How to invent a conspiracy

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Sometimes people of a cynical perspective say to me ‘you should start a cult’. Anything spiritual automatically sounds culty to them. In fact, I think it would be quite easy to start a cult and find some followers. You just need to appear totally certain in your ideas, and at least some lost souls will happily hand over their minds. But that’s a pretty boring game to play.

Inventing a conspiracy theory, now that’s more fun. You don’t need to devote yourself 24/7 to your followers. You don’t have to be there at all. You can just drop little threads here and there, then leave it to the paranoid masses to weave them together into a giant quilt of meaning.

If certainty is the key to starting a cult, then the key to starting a conspiracy theory is ambiguity. Think of the predictions of Nostradamus, or the songs of Bob Dylan, or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — these works draw us in and light up our meaning-making synapses precisely because their meaning is not obvious, but rather polysemious (ie they lend themselves to multiple interpretations).

Likewise, a conspiracy theory needs mystery. Less is more. Think of it like a peep show — the outsiders are peeping through a hole in a fence, looking at the insiders and fantasizing about what they’re up to. Keep them guessing. Let their fevered imaginations do the work.

Crucially, leaven your conspiracy with a grain of truth. Refer to some genuine abuses by elitist outsiders — like eugenics, or Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking. Then go from there. Extend your sinister cabal through a network of connections — think-tanks, multinationals, anything. Throw in some secret codes and symbols. It’s not too hard — Dan Brown cooked up some warmed-up old myths and sold 80 million copies.

The true evil genius, or geniuses, is whoever created Qanon, the conspiracy theory currently spreading around the world and seeping into national politics. The creators put out the plot bit by bit, through brief cryptic messages on the website 8Chan. There were hints and coincidences between what ‘Q’ said and what Trump said. The creators built up the tension, hint by hint, episode by episode, all building to a grand finale — ‘the Great Awakening’, when supposedly Trump would overthrow the global cabal of Satanic child murderers. It hasn’t happened yet — as the creators of Lost discovered, it’s easier to weave a mystery than to deliver the Big Reveal.

Side note: why should Trump, a millionaire friend of Jeffrey Epstein, a self-confessed sex abuser and apparent stooge of the KGB, why should he of all people should be the hero in this story?

A good conspiracy theory needs to be a Manichean struggle between Light and Dark, absolute good and absolute evil. And what’s so great about Qanon is its followers don’t just get to watch, they get to participate, to uncover and co-create, like children on a treasure hunt. They get to feel a sense of community and heroic purpose. In this sense, as many have noted, Qanon is a massive Live Action Role Player — much like ISIS, for that matter, or other religions.

The advantage conspiracy theories have over religions is that they are decentralized, open-source, without any priest hierarchy or sacred texts. While religions oppose each other and insist on Either / Or, conspiracies can be Both / And. You don’t have to pick one conspiracy theory — you can believe them all and connect them all — Pizzagate, Epstein, 9/11, Adenochrome harvesting, chemtrails, the Federal Reserve, vaccines, Project Saffron, the Vril Society.

Wait…the Vril Society? Yes, this weird idea crops up in contemporary conspiracies. It’s an interesting example of how religions and conspiracy theories are closely related to fictions and myths, and how something can start off as a fiction and turn into a religion or conspiracy theory (in other words, something people really believe). The line between the suspended-belief of a story, and the actual-belief of a religion or conspiracy, is quite blurred and easily crossed, if you are an imaginative sort.

Elitist occultism, and the fantasy of the elite as a master race, or alternate species

‘Vril’ appears in a book of 1871 called The Coming Race, by a Victorian novelist and politician called Edward Bulwer Lytton. He was sort of a pulp writer — one of his novels starts with the famously cheesy line ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ — who made a fortune from book sales, then became a reformist MP, but he seems to have grown more reactionary as he aged. He was also fascinated by the occult. And he had a massive public falling out with his wife, which I won’t go into (you can read about it here).

The Coming Race, his last novel, is about an American who descends into a cave and discovers a hidden advanced civilization, run by an alternative species of hominid, taller, wiser, stronger and in all ways superior to homo sapiens. He quails before them, as before demi-gods. They are able to control an energy called ‘vril’, which gives them the power to destroy whole cities in a moment, and also the power to control minds and to direct automatons to do their bidding.

Vril is in some ways an old occult idea, that there is some prima materia called the aether, or spiritus, or Chi, or Prana. It’s supposedly the energy which permeates all things and which the magus can control to heal or destroy. There is also an old occult idea which one could call occult authoritarianism, where the magus uses their magical power to control both automatons and the masses.

Lytton mixes this up with a new idea — the evolution of homo sapiens. In 1859 Charles Darwin had argued that humans evolved from apes, and in 1864, the remains discovered in a cave in Germany were identified as belonging to another hominid, Neanderthal man. Lytton plays with these ideas and imagines an alternative, more advanced race of hominid — homo superior. They’re both awe-inspiring and terrifying — what if they come to the surface and destroy us all, as we might destroy an ant-hill?

What he created, then, was a fusion of old occult ideas with new evolutionary fantasies. There is also a political edge to his fantasy. He was an aristocrat himself, who’d come to dislike and resent mass democracy. The advanced beings in his alternate utopia likewise despise American democracy and are instead a sort of aristocratic republic, ruled by a benevolent autocrat, where all the work is done by mindless automatons.

His elitist occultism appealed to other upper-class people who also felt disempowered and disgusted by the rise of mass democracy, like WB Yeats for example (a crypto-fascist and member of the Golden Dawn) or Aldous Huxley (also into magic, also full of contempt for mass democracy). Such occult elitists felt themselves totally superior to the masses, practically a different species entirely.

Lytton’s stories appealed to another impoverished aristocrat — Madame Helena Blavatsky. She read and translated Lytton’s novels [correction — it was her mother Yelena who translated them], and imported their ideas into Theosophy, the occult philosophy / religion which she invented in the 1880s. She took Lytton’s idea of ‘vril’, and also the idea of a hidden race of superior beings, which she called ‘The Masters’. In her myth, the Masters were humans who had evolved to the next stage of consciousness, and now lived in a civilization hidden somewhere in the Himalaya, where she had supposedly been initiated. They were supermen, a different breed, a different species, and they secretly acted to help humanity (or rather, some of humanity) evolve to the next stage.

No one else ever met ‘The Masters’, and some wondered if they were made up. Of course they were. Theosophy combined some genuine wisdom, drawn from various spiritual traditions, with a lot of utter bunk. But it was a good story, and being in on the ‘secret’ made people feel special, part of the avant garde of mankind’s spiritual evolution.

For some people, these New Age dreams of spiritual evolution became fused with political fantasies. HG Wells, for example, wrote science fictions that weren’t that far from Lytton’s fantasies, where a human accidentally discovers an alternate world run by superior beings. But where Lytton looked to magic, Wells thought that science — atomic energy, eugenics — would help humans develop into these god-like beings. He also believed in the evolution of one world government, one brotherhood of superior beings, joined together in a new global scientific spirituality.

Some of this elitist occultism spread to Weimar Germany, and swirled around in the cultic underground which produced the Nazis. Some Nazis were certainly into Theosophy, and the dream of a ‘master race’ who would conquer the world, whether through magic or good old-fashioned bombs. Supposedly, a few Nazis even started a ‘Vril Society’, though there’s little hard evidence of this.

But the idea of a Nazi ‘Vril Society’ was taken up and spread in 1960, by a French book called The Morning of the Magicians. This bestseller, by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, is an extraordinary hodge-podge of occult ideas. What it really did, in brief, was to pass on the pre-war occult dream of a secret order of advanced beings, who were basically a different species, and who combined scientific knowledge with magical and mystical powers and would eventually replace homo sapiens.

This elitist occult idea proved very popular in the 1960s counter-culture. Everyone from Jimmy Page to David Bowie to Timothy Leary (affluent white men, in other words) decided they were homo superior, they were the mutants, destined to take over the world and replace the squares. LSD helped this fantasy — it was the initiation experience that marked off the Elect from the unchosen, the Hip from the Squares, the Vril from the little people.

It’s funny, by the by, that in one of the first ever psychedelic experiments, in 1897, conducted by the eugenicist psychiatrist Havelock Ellis, his friend Arthur Symons takes mescaline and wanders out into the streets of London. There, he is ‘absolutely fascinated by an advertisement of ‘Bovril’, which came and went in letters of light on the other side of the river’ — Bovril was a popular soup-drink, which took its name from Lytton’s novel.

To complete this strange little story and bring us back to Qanon, what happened in the 1980s and 1990s was a reaction to the New Age revival by the anti-globalist religious Right. They latched on to the occult fantasy of a hidden international order of superior beings, and turned it into a nightmare: they became convinced there is a hidden global order of demon-worshipping elitists who are exploiting us, and perhaps using magic or 5G or LSD or chemtrails to control our minds. They are plotting a world government and a world religion, and They have a plan to control the world population and perhaps cull some of us.

Some conspiracy theorists went so far as to imagine the hidden elite were a different species entirely — the Vril, or Lizard people (an idea originally taken from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, apparently).

Lytton’s fictional idea of a ‘vril society’ thus became part of this paranoid fantasy. So did the idea of ‘adenochrome harvesting’ — this is a weird belief that the secret elite is harvesting the hormone adenochrome from children, to get high. This idea comes from a brief mention of the hormone first in Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, then in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What is basically a fictional idea became a reality in people’s mythical imaginations. The same people who believe in such conspiracies probably also believe in the protective power of ‘tin foil hats’ — again, this is an idea that first appeared in fiction, this time from a short-story by Julian Huxley.

The strange tale of the ‘Vril Society’ shows us the power of stories, how they can leap categories from the fictional to the really-believed. We don’t tell them, rather, they possess us.

And yet, as ever with powerful conspiracy theories, there is a grain of truth in the stories. Some progressive thinkers, like HG Wells or Julian Huxley. really did dream of one world government, and one world religion, and of a global population controlled and sometimes culled by an international scientific elite. Sometimes, they really did talk about themselves as a breed apart, practically a different species to the moronic masses.

But this was as a deluded grandiose fantasy, as much as any paranoid conspiracy theory. They were not in control — in fact, Julian Huxley, who briefly rose to be director of UNESCO, was a neurotic who was repeatedly sectioned for bipolar episodes. And as for mind control and Satanic rituals…that was part of the paranoid outsiders’ fevered imaginations. They were staring through the fence, trying to guess what the insiders were doing. They got some things right and some things way off.

The idea of an all-powerful demon-worshipping superhuman elite controlling the world is an illusion. On the other hand, the fact that some people have much more power and money than others, and use that power to define others as lesser humans, then treat them as disposable raw material for their own fantasies…unfortunately that is often all too true.

Read Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency, for a guide to navigating our collective spiritual crisis.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open www.philosophyforlife.org

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