Karl Popper's "The Conspiracy Theory of Society" - Politics Forum.org | PoFo

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#14113541
I want to share, what I hope will interest you if you haven't come across it before, an excerpt from Karl Popper's magus opus on political philosophy "The Open Society and Its Enemies".

Specifically, it is Popper's rejection of what he calls "The Conspiracy Theory of Society"; the belief that "social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed), and who have planned and conspired to bring it about".

Popper implies, in the book, that it is a view, albeit a false one in his opinion, which is shared among Marxists and Fascists (the "Hegelians"). Popper also suggests that it is a seductive view, however, it is ultimately false as it "amounts to the assertion that all results, even those which at first sight do not seem to be intended by anybody, are the intended results of the actions of people who are interested in these results".

By rejecting this theory, Popper is following a tradition from Scottish Enlightenment (Ferguson, Smith, Hume et al.) in which it is viewed that the "main task of social sciences...is the task of analysing the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions".

Karl Popper wrote:It must be admitted that the structure of our social environment is man-made in a certain sense; that its institutions and traditions are neither the work of God nor of nature, but the results of human actions and decisions, and alterable by human actions and decisions. But this does not mean that they are all consciously designed, and explicable in terms of needs, hopes or motives. On the contrary, even those which arise as the result of conscious and intentional human actions are, as a rule, the indirect, the unintentional and often the unwanted byproducts of such actions. Only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed, while the vast majority have just "grown," as the undesigned result of human actions, as I have said before; and we can add that even most of the few institutions which were consciously and successfully designed (say, a newly founded University, or a Trade Union) do not turn out according to plan – again because of the unintended social repercussions resulting from their intentional creation. For their creation affects not only many other social institutions but also ‘human nature’ – hopes, fears, and ambitions, first of those more immediately involved, and later often of all members of the society. One of the consequences of this is that the moral values of a society – the demands and proposals recognized by all, or by very nearly all, of its members – are closely bound up with its institutions and traditions, and that they cannot survive the destruction of the institutions and traditions of a society. [...]

In order to make my point clear, I shall briefly describe a theory which is widely held but which assumes what I consider the very opposite of the true aim of the social sciences; I call it the "conspiracy theory of society." It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed), and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.

This view of the aims of the social sciences arises, of course, from the mistaken theory that, whatever happens in society – especially happenings such as war, unemployment, poverty, shortages, which people as a rule dislike – is the result of direct design by some powerful individuals and groups. This theory is widely held; it is older even than historicism (which, as shown by its primitive theistic form, is a derivative of the conspiracy theory). In its modern forms it is, like modern historicism, and a certain modern attitude towards ‘natural laws,’ a typical result of the secularization of a religious superstition. The belief in the Homeric gods whose conspiracies explain the history of the Trojan War is gone. The gods are abandoned. But their place is filled by powerful men or groups – sinister pressure groups whose wickedness is responsible for all the evils we suffer from – such as the Learned Elders of Zion, or the monopolists, or the capitalists, or the imperialists.

I do not wish to imply that conspiracies never happen. On the contrary, they are typical social phenomena. They become important, for example, whenever people who believe in the conspiracy theory get into power. And people who sincerely believe that they know how to make heaven on earth are most likely to adopt the conspiracy theory, and to get involved in a counter-conspiracy against non-existing conspirators. For the only explanation of their failure to produce their heaven is the evil intention of the Devil, who has a vested interest in hell.

Conspiracies occur, it must be admitted. But the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproves the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy.

Why is this so? Why do achievements differ so widely from aspirations? Because this is usually the case in social life, conspiracy or no conspiracy. Social life is not only a trial of strength between opposing groups: it is action within a more or less resilient or brittle framework of institutions and traditions, and it creates – apart from any conscious counter-action – many unforeseen reactions in this framework, some of them perhaps even unforeseeable.

To try to analyse these reactions and to foresee them as far as possible is, I believe, the main task of the social sciences. It is the task of analysing the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions-those repercussions whose significance is neglected both by the conspiracy theory and by psychologism, as already indicated. An action which proceeds precisely according to intention does not create a problem for social science (except that there may be a need to explain why in this particular case no unintended repercussions occurred). One of the most primitive economic actions may serve as an example in order to make the idea of unintended consequences of our actions quite clear. If a man wishes urgently to buy a house, we can safely assume that he does not wish to raise the market price of houses. But the very fact that he appears on the market as a buyer will tend to raise market prices. And analogous remarks hold for the seller. Or to take an example from a very different field, if a man decides to insure his life, he is unlikely to have intention of encouraging some people to invest their money in insurance shares. But he will do so nevertheless. We see here clearly that not all consequences of our actions are intended consequences; and accordingly, that the conspiracy theory of society cannot be true because it amounts to the assertion that all results, even those which at first sight do not seem to be intended by anybody, are the intended results of the actions of people who are interested in these results.
#14113582
I don't know that it would be acceptable to put a blanket on all Marxists here. For example, one reason a lot of Marxists rallied to their own governments in World War I was because it was assumed the war was wanted or engineered by foreign bands of moneyed interests.

Lenin, however, was an example of a Marxist that rejected such a view. The war wasn't a conspiracy, but the result of imperialism and finance. It didn't have any conclusion in which an individual or group of individuals would have plotted things out to win, as much as it was a direct consequence of a system people were benefitting from and would continue benefitting from.

I don't see that as a conspiracy theory any more than a town dependent on fishing will continue to try and fish, sometimes leading to overfishing as the town grows.
#14113591
The imperialist theory of war is a prime example of this conspiracist nonsense. The first and second world war came out of political ideological processes. It was a conflict between nationalists and patriots. The capatalist class tended to be more nationalistic than the general population hence they had a greater tendency to be warmongers. Capitalists had little to gain economically even from a quick victory compared to the enormous costs of war. They paid for a larger share of the poor returning / no return war bonds. Capitalists essentially supported the first world war because of the same reasons that other class members supported it. They were heavily psychologically identified with their polity.
#14113754
That's why most Marxists did join the war. The Bolsheviks didn't see it necessarily as a conspiracy of the wealthy as much as the inevitable result of capital:


Lenin wrote:A United States of Europe under capitalism is tantamount to an agreement on the partition of colonies. Under capitalism, however, no other basis and no other principle of division are possible except force. A multi-millionaire cannot share the “national income” of a capitalist country with anyone otherwise than “in proportion to the capital invested” (with a bonus thrown in, so that the biggest capital may receive more than its share). Capitalism is private ownership of the means of production, and anarchy in production. To advocate a “just” division of income on such a basis is sheer Proudhonism, stupid philistinism. No division can be effected otherwise than in “proportion to strength”, and strength changes with the course of economic development. Following 1871, the rate of Germany’s accession of strength was three or four times as rapid as that of Britain and France, and of Japan about ten times as rapid as Russia’s. There is and there can be no other way of testing the real might of a capitalist state than by war. War does not contradict the fundamentals of private property—on the contrary, it is a direct and inevitable outcome of those fundamentals. Under capitalism the smooth economic growth of individual enterprises or individual states is impossible. Under capitalism, there are no other means of restoring the periodically disturbed equilibrium than crises in industry and wars in politics.


No more a conspiracy that two and two always equalling four. This is, of course, not saying that the Marxists Lenin was addressing were incapable of falling into the conspiracy rhetoric.

Honestly, I run into people on the left like that all the time. If they vote, the government will somehow have won; the FDA isn't so interested in increasing food commerce as making sure you're consuming things to give you cancer and whatnot. The EPA, instead of managing things for commerce in part, mostly wants to do evil for the sake of a mysterious cabal. Saying that there are forces that mitigate the efectiveness of the EPA or peace efforts is hardly the same as assuming someone is directing it all.
Last edited by The Clockwork Rat on 23 Nov 2012 23:21, edited 1 time in total. Reason: Formatting
#14113920
SR, did Popper say that Marxism is particularly prone to conspiracy theories, or is that a later gloss on his arguments? It would seem the opposite to me, that most Marxists attribute history to impersonal forces.
#14114023
quetzalcoatl wrote:SR, did Popper say that Marxism is particularly prone to conspiracy theories, or is that a later gloss on his arguments? It would seem the opposite to me, that most Marxists attribute history to impersonal forces.

Exactly. I've noticed that conspiracy theories seem to be most common on the libertarian right, and I think this reflects their individualistic outlook. The problems of this world couldn't possibly be the product of the impersonal forces of a global economic system that no one's really in charge of. No, it has to be specific people who are secretly controlling everything. The Rothschilds, the Bildebergers, the Freemasons...they're all plotting in secret to make this bad stuff happen, because it couldn't possibly be capitalism, right?
#14114026
To speak on the fascist position, while we blame "international finance" for many issues, it is shorthand for the political and social structure created by neoliberal societies which incentivize behaviors that undermine the nationstate - it is not a belief in some hidden cabal of individuals in a penthouse plotting against the people. Hell, I'm certain many of them are good people, or believe themselves to be, due to their methods succeeding in saving millions from poverty in the Third World!
#14114043
quetzalcoatl wrote:SR, did Popper say that Marxism is particularly prone to conspiracy theories

I don't think he did.

@Paradigm, I would say most on the "libertarian right" do not believe in "The Conspiracy Theory of Society", sure some may believe in conspiracy theories, just as any other person.
#14114403
Paradigm wrote:The Rothschilds, the Bildebergers, the Freemasons...they're all plotting in secret to make this bad stuff happen, because it couldn't possibly be capitalism, right?


What is your opinion of left-wing conspiracy theory, such as Naomi Klein's "disaster capitalism"?

A lot of conspiracy theories also focus on government institutions, such as intelligence agencies and their protocols. How does one attribute that to the left or the right?
#14114410
Donald wrote:What is your opinion of left-wing conspiracy theory, such as Naomi Klein's "disaster capitalism"?


I know you're asking Paradigm, but I hope you don't mind me chipping in. I haven't read Klein's book. However, I have read and watched criticism of the book, albeit from the same person, read Klein's counter criticism, and then read the counter-counter criticism. I thought are her arguments were weak, to put it lightly.
#14114785
Soixante-Retard wrote:@Paradigm, I would say most on the "libertarian right" do not believe in "The Conspiracy Theory of Society", sure some may believe in conspiracy theories, just as any other person.

I don't think most right-libertarians are conspiracy theorists, but conspiracy theorists seem to be most concentrated among the libertarian right(thanks in large part to Alex Jones, no doubt).

Donald wrote:What is your opinion of left-wing conspiracy theory, such as Naomi Klein's "disaster capitalism"?

Well, part of it is taken right from the mouth of Milton Friedman. At one level it seems common sense that any ideological position can take advantage of a crisis to make their move. On the other hand, it's actually the far left and far right that are usually best poised to take advantage of an economic crisis. I think there are some examples of disaster capitalism that are hard to dispute, most notably in Chile. But I think it's generally more subtle than that, having more to do with the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

A lot of conspiracy theories also focus on government institutions, such as intelligence agencies and their protocols. How does one attribute that to the left or the right?

In themselves they are neither left nor right. It's more a question of the larger worldview they comprise.

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