Nothing Beats a Conspiracy Theory to Demobilize Us

Chavismo has inherited the rich theoretical-conspirative tradition of the Latin American left, but they’re not alone in the propagandistic use of assigning all solutions to national problems to the power of one leader.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto.

Our conscience’s reaction is very strange; to experience that sense of need to contradict what seems excessively true.

Enrique Bernardo Núñez, La galera de Tiberio 

“The opposition’s leaders are financed by the government and that’s why they haven’t asked for a foreign military intervention; their goal is cohabitation and sharing power, not transition to another regime”; “Inflation has nothing to do with misguided measures, it’s rather induced by agents of an economic warfare unleashed by the empire”; “The wave of protests in the area isn’t caused by the people’s unrest in each country, it’s actually a well-organized conspiracy thought out from Venezuela and the Foro de São Paulo”; “Human rights NGOs aren’t really defending those rights, they’re agencies paid by foreign powers to conspire against the government.”

There’s also “whoever rallies for dialogue, negotiation or (God forbid!) elections, isn’t a true political figure; they’re agents paid by the government to earn more time and prevent the dreamed final and purifying war, which will end not only with the government, but with the entire Venezuelan political group.” Or like a Venezuelan influencer, famous for his conspiracy theories, stated: “Only ‘freedom lovers’, that is, liberals, will remain.”

These are all conspiracy theories: explanations that seem logical for a certain event that’s difficult to accept or understand, propelling the idea that what’s going on is the work of some evil minds or shady deals. In other words, that there are secret agreements to achieve personal goals that go against ours. Conspiracy theories are kind of like tricky publicity: it’s not that they aren’t based on facts, it’s that they only pick certain facts and turn them into universal doings by adapting them to the expectations, fears and general resentment, offering “knowledge” within a chaotic environment, of what’s behind apparently inexplicable events.

It’s not that they aren’t based on facts, it’s that they only pick certain facts and turn them into universal doings by adapting them to the expectations, fears and general resentment.

Conspiring and suspecting that others also conspire is very common in politics, as well as in everyday life. But the problem comes in degrees: it’s one thing to suspect that my friends are conniving to throw a surprise birthday party or to hold an intervention so I go to therapy, and another thing is to imagine that the world, everything that happens, everything someone else does, is part of a huge conspiracy.

The latter is usually known in literature as “the great conspiracy theory”. Philosophers spend their time trying to “take apart” these conspiracy theories, pointing out the argumentative mistakes this view of the world may have.  Sociologists, in a more humble manner, are more concerned about the social and political consequences the conspiracy theories generate.

Let the Supreme Leader Solve It

Because conspiracy theories are such an important part in extremist groups’  understanding of the world, you might think that this has a lot of pull in terms of political mobilization: they call to critical attention and toss out the naiveté in front of “official” explanations; they clearly point out the enemy agent and explain, in a simple way, what seems unexplainable. While all of these are true, those studying the use of conspiracy theories in politics in the 20th century (Hannah Arendt, Richard Hofstadter, for example), already point out that the opposite seems to rule: conspiracy theories result in (and are used for) political demobilization.

In those cases where conspiracy theories become the official rhetoric for governments, such as those studied by Arendt, the result is quite evident. The official discourse places the blame of all that’s wrong on a conspiring agent that’s so enormous and powerfulthe USA, for examplethat it makes it unthinkable that no one but a strong and almighty leader can face them. Only the leader and his movement can save the people from such a dangerous enemy. All internal political activity comes down to supporting that leader, any form of opposition, peaceful or not, is seen as a part of (usually paid) the conspiracy. This way, the leader doesn’t have political enemies but foreign enemies and their internal lackeys, with whom it’s impossible to bargain—how would they? They don’t have political independence anyway.

The opposite seems to rule: conspiracy theories result in (and are used for) political demobilization.

From this, comes a strong elective affinity between this type of political rhetoric and prophetic and utopian movements convinced that this righteous end justifies the meansan important part of what Max Weber called “conviction ethics”. All evil comes not from the flaws in the rigid formula established to reach that righteous end (or from how this righteous end is utopic and humanly unobtainable), but rather the sabotage from conspiring agents paid for by the powerful foreign enemy.

Again, these are consequences, already studied by Arendt, of the state’s official discourse based on conspiracy theories and are independent on whether these conspiracies are true or not. In fact, it’s evident that if a government thinks the world is a huge conspiracy against them and acts accordingly, the only choice is to monopolize power and eliminate all expression that isn’t in support of the government’s political projectthere isn’t, nor has there ever been, a completely totalitarian society.

Soon, citizens will have to choose between silence or conspiracy, promptly pointed out by the government as proof that their conspiracy theory was always true, and their repressive actions were justified. What comes first, a paranoid government or a conspiring opposition? Both might actually happen at some point, but historic cases in the 20th century show that, when political movements with millenary projects managed to take power, they already had well-structured stories in their rhetoric repertoire about powerful enemies that prevented the people from reaching their prophetic destiny.

Both Nazism and the Bolsheviks were based on a vision of a conspiracy theory world and used it to explain almost every event. For example, the Reichstag building in Berlin was most likely burned in 1933 by a crazy pyromaniac, but that explanation was too simple and useless for the repressive needs of the Nazi party, so it was better to frame this event in a broader theory, an even more convincing one, and if not, at least more useful: communists burned the building. Who could rationally believe that such a thing had been the work of a single agent with no political motivation? Didn’t the National Socialist movement have die-hard enemies that were more than capable of burning the Reichstag?

It’s possible to repress the internal opposition if it’s presented as little more than a pawn of that undefined, powerful enemy.

Another example: after the Soviet revolution, the workers’ control in factories had to pan out, in an industrial production lift-off never seen before. But there were accidents, things exploded, raw material was missing and machines broke down. Such things couldn’t be the logical result of inexperience, negligence or the rush to produce and comply imposed quotas by central planning. Something else had to be going on: engineers, agents of the workers’ enemies, sabotaging the revolution. Was such an explanation far-fetched? Didn’t the Whitesthe Russian counterrevolutionariesand their international allies blow up railroads and factories in their bloody war against the revolution? Wasn’t it true that the Bolsheviks had sworn enemies wanting to end the revolution? Having the enemy behind it all wasn’t more rational than the simple and apparently naïve explanation that if production numbers were rushed, accidents were prone to happen? In any case, this reasoning was much more useful for a Bolshevik.

The Venezuelan government is far from achieving the “accomplishments” of these infamous examples of the 20th century, although sometimes it seems it’s more because of their fortunate incompetence than for lack of imagination. But in their willingness to use such theories, they’ve proven a similar intent to those historic cases: the great imperial conspiracy, creatively developed in an “axis” that includes other governments in the region to diffuse international oligarchies, not to harm the lazy and powerful puppeteers of the great conspiracy theater, but rather to attack their more specific local puppets: the opposing leaders, the human rights defense groups, traitors of the revolution… So, for example, they can accuse the empire of “inoculating” Chávez with cancer, of financing and organizing an endless amount of assassination attempts or sabotaging the national economy, but answering and attacking the empire directly for these aggressions is evidently impossible. On the other hand, it’s possible to repress the internal opposition if it’s presented as little more than a pawn of that undefined, powerful enemy.

From the Red to the Blue Messiah

Conspiracy theories are monopolized by chavismo, as it has been shown on social media and certain traditional media networks. Parts of the Venezuelan opposition have also developed interesting conspiracy explanations; some about the government, others about the opposition itself.

Parts of the Venezuelan opposition have also developed interesting conspiracy explanations; some about the government, others about the opposition itself.

Isn’t it a coincidence that the most extreme part of the opposition is the one supporting a more conspiracy-theory-oriented worldview? There seems to be, for example, a relationship between those convinced of the impossibility of dialogue, bargain or even going to elections without getting rid of the current government, and those seeing the others as sellouts. In the same way as chavismo, they claim to be “pure,” without pollution from the enemy and they subscribe to essential political concepts, rigid dichotomies of good and evil and absolute ideas about abstractions like “socialism” or “freedom” as one-sided terms, supposed to be the same for everyone.

So, for instance, facing the impossibility of even talking with a “narco-regime,” the only option is appealing to a strong leader, this time foreign, that’ll forcibly vacate the government. When faced by an extraordinary force, we need a solution by an extraordinary force.

But if such a foreign intervention hasn’t happened yet, it’s not because the empire doesn’t seem willing to invade Venezuela, it’s because part of the opposition, clearly paid by the government, has convinced the empire not to invade!

The similarities between this discourse and the chavista conspiracy theory way of seeing the world are striking: local politics are practically non-existent and the empire is “playing chess”; the one difference is the appreciation of the empire as good or bad, in absolute terms, of course.

Not to mention that, in a curious dialogue of conspiracy theories, the discourse is strengthened mutually. Chavismo easily points to the part of the opposition appealing to the foreign force as evidence that their own conspiracy theories have always been true: there are no political adversaries, there is no opposition, there are agents from the empire determined to end the revolution. Is this so difficult to believe if the opposition (as a whole, different shades don’t count for this explanation) has even wished for a foreign intervention?

Let’s Do Nothing, Then

In the same way as chavismo, they claim to be “pure,” without pollution from the enemy and they subscribe to essential political concepts.

Conspiracy theories from the opposition never have the broad consequences that the ones from the government do. If anything, they’re discourses that damage the opposition itself, because their clearest result is political demobilization, this time from some parts of the opposition. In fact, they’re part of the intestinal struggle that a Venezuelan writer has recently described as “the suicidal sabotage of the Venezuelan opposition”.

They not only undermine the opposition leadership, they also deny any political strategy that doesn’t include the unlikely event of a foreign intervention. They even go further, openly inviting potential voters to voluntarily demobilize, in other words, to abstain from taking part in any electoral event before a complete political change happens thanks to a generous foreign liberating hand, called to completely purify Venezuelan politics in a necessarily violent operation that’ll cleanse the country from the “narco-tyranny” and its corrupt live-in opposition. It’s no coincidence either that this discourse justifies, the same way chavismo’s discourse does, the use of certain non-democratic, violent tools to achieve the greater good.

The conviction ethics that allows evil to be used as a pathway to good has a strong affinity to great conspiracy theories, and it’s one of the most outstanding features of extreme political projects. It plays towards anti-politics because politics aren’t necessary when the world is dominated by super powers. If the other isn’t more than the empire’s lackey, we won’t attempt to reach an agreement with them, but rather annihilate them. If the other is a narco-terrorist agent of Cuba, you don’t do politics either, you ask for the Marines to remove them.

As part of a long-term research project, the author has been studying the use of conspiracy theories in Venezuela since 2008. Documents written for this project can be consulted on the blog Venezuela Conspiracy Theories Monitor.