An Unconscious Conspiracy

28 October 2020

by Sinéad Murphy 

Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory (1997)

Firstly, let me thank you for Lockdown Sceptics, which has provided such desperately needed comfort over the last months. I have sometimes wondered what it was like to have lived through one of the milestones of history. I never imagined I would come to know what it is like. Now I do know. It is sometimes bracing. It is mostly suffocating. Your website has been a must-read daily support throughout. 

Until the events of this year, I have allied myself, for the most part, with the political Left; I have been a member of the Labour Party, and a Guardian watcher, if not quite reader. I have no compunction now in expressing my total abhorrence at the near-orgasmic enthusiasm for authoritarian control that has come to dominate the Left, and my gratitude for the reason and humanity that have, by contrast, characterised many on the political Right.  

But there is a blind spot on the Right, which threatens the reason if not the humanity of its analyses of the Covid-response. It is the insistence that there is no ‘conspiracy’ afoot and that this whole unfortunate affair is attributable to the blunders of those in power. 

It seems to me that there is something in this repeated denial of ‘conspiracy theory’ that is akin to our Government’s repeated refusal to ‘let the virus rip.’ It mischaracterises as silly that which it rejects, and then rejects it because it is silly. Those who argue for the acknowledgement of herd immunity are not, for that reason, arguing for ‘letting the virus rip’ – they suggest many and nuanced possibilities for the management of the virus as it tracks through the population. Similarly, those who suggest that there is more to the Covid restrictions than mountains of blunders by politicians and their advisers are not, for that reason, ‘conspiracy theorists’ – they do not, if they are at all rational, imagine that some bunker somewhere is filled with evil geniuses conducting the whole sorry affair.  

I am moved to write this now because I have been listening to the excellent podcast featuring James Delingpole and Mike Yeadon, who, in their discussion, actually admit and articulate well the very thing that almost all so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’ are trying to point out. Yeadon contributes the phrase ‘convergent opportunism,’ and argues that, while there are no bunkered geniuses inventing all of this, there are plenty who have availed themselves of the opportunities it has presented and whose doing so has contributed to the escalation and continuation of the mess. Delingpole responds by contributing his own phrase – ‘the concatenation of interests’ – to describe what he too sees as a contingent but coherent coming together of opportunities for interested parties, whose actions then, we presume, exacerbate and extend the conditions which have emerged as so beneficial to them.  

‘Convergent opportunism’ and ‘the concatenation of interests’ are sufficiently abstract descriptors that I am emboldened to contribute another – it is not of my inventing, being one of the most important insights of a philosopher who seems unfortunately and erroneously to be regarded as entirely the property of the Left: Michel Foucault.  

In the first volume of his The History of Sexuality, Foucault sets out the way in which events can, and mostly do, unfold as ‘intentional but not subjective.’ That is, we are able, if we look carefully, to discern a design or a pattern in events, even if, as is almost always the case, there is no one person or group at the helm. There is no ‘headquarters,’ as Foucault says – no bunker of geniuses. In fact, as with many of those who reject ‘conspiracy theories,’ Foucault is of the view that those who insist on finding the subject of intentional developments will inevitably misunderstand the meaning of events.  

None of this implies that there are never any subjective intentions in play in the unfolding of events. For example, Mike Yeadon points out how intelligent and successful has been the career of Patrick Vallance, who, he says, cannot possibly be ignorant of the basic facts about respiratory viruses that belie many of Vallance’s pronouncements. Vallance, Yeadon says, is lying. So, here we have subjective (mal)intention that can be identified and analysed and punished. And, for all that there do seem to be some blunderers in Government and elsewhere at present, it cannot be that all others who are pushing the Covid restrictions are unwitting. There are plenty of liars and cheats and aggressors, and even murderers perhaps. Hopefully, they will be held to account.  

To attest to the ‘convergent opportunism,’ the ‘concatenation of interests,’ or the ‘non-subjective intentionality’ of what is happening to us does not mean, therefore, that there are no villains in the piece. What it does mean is that the – may I say, ever more implausible – claim that this global lockdown of populations, this assault-without-end on enterprise, this concerted attack on all that is human, is the result of a pile of blunders that admits of no further analysis, is not the only alternative to theories about geniuses in bunkers.  

In fact, blunder theories are as guilty of looking for a subject to blame as are conspiracy theories, and as unconvincing in the attempt. That subject may be calculating or clueless, devious or delirious; but either way, the far-fetched implication is that they are pulling the strings of what is happening to us.  

It is not surprising that we find ourselves in this rut – of looking for the villain or the hero, or the fool, of the piece – among other things, the languages we use now hardly let us do anything else. Our correct sentences include a verb, an object and a subject. Even our ‘They’ (as in ‘They want us under control’), for all its vagueness, still gestures to the bunker headquarters with its geniuses pressing our buttons. To be prepared to research and analyse the intentional character of current events, we must be prepared to work against the grain of what our very language makes difficult. We act. We act intentionally. But history rarely moves on the back of what we intend.   

And history does move. We study its moves in school. We are all familiar with the most famous of them. And no one suggests that it has all been merely a hotch-potch of human blunders.  

Indeed, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, an outspoken critic of Covid measures from the very beginning and vilified by the Left of whom he had been the darling, has recently posted a reflection on the erosion of our critical faculties by the persistent rejection of ‘conspiracy theories,’ pointing out that if we pull back from looking for and articulating the larger stakes in the current attack on the life and liberties of populations across the globe, we might as well deny that there is anything to see here folks in respect of the whole of history itself; we might as well claim that history is just one big conspiracy theory.  

This is history. This is what it feels like to live through history. And we will be swept away by it if we continue to retreat from seeking out its rationale. 

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