Conspiracy : James Martel
Conspiracy is a concept much maligned by political theorists in the western tradition. It is generally regarded as an attempt by a self-appointed group of collaborators to illicitly subvert existing forms of politics by secret actions. Many western thinkers are on record for denouncing and defying conspiracies. Cicero is famous for his attacks on and suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy against the Roman Republic. Edmund Burke endorsed the notion that the French Revolution was caused by a Jacobin conspiracy.1 Today as well, there is a tendency, not only to see conspiracies everywhere, but to attribute much of what goes wrong in our polities to secret conspiracies.
Depending on how you think about it, however, western political theory can itself be seen as conspiratorial, beginning with Socrates’ conspiracy against his fellow Athenians. In turning to philosophy with his disciples as he did, Socrates could be said to be seeking to overturn or undermine the general consensus of his city; having decided that Athens of his day had no relationship to justice, Socrates espoused a more ethical way of life, often under the noses of–and at odds with–his fellow citizens who ultimately put him to death for his activities. The very concept of theorizing about politics suggests a stepping back from the currents of the day and considering and possibly promoting alternative ways of being and thinking. And theorizing seems always to be done by a select group, a set of teachers, students and disciples who collectively pursue whichever new path is suggested by their understanding of politics.
Yet, on the whole, the reputation of western theory is not one of being subversive but rather hegemonic. Through thinkers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes and Locke, the basic structures of western notions of reason, sovereignty and societal orderings have been produced. The modern forms of liberalism that dominate much of the globe (either through the practice of particular governments or the power and effect of the global market it has helped to spawn) can be traced back to these thinkers.
In its current mode, political theory can be said to be divided by responses to this hegemony. There are those who seek to preserve the status quo, returning repeatedly to canonical political texts as a way to shore up the principles upon which liberalism is based. At the same time, there are other sub-currents within the theoretical tradition that remain actively conspiratorial. On the right, there are the Straussians, who, while generally supportive of liberalism as a doctrine, hold that the secret truths of texts are not meant for widespread audiences but rather to be guarded and cherished by a select few and that, in fact, a general awareness of these doctrines would be both impossible (since only a few are capable of understanding them) and dangerous (for the same reason).
On the left there is an effort to either subvert or openly challenge dominant hegemony. Marx is surely the most prominent theorist of this school. In his case, what may have begun in a spirit of conspiracy became outright confrontation; under his guidance and then beyond, the “specter” of communism became not only announced but a powerful form of political authority in its own right.
Yet there is a more subtle form of left conspiracy too, a way of rereading even some of the most canonical sources as offering alternatives to the very authority that they promote. Derrida speaks of an “immense rumor” that has persisted throughout the history of western thought.2 He evokes thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Kant, Montaigne and Nietzsche as partaking in this rumor, writing:
Here, Derrida is implying that while many of these thinkers have helped to establish what politics is for us, they have simultaneously offered a different, “more discreet—but no less disruptive” alternative, a kind of revolution within the revolutions that have established dominant western political practices.
The practitioners of this kind of conspiratorial reading engage in many similar actions to the Straussians, In both cases, there is a claim that texts carry alternative meanings. These meanings can be deployed to produce different outcomes from those that the text appears to promote. The distinction between the left and right variant comes in terms of the intended audience. For the Straussians, as already noted, the secret (or esoteric, one could also say conspiratorial) reading of the text is meant to be known and appreciated only by a select group, the philosophers, drawing upon what Strauss calls the “writing between the lines.”4 For everyone else there is the “exoteric” reading which simplifies and explains the texts in ways that produce general stability and obedience. For Strauss, even if philosophers happens to agree with the more general reading, it is for entirely different reasons than for their non-philosophical counterparts.
For some leftist practitioners, on the other hand, the very opposite is the case; these practitioners (with Derrida being a prime example) seek to disseminate the secrets of the text as widely as possible. They seek to use alternative readings of the text as a way to subvert the authority that these texts promote. They also seek to give away the secret or esoteric readings of elites (of both the political and philosophical persuasion). In this view, the more widely available these readings become, the more it becomes impossible for any elite to control or dominate the public discourse.
In this way, conspiracy can work either to maintain the status quo or to undermine it, either to take political power away from the larger community of readers or, on the contrary, to restore authority to the community that power has been taken from. The power in question is largely an interpretive one, a power to come to terms with texts and with their possibly multiple meanings. Yet there is a strong political payoff as well; whether meanings are controlled by elites or widely disseminated has a corresponding affect on the sources and nature of authority, on the most basic fabric of politics.
1. See Amos Hofman “Opinion, Illusion, and the Illusion of Opinion: Barruel’s Theory of Conspiracy” in Eighteenth Century Studies 27:1 (1993), 27-60: 29.↩
2. Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship (New York: Verso Press, 2000), 27. ↩
3. Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, 27.↩
4. Leo Strauss, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” Social Research 8:1/4 (1941): 488-504, 490.↩