By John Moeller
A meeting in the Casa, the former headquarters of striking dockworkers in Liverpool. Nowadays it is the usual location for left wing events in town. The hall is so crowded that some listeners have to stay outside in the corridor. It might be triple the size of a normal lefty audience. Who has attracted this many people? It’s Mr David Shayler.
Shayler used to work as a spy for the British Security Service, until he discovered that his employer doesn’t stick to the usual official ideals of liberal democracy (the branch he worked for tried to kill the Libyan leader Gaddafi with a car bomb). Shocked, Shaylor quit his job and told some professional secrets to the media, which led to his temporary imprisonment.
Generalising his own experience with the intelligence services, Shayler was one of the prominent figures who claimed after 11 September 2001 that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were not caused by Islamist extremists, but by the Americans themselves, namely by the CIA.
Conspiracy theories of these type have become very popular all over the world during recent years. A whole movement has emerged – in the UK too – called the “nine eleven truth” groups , investigating what is “going on” behind the scenes of events like 9/11.
When you listen to their discussions two typical features of the conspiracy theorists become very obvious: the presumption of an idée fixe, which has to be justified afterwards; and a highly selective perception, which takes everything in account which is likely to give evidence for that idea and ignores everything which contradicts it.
“We mustn’t let ourselves be divided”, insists Mrs Annie Machon, David Shayler’s co-defendent and former colleague, “no matter what in particular one or another believes to have happened on 9/11, the important thing is that we all agree that the official version cannot be true.”
To prove their case the “truth activists” adapt rather bizarre theories, which are far more unlikely than the official version. David Shayler, for instance, claims that what we have seen flying into the WTC were not real aeroplanes, but mere holograms, projected into the sky to cheat us.
Why do people believe in this stuff? And, an even more basic question, why are they so keen on speculating about unlikely “truth” about an event which happened thousands of miles away and had little direct impact on their lives?
Shayler explains his motive: “Our democracy is in danger... the spies have become so all-powerful that they’re already controlling even our elected members of parliament. If we won’t stand up and act, this will lead to a totalitarian rule of one kind or another.” This alarmist statement expresses an idealistic view about liberal democracy which is very common among the “truth movement”: Elected representatives are there to carry out the will of the people and to look after their well being, aren’t they? If our needs and desires are neglected by those representatives the only explanation is that there must be someone who secretly prevents them from doing their job — either by cheating, or by corrupting them.
In fact, they are doing their job quite well. The function of states in the capitalist world market is to provide convenient conditions for investors and to protect property. If they don’t do so, they will fail in the competition against other states. Thus, whether they like it or not, democratic rulers have to organise the effective use of their electors’ labour for the accumulation of capital, with all the negative effects this causes.
The trick of bourgeois democracy is that it also encourages people to participate in the discussion on the improvement of their own exploitation! This has proved to be much more effective than dictatorial rule — at least in wealthy countries which can afford to distribute some benefits to workers for their participation.
Are the conspiracy-searching activists basically democratic idealists who have gone mad, driven round the bend by elected governments who do the opposite to what they expected? That’s part of the explanation. However, where does this idealism comes from? There are elements within the milieu who don’t hesitate to cheer on even the most barbaric Islamist actions, if they are directed against the American empire and the alleged conspiracy behind it. That is nihilism not idealism.
The element of truth which underlies the “nine eleven truth” movement is that, as they say, we really don’t have the sovereignty over our own lives. But we don’t need a secret plot to explain that alienation.
It is more productive to think about the alarm clock that interrupts your dreams in the morning and forces you to work; or the boredom and stress of wage labour which steals your time and energy; or the permanent threat of personal failure in competition which undermines your mental and physical health; the exclusion of both material wealth and the satisfaction of participating in the productive co-operation of society while you are unemployed; the security service men who prevent you from taking what you desire in shops and warehouses. And so on...
The majority of people don’t have control over their lives because they are detached from the means of production and have to sell their labour-power as a commodity. There have been times in history when this insight has been relatively widespread among working-class people, impelling them to organise themselves collectively to improve their living conditions or even to do away with the system of wage labour.
But we live in a time of defeat of working class organisations. That has led to atomisation, isolation and therefore impotence of the individual. It has become increasingly difficult for people to imagine how to fight collectively for their interests.
The situation has made a whole leftist milieu ready to adapt conspiracy theories of Shayler’s type: a struggle against the imaginary evil of a world wide conspiracy becomes the substitute for the struggle against the real evils which occur in everyday life in capitalist society.
The total absence of economic questions in the debate at the Casa was one of the most conspicuous details of the evening. “You must speak to your neighbours, your colleagues, your family members”, urged Mrs. Machon, “to make them aware of the lies they are telling on TV about 9/11!”. Well, it’s all right to communicate with the people around you — but why start a conversation on such an odd topic rather than on questions which affect your lives directly?
If the “nine eleven truth” groups were simply a movement of concerned citizens observing the intelligence services and accusing the bourgeois state when it violates its own laws and ideals, there wouldn’t be much to oppose. But they are something different.
Their conspiracy theories claim to give an exclusive insight in the hidden causes for all the evils of the world. In doing so, they lead attention systematically away from the most important immediate antagonisms. They spare people the possibility of confrontation with the powerful and the risk of failure.
This worldview is attractive and hermetic, and hard to criticise. This type of thought is not, as it has been argued, a first step to becoming more conscious and critical about the problems of society, but the opposite: it is a kind of collective psychosis which increasingly detaches people from reality.
The fact that a meeting of the lunatic “nine eleven truth” sect takes place in the location where struggling dockers used to meet a decade ago, is a horrible indication of the lamentable state of the British left of today.