Conspiracies, theories of conspiracy theories and the limits to growth

An essay in three parts

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait. Honoré de Balzac 1799–1850

Translation: The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime that has been forgotten, because it was properly done.

Part One – A historical survey to show the frequency of elite wrong doing and incompetence – where they are, or are not, conspiracies
Part Two – The Theory of Conspiracy theories gone wrong – Critique of Lewandowsky and Cook’s model of Conspiracy Theories/Theorists
Part Three – Elite wrong doing and conspiracies to be expected now we have reached the limits to economic growth

Part One

Elite Wrong Doing and Conspiracies

According to the Cambridge dictionary “a conspiracy theorist is someone who believes in a conspiracy theory” and that is “the idea than an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people”.

The reason I looked this up is that repeatedly seeing this phrase in the mainstream media has begun to bug me. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the first known use of the phrase in this way is from 1871. But it seems that this usage is becoming much more common in recent years and I did an nGram search on the word which showed usage taking off slightly before 1960 and then really taking off after 1990 and into the new century…

The phrases “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorists” function as “thought stoppers”

It seems to me that the way that the phrase “conspiracy theorist” is being used in the media is what is sometimes called a “thought stopper” or a “thought terminating cliche” or “semantic stop sign”, intended to prevent particular ideas being given any credence and going further. Some ideas deserve this kind of termination – racist and other ideas that are themselves prejudicial for example. To be prejudicial means to “pre-judge” typically in a very crude way involving injustice that is hurtful and damaging. It is not usually appropriate to engage in reasoned argument with racist ideas – but what about ideas that events or situations have been brought about by secret plans by powerful people?

Researching the issues somewhat deeper I find that there is actually a whole history of “conspiracy theories” – they are part of cultural and political history. Until recent times “conspiracy theory” was not a “boo phrase” – indeed it was often the official way of understanding events. This was at a time when most of those whom we would now call conspiracy theorists were educated people who were a part of the elite or loyal servants of it. According to Michael Butter, a professor of American literary and cultural history at a German university:

“From at least the 17th century to the 1950s, conspiracy theories were a widely accepted way of understanding the world and often the official versions of events. They were articulated by elites and usually targeted external enemies or subversives who were allegedly trying to undermine the state. It was only during the late 1950s and early 1960s that conspiracy theories started to become a stigmatised way of explaining big events.”

You can understand elites being nervous of conspiracies – they were threatened by them. Take the last quarter of the 19th century as an example. In 1878 assassination attempts were made on the German emperor, on Alfonso XII of Spain and on Umberto I of Italy. In 1883 another attempt was made on the German emperor. In 1894 the President of the French Republic was murdered. In 1898 Empress Elisabeth of Austria was murdered. In 1900 assassination attempts were made on the Prince of Wales and again in the German Emperor. King Umberto of Italy was murdered. In 1901 another attempt was made on the life of the German Emperor and President McKinley of the USA was murdered. In 1903 King Alexander I of Serbia was murdered and in 1904 an attempt was made on the Spanish Royal couple in Paris…[1]

While it was straightforward enough in times past to accuse external enemies or subversives of wrongdoing, it was more difficult to accuse the elite of wrongdoing when they used their power in an arbitrary way – not even restrained by custom – expecting obedience and loyalty. Franz Kafka expressed this in his parable “The Problem of our Laws”:

“Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administered; nevertheless, it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know…… the nobles have obviously no cause to be influenced in their interpretation by personal interests inimical to us, for the laws were made to the advantage of the nobles from the very beginning, they themselves stand above the laws, and that seems to be why the laws were entrusted exclusively into their hands….. There is a small party who are actually of this opinion and who try to show us that, if any law exists, it can only be this: The Law is whatever the nobles do. This party see everywhere only the arbitrary acts of the nobility…”

Fortunately even in autocracies there were usually some limited protections for ordinary people in adherence to what had been customary practice – and customs could be enhanced and codified by charters and documents between rulers and the ruled – like for example the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest in England.

Nevertheless in the historical period before democratic rights it was taken for granted that the “subjects” of a country owed absolute loyalty and obedience to certain people just because of who they were. In medieval times this loyalty was owed to a monarchy which operated in the same way as protection rackets. Militarised hierarchical gangs effectively imposed themselves on ordinary people and extracted labour and products, claiming that they had their authority and rights from God, but in effect having their power from their ability and preparedness to act as ruthless gangsters operating out of heavily fortified castles.[2]

But was that all not a long time ago? It might seem so but loyalty to country is still part of the repertoire used by national elites – and as the saying goes “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. In Britain we are still considered “subjects” of the crown and we still have an unelected House of Lords. What is more, if one studies this structure closely enough the role of the monarchy consists of considerably more than empty ceremony. In an article in the Guardian Paul Kingsnorth showed how crime (elite gangsterism) often does pay:

“According to the author Kevin Cahill, the main driver behind the absurd expense of owning land and property in Britain is that so much of the nation’s land is locked up by a tiny elite. Just 0.3% of the population – 160,000 families – own two thirds of the country. Less than 1% of the population owns 70% of the land, running Britain a close second to Brazil for the title of the country with the most unequal land distribution on Earth.

Much of this can be traced back to 1066. The first act of William the Conqueror, in 1067, was to declare that every acre of land in England now belonged to the monarch. This was unprecedented: Anglo-Saxon England had been a mosaic of landowners. Now there was just one. William then proceeded to parcel much of that land out to those who had fought with him at Hastings. This was the beginning of feudalism; it was also the beginning of the landowning culture that has plagued England – and Britain – ever since.

The dukes and earls who still own so much of the nation’s land, and who feature every year on the breathless rich lists, are the beneficiaries of this astonishing land grab. William’s 22nd great-granddaughter, who today sits on the throne, is still the legal owner of the whole of England. Even your house, if you’ve been able to afford one, is technically hers. You’re a tenant, and the price of your tenancy is your loyalty to the crown. When the current monarch dies, her son will inherit the crown (another Norman innovation, incidentally, since Anglo-Saxon kings were elected). As Duke of Cornwall, he is the inheritor of land that William gave to Brian of Brittany in 1068, for helping to defeat the English at Hastings.”

The Monarchy is still a powerful political institution. According to an article in the Guardian its powers include:

“…. the appointment and dismissal of ministers, the summoning, prorogation and dissolution of Parliament, Royal assent to bills, the appointment and regulation of the civil service, the commissioning of officers in the armed forces, directing the disposition of the armed forces in the UK (and other Commonwealth nations), appointment of Queen’s Counsel, Issue and withdrawal of passports, Prerogative of mercy. (Used to apply in capital punishment cases. Still used, eg to remedy errors in sentence calculation), granting honours, creation of corporations by Charter, foreign Affairs, the making of treaties, declaration of war, deployment of armed forces overseas, recognition of foreign states, and accreditation and reception of diplomats.”

Matthew Ehret writes:

“When a 2009 bill was introduced into parliament proposing that these powers be limited, a Privy Council-led Justice Ministry review concluded that such limitations would ‘”dangerously weaken” the state’s ability to respond to a crisis’ and the bill was promptly killed.

Acting on Provincial levels, we find Lieutenant Governors who (in Canada) happen to be members of the Freemasonic Knights of St John of Jerusalem (patronized by the Queen herself).

All figures operating with these authorities within this strange Byzantine world are themselves a part of, or beholden to figures sworn into the Queen’s Privy Council- putting their allegiance under the total authority of the Queen and her heirs, rather than the people or nation in which that subject serves and lives”

An occasion where such powers were demonstrated for real included the sacking of an elected prime Minister in Australia, Gough Whitlam, in November of 1975. At the time of writing a legal struggle is happening in Australia to release papers that could reveal how much the Queen was directly involved in what was in effect a “coup d’etat” using royal powers to depose an elected prime minister. Since this move has been covered up it looks very much as if this is an example of an elite conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories – from plots against the elite to plots of the elite

In more recent times, conspiracy theories in the West are generally disqualified from being considered as mainstream – indeed, they are shunned by the mainstream – unless they happen to involve alleged foreign plotters such as the Russians, or internal subversives such as members of the Antifa movement. Is this because the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has come to be associated solely with plots orchestrated by the state and by other powerful people? As Michael Butter explains:

“Another side-effect of this new stigma was that the label conspiracy theory or theorist became a pejorative term. The Kennedy assassination was the first major instance in which conspiracy theorists accused the state of secretly plotting evil and provided alternative accounts that were then labelled conspiracy theories, as in…[a]…. 1967 CIA document. So it is hardly surprising that conspiracy theorists – who blame events on the intentional actions of evil people – retrospectively see the emergence of the term as a deliberate attempt to uphold the official version of the Kennedy assassination.”

Conspiracy theories not only became a pejorative term, they are now theorised in such a way as to discourage and cognitively “inoculate” people against considering them. However a suspicion of elite agendas seems to me to be wholly reasonable. Rather than knock conspiracy theorists the purpose of this essay is see where they are likely to go wrong and why they may go wrong. This is not the same as treating them as suffering from a kind of “thought disorder” as some have argued they should be (see part 2). Above all the purpose of this essay is to assemble a mass of evidence to validate suspicion of elite actors and states – but also to show that there are many ways that a modern elite exercises power without a need for conspiracies. For example there are many situations where the elite have no need to hide their wrong doing and they can get away with it because ordinary people do not understand what is going on.

Money creation is one example

This example was suggested to me by economist Tim Watkins. A quote that is attributed to the 20th century magnate Henry Ford goes as follows:

“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

What was he talking about? Here’s a quote from the Bank of England:

“Where does money come from?  In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood. The principal way in which they are created is through commercial banks making loans: whenever a bank makes a loan, it creates a deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money. This description of how money is created differs from the story found in some economics textbooks.”

Note that this is not hidden. It is not a secret. It is not a conspiracy or against the law. Yet for many people it may appear to be shocking that private institutions, banks, actually create money. This is especially because in recent years politicians have gone to great lengths to claim that the government cannot create money to spend on public purposes but must always raise it by tax or borrow it. It is what they mean when they claim that “there is no magic money tree”. In Britain this sentence has been a justification of austerity but it is profoundly misleading.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith put his finger on something when he wrote:

“The process by which banks create money is so simple the mind is repelled. With something so important a deeper mystery seems only decent.”

Companies with a banking licence can and do create money and it is not illegal to do so – yet several centuries ago this practice started as fraud. People deposited their gold with goldsmiths for safe keeping and took away paper receipts for what they had deposited. If they wanted to buy something they used the paper receipts in payment instead of physical gold coins because it was more convenient.

They rarely went back to exchange the receipts for gold. Why would they? The goldsmiths noticed and had an idea – a fraudulent idea. They produced more receipts than they had gold in their vaults and used the fake receipts to make loans. So more receipts…notes…were circulating than they had gold. It worked fine as a fraud until there was a crisis of confidence and too many people went to change the paper for real gold which was not there.

Later, with a banking licence it became OK to create money to lend. If the bank gets into trouble it gets bailed out by a central bank. So yes there are “magic money trees” – the banks grow them– ie they create money. Of course the central banks could create money for public expenditure by the government too – but, oh no, according to some economists governments have to tax to raise money or they must borrow it.

Is that a mistake? Note that the Bank of England says that their story of money creation is different from that found in some economics textbooks. Is that a conspiracy to discourage state expenditure or are many economic textbook writers just stupid?

Whatever…there has not been a “revolution overnight”, which shows that it is possible for bankers to get away with things the rest of us are not allowed to do. They get away with this because so few people understand how money creation works. Perhaps this is because people assume that because money creation by individuals is called counterfeiting, and is illegal, then it must be illegal for bankers too. Also, even when the Bank of England tells the truth in its Quarterly Bulletin, well, who reads that and who notices?

My point here is that many things that happen routinely and are perceived as normal are just taken for granted. They are often not understood, not questioned – and not noticed. When the organisation Positive Money polled MPs in 2014 it turned out that only 1 in 10 Members of Parliament understood that new money is created when banks make loans and destroyed when loans are repaid. 7 out of 10 Members of Parliament had the erroneous idea that only the government is able to create money – including notes, coin and electronic money in bank accounts.

With this level of misunderstanding about something so fundamental many things which may appear to be conspiracies may also be the result of mismanagement because of elite ignorance and stupidity. This is useful to remember when we think we are witnessing conspiracies and we assume that part of the elite are pursuing a self serving agenda. They might be – but they might also be totally out of their depth – incompetent rather than malign and self serving. John Maynard Keynes expressed a similar point when he wrote:

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economists. … But soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, that are dangerous for good or evil.”

A great deal also depends on where elite wrong doing happens and to whom

In the last few centuries the elite and their accomplices would find it easier to get away with things that happened somewhere else and not in their own back yards. Crimes committed by people in places distant from their homelands against other people of a different culture are not seen as crimes in the homeland where the news media can easily write cover ups or apparently convincing justifications.

Take, for example, the reign of Leopold II of Belgium who, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, ruled the Congo as his personal fiefdom.

“The monarch, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.

The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labour and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead.”

Note that the number of deaths exceeded the number of deaths in the Nazi concentration camps – yet most people in Europe do not know of this holocaust – because they were of black people. They did not need to be “covered up” because European racism meant that genocide was barely noticed and is barely to be found in most history books. Besides which, to repeat, in a personal fiefdom the ruler cannot be subject to any law. Because he, or she, is the law.

The art of ruling – “progress” – the art of doing your victims a favour

Part of the art of ruling is having a good story. Any elite that is doing its job is always doing its subjects a favour. Being ruled is always said to be for your own good. You are never beaten or tortured for the sadistic pleasure of the tormentor but for your own good – to teach you a lesson in good behaviour and self discipline – or that is what your tormentors tell you.

The elite taking the common lands from the ordinary people during centuries of enclosures could not possibly be land theft because the elite were “improvers” of the land. Likewise, other exercises of elite wrong doing – colonialism, slavery and continental scale land grabs were thought of by the colonialists themselves as “the white man’s burden” .

They were doing the natives a favour because they were primitives who needed to be dragged into the “modern” world – and crucially because the land that was enclosed, and the land taken in the colonies, could always be put to better use than the use of the former commoners, or the use of the “primitives”. Or that is the elite story – and who gets to hear any other when they run things and own the newspapers while those who have been disinherited are too busy struggling to survive to tell their side of what happened?

In these kind of historical contexts the word “conspiracy” does not seem appropriate. When the elite has a story of justification they do not hide, nor can they hide what they are doing when it is on such a large scale. Justification….PR….can do away with the need to keep an action secret.

Boris Johnson defends colonialism

The problem is that the European and American elite have been unable to see these actions of their predecessors and ancestors as crimes because they are so sure of themselves and are secure in their sense of entitlement.

We have a good example of the mentality in an article by Boris Johnson written for the Spectator magazine in 2002 titled “Africa is a mess but we can’t blame colonialism”.

His defence of colonialism is thin. It is the usual argument that the colonialists were doing the natives a favour. Thus according to Boris an early British colonialist fought Arab slavers in the 1890s in the area that is Uganda today. Why was that a reason for taking over the whole country? (If slave trading was wrong – which of course it was – then why does Boris neglect to mention that the British had participated in the North Atlantic slave trade for 4 centuries up to the early decades of the 19th century and abandoned slavery partly because of the impact of the successful Haitian revolution between 1791 and 1804 – a revolution that was then strangled by economic sanctions not unlike those against Cuba many years later. )

Above all Boris makes a great deal of what the colonialists chose to cultivate in Uganda – cotton, coffee and tobacco. As an argument for stealing a country from under its inhabitants this is like saying that you have the right to evict your neighbours because you have a better idea for what they should grow in their garden.

Note though that Boris is open about his support for colonialism. There is nothing being hidden. Yet there was also a British government conspiracy, as we will see, jointly with the CIA and Mossad.

“Development” and land degradation – when experts fail then justifications do too

Before we get to the conspiracy here’s an important question – was the colonial land use good for Uganda? As I argued above the enclosures at home and the land grabbing abroad was justified by the idea that the elite was “improving” the land. But the truth is that this led to widespread land degradation and ecological damage – something that Boris does not mention.

There are two possible kinds of criticism of colonialism. One is that colonialism prevented the “development” of the colonies along a path similar to the colonial powers – a path of industrialisation was blocked. This is how I used to think in the 1970s as a young economist. Since industrialisation has created an ecological crisis I am no longer convinced that this is the main crime against colonial peoples.

Nowadays I find an ecological historical viewpoint more compelling – the main crime has been that the colonies were forced down a path which has never been sustainable because of its extractivist character. Mineral and agricultural wealth was taken for sale in the imperial metropolis making a tiny minority immensely wealthy but many people in the colonies lost access to their lands to make this happen and the lands were degraded.

This is a sustainability criticism of colonialism that better reflects what ecologists have noted – that economic activity in the form of plantation monocultures and mining, happening on too big a scale for the health of the planet – has degraded ecological systems leaving behind a impoverished legacy. The injustice, the wrong doing, has been against future generations as well as against past ones. In many cases the damage was done by colonial officers and advisers who thought they knew what they were doing but in reality did not – because they lacked local knowledge and were too arrogant to recognise the wisdom and on the ground experience of local people.

“During the colonial era, state governments tried to force peasants and farmers to adopt scientifically approved farming techniques. Many of these efforts were aimed at controlling African populations and did not take into account significant cultural norms. For instance, colonial officers invariably worked with men, even in areas where women were responsible for farming. They also provided few incentives – only punishments. Soil erosion and depletion continued, and rural frustration over colonial land schemes helped fuel nationalist movements in many countries.

Not surprisingly, most nationalist governments in the post-independence era tried to work with rural populations rather than force change. They favoured education and outreach programs, but soil erosion and poor output continued, in part because no one looked carefully at what farmers and herders were actually doing. In many countries, elite policy makers had urban backgrounds, and they still tended to presume that rural people’s existing methods were ignorant and destructive. International NGOs and scientists also worked off of assumptions about peasant land use that are now being called into question.

Recently, more research has gone into both the causes of soil erosion and into what are termed indigenous farming methods and knowledge about sustainable use. This research has exploded the myth that peasant techniques were inherently unchanging, “traditional”, wasteful methods. Some farming patterns are destructive, and research can identify better ways, but increasingly scholars and policy makers are emphasizing the need to draw the best from scientific research and peasant knowledge of the land.”

This is another example of where the damage is not necessarily done out of vested interest but out of hubris and arrogance – from “know what’s best from you” colonials who did not know what they were doing. Another way of putting this is that the notion that external experts can do a better job than indigenous people is being found not to be true. Yet this was always the reason for assuming that it would “help development” to take land away from local people and award it to foreign corporations – the justification of colonialism. No conspiracy – just incompetence, hubris, arrogance and stupidity. So much for the “civilising mission”.

Sometimes however, there were conspiracies

While Boris Johnson pontificates about colonialism not being response for the mess that Africa is in there’s something else that he forgets to mention – the way that Britain, the former imperial power, continued to interfere in Africa’s development – covertly, behind the scenes. Uganda is an example. Pat Hutton and Jonathan Bloc explain:

“The tale of how the Western powers took measures to reverse the decline of their fortunes in Africa during the 1960s is complex in detail but simple in principle. In Uganda, once dubbed the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, huge British financial, industrial and agricultural interests were under threat from the Obote government.

Unease about Obote’s intentions was combined with attempts by outside interests to ingratiate themselves. Obote accepted aid from the Israeli government, which was desperately trying to avoid total diplomatic isolation while being used as a proxy by America in countries where its own reputation was tarnished.

The Americans and Israelis worked in very close co-operation in Uganda, particularly through their respective intelligence agencies, the CIA and Mossad. America provided some development aid while Israeli troops trained the Ugandan army and airforce. The British economic and political presence was always predominant and this was one of the situations that Obote hoped to change.

Throughout the late 1960s, Obote was consolidating his personal power and introducing legislation that was to shake the colonial interests. Although Obote was no Castro or Nyerere, his Common Man’s Charter and the nationalisation of 80 British companies were not welcome in London.

As one prominent commentator put it: The Obote government was on the point of changing not only the constitution but the whole political system when [Amin’s] coup occurred. A vital source of raw materials, Uganda was not about to be permitted to determine its own political development at the expense of the entrenched interests. Soon, plans were being laid by Britain in combination with Israel and America to remedy this situation…

The first task was to choose Obote’s possible successor, and Idi Amin proved an obvious choice. Known by the British as a little short on the gray matter though intensely loyal to Britain, his qualifications were superb. He had started his career as a non-commissioned officer in the British colonial regiment, the King’s African Rifles, and later served in the British suppression of Kenyan nationalists in the late 1950s…

In Uganda itself, Amin had helped form the General Service Units (the political police) and had even chosen the presidential bodyguard. Some have said Amin was being groomed for power as early as 1966 (four years after Ugandan independence on 9 October 1962), but the plotting by the British and others began in earnest in 1969 when Obote started his nationalisation programme……”

Similar events have happened in other countries across Africa. For example the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966. For example deposing and murdering Patrice Lumumba in the Congo a few days after “independence” as a Belgian and CIA conspiracy.

Might it be that Africa is a mess partly because “de-colonialisation” has never really happened and that the rich resources of oil, diamonds and minerals have cursed these countries to be a battle ground to being fought over by business interests from the former colonial powers, the USA and now Russia and China?

When elite narratives collapse – what was once progress makes better sense as crime

As already argued – you don’t need a conspiracy when most people believe a story that justifies what “our betters” want us to believe. Their chief story since industrialisation is that they have improved things – colonialism and its actions represented “progress” for indigenous peoples who were “primitive”.

But the story of colonialism has never been properly told to, and by, white people in the former imperial metropolis. An objective historian should be able to see that in many cases it was not the indigenous people that were primitive but the colonialists. Take, for example, colonialism in Australia. Before the colonisation aboriginal people of Australia were practising a very sophisticated and detailed management of the local ecological system which was why the landscapes appeared to British invaders to be like the park landscapes of gentlemen back in England.

This system had been basically unchanged for 8,000 to 15,000 years. Let’s put that in different words – the aborigines had mastered the techniques of ecological economic sustainability. That’s because they were managing the land with controlled burning and water management plus they had a detailed knowledge of the species of plants and animals which informed their land management and cultivation. In this land management their underlying purpose was to maintain things as they were – not to go for economic growth and “improvement”.

Just as impressively they only needed to work about 3 hours a day – which the English saw as aboriginal laziness rather than evidence of a superior way of life. Had they been more observant and humble they would have realised that their knowledge of the species and landscape and how to manage it was inferior. They were unable to see themselves for what they were – intruders. Several centuries later the unsustainability of the colonial invader’s economic arrangements is turning up in uncontrollable fires.[3]

Nowadays the terminology is different but the basic notion of the cultural superiority of the white invaders remains. This cultural superiority is taught in western universities but uses an updated language. In this different language “land grabs” become “development projects”. Local people are evicted from lands where they had a customary grazing right – but this is in the interests of “progress”. Or people who have been looking after tropical forests for generations – which is why the forests are still there – are turfed out because multinational corporations have the paperwork to prove that they can protect the carbon in the trees and better prevent deforestation.

Once again the PR is that it is for their own good and in the cause of that wonderful PR concept: “progress”. The PR does not convince the marginalised communities who are disinherited but it works well on the highly qualified and highly paid dupes looking at the presentations on display online or in the international conference circuit.

A Lexical Void – where there is no word to describe something

How do you describe a situation where one community is the victim of what it experiences as land theft and genocide – and another community who are the perpetrators sanitises the same situation in their history books by playing down the murders and thefts and describes what has happened as “progress” and “economic development”? We lack appropriate words or phrases for this yet this is what has happened over a large part of the history of humanity.

To repeat, as far as the elite was and is concerned their entitlement to indigenous land could not be theft because they were improving it. This was an idea that derived from the philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704 ) – and it was just assumed that indigenous people were living in a “natural landscape”. The indigenous people were just “poor savages who slept in the woods” as Charles Darwin expressed it for the aboriginal people of Australia. Despite being a clever man Charles Darwin did not notice that the Australian landscape was the result of Aboriginal management.

In any case was it really true that the settlers were “improving the land”? If the settlers had to work 8 hours a day while indigenous people worked only 3 there are reasons to doubt that. But even if true was this “improvement” sustainable? Or was it a temporary “improvement” followed by degradation?

Elite wrong doing in the democratic era – the role of PR and the news media

All change….Universal suffrage, human rights, mass education, the mass media and now the internet have changed the conditions in which government takes place. One law for the rich and powerful and another law for everyone else is likely to get noticed. The consent of the governed has become important. Or that is how it appears on the surface….This became a job for the propaganda industry – also known as Public Relations.

In the modern age of mass communications and “democracy” the ancestry of PR goes back to Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his own psychological knowledge to shape perceptions and behaviour for elite agendas, including marketing agendas. Bernays is credited with many things – including manipulating women into smoking when young women of the flapper era were impressed by photos in popular magazines and papers of other women who were smoking, which previously was done only by men. Bernays had the idea of putting the photos in for that purpose. He realised that the photos would encourage people to see smoking as a symbol of women’s liberation.

Manipulating the public without them being aware of it has become “a dark art”. It is part of what has created an atmosphere of suspicion.

Engineering consent

Bernays was the person who invented the phrase of “engineering consent” and wrote a lot about the idea. “The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest”[4] As Noam Chomsky explains in an introduction to Bernay’s book:

“So he wrote a book called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is possible to “regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies.” These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new techniques…” [5]

Great efforts are made by PR agencies to massage public perceptions and are put into “narrative control”. This is something done jointly with the media, electronic and print based. No discussion of elite conspiracies and conspiracy theories can avoid an analysis of the way the “manufacture of consent” is organised by and through the mass media.

The Organisation and Sale of Influence

Expressing it as I have just done appears to be quintessentially conspiratorial because it follows directly from the implications of the thinking and practice of Edward Bernays. Bernays begins his text:

“THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

 We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

 Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.

They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.
It is not usually realized how necessary these invisible governors are to the orderly functioning of our group life. In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases…”

It will be noticed that this piece, first published in 1928, is explicitly NOT starting by describing a conspiracy because at this time the Bernays view is that the “invisible governors”, these very influential people, “are unaware of the identity of their fellow members of the invisible cabinet”. In other words the idea of a conspiracy in which people come together to make joint plans to steer the course of events is not what Bernays is referring to. He is simply saying that there are a small number of influential people and that their ideas and opinions are very important to the functioning of democracy.

However, because of Bernays, and because of the subsequent growth of the PR and propaganda industry, things have now changed. The situation is no longer one in which there is a scattering of individual influencers who largely do not know each other. The influencing process – moulding public opinion and influencing government – is now highly organised.

The role of the PR industry is to organise the process of influencing and to make this organised activity available to those able and prepared to pay.

If this is not conspiratorial it is getting very close to it. This is for two reasons – firstly because the influencers are not there to figure out what is in the overall public interest but are for hire to those who can afford to pay and who want their interest advanced and secondly because most people cannot afford to hire them. Only the rich and already powerful can.

The game of influence for money which only a few can afford to play

Here is a description in the web site TruePublica from June 2020. It is from the time when the first steps to attempt to loosen the covid 19 lockdown were being considered:

“We’ve never been busier,” said George McGregor of the global lobbying agency Interel. The UK’s estimated £2bn lobbying industry is thriving. Speaking in a webinar from his home, McGregor, who is also co-chair of the Public Affairs Board, explained how lobbyists have sought to influence the many interventions the government has introduced to support companies through the crisis.

“Government recognises it needs to listen to business and adapt,” he said, adding that he could cite “lots of examples” where such adaptation had benefited his clients.

“The government deserves a huge amount of credit,” he says. “The officials, MPs and ministers we deal with have been incredibly receptive to the needs of business.”

For lobbyists, a crisis presents risks but also plenty of opportunities. Effective PR tops the list. Many companies have been quick to position themselves as part of a “national effort” to combat the virus, either through direct offers of help or financial gifts. Hanover, the communications agency, advises clients to seed the press with “positive news … of companies doing something significant, generous and non-self-serving”.

Advice on communicating effectively with worried employees is also part of the lobbyists’ offer. Chief executives need to become “chief empathy officers” and focus on the emotional needs of employees, according to Edelman, a global PR and lobbying firm. While there are obvious moral and business reasons for companies to attend to the wellbeing of their employees, companies that are seen to have done the right thing may well get a better hearing in government. According to the consultancy Headland, “being well-positioned will help add authority” to corporate voices, which will “help them to guide public policy so that they can be in a stronger financial position in the wake of the crisis”.

Guiding public policy is what lobbyists do, even in lockdown. Pagefield, a PR consultancy, is providing advice to companies on “how best to handle conversations” with, for example, the Treasury on specific government interventions. It is also advising on how they can input into the government’s four coronavirus implementation committees.

Lobbyists can also identify opportunities for corporations to shape post-pandemic public policy as the government seeks to kick-start the economy. According to the UK consultancy WA Communications, the “government is already looking for ideas”, adding that “positive policy ideas that can help support the economy will be listened to”.

The Adam Smith Institute, which works “to promote free-market, neoliberal ideas”, is already on the case, writing to supporters to solicit ideas. “We want to hear from you of every tax cut that can lift a burden, every regulatory change that can lighten the load on businesses… every bureaucratic impediment that… might be suspended or permanently extinguished.” These ideas will constitute, it says, a “blueprint for the new Britain that must emerge”…

…While lobbying regulations in countries such as the US mean that Americans can see which corporations are spending near-record sums petitioning Washington, there is no oversight of who is pursuing influence in the UK. This is by design. David Cameron’s government refused to introduce an effective register of lobbyists….”

Is this a conspiracy? It certainly implies that, without it being very visible, “events and situations” – aka government policy – is determined by a few powerful people behind the scenes rather than by politicians guided by political parties and public political discussion and debate.

The Media and Press as Influencers – and as enforcers of the limits of acceptable discourse

For this process of influence to have its full impact the media and press are needed to play along. Indeed there has been a tendency to blur the distinction of the news media and the PR sector who work closely together.

How the news media function as propagandists has been theorised in the iconic work The Manufacture of Consent by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky. In their book, first published in 1988, the two authors argue that mass media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function…”

But is this not one vast conspiracy theory? Herman and Chomsky answer:

“Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as “conspiracy theories,” but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of “conspiracy” hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a “free market” analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power.

There are important actors who do take positive initiatives to define and shape the news and to keep the media in line. It is a “guided market system” that we describe here, with the guidance provided by the government, the leaders of the corporate community, the top media owners and executives, and the assorted individuals and groups who are assigned or allowed to take constructive initiatives. These initiators are sufficiently small in number to be able to act jointly on occasion, as do sellers in markets with few rivals. In most cases, however, media leaders do similar things because they see the world through the same lenses, are subject to similar constraints and incentives, and thus feature stories or maintain silence together in tacit collective action and leader- follower behavior.”

Kleptocracy and the undermining of Democracy

Although governments are elected by democratic votes they are not equally accessible to all. Politics is played on a field that is not level. The rich and powerful have more money power, they are “better connected” to other influential people, they can afford to buy newspapers and hire their editors and journalists – who prosper when they are tame and tell the rich people’s story. The elite have access to professionals to provide legal and advocacy services and to make their agendas seem innocent and to research opportunities for them. They have millions to pay lobbyists and to make political donations.

This situation is getting worse – the global economy provides offshore locations where looted wealth can be stashed in shell companies, trusts and other financial institutions which do not reveal the sources of their wealth nor who are the beneficiaries of their transactions. After “laundering” the wealth can then be spent in another country altogether and an entire international financial machinery is there to ease tax evasion, extortion, looting. Much of the wealth then flows into luxury real estate purchased by criminals.

The UK National Crime Agency estimates that laundered money running through the United Kingdom may amount to a staggering £90 billion annually—much of it ending up property – driving up property prices in places like London so that ordinary people can no longer afford to live there. (£90 billion is over 4% of UK Gross National Product).

“Whitewashing reputations”

“Reputation laundering involves minimizing or obscuring evidence of corruption and authoritarianism in the kleptocrat’s home country and rebranding kleptocrats as engaged global citizens. Its murkier cousin is so-called “black PR,” aimed at sullying the reputations of a kleptocrat’s political rivals. Reputation laundering comprises a web of interrelated practices that go beyond the economic realm to encompass various social-networking and political techniques. These include securing the right for the kleptocrat to reside overseas, running an aggressive image-crafting and public relations campaign, and using philanthropic activities to ensconce the kleptocrat in a web of transnational alliances.”[6]

Criminogenic environments – where elite wrong doing is systemic

Do all these criminals just happen to be there? Is this a mere random distribution of elite corruption and wrong doing? Or is something else involved? Is there something about power structures and power relationships that actually generates the problem? Is there anything in the well known saying that “power corrupts”? If so might this be a partial explanation of why so many people have great skepticism of elite narratives?

In truth there is evidence to underpin the idea that power corrupts. For example there is the research compiled by the U4 Anti Corruption Resource Centre of the Chr. Michelsen Institute by Kendra Dupuy and Siri Neset. This is titled “The cognitive psychology of corruption” and reviews literature on corruption published in the fields of psychology, political science, political psychology, economics, business, and organisational studies. Dupuy and Neset’s piece finds 13 studies with evidence that “individuals holding power are more likely to act corruptly”:

“One of the strongest findings from our review is that holding power seems to change cognitive processes in ways that make people more likely to behave unethically.”

One implication is of the need to “ensure transparent and accountable decision-making processes to check power.” Yet by definition a conspiracy is constituted in actions that are covert, that are the very opposite of transparent.

What I am suggesting by this is that the problem of trustworthiness is systemic. One academic who has a good grasp of these issues is William K Black, a Professor of Economics and Criminology. He has a concept of “criminogenic environments” which actually encourage and, so to speak, breed (elite) crime. A lot depends on whether the public authorities take the trouble to actually regulate and prosecute crime in the business and finance sector. When they do not take steps to police it then crime (and therefore conspiracies) will flourish among powerful people. Such has been the situation over the last few decades – particularly in the UK and the City of London as well as in Wall Street. (Perhaps because they have themselves been corrupted).

The scale of the problem

Professor Black had a role in the prosecution of many finance sector executives for fraud after the collapse of more than 1,000 thrift institutions in the USA in the early 1990s. The regulatory campaign led to more than 3,700 senior executives of financial institutions that had gone bust going to jail.

The 2008 financial crisis was handled markedly differently. Very few finance sector managers were prosecuted – but they were bailed out. Black described “an epidemic of control fraud” in the years leading up to the 2008 crash yet nothing was done to clean up the Wall Street sewer. Making an estimate of the number of cases of fraud at this time he came up with this:

“…… one can infer that the lowest bound estimate of the true annual incidence of mortgage fraud during the later years of the housing bubble would be 500,000.”

Recurrent, Intensifying Crises

“Control fraud” is the term that William K Black uses to describe when managers run organisations to enrich themselves at the expense of their shareholders and other stakeholders. (eg arranging loans to people with no income, no assets and no job who have no chance of repaying the loans. Why would they do that? In order to earn the fee that goes with arranging each loan. It is also fraud to package such loans up and sell them on so that someone else takes the risk and then loss of non payment. It is fraud again for other financial agencies to give such loan packages an AAA rating when they well know they are “toxic trash” – in the knowledge that when things go badly wrong their cronies in the central bank will bail them out. The result is that the economy crashes and millions are hurt – except the perpetrators, who get bailed out…..)

Financial criminality in the UK

It is probably worse in the UK. In his book Treasure Islands, financial journalist Nicholas Shaxson explains how, at the end of the British Empire, the City of London re-invented its operations. In the late 1950s, the euro-dollar market enabled London to offer the evasion of Federal Reserve Regulation on dollars held in London instead of in the USA. This strategy of making London into a place to evade financial regulation was then extended geographically through a network of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions in Britain’s dwindling network of colonies and “dependencies”, for example, in places like the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and, above all, the Cayman Islands. The process took place with the help and connivance of the Bank of England and the City. (Shaxson, 2011)

As Shaxson documents, the function of these islands is to launder the profits of international crime syndicates; arrange finance associated with gun running and the arms trade; park money looted from countries by their oligarchies; evade financial regulation; provide havens for the shadow banking sector and to facilitate tax evasion.

In a recent book by Shaxson, The Finance Curse, he describes how corrupt the regulatory authorities have become as a result. The so called “Big Bang”, the sudden rapid deregulation of the City of London in 1986, took place on the assumption that remaining regulators would be dealing with largely ethical people but they were unpleasantly surprised.

“Rowan Bosworth Davies, a financial criminologist and former detective in the Fraud Squad, describes a variety of criminals arriving on his patch along with Wall Street culture: ‘a tidal wave of fraudsters, con men, financial snake oil salesmen, and assorted ne’re do wels, all masquerading under the title of ‘financial advisers’. The City put no barriers in their way. ‘Get off the plane at 10am and you could be in business at 3pm’ he remembers. We started to see allegations of fraud coming through that we had never seen before….fraud in the derivatives markets, futures, options, that kind of thing. We started to see businesses being set up in the City that were being run by mainstream US Mafioso. Heavy American organised criminals.”[7]

Trying to reform the corporate sector to drive out corruption is like pushing a piece of string. The problem is now all-pervasive. Scandals happen revealing the extent of evasion of control and of taxes, politicians promise things will happen but several years later another story comes out that dashes any reasonable belief that things are being done and can be done.

According to a June 2020 article in “OpenDemocracy”

“Most forms of British corporate entities have to name a “person of significant control” – a beneficiary with a stake of 25 per cent or more. The idea was introduced in 2013 by David Cameron, the then prime minister, who pledged to attack the “small minority” of companies that had “hidden their business dealings behind a complicated web of shell companies”.

But OpenDemocracy’s analysis shows almost 400,000 businesses still under opaque ownership with no named PSC, exactly what the Tories said they wanted to avoid.”

British Companies in the Ukraine…and Crime

Another article by the same authors concerns British companies in the Ukraine – they write:

“They are as common as muck in Ukraine. And often as dirty.

Foreign shell firms – ‘offshores’ in the jargon – litter the country’s politics and economy.
They are used to conceal ownership, avoid tax, make illicit payments and launder dirty money. Their abuse, say anti-corruption campaigners, help keep Ukraine poor.

Many are British, especially Scottish. Now an analysis of Ukrainian government public records by OpenDemocracy gives another glimpse at just how often UK corporate entities are being red-flagged in the country.

We found that more than 700 Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish firms are ‘blacklisted’ in Ukraine.

Transparency International said this was “a stark reminder of Britain’s role as a global hub for financial crime”. The Scottish National Party, which has been campaigning for tighter corporate governance, said Scottish limited partnerships – or SLPs, one of the most common ‘offshores’ used in Ukraine – had left a “toxic” legacy.”

Wrong doing in the medical and pharmaceutical industry

Nor is it just as a result of the actions of the finance sector that people get hurt and conspiracies happen. Take the operation of the pharmaceutical companies for example. Results from fully one third of the clinical trials of five classes of drugs never see the light of day, finds an analysis published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The drugs were anticholesteremics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, proton-pump inhibitors (which reduce gastric acid), and vasodilators (which relax blood-vessel walls in order to reduce blood pressure). Are these not conspiracies by drug companies? They are certainly grounds for high degrees of suspicion.

With Covid 19 raging it is also relevant to explore suspicions about the chaotic arrangements for the supply of personal protective equipment for medical personnel. Given the importance of this equipment how has it come about that, rather than place orders with long standing suppliers with a track record through established tendering processes, the tender process for supplies was suspended in March 2020 in the UK – and a quarter of a billion pound order was placed with a private wealth management company run through a shell company registered in Mauritius which is a tax haven and secrecy jurisdiction?

But what about vaccines? Just because some vaccines have arguably had good effects does not mean all have – this is particularly relevant with a rush to develop a vaccine against covid 19.  There are other cases which give rise to suspicion. 

As regards the origins of covid 19 was there a conspiracy here? Maybe, maybe not. The Swiss Policy Research blog finds that:

“It is known that the virological laboratory in Wuhan, in collaboration with the United States and France, researched coronaviruses and thereby also generated “potentially pandemic pathogens” (PPP) that are particularly easy to transmit and / or particularly dangerous. In addition, there have been several laboratory accidents with virus releases in China and the USA.

The unbiased observer must therefore continue to consider several realistic options: a natural origin of the virus (as assumed with SARS 2003), a laboratory accident as part of functional research (probably in Wuhan), or even a targeted release by a geopolitically interested actor in the East or West.

Nevertheless, the Covid19 virus is not a “biological weapon” in the classic sense: the virus is very easily transmissible, but not particularly dangerous for the general population. Animal studies have shown that much more deadly corona viruses can be generated.”

Murder and Crimes Against Defenders of the Environment

All of this is an extremely toxic political environment in which to try to organise environmental campaigns. Conspiracies against the environment and the defenders of the environment are ubiquitous.

Murder and other violent crimes against environmental activists by corporations and governments around the world are frequent and all pervasive. The organisation Global Witness has a particular focus on corruption, environmental devastation and crime by economic interests. Their 2018 annual report has this table:

“This year, our annual report on the killings of land and environmental defenders also reveals how countless more people were threatened, arrested or thrown in jail for daring to oppose the governments or companies seeking to profit from their land.

These are ordinary people trying to protect their homes and livelihoods, and standing up for the health of our planet. Often their land is violently grabbed to produce goods used and consumed across the world every day, from food, to mobile phones, to jewellery.”

Conspiracies to Initiate Wars – in breach of the UN Charter and International Law

Perhaps the most serious conspiracies of all are those which initiate wars – the highest crime in international law. This was the basis of the famous Nuremberg principles and trials at the end of world war two and the principles were subsequently written up in the Charter of the United Nations which all members of the UN are supposed to uphold.

Yet this kind of conspiracy to start wars has been clearly admitted by very senior US military personnel. For example more than once on camera General Wesley Clark described visiting the Pentagon shortly after 9/11 and was told by another General that it had been decided to go to war with Iraq. He revisited the Pentagon a few weeks later and, in his own words:

“So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, ‘Are we still going to war with Iraq?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that.’ He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, ‘I just got this down from upstairs’ – meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office – ‘today.’ And he said, ‘This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.’ I said, ‘Is it classified?’ He said, ‘Yes,sir.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t show it to me.’ And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, ‘You remember that?’ He said, ‘Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!'”

How else would you describe this except as a conspiracy?

Thousands have died as a result of the resulting wars. There are different ways of estimating the death toll. One can try to add up what is found in incident and press reports and in official investigations. However these miss a great many people who have died because many deaths go unreported. An ‘active’ mortality study is one that actively surveys households to find deaths that have not previously been reported by news reports or published sources. These studies are carried out by people who work in the field of public health. Comprehensive mortality studies in war-torn countries (like Angola, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Iraq, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda) have revealed total numbers of deaths that are 5 to 20 times those previously revealed by ‘passive’ reporting based on news reports, hospital records or human rights investigations.

Using this methodology it seems likely that by 2018 the post 9/11 wars of the USA have killed about six million people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

‘After 16 years of war, about 6 million violent deaths, 6 countries utterly destroyed and many more destabilized, it is urgent that the American public come to terms with the true human cost of our country’s wars and how we have been manipulated and misled into turning a blind eye to them – before they go on even longer, destroy more countries, further undermine the rule of international law and kill millions more of our fellow human beings.’

UK complicity in initiating wars

The UK and other countries are also complicit in these crimes. Britain’s complicity in the attack on Iraq in breach of international law is obvious though there are no steps afood to deliver Tony Blair or Jack Straw or Geoff Hoon to the Hague for trial as war criminals. Less well known is, for example, British complicity with the outbreak of civil war in Syria. In this YouTube video a former French foreign Minister, Roland Dumas describes visiting London and discovering that the British were preparing for war two years before the outbreak of hostilities.

“I went to England almost two years before the start of hostilities. I was there on another business not at all for Syria. I met British officials, some of whom are friends of mine. They confessed while trying to persuade me that preparations for something were underway in Syria. This was in England, not in the US. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria….. I need to say this operation goes way back. It was prepared, conceived and planned ….(Interjected question by interviewer: Excuse me but for what purpose? )…..Answer by Dumas: Very simply for the purpose of overthrowing the Syrian government because it is important to know in this region that this regime has an anti Israeli stance….”

So, here we have another conspiracy in breach of the UN Charter.

Continue to part 2


1. Hans Magnus Enzenburger. Raids and Reconistructions. Essays in Politics, Crime and Culture. Pluto Press 1976 p 168
2. Nelson, L. H. (2001). “The Rise of Feudalism”, from Lectures in Medieval History on WWW Virtual Library:
3. See also Bruce Pascoe Dark Emu. Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Scribe Publications, London and Victoria, 2018,
4. Public Relations, p.116, University of Oklahoma Press
5. See also Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda. Retrieved December 29th, 2013, from History is a Weapon.
7. Nicholas Shaxson, The Finance Curse, Penguin/Bodley Head, 2018 p 144

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