Tim Pendry's Reviews > The Mythology of the Secret Societies

The Mythology of the Secret Societies by J.M. Roberts
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This book is now forty years old but it still stands as excellent basic background to the history of secret societies and political conspiracy in the eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth centuries.

Of course, much of the detail will have been overtaken by the work of two generations of scholar. Roberts is also contesting his case during a period when the grand narrative of Marxism was treated with more respect than it is today.

He is writing as part of the very serious business of countering the persistence of conspiracy in political discourse, especially on the radical right and amongst anti-semites. He writes only thirty years after a holocaust whose raison d'etre was based on a conspiracy theory.

A mildly conservative pessimism – as in the best of the British school of historiography – questions delicately whether conspiracy theory will ever be removed from political discourse by rational men. History, in the age of 9/11 and the New World Order, has shown that his concerns were valid.

The book is measured and serious and there is so much meat in it – essential to understanding why, even today, Europe is ‘different’ in political culture from Britain – that we can only pinpoint three themes here.

The first is to argue cogently that, with the exception of the radicalism of the Illuminati, most esoteric activity in the eighteenth century was political only insofar as it shared the mood of the time. Claims by Barruel and others of a deliberate Enlightenment conspiracy against Kings and Church are untenable.

The second is that the creation of the myth of conspiracy resulted in the creation of political conspiracy after the French Revolution and not the other way around.

Political conspiracies, almost entirely ineffective, were no serious threat to the State during this later period but developed in a sort of call-and-response to the paranoia of States about their very existence. Roberts is illuminating (excuse the pun) on the lack of success of the Carbonari.

The third theme comes late in the book and is only touched upon because its denouement comes after the collapse of utopian socialism and the rise of Marxism.

This is the myth of Buonarroti and, through him, Babeuf spinning a tale of professional revolutionary fervour that was later redrafted to serve history.

Bounarroti, an Italian aristocrat turned radical, was a singular failure during his life time, like (in political terms) Cagliostro and Weisshaupt before him.

However, his obsessive plotting and tradecraft fuelled an anarchist and, subsequently, Leninist reality of secret cadres planning the overthrow of States.

When Lenin spoke of the necessity of a revolutionary cadre to effect a revolution (when economic crisis and a collapse in the ruling order had enabled a seizure of power), he was re-inventing the French Revolution along conspiratorial lines - no less than Nesta Webster and Barruel.

Anarchist revolutionaries, especially the Nihilists, continued to demonstrate the utter ineffectiveness of secrecy and plotting as more than the occasion of violence and murder (and of intensified repression such as Metternich might have approved).

Lenin, a political genius, turned the myth into reality through intellectual discipline. But that is another story ... this book ends in the late 1820s just before the Revolutions of the 1830s would switch our attention back to the great tidal waves of history that Marx and Engels were more interested in.

In that context, Lenin is a sort of synthesis between European political narratives. He 'industrialises' secret conspiracy.

Where I have my doubts about the book is where I have my doubts about nearly all formal academic writing on conspiracy – an imaginative inability to understand or explore the psychological importance of such theories in filling a vacuum of knowledge in times of fear and insecurity.

To be fair, this is a book of history and not psychology and Roberts does touch at the end on the psychological aspects, if all too briefly.

I would argue that conspiracy theory and paranoia are legitimate actors (if with tragic consequences) under conditions where Power holds all the informational cards.

The difference between Roberts’ and our world is the internet - and Roberts is, of course, closer to the mental world of Lenin than that of Assange.

The establishment’s fear of the internet as the basis for a revival of the worst sort of conspiracy theory may be misplaced for a curious reason.

When the internet first appears, it appears suddenly in the face of an Authority (Power) that has defined the political narratives of the population, with diminishing competition, over the whole industrialising process.

The grand narratives of the elite have succeeded one another with little contribution from below except as walk-on parts as rioters or lobby fodder. The Arab World is going through this process now.

Suddenly, Power's ability to define narrative collapses from above with the arrival of the internet and the first reaction of the population is to flood the vacuum with alternative stories based on poor critical faculties, natural distrust, limited experience of Power (except as subjects of it) and very poor reasoning ability.

Although this condition persists across much of the world (and 9/11 and the Iraq War hit the internet formation process at a critical juncture in this respect), the internet is rapidly becoming self-organising through rational hacktivism, community management and a responsiveness on the part of the more intelligent parts of Power

The information vacuum that fed paranoia is beginning to fill with real information. That information is being pumped into a market that is learning not only to be more critical but to argue a critical stance within itself against its more ignorant members.

The social networks are becoming huge political education machines rather than, as originally thought, huge machines for political mobilisation (the rioter and outraged NGO model).

The next stage is actual political organisation which we are beginning to see with the Pirate Party and, conceivably though uncertainly, Zero State. Occupy will feel very naive, the last gasp of Obama-ism, against the rise of new organisations from below that can capture electoral space.

Wikileaks is only part of this massive revolution which embraces the coming semantic web and the creation of focused ‘gardens’ of accessible knowledge.

The numbers of the truly ignorant and passive are still large but the informationally engaged and active population is increasingly in command of its own analysis while selected non-elite leadership groups are self-teaching themselves politics under new conditions.

There is no need for grand conspiracy theory today because we now know that Power largely consists of surprisingly incompetent people only with access to force and the passive complicity of the population between them and dissolution.

If the population becomes questioning and resists force from a sense of its own potential and a cessation of socially constructed fear of consequences, it has no need for a myth justifying its own impotence.

Yes, there are still ‘conspiracies’ but these are the small-scale conspiracies that are practical, rational ones of interest – of bankers, vote-grabbers and special interests.

Adam Smith referred to these and they will always be with us. Indeed, they will replicate within the new self-organising politics because no utopian idealist can escape the actuality of the human condition.

The current political machine can now be seen as ramshackle, so ramshackle that the brutal failure of the Leninist seizure of power can now be explained. Anyone who seizes the levers of power without having built a popular base of some sort can do little than use terror and rely on zombie-like habit to get anything useful done.

Bolsheviks could ignore an election because they could seize a State with a monopoly of information - today, no State can expect to hold onto that monopoly for long.

Conspiracy theory is thus the product of impotence in the face of rapid change. The question becomes today whether the internet will change the situation by transferring new potencies to the masses. If so, there may be much less need for paranoia.

If anything, it is the State that has now become paranoid, what with drones, terror alerts and mass surveillance and nudge strategies to hold back, Canute-like, the spread of questioning and community organisation. Roles are being reversed.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Alan Excellent review! Thanks a lot for your insigt. I'll be linking people to this in the future when the subject of "conspiracy theories" once again rears its head.


message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Pendry Thanks!


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