The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The New World Order. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. And now, Glenn Beck’s attack on George Soros as the mastermind who seeks to take over the United States by creating a shadow cabinet, gaining control of the media, destabilizing the government, manufacturing an election crisis, and, finally, encouraging duped citizens to take to the streets.
It’s not surprising that the the mid-term elections have brought with them new intimations of elite conspiracies to control America’s minds as well as her economy. At times such as these, Noam Chomsky continues to be one of my touchstones. His greatest virtue as a social analyst, in my view, is his ability to explain the structure and actions of elite control without appealing to shadowy conspiracies. In his 1987 book, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures, he sketches a simple framework for understanding U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean:
The first principle is that U.S. foreign policy is designed to create and maintain an international order in which U.S.-based business can prosper, a world of “open societies,” meaning societies that are open to profitable investment, to expansion of export markets and transfer of capital, and to exploitation of material and human resources on the part of U.S. corporations and their local affiliates. …
A second and related principle is that an ideological system must be constructed to ensure that the population remains passive, ignorant and apathetic, and that none of these matters are understood among the educated, articulate and politically active classes in the United States or, indeed, in the world in general.
What’s interesting about this ideological system is that it has no architect, there is no cabal of puppet masters writing its secret constitution and taking a blood oath to uphold it. The system is “constructed” by human actors—sometimes acting individually, sometimes collectively—who take advantage of their power, wealth, and relationships in predictable ways to maintain their status. No other motive force is needed. The ideological system that Chomsky alludes to is simply an emergent property of the complex whole that’s the sum of all these actions. As it begins to take shape, it’s reinforced by the elites who explicitly or implicitly understand its value in maintaining elite control.
The ravings of Glenn Beck are unremarkable, coming as they do from the unofficial propagandist news organ of the conservative movement in the United States, owned by a man who has himself been accused of attempting to buy control of the American mind. While conservatives made gains in the midterm elections, they’re still smarting from the Democratic rout in 2008. There’s bound to be some plaintive grunting when one set of elites nudges another away from the trough.
We’re in little danger of secret societies overthrowing the United States government. The far greater danger lies in our failing to understand that left- or right-wing conspiracies are an explanatory extravagance; that the keys to social change are simultaneously simpler and more complex than many of us realize.