Conspiracy or Tacit Understanding

By | March 4, 2015

There is something of a conspiracy about conspiracies. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is self-evidently a device employed by the wealthy/powerful/privileged to rubbish critiques of the advantages they enjoy, critiques that – sometimes, not always – err on the side of simplicity. Of course simplicity can be a plus for polemics while being a minus for scholarship. But what credence should be given to theories around conspiracy in the context of what I at least see as a class hegemony underpinned by neo-liberal ideology in the present phase of financial capitalism?

The principal point I want to make in this skimpy blog is that the UK’s governing oligarchy (that assembly driven by (the 0.1%) of hard-core capitalists and enacted/rationalized/legitimized by the power elite at the apex the state) has little need to conspire. Only when what Habermas in the mi-1970s perspicaciously termed a ‘legitimation crisis’ occurs does the need to conspire arise; and even the financial crisis imposed on the globe by western ‘banksters’ in 2007-8 did not precipitate such a crisis.

It would be extraordinarily naïve, as well as prima facie evidence of the effectiveness of ideology, to rule conspiracy theories out of court. When push comes to shove and the status quo is threatened – history, anthropology and sociology all tell us – the wealthy/powerful/privileged readily conspire.

But there are invariably divisions between those comprising the wealthy/powerful/privileged, even if these are more superficial than those between them and ‘the rest’. So attempts to conspire can be stillborn. Conspiracy, like ideology, is not always effective. Conspiracy does not always pan out to putative conspirers’ advantage, for all that the cards are typically stacked in their favour.

The default position of the UK’s governing oligarchy is (1) to rubbish conspiracy theory and (2) if necessary to conspire; but they are yet to be troubled enough to conspire.

It is an oligarchy with what C Wright Mills (writing of the US ‘power elite’ of the 1950s) called a ‘tacit understanding’. For all the ‘superficial’ divisions within their ranks, and notwithstanding the levels of animosity found and reported amongst financiers, rentiers, business folk, the cabinet, aspiring career politicians and so on, they have ‘bottom-line’ material interests in common and are bound together via social and cultural capital. They ‘see the world’ in the same way. Why would they not, given their predominant birthrights, schooling, networks of exclusion and ‘gifts’ of patronage and co-optation?

What this amounts to is an affirmation of the neo-liberal rationalisation of the interests of today’s globe trotting financial capitalists. In the absence of a legitimation crisis there is simply no need for them to conspire. Okay, financial capitalism is a time-constrained phase of capitalism that is in the process of apprenticing its once-third-world (Chinese, Indian) gravediggers; but there is plenty of life in it yet.

Scholarship suggests a reference to tacit understanding rather than conspiracy. But we should not be misled into scorning the capacity of the – wealth-purchases-the political power-to execute-its will – governing oligarchy to conspire.

Maybe I should add that (a) many non-class structures facilitate conspiracies, and (b) that many of our ordinary everyday (‘mundane’) interactions are also conspiratorial (often beyond our ken) (see my blog on ‘as if’ reasoning). But I am contending here that C Wright Mills’ characteristically shrewd concept of ‘tacit understanding’ has more sociological applicability and mileage – that is, between conspiracies – than that of conspiracy!




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