Don’t you just hate it when you’re trying to explain the Darwinian theory of evolution and a conservative says, “Evolution is just a theory”? I know I do. I say, “You say ‘just a theory’ as if it’s mere speculation, a whimsical guess about something. But a theory is the best explanation for a set of observations.” Of course, pointing this out rarely changes the mind of the person who is really only concerned with protecting the false beliefs in his noggin—and those of others.
The “just a theory” slogan means to stop you in your tracks by equalizing things. The utterer has an agenda. He doesn’t want the audience to think about whether evolution might be true. If the audience believes that your explanation is “just a theory,” and they share the definition of “theory” assumed by your opponent, then his ploy will succeed. And usually it is successful since your argument is, after all, a theory! So you object to the tactic and act with ferocity about the correct definition of the term and try to educate. It’s all you can do.
When I am presenting the Marxian theory of neoliberalism, in which powerful corporate and political actors are theorized to meet in private, even in secret, to plan global economic restructuring, their actions dictated by the imperatives of capitalist accumulation, the progressive says, “The New World Order is just a conspiracy theory.” Same tactic at play. The goal is to stop the audience from listening to me by delegitimizing my method (and making me out to be paranoid).
The progressive thought-stopping exercise aligns with the corporate need to have the audience assume that changes in the world are not the result of human agency shaped by exploitative relations; the exercise would have the audience see neoliberalism as natural and inevitable and, moreover, a good thing. It’s not the sinister cabal that my “theory” suggests where there are actual people who have class power making decisions. Of course, the progressive is buried beneath layers of ideology that humanize corporate state power.
The implication the progressive makes is that theorizing about the private thoughts and actions that shape historical trajectories is an illegitimate and irrational methodology. That’s just not the way the world works, we are told. The progressive is preparing the audience for coming inconvenient facts; for he secretly worries that the audience will see the theory as correct, and thus see other conspiracy theories as likely, when official admissions or revealed documents prove the conspiracy theorist’s claims. Hopefully, if the rhetoric of “tin foil hats” and “black helicopters” is repeated often enough and sticks (and it often does), the public will already have it in mind that the conspiracy theory explaining those facts is illegitimate; there must be some other explanation for the massive NSA spying regime than the one the conspiracy theorist told them about, even if that explanation is misguided (for example, surveilling Islamic terrorism). This notion that the government is tracking our movements to prevent a popular democratic uprising against corporate power is just paranoia. It’s a conspiracy theory.
In both cases, those who use these thought-stopping devices are liberated from the rational demand to actually take on the argument, to show the audience where the argument is wrong, and to present an actual competing theory. After all, how could anybody seriously make the argument that a supernatural being created the universe or that neoliberal restructuring just happened or that the global surveillance machine is only a response to terrorism? They can’t. So they spend their time delegitimizing those who actually present rational argument. And when challenged on the definition assumed, those engaged in thought-stopping demand that the non-literal one is the definitive one, of course because it is functional to their agenda.
Transforming a critical method of institutional analysis—which involves theorizing about what powerful corporate and political actors have planned and are planning in pursuit of their material interests—into the seemingly self-debunking exercise of the paranoid is one more brilliant achievement by the corporatist propaganda machine (I suppose that claim is itself also a conspiracy theory, so I guess you will need to dismiss it).
To provide a concrete example, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, black radicals complained about a high-level government counterintelligence program at work with the goal of neutralizing black leaders and derailing the black socialist movement. When black radicals made this complaint liberals accused of them of advocating a conspiracy theory, which of course they were! Later, liberals learned that there was in fact a high-level government conspiracy, namely the counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, that was doing exactly what black radicals theorized.*
Since it was a secret program—a conspiracy—those targeted by the government program couldn’t answer the absurd demand that they support their theory by sharing planning and operational documents with the media, since they weren’t privy to them. But, scientifically speaking, black radicals didn’t need have such things in their possession in order to theorize the conspiracy against them any more than physicists need to know what planets are thinking in order to explain their revolutions around the sun (good thing, too, since planets don’t intentionally do anything). Black radicals could observe the effects of the conspiracy—assassinations, imprisonment, etc.—and, understanding the imperatives of the system, like any good scientist, explain them theoretically on the basis of this.
Knowing that planning involves an intelligent force, and knowing that the intelligent force is a network of elites, and knowing the motives that corporate capitalism requires, one is compelled by the demands of reason to announce a conspiracy. Black radicals not only knew there was a conspiracy, but they correctly theorized the end the conspirators desired and the political economic forces underpinning the conspiracy. The black radical had it figured out because he had a scientific mind. But when the black movement protested, the audience was primed to reject the “theory” because it was about a “conspiracy.” And since that is what it was in fact, namely a theory, black leaders were guilty as charged.
That documents detailing the COINTELPRO program only came out later doesn’t mean that those the conspiracy targeted and victimized shouldn’t have recognized and theorized their situation. The time to recognize and theorize conspiracies is when they’re happening, not years later after the damage is done. And that is precisely why the concept of conspiracy theory has to be one of delegitimizing power rather than a politically-interested intellectual tool of the oppressed (see Conspiracy Theory and Misinformation). Since this non-literal concept of conspiracy theory needs to be widely held by the public to carry its delegitimizing effect, many of those who do not have the intention of delegitimizing radical interpretations of history and political action wind up participating in the delegitimizing operation by defending the propagandistic use of the word over its literal and scientific meaning. Indeed, it’s those who make the argument without ill intent who make it such an effective thought-stopping device.
It’s like when the targets of brainwashing in prisoner-of-war camp are allowed to meet with their comrades who have already been brainwashed. If they haven’t cracked by that point, they almost certainly will when their comrades confirm the righteousness of everything their torturers told them. This is why it is so important to change the way people think about this phrase. There are conspiracies and we can have theories about them, just as we can have theories about evolution or anything else. We have to explain what is happening to us and that takes theory. In order to do so we need to reassert our control over the way language is used by demanding literal and scientific definitions of concepts central to our practice.
I have been doing the same thing with words like “communism,” “liberalism,” and “racism” for years. When an audience hears the word “communism,” they’re supposed to picture a bleak black-and-white nightmare world of totalitarian government control ruled by a secretive inner circle of elites who privilege at the expense of the many (ironic, no?), not a classless, stateless, egalitarian social order where production is based on collective human need rather than on individual greed. When an audience hears the word “liberal” they’re supposed to think of somebody who represent the extreme edge of the left, thus erecting an ideational barrier to thinking beyond liberalism to actual left-wing philosophies (anarchism, communism, and socialism). Propagandistic meanings are unscientific and aimed at preventing critical thinking about societal past, present, and future. By controlling the language, elites shape thought, and by making their terms the accepted ones, they control politics. As Marx and Engels smartly observed: “the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.”
We cannot have a conversation if we do not use words properly. George Orwell speaks to this point in this quote: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Freedom is the ability to say—and believe—that 2+2=4. And in stating the obvious, Orwell writes, since “chaos is connected with the decay of language,” we “can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”
* Update (July 26, 2021): You can read more about this in my blog The Black Panthers: Black Radicalism and the New Left.