Friday, September 15, 2006

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry

Spain is in the grip of a conspiracy theory row between the Socialist Party government and the right-wing press and parties over the Madrid bombings of 2004. Some sections of the Popular Party and the conservative media now suggest that the bombings were in effect a coup d’etat which brought the Socialist Party to power at the general election three days after the bombing. At the time, the Popular Party government immediately blamed the Basque separatist group Eta for the train bombs that killed more than 200 commuters. That accusation literally blew up in their faces at the polls because most electors rightly connected the bombs with Spain’s foreign policy and the government’s support for the invasion of Iraq and swept the Socialist Party into office in an unexpected turn of events.

The fact that it is the right wing on this occasion who are claiming the bombings were planned by the left only illustrates the immense difficulties with the conspiracy theory approach to dealing with real events. In the United States and Europe, there are many radical opponents of the Bush government who believe that the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers was the work of the American state. There are some who even think that the planes we’ve all seen on TV hitting the buildings were actually holograms to disguise missiles fired by US warplanes. Thousands of people must have been involved if there was a conspiracy. No participant has yet broken cover.

Of course there are conspiracies and provocations to create events that the ruling classes will act on to their advantage. In the main, however, they react because they hold the power and have the capacity and know-how to do this. For example, the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas by Argentina in 1982 came at an opportune time for the Thatcher government, which was rocking. She reacted swiftly and despatched the navy to recapture the islands. In other words, she actually responded to Argentina's military adventure. Bush and Blair responded to September 11 by launching a series of wars and invasions. Losing authority and legitimacy, they seized on a pretext – one handed to them by Al Qaeda.

It is not much of a leap from conspiracy theories to the disarming general standpoint that the whole world is basically run on the lines of a web of conspiracies. This implies that 'they' are always in control, can determine the outcome of events to suit their purposes and that we're destined forever to be the victims of events. On that basis, we can never successfully challenge let alone overthrow this power because a) we can’t identify it and b) even if we can, they'll conspire to stop us. So we can never actually achieve anything - except uncovering the odd conspiracy here and there. In practice, the truth is more challenging and complex and the state is not the all-powerful, all-controlling instrument conspiracy theorists would have us believe. The disasters in Iraq that the occupation has produced, the US government’s failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina, and the resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan are just a few illustrations of how, to quote Robbie Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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