Jeremy Corbyn and the Contagion of Conspiracy Theories
British MP Jeremy Corbyn, who is favored to become leader of the Labour Party, has an older brother. Piers Corbyn is a shaggy, mad-scientist version of his better-known sibling. Early on, he, too, was a Labour Party activist, but Piers has spent most of his life examining weather and climate patterns. He owns a business called WeatherAction, which uses a proprietary method to generate weather forecasts.
Piers Corbyn is also a zealous conspiracy theorist. His Twitter timeline is a storm path littered with the debris of conspiracist concerns: Israeli brutality, 9/11 Truth, “chemtrails,” HAARP and an abiding obsession with what he perceives to be the “Nazi” fraud of global warming. He pursues the latter on his Web site at length. He has appeared on The Alex Jones Show to promote his point of view.
Scholars have shown that belief in one conspiracy theory correlates to belief in others, even contradictory ones. That’s because conspiracism is a worldview, a method of analysis reinforcing a particular set of beliefs, rather than mere credence in one theory or another. This helps explain the breadth and familiarity of Piers Corbyn’s paranoia, which ranges from supposed efforts by rogue scientists and government officials to control and misrepresent climate and weather, to what might be termed the uber-conspiracy, antisemitism — in Piers’ case, rage against child-murdering, “apartheid” Israel.
During his recent campaign, Jeremy Corbyn has been attacked for a range of unsavory associations. Citing the need to talk to those with reprehensible views in order to advance peace, he has reached out to genocidal groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, referring to them as “friends.” He declared the Arab-Israeli spiritual leader Raed Salah, who has promoted the blood libel and Jewish culpability for the 9/11 attacks, a “very honoured citizen” and invited him to have “[deserved]” tea at the House of Commons. Perhaps worst of all, he has been drawn to and defended figures like Holocaust denier Paul Eisen and Reverend Stephen Sizer, anti-Jewish cranks who have no political relevance that might help resolve conflict.
Yet most observers, including me, don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite. He has unequivocally denounced antisemitism and its more pernicious products, such as blood libels and Holocaust denial, and plausibly presented himself as staunchly anti-racist. Nonetheless, he has consorted with a range of antisemites.
What can explain this apparent contradiction?
Properly understood, antisemitism is a conspiracy theory. It envisions the Jews as an evil elite who seek to enslave and exploit the world. It is an unusual form of racism, which — like all conspiracy theories — proposes a battle between peoples of darkness and light. The former, the Jews, are — depending on the religiosity of the conspiracist –implicitly or explicitly cast as agents of the Devil. The latter, the non-Jewish masses, are the incognizant oppressed who need to be enlightened by antisemites.
Antisemitism is based on a prototype that contributes to the anatomy of all conspiracy theories. A malevolent secret society oppresses the masses in order to empower and enrich itself at their expense; it spreads false consciousness to ensure docility and compliance; and it is opposed by an enlightened few, charged with breaking the cycle of enslavement and restoring justice.
Each of Piers Corbyn’s expressed concerns follows this pattern. For example, HAARP conspiracy theories blame the U.S. government for masquerading the facility as a station for legitimate scientific research, when instead it triggers deadly natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, while the U.S. pursues weapons and mind-control technology. Mavericks like Piers Corbyn are left to transmit via the Internet and the lecture circuit a sort of samizdat about HAARP and related plots involving “chemtrails” and global warming.
Conspiracy theories are most significant for reflecting pre-established conclusions about the malevolence of history and the hidden hand that drives it. Their theoretical model can thus be applied equally well in Jewish, quasi-Jewish (Israel-related) and non-Jewish contexts. This leads to a curious and confusing outcome: conspiracy theorists who reject antisemitism nevertheless apply the framework of antisemitism — i.e. of conspiracy theory — to their analysis of politics. Regardless of their intent, such people are often functionally antisemitic.
Scholars have characterized conspiracist thought as a “monological belief system.” By this they mean that in terms of reasoning, conspiracism is circular. The computer scientist Ben Goertzel described monological belief as having no dialogue with its context; it comprises a self-nourishing set of ideas that cite each other as proof and justification of the conspiracist worldview. It is therefore seductive and resistant to refutation. Yet conspiracy theories don’t merely multiply in an individual; as one might expect, they jump from person to person to create conspiracist environments. For this reason, they are analogous to virulent memes.
Conspiracy theories plague society. Because of their moral certainty, they naturally become a motivating element of radical politics, whose adherents seek with revolutionary fervor to uproot the causes of social injustice. Precincts on the far-Left and Right serve as sanatoriums for the highest concentration of conspiracists.
It is in this light that we can begin to explain Jeremy Corbyn’s propinquity to antisemites. His brother, Piers, is a demonstrated conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy theories self-nourish in the individual, thrive and develop into conspiracism. They are contagious. For the Corbyns, they are a family affair.
Jeremy Corbyn has spent his career on the far-Left of British politics. He has associated with and provided leadership to groups such as the Socialist Campaign Group, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He has chaired the largely Trotskyist Stop the War Coalition since 2001. These are radical milieus in which cartoonish certainties about the malice of warmongers, plutocrats and Israelis – and the saintly, or at least sanitary, morality of their victims – prevail.
Jeremy Corbyn need not be overtly or even consciously anti-Semitic to apply the “cabalistic paradigm.” He need only presuppose that history is a passion play between haves and have nots, and that certain analytical principles light the path to social justice. At the time of Osama bin Laden’s killing, Corbyn participated in a roundtable on Iranian state television, calling it a “tragedy” and suggesting that the American government had covered up what really happened. “Why the burial at sea – if there was indeed a burial at sea – and if it was [indeed] Bin Laden?”
It is no wonder then that Corbyn would ally with anti-Semites. He has a fundamental affinity for them – not for their specific views, but for their worldview. He attracts them both wittingly and unwittingly. Last October, he invited Max Blumenthal to Parliament to describe how scenes in Israel were beginning to resemble Kristallnacht – and James Thring, an actual neo-Nazi and ally of David Duke, showed up to kick off the event.
In this time of political anxiety, as violent anti-Semitism spreads in Europe, chaos blooms throughout the Middle East, and nuclear capability looms in Iran, we would do well to reflect on a terrible historical truth: conspiracy theory is bad for the Jews.