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Conspiracy Theories vs. the Religion of Democracy
I wrote an article on Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard. I argued that one of the reasons why tenured Austrian School economists want to distance themselves from him, is his writings on conspiracies in American history.
Rothbard was quite clear about his commitment to apply Austrian economics' theories of human action to the topic of conspiracies. He wrote this defense of the conspiracy view of history in 1977. He began with a description of the knee-jerk reaction of Establishment intellectuals.
Anytime that a hard-nosed analysis is put forth of who our rulers are, of how their political and economic interests interlock, it is invariably denounced by Establishment liberals and conservatives (and even by many libertarians) as a "conspiracy theory of history," "paranoid," "economic determinist," and even "Marxist." These smear labels are applied across the board, even though such realistic analyses can be, and have been, made from any and all parts of the economic spectrum, from the John Birch Society to the Communist Party. The most common label is "conspiracy theorist," almost always leveled as a hostile epithet rather than adopted by the "conspiracy theorist" himself.
THE HISTORICAL GUILD
This brings up the issue of the academic guild. Every guild has rules and regulations. It has above all a system of screening. The guild screens out people who do not hold to the standards enforced by the guild. The guild attempts to define its own practices as the only true practices that are acceptable to the guild, and which should be acceptable by society. Any practitioner who deviates from the standards announced by the guild, and above all, systematically enforced by the guild is automatically defined as some sort of deviant. The representatives of the guild warn the public not to accept the conclusions, practices, or presuppositions of anyone, and especially any rival group, that dares to call into question the conclusions, practices, and presuppositions of the guild.
The guild dismisses all suggestions that it is operating in terms of self-interest. It assures the public that it only has the interests of the public at heart. It is pursuing its goals in order to defend the public from unscrupulous operators who seek to defraud the public. For this reason, and only for this reason, the guild insists that it is necessary for the government to intervene and prevent those who offer opposing opinions, practices, and above all, lower prices. The public needs protection from charlatans, the guild insists, and in order to help the public, the guild calls upon politicians and bureaucrats to establish rules, which means rules written by the guild, to restrict entry into the field of study or operations presently dominated by the guild.
The guild seeks to define legitimate practices, presuppositions, and concepts in terms of the prevailing standards of the guild. It is this definition of legitimacy which is central to the promotion of the guild's interests. The guild must deflect all criticism of the guild that is based on a careful study of cause-and-effect with respect to the economic results of the guild's recommended political measures. Anyone who follows the money, from the effects of the regulations back to the bank accounts of the members of the guild, is dismissed as a conspiracy theorist. He is dismissed as a Marxist, or someone who was opposed to the protection of the general public. The guild insists that its adherence to its own standards of operation has nothing to do with the increased income generated by the guild, and by the decreased income generated by the guild's competitors.
Virtually all modern political legislation, as well as virtually all standards adopted by government bureaucracies to enforce the laws, are the result of special-interest pressures brought to bear on politicians and bureaucracies by members of guilds. Almost all of modern economic life is based on guilds, as surely as urban economic life in the year 1200 was based on guilds. They are not called guilds today. They are called special interests. Special interests are groups of producers whose special interest is specifically their own personal self-interest.
One of the strange aspects of modern historiography and academic social science is this. The phrase "special interest group" is widely accepted, but the phrase "conspiracy history" is one of contempt. From an economic standpoint, a special-interest group lobbies politicians to get laws passed that restrict new entrants into the field which is presently dominated by the particular special-interest group. This is widely recognized as being basic to modern political life, and academicians have no doubts about following the money back to a capitalistic special-interest group: a corporation, a trade association, or a cartel. In other words, they follow the money when the money leads back to a specific group of capitalists. This tradition goes back to Adam Smith in the wealth of nations. It is a long-established tradition.
When the trail of money leads to well-known Establishment organizations, such as the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission, or worse, to the Federal Reserve System, the academic historian draws the line. "Thus far, and no farther." He ceases to follow the money. It is legitimate, he says, to follow the money back to organizations whose sole purpose is making money. These are the bad guys. But it is illegitimate to continue following the money when it leads to nonprofit government advisory organizations made up of the prominent people in business, academia, the media, and the highest levels of national government. Rothbard put it this way. He singled out David Rockefeller.
Do we say that David Rockefeller's prodigious efforts on behalf of certain statist public policies are merely a reflection of unfocused altruism? Or is there pursuit of economic interest involved? Was Jimmy Carter named a member of the Trilateral Commission as soon as it was founded because Rockefeller and the others wanted to hear the wisdom of an obscure Georgia governor? Or was he plucked out of obscurity and made President by their support? Was J. Paul Austin, head of Coca-Cola, an early supporter of Jimmy Carter merely out of concern for the common good? Were all the Trilateralists and Rockefeller Foundation and Coca-Cola people chosen by Carter simply because he felt that they were the ablest possible people for the job? If so, it's a coincidence that boggles the mind. Or are there more sinister political-economic interests involved? I submit that the naïfs who stubbornly refuse to examine the interplay of political and economic interest in government are tossing away an essential tool for analyzing the world in which we live.
Austrian School academic economists do not follow him on this. Neither do academic historians. Why not? It is because they know who butters their bread. It is also based on their training. They have been trained for years to recognize where this leads: to unemployment. They recognize the unstated rules of the game, as all guild members do. They recognize the existence of boundaries, which begin with academic etiquette but extend to teaching contracts that do not get renewed. They know which topics gentlemen do not discuss in polite company. Conspiracy is such a topic. They say it is because there are no such things. I say it is because there are.
OPPOSITION TO CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Conspiracy theories in almost all cases argue that the goals of the conspirators extend beyond economic self-interest into the areas of religion, ideology, and the old boy networks. A conspiracy theory follows the money, but its long-term goal is to expose hidden interests that are deeper than economic self-interest and larger bank accounts. In other words, a conspiracy theory, while it relies on the assumption of the economic self-interest of politicians who are bribed, as well as businessmen who offer the bribes, focuses not on money as the goal of the conspiracy, but on money as the means of the conspiracy.
If a theory of organized special-interest behavior is limited to an exploration of political pressuring for the sake of making more money, virtually all modern social scientists and historians are willing to give it consideration. But if it argues that economic self-interest is secondary, and that religious, ideological, or family connection interests are at the bottom of the special-interest group, the theory is automatically dismissed as crackpot.
Why should this be? Why should there be any assumption that following the money leads to people who are seeking power rather than money? Following the money often leads back to people with an agenda that is based on membership that crosses economic and national boundaries. Economic boundaries are secondary, but confessional or family-based boundaries are central.
More important, what if the special-interest group is bound by some kind of loyalty oath, either explicit or implicit, and this oath extends across national boundaries? What if the loyalty oath involves loyalty to a hidden organization, or to a hidden section of the public organization, which screens out the vast majority of citizens?
This would indicate two things. First, it would indicate that the Marxist analysis of economic self-interest has always been seriously wrong. So have all Marxist-influenced theories of social development. It would mean that democratically elected politicians will prove to be incapable of working the special interests merely by altering tax policy. Their advisors will be drawn from the most powerful special-interest groups, which are not primarily economic, but which are allied with favored industries in general, and favors international banking in particular.
This would mean that economic self-interest is subordinate to other interests, which again is a denial of Marxist theory. Original Marxist theory placed the mode of production at the center of social development throughout history. Virtually all forms of socialism, whether Marxist or non-Marxist, have adopted this basic idea. The one major exception to this was the supposedly Marxist Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, who in fact was the most important anti-Marxist theorist ever to come out of the Marxist movement. Gramsci in the 1930s acknowledged that Western society was deeply religious, and that the only way to achieve a proletarian revolution would be to break the faith of the masses of Western voters in Christianity and the moral system derived from Christianity. He placed religion and culture at the base of the pyramid. This means that the mode of production is secondary.
Second, it would indicate that a conventional academic study based on a theory of personal economic self-interest and relying on public records is incomplete in all those areas where oath-bound special-interest groups predominate. These oath-bound groups cannot be understood accurately in terms of economic motivation, which is relatively easy to assess, but instead operate in terms of deeper, hidden loyalties that are beyond the lure of economics.
It means that some people are deeply motivated by the goal of changing humanity by changing the world. They are willing to use political influence to re-shape the world, even when this goal is in opposition to the prevailing democratic majority. This would indicate that the democratic majority is not a reliable guide to shaping policy, because policy will be re-written, re-shaped, and re-organized by hidden groups that possess the real power at the top of the political hierarchy. In other words, a conspiracy theory is inherently anti-democratic.
Democratic theory is the reigning religion of the vast majority of those people who have been trained in the social sciences in higher education institutions. Anything that challenges the ultimate sovereignty of democratic government is regarded as evil. This is why social scientists are willing to follow the money back to the goal of making more money. This way, it is possible to expose the shapers of policy as self-interested people who were opposed to democracy. The critics assume that democratic voters will respond to such exposés. This outlook was basic to the Progressive movement a century ago. It is basic to all liberal reform movements' official pronouncements.
But what if the special-interest groups are only marginally motivated by money? What if their goal is power, which means the ability to shape what the vast majority of voters want to do, irrespective of their interests? Then democracy is an illusion, merely a convenient tool of deception manipulated by elites. Democracy is a means to elitist power, not an end -- just as money is. So, a conspiracy theory undermines people's faith in the efficacy of democratic government. The high priests of the religion of democracy are appalled. Such ideas undermine the trust of the masses.
So, there is academic resistance to any conspiracy theory that places a loyalty oath above either economic self-interest or the power of democracy to produce social good for the masses. A conspiracy theory, if true, would indicate that modern life is ultimately shaped, not by the mode of production, not by the polling booth, and not by money under the table, but by ultimately religious perspectives that operate behind the scenes.
SANCTIONS AGAINST BLASPHEMY
Political scientists believe that people want to achieve political power, but they do not want to believe that a group of elite individuals, operating over decades and even centuries, have thwarted the democratic majority again and again. These elitists have profited from their ability to mislead the democratic majority. It is not just that these people are trying to make money; it is that these people are playing God. Humanists who reject the idea of God. They have substituted a new god: the democratic masses. They deeply resent any suggestion that hidden special-interest groups have deceived the democratic masses from the beginning. So, to promote any conspiracy theory is to spit in the face of god: democracy. The priests of this religion will not tolerate this suggestion. This is the humanists' equivalent of blasphemy.
Nobody is burned at the stake for blasphemy these days, and nobody's books are burned, either. But, until the rise of the Internet, book production was carefully screened by college-trained editors, and books that promoted a conspiracy theory of history did not get published. A conspiracy theory was considered legitimate only if all the money led back to some group that was trying to make a buck at the expense of the body politic. It was not considered legitimate to follow the money back to a special-interest group that was hidden in the background for over a century, and whose goal was ultimately religious, namely, the re-shaping of society through hidden connections and manipulations behind what appeared to be the triumph of the religion of democracy.
Modern social theory clings to two ultimate presuppositions. First, men are motivated by economic self-interest. Second, democratic institutions can be used to limit the success of such special-interest groups. The ultimate special-interest group, which is not a special-interest group at all, but the general interest, namely, the democratic masses, will be victorious in history. This is the god of the modern world, and this god is defended by a priesthood. The priesthood is mostly academic, and what is not academic is embedded in the media. The professor and the anchorman are the high priests of this well-organized religion.
The professors and the anchorman resent any suggestion that there is a hidden group behind them that shapes their thinking. They resent the fact that some people say that they have been bought off. I think it is a mistake to imagine that buying off someone with money constitutes the whole story. They have not merely been bought off. They have bought in. They have bought into the outlook that democracy will triumph over the economic interests of special-interest capitalism.
The people who say that the priests of academia and the media have been bought off have not followed the money far enough. These priests have indeed been bought off, but they have been bought off in a very special way. They have been screened in terms of their confession of faith. Their confession of faith must be in favor of the religion of democracy. Anyone who deviates from this faith has not yet been promoted into the highest visible seats of priestly service.
These carefully screened spokesmen for the Establishment deeply resent any suggestion that behind the religion of democracy has always been a calculating group whose senior members believe that you can fool all of the people most of the time, and that you can fool most of the professors all of the time. They resent the fact that anybody would suggest that the way they attained their positions is based on crass payoffs. I agree. The payoffs are not at all crass. They are subtle. One of C.S. Lewis's greatest essays is "The Inner Ring." It describes the nature of the payoffs.
THE QUEST FOR LEGITIMACY
Guild members want to believe that they are really in favor of helping the public. They want to believe that their wealth is only a byproduct of their activities. Yes, they have profited greatly by government intervention into the economy to enforce the standards recommended by the guild. But everybody wants legitimacy in his own eyes.
What if there are a small number of economic or professional guild members with a higher loyalty? What if their loyalty is not to their respective guilds, but rather to a loose association of international elitists with hidden agendas? What if these people are willing to sacrifice the goals of their professional guilds, as well as the religion of democracy? This would indicate that senior members of each guild are as much bumpkins as the anti-democrats regard the general public. They have been duped.
Nobody wants to think of himself as a bumpkin. Nobody wants to think of himself as a dupe. Nobody wants to think of himself as a sucker. But if the conspiracy theorist is right, then virtually all of the senior members of the academic guilds are in fact bumpkins, dupes, and suckers. They have spent their lives trying to explain cause-and-effect in society, yet they have been manipulated by powers behind the national thrones. They thought they were the powers behind the throne. This is why they regard all conspiracy theories as outrages.
Conservatives like the phrase, "ideas have consequences." But confessions also have consequences. Loyalty oaths have consequences. Family connections have consequences. The old boy network has consequences. Money has consequences. Power has consequences. So, when we look at the shape of society, which of these factors is at the very bottom, meaning the bedrock foundation of the social order?
Anyone who offers a conspiracy theory which puts anything except democratic government and economic self-interest as the foundation of the social order is considered a threat to the social order, and therefore has to be written off as a crackpot. The phrase most commonly used to dismiss a rival social theorist is this one: conspiracy theorist. In the academic guilds, this is vastly more threatening to someone climbing up the academic ladder than being exposed as having committed other infractions, even plagiarism. There have been numerous plagiarists who have done very well academically even after they were exposed as plagiarists. If you are a plagiarist who promotes the American Establishment, you can probably get away with it. You will not lose your reputation. But if you are a conspiracy theorist, you cannot salvage your reputation. You are like a person in a room full of vampires who has a stake and hammer in his bag, and the sun is coming up in about 30 minutes. They will do their best to use your stake against you.
There is an endemic hatred within modern academia, and modern liberalism in general, against the concept of a loyalty oath. They do not like loyalty oaths to the government, but above all, they do not like the idea of a loyalty oath to any institution that is considered more fundamental than the national government. A loyalty oath involves loyalty. In an era in which men and women are disloyal, a loyalty oath is despicable.
Over 40 years ago, I heard a lecture by one of the great conservative minds of the 20th century, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. He made a crucially important observation. He spoke of his own father. His father had been a bureaucrat in the Austrian government. His father had sworn a loyalty oath to the Emperor prior to World War I. After the defeat of the Emperor in World War I, his father swore a loyalty oath to the democratic government that replaced the Empire in Austria. After the triumph of the Nazis in 1938, he swore loyalty to the Nazi regime. After World War II, he swore loyalty to the postwar Austrian regime. Kuennelt-Leddihn drew the correct conclusion: the 20th century destroyed the concept of loyalty in Europe. Loyalty today is something that is sworn temporarily, but it has nothing binding about it spiritually. It is strictly pragmatic. You swear a loyalty oath to the prevailing rulers, but if these rulers are defeated, you immediately switch your loyalty to the winners.
Some conspiracies really are bound by a verbal loyalty oath. Others are bound by an implicit loyalty oath. The organization enforces the oath. There are negative sanctions imposed on those who break the oath. There are negative sanctions on those who leave the organization, even though they do not openly violate the oath. These organizations demand loyalty but the modern civil government does not. These loyalty oaths extend across political borders. These are international organizations, and they represent something comparable confessionally to the Roman Catholic Church.
The hostility of the Jacobins against the Roman Catholic Church in 1789 in France was a hostility based on rival confessions, rival loyalty oaths, rival financing, all in competition for political power inside France. The historian who first called attention to the Jacobins' rival system of loyalty oaths and connections was a Jesuit priest, Augustin Barruel. His book, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, appeared in 1798 and became one of the foundational books in the origin of European conservatism, which was a reaction against the French Revolution. The Wikipedia entry informs us that Edmund Burke wrote to Barruel: "I cannot easily express to you how much I am instructed and delighted by the first volume of your History of Jacobinism." He praised "the whole of the wonderful narrative" for being supported by documents and proofs with "the most judicial regularity and exactness." At the end of the letter Burke added: "I forgot to say, that I have known myself, personally, five of your principal conspirators; and I can undertake to say from my own certain knowledge, that as far back as the year 1773, they were busy in the plot you have so well described, and in the manner, and on the principle you have so truly represented. To this I can speak as a witness."
Any history student citing Barruel's book, except to attack it, would not be granted an advanced degree in history by any major university if he persisted in relying on the book for an explanation of the French Revolution. The book is anathema, and it has been for over a century, in the academic guild. History students are never told of its existence, let alone asked to read it. Yet the great Catholic historian of science, Stanley Jaki, wrote an enthusiastic introduction to a 1995 reprint of it. The book's thesis was expanded by the private historian Nesta Webster in her book, The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy (1919). It is a brilliant book, as are her lesser known works on the French monarchy. It was to refute this book that Crane Brinton wrote his book, which remains a standard in academia, The Anatomy of Revolution (1938). The book is so important that there is a Wikipedia entry. Yet Brinton did not mention Webster's books. There is one brief reference to "frightened Tories like Mrs. Nesta Webster" (page 56, paperback edition) -- no explanation, no reference, nothing in the bibliography. Yet his entire book was devoted to refuting her, as Quigley understood. Brinton did not have the integrity to tell readers who she was and why he wrote his book. This was a cover-up, and it worked. There is only one reference on the Web to "frightened Tories like Mrs. Nesta Webster," and it is from a book that I wrote. Now there will be two references to it. You can download a free PDF here.
When I read it in graduate school, I was probably the only person in the school, including the faculty, who had read her book. I knew who his target was. I suspected at the time that the book was an attempt to counter her arguments, but I did not have proof. The proof was provided in 1974 by Carroll Quigley, the Georgetown University historian who wrote Tragedy and Hope (1966), and who taught Bill Clinton. In a recorded interview, he said this.
Now, these, these same conspirators are the Jacobins who made the French Revolution. A woman named Nesta -- N-E-S-T-A -- Webster wrote that book. To refute it, my tutor, who was a Rhodes Scholar, Crane Brinton -- B-R-I-N--T--O-N, wrote his doctoral dissertation called The Jacobins, in which he refutes her. You see? Now, I think that, at the end of his life, Brinton probably came to feel that he was wrong. That there was some secret society involved in the Jacobins. And a student of his named Elizabeth Eisenstein, who is a marvelous researcher (she is now a professor at American University) under Brinton wrote a doctoral dissertation on the founder of the Babeuf Conspiracy.
You can be sure that this admission by Quigley has not received any attention inside the history departments of Western universities.
The greatest book ever written on the conspiratorial background of modern European history is James Billington's Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980). It was published by Basic Books, a neoconservative publishing house. Billington remains the Librarian of Congress. The book shows that the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century were dependent on two institutions: the new media of newspapers and secret societies -- oath-bound conspiracies. It covers documents in half a dozen languages. It has footnotes filling 140 pages. The book's thesis is ignored in textbooks on modern history and modern European history.
The proponents of any conspiracy view of historical events are pariahs in academia. That is because these theories get close to the truth, namely, that mass democracy has not prevented special-interest messianic groups from seeking political power and wealth as ways to re-shape mankind. These groups exercise power behind many thrones. They are not pro-democracy. They are not pro-free market. They are men in search of ways to achieve what they want: a new humanity. They will use money and politics to attain this goal.
The best way to thwart them is by means of a better confession, and by way of decentralized property ownership. We can't beat something with nothing.
The best way to overcome a conspiracy is to take away its leverage: political power in defense of the existing distribution of wealth. There is a slogan for this: "You get your hand out of my wallet, and I will get my hand out of your wallet. Let us start with Congress, which has its hands in everyone's wallet."