Conspiracy in Literature

Conspiracy in Literature

Conspiratorial world views. Three snapshots.

One. Take a drive around the M60, the gorged ring-road which encircles Greater Manchester. On the clockwise route between the Bredbury and Stockport East junctions, you will see one particular steel grey bridge has been daubed with a warning. Someone has been keen to impart forbidden knowledge to the commuters below. “9-11 was an inside job” accuses the spraypainted notice, twice, its meaning clear despite the “9” being painted the wrong way round, both times. Next door to this stark declamation the same hand has included a motif which shows this enlightened insurgent is in the know on the secret as to who really runs the show. This symbol, again crudely rendered but clear enough, is the Eye in the Pyramid; dread emblem of the Bavarian Illuminati. Thousands must glance at this daringly ventured warning every day, and yet few will pay heed. The artist has inserted his own pre-emptive and pointed criticism of this gullibility. “Slaves” scoffs the final part of the warning.

Two. The United Kingdom Independence Party, aka UKIP came third in the popular vote at this year’s General Election. The idiosyncratic lop-sidedness of the UK First Past the Post electoral system means they only ended up with one Westminster Seat, but nevertheless nearly four million voters thought they represented an attractive proposition. In the previous year’s Euro elections they actually topped the poll.  The spraycan wielding dissident who spelt out his message to Mancunian motorists would probably consider him or herself political polls apart from the UKIP. And yet here too are warnings of the dark unseen forces which seek to control our world. Amidst the many more straightforward examples of racist, sexist, sectarian and homophobic bile which its candidates saw fit to belch across various social media sites during both years’ election campaigns, two rather more arcane and sophisticated ventures “off message” from Nigel Farage’s bluff common sense affability could be found. A candidate in East Sussex references the age-old conspiratorial mainstay The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in her belief that Zionists were responsible for the Second World War. “Read the Protocols”, she warns, “it’s all there and it’s in their own words.” Meanwhile the chair of UKIP in Scotland claims Glasgow City Council is in the grip of a cabal of “Gays, communists and Catholics” (yes, those three ganging up again as usual.)

Three. The editorial staff of left-wing satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, together withseveral other innocent individuals, are massacred by jihadist terrorists in Paris. Outside the farther reaches of Islamist extremism, the atrocity is condemned by all sides. One particular tribute however is appended to a particular theory as to the attackers’ true identity. A member of the UK Free Gaza movement shares on Facebook:  "MOSSAD just hit the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo in a clumsy false flag designed to damage the accord between Palestine and France.” It seems the Israeli secret service have carried out their most fiendish trick yet in their black ops campaign to inspire unwarranted sympathy for the Hebrew people amongst the incredulous masses. 

These vignettes are from this side of the Atlantic alone. Over in the US conspiracy theory lingers still larger over the political scene. Certainly, David Icke’s spoken word tours are always sell-outs, sell-outs during which he expounds his worldview that the ruling classes of the world are secret bloodsucking lizards (not lizards as metaphors, but lizards as lizards.) Opinion polls find 5% of US voters agree with our motorway vandal, the ‘9-11 Truth’ position that the World Trade Centre attacks were directly carried out by the US government, with others blaming Mossad instead. 22% of US citizens go along with the ‘softer’ version of the conspiracy - that George W Bush knew about the attacks in advance. The 9-11 Truthers however are dwarfed in numbers however by the Birthers – those who believe that, despite the well documented evidence to the contrary, Barack Obama was not born in America, and therefore his presidency is illegitimate. Fully 49% of registered Republican voters tend to this view, just under a quarter of the total population  (around 30% of Republicans also believe Obama is a secret Muslim.) This in turn is a lesser number than those who believe that, despite the overwhelming mass of established scientific evidence seeming to show otherwise, climate change and global warming are not man-made phenomena. The logical conclusion of this position is that 95% of climate scientists must be in the pay of a very highly organised conspiracy indeed. When you’re discussing this number of people, it is no longer legitimate to talk about “extremes”, or “fringes”, but a discourse that could even take in the majority of the population.

While the conspiratorial mindset takes in many millions of people, a great deal of this seems to be ‘soft support’, people who cherry-pick the subterfuge which most suits their own bias, but don’t necessarily follow this through to its illogical conclusion. For the hardcore though, the belief finds its dispiritingly logical realisation in the narrative of the Grand Conspiracy. For all the disparate groups which believe in it, and for all the multifarious arch enemies cast as the grand villain of the piece, the Grand Conspiracy runs to a fairly consistent narrative.

In this account, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Jews/Zionists, or the Knights Templar, or the Satanic New World Order, or the Liberal Cathedral, or the Catholic Church, or the Lizard People, or the Bilderberg Group, or (until recently retired) the Communist International, or the Islamic Caliphate either secretly run the world already, or are in the process of consolidating their already existing stranglehold so that actual global domination will soon take place. Richard Hofstadter, in his 60s study The Paranoid Style in American Politics memorably describes the conception of these arch enemies in the mind of the conspiracist as “the perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism if history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures the mechanism of history itself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way.” He is more often than not an internationalist and cosmopolitan presence as well, in damning contrast to the simple, honest and true national countryman who languishes under his nefarious rule. 

Conspiracists differ over who is the real wirepuller, and there is a whole FIFA-style league table as to which groups are in ascendancy over the others. For David Icke’s followers the Lizards are the true masters, but the Zionist elite – the head villains of the more run-of-the-mill traditional anti-Semitic discourse -  do a lot of their dirty work for them. For neo-Nazis of course, the Jews are at the top of the tree. There is a split in the white supremacist movement here however -  some hold that the Jews are using immigration to share out the world between themselves and the Islamic Caliphate to bring down Western civilisation – while others actually embrace Islamists as allies against the all-powerful Zionists.

Many Islamist fundamentalists themselves also see Jews as the main foe, with the Western Crusaders mere pawns in their pay. More classical conspiracists see Zionism and Judaism as a red herring.  The secret cult of the Bavarian Illuminati masterminded by the anti-clerical freethinker Adam Weishaaupt at the close of the 18th century are the true diabolical masters - all else is camouflage. Freemasons,  Rotary Clubs and other well-heeled fraternals are usually implicated in the conspiracy as well, but these are usually the tidy-blazered middleman footsoldiers rather than the infernal generals themselves. (Hofstadter’s study showed that anti-Masonry vied with anti-Catholicism and anti-Illuminism as the three main political conspiracy theories of 19th century American politics, but has since been eclipsed by the other two.)

Everything else follows from this. Everything. Wars, revolutions, financial crashes, all are but the playthings of the great controlling demonic force. From the high to the low, from fiscal and governmental policy to the pop trends which patrol the youth. (The number of conspiracists who see The Beatles as among the agents of the dark controllers is instructive. Try googling ‘Illuminati hand singles in pop videos’ and behold the feverish, sweat-browed mania that ensues.)  That the denial of the existence of the Holocaust is often central to conspiratorial mythography is entirely in keeping with the all-consuming and all-pervading power which the Dark Masters are accused of wielding. That they could ‘hoax’ the world with one of the most apparently well-documented events in modern history is the final proof to the conspiracist of the evil power and intentions of the secret world government, and the biggest giveaway to everyone else of the credulous malevolence of the conspiracists themselves.

However. Once it is clear that governments are under the Dark Masters’ sway, then all the paraphernalia of state secrecy, the alphabetti spaghetti of CIA FBI MI5 KGB becomes part of recipe. And here is where the story gets a little more complex than a cavalier sneer about other people’s paranoia. The Grand Conspiracies may stretch credibility to snapping point, they may seem pathological, laughable. Indeed, they are.  But once the secret services and the apparatus of state power come into play,  secrecy does abound, and the dark arts of black ops can and do happen.

Here’s a few statements which are now fairly widely verified, but are not officially admitted.

On a different and higher register to these machinations, the world’s most powerful elites really have recently pulled off the greatest confidence trick of the century in demanding that the public pay off the debts left behind by the banker-led implosion of the world economy. Stating that ‘reckless spending’ rather than the neoliberal casino economic model is the cause of our current debts and deficits is a straightforward lie; believed because repeated often and loudly enough. This doesn’t require a conspiracy – just a supplicant and acquiescent media. It does however make it easier to understand the belief of how mass falsehoods could take hold. 

There are therefore, shadowy machinations at work, and one does not need to wear a tinfoil hat to say so. And a hint of understanding perhaps, if not acceptance, for those who may see the same forces take a step further, and assassinate JFK, or Princess Diana, and fake the Moon Landings while they’re at it.

Never mind that paying the local caudillo to liquidate a few thousand bolshy peasants no-one in your own country cares about is a rather simpler task than offing Lady Di or Jack Kennedy, let alone fabricating the great grand film-set around Neil and Buzz. The fact that carrying out any one of these three frequently cited feats and then successfully conceal it afterwards would be an infinitely more subtle, complex, and fiendishly effective piece of homicidal/celluloidal subterfuge than any of our frequently bungling secret services have ever actually managed - this matters little to the paranoid consciousness. The reasons for the paranoia are initially justifiable and rooted in logic, but once the mania is in place it can be contorted to fantastic and contradictory conclusions. A mid-point needs to be found between ovine credulity and being so open-minded that your brain falls out, and a world in which the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still widely believed suggests that the calibration of this mid-point is far from healthily realised.

Conspriacies linger deep within the soul of our age, and are embedded within its culture. Novels are both a mirror to and lifeblood within our civilisation, and one way of looking at conspiracies is to examine three novels, each one popular and influential in its own way, in which the notion of the Grand Conspiracy is central. These are Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! (a novel in three parts, consisting of The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan), and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

Umberto Eco was a noted semiologist, university professor and philosopher before he became a novelist, and remained each one of those once literary stardom was his.  He had already proven that erudition and detection, mixing the scholarly and the mystery could prove popular with his hugely successful Name of the Rose in 1980. With Foucault’s Pendulum in 1988, he took these elements and added both the construction and deconstruction of conspiracism to create an even more arcane and intelligent read.  

Foucault’s Pendulum centres around three book editors, scholars in the same millieux as Eco’s own academic entourage, but a few links further down the chain of success.  Youthful jaded former radical Casaubon (the book’s narrator), the older, wiser and more cynical Belbo, and the more purely cerebral caballist Diotallevi. This trio tire of the drudgery and penury of their everyday academia, and are seduced into the world of vanity publishing to supplement their income. As the newly named Garamond Press, they are soon drowning under a deluge of outlandish conspiracy-laden theories from amateur authors keen to enlighten the world on everything from the Hollow Earth theory to the Holy Grail, theories often coloured with a tinge of the occult. The Knights Templar figure highly in this pantheon of arcane subterfuge, as do the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits,  the Assasins of Alamut, and the followers of the Jewish esoteric tradition known as the Kabbalah (the latter being of particular interest to Diotallevi.)  As a form of intellectual parlour game to amuse themselves, the three academics combine all the conspiracies together into one grand conspiracy known as The Plan, a grand synthesis which Belbo pieces together on his computer.

Beset from all sides by weird loners who want their conspiratorial thesis’ published, and dismissing them as a pack of kooks and frauds, the trio are also approached by a more persuasive figure, one Colonel Ardenti, who, he assures them, is a true representative of the Knights Templar and requires their assistance for a substantial reward. Casaubon had written a history and thesis on the Templars while a student in 1970s Milan, which makes him more than usually susceptible to the allure of his yarn. While at first Ardenti is dismissed as just another fantasist, he begins to produce evidence which make the three begin to doubt their own doubts.

The Knights Templar, a generally minor player in the pantheon of contenders for Secret Rulers of the World, are the key contender here. Eco reveals in intricate and lengthy detail the history of the Order, and, crucial to his appeal as a scholarly weaver of historiographical mischief, a huge part of the detail is absolutely true, or as true as any other verifiable history. A Christian charity and military order which developed to promote and protect the Crusaders, the Templars grew in prestige, finance and influence until they were a rival power base to the thrones of Europe. King Philip IV of France, seizing on a scandal around supposedly blasphemous secret oaths which the Templars had been exacting from followers, took the opportunity to bloodily suppress the Templars, executing their leaders and disestablishing the Order.

The ‘secret history’ that the Templar was not truly suppressed but merely went underground is the tale the mysterious visitor brings to the three academics , a pseudo-history which is woven deftly within into the fabric of the truth, so that the reader does not know where one ends and the other begins. As Ardenti disappears, events begin to unfold which endanger the lives of the trio, and which begin to suggest that some elements of the grand interlacing Plan which they have created may be all too grounded in reality.

The intricacy in the book is endless and boundless, it’s breadth and scope amazing in the true sense. My brief introduction here scarcely serves even as an outline or precis, and does not begin at all to explain its strange appeal. Foucault’s Pendulum is a work which defies summation, let alone explanation. As it shifts through theories, as it whirs through differing perspectives at dizzying pace while always remaining anchored in actuality, it begins to take on the strange poetry of academia that Borges so definitively pioneered. That the book is divided into ten segments represented by the ten Sefiroth of the Kabbalha is just the merest first indication of the playful esoterica at work.

One of the reasons Eco is able to give such life to characters and narrative is the depth of knowledge he is able to show in genuine figures in the world of conventional history, legend, and the conspiracist mindset which seeks to meld the two.

 The world view of the Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, the grandfather of modern conspiracy theory is explored at length. The Bavarian Illuminati was a real organisation, a society of freethinkers centred around Adam Weishaupt, which sought to promote Enlightenment ideas and combat what it saw as the baleful influence of the Catholic Church. The society was suppressed by Prince Elector Charles Theodore of Bavaria in 1785. It was Barruel who first expounded the theory that the Illuminati were never truly quelled, that they survived, went underground, extended their influence and that crucially, they were responsible for the French Revolution. If this seems very similar to the tale told about the Knights Templar, then that’s because it is (with the distinction that unlike the Templar it is distinctly dubious as to what influence the Illuminati had even before they were suppressed.) In The Plan of Foucault’s Pendulum, Barruel’s scaremongering is just another chip in the grand power play between the Templars and the Jesuits.

 Another character who surfaces later in the book as someone who has taken on the mantle of the Comte de Saint-Germain, a real courtier and occultist from late 18th century France who claimed the power of immortality (at the time the Comte claimed to be 500 years old, in Foucault’s Pendulum the Comte, or his pretender, has matured, or immatured still further.) One of the many areas where Eco excels in unearthing the core of the conspiratorial mindset is the huge overlap it shares with the occult mindset, that a belief in supernatural forces is overwhelming bound up in the belief of secret rulers of the world.  The same belief that only secret initiates are aware of the true nature of reality are bound up in both. For the US Militias it is not enough that the New World Order must be secretly running America, it is equally important that the heads of the Order must meet up in robes in a forest and perform nameless perverted sexual acts within a de regieur black mass setting. Nor is it a coincidence Aleister Crowley is so often found at the centre of grand conspiracy theories. As both occultist and state security asset, he occupies the G spot within the Venn diagram of conspiracist obsessions which lend the old ham the celestial importance he so craved during his life. In the strange rituals depicted in Foucault’s Pendulum, we see both their sinister intoxication of their appeal, and also the farcical mundanity which they conceal. 

In blending figures from fact and legend in with the narrative, in the erudition of his prose,  the interweaving of quotes from genuine arcane texts, Eco manages to create an ensnaring and beguiling world, an infinitely layered in-joke, a self-referencing code.  As a semiotician, Eco is acutely aware of the infinitely subtle relationship not only between words and meaning, but also between the nature of an object and the nature of how that object is described. In recounting a world of cults and conspiracies  which endlessly envelope in on themselves, Eco is using the same methods which the theorists themselves use to allure the uninitiated. Flattering the reader that they are party to secret knowledge, appealing to their intellectual vanity by letting them in via sly, winking allusions, using a common language to establish a common ground before assuming dominance, in Eco’s case the dominance of enchantingly hypnotising the reader.

As with the other books discussed here, I do not intend to reveal as much of the plot that will affect a reader’s enjoyment of these most intricate fantasies. It is not too much of a spoiler however, to state that one of the central themes of Foucault’s Pendulum is that the peddler of the conspiracy theory is every bit as malevolent as than the malignant voices he declaims against, is at least as much a threat as them, and possibly much more so indeed.  Connections can always be made, but the in-built tendency of the mind to make connections can end up in a tangled mess, and ultimately an unravelling of mind itself…….. If conspiracies are at work, it is likely because the belief in them becomes self-fulfilling, with enemy groups building each other up as a Satanic mirrors of one another, the belief in their power becoming its own reality. Their evil power and influence is not among the sheepish masses, but amongst those who grow to study and obsess upon them. This is but one of the issues raised in the work, but it is a key one.

Eco’s perspective on the conspiracy is that of the wise and learned humanist; exacting, revealing, enthralled by possibilities, basking in the light of arcane learning, but fundamentally wary in outlook.


Such is the take of a ‘literary’ novel on the conspiracy theme. A decade earlier  another novel, or rather set of novels, was already simultaneously playing with and deconstructing the conspiracy theory to provocative and compelling effect. The Illuminatus! Trilogy written by the eccentric subversive duo of former Playboy journalist Robert Shea and self-styled ‘agnostic mystic’ Robert Anton Wilson had caused a cult sensation when it was first released upon the post hippie counter-culture,  adorning many a dope-strewn bookshelf. It would be a mistake however to confuse the mentality and significance of the Trilogy with such trappings of the era as half-assed dabblings with the I Ching or midnight conversations over-rating the qualities of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. In its very different way it is as self-aware, self satirising and as multi-layered a meditation on the world of the conspiracy theory as its more respectable descendant. Its standpoints and conclusions however, are rather different.

The immense, meandering, shaggy dog narrative of the trilogy begins with an investigation by two New York policemen, Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon, into the bombing of left-wing magazine Confrontation, and the unexplained disappearance of its editor Joseph Malik. Upon finding out the magazine was uncovering hidden facts behind the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the pair swiftly begin to undercover a trail which leads to secret services, secret societies, cults and kooks. Meanwhile, Confrontation reporter George Dorn is languishing in a Texan jail under the tender mercies of redneck -police who turn out to be devotees of a right-wing group by the name of God’s Lightning (a parody of the John Birch Society given a Christian Fundamentalist twist.)

Goodman and Muldoon are dramatically warned off the scent by shadowy forces, and Goodman is soon fighting for both life and sanity, his identity shattered and stolen, trapped inside a terrifying hallucinatory madness.  Dorn is rescued from his fate of death in a police cell by a well-timed and placed explosion, and the helping hand of a gang of bizarre and eccentric libertarians led by a charismatic freebooting pirate by the name of Hagbard Celine. Celine reveals himself to be a figure in an ancient society known as the Discordians, disciples of the principle of chaos, and the intractable foes of architects of hierarchy and law : The Illuminati. Before long he is travelling with his strange new allies in a submarine traversing the Atlantic Ocean, with a sentient and conversant dolphin in tow, while the  of world war, peace and diplomacy find themselves hinging around the events on the small island of Fernando Poo…….

At this point we are not too far into the 800 page narrative, and to attempt to summarise even the barest essentials the plot would be an even more thankless and fruitless task than be with Foucault’s Pendulum. Amongst the mind-fucking conceits are the gangster John Dillinger as telekenetic wise man, Hitler as drooling cultist buffoon, and Bugs Bunny as free-thinking anarchistic icon. Extremes of sex and superfluities of drugs pervade the narrative to overwhelming, and perhaps sometimes underwhelming effect.  Alongside this self-consciously extreme grand guignol of derangement Foucault’s Pendulum is a model of understated restraint.

Eco’s work, while frequently digressive in its subject matter, nonetheless retains a relatively naturalistic and linear plot flow, flashbacks aside. Illuminatus! by contrast is an endlessly sprawling and fractured narrative, given over to multiple perspectives, tenses and timelines, sometimes in the space of a single page. It’s defining style is a  self conscious melding of the pace and prose of lurid pulp fiction with the stylistic tropes of the early twentieth century modernists.

An audacious element in the unravelling of the grand conspiracy here is the marshalling, (or shameless co-opting) of authors past into the grand plan; Burroughs, Ginsberg and James Joyce all have walk in parts in the chaos. The ‘weird’ authors – HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Ambrose Pierce are drawn in still further. It transpires they have been revealing too much of the Truth in their hectic visions and were promptly assassinated for their troubles. All this leads a pleasingly humorous meta-madness to the proceedings, drawing the reader into the knotted mental web, forcing them to question the truth not only of what they are reading now, but everything they have read before (and will ever read again.) 

Pleasing to this reader anyway.  This is as good a time as any to note that the overall critical reputation of Illuminatus! has not wornso well for the last few decades. Unlike Foucault’s Pendulum and other works by Eco, it doesn’t tend to surface on any ‘best-of’ lists. The crackpot gonzo sex and drug stylings are held passe, as outdated as the Oz/Woodstock counter-culture hippie millieux from which they did, at least in part, spring. There is no doubt that the rather gauche excess of kinky sex does occasionally capsize the  narrative  into porn kitsch. Ultimately though, a lot depends on whether you are have the good faith to accept satirical intent where it exists, and to let yourself go along with the kinetic thrill of  the ride when the crazy disparate elements of language, theme and character miraculously seem to fall into place, which is often.

The cumulative tone of this pulp modernism, is, ultimately, comedic. Comedy is hugely subjective.  To this reader the book is very funny indeed. The humour swerves between arch satire and farcical absurdity, with this emphasis slightly more geared to the latter. A whole geeky subgenre of humour was inspired directly by the work, from the output of hugely popular situationist 90s prankster band The KLF (alternately named The Justified Ancients of Mumu, taken direct from the book’s narrative) and Steve Jackson’s Illuminati playing card game, where players compete to take controlof different groups in society to insidiously take over the world.

In seeing mundane, everyman characters mired in the quotidian suddenly at the mercy of cosmic forces far beyond their comprehension, and playing this largely for laughs, it is also an arguable and unheralded influence on the far more famous work of Douglas Adams (right down to the super-intelligent dolphins at large in both.)   Adams deals with God-like alien forces, and forces us to observe the irony and absurdity seeing them act in a very human-like manner. In the same way Shea and Anton Wilson are dealing with forces they present as genuinely awesome in their power, the very ‘amoral supermen and demonic agents’ of fevered imagination as recounted by Hofstadter. Telepathy, telekenesis, mind control, numerology and Tarot– all these elements are at work.

 In Foucault’s Pendulum there is a very real question mark as to how much influence outside their enemies and believers the secret societies really possess. In Illuminatus!  the secret forces really do have their tendrils everywhere, with world leaders like Mao and Nixon as their pawns. The only question mark is who is controlling who and for what reason.

The overwrought intellectual, slapstick, the tumbledown asylum of secret societies, each with their own contradictory philosophies,   could be seen to deliberately discredit the conspiracist worldview. Certainly all  main strands of the grand Paranoiac International;  the Nazis and John Birchers on the one side, and the naïve new age hippie left on the others, are satirically skewered in the narrative. The subtext runs  - ‘If anyone really knows who’s pulling the strings, it’s certainly not these bozos.’ But this is not to suggest that there aren’t strings being pulled - there are.

While there are false flags, funhouse mirrors and diversions aplenty, it is not too much of a spoiler to suggest that there are two major forces at work in this universe:  The Illuminati (which may have a far more ancient lineage than its apparent origins in Bavaria),and the disciples of Eris; the Legion of Discord. The Illuminati represents the linear:  homogeneity,  hierarchy, discipline and order. The Discordians represent the anarchic: heterogeneity,  the diffuse, diversity, confusion and chaos.

Apparently there was a division of labour in the writing of the book between O’Shea, who provided the more grandiose, fantastical and sci-fi elements, and Anton Wilson, who supplied the satire. And yet it was Wilson who also provided the fundamental framework of philosophy behind the novels too.

 A complex, contradictory individual, Wilson was a psychologist, activist, and prolific author who expounding his singular vision over more than thirty books. He was also a disciple of Discordianism, the ultra-subversive anarcho-pseudo-religion devised by Malaclypse the Younger (Gregory Hill) and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst  (Kerry Wendell Thornley) in 1965.

Discordianism pervades the essence of Illuminatus!  Ultimately, the Legion of Discord represent the goodies to the Illuminati’s baddies.  Anton Wilson was using the book to proselytise his particular brand of anarchism to the world.  Clearly, he did not believe in the Illuminati in the literal sense as the beings presented in the book. He was not a fantasist in the usually accepted sense of the word, and he was not mad. But equally clearly, he believed in the Illuminati as a powerful all-pervading metaphor, as a symbol of the principles of violence and hierarchy which he held to disfigure human society, and that the struggle between them and the Legion of Discord has powerful lessons for human freedom. Hagbard Celine, is, ultimately, Wilson’s avatar and voice.

However deluded the majority of individual conspiracy theories and theorists may be therefore, the underlying message is that there is at least one over-arching conspiracy that is real, the tendrils of the forces of hierarchy and order itself. Wilson was a fatalistic prankster and joker, and clearly had great doubts as to the whether any emancipatory project has any chance of succeeding. Nonetheless, the subtext is that it is at least worth a try. Posing as a satire on conspiracy theories and succeeding rather brilliantly in its aim, at the core of Illuminatus! lies its own theory of conspiracy, which depends on the irrational magic faith of the prayerful believer as much as any other.

Wilson’s take on the conspiracy theory is that of the eccentric revolutionary – multifarious, bewitching, scornful in places and awed in others, opportunistically mining the spirit of righteous rebellion while attempting to extricate the bigotry and fanaticism;  seasoned with cynicism while ultimately zealous.  The sound of a cake being had and eaten with great gusto.

Illuminatus! and Foucault’s Pendulum sold well, and well in to the many thousands. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold millions. Appearing in 2004, decades after the former works, this was a very different take on the world of the conspiracy theory; one aimed squarely at the tastes of the market mainstream.

The book’s action centres on the adventures of Robert Langdon ( silver-fox handsome, rugged, cynical, brilliant) a Harvard University lecturer and professor, and world renowned expert in the mysteries of symbology and religious iconography, and Sophie Neveu (beautiful, mysterious, dynamic, brilliant) cryptographer for the French National Police. When Jacques Sauniere, a director of the Louvre art gallery, is found shot dead, the Paris police call in Langdon and Neveu, the latter of whom turns out to be Sauniere’s niece. Sauniere leaves clues as to the nature of his death, perishing in the shape of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Virtuvian Man’, amidst various other coded references to the great man’s work.

It swiftly transpires amid the pointers that Sauniere was a member of the Priory of Sion, a secret society with its origins in the guardianship of the Knights Templar, which is dedicated to protect the secrets of the fabled Holy Grail. Leonardo Da Vinci, it transpires , was a member of the selfsame society, and references to its secrets abound in his work. It also soon becomes clear that the police hold Langdon responsible for Sauniere’s murder, when in fact the true culprit is a mysterious albino monk with apparent ties to the ultra-traditional Catholic order Opus Dei. Langdon and Neveu evade the Paris police and go in search of the heart of Sauniere’s secrets in order to clear Langdon’s name and find the true killer. In doing so they embark on a chase which leads to safety deposit boxes in the Bank of Zurich, and a chain leading to the true secret of the Priory of Sion;  one which could undermine the entire basis of the established history of Christianity.

It is redundant to observe that The Da Vinci Code is not as well written as Foucault’s Pendulum or Illuminatus! Its author has never pretended to being anything other than a thriller-writer after all, claiming neither literary pretension, nor subversive counter-culture cool. 

That said, the lumbering prose of the book must be remarked upon. The leaden style suffers in comparison not just to literary novels, but to most thriller fiction too.  It was memorably and cruelly parodied by comedian and writer Stewart Lee as “The bad man’s big hand hit my sad face.” This may be a barbed exaggeration, but not too extreme when one considers the following extract:

“Upstairs, Sophie and Langdon exhaled in relief to see the conveyor belt move. Standing beside the belt, they felt like weary travellers at baggage claim awaiting a mysterious piece of luggage whose contents were unknown.”

The prose clunks along like a suit of soiled and rusted armour. Characters interact like automata, subsisting soley on the level of the purest cliché.  Attempts at humour fall flat on their behind. A device is continually used whereby a character’s most urgent and plot-explanatory thoughts are rendered in italics to underline the exposition. This quickly becomes very annoying.

Journalist John Humphreys, when forced to read the book as an exercise in a parlour game TV show, observed that many passages, whether describing the histories of secret societies or the architecture of Parisian art galleries,  read like they had been taken almost verbatim from guide books and encyclopedia pages ( “Despite the estimated five weeks it would take a visitor to properly appreciate the 65,300 pieces of art in the building….”) Nevertheless, Humphreys concluded he quickly became thoroughly absorbed in the plot despite himself, and found the book compulsive reading to the end.

And indeed the propelling thrust of the Boys Own’ narrative does have its appeal,  neatly delivered in short, breathless episodic chapters which leave as little time as possible to absorb the shoddy style in which they are written.  With its codes and spies, its chases and shootings, it combines the cheap thrill of the lurid potboiler with the trickery of a crossword puzzle. Probably the biggest spoiling effect for reading the book is to read either Foucault’s Pendulum or Illuminatus! beforehand. The wide-eyed face-value descriptions of the sinister machinations at work in Dan Brown’s book stand exposed as the Ladybird Big Book of Conspiracies hack work that they are.

For the millions of readers however, most of them being introduced to the mysterious world of conspiracy, numerology, secret societies, Grail Legend alternative history for the first time, Brown’s was clearly a winning formula. For The Da Vinci Code to have achieved such popularity, for it to have sold in such a great quantity above and beyond so many other better written, shows that it has, however clumsily, tapped into a corner of the collective psyche, that phrenic space which yearns for the easy narcotic thrill of the clandestine.

For in The Da Vinci Code we find the conspiracy theory served straight. None of the irony and wisdom of Eco, none of the subversion and humour of Shea and Wilson. None of the ambiguity of either. Here, says the book, is a Grand Conspiracy which we are letting you in on. There really are two sets of sinister wire-pullers behind the scenes: in this case the Priory of Sion and the Opus Dei. If you just open your eyes to the grand clues which abound, (Look – the Templar cross in the flag of Switzerland! Look – one of the Apostles in Da Vinci’s Last Supper looks like a woman! Look - Sangreal – “Holy Grail” in French means the same as “bloodline”! It all adds up!) then you too can join the ranks of the enlightened and sneer at the ovine masses. Again, the intellectual ego of the reader is flattered for being in on the grand secret, but this time in a far more unambiguous, unadorned and crass manner.

This logic and discourse of conspiracy in the popular political imagination is not, on the whole, that of Eco, or Shea and Wilson. Dan Brown, in his artless way, has captured the zeitgeist far more faithfully. This is the conspiracy just below the surface, but which most are too lazy to see, which Explains It All. It is a Manichean black and white world of good and evil, with one all controlling, all powerful secret at its heart. Once the dark, hooded, (and possibly albino) agents of the controlling conspiracies have been vanquished, then the truth will out, and we will be set free.

This more straightforward nature of the conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code also shows in sharper relief the flaws inherent to the concept. The book’s first page claims that all “documents, rituals, organization, artwork and architecture are accurate.” It states that the Priory of Sion, “a secret society founded in 1099, is a real organization.”  That Leonardo Da Vinci,  Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo  were among its past grand masters is also presented as fact. In interviews Dan Brown re-asserted these claims. He may, he admits, have introduced the fictionalised details about the society’s conflict with Opus Dei, but he was building on the foundations of fact.

What Brown did not reveal was that the Priory of Sion did not date back to 1099. It dated back to 1956, and the fervent imagination of one Pierre Plantard. Paris-born Plantard was a romantic blood-and-soil reactionary fantasist with his own highly individual and concepts of the mystical past, and the destiny of France. He was an enthusiastic anti-Semite and, during the war, a collaborator with Vichy and the Nazis. And he was also a fraudster.

Plantard  founded The Priory of Sion in in the town of Annemasse in the East of France, dedicated to the destruction of secularism and liberalism, and to the re-establishment of an atavistic hierarchy in the land, constructed along ultra-traditionalist Catholic lines. While the Priory was entirely Plantard’s own creation ( named after the local landmark of a hill), he fabricated an entire elaborate history for his society stretching back a thousand years. Again, not wishing to compromise too much of The Da Vinci Code’s plot, but Plantard made claims about the bloodline of Jesus Christ surviving into modern day France via a lost aristocratic lineage.  With Da Vinci, Hugo and Newton among their number, the fabled priory of Sion had defended the line down the ages. Ultimately the aim was to install the Great Monarch, as prophesised by Nostradamus, back on the throne on France. A Monarch which may well have been Plantard himself.

Despite all this being every bit as unhinged and untrue as it sounds,  with the aid of a series of forged ‘ancient’ documents , Plantard managed to convince a large number of conspiracy minded individuals of the veracity of his outlandish claims. Among their number were Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, authors of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail in 1983 which did much to popularise Plantard’s singular worldview. By the time Dan Brown had come to write his multi-million seller in 2004, the whole Priory of Sion story had been thoroughly, resoundingly and repeatedly revealed as a hoax. When promoting The Da Vinci Code, Brown could quite happily have portrayed it as the escapist fantasy it is. Instead, whether consciously or not, in adding a bogus layer of ‘mystery’ to his project, he ended up promoting the fraudulent theories of an extremely unpleasant liar, bigot and racist. So it is with a great many conspiracies. Lie with dogs, get fleas.

Brown’s take on the conspiracy theory is that of the commercial opportunist, mining it for all it is worth. At once flashy and workmanlike, cynical, literal-minded, pushing the buttons of paranoia methodically and laboriously. The sound of delusional mumblings being stroked and reassured, while an old-fashioned cash register rings in the distance.

It is time now to fling back the curtain, drop the mask and reveal that I am part of a conspiracy myself. Or at least a very popularly imagined one. You may not be aware, or in fact you almost certainly aren’t, but you are living in a society controlled by what is known as ‘Cultural Marxism’. The values of the ‘Frankfurt School’, a group of academic German neo-Marxists most active in the early to the mid years of the last century, are held to have overturned traditional hierarchical family values via their infiltration of the hegemony of the ‘cultural elite.’ This will of course soften society up so that it is all the more easy for revolutionaries to Destroy Western Society. This is a conspiracy theory which is popular through broad sections of the right, most favoured at the fascist far-reaches to be sure, but you will find many variations of it in the respectable conservative press too (try Googling the words ‘Daily Telegraph’ or ‘Daily Mail’ with ‘Frankfurt School’ and see the fun which ensues.)

If you press these oppressed conservatives on a few points of fact, that the world isn’t really looking like the Workers’ Paradise which Marx imagined in a few key areas, they will happily admit that – no - in terms of economics socialism hasn’t triumphed - but  in the much more subtle realm of values it has, hence ‘Cultural Marxism’. The demonic triumph of this interesting, subtle, non-economic version of Marxism is held to manifest itself in such onerous assaults on Christian civilisation as gay marriage, laws against racial discrimination, single mothers no longer being ostracised etc.

The Frankfurt School’s subversive triumph is held to be via the academic and the cultural, and so as a writer for 3:AM Magazine I am self-evidently part of it. More realistically, and less facetiously, I do actually hold to a critique of where power lies in the world which, while not strictly Marxist, could at least be labeled as such with some justification. Certainly with more justification than levelling the same accusation at the popularity of Elton John, or the fact that more women are driving busses these days.

The upsurge in radical activity in recent years by young people in such outlets as the Occupy movement is heartening, but the sometime reliance in such movements on conspiratorial tropes is troubling. Anti-Zionist propoganda and activism in particular can segue with disturbing ease into anti-Semitism. Whatever one’s justified criticism of the Israeli government’s abuse of innocent Palestinian citizens, when the discourse turns to Israel ‘controlling’ the US government a line had been very thoroughly crossed, similarly with talk of ‘Zionist control of the media.’ In this way the far-right can and has capitalised on the idealism of the more ill-informed and credulous idealists of the left.

Divisive dandy Russell Brand and his “open-mindedness” towards 9-11 Truther theories is another irritating example of this phenomenon, and an aggravating distraction from the positive things which the man has to say. Our friend the M60 bridge vandal daubed his message some years earlier, but will no doubt be cheering Russell on today. Going back a few years, and another flamboyant radical -vastly more patrician and articulate but no less exhibitionist - was a still more ardent promoter of conspiracism. Gore Vidal was an exponent of the Truther line, as well as an adherent to the great-grand-daddy of that theory- that Franklin Roosevelt was aware of the attacks on Pearl Harbour in advance, and allowed it to happen so give an excuse for the US entry into World War II. Vidal’s conspiratorial paranoia led the grand old wit of the left into sympathy for the repulsive far-right anti-government Oklahoma bomber Timothy Mcveigh – a dark stain on the great man’s reputation, and a sad and salutary lesson on the dark path where conspiracism can lead.  

Can the conspiratorial mindset ever be a progressive mindset? Certainly, there are areas where the conspiracist and the socialist critique overlap. Economic and political power is in the hands of a small group of people, and the media is under the overwhelming influence of this unrepresentative elite. Such is the position of both the conspiracist and the socialist. It also happens to be true.

Further, covert activities can and do happen at the behest of powerful interests. I mentioned numerous examples earlier on; one more to throw in are the activities of COINTELPRO – a series of FBI organised activities in the 70s in which illegal measures of spying, bugging, surveillance and violence were used against a variety of leftist organisations and individuals in order to discredit or destroy them. It is little remembered today, but when it is brought up few would now attempt to deny its existence either. Watergate; you’ll have heard of. The UK media currently thrums with dark allegations about a murderous VIP paedophile ring skulking touching but untouchable amongst the House of Commons of the 80s. Whether this turns out to join the ranks of those vile crazy rumours that turned out to be true…..we shall see.

There are undoubtedly elements within the left which see a conspiracist mindset as the healthiest and most progressive one to have – provided it is concentrated in the correct direction and looks for the correct targets. And for all its many contradictions, the appeal of this radical-conspiratorial leftist view can be seen as exemplified best in literary terms in the Illuminatus! trilogy.Robert Anton Wilson’s view of  the Illuminati as metaphor for hierarchy is part of a critique which sees power and conspiracy as virtually synonymous. The energy and vibrancy of such a view has undoubtedly inspired a great many people towards causes in the fight against over-arching and arbitrary power. Equally, sometimes the most extreme and outlandish conspiracists, by their very fervency and insatiability,  sometimes manage in their unstoppable muckraking to unearth dark truths which more sober and sensible challengers of power may fail to uncover. A minor but telling example – the truths about Jimmy Saville’s child abuse, while widely rumoured, were only published openly for many years on David Icke’s website. The stopped clock was pinpoint in its accuracy that day.

The main problem with the conspiracist analysis is that it confuses cause and effect. It sees powerful government figures, billionaires, CEOs and media magnates meeting up in hotels around the world under the name of Bilderberg, or deep in the American woods under the name of Bohemian Grove, and assumes that it is the meeting which is the source of power. That fact that these individuals would be just as powerful if they didn’t attend the Bohemian Grove quasi-pagan owl burning ceremony (which does actually happen) does not occur to them. The sensation-seeking, literalist mindset of the conspiracy-minded blinds them to the fact that for people to ‘run the world’ does not require a conspiracy of any kind. Power is structural, and does not require secret code-words or meetings. The fact that some members of the elite may luxuriate in cabalistic trappings is a pyramid-stamped red herring. 

Establishments may indeed indulge in underhand and secretive methods, but these are not the basis of their power. The left often makes great hay about which member of the establishment went to school with another; etc. etc. A telling example; the British Post Office was sold off in 2013 at a scandalously cut-price rate, a publically owned utility lost to finance capitalists with the taxpayer footing the bill. Much was made of the fact that the hedge fund managers who had donated to the Conservative Party, and the close personal relationships between the governmental and plutocratic personnel in many cases. While these are indeed symptomatic of the deeply unhealthy dominance of finance capital over the political system, focusing on individual relationships is again missing the point.  The companies which bought up the cut-price shares were benefitting from the general subordination of the political system to the needs of financiers.  This is a structural relation of power,  and could just as easily have happened if no-one involved had ever been caught slapping each others’ backs in their rarefied gentleman’s clubs. Focusing on individual relationships allows the individuals involved to hoist up their metaphorical skirts like maiden aunts and shriek “How dare you accuse us of corruption?” Well quite – corruption isn’t necessary . To see conspiracy rather than structure and class at the heart of power is to mistake the tactical for the strategic, and ultimately to oppose the wrong enemies for the wrong reasons.

While conspiracy theorists may begin with progressive, anti-authoritarian intentions, they are all too easily sidelined into the realms of the reactionary which remains the mindset’s default setting. The apparent intellectual leanings and sympathies in The Da Vinci Code for instance, such as they are, are vaguely progressive in themselves. One continual underlying theme is that a patriarchal church has continually suppressed and slandered the ‘sacred feminine’ in society in order to justify both their own power, and male supremacy. As is so often the case with conspiracy theories, Brown is building on a layer of truth.  But the actual edifice constructed ends up resembling the fabrications of a particularly vile little far-right fraudster. Such is the journey which many a one-time ‘progressive’ has made if their main inspiration is conspiratorial (David Icke, lest we forget, began his political trajectory in the Green Party.)

There is a deeper underlying reason that the conspiratorial mindset is fundamentally reactionary rather than progressive. It is related to the fact it is so often bound up with mysticism and the occult.  George Orwell, when writing on the tendencies of both mysticism and authoritarianism in the writings of W B Yeats, observed that the phenomenon often go together, and that adverts for clairvoyants were particularly prevalent amongst the publications of the French extreme-right. “It is not clear at first glance why hatred of democracy and a tendency to believe in crystal-gazing should go together.” He explained however, that one reason may be that the belief that civilisations move in cycles, and that everything can be predicted, is antithetical to the concepts of both progress and equality. “The very concept of occultism carries with it the concept that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates….the same idea is integral to Fascism. Those who dread the prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women will start off with a predilection towards secret cults.”

In precisely the same way, the conspiracist, like the occultist, and like the Fascist, sees himself as one of the select few who has seen through to the truth which eludes the deluded and naive masses. While railing against whichever elite he imagines is in the controlling seat, he himself is very much in an elite himself; the righteous elite, the only elite with the knowledge to see through and depose their evil counterparts. In claiming to oppose and debunk obscurantism, they quickly end up constructing an elaborate obscurantism of their own.

This is an argument which diminishes and undermines the concepts of both the individual agency which is the cornerstone of liberalism, and the relevance of mass and collective action which are the essence of socialism. No wonder therefore conspiracism is at the core of the movement which opposes them both.

Just consider for a moment the enormous condescension that lies behind the assertion that some cabal, whichever one you choose to pick, is somehow ‘behind’  the international workers movement, or the French Revolution, or the civil rights movement. The genius and inspiration of individual men and women in fighting for a more free and equal future; the struggle and sacrifice of working people to safeguard themselves, their brothers and sisters against repression; all this is written off as nothing, a chimera, a smokescreen. It is as glib and insulting as it is nonsensical.

In the work of Shea and Wilson conspiracism appears in its most antic, subversive and appealing form; rollicking in a philosophy which thoroughly eschews the latent bigotry and authoritarianism which so often  lurks behind the rebellious façade. It appeals to the ideals of the purest freedom. There are certainly a good many scattershot wise insights, an embarrassment of riches at times.  And yet ultimately; as a species of conspiracism lies at the heart; the same major flaws remain. Only a tiny minority can see the truth, the vast mass of humanity, even those who appear to have been on the side of equality and progress are mere dupes in a vast game. Human society works in the cycles (in this case Chaos,Discord,Confusion, Bureaucracy and Aftermath) and we are all just spokes in the wheel. However seductive the vision, and with whatever humour and gusto it is presented, it still represents a fundamentally misguided view on which to base any basis of societal change. It still represents a mind so open that the brains fall out. Shea and Wilson offer a trip to a fantastic and fascinating place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Conspiracism is no longer even an alternative. It is the mainstream, a dark and impotent mainstream, and as banal as Dan Brown’s prose. The intelligent radical’s approach to the concept of conspiracy remains that of the Eco of Foucault’s Pendulum. Accept and utilise the elements of truth, but ward eternally against succumbing to the mindset wholesale.

How can you tell when a healthy disrespect for authority and a challenge to establishment values segues into the world-view of the conspiracist? It isn’t always easy. Areas may be blurred and mistakes may be made. But when your theories start to hinge on the nebulous and far-reaching powers of a few individuals forever engaging in murky conference, when they depend on vast swathes of individual people remaining mysteriously silent, when they rely on scientific data being systematically falsified not just at governmental and journalistic but at laboratory level, when they depend on a brilliant and balletic level of precision in the machinations of the individuals involved which has managed to fool almost everyone….then it’s time alarm bells started ringing. Whether your heart is in the right place is beside the point when the senses have gone awry. You can only speak truth to power if you have a healthy respect for what truth means, and you cannot have such a respect if your default position is that your all-powerful enemies can subvert truth at will. The urge to accept such a discourse just because it suits your side is tempting, but must be resisted.  The misleading named Truther deserves every bit as much scorn as the Birther. To fall for the conspiratorial world view leaves one open to the depredations of every stray demagogue, charlatan and chancer.

Power does not depend on conspiracy – it is more insidious than that. Fighting to build a fairer society is a trickier task than unmasking a cackling supervillain. It depends on a clearer and wiser mind than that of the conspiracist. Eco represents the spirit of humanism as much as the scepticism which is vital to guard against its temptations.  It is in such a tradition, in this respect as in so many others, that any vision of a better future can and must be rooted.

[First published on 3:AM Magazine 2015.]