Over the past seventy years, the quiet New Mexico town of Roswell, an agricultural community with a population of 48,000, has become the very heart of conspiracy lore – its alien autopsies, unidentified flying objects and layered government cover-ups combining to redefine versions of reality. On 8 July 1947, the Roswell Daily Record published a story that would change the course of history, not only for the small farming town, but also for many around the world, who turned the locale into a setting of otherworldly fascination and a symbol for governments concealing larger truths.
Formulaic encounters in alien mythology have long been associated with cranks and con artists, and they follow a well-documented script: in an open field in the middle of nowhere, a silver, saucer-shaped aircraft suddenly isolates its victim, kidnapping them to parts unknown before later returning them outwardly unscathed but psychologically traumatised, with their memories of events unearthed while under hypnosis. The most notorious case of alleged alien abduction is the 1961 Zeta Reticuli Incident. Betty and Barney Hill, a couple from New Hampshire, stumbled upon a field after seeing a flash of light moving like a fluttering star across the sky in the distance – and then an illuminated saucer rapidly descended upon them. Barney would later claim to have seen at least eight extraterrestrial figures that night, and Betty would attest to having been examined and shown a map of stars. Their story, which often changed and developed further embellishments, resembles countless others in a post-Roswell world. But aliens are just the beginning of alternative folklore.
‘I want to believe’ has become an emblematic hymn of the wider conspiracy world; it is a sentiment invoking a wholesome inquisitiveness, reminiscent of a lonesome prayer made by someone straddling the edges of faith. Wrapped in this discourse is the hardened conviction that puissant entities have gone to great lengths to mislead the public about countless plots in our world – from alien technology to the cure for cancer. It is not just that there is something out there, but that ominous powers, often associated with state and military apparatuses, are concealing fragments of this world in order to preserve both social and political authority. The eccentricity embodied by those convinced of being probed by little green men is often used as evidence that all conspiracy is fable – that there are no government secrets, and certainly no minacious schemes in place that will have any impact on society. While documentation of flying saucers is fantastical at best, the rise of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and organisations such as WikiLeaks demonstrates that the day-to-day reality from which we scavenge meaning is more outlandish and terrifying than anything that could possibly be imagined.
There is no definitive answer as to what lures us towards conspiratorial ideation – reasons are often as unique as the theories that we chase, ranging from the growing influence of social media and political disaffection to government admissions that come decades after the notorious events themselves. The latter has undoubtedly had a profound impact on communities who have long faced the systematic trappings of state violence, such as in the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Between 1932 and 1972, six hundred black tenant farmers in Alabama, two-thirds of whom were suffering from untreated syphilis, were deceived into enrolling in what they were told was a free medical program to treat ‘bad blood’. The clinical experiment in fact was only observational; about half of those who had the disease received no treatment, and their latent illness progressed, ultimately killing them or causing horrific side effects. Over its four decades, the experiment involved countless public health officials, nurses, physicians and scientists. The project was terminated only after an Associated Press journalist was tipped off by a government whistleblower. Just seventy-four of the original test subjects survived; many of their loved ones contracted the illness and some unknowingly bore children with congenital syphilis. It took until 1997 for the US government to publicly acknowledge the severity of the experiment and apologise.
Another conspiracy that lingers is MK-ULTRA, the CIA mind-control program that ran between 1953 and 1973, which relied on psychological torture as well as high doses of LSD and other psychochemical substances to test how unknowing human subjects functioned under ‘truth serums’. In reality, it was a means of testing control and obedience, and preventing confessions from prisoners of war. At the time, mind control was a concept belonging to dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Pat Frank’s Forbidden Area. The idea that thought reform or mind conditioning was possible was relegated to writers and Hollywood, even as the US government hid such programs in propaganda that suggested the concept was a method of evil empires (that is, Nazis). To suggest that this same government was genuinely experimenting on its own citizens would have been considered a sign of madness. While the full extent of MK-ULTRA experiments may never be known – Jon Ronson made a fair attempt of summarising them in his 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats – the program resulted in several deaths, including the alleged suicide of army researcher and unwitting victim Frank Olson, while thousands of other victims were left with serious psychiatric side effects, including psychotic breaks and varying levels of paranoia. (It is not uncommon to find posts on internet conspiracy boards hypothesising that the Jonestown cult was an MK-ULTRA test.) Before the program was exposed, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all documents related to MK-ULTRA destroyed. An unknown number of files were wiped from history, leaving just 20,000 behind, discovered in 1977 following a Freedom of Information request.
During the height of the Red Scare, the FBI launched its counterintelligence program COINTELPRO, part of a wider network of covert operations aimed at monitoring, infiltrating and disrupting leftist organisations. Those historically targeted included the Communist Party (the agency’s initial mark), the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr, the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Indian Movement, student groups opposed to the Vietnam War and countless others. The targeting of King, a man the agency referred to as ‘the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country’, was an effort to derail the civil rights movement via unrelenting surveillance and other intimidatory practices, including at least one anonymous, bureau-authored letter in which King was told to commit suicide.
In a world where state surveillance continues to evolve and expand all around us, the idea that governments would be monitoring and disrupting left organising is perfectly credible. And yet, despite the chilling details recent history has offered in the form of assassinated political leaders, imprisoned activists and investigative committees developed for the sole purpose of purging leftists, ubiquitous surveillance is still considered by many to be a fringe concern. Some materialists have a tendency to focus on the more outlandish fringes of ‘conspiracism’, making it easier to dismiss cases in which the state is covertly but ruthlessly destroying whatever left organising is occurring.
Brian Quinby, host of anarcho-comedy radio show Street Fight, has been following online conspiracist groups for the past year on his show, noting how they have used social media and the internet to spread their transcendental beliefs – whether they relate to governments forcing citizens into cashless societies in order to increase surveillance, Hillary Clinton and John Podesta being practising Vodouists or alien sightings actually being demon encounters. Quinby’s fascination began with Illuminati lore, an obsession initiated in part because he liked having ‘really simple answers for very complex questions’ at his disposal. ‘The main thing I took away from a lot of my [sociology] studies was that power is taken by people who are willing to take it,’ he explains. ‘So the idea that power was this old dark magic and that there is an all-seeing group controlling weather or putting secret messages in Super Bowl half-time shows to consolidate power without anyone knowing about it was really cool to me.’
Quinby thinks there may be a class element to how certain societal events are rationalised, compounded by feelings of alienation and a need for control over one’s life. ‘It seems like the people in these groups feel like they can’t understand the world anymore so they reject it completely,’ he argues. ‘They feel like people will just believe what anyone tells them without needing evidence. I really think it is a lot of disaffected men with few options that are trying to figure out why they are outsiders. It is easier to say that the world is stupid than it is to say that it has passed you by.’
People are overwhelmingly sceptical about the existence of either a benevolent state or benign power structures, Quinby says, and so the concept of a guiding force that accounts for global and interpersonal events is part of what makes conspiracies so compelling. At least in part, it comes from a yearning to explain complex situations that drives many into dark corners of conspiratorial intrigue; and, while not all conspiracy theories are created equal, their foundations are relatively similar.
A commonplace means of vilifying speculative theorising and gaslighting sceptics is to use unrelated mythologies as a discrediting tactic. Thus, those who believe in September 11 cover-ups – ‘9/11 truthers’ – are thrown in with adherents of David Icke’s ‘reptoid hypothesis’ and advocates of the theory that Paul McCartney died in 1966, even though they do not necessarily share any origin story beyond elementary scepticism. Members of the working class are maligned as uneducated for believing in even the most banal of conspiracies; meanwhile, the more powerful someone is, the more credence is bestowed upon their beliefs, no matter how unorthodox they may seem. Take, for instance, attempts by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, one of the youngest billionaires on Earth, to argue that the world as we know it is merely a simulation. In 2016, at California’s sumptuous Code Conference – an elite technology and digital media convention – Musk claimed that ‘there’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality’, referring to the ‘simulation theory’ first articulated in 300 BCE by Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. Class undoubtedly plays a role in whether or not a conspiracy theory is appraised favourably, as perception of acuity is often linked to wealth and social standing.
There do not simply exist two extremes of conspiratorial bedlam, however. There are very real cover-ups and manipulations that are meant to both influence the historical record and malign dissenters and sceptics – after all, the more the state declares someone mad, the harder it becomes to convince those bewitched by authority that what the ‘mad person’ is saying is true. September 11, together with the network of conspiracy that has risen from its ashes, is a pertinent example.
As the world held its breath after the fall of the World Trade Center, shadowy schemes were afoot, and soon a call for war was made. Anti-war protesters across the world who questioned theories about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were denounced not just as traitors to their respective countries and apologists for Saddam Hussein, but also as naive crackpots.
Documents, later known as the Niger uranium forgeries, were supposed to show that Iraq had been stockpiling materials in order to manufacture WMDs. When these documents were proven to be fraudulent, however, the proponents of hyper-militarism were unmoved. Though young at the time, I was already a hardened anti-war sceptic regarding the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; I soon delved into the world of wartime conspiracy. Coming to understand how entrenched government propaganda is, especially immediately preceding war, led me to recognise disinformation campaigns, from supposedly altruistic efforts to liberate Iraqi women to journalists’ uses of anonymous sources in order to spread pro-war hysteria. To this day, not a single person has been tried or convicted for producing or disseminating this false ‘intelligence’.
The Iraq War lie was no small deception; nonetheless, while much of the US public in hindsight considers the war to have been a mistake, this has not stopped the usual hawkish parties from setting their sights on countries like Iran and North Korea. The role of the media in regurgitating government propaganda has done little to curb these efforts, and nor has it helped persuade readers and viewers that outlets produce more than what Donald Trump colloquially refers to as ‘fake news’. The conditions of the media today have made an impact; now, some 65 per cent of American voters agree that ‘there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media’. This should come as no surprise: when publications do little more than act as stenographers of power, how can the public trust them to relay truth?
Recently, in the foremost example of bourgeois absurdity, the liberal camp in the US has turned mourning the loss of a Clinton presidency into wild, imaginative anti-Russia theorising echoing the Red Scare. Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin, as obscure as it may be, has been redefined in order to spin a more menacing yarn. The baseless claims that Russia has taken over the US by way of a Manchurian candidate are now a central plot in an increasingly convoluted story meant to conceal a bad candidate’s inconceivable loss and citizens’ muddy contempt for a thoroughly corrupt system. The lack of evidence regarding Russian bots working tirelessly to bring down the US government has not dissuaded Clinton supporters, who have seemingly spun out the presidential election into forever.
Climate change, a topic almost entirely ignored during the US election (a mere five minutes and twenty-seven seconds was spent on it over the three debates), is another subject that has been a chaotic hotbed of conspiracy. Global warming denial is a notoriously and overwhelmingly right-wing phenomenon. Fears of big government and intrusive regulations have translated into outlandish assertions about the reality of climate change, even as rising waters drown entire cities and islands. But the sceptics are not simply conservative politicians; rather, there is a dedicated machine working in the background fabricating propaganda. The real conspiracy here belongs to the fossil fuel industry, which – along with the oil and gas industries, and various paid provocateurs – has been running disinformation campaigns for years in order to prevent the public from fully grasping or accepting the devastating impact of the planet’s warming (and the role these companies have played in it). According to documents revealed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, corporations like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips ‘colluded to intentionally deceive the public’, conducting ‘a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming’, despite ‘their corporate officials [having] known for at least two decades that their products are harmful’. It is this well-funded propaganda operation that is responsible for the scepticism many laypersons now hold towards the scientific evidence for climate change.
Leftists have, of course, been treading difficult waters for decades. Like most movements, they are now having to battle for not only the hearts but also the minds of those who have been fed specious histories. The way that socialists and other branches of the left should confront conspiracy theories is part and parcel of this wider mobilisation effort. For a start, we must assess any proposed theory through the lens of historical materialism and class consciousness. Tracing the ways in which our societies have developed, and examining the timeline of our shared histories – especially with the understanding that nothing simply transpires in a vacuum – will help guide us towards a more scientific, empathetic analysis of conspiracy theories. Leftist critiques of conspiracism should begin with the conviction that, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Holy Family:
History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.
Marx and Engels argued that if we were to achieve anything by way of criticism, or ‘advance over [our] feats’, then we must first define the struggle of ‘the Mass’. The pursuit of class struggle against the bourgeoisie is at the very heart of leftism; despite government efforts to malign this struggle as being rife with unfounded conspiracy theories, history has continually absolved leftist agitation. The growth of inequality, for example, an intentional manifestation of capitalism, has left one per cent owning much of the Earth’s wealth. This is a conspiracy theory only insofar as it reveals the immense exploitation of the working class. The Communist Manifesto’s most recognisable adage is that the proletariat have a world to win. But first we must convince those whom we aim to mobilise that these chains exist.
The Roswell incident came at a defining moment in history, as the world braced for the intensification of the Cold War. Project Mogul, a shadowy program created in the hopes of maintaining American nuclear hegemony, was detected and understood as an extraterrestrial cover-up. But the secrets of this program were more alarming than any manufactured alien autopsies or oval-eyed Martians: what witnesses swore was an unearthly spaceship wound up being a high-altitude balloon meant to detect atomic bomb experiments by the Soviet Union. The US government, growing ever more rapacious in its espionage programs, had helped forge what would become the most popularised moment in conspiratorial history by claiming that the object was simply debris from a crashed weather balloon. This blatant lie invigorated the paranoia already bubbling under America’s surface, leading people to question what else the government had to hide. Seven decades later, as tourists from all over the world make pilgrimages to the little town of Roswell, this sentiment has not waned. If anything, conspiracy theories are evolving with every new generation. Something may be out there, but it is the truth of what is already here that is often far more terrifying.
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