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The recent revelations in the Washington Post and UK Guardian concerning the US Government’s ‘Prism’ program raise the question, when is a conspiracy theory not a conspiracy theory?
For a long time some persons around the world claimed the US government was monitoring all our electronic communications in a Big Brother quest for world domination. Without evidence this belief was labelled a conspiracy theory, those with such beliefs disparaged as cuckoo.
Now there is evidence the US government is involved with monitoring (or at least recording for future analysis) much of the electronic information each of us produces. Does this new evidence dissolve the conspiracy theory?
First some facts. What is a conspiracy theory? Conspiracy theories correlate to times of social anxiety. They give meaning to dramatic and vague occurrences. Providing narrative to the relations between events, individuals, and larger social institutions.
Conspiracy theories fall under the study of myths and rely on a cultural logic that says the absence of evidence is evidence. From an anthropological perspective conspiracy theories – or narratives concerning plots, hatched by a real or imaginary power and groups – are universal. Found in all cultures and stages of human history.
The cargo cults of Melanesia and the millennialist movements of colonial societies such as the Ghost Dance of Native Americans and the Xhosa cattle-killing of South Africa, are good examples to look up.
Now before anyone thinks it is only crazies or the exotic who believe in conspiracy theories it’s worth recognising that the “War on Terror” itself is a conspiracy theory produced and embraced by the US political class.
Any discussion of the long history of US atrocities, policies, and the destabilisation of elected foreign Governments during the 20th century was and is ignored. Instead Bush and his cronies fed the world a story about a singular demonised enemy – Al Qaida – out to attack American exceptionalism. First led by Saddam, and then Osama.
Under Prism the enemy could now be any of us. Even people who believe they have nothing to hide. By recording our electronic communications the US Government can now take that information, search through everything we’ve ever done, and paint any of us as villains.
Who’s crazy now? The US Government is itself lost in a conspiracy theory about the rest of the world, all potentially out to get them. That isn’t necessarily a surprise. Academics have been writing about a “paranoid style of American politics” since the 1960s.
The thing about conspiracy theories then is that they leave us with an explanation of events that is more often than not rooted in paranoia rather than hard evidence. As such, a useful way to understand conspiracy theories is as fissures to identify power struggles in society over meaning and morality.
So rather than Obama as Dr Evil, or the complete innocence of the US Government, conspiracy theories suggest we should be looking somewhere in between for truth(s).
For example, which is more likely, that the US Government believes they act in their country’s interests, or that a group of people – including everyone in the NSA, FBI, CIA etc. – is engaged in a vast conspiracy for their own benefit (or Dr Evil’s), with no one on the inside ever exposing it? Not even Edward Snowden.
The problem the US Government has and in particular its various wings like the NSA, is they cannot be the judges of their own actions. Their oversight must be transparent. Yet due to the secret nature of its business supposedly no one else can monitor them.
So the NSA grew its power, always believing, as it was the good guy, anyone seeking to restrict it needed to be opposed. All in the public interest of course. In other words the NSA drank their own Kool Aid and became both architect and purveyor of conspiracy theories.
This brings us back to the question, “when is a conspiracy theory not a conspiracy theory?” A conspiracy theory is not a conspiracy theory when it is the cultural logic directing realpolitik.
Once paranoid myth making becomes the engine of political action Governments no longer make decisions based on evidence, instead they run on evidence of things unseen, using fear and moral panic to maintain power.
Philosophically, it raises a similar analogy to that scientific story about turtles and “infinite regress”. But instead of the complexity of the cosmos resting on “turtles all the way down”; we see the complexity of the endless War on Terror rests on conspiracy theories all the way down.
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
Back in November this column described and illustrated the creeping militarism of everyday life in the Caribbean. From computer games and fashion to the war on drugs and foreign military aid it showed how the Caribbean and in particular our own society is moving in one direction: increased militarisation with all the attendant dangers to our freedoms, safety, and everyday lives that this involves.
One concern about increased militarism in the Caribbean was what it meant for law enforcement in T&T and the blurring of the boundary between policing and military operations. Most specifically, when a State becomes more militarised so do those it deems criminals, not to mention the wider culture of the society itself.
There is no better example of this than the US where something academics call the “permanent war economy” seeps into everything, including the majority of public- and privately-funded scientific research, technological advancement, entertainment and policing. Furthermore, lobbyists connected with the arms industry and its limitless subsidiaries now drive much political decision-making.
Nowhere is this better documented than in Andrew Feinstein’s formidable book, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. For more than ten years now the US has been embroiled in the war on terror. President Obama’s military drones rain down missiles on suspected terrorists daily.
And so it has come to pass that similar drones to those used in the war on terror are being tested and proposed as tools for local policing at home. The Orwellian dystopia of the future is already knocking at the door. All this brings us to our own situation. Minister Jack Warner has a portfolio to attend to. Tackling our crime situation is obviously a difficult job and remedies are desperately needed.
However, the suggestions that the military should—outside of exceptional circumstances—be given the same arrest powers as the police smells of short-termism and a lack of concern for the long-term consequences to wider local culture and society. A military with police powers is not a long-term fix. The cynic might suggest it is a short-term push to lower crime figures in a quest for re-election.
Here is a simple list of some objections to the minister’s proposal.
1) The military is trained in the use of deadly force, and to respond to natural disasters; they are not trained in dealing with everyday, normal situations, the law, or criminal evidence.
2) It creates opportunities for those in political power to use the military against their opponents.
3) It undermines any confidence the public has in the police force and could produce discontent between the police and the army.
4) There is no body or commission the public can turn to should military personnel abuse their new powers.
5) There are massive legal implications.
Another issue the minister’s proposal obscures—yet again—are the high levels of corruption that plague our nation and which contribute greatly to general lawlessness. If those with the money, connections, and political sway get away with breaking the law, it is no surprise that those with little money, connections, and political sway see law-breaking as a successful strategy for getting what they might deem is theirs. Gangsterism, after all, knows no class boundaries.
Will the minister’s army of 1,000 also be going after those higher-class members of society who break the law or is the proposed offensive only aimed at low income members of our society who in many situations could point to historical and cumulative disadvantages against certain areas and social groups?
Neo-colonialism isn’t some fancy academic term; it is the reality of our modern nation. It is the legacy bequeathed to us from our colonial past, and the structural reality of racism, classism, corruption and nepotism that abounds.
Our economy, social structure, and political set-up are all remnants of the system set up and left by others. It has always been up to us to remake that but the Caribbean countries were sadly left divided by race, class and ethnicity, and tied to the inevitable consequences of that.
To disconnect our crime problem from the larger historical process and claim we can fix the problem by putting the military permanently on the streets will not make our society better or even safer in the long term. Rather, it will stretch the already existing divisions between rich and poor, making our society more dangerous, and undermine our democracy itself.
Whether we are talking the invasion of Grenada in 1983, our war-torn colonial history, various armies on the ground in Haiti, or US military bases like Guantanamo, the Caribbean’s story is marked by a history of militarism.
In her book Bases of Empire, anthropologist Catherine Lutz notes that as of 2007, there were 77 US military bases of varying sizes, from massive to small, found across the Caribbean.
Today, the war on drugs is an example of regional militarisation, with Britain and the US conducting operations all over the Caribbean using high-tech military equipment in operations with catchy names like Operation Weed Eater.
This war is not only about eradicating drugs but it is also about something anthropologists call the “permanent war economy.” This economy is wide and has many facets. One in particular that affects small island nations is the economic aid that accompanies continued acceptance and participation in the war.
This aid comes in the form of military equipment, intelligence expansion, new surveillance and security technologies, and propaganda systems. It also provides a constant drive for some of the richer countries like T&T to purchase more and more military hardware, connecting their oil and gas capital straight to the war economy.
It is quite normal for our Minister of National Security to speak—without anyone questioning his logic—that it’s sensible to embrace the US-led war on drugs and purchase six naval vessels from the Colombian Government. Just like the previous Government was happy to spend billions on OPVs. Someone might want to take note that the largest consumer market for these drugs is the US and perhaps joining a war driven by the lifestyle of another nation is silly in the first place.
The sadness is that it’s as if the western world is only moving in one direction: increased militarisation. Hopes of a move toward demilitarisation as Seymour Melman—the US economist who wrote about the damaging social costs of military spending—once discussed, seem less and less likely.
In cultural terms, this overt military footing seeps into everyday life. It becomes embedded in everyday language and symbols. We describe gangs as militarist organisations. Young people demand to play the latest computer war games from Black Ops to Medal of Honour. Media—TV, film, music, sport and all the rest—are saturated with military themes. And insecurity becomes something only to be tackled through increases in military personnel and equipment.
Think about law enforcement in T&T. During the SoE it was the army conducting a lot of police operations. And recently the Minister of National Security asked citizens to apply to the Defence Force in order to protect national security. There’s also the Multi Agency Maritime Task Force, comprising coast guard, police, army, and customs officers, again blurring the boundaries between policing and military operations.
By the end of the next year we are promised the entire country will be under CCTV surveillance, as if that’s indisputably a good thing.
Yet, as the State becomes more militarised, so too does the whole of society, including those the State deems criminals. That AK-47s are a more regular weapon in our poorest areas is an example of a militarised drug industry. That our private security industries also take on the semblance of military organisations with CCTV systems, guard dogs, high-tech security systems and military-style outfits is another example of militarism.
In a presentation a few years ago, Prof Rhoda Reddock pointed out this new culture of insecurity leads to armies being seen as saviours and opens the risk for a reduction in our human rights. Normal, peaceful communities become bloodthirsty, seeking revenge and punishment. Meanwhile, the demands for security extend distance between the rich and poor, as only some can afford to protect themselves through private security firms.
Where does this militarised society lead? On the one hand it’s clear some sort of army for defence is legitimate and can be useful in economic terms. Yet on the other side, what is too much? Have we not passed that mark? Can we go back? Are there really no other ways to organise our society than to curtail freedoms and become more militarised? And what sort of future is that?
• Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine