Billions of people live on Earth, nearly all of whom are united in trying to make good of the utterly bankrupt political system that dominates their lives. So in a world where the economic demands of a tiny elite regularly trump the living needs of the majority, ordinary people will always yearn for ideas to help them make sense of daily injustices that take place: this much is obvious. Nevertheless, all too often people have become isolated from the type of mass-based political organizations that might act to promote democratic solutions to their serious concerns. Under such circumstances, it makes sense that some people will grasp at the ideological comfort provided by conspiracy theories to understand the world around them; with many individuals gravitating towards the type of explanatory frameworks that are able to point the finger at the evil plots hatched by “all-powerful” nefarious elites.
Conspiracies, as-a-rule of thumb, also tend to ignore or diminish the political significance of the millions of acts of collective resistance that have and continue to be made by ordinary people in the fight for a better world. This latter point is important in contributing towards the maintenance of an unjust status quo. Moreover such conspiratorial turns tend to be welcomed by ruling capitalist elites, who prefer a populous that is misinformed about (1) the overstated power of certain evil individuals to carry through their heinous deeds, and (2) the alleged powerlessness of ordinary people. By contrast, socialist ideas arguably provide the most suitable way of firstly comprehending why inequality and exploitation remain so rife, and secondly, figuring out how our class (the working-class) can collectively respond to the ruling-classes daily intrigues. This is why proponents of socialist ideas are so maligned by capitalist politicians and their willing cronies.
It is a rare day indeed that the daily positive outcomes of working-class struggle are portrayed favourably (if at all) by Hollywood or in the mainstream media. One powerful antidote to this systematic erasure of ordinary people from our own history is Scott Noble’s documentary series Plutocracy: Class War (2015-2017) – which can be viewed online. Another similar historical film that reveals the warts-and-all of our mis-rulers is Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States (2012). Stone’s own well-funded and publicized efforts having likely reached a somewhat larger audience than Noble’s inspiring and largely underfunded work. The critical difference between these two documentaries projects however is that Noble worked on a shoestring budget to present history from the perspective of ordinary people (following in the tradition of historians like Howard Zinn), while Stone’s middle-class predilections led him to present a less empowering, but still informative, “big man” rendition of the dynamics of progressive social change.
Stone himself is of course is a longstanding critic of the machinations of America’s bloodthirsty elite, and his best-film to date in this regard was Salvador (1986) which depicted the grim realities of the murderous US-backed civil war that was then going on in El Savador. Likewise his recent film, Snowden (2016) does a great service to society by exposing the undemocratic surveillance apparatus that over many years has been constructed by elites to service their own interests. But Stone is by no means perfect, and legitimate criticisms of his politics should be made, especially because of the way in which parts of his work has helped to legitimize a conspiratorial outlook in the broader public’s mind.
On this front I should make it clear from the start, that it is the secretive bent of the US government, combined with the mainstream media’s relentless promotion of conspiracies, which should ultimately be held to blame for the popularizing of all manner of conspiratorial disinformation. That said, Stone’s breath-taking blockbuster film JFK (1991) although certainly being very entertaining, gave a good helping hand to the evolution to what might be called a “deep state” worldview amongst his global audience. Stone’s intention may well have been to simply shine a critical light on an important historical controversy — which he achieved – but we should bear in mind that in doing so, other less progressive-minded individuals who were involved with the films production were also able to promote their own less democratic agendas. For example, one of the key advisors to the production of JFK was Fletcher Prouty (the model for the film’s character ‘Mr. X’) who then used the release of the film to promote his own right-wing conspiracies that sought to draw a clear line between “deep state” covert operations and his own virulent anti-Semitism.
In writing the script for JFK, Stone also openly drew inspiration from Jim Marrs popular book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy (1989). This relationship is worth reflecting upon because after JFK was released Marrs devoted the rest of his life to an unhealthy obsession with popularizing all manner of whacky conspiracies — publishing a deluge of best-selling books with mainstream publishers on the existence of UFOs and aliens. Marrs last book, published shortly before his death in August this year, was titled The Illuminati: The Secret Society That Hijacked the World (2017). In this book, Marrs wrote that “the curtains of Illuminati secrecy parted somewhat in 2009, when TrineDay published a book… [that] presented what well may be the most thorough and authoritative overview of the Order yet produced.”
For those in the dark about the activities of TrineDay, it should be noted that this independent publisher was launched in 2002 to publish the back-catalogue of one of the godfathers of the right-wing conspiracy theory movement, Antony C. Sutton. Of more relevance to this essay though, TrineDay recently published a book written by Oliver Stone’s eldest son, Sean Stone, which, recycled various conspiracy theories from the likes of Sutton and Lyndon LaRouche, and was published in 2016 as New World Order: A Strategy of Imperialism. Marrs, like Sutton and Sean Stone, holds firmly to the reactionary belief that social change is so manipulated by ruling-class elites that even the Russian Revolution of 1917 was orchestrated by Wall Street financiers!
In stark contrast to his son and his conspiratorial friends, Oliver Stone has a basic understanding of history and the contributions made by ordinary people striving to create a better world. Thus in the first episode of his Untold History documentary, Stone lays out the non-conspiratorial reasons for the development of the Russian Revolution, and lays bare the furious and murderous response of international elites (including the US) to the revolution’s success. But while Oliver Stone’s understanding of how progressive social change happens is a million times better than his sons, Oliver has not been immune from promoting his own conspiratorial narratives about elite manipulation of revolutionary uprisings. And in this respect Oliver’s projection of the recent popular struggles in Ukraine as being made in the USA fall neatly into line with the misplaced views of many in the employ of Putin’s international media outlet Russia Today (RT) which includes his own conspiratorially-minded son, Sean, who happens to co-host his own RT show focused on criticizing US foreign policy.
Oliver Stone’s failed attempt to capture any semblance of truth within his latest documentary Ukraine on Fire (2016) seems to have been led astray by the problems of his own “big man” approach to history, which leads him to focus on the very real conspiracies of the super-rich and their intelligence agencies while overlooking the influence of the grassroots struggles of ordinary people. Hence in Stone’s view the Ukrainian people are unwitting stooges of a well-planned foreign intervention which was cunningly masterminded by American elites and carried through by violent gangs of Ukrainian fascists and neo-nazis.
Other similarly floored documentaries that have been criticized for their misrepresentation of the democratic opposition movement in the Ukraine as fascists include the French production Ukraine: the Masks of the Revolution (2016), and the earlier, more infamous, pro-Putin documentary Barkhat.ru (2007) which in a similar way vilified the democratic opposition movement that rose up in 2004 during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The latter film was produced by the vicious state propagandist Arkadii Mamontov and featured an interview with the conspiratorial western “journalist” F. William Engdahl – a man who seems to believe all democratic uprisings are fermented by all-powerful elites. While, Stone’s film featured its own western source, Robert Parry, who, in contrast to Engdahl, has well-established credentials in America as a progressive journalist. That said, in recent years, Parry, seems to have become overawed by the increasingly powerful propaganda function served by his own country’s media. This in turn has meant Parry has adopted a more conspiratorial view of his own government’s global meddling in the Ukraine, which sadly, has seen his analyses on this subject matter fall more into line with the likes of Engdahl than with legitimate historians.
Yes it is true that western governments, most prominently the United States, has a long history of manipulating the outcomes of revolutionary uprisings with some notable successes. But this is not to say that journalists should then besmirch such upheavals as being merely destabilization campaigns funded by foreign elites, or as being orchestrated by fascists in alliance with foreign intelligence agencies. This is a topic that I am very familiar with, as the best-part of my own doctoral studies were dedicated to documenting the anti-democratic manner in which US elites like CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have intervened abroad to promote their own capitalist interests.
The thrust of my writing on this subject however was not to suggest that elites can manufacture fake revolutions to serve American foreign policy objectives. Instead I merely illustrated how foreign donors (with vast resources to hand) can provide selective support to groups and individuals which can help to prevent popular uprisings from taking more radical political turns, like for example, away from capitalism itself. This is no shocking revelation in itself, as elites all over the world have always acted like this (the more intelligent ones anyway). This matter is taken up in my book Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017) which examined how, over the past hundred years or so, such elite interventions have undermined progressive struggles for social change in America and abroad. Again such criticisms are really nothing new, but because these matters remain largely undiscussed on the liberal left, the political arena for ongoing conversations about this subject has been dominated by far right-wing forces within society – a history of reaction that is well-told in the timely book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservativism (2016).
Public discussion relating to the detrimental impact of the financial interventions of liberal elites has therefore become monopolized by right-wing conspiracy theorists like the John Birch Society, or more recently by popular “news” outlets, like Fox News, Breitbart and InfoWars. Hence when writers on the Left attempt to highlight the same concerns but from a socialist or progressive perspective it is an almost knee-jerk reaction of the liberal intelligentsia (and their fellow journalists) to act with revulsion at such allegedly conspiratorial revelations. In this way both left and right-wing critics of elite philanthropy are often roundly dismissed and lumped together as proponents of conspiracy theories (true in one case, not in the other). Certainly this is the negative reaction that I have come across at times. This is problematic because ironically it is this very act of exclusion that may sometimes encourage independent progressive-minded critics of Empire towards making unfortunate intellectual alliances with others on the Right of the political spectrum who are willing to engage with their arguments.
For the cardinal sin of publishing a series of articles that criticized the imperialist activities of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the groups that work uncritically alongside the Endowment, I have unfortunately been dismissed by some ostensibly progressive commentators as a conspiracy theorist. A relevant example here is provided by my articles exposing the NED’s anti-democratic modus operandi in the Ukraine. Here the first article I wrote that dealt with the Orange Revolution of 2004 was published on Znet in 2006 as “Regulating Revolutions in Eastern Europe” (which was part II of a four part series of articles based on a conference paper that I delivered at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference).
Nowhere in my Znet article did I suggest that the Ukrainian uprising was simply orchestrated by the west, an argument that is regularly made by conservative conspiracy theorists. Instead I observed that the revolutionary anger that erupted in the Ukraine had its roots in a long history of electoral fraud and the extreme poverty that had come to define life in the country for ordinary people. However, I also drew attention to the millions of dollars of US aid that had been provided to opposition groups in the Ukraine in the run-up to the uprising, making the argument that this money had been distributed in an attempt to indirectly regulate the processes of social change to help ensure that a US-friendly elite would come to power in the event of any popular uprisings. Nevertheless despite my nuanced approach to this issue, in 2010 the editor of a popular liberal blog chose to write an article about the Ukrainian uprising citing my article as a prime example of the type of conspiracy theorizing that must be avoided (Eric Stoner, “The end of the Orange Revolution,” Waging Nonviolence, February 9, 2010).
Given time constraints, I only got around to writing a response to these unfounded accusations the following year, and in doing so I updated some of my criticisms about the nature of elite interventions in the Ukraine (this response was published online as “Capitalising on Nonviolence”). But sadly my rebuttal to my critics did not stem the continuing criticisms of my work. And in relation to my same initial Znet article, in late 2013 I was once again smeared as a conspiracy theorist: this time by the liberal anti-war activist Professor Stephen Zunes whose offending article had been republished on the web of the Real News Network. Fortunately the Real News Network let me publish my own online response to the professor, wherein I highlighted the imperialist intentions of Zunes’ own so-called peace associates (as I had already done on a number of previous occasions) and emphasized, once again, that I was not denying that the popular uprising was genuine. As I pointed out, all I was only trying to do was warn of the insidious way that well-funded elites try to intervene in revolutionary movements to undermine them. This led me to conclude with some exasperation:
“Sadly such reflections upon the troublesome relationship between imperialists and many well-meaning advocates of nonviolence has not been an issue that has been engaged with any vigour among many on the Liberal left — which is problematic to say the least. Nevertheless it is perfectly understandable why the ruling-class should seek to manipulate and intervene within progressive social movements, which makes it all the important that we discuss what actions we can take to protect our movements from such unwanted interventions.”
Of course reactionary conspiracy theories about social change are highly regressive, and certainly we do need to limit the spread of such confusing and disempowering ideas, especially when they are propagated through progressive media outlets. Here we might bear in mind the role played by the Real News Network themselves who unwittingly helped build up the credibility of leading “regime change” conspiracy theorist, F. William Engdahl, by publishing his articles on their web site over a four year period (between 2008 and 2012).
Similarly in the wake of the 2014 uprisings in the Ukraine, the Real News Network should also think carefully about why they chose to run an interview with Robert Parry with the conspiratorial title “Did the U.S. carry out a Ukrainian coup?” (March 4, 2014). Within this interview, Parry belittles the genuine democratic concerns of those involved in the mass uprising, saying that this latest revolutionary upsurge was in actual fact just a “coup d’état [sponsored by the US] that was spearheaded by neo-Nazi militias…” This troublesome and sickening misanalysis of Ukrainian events simply defies belief. No-one should doubt that US elites like the CIA and the NED intervened in the Ukraine (as they do all over the world), but the protests were genuine, not a creation of US elites and their funding agencies. So Parry was wrong yet again the following year when he asserted on his web site that the US “Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs ‘Toria’ Nuland was the ‘mastermind’ behind the Feb. 22, 2014 ‘regime change’ in Ukraine…” The substitution of such conspiratorial nonsense as a progressive alternative to the even more nonsensical output of the mainstream media is inexcusable. Instead what is needed is a genuine class-based analysis of Ukrainian affairs, perhaps following the lead of the journalism produced by the revolutionary socialist organization of which I have been a member since 2011.