Dead Men Left

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Conspiracy theories: almost (but not quite) agreeing with David Aaronovitch, again

I'll start by drawing your attention to the exchange that took place here. Following on from Eric's typical, casual dismissal of the UK's principal Muslim organisation for daring to hint that international legality be maintained in respect of the occupation of Iraq, my blogging comrade Mark Elf pointed out that Eric had earlier been less forthright about the kidnapping of Ken Bigley. Eric had, in fact, rather implied that Bigley was in some way colluding with those who later beheaded him, quoting without comment the same suggestion made in the Daily Telegraph. When challenged by Mark on this point, Eric reacted furiously, hurling insults; when two respondents to Eric's earlier post on Bigley more baldly stated that the British hostage was working with his kidnappers, Eric passed no judgement, even when one of these two called some hostages "moral cretins" and likened them to Nazi sympathisers.

Now there's as fine a conspiracy theory as you could hope for. That it should be decisively and appallingly wrong does not remove from its grandeur: hostages aren't really hostages, they're simply trying to turn public opinion against the war. Just look at Paul Bigley's reaction to the Blair government's mishandling of his brother's case: clearly, the man has a Hidden Agenda, for who of honest intent could possibly take issue with our noble PM?

When Aaronovitch chose, this Sunday, to attack the Left for its conspiracy theorising, citing an Observer poll showing a majority of Britons believe that the Bush administration knew about 9/11 prior to it taking place, he had almost hit upon a point. Almost, but not quite: conspiracy theories are, it is true, generally quite daft. That many people give them some credence shows a healthy cynicism about the world, but it says little else. The Left doesn't need a theory of conspiracies to explain Iraq, it needs a theory of imperialism; as Tim of HUH? remarked, following Jameson, the fact capitalism has a tendency to look like a conspiracy does not mean that it is one. "After all, when you actually do control the world, you don't need shady conspiracies." We need analytical tools that can deal with structure and agency in capitalism, that can cope with ideology, and that can allow political conclusions to be drawn. Theories of all-powerful cabals manipulating the world do not merely miss the point - they are debilitating.

Yet who out there believes in the biggest, most ludicrous conspiracies? Aaronovitch fell down when he failed to mention the absurd beliefs that first, Iraq had been secretly stockpiling WMDs prior to its invasion; second, that Saddam Hussein was collaborating with his sworn enemy, Osama Bin Laden, to launch attacks on the US; and third, that George Bush was dedicated to defeating "fascism" in the Middle East, and introducing democracy. Aaronovitch failed to mention these because he has spent a great deal of time promoting all these beliefs, in one form or another; but they must rank amongst the wildest, craziest conspiracy theories ever assembled. It is no wonder, then, that having started by believing this nonsense, minor commentators like Eric suddenly find themselves with a host of lesser conspiracies, including the strange idea that an innocent man would collude with his murderers.