Ruling class power can’t be understood as a conspiracy, argues John Rees
In the midst of the great debate about conspiracy theories, especially antisemitic conspiracy theory, the biggest question of all goes unasked.
That question is: why have conspiracy theories proliferated in recent years? Many seem to think that the left are to blame; that the knee-jerk hostility of leftists to the rich and powerful makes them prey to absurd, and sometimes objectionable, explanations about the way in which the world works and specifically about how power is wielded.
But a moment’s thought about recent history reveals an obvious alternative and compelling explanation.
It is universally accepted as true that the invasion of Afghanistan and the attack on Iraq, and the subsequent war on terror, are landmark events in global history in the last 20 years.
And it is now, although it was not at the time, also universally accepted that the invasion of Iraq was premised on a lie. Both George Bush and, to even greater extent, Tony Blair, relentlessly propagated the idea that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Every institution in the political establishment supported this claim from from the secret service to the civil service, from the mass media to the overwhelming majority of MPs in both parties.
This, as every dog in the street now knows, was a monumental lie.
And it was not the only one. Lies about the length of war, about its capacity to liberate Iraqis and Afghanis, about the successes of British troops, about the treatment of prisoners, about the existence of special rendition, about the death of civilians, were all gradually and relentlessly hauled into the light of day.
There are other conditions which underlie the spread of conspiracy theories in the last decade or so, but none are as fundamental as the lies told in the war on terror. After all, even those citizens entirely impervious to conspiracy theory might well ask themselves ‘if the Government is willing to tell such a huge lie about such an important issue as the war in the Middle East what else might it also be lying about?’
It is from this fertile soil that conspiracy theories grow.
And of course once a significant section of the population is sensitised to the fact that the government is capable of lying on such a scale it begins to see, to become aware of, other smaller lies that governments routinely tell.
This is not the first time that war has had this effect. The lies involved in defending the Vietnam War, in America if not in Britain where no troops were directly deployed, were at least as great. And many conspiracy theories about government, about the military industrial complex, about the CIA, flourished as a result.
But the effect of the war on terror is different in two respects. Firstly, social media has massively amplified conspiracy theories in a way unimaginable in the late ‘60s and 1970s.
Secondly, the far left, frequently Marxist in its ideological training, was larger and more influential than it is today. And this theoretical tradition is constitutionally opposed to conspiracy theory, having a completely different explanation of the way in which power and propaganda are related.
In the UK the rise of Corbynism has done little to improve matters. British Labourism has always been a theoretically impoverished current. In the past it was largely reliant on the Communist Party, and intellectuals influenced by the Communist Party, to provide theoretical ballast. But that source of analytical training is now also much weaker than in the past, certainly much weaker than it was in the last flourishing of the Labour left around Tony Benn in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Consequently, conspiracy theory is massively amplified by social media and circulated in a broadly radicalised constituency in which theoretical understanding of how power works is often limited and lacking historical depth.
So what does all this mean concretely? Let’s look at the most contentious area in which conspiracy theory is seen to do damage, the debate around the Palestine-Israel conflict.
The critical area of debate is over the so-called Israel lobby. This is where many conspiratorially-inclined accounts claim that the behaviour, loyalties, and funding of British and American politicians is dependent on the state of Israel.
Indeed, the wider claim that American and British foreign policy is controlled by the state of Israel is often advanced.
There is a grain of truth here. Of course groups and individuals that work on behalf of the Israeli state do exist, although the degree to which they are coordinated in a single lobby is open to debate. And western foreign policy, and politicians in both the US and Britain, are pro-Israeli.
The problem arises, indeed the conspiratorial nature of the explanation occurs, when we assume, simplistically, that one results from the other. But in fact a short thought experiment will reveal that this is not the truth.
Imagine that no ‘Israel lobby’ existed. Imagine there were no meetings of Israeli propagandists with western politicians, no funding, no paid for trips to Israel. Would that then mean that western foreign policy would cease to be in favour of Israel? Would there be a sudden reversal in the attitudes of previously pro-Israeli politicians?
A moment’s thought tells us that this is not the likely scenario. In fact, western foreign policy would remain in favour of the state of Israel, and politicians that are currently aligned with Israel would remain so.
The reason for this is straightforward. America, Britain, and other western states rely on the state of Israel to implement their policy in the whole of the Middle East. It is in their interests to do so, and they pay extortionate amounts of money in aid and armaments to the Israeli state in order that this policy continues decade after decade. They need no special persuasion, although they no doubt welcome the contact and funding that the Israel lobby brings with it.
US and British foreign policy is not a product of Israeli lobbying, the existence of the state of Israel is a product of western support. The tail does not wag the dog.
What is necessary to understand this relationship is not a conspiracy theory centred on the amazing power of a small state in the Middle East to determine the policy of the most wealthy, militarily powerful states in the world. What is necessary is an understanding of the imperial power structure of the world in which the most powerful states shape client regimes in order to pursue their goals in various parts of the world, nowhere more importantly than the Middle East.
Once this power structure is clearly understood the role of the paid advocates of Israel can be reduced to its proper proportions. It is not an all-powerful secret plot which has western foreign policy in its grip, it is simply an auxiliary operation supporting a policy which the western powers are all too happy to pursue in their own interests. Israeli advocates are not forcing open any doors. In fact, the red carpet has already been rolled out for them. If the lobbyists look successful, it is because success is guaranteed beforehand by the larger structure of imperial power in the Middle East.
The politicians, Labour or Tory, who support Israel do so because they are politically convinced that it is the right thing to do. In the same way as they are convinced that it is right to support NATO, or the construction and use of nuclear weapons.
What is necessary to defeat them is not primarily the exposure of any links that they may have with Israeli lobbyists, although this may on occasion have a certain secondary value. What is necessary is to show the entirely destructive, inhumane, costly danger to livelihood and life that such pro-imperial politics involve.
At the end of the day it will not be journalistic exposure which sustains a movement in solidarity with the Palestinians, but a superior political analysis of how capitalism and imperialism blight the lives of both those in the Middle East and in the imperial powers of the west.
Of course not all conspiracy theories are the same. Not all even contain the grain of truth that we have seen exists in the case of the Israel lobby. Some are simply wild concoctions which should be exposed. Chemtrails with which the government is spraying the mass of the population with toxins designed to keep them subservient is simply sub X-Files nonsense. The idea that the Rothschilds can control central banks is simply racist, the anti-capitalism of fools, which should be exposed as such.
But these ridiculous social media fads are only now gaining wider prominence because of the argument in the Labour Party, and this overwhelmingly revolves around claims of antisemitism which are sometimes linked to the nature of the global banking economy but much more usually linked to debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This is why I have concentrated on the role of the ‘Israel lobby’. It is not even as if it is automatically antisemitic to imagine that this lobby, defined as a Zionist lobby and not as a lobby which represents the views of all Jews, is more powerful than it actually is. But getting this wrong, attributing more power to the Israeli state and is propagandists than is actually the case, can result in misleading analysis and expressions which run the risk of being accused of antisemitism, or actually tipping over into an analysis which is antisemitic.
One final point. All this having been said, we should not fall into the opposite error when we reject conspiracy theory. While it should be clear that politics is not determined by conspiracies, it should also be clear that political actors and political organisations representing different social forces do organise, strategise, plan and act according to decisions made in private. Such decisions will not be necessarily transparent, not least because those making them do not want them to be open to their enemies. This process is universal, present in the organisations of all social classes.
But while these decisions are not publicly transparent, neither are they conspiracies whose existence is beyond rational political investigation. All political positions which involve real class forces have in the end to be publicly visible for the simple reason that their instigators have to mobilise their own supporters and neutralise their opponents in order to be effective.
For example, Margaret Thatcher and her government undoubtedly coordinated with the National Coal Board and other sections of the state apparatus a strategy for taking on and defeating the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s. The exact details of this plan were often formulated in secret. But the overall existence of such a strategy, and indeed the initially hidden details of the strategy, were discoverable and discovered precisely because the government had to make its case in public, to mobilise the forces of the state openly, and to react to the resistance of the miners in ways that could not be contained within a simple conspiracy.
The complexity of these issues makes a particularly clear case of why theory matters. Getting this right is now not just a matter of correctly understanding the Palestinians’ struggle against Israeli apartheid, but of winning an argument inside the British Labour movement about why supporters of the Palestinian cause are at the same time unimpeachably anti-racist. And, more generally, socialists will mislead themselves and others if they adopt simplistic conspiratorial explanations of the way in which the world works rather than examining how class and power and propaganda are actually related in real struggles.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.