve taken over the world. It doesn’t matter to me or you whether they do or not. They are the elite, and we can see who they are and how they live their lives. People know that we live in a system of elites, that acts in its own interests, according to the logic of the society they dominate. Everyone who looks around know this. We don’t need internet documentaries to tell us that we’re dominated, we just need to go to work, or walk through a posh neighbourhood or have a run-in with any politicians, big businessman or even a celebrity to know that. What we need are weapons, ways of challenging that domination, so maybe we don’t have to live under it forever.
So what is the alternative to this conspiracist world-view? For that, we need to look at history. The history of how social change comes about is not always easy to find. It suits those in power to downplay the role of mass movements, so the dominant narrative is often one that ignores the long term grassroots organising that has happened, and simply focuses on legislative change enacted by the Government of the day. But a people’s history is out there – often in the form of first hand accounts by those who took part in these movements, such as those for homosexual law reform, of the 1970s strike wave across New Zealand, of the movement against native forest logging and so on.
One thing, from looking at this history, is abundantly clear. Mass action is vital for mass change. If you look through history, time and time again, it is when large groups of people have got together and shown themselves to be a threat to those in power that concessions have been granted. This happens on a small scale as well as a big one – when all 10 employees at a small business go on strike and refuse to work until their boss gives them a pay rise, the boss is forced to listen.
From this example, it becomes obvious that it isn’t simply numbers alone that allow us to exercise power. It is also using those numbers strategically to hit those in power where it hurts. As workers, we create wealth for the bosses each and every day at our jobs. Some of this wealth is returned to us in the form of wages, but much is stolen. This stolen wealth is often called ¨surplus value¨. It is the accumulation of surplus value, stolen by our bosses, that forms the wealth of the ruling class. But because the goods and services that create this surplus value ultimately come from our hands and our brains, through collectively withdrawing our labour, we can force the bosses to give in to our demands.
So taking collective action the workplace is one way we can impose our power on the bosses to help us better meet our needs and desires. And if we extrapolate this to larger numbers of work-sites, to larger numbers of people both employed and unemployed, then we can begin to see how we can make changes to the functioning of society as a whole.
I don’t have all the answers, though I do have plenty more to say than I’ve had time to touch on in this talk. But I want to open things up to discussion soon, because I think that’s one thing that is really important about this Occupy Wellington space, that we can talk through things, together, to come to new ways of thinking and working politically.
To finish things off, I want to emphasise that while it is important to have an open mind, this must be tempered with a commitment to rationality and the examining of evidence. Or, to quote Australian sceptic and comedian Tim Minchin, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”.