CRASSH Research Publication, 2014
Author: Alfred Moore, Research Associate, Conspiracy and Democracy Project (2013 – 2018)
It is common to observe that both conspiracy theories and more respectable forms of social and political critique work by giving an account of what lies beneath the surface of political reality. Yet it is also common to distinguish them by pointing to the sorts of hidden forces they reveal: conspiracy theorists find malign human agency where more thoughtful critics find impersonal social forces. However, in this paper I argue that we should be wary of setting up a dichotomy between ‘hidden hand’ and ‘invisible hand’ explanations because it overshadows and obscures the variety of forms of collective action that lie between them. If we want a better grasp of the ubiquity of the language of conspiracy in political and social life, and the problematic category of conspiracy theories, we need a clearer account of the spectrum of forms of secret or obscure co-ordination of collective action. To this end I will make a distinction between conspiracy and collusion, and highlight the ways in which both are distinguished from invisible hand theories. I will illustrate this distinction with a discussion of claims of conspiracy and conspiracy theory in political debates on climate change. In conclusion, I will suggest that what is often called conspiracy theory is not about a ‘hidden hand’ so much as it is about revealing unwitting complicity in co-ordinated collective action.