CONSPIRACY AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES IN DEMOCRATIC POLITICS
ABSTRACT: While conspiracies have always been with us, conspiracy theories are more recent arrivals. The framing of conspiracy theories as rooted in erroneous or delusional belief in conspiracies is characteristic of “positive” approaches to the topic, which focus on identifying the causes and cures of conspiracy theories. “Critical” approaches, by contrast, focus on the historical and cultural construction of the concept of conspiracy theory itself. This issue presents a range of essays that cut across these two broad approaches, and reflect on the problematic relationship between conspiracy theory and democratic politics.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES IN A NETWORKED WORLD
David Singh Grewal
ABSTRACT: The arrangements characteristic of systems of networked governance are likely to generate conspiracy theories because they rely on informal rather than formal structures of power. A formal hierarchy may be resented, but it is understood by those affected by it; in network systems, by contrast, it is often hard to determine who is in charge, even though such systems can heavily influence or even determine important social outcomes. While conspiracy theories may be motivated by many factors, in a world in which informal norms and the decisions of networked elites play a large role, we should expect to see a continued and increasing preoccupation with alleged conspiracies. Some allegations of conspiracy may even function as cognitive shortcuts—“as-if” conspiracies—which apply a cui bono style of reasoning to make sense of otherwise opaque modes of social control.
HAYEK, CONSPIRACY, AND DEMOCRACY
ABSTRACT: Hayek’s social theory is resolutely anti-conspiratorial: He consistently rejects conceiving complex orders as though they were designed or planned. His account of democratic politics, by contrast, treats it as conducive to conspiracy, organized deception, and ultimately totalitarianism. His epistemology of spontaneous order and his radical suspicion of democratic politics are connected: The decay of democracy is itself a complex consequence of popular misunderstandings of social order. However, since Hayek is unable to account for self-correction within democratic structures, his argument has the unanticipated consequence of leading him to an implicitly authoritarian position.
SPEAKING TRUTH TO CONSPIRACY: PARTISANSHIP AND TRUST
Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum
ABSTRACT: What we call the “partisan connection”—the bridge parties build between the people and the formal polity—entails sympathizing with citizens’ suspicions and fears (though not recklessly stoking them). However, loosening the partisan connection and “speaking truth to conspiracy” is sometimes a moral and political imperative when conspiracy charges come from party leaders’ constituents and fellow partisans. We consider epistemological challenges that make it difficult to assess whether conspiracy claims are warranted, and we consider political challenges to assessing the validity of conspiracy claims that are posed by the secrecy, misleading partial truths, obscurantism, and lying that are endemic to politics. Finally, we propose three standards for responsible party officials to use when judging whether to oppose conspiratorial claims: when they are fueled by hatred of certain groups; when they represent the opposition as treasonous and illegitimate; and when conspiracism extends to authority generally, especially expert authority, thereby undermining the basic work of government decision making.
TECHNOLOGICAL CONSPIRACIES: COMTE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SPIRITUAL DESPOTISM
ABSTRACT: While there have been numerous critiques of the ideology of technology, it is useful to situate technology within both a liberal and a conspiratorial framework. The early work of Auguste Comte offers an ideal vehicle for this kind of analysis. Liberalism’s embrace of technology is developed in Comte to produce a theory of scientific and technical elites intent on reinventing society and the individual. This “technological conspiracy” reads very much like elements of a Silicon Valley manifesto describing the cyber-utopia of a near tomorrow. For these reasons Comte is relevant to a discussion of conspiracy today.
CARTELS AND CONSPIRACIES
ABSTRACT: The modern view of economic conspiracies stands in stark contrast to the view in the eighteenth century. Such classical economists as Adam Smith took conspiracy to be the natural result of our tendency to associate with one another. It manifested itself in collusion among both laborers and manufacturers to raise their income. By the mid-twentieth century, however, economists had come around to an entirely different view, according to which voluntary collaboration, especially in large groups, was unnatural and irrational, such that the only way to sustain cartels and trade unions was via compulsory, tyrannical measures. The notion of rationality that underlies such a view—as seen in the parallel notion that it is irrational to vote—threatens the understanding of agency that is essential to democracy.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES IN THE UNITED STATES: MORE COMMONPLACE THAN EXTRAORDINARY
Joanne M. Miller and Kyle L. Saunders
ABSTRACT: In American Conspiracy Theories, Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent provide an important corrective to empirical work suggesting that conspiracy theories are the domain of paranoids. The authors provide convincing evidence that conspiracy endorsement is a motivated-reasoning process that connects conspiracy theories that buttress psychologically threatened identities to the ideological worldviews of those who feel anxious, alienated, or powerless.