The Conspiratorial Character of Political Life
Here’s a question: Can American political life be understood without referring to conspiracies? A more general question is: Can political life itself be understood without reference to conspiracies? I think the answer to both questions is “No.” Conspiracies are central to political life in general and to American political life in particular.
Regarding American political life, it cannot be understood without taking a conspiratorial view of, say, the assassination of JFK, as well as others. If that assassination was not the result of a conspiracy, i.e., was not planned for by persons for political purposes, then it was nothing more a random event, almost as if it were a traffic accident. And that’s how many Americans want to think about it. JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, moving separately, ultimately met in Dallas, where they “ran into each other,” and JFK ended up dead. This is what “the lone gunman theory” of that crime meant and means. And it is a comforting theory, more comforting than if JFK was assassinated by the CIA, the Soviets, or Cubans who were protecting Castro from Kennedy’s attempts to have him assassinated. Such explanations are similar to those used to account for, say, the Vietnam War, which is said to have been “a quagmire” into which the US was dragged, almost against its will.
One reason such explanations are popular is because we Americans don’t want to think that not only are conspiracies a permanent part of political life, but that they often control our political life. We prefer to think that our political life is controlled by laws, elections, Supreme Court decisions, and outstanding individuals, e.g., “great presidents.” To think that conspiracies are key to determining our political life would require us to rethink things we take for granted as “common sense” or “conventional wisdom.” This would be a major task; one most people have no desire to undertake. Hence, they are quite content to think of “conspiracy theorists” as delusional, paranoid persons who live in fantasy worlds of their own creation. But it could be that in fact it is the rest of us who are living in a fantasy world, although not of our own making.
Aristotle wrote about political life as characterized by what he called “regimes.” That is, there are democratic regimes, oligarchic regimes, monarchical regimes, aristocratic regimes, and tyrannical regimes. These regimes are arrangements of power that reflect “the values” – as we say – of the most powerful. Democratic regimes rest on democratic values, values which are embraced by and motivate those who have them. So, democrats seek to maintain and fortify their democracy, and act in ways to accomplish that end. You may say that democrats will join together, act conspiratorially to maintain and fortify their democracy, whereas oligarchs will do the same. To see political life in terms of regimes is to see political life in terms of conspiracies. Machiavelli, famous as a conspiracy theorist, knew nothing about conspiracies that Aristotle didn’t know too. For both, conspiracies were the stuff of political life. Regimes can only be preserved or subverted by way of conspiracies, as Aristotle’s Politics and Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses make clear.
Most Americans don’t think about political life in terms of regimes, as did Aristotle. Even Machiavelli downplayed their importance, without ever downplaying the centrality of conspiracies in political life. This points to the differences between Aristotle’s political teaching and Machiavelli’s political teaching. Whereas political life was animated by conflicting ideas of justice for Aristotle, for Machiavelli political life was animated by psychological forces – as we say – by different types of human beings that are not best described in political terms. For Machiavelli, there are essentially the ambitious few and the insecure many, rather than there being democrats, oligarchs, aristocrats, or tyrants. Machiavelli redefined political life by minimizing or rejecting concerns about justice as central. Questions of justice and injustice are, for Machiavelli, ultimately irrelevant when understanding or constructing republics or princedoms. For Machiavelli, the best political order is not defined as the most just political order, as it was for Aristotle; rather it is the most secure, the most stable, the most prosperous, the most powerful, and the one that secures “the general welfare” and does so over time, “for ourselves and our posterity.”
Despite these differences, however, Aristotle, like Machiavelli, saw political life as essentially conspiratorial. Democrats want a regime that is just as democrats understand justice, that is, as essentially egalitarian. But to achieve that goal, democrats join forces, conspiring against the oligarchs, the aristocrats, the monarchists, and the tyrants, while the latter are conspiring against the democrats. Appeals to justice are made. But the character of political life is not determined in the final analysis by such appeals. Rather, the character of political life, the character of any regime, is determined by conspiracies, i.e., covert and overt actions meant to secure and fortify the prevailing arrangements of power, whether democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic, monarchic, tyrannical. Because all arrangements of power are partial, all are unjust in some ways. Hence, all are unstable, even open to subversion. Democrats, oligarchs, aristocrats, monarchists, even tyrants must join forces, i.e., conspire to preserve their rule, their regime. And even the best regime, as Aristotle’s account of it in his Politics illustrates, would need to conspire to preserve itself.