“Matt McManus analyzes conspiracy mongering in the United States by focusing on President Donald Trump and Dinesh D’Souza (a right-wing nut), but he neglects to mention Oliver Stone or Louis Farrakhan, conspiracy theorists who sing to the tune of the Left.”
In December 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor lit himself on fire. Few would have imagined that such an event would have a butterfly effect that would topple Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and ignite a long and bloody civil war in Syria.
As the case of the Arab Spring seems to prove, revolutions spread like wildfire. Of course, the spread is facilitated by cultural factors. European conservatives panicked with the French Revolution began; by contrast, conservatives in the Arab world (much of which was under Ottoman rule at the time of the French Revolution), were not in the least concerned. But, when the spark of revolution finally ignited in Tunisia in 2010, then conservatives in the Arab world did worry.
We are witnessing this process once again in the Spanish-speaking world. Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno recently had to move the seat of his government, from Quito, to Guayaquil. This came in the aftermath of a proposed plan to remove many subsidies (per the International Monetary Fund’s request); the indigenous population mobilized in a national strike and not-so-peaceful demonstrations and put Moreno’s government on the brink of collapse.
The same story is now taking place in Chile. Sebastián Piñera’s government is also removing subsidies from public transportation. Students in Chile have long played a role in social agitation, and, as expected, they took to the streets again (in a not-so-civilized manner) doing considerable damage to public property.
In Spain, there is also unrest. Catalonia’s independence movement had been dormant, but Madrid’s recent decision to sentence several high-profile independence leaders once again ignited the spark of unrest, with subsequent police repression.
Is there a pattern to these events? It appears so. All three countries speak Spanish and have deep historical ties to one another. Additionally, the sequence of events has been quick. Can it be mere coincidence that all of this is happening at the same time, in culturally similar countries? Of course, it can. But, the human brain prefers to detect patterns than to simply shrug its shoulders and admit coincidences. Our proto-human ancestors in the African savannah could not afford thinking that some shadow was just a shadow; they typically thought it was a predator. This better-safe-than-sorry mentality paid off; even though there were many false alarms, it had survival value. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that—as a result of natural selection—we are equipped with a mental module that seeks patterns everywhere and, in the process, makes us a tad paranoid.
Perhaps the fact that the first major treatises on conspiracy theories (such as Berruel’s work) addressed the French Revolution has contributed to the narrative that conspiracy theories tend to be of the Right.
This is the mental framework that underlies conspiracy theorists, and whenever there are revolutions that spread like fire, it comes to the fore. In fact, though human beings have always engaged in rumoring, grand conspiracy theories are a modern phenomenon. And, the one event that gave rise to them was the French Revolution. The violence, chaos and speed of the events surrounding the French Revolution led some people to believe that this could not be a spontaneous phenomenon. Someone had planned this all along and was now pulling the strings of mobs. That was the theory of Augustin Barruel, who popularized this view in Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, a 1799 book that has come to be a landmark in the history of conspiracy mongering. According to Barruel, the Knights Templars, the Illuminati, and a long list of other groups (many of which had ceased to exist), conspired to bring chaos to Europe at-large. By placing the blame on these conspiracists, Barruel’s reactionary interpretation excused the aristocracy’s longstanding neglect of the unprivileged classes and minimized the horrible conditions the common French people had endured prior to the Revolution.
Predictably, conspiracy theories are now coming to the surface regarding the unrest in the Spanish-speaking world. The most popular theory concerns the São Paulo Forum, a coalition of left-wing Latin American political parties. As conspiracy theorists have it, this cabal has long been responsible for unrest in right-wing democracies throughout the region, providing logistical and financial support to well-organized and not-so-spontaneous mobs.
It certainly adds suspicion that—in the face of recent unrest in Chile and Ecuador—Venezuela’s leftist dictator Nicolás Maduro has publicly congratulated the São Paulo Forum for meeting its goals. Maduro would certainly be happy to see Ecuador, Chile, and (to a lesser extent) Spain’s governments collapse. But, as Elias Canetti famously explained in his study of mob mentality, crowds seldom need outside leadership in order to get formed and cause unrest. This is especially the case in Latin America, a region of the world known for its political instability and for the political activism of its students (very often to the detriment of academic performance). A Chilean student, accustomed to all sorts of public subsidies, does not need the instigation of a Venezuelan dictator in order to set a building on fire—when a politician decides to remove some subsidies in order to make the economy more efficient.
These things do happen spontaneously. So, we can give the Latin American Left a break and admit that conspiracy theories about the São Paulo Forum are nonsense. Yet, we cannot let the Latin Left off the hook so easily because, as usual, they engage in massive hypocrisy.
Over the last few years, Venezuela has also had considerable unrest. A cycle has become all-too-frequent: Maduro cracks down on some opposition leader, there is massive upheaval, police and paramilitary groups engage in brutal repression, the population becomes too scared. Then, they all go back home until the cycle begins anew some months later. The same leftists who are eager that the revolutionary fire of Ecuador and Chile also spreads to Colombia or Costa Rica (countries under right-wing democracies), do not want that fire to spread to Venezuela. When there is unrest in Venezuela, actors on the Left engage in the same conspiracy mongering that we now see in the Right. Instead of blaming the São Paulo Forum, they will blame the CIA, the Mossad (or any other imagined or real organization) of being the instigators of unrest in Venezuela—all with the alleged objective of extracting oil. Very much as Barruel did regarding the French Revolution, these leftists seek to excuse Maduro’s Human Rights violations and dictatorial moves and minimize the sufferings of ordinary Venezuelan people.
Despite their obvious psychological appeal, conspiracy theories are not harmless fun. As Richard Hofstadter famously documented in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, conspiracy mongering is very dangerous for any political system, and it is especially detrimental to democratic institutions that rely on public trust. Yet, beginning with Hofstadter himself, there has been a tendency to believe that conspiracy mongering is monopolized by the Right. For example, in a recent piece in Merion West, Matt McManus analyzes conspiracy mongering in the United States by focusing on President Donald Trump and Dinesh D’Souza (a right-wing nut), but he neglects to mention Oliver Stone or Louis Farrakhan, conspiracy theorists who sing to the tune of the Left.
Perhaps the fact that the first major treatises on conspiracy theories (such as Berruel’s work) addressed the French Revolution has contributed to the narrative that conspiracy theories tend to be of the Right. But, as the case of Latin America proves, this is an illusion. The Left can be as irrational as the Right when it comes to conspiracy theories, and if we truly desire to uphold critical thinking and eradicate this paranoid mentality, we cannot afford to give the Left a free pass in this regard, as it has unfortunately odten been the case.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.