Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics
Very few notions nowadays generate as much intellectual resistance, hostility and derision within academic circles as a belief in the historical importance or efficacy of political conspiracies. Even when this belief is expressed in a very cautious manner, limited to specific and restricted contexts, supported by reliable evidence and hedged about with all sorts of qualifications, apparently it still manages to transcend the boundaries of acceptable discourse and to violate unspoken academic taboos. The idea that particular groups of people meet together secretly or in private to plan various courses of action, and that some of these plans actually exert a significant influence on particular historical developments, is typically rejected out of hand and assumed to be the figment of a paranoid imagination.
Most academic researchers clearly prefer to ignore the implications of conspiratorial politics altogether rather than deal directly with such controversial matters. A number of complex cultural and historical factors contribute to this reflexive and unwarranted reaction, but it is perhaps most often the direct result of a simple failure to distinguish between ‘conspiracy theories’ in the strict sense of the term, which are essentially elaborate fables even though they may well be based on kernels of truth, and the activities of actual clandestine and covert political groups, which are a common feature of modern politics. For this and other reasons, serious research into genuine conspiratorial networks has at worst been suppressed, as a rule discouraged, and at best looked on with condescension by the academic community. An entire dimension of political history and contemporary politics has thus been consistently neglected. ...
If certain parties were to say, for example, that a secret Masonic lodge in Italy had infiltrated all of the state’s security agencies and was involved in promoting or at least exploiting acts of neo-fascist terrorism in order to help condition the political system and strengthen its own influence in the corridors of government, most readers would probably assume that that they were joking or accuse them of having taken leave of their senses. Twenty-five years ago this author might have had the very same reaction. Nevertheless, although the above statement greatly oversimplifies a far more complex pattern of interaction between the public and private spheres, not to mention between visible political institutions (‘the overground’ or ‘the Establishment’) and covert political groups (‘the underground’), such a lodge did in fact exist. It was known as Loggia Massonica Propaganda Due (P2), was affiliated with the Grand Orient branch of Italian Freemasonry, and was headed by a former Fascist militiaman named Licio Gelli.
I can recall reading about the various scandalous Italian conspiracies in The Economist in the early Eighties. Most enlightening.
(By the way, beginning one minute after I put up this post about "Propaganda Due" I've been flooded with spam comments in Italian offering genuine Gucci and Prada merchandise. Coincidence? You be the judge.)
Likewise, if someone were to claim that an Afrikaner secret society founded in the early decades of this century had played a key role in promoting the system of apartheid in South Africa, and in the process helped to ensure the preservation of ultraconservative Afrikaner cultural values and Afrikaner political dominance until the early 1990s, some readers would undoubtedly believe that that person was exaggerating. Yet this organization also existed. It was known as the Afrikaner Broederbond (AB), and it formed a powerful ‘state within a state’ in that country by virtue, among other things, of its exercise of covert influence over elements of the security services.
Here's a theory I just made up: these kind of deep state conspiratorial organizations are related in some sense to the relatively early retirement ages for soldiers and cops. Lots of colonels and police lieutenants get pensioned off while still in vigorous middle age, so in some countries they are enthusiastic about continuing to toil with their former colleagues as planners and organizers (i.e., conspirators).