It’s important to recognize that words like conspiracy and paranoid have limited credible application in political analysis or in everyday life. Fusing them into a single concept vanquishes malign motives behind political and business decisions that affect the lives of ordinary people. In the Gilded Age, which produced a golden age of journalistic muckraking, the public knew that amoral greed resorts to subterfuge and conspiracy, as the press was not monopolized by people feeding at the same trough as the robber barons.
“Pirates are commonly supposed to have been battered and hung out of existence when the Barbary Powers and the Buccaneers of the Spanish Main had been finally dealt with,” wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr. in Chapters of Erie. “Yet freebooters are not extinct; they have only transferred their operations to the land, and conducted them in more or less accordance with the forms of law; until, at last, so great a proficiency have they attained, that the commerce of the world is more equally but far more heavily taxed in their behalf, than would ever have entered into their wildest hopes while, outside the law, they simply made all comers stand and deliver.”
Adams’s two reports of the Erie wars of 1868, like his brother Henry’s account of the New York Gold Conspiracy (inserted between them in Chapters of Erie), are so meticulously detailed as to seem irrefutable. He unravels the intricate plotting of Cornelius Vanderbilt to wrest control of the Erie Railroad and its branches from Daniel Drew, James Fisk Jr., and Jay Gould, no slouches in the conspiracy department themselves. Chapters of Erie uncovers depths of corruption and conspiracy undreamt of in America before then and unparalleled until the G.W. Bush administration. Players in the Erie drama manipulated the stock market like a rigged slot machine, liberally purchased judges and legislators, and in one spectacular instance staged a rail collision in a tunnel north of Albany.
After an injunction issued in downtown Manhattan ordering the Drew party to cease any actions in “furtherance of said conspiracy,” the Drew attorneys obtained a counter-injunction from another jurisdiction and dumped 50,000 shares of Erie stock on the market, which were instantly bought up by Vanderbilt before he learned their source; to avoid arraignment on contempt of court charges, the Drew minions fled the financial district at 10 in the morning for the safety of New Jersey:
[T]he astonished police saw a throng of panic-stricken railway directors—looking more like a frightened gang of thieves, disturbed in the division of their plunder, than like the wealthy representatives of a great corporation—rush headlong . . . in the direction of the Jersey ferry. In their hands were packages and files of papers, and their pockets were crammed with assets and securities. One individual bore away with him in a hackney-coach bales containing six millions of dollars in greenbacks.
Adams’s account conjures images of the so-called perp walk that some of Wall Street’s most egregious recent knaves have taken for the cameras, though contemporary financial scandals have produced little authentic reform. The agencies entrusted to cleanse the system have been as tainted as their targets. The revolving door between government jobs and corporate board seats; rampant looting as corporate S.O.P.; and the Orwellian duckspeak of a conglomerated media system are symptoms of a failing democracy.
While Adams could write frankly about the true state of affairs within America’s power elite (“Mr. Justice Sutherland, a magistrate of such pure character and unsullied reputation that it is inexplicable how he ever came to be elevated to the bench on which he sits . . . “), “investigative reporting” in our era has become a desk job involving a few phone calls and the endless quoting of “anonymous sources” who are, invariably, government officials rather than ordinary citizens fearing retribution from these same officials.
Since Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy typifies the “one bad apple” approach, its opening anecdote is worth recounting:
On January 20, 2002, Richard McCaslin, thirty-seven, of Carson City, Nevada, was arrested sneaking into the Bohemian Grove in Northern California. The Grove is the site of an exclusive annual men’s retreat attended by powerful business and political leaders. . . . McCaslin . . . was carrying a combination shotgun-assault rifle, a .45 pistol, a crossbow, a knife, a sword, and a bomb-launching device. . . . [He] told police he had entered Bohemian Grove in order to expose the satanic human sacrifices he believed occurred there.
The interesting detail here isn’t a thwarted massacre by one of those deranged loners responsible for all political assassinations but Barkun’s bland characterization of Bohemian Grove: Inexplicably, he implies, the place is a magnet for conspiracists, some of whom also suggest “that the Grove’s guests include nonhuman species masquerading as human beings.”
In last year’s Where I Was From, Joan Didion provides a more textured and provocative description of Bohemian Grove:
By 1974 . . . one in five resident members and one in three non-resident members of the Bohemian Club was listed in Standard & Poor’s Register of Corporations, Executives, and Directors. . . . The summer encampment, then, had evolved into a special kind of enchanted circle, one in which these captains of American finance and industry could entertain . . . the temporary management of that political structure on which their own fortunes ultimately depended.
It’s no mystery that citizens of a country methodically eliminating its social services, waging “preemptive” wars on behalf of corporate interests, defunding education, and building more prisons than hospitals view the prevailing power structure as a public menace; that many of those citizens who can’t afford health care, whose jobs have been exported to countries where slave wages and child exploitation are endemic, spill over the edge, embrace bizarre cultic notions, and believe there are “aliens among us.”
One smells a metaphorical truth in McCaslin’s belief that “human sacrifices” occur in Bohemian Grove’s exclusive covens, typically attended by Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, James Baker III, Bush père et fils, the Bechtels, George Shultz, the heads of the World Bank and the IMF—none, as far as I know, even vaguely troubled by human sacrifices produced by the pursuit of their own enrichment.
The word conspiracy reduces logical thought to paranoia, and it’s misleading in a different sense too: Little of what we ought to know about the dealings of power is especially secret anymore. Much of the public doesn’t have the ability to make obvious connections between available facts. Remove education from the public agenda and you replace the capacity for analysis with an atavistic belief in horoscopes and astrology, alien abductions and Zionist imperialism.
Everyone in an authoritarian society understands what lies beyond the pale of consensual reality. Skepticism is demonized as “conspiracy theory,” evidence of real conspiracies ridiculed by mainstream media. Any rejection of received ideas is misrepresented to burnish absurdist images of conspirators as Dr. Mabuse-like lunatics gathering in dark basements and Masonic lodges.
Actual conspiracies do not involve interplanetary visitors, pod people, and the other fantasies conspiracist analysts call “stigmatized knowledge.” They involve money and power, and the manipulation of appearances by powerful interests. Conspiracies can evolve over time, without highly organized or explicit planning. Indeed, the “disorganized conspiracy” transpires in increments over generations, with no consistent personnel, and requires only a continuity of anti-populist, authoritarian ideology.
Ted Nace’s Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy charts the insidious, century-long accumulation of precedents constructed around a glaring judicial error, arising from the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, that has ultimately resulted in the extension of “equal protection” under the law to corporations, and the bestowal of “civil rights” and “immortal personhood” on economic entities, including the First and other Bill of Rights amendments intended to protect human individuals. This lethal absurdity has now become extraterritorial, as GATT and WTO measures enable corporations to file suit against sovereign states whose labor or environmental laws inhibit corporate profit-taking.
Nace cites the perversion of the Fourteenth Amendment, intended to guarantee due process and equal protection of the law to the slaves newly freed under the Thirteenth Amendment, into an instrument for “the empowerment of the corporation.” Per Nace: Justice Hugo Black noted that in the first 50 years of the Fourteenth Amendment’s existence, ” ‘less than one-half of 1 percent’ of cases in which it was invoked had to do with protection of African Americans, whereas 50 percent involved corporations.” Nace further notes that “the person who did more than anyone else to bring about this [corporate] empowerment was Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field . . . [whose] older brother David . . . served as counsel for the notorious railroad barons Jay Gould and Jim Fisk.”
Christian Parenti’s The Soft Cage follows another “disorganized conspiracy,” one that begins with the written physical descriptions on passes required for plantation slaves to travel off their owners’ property, and charts the gradual extension of obligatory identification documents into the lives of virtually all citizens. (An elegant exposition of the pre-photographic methods used in 18th-century Britain to identify fugitives can be found in William Godwin’s spellbinding 1794 novel The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Happily for many Southern slaves, who had secretly acquired literacy and could forge these passes, the passes themselves were usually inspected by illiterate Southern whites; British fugitives had no such luck.) Parenti’s book ends, or rather continues, with the gradual morphing of mandatory ID into interface media for the panoply of visual and electronic surveillance technologies now used to amass data on virtually every individual on earth. One could say, contingently, that these temporally spaced, individually smallish corrosions of individual rights and privacy “just sort of happened,” though the structural contradictions between capitalism and democracy they reflect, and the manufactured belief that the two things are identical, seem hardly the products of pure chance.
Economist Loretta Napoleoni provides an exhaustively researched account of one recent conspiracy in her book Modern Jihad:
Just as Worldcom was able to use accountancy techniques to tamper with its books, bin Laden’s associates succeeded in utilizing sophisticated insider trading instruments to speculate on the stock market prior to September 11. . . . [O]n 6 September . . . around 32 million British Airways shares changed hands in London, about three times the normal level. On 7 September, 2,184 put options on British Airways were traded on the LIFFE (London Futures and Options market), about five times the normal amount of daily trading. Across the Atlantic, on Monday, 10 September, the number of put options on American Airlines in the Chicago Board Options Exchange jumped 60 times the daily average. In the three days prior to the attack, the volume of put options in the U.S. surged 285 times the average trading level. . . . Ironically, in attacking one of the symbols of Western capitalism, bin Laden may have masterminded the biggest insider trading operation ever accomplished.
According to The Independent on Sunday of October 14, 2001, “To the embarrassment of investigators, it has also emerged that the firm used to buy many of the ‘put’ options—where a trader in effect bets on a share price fall—on United Airlines stock was headed until 1998 by ‘Buzzy’ Krongard, now the executive director of the CIA. . . . There is no suggestion that Mr Krongard had advance knowledge of the attacks.”
This information isn’t “secret,” but indicates a more coherent motive for the September 11 attacks than the conjuration of insane Islamists who “hate our democratic freedoms,” and who can therefore serve as pretexts for a “war on terror” that has so far done little to protect American citizens but has grossly enriched the corporate sponsors of the Bush administration, such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and myriad other interests whose emissaries revel round the campfire every summer at Bohemian Grove. And because it reveals what modern conspiracies are really all about, you are likely to find some garbled, discrediting version of it on page B27 of your daily newspaper rather than above the fold on page 1.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 1, 2004