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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Samuel J. Peter (1978) is an Integral thinker - speaker - author. He grew up in the Zurich Unterland. A few semesters study of religious studies, German and English at the University of Zurich. Nursing training, specialization and work experience in the field of acute medicine. In addition, many years of dealing with integral philosophy and practice, as well as a variety of related topics. He lives with his family in Zurich. See: transmodernerspirit.ch
An Integral Understanding of Conspiracy Theories
Samuel J. Peter
Introduction: Our “Post-Truth” World
An integral approach would lead to a partial delegitimization and—at the same time—a partial relegitimization of conspiracist thinking.
Ever since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States we alledgedly live in a “post-truth world”. This conclusion was also drawn by the integral philosopher Ken Wilber, who interpreted the election of Trump as a manifestation of an “evolutionary self-correction”—a self-correction of todays leading worldview of postmodernity. Emerging on the political world stage, Trump in many ways cast doubt on the consensus on values of the western world. The “post-truth” situation of our current time issues from a clash of worldviews which was intensified by Trump and which led to a blurring of the certainty of truths predominantly originating from the postmodern worldview since Word War II. The result is the eruption of an information war centering around questions of truth, lies, fake news and conspiracy.
On a closer look, living in a multi-truth world, a world in which different worldviews exist alongside each other and contradict each other to differing degrees, is nothing new. This situation rather could be viewed as an enduring human condition, persisting over the millennia. The acuteness of the current crisis seems to have its source in the fact that the current battle of worldviews questions many of the guiding power-narratives profoundly and challenges the very structures of power and social order which are built upon these narratives. This situation can both be viewed as dangerous as well as an opportunity. On the one hand, we could see violent conflicts or the increase of totalitarian measures to protect the old power-narratives. On the other hand, there is the opportunity of collective change, change in the direction of a more integral understanding of the world, opening the road to new, healing insights. Numerous people today seem to sense these promising openings and opportunities and—each according to her or his vocation—take a stand for a more all-embracing change.
Worldviews and Ideologies
“The proponents of competing paradigms are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case. ... [T]he proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. ... Practicing in different worlds, ... [they] see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction. Again, that is not to say that they can see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they see them in different relations one to the other.”
“In our scientific understanding … there is … only one truth, even if it includes many different perspectives. But our view of things and the truth are dependent on our choice of axioms, our fundamental articles of faith. This is why it would be correct to say that there are different truths or knowledge systems depending on our choice of our system of axioms. But there can be only one truth for the description of a particular reality. ... We carry in us a series of mental worlds respectively a world with several sub-worlds. Among these there is one “real” world. It is the part of our worldview which corresponds to reality. ... It can be dangerous if somebody considers fundamental articles of faith as real which actually originate in fantasy... This applies also to the field of modern esotericism. Many statements therein base on fundamental articles of faith, which do not correspond to reality and a lot of people did get into great danger because of these misconceptions. But there also exist these kinds of fallacies in the natural sciences because they base their truths on wrong fundamental articles of faith. ... It is our personal challenge to train our truth-thinking...”
Worldviews guide the direction of our consciousness and thus offer orientation in the world. Axel Burkart points to the importance of the fundamental articles of faith or axioms that underlie our worldviews. An example are articles of faith relating to the existence of a spiritual world. Depending on whether we believe in the existence of a spiritual world or not, we form articles of faith which lead to fundamentally different worldviews. According to these worldviews our life's journey might take fundamentally different roads. This is why working on our worldviews or—in the words of Axel Burkart—“training our truth-thinking” is life-crucial.
A notable researcher of worldviews was Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996) who coined the term paradigm. In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn examined the change of scientific paradigms. He came to the conclusion that every paradigm change—which usually takes several decades—is preceded by a paradigm crisis. A central feature of these kinds of crises is the appearance of new paradigms or worldviews which claim “that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis”. Then, over a long period of transition a new paradigm gains adherents, until the period of the “revolution of consciousness” consolidates in the establishment of the new paradigm.
Looking back over the history of science, we see that paradigm changes happen again and again. Science and worldviews are no finished buildings, even if the leading paradigm may assert it. Leading paradigms may for example claim to possess the “only true faith” (monotheism) or be founded on “scientific objectivity and pure facts” (scientism). In this case, a worldview is in danger of becoming an ideology. According to the Swiss philosopher Armin Risi a worldview turns into an ideology if it links his “worldview or party programme with political, propagandistic or missionary objectives”. This definition of ideology applies not only to obvious cases like religious fundamentalism or political extremism. On closer inspection, we also find ideological leanings in modern scientism or in the postmodern worldview (f.e. in the misuse of political correctness) if they exert structural pressure or use methods of manipulation.
In the course of the contemporary paradigm crisis of the postmodern worldview, new voices come forward announcing a paradigm change towards a more holistic or integral worldview. An integral worldview differs from worldviews with an exclusive claim to truth insofar, as it tries to acknowledge the partial truths of all the different existent worldviews, while overcoming their biases. In the best of all cases, the coming paradigm change therefore will—in a collective leap of consciousness—transcend the exclusiveness of the current ideologies. At the same time, we have to be aware that integralism does not mean another pluralism of truths-claims, like we have seen in postmodernism. On the contrary, an integral paradigm bases its truth claims on conscious, holarchical distinctions. This means that an integral paradigm postulates the existence of a higher truth. This higher truth, however, is based on the ideal of a conscious inclusion of a wealth of already existing worldviews. In doing this, integral worldviews can still develop some forms of claim to power or ideological hubris, but the danger of falling into an extreme one-sidedness seems to be much smaller. In conclusion, our current “post-truth” world seems to be in a dire need for an integral understanding, because only a multiperspective consciousness seems to be able to overcome the pervasive multi-truth crisis which manifests in the current “information war” between different worldviews and ideologies. And one of the most tricky subject within this information war is the subject of conspiracy.
Conspiracist thinking as a multiperspective phenomenon
“Significantly, although we speak of conspiracy theory as if it were an objective reality understood similarly by everyone who uses the term, its meaning varies from one theoretical context to another. Consequently, people are often talking past each other when they differ on the issue. ... It is therefore incumbent on those who engage the topic of conspiracy beliefs to be theoretically self-aware and open to discourse about the implications of competing premises.”
“Dismissing conspiracy theories by default as well as intellectual snobism in dealing with them is hasty to say the least. ... [There is] indeed no argument to refute them in general. The reason for this is mainly that—aside from the residual doubt every kind of empirical knowledge is afflicted with—fictional conspiracy theories cannot categorically be distinguished from theories which have a real conspiracy as their underlying cause. By refuting all conspiracy theories by default, one would at the same time refute the possibility of events being the result of a conspiracy completely, which is absurd considering the historical records informing us about countless serious real conspiracies.”
Juristically, a conspiracy is a secret association, formed to the achievement of illegal objectives. In the US criminal law we find the criminal offence of conspiracy designating a secret accord of two or more persons to commit a crime. The legal meaning of a conspiracy therefore is precisely defined. An often mentioned conspiracy is the murder of Julius Cesar, who fell victim to an assassination which was carried out by aristocratic members of the senate whose rights had been curtailed by him. Out of the sixty string pullers behind the conspiracy against Cesar, today we still know twenty by name.
Besides its legal meaning, the term conspiracy today is often used in an widened sense. We can, for example, find it being used in conflicts between different worldviews. So, to give an example, adherents of creationism could consider the darwinian theory of evolution a conspiracy against the biblical record, considering leading representatives of darwinism to be ”conspirators”. Now, to be precise, if these darwinians solely believed in their worldview, the use of the term 'conspiracy' obviously would be wrong, because we would simply find a controversy in belief at the core of the problem. If however, on the other hand side, there was a secret circle of individuals deliberately promoting false teachings to further their hidden means, we could speak of a conspiracy in the sense of a conscious manipulation. Now if we examine some of the widespread conspiracy theories of today, we will soon realize that there is a blending of these different levels of meaning: conspiracies in a juristical sense, conspiracies in the sense of conscious deception and manipulation and “simple” controversies in belief between different worldviews.
Besides the different meanings of the term 'conspiracy', a central difficulty in dealing with conspiracy theories lies in the task of distinguishing between fictional and real conspiracy theories—which of course can merge seamlessly. Conspiracy theories deal with questions of power und secret phenomenons and therefore usually are neither observable nor easily verifiable. This does not mean that stories about secret phenomenons a priori should be dismissed, but it is adwiseable to try to check their sources and be aware of the fact of deliberate dissemination of false conspiracy theories or well-meant but wrong speculations. False conspiracy theories can be used as political weapons against enemies or they can be intendet to deflect from real conspiracies. Furthermore, false conspiracy theories can be used to discredit or stigmatize their misguided adherents. Then, there are quite profane reasons for the dissemination of false theories as well, like making money with online advertisement (clickbait) or making fun of others by creating false conspiracy theories to “prove” the naivité of those who fall for them.
In a way, dealing with conspiracy theories can be compared to stepping on a minefield of the mind. As in the computer game Minesweeper, we need to distinguish minefields (false theories) from the rest of the fields, but, to make things even more complicated, we may also find a large number of theories intermingling both. On the other hand, however, and a lot of people seem not to be aware of this, not dealing with conspiracy theories at all can lead to a false sense of security. The reason for this is—as Karl Hepfer is pointing out—that the claim that all conspiracy theories are wrong is untenable. Therefore, by trying to evade all conspiracy theories, we still sit on a minefield, but in this case without knowing it. While not risking to fall prey to false conspiracy theories, we ignore the existence of true, criminal conspiracies and unconsciously deliver ourselves up to real manipulations.
The integral contribution
It becomes clear that today it is almost impossible to evade the minefield of topics like conspiracy, fake news and alternative worldviews. Because of this, it seems advisable to take up the yoke of being an “information minesweeper”, trying to form his or her own opinion of these topics. Against all difficulties this might result in some form of basic knowledge which will then serve as an anchor for further studies. In this, an integral approach can be very helpful, because it facilitates taking different perspectives and weighting their implications. In the course of this kind of study, conspiracist thinking will reveal itself as a multilayered phenomenon, being affiliated with multiple worldviews. This means that, as Lance deHaven Smith points out, conspiracy theories can not be reduced to one more or less isolated worldview and it seems to me to be an essential task of integral thinking and philosophy to examine and illuminate this topic in the mirror of the changing consciousness of mankind. It is a task that—in my opionion—so far has been largely neglected.
In my attempt of an integral analysis of the topic of conspiracy, I want to present the following thesis: In the course of history we can recognize roughly the following series of worldviews or paradigms, each dealing with the topic of conspiracy in their own distinguished way:
From this point of view, I would argue, that today the time seems to be ripe for a new kind of approach towards conspiracist thinking, which I would describe as
Before starting to present my thesis, it should be pointed out, that the structures of the worldviews subsequently presented can intertwine and will not be fit to typify individual worldviews any more than in a vague and overarching way.
Premodern-dualistic conspiracist thinking
“In this way Lucifer became Satan, the devil. ... One third of the angels conspired with lucifer/satan in trying to overthrow God from his throne. ... Adam got the chance to become Satans successor and lead Gods reign on earth, but he disqualified himself, when he submitted himself to Satan. He obeyed Satan, not God. And ever since, the human race followed Satans ways and his philosophy.”
Trying to penetrate to the roots of conspiracy theories and conspiracist thinking, leads to religious myths and tales centering around the genesis of evil. This evil, understood as a falling away from a divine, heavenly original state, lead to a divided world, a dualistic world, characterized by the dichotomy between good and evil, between truth and lies, between light and darkness. In the biblical story we find archangel Lucifer, who, due to his fall from God, became the first conspirator and successively led Adam and mankind as a whole into temptation and corruption. At least for the abrahamic faith traditions, the story of Lucifer is fundamental to the concept of a progressive conspiracy against God and his followers throughout the ages. In this view, evil and heresy have led to an ongoing “genealogy of darkness” over the millennia. World history then is nothing other then the expression of an ongoing spiritual battle of good versus evil which will cumulate in an eschatological apocalypse at the end of times. This final battle and the end times happenings are seen and interpreted in many different and often antagonistical ways, according to the different religions, sects and denominations behind them.
According to the history of ideas, one main source of dualistic worldviews with sharp distinctions between good and evil can be found in the Persian founder of religion Zoroaster. The teachings of Zoroaster have come to us in the form of the Avesta which a French scholar brought to Europe in the eighteenth century. In the Avesta we find many of the main themes, images and stories which, through Judaism and Christianity, have shaped our occidental mind and culture. Zoroaster teaches the existence of a highest divine deity, the sun or light god Ahura Mazda (also called Ohrmazd), who— already in the beginning—, was confronted by an opposite principle, an opposing, demonic force called Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. Another deeply dualistic cosmology was teached by the Persian prophet Mani, the founder of the religion of Manichaeism.
Now investigating the meaning of dualistic worldviews in relation to the phenomenon of conspiracy, we find that in these worldviews evil is thought to be currently dominating the earthly domain, conspiring against all that is good and true. This is why evil must be resisted, fought and—in a final battle—annihilated. In these dualistic metaphysical worldviews, the particular concepts of good and evil are usually deduced from divine revelations, holy scriptures and other accepted sources of communication with the divine—each according to their different faith traditions. If such a religious worldview becomes one-sided, tends towards strict dogmatism and develops concepts of the necessity of a “holy war”, human catastrophes can be the result. In these cases we often find opposing parties suspecting each other of a conspiracy on the basis of reversed good-bad-schemes. The wickedness of the enemy is exaggerated, while the own cause is proclaimed as divine. In this context one might speak of a reductionistic type of dualistic conspiracist thinking.
Historically, this kind of reductionistic conspiracist thinking climaxed in the middle ages during the crusades. Interpreting the crusades as a “holy war” against the “infidels”, dualistic religious beliefs flared up and were not only directed against the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land, but soon found an outlet against Jews residing in Europe. It was among certain radicalized groups of crusaders that old quandaries were stirred up in an attempt to proselytize or punish the Jews for their alledgedly wrong views. As the historian Daniel Pipes writes: “Jews came to be seen as the devil's accomplices, carrying out his conspiracy to destroy Christendom.” The result were terrible acts of hatred and violence throughout Europe.
Besides conspiracy theories directed against Jews, the time of the crusades also saw the rise of another form of conspiracist thinking growing on suspicions of a conspiracy against the Roman Church. One main source of this thinking was the rise of the Knights Templars who in the end were persecuted and condemned as heretics. Having opened their worldview to esoteric-gnostic views and sympathizing with the Cathars, they have become a danger to the hierocracy of the Church.
It is only understandable that the accusations, the persecution and the violence of the Roman Church through the centuries provoked counter-reactions. In many circles the Church more and more began to be perceived as being itself the main manifestation of evil in this world. This momentum of anti-roman forces eventually found an outlet —among others—in figures such as the reformer Martin Luther, who called the Pope the devil and the Church the whore of Babylon. Also during the French Revolution we see the seed of violence of the Church flaring up in an act of vengeance, in the persecution and killing of many priests in France. These and other historical examples point to the fact that reductionistic conspiracist thinking can itself produce what it attempts to fight.
To sum up this paragraph, we see that dualistic worldviews can lead to reductionistic accusations of conspiracies against adherents of other worldviews, other religious or ethnic groups or other—not always clearly demarcated—groups. It seems obvious that these kinds of reductionistic theories are untenable and can become quite dangerous. On the other hand parts of these theories and accusations can base on historically real ills, on acts of violence, abusive power structures or even on real conspiracies. To completely deny this possibility would mean to deny or ignore the existence of evil in the world or—in the sense of a mistaken nondualism—to equate good and evil altogether.
Modern-materialistic conspiracist thinking
“Money alone is not enough to quench the thirst and lusts of the super-rich. Instead, many of them use their vast wealth, and the influence such riches give them, to achieve even more power. Power of a magnitude never dreamed of by the tyrants and despots of earlier ages. Power on a world wide scale. Power over people, not just products. ... Do I mean conspiracy? Yes, I do.”
In the course of history the misuse of reductionistic dualistic thinking has— without doubt—caused the death of innumerable innocents. This may be one of the reasons, why early modernity sought refuge in a more rational and this-worldly worldview. Roughly beginning with René Descartes (1596-1650), the thinking of the epoch of early modernity—which in German is called Neuzeit—began to focus more and more on the conquest of the world through technological and scientific means. At the same time the Neuzeit still remained dedicated to universalistic meta-narratives, to overarching interpretations of human history and to the development of future utopias. In contrast to late modernity and postmodernity, the philosopher Wolfgang Welsch describes how the spirit of the Neuzeit unfolds in the midst of a dynamical process of opposing worldviews with universalistic validity claims:
“The epoch of Neuzeit comprises of the double figure of rationalization on the one hand side and anti-rationalization on the other. In short, Neuzeit always includes an anti-Neuzeit. ... In a sense, all these oppositions can be understood as strategies of self-enhancement of the Neuzeit itself. Through them, the Neuzeit becomes what it is, a dynamic epoch advancing through self-critizism. The Neuzeit procreates itself as a result of this interplay of challenge and answer. That is why I said that these oppositions do not exceed the basic pattern of the Neuzeit. Rather they dynamize, specify and reinforce them. ... For the thinkers of the Neuzeit there are not several truths, not several possibilities of salvation, but always just one. In the Neuzeit and early modernity it is impossible for a truth not to emerge with an exclusive claim to truth. Singularity and universality are its fundamental nature, plurality and particularity something utterly alien.”
Conspiracy against the throne and altar
In the Neuzeit the conflict between the Catholic Church and anti-church forces—which already had been the main source of conspiracy theories before—grew even more acute in the time of the reformation and the counter-reformation. Contrary to what one might think, the time of the Enlightenment brought no clarification of questions concerning conspiracies, but rather led to an intensification of conspiracist thinking. One of the decisive turning points was the French Revolution which the already weakened Catholic Church saw as proof of a conspiracy of revolutionary, anti-clerical forces trying to establish a new world domination. And it was this view of history that led to the generation of term of “conspiracy thesis” respectively “conspiracy theory” in the first place. The ensuing “battle of conspiracy-accusations” between different parties has been investigated by the German historian Johannes Rogalla von Bieberstein:
“It is not by chance that the anti-Enlightenment and anti-mason polemic of the Catholic Church has been constitutive for the genesis of the conspiracy thesis. ... The revolutionary attitude of philosophers of the Enlightenment, which in essence is internationalistic, let the Abbé Royou, a trusted friend of Abbé Barruel to speak of “a terrible conspiracy against throne and altar”... With this thesis of a conspiracy a catchword for the counter-revolutionary solidarity had been created, which has been longed for by royalist Frenchmen. ... The concept of a conspiracy against “throne and altar” underlies almost the whole of conter-revolutionary propaganda, even if the “philosophical conjuration” was not understood as a conspiracy in the sense of a theory of wire-pullers.”
One of the first “conspiracy theorists” was the French Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, mentioned by Rogalla von Bieberstein. At the end of the eighteenth century, Barruel wrote his Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism), which Hanegraaf calls “the bible of the secret society mythology”. Barruels counter-revolutionary agitation, based on a “conspiracy against throne and altar”, was mainly directed against the freemasons and the illuminati. Using apocalyptical themes, Barruel associated these secret societies with the worship of Satan. Another important work of early conspiracy liturature was Proofs of a Conspiracy, written by the British professor of natural philosophy and first general secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, John Robison. Robison accused the Bavarian Illuminati, which in 1776 had been established by Adam Weishaupt, of a conspiracy against all religions and all the governments of Europe. Robison was himself a freemason of a high degree and claimed that the illuminati had tried to convince him to work with them. If this is true, Robison could be considered as an early whistleblower.
After having published his first conspiracist work, Augustin Barruel—in a fateful step—extended his agitation against secret societies to include the Jews. In doing this, he followed an already established tendency of some adherents of the conspiracy thesis to equate Freemasons and Jews. Incited by Napoleons decree to integrate the Jews into society, the first theories about a Jewish wire-puller-conspiracy to establish world domination arose. These then were further distributed by Abbé Barruel—apparently upon consultation with the Vatican. These new and widely circulated conspiracy theories united both premodern-dualistic and modern-materialistic points of view. Once again Rogalla von Bieberstein:
“Because “the Jews”—being symbols of modernity—could be portrayed as incarnation of capitalism and at the same time—because of the Christian-medieval demonology—were perceived as eerie beings, they were particularly suitable to be the center of the antimodernist and antiliberal conspiracy thesis.”
Conspiracy against the American democracy
The conspiracy thesis of Barruel and others, specifically directed against the modernist and liberal body of thought of the Enlightenment and later expanded to include the Jewish community, could, in the sense of Wolfgang Welsch, be called an “anti-neuzeitliche conspiracy thesis”. But at the same time—on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—we find a kind of conspiracist thinking which seems to be the exact counterpart thereof. Being steeped in liberal thinking of the Enlightenment, the founding fathers of the United States developed a new kind of political thinking, which aimed at acquiring and protecting the new democratic freedoms of the American colonies. These American revolutionaries formulated conspiracy theories against the British Empire, which in their view acted in an oppressive and conspiratorial way in order to prevent the colonies from gaining their independence. So, in this case, we find not the old order of “throne and altar” deemed to be the victim of conspiratorial schemes, but—quite the opposite—the members of the young democracy of the United States being the victim of an old, devious and tyrannical authority. In the words of Lance deHaven-Smith:
“The revolutionaries were not alone in their suspicions of the Crown's intentions. The conspiracy theory articulated in the nation's founding document reflected the thinking of most colonists. In the decades leading up to the American Revolution … the colonists grew increasingly convinced that the British government was pursuing a deliberate conspiracy to destroy the balance of the Constitution and elimiate their freedom. ... The United States Constitution was designed with the expectation that public officials are likely to conspire to abuse their powers and undermine popular control of government. The framers of the Constitution saw their central problem to be establishing a national government strong enough to protect national security and maintain domestic order, and yet sufficiently constrained to adhere to the spirit of popular government and the rule of law.”
Conspiracy against the people
In the course of the nineteenth century again a new kind of conspiracist thinking began to establish itself, which revolved around the industrialistaion and the development of new business monopolies of super-rich. This thinking tended to perceive conspiracies in political entities of power like the British Empire and/or international banks and trading companies operating on a global scale. One important source of this kind of modern-materialistic conspiracist thinking seems to have been the historical materialism of Karl Marx. Of course it is quite controversial to link Marx to conspiracist thinking. The philosopher Karl Popper, for example, stated his conviction that Marx was no conspiracy theorist, because he explained material inequality on the basis of deficiencies inherent in the societal system—a “kingdom of necessity”. Popper believes that it was the followers who have turned Marx's classical theory into a “Vulgar Marxist Conspiracy Theory”.
The normality of conspiracist thinking in early modernity
Now, to understand the political consciousness of early modernity, it is important to understand that suspicions about conspiracies were—unlike today—not a stigmatized and marginalized phenomenon. Rather this kind of thinking was widesprad among all social classes. What is more, the term “conspiracy theory” did not yet exist—or at least did not have today's meaning. It seems that conspiracist thinking was a more or less “normal” way of political thinking. Pondering and exploring possible conspiracies in many ways seems to have been considered a rational and reasonable thing to do. The historian Michael Butter writes about conspiracy theories in early modernity:
“Until the fifties of the 20th century conspiracy theories in the western world have been a completely legitimate form of knowledge whose basic assumptions have not been questioned. Accordingly, it was normal to believe in conspiracy theories. Only after the Second World War in the United States and in Europe began a complex process of delegitimization of the conspiracist view, banishing conspiracist ideas out of the public discourse into subcultures.”
In summary, in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, different kinds conspiracy theories flourished in a widespread way. But after the extreme forms of conspiracy ideologies under the National Socialists as well as under Stalin, before and during the Second World War, enough momentum was built up for a new kind of thinking. The postmodern worldview revealed itself to be—in its essential features—anti-conspiracist. This is the anti-conspiracist thinking of postmodernity, which in the post-war era more and more permeated almost the whole of western society and became its societal norm and standard up to today.
Postmodern anti-conspiracist thinking
A preliminary note about the notion of postmodernism
“In a strict sense our current postmodern modernity can only be called post-modern in contrast to another modernity; it is not ongoing twentieth [and twenty-first] century modernity, but modernity in its oldest and most antiquated sense—modernity of Neuzeit. Postmodernity leaves behind the Neuzeit's main obsessions like dreams of unity, the concept of a Mathesis universalis [universal science], the projects of a philosophy of world history and global concepts of social utopias. Radical postmodern pluralism discards these models of thought that long for a totality which cannot ever be achieved but with totalitarian means. This is why postmodernity is strictly post-Neuzeit—and in this sense anti-Neuzeit.”
It is an ongoing question if the period of postmodernity can be understood as a distinct epoch or just a continuation of modernity. The philosopher Wolfgang Welsch is pointing out that postmodernity can only be understood as a distinct epoch by contrasting it to the modernity of the Neuzeit. The differing worldviews of these two epochs are based—among other things—on the distinction between Neuzeit-concepts of history as a universal, meaningful narrative and postmodern concepts of history as a pluralistic, open and in a sense meaningless process. And it is this demarcation which turns out to be crucial in relation to the postmodern stance towards conspiracy theories.
The epoch of postmodernity usually is thought to have begun at the end of the nineteenth century, but the postmodern worldview itself did not unfold in full before the end of World War II. The term of postmodernity was coined by the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who highlighted the transition from nationalism to internationalism to be the main feature of the new era. In its philosophy, postmodernity advocates an egalitarian pluralism of perspectives, meaning that “one and the same circumstance can present itself totally different from a different perspective and this perspective does not own less “light” than the first one—just another.” This kind of egalitarian pluralism of perspectives, by representatives of the postmodern view, is believed to be the basic requirement for an anti-totalitarian society. Wolfgang Welsch again:
“The problem is totalization. … What at first sight looks like a dream, in its totalization becomes a nightmare. Such totalization knows many ways and has many faces. And modernity is full of examples. … Pluralization does not free us from totalization. Only knowledge of the mechanism of totalization and vigilance can do this. Postmodernism is convinced that totality can only rise from absolutisation of the particular and therefore oppression of individual particularity. This is an insight gained from history, an experience it has made. … The historic trigger of postmodernity was the experience of oppression resulting from one-sided claims to absolutness and exclusions. Its central message is the incontestable right to different conceptions and standards. Its vision is the principal recognition of differences and plurality. … Postmodern thinking in this corresponds to an approach which became mandatory for democracy.””
Postmodern anti-conspiracist thinking
“Political paranoids need not suffer from personal paranoia, but often the two go together and mutually reinforce each other. … Not all conspiracy theorists reach such pathological heights. … While aware of these degrees of conspiracism, I tend to consider anyone who believes in a single conspiracy theory to be a conspiracy theorist, presuming for two reasons that he subscribes to much more as well. First, acceptance of one conspiracy theory often indicates suscebtibility to others. … Second, aware of the disrepute that goes along with being labeled a conspiracy theorist, some believers take care not to express their views in full.”
“What the conventional wisdom demands is not so much that we disbelieve this conspiracy theory or that, but that we adopt the intellectual habit of discounting, dismissing and disbelieving conspiracy theories generally (indeed of 'dissing' them altogether). Rather than running around trying to evaluate the evidence, the sensible strategy when confronted with conspiracy theories is to shut our eyes to their intellectual charms.”
The roots of the worldview which I would like to term postmodern anti-conspiracist thinking go back to efforts to come to terms with the trauma of World War II after 1945. National socialism as well as Stalinism had turned reductionist conspiracist beliefs into a xenophobic weapon of propaganda. These nightmarish experiences led to a new vigilance against processes of totalization tied to postmodern values like plurality, democracy and the rejection of one-sided claims to absoluteness. In the course of this process different post-war representatives of the Western intelligentsia began to look at conspiracy theories as one particularly dangerous mindset of potentially totalizing thinking. That is why an increasingly critical social stance towards conspiracy theories began to grow and finally became one of the central guiding principles of postmodern-pluralistic thinking. By contrasting postmodern ideals with conspiracy theories, conspiracist thinking became some kind of “new evil” for postmodernity itself. This is what led—in the words of Charles Pigden—to the “intellectual habit” of suppressing and rejecting every kind of conspiracist reasoning. The possibility of real conspiracies, by contrast, was considered to be extremely low because of the randomness of social events. As the statement of Daniel Pipes shows, the new kind of postmodernist anti-conspiracist thinking could lead to the conviction that almost all conspiracy theories must be wrong, which is why conspiracy theorists must be “political paranoids”. Henceforth, the whole subject of conspiracy theories— for the postmodern audience—became a taboo, a mental no-go area.
Karl Popper—Sociological delegitimization of conspiracy theories
“Is there a meaning in history? … History has no meaning. ...'[H]istory' in the sense in which most people speak of it simply does not exist…”
“It would be only a modest exaggeration to say that [Karl] Popper and to some extent [Leo] Strauss blamed conspiracy theory for totalitarianism in Europe, World War II, and the Holocaust. Popper is largely responsible for the mistaken idea that conspiracy theories are modern variants of ancient superstitions and nineteenth-century social prejudices, and that, thus rooted in irrationality and paranoia, are the seeds of authoritarian political movements.”
In the history of ideas, Austrian-British philosopher Karl R. Popper has led the way in the postmodern process of delegitimizing conspiracy theories. Poppers philosophy—seeing itself as standing in the tradition of humanism— has some roots in neo-Marxism and came to be a central pillar of neoliberalism.
Karl Popper (1902-1994) grew up in a Jewish family which converted to protestantism. A precocious mind, Popper in the age of sixteen entered the Communist Party and experienced the eventful years after World War I in which Europe was unsettled by several attempted Communist coups. Popper began to study, became a teacher and also began to write. Because of national socialist tendencies, he left Austria and went to Australia where he wrote his path-breaking criticism of totalitarism. 1945 Popper took up an engagement at the London School of Economics and Political Science. With his thinking he influenced—among others—the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society. He was awarded with a knighthood for his work.
In relation to conspiracy theories, Poppers most important work was The Open Society And Its Enemies. In this work Popper disqualifies views on history suspecting deliberate plans behind historical events, classifying them as historicisms. Popper tries to point out that totalitarism and violence in human history are based on historicistic worldviews. In contrast, Poppers own stance is that history has no sense at all. It is a position which Popper extends to human language as well. Popper critizises Plato's metaphysical theory of ideas which perceives a higher essence behind terms and language in general (essentialism). For Popper, words can only be vague and arbitrary shells with inprecise meaning (nominalism): “We try to attach to them as little weight as possible. We do not take their 'meaning' too seriously. We are always conscious that our terms are a little vague… The precision of a language depends, rather, just upon the fact that it takes care not to burden its terms with the task of being precise.” History, language and the world in general—in Poppers thinking—become pluralistic, open and diverse but also vague, uncertain and without higher meaning.
To Popper, Hegel is the worst of all historicists in recent history, because he alledgedly did set back the fight for an open society beginning with the French Revolution. Karl Marx, on the contrary, is one of Poppers favoured thinkers. While Marx too is a false prophet upholding historicist ideas, Popper follows Marx in his sociology. For Popper, as for Marx, a human being and his deeds are always dominated by his social environment.That is why social structures, even if they may be influenced by individual thinking and acting, can hardly be the result of conscious intention: “It must be admitted that the structure of our social environment is man-made in a certain sense; that its institutions and traditions are neither the work of God nor of nature, but the results of human actions and decisions. But this does not mean that they are all consciously designed, and explicable in terms of needs, hopes, or motives. On the contrary, even those which arise as the result of conscious and intentional human actions are, as a rule, the indirect, the unintended and often the unwanted by-products of such actions.”
These two positions, criticism against historicism and superiority of social factors, become the basis of Karl Poppers criticism against what he calls the “conspiracy theory of society”. This conspiracy theory assumes “that, whatever happens in society—especially happenings such as war, unemployment, poverty, shortages, which people as a rule dislike—is the result of direct design by some powerful individuals and groups. This theory is widely held; it is older even than historicism… In its modern forms it is, like modern historicism, ... a typical result of the secularization of a religious superstition.”
The verdict of Popper against conspiracy theories is being duplicated up to this day. It can be summarized as follows: There may be real conspiracies during the course of human history, but all larger conspiracy schemes must fail due to social realities which cannot be planned, controlled or foreseen. Historicist views of history and conspiracy theories must be classified as superstition.
The new ideal of postmodernity, for Popper, consists of an “open society”. This concept of an open society includes all the main values of the Western post-war era like democracy, protection of the weak, multicultural society and freedom of speech. With his new ideal, Popper beliefs to be able to overcome power politics and the history of international crime and mass murder. He wants to free people from collectivist veneration of totalitarian power figures and their autoritarian (historicist) power narratives in the direction of an individual, self-responsible and down-to-earth ethics. History for Popper may have no meaning, but humankind should “fight for the open society, for a rule of reason, for justice, freedom, equality, and for the control of international crime. Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it; and although history has no meaning, we can give it a meaning.”
Theodor W. Adorno—Psychological delegitimization of conspiracy theories
“Within the context of our study, another reflection of an entirely different nature points in the same direction. It is a pragmatic one: the necessity that science provide weapons against the potential threat of the fascist mentality. It is an open question whether and to what extent the fascist danger really can be fought with psychological weapons. Psychological ”treatment” of prejudiced persons is problematic because of their large number as well as because they are by no means ”ill,” in the usual sense... It is obvious that psychological countermeasures, in view of the extent of the fascist potential among modern masses, are promising only if they are differentiated in such a way that they are adapted to specific groups. ... The types must be constructed in such a way that they may become productive pragmatically, that is to say, that they can be translated into relatively drastic defense patterns which are organized in such a way that differences of a more individual nature play but a minor role.”
In the post-war era scholars of psychology were confronted with the tasks of screening the psychological group dynamics behind totalitarism as well as profiling the personality of totalitarian characters. In the course of this task psychologists also turned to the phenomenon of conspiracy theories. Particularly psychologists of the Frankfurt school, who had to flee into exile to America, developed what could be called a “postmodern school of criticism of conspiracy theories”. One of the most important exponents of this school was Theodor W. Adorno.
It was Adornos study The Authoritarian Personality (1950) which led the way in the psychological revision of anti-Semitism and fascism. This study was concerned with what was called the potentially fascist personality which was considered to be especially susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda. In the course of the study different psychological tests were constructed. One example read as follows: “To a greater extent than most people realize, our lives are governed by plots hatched in secret by politicians.” The authoritarian personality thus was associated with conspiracy theories.
Adorno, in his study, draws the conclusion that “[t]here exists something like ”the” potentially fascist character, which is by itself a ”structural unit.” In other words, traits such as conventionality, authoritarian submissiveness and aggressiveness, projectivity, manipulativeness, etc., regularly go together.” The contents of “fascist” belief systems to Adorno are irrational and inconsistent with reality. Thus Adorno in a way pathologizes the authoritarian personality while at the same time stressing the non-classical specifics of this kind of psychopathology: “But they are symptoms which can hardly be explained by the mechanisms of neurosis; and at the same time, the anti-Semitic individual as such, the potentially fascist character, is certainly not a psychotic. The ultimate theoretical explanation of an entirely irrational symptom which nevertheless does not appear to affect the ”normality” of those who show the symptom is beyond the scope of the present research.” The reasons for the dissemination of autoritarian worldviews to Adorno are: orientation for alienated and desoriented individuals, the need for a scapegoat, as well as emotional and narcissistic
gratification. As a whole, the potentially fascist personality is brought into the vicinity of a psychopathology. The autoritarian personality—which seems to include all conspiracy theorists—is classified as a danger justifying “relatively drastic defense patterns”.
Richard Hofstadter and the paranoid style—Historical delegitimization of conspiracy theories
“Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other words adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style,” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
A few years after the completion of Theodor Adornos study, it was used by American historian Richard Hofstadter to be the basis of a historical delegitimization of conspiracy theories. Hofstadter extended the meaning of a Adornos concept of the “paranoid style” of the authoritarian personality to become a political mode. Hofstadter published his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics after Barry Goldwater—whose politics in Hofstadter's eyes tended towards the extreme right-wing—prevailed against Nelson A. Rockefeller in the nomination of the Republican Party. In his essay, Hofstadter made the argument that the history of conspiracy theories comprises in the reproduction of a paranoid style of politics which would be picked up again and again by extremist movements. Adherents of this paranoid style would show a total immunity towards statements and information differing with their worldview.
Hofstadter links the paranoid style—among others—with the Bavarian illuminati, the anti-Masonic movement, anti-Catholicism as well as McCarthyism. One of the most fundamental elements of the paranoid style for Hofstadter is the concept of a single overarching conspiracy behind all historical events. At the same time, Hofstadter would not deny the existence of historcal conspiracies per se.
Hofstadter argues against views of history which recognize a diabolical conspiracy culminating in an apocalyptic Final Battle. For Hofstadter the “higher paranoid scholarship” of conspiracy theorists, while often being based in facts or at least what seems to be facts, loses itself trying to establish proof for this one conspiracy. Hofstadter does not criticize the irrationality of conspiracy theories then, but their hyper-rationality leaving no room for mistakes, coincidences and ambiguities.
Hofstadter followed Popper and Adorno in regarding conspiracy theories as a monolithic complex of ideas. With his designation of conspiratist views of history as “paranoid style” he encouraged the postmodern stigmatization of conspiracy theories. Hofstadters essay is still being cited to this end up to today, most recently to criticize Donald Trump.
Political delegitimization of conspiracy theories—Conspiracy theories as a danger to the established order
As fate would have have it, Richard Hofstadter held his Oxford lecture about the paranoid style in November 1963, exactly in the month of the murder of US-president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It is widely known that this event triggered a massive public outcry about a possible conspiracy behind Kennedys death. The Warren Commision, however, presented the murder as being the deed of an isolated “lone gunman”, Lee Harvey Oswald, who maintained his innocence and was murdered himself three days into custody. The Warren Report afterwards was widely questioned and remains so up to this day. President Johnson freezed the files of the Warren Commision until 2039. A part of the files was released due to public pressure at the end of the nineties. Donald Trump, in 2018, stopped the planed release the rest of the files due to security reasons.
After the murder of President Kennedy the CIA, among others, was being suspected of complicity. In January 1967 the CIA reacted to this accusations by releasing the dispatch Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report (CIA Dispatch #1035-960) to its staff. It was a secret document made public nine years later. The dispatch's subject is the defense of politically dangerous conspiracy theories:
“Presumably as a result of the increasing challenge to the Warren Commission's Report, a public opinion poll recently indicated that 46% of the American public did not think that Oswald acted alone, while more than half of those polled thought that the Commission had left some questions unresolved. … This trend of opinion is a matter of concern to the U.S. government, including our organization. … Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material for countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries. …
Action: We do not recommend that discussions of the assassination question be initiated where it is not already taking place. Where discussion is active, however, addressees are requested: To discuss the publicity problem with liaison and friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out that the Warren Commission made as thorough an investigation as humanly possible, that the charges of the critics are without serious foundation, and that further speculative discussions only plays into the hands of the opposition. Point out also that parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists. Urge them to use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation.”
What we find here then is a politically motivated delegitimization of conspiracy theories by the CIA. One of its effect was, that the public awareness of the term “conspiracy theory”—which before the assassination of Kennedy was hardly paid attention to—rose dramatically. The new conspiracy theory-meme subsequently was popularized and stigmatized at the same time. The label “conspiracy theorist” more and more was used in a pejorative and defamatory sense. It could be used therefore to discredit critical voices without having to answer their questions in differentiated way.
The science of conspiracism
In the early postwar era, the anti-conspiracist stance of the postmodern worldview was reinforced sociologically, psychologically, historically as well as politically. Conspiracist ideas subsequently were publicly cornered and tabooed. This broad public silencing of conspiratist voices must be considered as a novelty in the history of political thinking. At the same time a broad conspiracist subculture persisted and fed its contents into the mainstream. These contents were culturally processed in formats like the TV series The X-Files and—in a kind of fictionalized distance—captivated the public mind.
The scientific delegitimation of conspiracy theories, pioneered by Popper, Adorno, Hofstadter and others, was revived and continued by new generations of academics. One striking example is the 1997 work of American political scientist Daniel Pipes, titled Conspiracy—How The Paranoid Style Flourishes And Where It Comes From. We already see references to Richard Hofstadter in its title. In this work Pipes tries to scientifically analyze the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in order to work out an exact “science of conspiracism”. Like many critics, Pipes starts with the statement that real conspiracies do exist, while conspiracy theories derive from imaginations and potentially paranoid thinking. But in trying to establish a scientific foundation from which to discern illusive conspiracism, Pipes gets into some difficulties, having to admit that logic alone is not sufficient. The reason for this is that—in the words of Pipes—some of “these imaginary plots tend to be more rigorously logical and have fewer loose ends than does real life.” Pipes even criticizes some conspiracy theorists for being “[o]verabundant learned factoids”, overwhelming their readers with “mind-numbing details”.
In its main arguments, Daniel Pipes' science of conspiracism essentially follows Karl Popper, declaring the conspiratorial plots to be too complex to exist in the uncertainty and randomness of human society. Like Popper, Pipes criticizes historicist approaches which look for power plays behind historical events, asking the key conspiracist question “qui bono?”. In the end, Pipes has to admit having given his best “to separate conspiracism from conspiracy, reality from fantasy. Yet no one can be sure in every case which is which, and I make no claim to certainty. Conspiracism manages to insinuate itself in the most alert and intelligent minds, so excluding it amounts to a perpetual struggle, one in which the reader is invited to join.”
Daniel Pipes succeeds in pointing out the danger of reductionist and xenophobe conspiracy theories, using many different historical examples. This doubtlessly constitutes a crucially important testimony of postmodern anti-conspiracist thinking. At the same time I would argue that Pipes is not able to demonstrate why conspiracy theories per se have to be considered as erroneous.
The social struggle against conspiracy theorists
“This technique of “only asking questions” was perfected by the most famous conspiracy theorist in the German-speaking area, the Swiss Daniele Ganser. Ganser rejects the label “conspiracy theorist” vehemently, claiming only to be asking the inconvenient questions which other scientists in consideration of their careers do not dare to ask. His biography imparts some authenticity to this position…
Many of Gansers speeches deal with 9/11. Ganser insists not to know what happened on 11. September 2001 himself, stressing the importance of further investigations. But immersing oneself in Gansers many speeches on the internet, it becomes clear that it is appropriate to call Ganser a “conspiracy theorist” because he does more than asking questions.”
“These people not only base their theses on prejudices and selectively chosen data. Often their whole approach is a conscious malapropism of serious investigations. And in many cases it is nothing more than crude profiteering of an international network of snake oil sellers.
… Daniele Ganser, with his battle cry “Check it yourself, do not believe blindly”, is one of the masters of this troop…
Is exclusion the right method to deal with these prominent provocateurs and their direct influence on state power, who manipulate all of their public appearances for their own use. … After some bitter experiences I personally decided not to invite obvious provocateurs and conspiracy theoretists for interviews into my television studio or my weekly radio shows anymore.”
Today, most academics like Daniel Pipes seem to refute any kind of conspiracy theories. This to a certain point is understandable, because contemporary academics have been socialised into postmodern anti-conspiracist thinking and consider this worldview to be protecting democracy and an open society. This is why conspiracy theorists to them pose a societal problem. This problem of course is much aggravated, if some of their academic colleagues happen to consider some conspiracy theories to be potentially true. This is perceived as a massive challenge to their worldview as well as to the basic public consensus.
While some conspiracy theories during the Neuzeit were supported by academics as well (Daniel Pipes calls Immanuel Kant a conspiracy theoretist!) the academic world of today reacts quite allergic to these kind of dissenting voices. In some cases it suffices for an academic to pose critical questions which might implicate a possible conspiracy to fall into disgrace. The public of course tends to pay academic “conspiracy questioners” considerably more attention than non-academic “autodidacts”. Therefore these academics pose a serious threat to the credibility of the academic world and postmodern Western society consensus as a whole.
In the German-speaking world, a prominent follower of postmodern anti-conspiracist thinkers like Karl Popper and Daniel Pipes, is the historian Michael Butter. Butter also takes part in a EU founded research project on conspiracy theories. In his book “Nichts ist, wie es scheint”—Über Verschwörungstheorien (“Nothing is as it seems—On conspiracy theories”) Butter writes to be “firmly convicted that conspiracy theories get in the way of an adequate understanding of reality. This is no unique characteristic of conspiracism—from my perspective the same is true for instance for religions...”. The reason Butter gives is that both—religions as well as conspiracy theories—see the world radically different then psychology, sociology or political science.”.
In the academic world, a central adversary of Butter is the Swiss historian Daniele Ganser who came to be known for his critical questions surrounding the events of the September 11 attacks. Butter considers Ganser to be especially manipulative, because of his using the technique of “only asking questions”. Butter seems to argue that Ganser by just asking questions in a way is practicing “conspiracy theory below the radar”. Apparently to prevent Ganser from escaping the label “conspiracy theorist”—which Ganser rejects entirely—Butter repeatedly calls him the “most famous conspiracy theorist in the German-speaking world”. The possible consequences of this label have become apparent in Gansers career: He lost his appointment at the ETH Zurich in 2006 due to his 9/11 questions.
Going even further in his critique towards Daniele Ganser is the well-known Swiss media-entrepreneur Roger Schawinski. Schawinski wrote an anti-conspiracist book called Verschwörung—Die fanatische Jagd nach dem Bösen in der Welt (Conspiracy—The fanatic hunt after worldly evil) after having met Ganser in a controversial political broadcast in the Swiss television. Schawinski describes how Ganser would “unsettle the general public” and “undermine” social institutions. Ganser, in Schawinskis eyes, is the leader of a “large and extremely militant community” which does not tolerate any objections. Because of this Schawinski calls for a “fight against the destructive conspiracy theorists and its protagonists”.
While Michael Butter is putting forward his critique mostly within the framework of the scientific delegitimization of conspiracy theories, Schawinski seems to aim at a political delegitimization as well. Both do present conspiracy theories as one monolithic worldview with pathological undertones. The necessitated answer in their eyes would be to wise up or fight conspiracy theorists.
The social struggle against conspiracy theorists began with the assassination of JFK. After 9/11 it became a phenomenon spread in society as a whole, supported among others by scientists, politicians and journalists. With Donald Trump we saw the rise of the term “fake news” which virtually appeared overnight. By launching “fake news” as the new anti-conspiracist meme, the world of journalism started to arm itself against conspiracy theories. This process is being described by two (nota bene anti-conspiracist) journalists as follows:
“[F]ake News now were being hunted down: Journalists, politicians, activists ... they all asked what to do against this flood of subversive, anti-democratic false reports. The answer: quite a lot. Editorial offices started anti-fake-news departments. Journalists were taught the proper way to operate Google Reverse Image Search. Start-ups created services like Checkmedia or Trulymedia, enabling the recognition of fake news in a faster and more efficient way and fighting them with surgical precision. Soon hardly any journalists' conference would get along without a fake-news panel... In between politicians would demand ... a centre of defence against fake news, in other words, a state authority to decide between right and wrong—as if George Orwell's classic “1984” was no dystopia but a kind of blueprint to reshape the digital society. ... The debatte surrounding fake news soon exhibited signs of a conspiracy theory itself.”
Leo Strauss—The social necessity of anti-conspiracist thinking
“A large section of the people, probably the great majority of the younger generation, accepts the government-sponsored views as true, if not at once at least after time. How have they been convinced? And where does the time factor enter? They have not been convinced by compulsion, for compulsion does not produce conviction. It merely paves the way for conviction by silencing contradiction. What is called freedom of thought in a large number of cases amounts to—and even for all practical purposes consists of—the ability to choose between two or more different views presented by the small minority of people who are public speakers or writers. If this choice is prevented, the only kind of intellectual independence of which many people are capable is destroyed, and that is the only freedom of thought which is of political importance.”
“Strauss does not believe that truth is salutary. On the contrary, for Strauss, the ideas on which society rests cannot withstand too much scrutiny without crumbling. Societies need myths and illusions if they are to survive. The deeper and more significant reason that philosophy endangers society begins to become apparent. The deeper reason is that the truths of philosophy are profoundly at odds with the sorts of pious myths and illusions on which any society must necessarily rest. The truths of philosophy therefore come into conflict not only with degenerate societies, but with all societies. Philosophy therefore undermines ideas that it recognizes to be necessary to the continued existence of the city. In writing esoterically, philosophers seek to protect not only themselves but their city. They recognize that far from being salutary, the truth is deadly.”
To end this evaluation of postmodern anti-conspiracist thinking, I would like to introduce one of the most enigmatic figures to be counted among the curriculum of postmodern thinkers: Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Leo Strauss' political philosophy—besides Karl Popper—became influential in the early post-war era and remained so until today. Strauss grew up in Germany and studied in Marburg and Hamburg. 1932 he left Germany and, in 1938, settled in New York, teaching at the New School for Social Research. As of 1949, Strauss worked as a professor of political philosophy in Chicago.
Leo Strauss, in his political philosophy, developed a kind of counterpart to Karl Poppers views, albeit much less received in public. To understand Strauss we need to get a grasp of his understanding of philosophy. The true philosopher to Strauss is a Nietzschean philosopher, having penetrated to the “hard truth” of religions and faith being no more then a sham for the people. Besides being a sober atheist, the true philosopher—in the eyes of Strauss—is a political realist. Even if he takes historical religions to be no more than pious myths, he appreciates them to serve as a social cement which has to be preserved. In consequence, the philosopher may—on the inside—have distanced himself from what he perceives as superstition, while—on the outside—is wearing a mask of piety and orthodoxy. This two-faced nature to Strauss is indispensable for the stability of society as well as for the safety of the philosopher himself. That is why Strauss distinguishes between an exoteric truth for the people and an esoteric truth for philosophers. Both truths may be present in one and the same text, though the latter can only be percieved reading between the lines: “An exoteric book contains then two teachings: a popular teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground; and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject, which is indicated only between the lines. ... All books of that kind owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn...”. Leo Strauss of course did use this kind of writing as well, for example by obfuscating his true views of thinkers like Machiavelli or Nietzsche.
While Karl Popper came to be a founding father of neoliberalism, Leo Strauss could be called the founder of neoconservatism. But from the point of view of the philosopher, Strauss conservatism and traditionalism seems to be confined to the outward and exoteric side of his teaching. Because, for the most part, Strauss seems to have no problem with (post-)modernity and its atheist and materialist worldview, which he secretly shares. The problem to Strauss seems to be not the modernist worldview itself, but the fact that it discards the “salutary myths” of the traditions, hence loosing societies much needed social cement. The Neoconservatist philosopher, by outwardly praising exoteric tradition, then is considered to be a traditionalist and conservative, furthering values like law and order, patriotism and heroism to uptain the social order.
What then seems to be the stance of Leo Strauss concerning conspiracy theories? It is not surprising to find Strauss—like Popper—critizising concepts of a “hidden hand”. But in contrary to Popper, Strauss' critique does not have to be grounded in the view that conspiracy theories are fundamentally wrong. The “philosopher” knows about the fragility of societal faith buildings and myths. He knows about the existence of elitist “esotericism” and the possibility of collusive behaviour and conspiracies. But these then are considered to be necessities of political reality and societal stability which should only be mentioned between the lines, otherwise being deadly. Strauss justifies this position by considering the state of the fallenness of humanity and society to be irreversible. From this point of view then, there cannot be a society without the existence of “noble lies” and “salutary myths”.
The political philosophy of Leo Strauss gained followers first and foremost among Republicans. One of the high points of neoconservatism was during the George W. Bush administration. One of the most influential students of Leo Strauss can be found in the person of American historian Michael A. Ledeen, who has served as an advisor of the US National Security Councils and the US Department of Defense. In his 1999 book titled Machiavelli on Modern Leadership—Why Machiavelli's Iron Rules Are As Timely And Important Today As Five Centuries Ago Leddeen is laying out his ideas in what could be called a quite “unesoteric” way:
“Peace is not the normal condition of mankind. War and the preparation for war are the themes of human history. … Conflict is not the consequence of the rational pursuit of self-interest, either by states or by individuals; it flows straight from the deepest wellsprings of human nature. It is not an aberration, nor does it come from a failure of understanding; it is and integral, inescapable part of what we are.” “In Machiavelli's world—the real world as described in the truthful history books—treason and deceit are commonplace, as are conspiracies against constituted authority...” “Deceit is rarely so amusing and gratifying. Sometimes you may even have to sacrifice your own people to sustain a necessary deception.” “Machiavelli is not telling you to be evil, he is simply stating the facts: if you lead, there will be occasions when you have to do unpleasant, even evil things or be destroyed. … For the rest, he wants you to be and do good, convinced as he is that the proper mission of great leaders is to achieve the common good, to fashion good laws and enforce them with good arms and good religion.”
Transmodern, integral understanding of conspiracism
“If you break away from the reflex of not taking seriously any theory just because its subject is conspiracy, the interesting discussion is transferred to conspiracy theories themselves: Which ones rest on 'true' conspiracies and which ones are the product of imagination? This question apparently cannot be answered on the basis of the topic of its content. Many of the 'real' conspiracy theories, until their disclosure (which sometimes takes place a long time afterwards), sound just as incredible as their imagined counterparts.”
In contrast to the 1950s, in which—as Leo Strauss writes—social positions in relation to political events have been presented by a small minority, today we have the internet, which allows for a vast diversity of opinions and points of view to be disseminated. One consequence of this is the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and fake (?) news to become popularized in mainstream. The chances and dangers of this circumstance to me seem to be related with the question if we are able to bring these topics out in the open, analyzing them in a balanced and multiperspective way. This then could be termed a transmodern-integral way of dealing with conspiracy theories.
What would be new in this approach? As integral thinkers like Ken Wilber often repeat, one of the main characteristics of non-integral worldviews—including the postmodern—lies in their negation of other “truths”, defending their own often in a violent way. An integral worldview, however, strives to explore the different voices taking part in a dialogue in depth, so as to recognize and integrate their partial truths, while trancending their one-sidedness. The result is—in the best case—an integrally informed approach, able to capture even very complex issues in an overarching light.
Integral philosophy and the integral movement as a whole has, in my opinion, so far to a large extent neglected the task of getting closer to an integral approach to conspiracism. Ken Wilber, for one, did rarely comment on this topic. To give an example, his text The Deconstruction of the World Trade Center, dealing with 9/11, intended to investigate the reactions of different worldviews towards the terrorist attacks, does not mention conspiracy theories even once, although they spread rampantly surrounding this topic. Only recently have conspiracy theories been discussed in the intellectual milieu of Wilber, by using the term “aperspectival madness” which Wilber coined. Corey deVos, the editor of integrallife.com writes:
“This madness has a name: aperspectival madness, the complete and total flattening of perspective and deconstruction of truth. This is the postmodern quicksand that our Web 2.0 social media networks are actually built upon, and that our society now finds itself sinking into.”
It is interesting that in this line of thinking, conspiracy theories seem to be interpreted to be the brainchild of postmodernity. This view, of course, is diametrically opposed to my thesis of conspiracism being in opposition with postmodernity. The reason of this discrepancy might have something to do with different conspiracist worldviews using “postmodern” technologies like the internet to spread their messages. But investigating conspiracist worldviews on a philosophical level, we find them to be in opposition with the postmodern worldview, having no flat perspectives or pluralistic approaches to truth (and lies). Rather, conspiracist worldviews usually are based on convictions of the reality of universal truths (even if these truths may be perceived as one-sided or exclusive). Now Wilber himself seems to use his term ”aperspectival madness” to point to the negative or problematic ”there is no truth” aspects of the postmodern worldview. So, to me, it seems peculiar for Wilberian thinkers to associate conspiracy theories with the postmodern “madness” of the ”there is no truth”, flatland-perspective. Could not this reaction of labeling the stigmatized topic of conspiracy theories as ”madness” be coming from postmodernism itself, being some kind of unaware residual of this worldview? This of course would mean, that Wilberian integral thinking, at least in relation to conspiracy theories, is still stuck in postmodernism.
To me, one urgent challenge for integral thinking today seems to lie in the task of transcending (and integrating) the one-sided postmodern approach to questions surrounding conspiracy theories. Now if we look over the edge of the plate of Wilberian integralism, we find many promising approaches dealing with these kinds questions in a way which could be termed integral. One example I want to mention is the work of the Swiss philosopher Armin Risi. While Risi above all is concerned with spreading spiritual-psychological knowledge from a vedic background, when dealing with questions like the evil in this world, he also treats the topics of lies, deceits and conspiracies. It is noticeable in these kind of approaches, that they do not seem to aim at pointing out possible wire-puller conspiracies with the finger, but rather try to find a spiritual understanding of divisive forces and how to deal with them within us and within the world as a whole. This spiritual approach to divisive forces being active in the history of mankind is actually nothing new within the integral movement. Already Sri Aurobindo and the Mother—being central founder figures of the integral worldview and movement—have left behind a wealth of teachings convering these questions.
Short description of an integral understanding of conspiracism
Let us now return briefly to the different forms of conspiracist-thinking outlined in this text. A rough differentiation would be the existence of different kinds of premodern-dualistic and modern-materialistic conspiracist thinking, as well as a postmodern-pluralistic anti-conspiracist thinking. All of these worldviews do have an exclusive claim to truth. From an integral point of view, this exclusivity has to be questioned, while at the same time acknowledging partial truths found in all of these perspectives. In relation to the topic of conspiracy theories, we would find then that an integral approach would lead to a partial delegitimization and—at the same time—a partial relegitimization of conspiracist thinking. In this crucial step, the integral worldview would thus distance itself—at least partly—from the currently dominant dogma of postmodernity surrounding the topic of conspiracy theories, opening up to a more differentiated stance.
In summary, we would recognize the danger of conspiratorial black-white worldviews falling into reductionism and sometimes xenophobia, while at the same time acknowledging the possibility of real evil conspiracies and forces on earth. Considering the modern form of conspiracist thinking, we may come to the conclusion that it tends to overstep the mark by speculating about one conspiracy behind capitalism, corrupt structures of politics and thereby throwing all politicians, managers, journalists etc. into the same pot. At the same time an integral understanding would not ignore the existence of real elitist groups pulling strings behind the scenes while—in a more just world—they would have to give account of their deeds before an integral world community. Turning to the postmodern worldview, we would acknowledge the strife for a truly open society and a true democracy, as well as condemning reductionist and xenophobe conspiracy theories used as a propagandistic weapon to divide mankind. At the same time we would question the critical attitude of postmodernity against conspiracy theories as a whole, which can be misused to condemn critical voices without acknowledging their true opinions and knowledge. In this way the integral position would acknowledge the existence of real conspiracies and therefore real conspiracy theories as well as the existence of false and dangerous conspiracy theories. Furthermore it would acknowledge the huge spectrum of worldviews contributing to the field of conspiracy theories, making this field a delicate and challenging task to work through, even on the basis of an integrally informed approach. This, however, should not intimidate true integral thinkers, given the opportunity to contribute to the advancement of humanity and safeguarding us from heading further and further along the downward spiral of the current information war.
Outro: A president as a conspiracist?
I began by introducing the inauguration of President Trump as the crucial trigger of our current “post-truth age” as well as himself being an “incarnation of anti-postmodernism”. Now, after having described the anti-conspiracist stance of the postmodern worldview, the meaning of these titles might have become a bit clearer. How appropriate these titles are, might even become more clear by investigating the case of Donald Trump more deeply. Because what many don't know, is, that Trump also rang in a new era within the topic of conspiracy theories themselves.
The story begins with Donald Trump achieving social media fame with his Twitter messages way before his presidency. After his inauguration Trumps social activity continued, bringing him 80 million followers up to the present day. Trumps tweets regularly have been the subject of critique or even mockery, because he repeatedly seems to make typing errors. Trump for example called Amazon-owner Jeff Bezos “Jeff Bozo”, which instantly was classified as a misstep by the media. But at the same time, Americas most famous clown is called “Bozo”, so the typo could also have been a conscious side kick against Bezos. Another time, Trump used the inexistent word “covfefe” in one of his tweets, with the result of it quickly becoming a running gag. But a few weeks later the COVFEFE act was introduced, a bill that would require the National Archives to store all the social media posts of the President of the United States. Further incidents of these kinds seem to indicate a certain affinity of Trump towards word plays and reading between the lines.
The story continued in the end of 2017, when an anonymous blogger introduced himself as “Q” on an imageboard website. It is known that Q is the highest American security clearance for secret informations. This anonymous Q, soon to be referred to as QAnon, continued to leave informations in a cryptical form, implicating with his names and other hints, that these informations stem from a top insider level. Of course Q was immediately questioned and attacked as fake from various sides within the blogger community. Q then continued to post contents that could be interpreted as having a connection President Trump himself. One time, for example, he posted a picture taken from inside an airplane, which alledgedly shows North Korea from inside the Air Force One. A little latter a community member asked Q to prove his claims by urging Trump to use the words “tip top” in one of his speeches. Shortly afterwards, Trump, in his Easter Egg Roll Speech, referred to the White house by using the peculiar words: “We keep it in tip-top shape. We call it sometimes tippy-top shape. And its a great, great place.” Later that day Q posted: “Tip Top Tippy Top Shape. It was requested. Did you listen today?”
These and other posts convinced the growing QAnon community to find in Q a direct link to the President himself. Q would inform them—in a cryptical language—about the true backgrounds of political events. Q's conspiracist narrative pictures Trump as not being the brute pictured in the common media outlets, but working on a plan to bring to light the criminal schemes of the so called deep state. This plan is alledgedly backed by the military secret service and all the data gathered by the NSA.
The narrative of QAnon in some ways turns the world of conspiracy theories upside down: Not the US-President is the prime suspect of a conspiracy—as for example with Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Quite on the contrary, the President this time takes the role of the main conspiracist himself. And big brother NSA collecting data about anyone and everything is not anymore being seen as a problem, but as the strongest weapon against the true conspirators.
What is truth, where do lies and deceptions begin and how does integral thinking deal with the challenges of our times? With Qanon, whose identity to this day is unknown and who continues to post on a regular basis, we have come to one of the hot spots of our current multi-truth age.
 Ken Wilber, Trump and a Post-Truth World – An Evolutionary Self-Correction, Shambala, Boulder 2017
 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2012, p. 148f
 Axel Burkart, Mit einem Satz das Leben ändern – Die Kraft der richtigen Glaubenssätze, Irisana Verlag, München, S. 150f (my translation)
 Kuhn, S. 153
 Kuhn, S. 178
 Armin Risi, Der radikale Mittelweg, Kopp Verlag, Rottenburg 2009, S. 389 (my translation)
 Postmodernist pluralism falls into the trap of a fallacy claiming there are no universal truths or no truth is higher than the other. The statement “there are no universal truths” is in itself universalistic, same as the statement “no truth is higher than the other” in itself claims to be a higher truth.
 Holarchy = nested, interdependent hierarchy
 Lance deHaven-Smith, Conspiracy Theory in America, University of Texas Press, Austin 2013, p. 84ff
 Karl Hepfer, Verschwö rungstheorien – Eine Philosophische Kritik der Unvernunft, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2015, S. 141 (my translation)
 Thomas Grütter, Freimaurer, Illuminaten und andere Verschwörer – Wie Verschwörungstheorien funktionieren, Fischer Taschenbuch, Frankfurt am Main 2008, S. 12
 Des Griffin, Wer regiert die Welt?, Verlag Diagnosen, Leonberg 1992, S. 10f
 Wouter J. Hanegraaf, Western Esotericism – A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury Academic, London/New York 2013, p. 54
 Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from, The Free Press, New York 1997, p. 54
 Lawrence P. McDonald in: Gary Allen, The Rockefeller File, Buccaneer Books. 1998, Introduction
 Wolfgang Welsch, Unsere postmoderne Moderne, VCH, Acta humaniora, Weinheim 1991, S. 73f (my translation)
 Johannes Rogalla von Bieberstein, Der Mythos von der Verschwörung – Philosophen, Freimaurer, Juden, Liberale und Sozialisten als Verschwörer gegen die Sozialordnung, matrixverlag, Wiesbaden 2008, S. 34ff (my translation)
 Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy – Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, Cambridge University Press, New York 2012, p. 217
 Rogalla von Bieberstein, S. 119
 Rogalla von Bieberstein, S. 165
 Rogalla von Bieberstein, S. 168f
 Rogalla von Bieberstein, S. 177f (my translation)
 deHaven-Smith, p. 56f
 Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2 Hegel & Marx, Routledge paperback, London 1962, p. 101
 Michael Butter, “Nichts ist, wie es scheint” – über Verschwörungstheorien, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2018, S. 16f (my translation)
 Welsch, S. 6
 Welsch, S. 5ff (my translation)
 Welsch, S. 180f (my translation)
 Pipes, p. 24f
 Charles Pigden, Popper Revisited, First published 1995, p. 4f
 Popper, p. 269
 deHaven-Smith, p.78
 Popper, p. 19
 Popper, p. 30f
 Popper, p. 82f
 Popper, p. 89f
 Popper, p. 93
 Popper, p. 96
 Popper, p. 125
 Popper, p. 268f
 Popper, p. 278
[42 Theodor Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality, Verso, London – New York, 2019, Chapter XIX. (Kindle-Positions 20289- 20323)
 Adorno, The F Scale: Form 78, Sentence 70 (Kindle-Position 7124)
 Adorno, Chapter XIX. (Kindle-Positions 20350-20351)
 Adorno, Chapter XVI. (Kindle-Positions 17288-17291)
 Richard Hofstadter, The Paraonid Style in American Politics, Vintage Books, New York 2008, p. 3f (eigene Übersetzung)
 Hofstadter, p. 36f
 See for example: Donald Trump's paranoid style (https://www.prospectmagazine.co,uk/politics/donald-trump-paranoid-impeachment-james-zirin)
 deHaven-Smith, p. 107f
 CIA-Document 1035-960 – Countering Criticism of the Warren Report http://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docld=53510
 Pipes, p. 30f
 Pipes, p. 40f
 Pipes, p. 42f
 Pipes, p. 49 (eigene übersetzung)
 Butter, S. 83f (my translation)
 Roger Schawinski, Verschwörung! – Die fanatische Jagd nach dem Bösen in der Welt, NZZ Libro, Zürich 2018, S. 176ff (my translation)
 Butter, S. 222 (my translation)
 Butter, S. 40f (my translation)
 Butter, S. 53 / S. 83f
 Butter, S. 58
 Schawinski S.69/9/19/185 (my translation)
 Christian Alt / Christian Schiffer, Angela Merkel ist Hitlers Tocher – Im Land der Verschwörungstheorien, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2018, S. 127f (my translation)
 Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1988, p. 22f
 Shadia B. Drury, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, St. Martin's Press, New York 1988, p. 20f
 Drury, p. 1
 Strauss, p. 36
 deHaven-Smith, p. 82f
 Drury, p. 151f
 Drury, p. 113
 Drury, p. 44
 Vgl. deHaven-Smith, p. 96f
 Michael A. Ledeen, Machiavelli on Modern Leadership – Why Machiavelli's Iron Rules Are As Timely And Important Today As Five Centuries Ago, St. Martin's Press, New York 1999, p. 16
 Ledeen, p. 61
 Ledeen, p. 96
 Ledeen, p. 106
 Hepfer, S. 25 (my translation)
 Ken Wilber, The Deconstruction of the World Trade Center – A Date That Will Live in a Sliding Chain of Signifiers (www.kenwilber.com/Writings/PDF/WTC.pdf)
 Corey deVos, Conspiracy in the Age of Aperspectival Madness https://integrallife.com/conspiracy-age-aperspectival-madness/
 WWG1WGA, QAnon – An Invitation to The Great Awakening, Relentlessly Creative Books, Dallas 2019, p. 7f
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