By Charles Eisenstein
Looking out upon the horrid ruin we seem to have made of the planet, in spite of the kind hearts and good intentions of the vast majority of human beings, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some nefarious force has hijacked civilization, driving it towards ends that serve almost no one.
If we are headed for a future that no one would consciously choose, it stands to reason, some say, that we are not choosing; that something else, unfriendly to human welfare, is choosing for us.
The alternate history explains world events as resulting from the machinations of a powerful, dark cabal of secret organizations comprising the global elite: the banks, wealthy families like the Rockefellers and Rothschilds, non-official organizations like the Bilderburg Council, organized crime, shadowy agencies within the government, secret societies like Skull and Bones and the Freemasons, and so on. Behind them all is a group even more secret, comprising the true rulers of earth, who count even prime ministers and presidents among their puppets. Some theorist say that these Illuminati who hold the reins of power are human beings; others say that they have extraterrestrial allies, or that this group is controlled by, or consists of, ETs. Their goal, it is said, is to impose a New World Order (NWO) in which their dominion is complete.
In addition, the dark cabal that rules the earth is purported to have powerful secret technologies at its disposal. Weather control, mind control, energy weapons, artificially created diseases like Lyme and Swine Flu, and other near-magical technologies enable them to destroy any opposition and control us in ways we barely suspect. Always they are seeking to impose new forms of tyranny, to extend their dominion over mind and matter.
The purpose of this essay is not to debunk conspiracy theories or uphold the dominant historical narrative. Rather, I will advance a third explanation that respects and transcends both. Most critiques of conspiracy theories dispute the author's evidence, logic, and sources, and impugn his sanity, intelligence, or integrity. I will not do that. While such critiques often have merit, they tend to go after the low-hanging fruit: the sloppiest authors, the weakest points of their theses, the most easily explained of their evidence. Giving the best of the genre a fair reading, however, the impartial reader realizes that something strange is going on.
Moreover, the NWO conspiracy theory, whatever its flaws, bears some important truths. For one thing, it speaks to our sense that there is something deeply wrong in the world, something that is right in front of our faces yet that we are too blind to see. The NWO hypothesis feels validating and liberating. In the end, though, many people find it to be disempowering; as I shall describe, it subtly feeds into the mentality behind the very same conditions that it aspires to change. It robs us of our power and helps maintain the status quo. How does this happen, and how can its liberating potential be realized? To answer this question, let us begin with a meta-level critique of the NWO thesis, and conspiracism in general, a critique that opens the door toward integrating both the NWO and the dominant narrative into a larger framework.
The Futility of Control
Are there really ultra-intelligent, ultra-competent people on top whose plans actually work and whose technologies actually succeed in molding the world to their plans? Or are the elites of our civilization as confused and scared as the rest of us, responding to events that, at every turn, take on a life of their own? The futility of control is written into the fabric of reality. Complex non-linear systems such as a body or a society are inherently unpredictable. Of course, those in power try to maintain control and often wreak awful damage in so doing, but generally speaking it is events that control them, and not the other way around.
Conspiracy theories ascribe a degree of competence, foresight, and efficiency to the controlling organizations that is generally foreign to human institutions. We live in a civilization built on control, on the idea that we can order the world through material and social technology and, once we perfect those technologies, win the war against nature, against disorder, against uncertainty. But in fact, the world is messy, chaotic, and unpredictable, and no matter how tightly we attempt to orchestrate events, control slips through our grasp like mud through a clenched fist. We are immersed in an ideology that says that with the next technological revolution, with next medical innovation, or the next set of comprehensive regulations, finally we will get all the messy variables under control and live in an orderly, secure world.
The conspiracists agree with a defining precept of our civilization: that the world is fundamentally amenable to control. They think that this power to control has been turned toward evil, but do not dispute the technocratic doctrine that society and the material world can be endlessly improved through the methods of science: gathering information, making plans, eliminating variables, applying force, and so on. To believe that the NWO conspiracy is even possible is to conform to one of the primary motivating and justifying beliefs underlying totalitarianism. The NWO believers are not as radical as they think.
We have been betrayed. After centuries of sacrifice on the altar of technological development, we harbor a deep disappointment and anger. We export that anger onto the Illuminati, or whoever it is that has robbed us of The Future. Surely this technological utopia exists – it has only been withheld from us, and the technologies of paradise turned toward nefarious ends. But the real problem is deeper than that. It is the paradigm of control itself that causes us to sacrifice everything in pursuit of a mirage.
The Dynamics of Command
A staple of conspiracy theories is the idea that "President Obama is a puppet" or that, "Even David Rockefeller is taking orders from higher up." So let us look into the social dynamics of hierarchies. For someone to obey orders, either the command-giver must have direct physical power over the subordinate (for example, a literal gun to the head), or both commander and commandee must be embedded in a social institution that legitimizes and enforces the command. An obvious example of the latter is the army. When a colonel gives an order to a major, the latter obeys not because he is afraid the colonel will beat him up if he refuses, but because both are part of a web of (mostly implicit) agreements. Ultimately, if he doesn't comply with the order, someone (say military police) might beat him up or imprison him, but that happens as well because the web of agreements includes consequences for violating them. We could say that colonel, major, military police, and the rest all share a common "story of the army".
What about the global conspiracy? What social institution exists that would legitimize orders issued to David Rockefeller or Barack Obama? The story of the army is embedded in larger legitimizing stories that ultimately encompass the legitimacy of the government, the value of money, an interpretation of history, a system a values and morals, and more. What infrastructure exists that would allow direct hierarchical control over Obama or Rockefeller? Hierarchies cannot exist in a social vacuum. They require a system of indoctrination and acculturation along with numerous supporting institutions.
Consider, for example, the idea that the World Trade Center towers fell due to demolition charges placed inside the buildings by government operatives. For them to be willing to do this, they would have to exist nearly in a separate social universe, inculcated with values very different from those of the rest of society. Contrary to the impression given by Hollywood movies, people don't commit acts like this out of pure unreasoning evil. They do so in conformity to a culturally-embedded world-view. I could see how Islamic Jihadists, inflamed by radical imams and outraged by the devastation that American imperialism has wreaked on their society, could hatch a plot to strike a blow at the "Great Satan". But what would it take for American demolitions experts to commit mass murder against their own compatriots? What would it take for you, dear reader, to do it? What kind of alternate education, acculturation, indoctrination would you have to go through to commit and then keep secret such an act? Who would administer this education? How would the operation, and the whole educational and support infrastructure around it, be kept secret from the rest of society? Are the low-paid works in building security, or the majority of decent folks at the CIA or NSA in on it too? Basically, for a conspiracy of this scale to exist, there would have to be an entire parallel society hidden within our own, complete with a full set of parallel institutions to create people with a very different culture among us.
Reread that last sentence through a metaphoric lens for a hint of where this essay is headed.
I have noticed that conspiracy theories have a very strong emotional appeal – at least to some people. Believers like to think that they are impartially choosing their belief because they are more rational, more intelligent, or more open-minded than all those benighted, deluded "sheeple" out there. Two people look at the same set of facts and draw different conclusions. Is that choice a function of intelligence and reason? Or could it be that we choose interpretations to meet psychological and emotional needs?
One indication of the emotional appeal of conspiracy theories is their addictive nature. When I visited the conspiracy state of being some time ago, I found myself constantly checking certain websites, and feeling a kind of gratification at each discovery of some new outrage. Other than that, it was a very dark and heavy state of being that I visited, full of gloomy cynicism and a superficial feeling of superiority that didn't even fool myself. I've heard from people for whom this became a full-fledged addiction. They spend hours every day reading about the machinations of the New World Order, and go through intense withdrawal whenever they miss their "fix".
Believers spend lots of time getting "informed", but do they really act upon that information? Some do, I suppose: they move to an armed compound in Idaho or hide gold coins in their basement. But most go on with life as usual. How are they any different from their neighbors? Their eyeballs linger over Alex Jones' website rather than NPR's, but to what end? They may believe themselves to be among the canny, righteous few, fighting against evil on behalf of the ignorant masses, but mostly they do nothing. Like any addiction, addiction to conspiracy websites or the closely related end-of-the-world websites disempowers people, and actually helps maintain the status quo.
Belief in conspiracy theories is not one of several emotionally coequal world-view alternatives. It is part and parcel of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual state of being. That state of being is a victim state. The belief that events are controlled by malevolent people far more powerful than ourselves, that any attempt at change is futile in the face of the tremendous powers arrayed against us, leaves no alternative but to carve out a small, safe realm of rebellion-in-private. If there were indeed a global conspiracy, it would be quite happy with this result. Paradoxically, then, we might say that the idea that there is a global conspiracy is itself a lie propagated by the global conspiracy.
One of the most common criticisms of conspiracy theories is that they are non-falsifiable, since any contradictory evidence can be written off as a fabrication, a false trail, or so forth. A conspiracy, moreover, must be well-hidden – lack of evidence is itself evidence! What is less frequently acknowledged is that the alternatives to conspiracy theories are very nearly non-falsifiable as well. Anyone who comes forth to expose a conspiracy can be labeled a fraud or a madman, and nearly anything can be written off as coincidence. We are faced, as we are so often in life, with two narratives that can, with perhaps a bit of stretching, account for all of the facts. How then to choose?
Much as we would like to think otherwise, evidence and logic cannot bring certainty. Nor, as numerous social psychology experiments demonstrate, are they the primary determinants of our judgments and choices. Despite the epithets hurled back and forth, neither side of, say, the 9/11 conspiracy issue is stupid. Critics of conspiracy theories paint their proponents as naïve, unsophisticated, and guilty of obvious selection biases and a host of elementary errors in research and logic. I have found such critiques unsatisfactory. They certainly apply to the worst of the genre, but not always to the best.
Reasonable people can, depending on their vantage point and life situation, look at the same set of events and form different beliefs about them. These beliefs then become a filter that determines what they see and, indeed, what they look for. It is as if they enter separate but parallel realities. As we shall see, there is more to this appearance than meets the eye.
The War against Evil
Among conspiracism's psychological payoffs that it provides someone to blame, to hate, and perhaps to fight in a world of otherwise incomprehensible injustice and horror. Paradoxically, even though it casts us as victims of super-powerful conspirators, it also provides a kind of control. After all, if the source of evil in the world today is the conspirators, then the solution is quite clear: expose and remove them. If there is no conspiracy – if, for instance, evil is endemic to the world or an emergent property of organizations – then we are even more helpless. Even if as a practical matter we cannot hope to defeat the conspiracy, at least we understand why things are the way they are. We know a solution, even if it be out of reach.
That solution, to put it succinctly, is to conquer evil. Conspiracism offers an external evil and thereby exculpates us from our own complicity in the awful things happening on earth today. We can think, "If only I were in charge, I would run things very differently than the New World Order Illuminati, because I am a decent person, not evil like they are."
The paradigm that sees human affairs – and even cosmic processes – as a war between good and evil has deep roots, originating with the first agricultural civilizations. It was then that the concept of evil arose, mirroring the growing oppositional relationship to nature implicit in the taming of the wild. Rather than being seen as integral parts of the whole, such things as weeds, wolves, and locusts became threats to human well-being and the object of extermination campaigns – campaigns that are still with us today. The chaotic forces of nature were identified with evil, while good was associated with the bringing of order to nature and to human affairs. If only, someday, our control over nature and society could be complete, the thinking goes, then good will reign on earth and suffering will be minimized or even, with nanotechnology and neuro-engineering, eliminated. Evil will have been conquered.
When new political movements come to power, they often bring with them the idea of eliminating evil. Whether it is the Nazi Holocaust or the Stalinist purges, the result is usually bloody, regardless of how evil is identified. In other words, the idea of evil begets evil. We may add, then, a second paradox to the one above. In the war between good and evil, a great weapon of the forces of evil is the notion that there is a war between good and evil.
Conspiracism gives new guise to a very old thoughtform (that the horror of our world is caused by forces of evil) that is becoming obsolete. We can see its obsolescence both in our changing attitudes toward nature, which no longer hold it as an object of conquest and exploitation, and in newly ascendant spiritual beliefs that emphasize the integration and transcendence of dualities. In social psychology as well, a new movement called situationism contends that the totality of our external and internalized circumstances, rather than some disposition toward good or evil, determines our choices.
In fields as disparate as physics, psychology, ecology, and spirituality, people are understanding that what happens "out there" is intimately connected to what happens "in here"; that self and world are interdependent and mutually co-constructed. A dark conspiracy controlling world events mirrors the same inside ourselves. When I say "ourselves" I don't mean some people and not others and certainly not us good guys. I mean you, me, and everyone.
Herein may lie an important truth encoded in conspiracy theories: not a factual truth, but a mythological truth. There does seem to be a conspiracy running inside my psyche that keeps me enslaved to fear and greed; that indeed possesses technologies of mind control; that presents the whole world through a filter of lies; that is associated somehow with the reptilian part of my brain; that manipulates me to serve an agenda inimical to my authentic happiness. Everything that the Illuminati are purported to do to the world, we do to ourselves. Could it be that when we see an evil cabal controlling the world, we are actually seeing the projection of our own egos?
And, because our collective institutions mirror the prevailing psychodynamics of our time, could it be that story of the New World Order conspiracy, despite its flaws, gives us a window onto some important truths about our society?