One of the problems we face in the war against terror is that al-Qaeda is not quite a conspiracy in the traditional sense. It’s something else that is more difficult to characterize and target.
(I wrote what follows three years before 9/11.)
Political and occult conspiracy theories can make for good propaganda and excellent satire (videIlluminatus! or any of half a dozen other examples). As guides to action, however, they are generally dangerously misleading.
Misleading, because they assume more capacity for large groups to keep secrets and maintain absolutely unitary conscious policies than human beings in groups actually seem to possess. The history of documented “conspiracies” and failed attempts at same is very revealing in this regard — above a certain fairly small size, somebody always blows the gaff. This is why successful terrorist organizations are invariably quite small.
Dangerously misleading because conspiracy theories, offering the easy drama of a small group of conscious villains, distract our attention from a subtler but much more pervasive phenomenon — one I shall label the “prospiracy”.
What distinguishes prospiracies from conspiracies is that the members don’t necessarily know they are members, nor are they fully conscious of what binds them together. Prospiracies are not created through oaths sworn by guttering torchlight, but by shared ideology or institutional culture. In many cases, members accept the prospiracy’s goals and values without thinking through their consequences as fully as they might if the process of joining were formal and initiatory.
What makes a prospiracy like a conspiracy and distinguishes it from a mere subcultural group? The presence of a “secret doctrine” or shared goals which its core members admit among themselves but not to perceived outsiders; commonly, a goal which is stronger than the publicly declared purpose of the group, or irrelevant to that declared purpose but associated with it in some contingent (usually historical) way.
On the other hand, a prospiracy is unlike a conspiracy in that it lacks well-defined lines of authority. Its leaders wield influence over the other members, but seldom actual power. It also lacks a clear-cut distinction between “ins” and “outs”.
Prospiracy scales better than conspiracy, and thus can be far more dangerous. Because anyone can join simply by buying the “secret” doctrine, people frequently recruit themselves. Because the “secret” isn’t written on stone tablets in an inner sanctum, it’s totally deniable. In fact, members sometimes deny it to themselves (not that that ultimately matters). What keeps a prospiracy together is not conscious commitment but the memetic logic of its positions.
As an exercise (and to avoid any appearance of axe-grinding), I’ll leave the reader to apply this model for his or herself. There are plenty of juicy examples out there. I’m a “member” of at least two of them myself.