Just as some restaurants have a wall filled with signed headshots of actors or sports celebrities who once ate there, the lobby of the Hotel de Bilderberg is lined with back-lit photo-portraits of its famous guests. Henry Kissinger looks curiously ill at ease in the central place in a triptych, flanked by two men in more conventionally self-assured poses. Paul C. Rijkens, the founding chairman of Unilever (and the Bilderberg Group) is on his right, and David Rockefeller is on his left. If they are the architects of a secretive, all-powerful new world order, no effort has been made to conceal the post-war coordination of banking, industrial corporations, and superpower politics; one of the bookable meeting spaces is even called the ‘House of Influence’. The Bilderberg Group is both a real programme of political coordination and one of the better-known shorthands for the secret cabal thought to be controlling world affairs. Its associations aside, the hotel is open for business, so it is surprising that we were the first group of academics to choose the Hotel de Bilderberg as a venue to discuss conspiracy theories.
I chose to walk from the station, arriving late in the day on an April afternoon just as the hot weather set in. Oosterbeek is a picture of European success, and the rewards of that success. We’re not unused to wealth in the UK, but what struck me was the consistency of the grand houses, placed behind cultivated lawns, whose tall bay windows were untroubled by peeling paint and provided views into rooms sparsely furnished with bookshelves, objets d’art, and wide doorways into other immaculately proportioned rooms. This may be the result of living in the South West, where the distribution of housing and wealth is so uneven. There are always closed shops within easy walking distance. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, like Wales, was designated a ‘less developed’ region and received considerable Objective 1 funding from the European Union, which underwrote developments such as the Eden Project, the Combined Universities in Cornwall project, and infrastructure project; also like Wales, it voted by a definite margin to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. This investment evidently wasn’t enough to win people over, though its withdrawal will be keenly felt. There was bitter laughter in the national press when Cornwall Council asked for ‘urgent confirmation’ that European funding would continue after the referendum result; it seems that the peripheries, while distrusting the Benelux heart of European political rule, also took its largesse for granted. What have the Europeans ever done for us (apart from build roads, fund educational projects, support regeneration, etc.)?
Perhaps it is on the outer edges of the European project that it is easiest to forget that we were part of it, not territories at risk of colonisation. Once, during the heady optimism of New Labour before 2003, Britain felt like a force for cosmopolitan politics. I was living in Lisbon in October 2001 when Tony Blair gave his speech in favour of European integration at the Warsaw stock exchange, signalling the UK’s push for EU expansion and with it, Poland’s membership following a referendum in 2004. This struck my partner, who is Polish, and me as entirely good news. For us, it suggested that eventually we would no longer have to spend entire days queueing and being processed at the Portuguese immigration office. Cornwall, Lisbon, Warsaw; these three points of a triangle were all removed from the heartlands of European politics, but became coordinated through common market membership and fredom of movement, though in none of these countries has integration been straightforward. This personal history of hovering around the edges explains in part why Oosterbeek felt so odd. Its pristine accomplishments, like any achievement with utopian accents, implied displacements. Without any coast, or border posts marking a line between it and beyond, the self-assurance of this affluent suburb seemed a little precarious and complacent. Forests of carbon-fibre bikes were parked in rows beside the filled terraces of restaurants and cafés that lined the roads leading out of town (I was nearly at the hotel). Riders at leisure in harlequin shirts awaited refreshment. The only persons I saw of any colour other than the flushed pink of good health were among the young staff who served in immaculate livery. I reached the hotel finding it all a bit unreal, a social tableau managed a little too effectively while edges were fraying. In England, less diverse regions (such as my own) are alarmed by reports of schools elsewhere that are overrun with children who do not speak English, or of indigenous cultures being eroded by immigration. The southern coasts are chaotic and the Brexit campaign made full use of these fears. When those fears are at made visible—think of Nigel Farage in front of a poster of refugees—but downplayed by those with more wealth and power than a majority of voters, the stage is set for questions of race and culture to be presented conspiratorially, as a hostile force that is officially denied but secretly encouraged by metropolitan elites, here and in the major European capitals.
By treating the EU as a foreign power, and the Polish and Ukrainian and Romanian travellers who come to work and settle in Britain as unwelcome, we imagine ourselves to be conspired against from without and within. Invasion fiction, a genre that flourished in the final decades of the nineteenth century and until the start of World War One (when its predictions were no longer speculative), gave narrative expression to this unease. Britain was threatened by her enemies abroad and by cosmopolitanism at home. A treacherous foreigner, or even a corrupted member of the aristocracy, was always ready to open the gates in these immensely popular fictions, and the popular imagination. When a tunnel under the Channel was first proposed in 1882, the signatories to a letter petitioning against it on security grounds included Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, T. H. Huxley, Cardinal Newman, Herbert Spencer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, several journal editors, five dukes, 10 earls, 26 MPs, 17 admirals, and 59 generals. The invading army would be aided and abetted, it was thought, by the many French nationals living in the south east of England.
Conspiracy culture is most often studied as an aberration of knowledge, but the conspiracy theorist has a lot in common with the academic, especially of disciplines that are energised by the aura of the arcane and stimulated by impulses to unmask and reveal. Luc Boltanski writes that, like detective and spy fiction, ‘Sociology constantly tests the reality of reality, or, to put it another way, it challenges apparent reality and seeks to reach a reality that is more hidden, more profound and more real.’ Literary analysis likewise practises what Paul Ricoeur referred to as the ‘hermeneutics of suspicions,’ a phrase that prompts Rita Felski in her latest book (The Limits of Critique), to wonder what might succeed the scholar’s habitual determination to read ‘against the grain and between the lines’. The critic (alongside the art historian, psychoanalyst, and detective) has long been ready to ‘pounce on the insignificant trace as the gateway to a hidden reality’. With my own inclination towards discovery and revelation, I imagined the Bilderberg hotel having locked doors and subterranean levels, but there are more prosaic elements of a secret history here. The Bilderberg Group were part of a post-war strategy of resisting socialism, another part of which was the formation of the ECHR and the protection of individual, not collective rights. It’s ironic that the institutions of European integration and their potential dissolution have been driven by Atlanticist plotting. That word ‘plotting’ is perhaps too suggestive of secrecy; I was greeted in the hotel lobby by Kissinger, Rijkens, and Rockefeller after all. The Bilderberg Group has a website.
Committed conspiracy theorists tackle the puzzle of why a secret group should operate and deliberately leave clues in plain sight with byzantine arguments. I went to a terraced cottage in Redruth, west Cornwall, in April 2017 to meet Dean, who told me stories of magic and evil for two uninterrupted hours. I had been trying to arrange an interview with a famously reclusive music producer, with a view to talking about sound and paranoia. When one of his friends and gatekeepers suggested I meet with Dean, it occurred to me that this might be an initiation and test of my commitment. This was not the case. The house was cramped already, and further reduced by a profusion of belongings and boxes piled high in the hallway and every room. Daniel Pipes describes the theorist of conspiracy’s method as auto-didactic and heterogeneous, with a knack for building ‘huge edifices out of odd and unrelated items’. Collecting, pattern-seeking, are styles of thought and housekeeping. There is a standard scene in the crime drama where the ordinary cops enter the secret HQ of their fixated colleague and discover a nest of documents and photographs, manically connected with threads and arrows around the walls.
I was offered coffee but had to remind my host twice that the kettle had boiled, so relentless was the torrent of secrets, and while he talked and the cup of coffee cooled beside him, I eventually told him I would prefer to drink it before it got any colder. This visit took place shortly after the car and knife attacks outside the Palace of Westminster, so this was our entry point, from a cramped kitchen covered in empty cat-food tins, into a web of interconnected theories. The attacks in London and the US airstrikes on Syria, were symptoms of the turbulence brought about by a rising Aries Moon, and would be become worse. Dean pointed out how obvious the clues were. The attack had taken place on the 22nd of March (22.3) at 22 minutes to 3. Case closed. I asked him the obvious question when numerology is perceived in the organisation of historical events: Why take this trouble? Dean explained that a regime of karmic balancing operates when secret societies make these public incursions. They need to let us know that they are responsible, and that they know that we know and can do nothing, and by making a (coded) public disclosure, through the numerical timing of such attacks or the symbols placed in cartoons, they have met some necessary regulation. If they were to leave out these clues, then according to the mechanics of magic the consequences would rebound back upon the instigator. This reminded me of the IRA’s procedure of planting bombs, and then alerting the authorities to their presence, but the comparison he used was of the announcement of a planning application on waterproof sheets nailed to telephone poles. Once these sheets have been displayed, there is nothing that the public can do; they have been informed in advance so the development is legalistically sanctioned. Anyone who has had an application turned down will dispute this.
While I drank tepid coffee, he mentioned the satanic child abuse and sacrifice which had been practised by senior judges, City of London financiers, politicians, and members of the royal family; witchcraft and familiars (of which his cat was one); the power of ‘empaths’, for instance one of his acquaintances who could, he told me, enter my thoughts just by speaking to me on the telephone. I learned that the ancient settlements on the Orkneys and Shetlands were originally Egyptian—the first ‘Scota’ that gave its name to Scotland being an African goddess. I didn’t recognise at first the reference to events ‘pre-flood’ until he repeated them later. Conspiracy theories seem to combine extreme scepticism with extreme literalism. There were suggestions of space-ships and aliens (actually gods-giants) and the secret purpose of the Pyramids, which open-minded archaeologists were ostracised for talking about. Repeating a familiar Victorian heresy, instituted religions were continuations of much older faiths and the name of Israel was a composite of ‘Isis’, ‘Ra’, and ‘Bael’. These pieces of what Dean called ‘occult knowledge’ had in common the fact of being suppressed by an accommodating ‘they’ whose members could be anyone and everywhere. It may sound a lot of material for two hours, but in fact there were many more items of belief than I could recall even later that day when writing up my notes. The conversation moved at an edgy, restless clip from one secret to another; the exposition of the web was more important than the plausibility of any single strand of it. Dean really did want me to wake up from my credulous belief that things were as they seemed. In my opinion, his level of intensity was not principally the manifestation of internal confusion, as a pathological view of conspiracism would have it, but the consequence of the diversity of times, topics, systems of history and belief that a conspiracist worldview sets out to synthesise into its theory of everything.
Beyond a certain level of intensity, conspiracy theories lose any outer edge beyond which the straightforward might be found. From this point, matters become so complex and entangled that they can only be apprehended with this rapid movement between subjects: pyramids, symbolism, finance, child-abuse, networks of masons and public schools, the media, satanism, and astrology. Challenge a conspiracy theory, and its advocate will more often move onto another than defend it.
One explanation of beliefs in unseen forces, united in intricate and secret alliances, is that they accompany the emergence of modern societies. Leo Braudy contextualises the ‘world-historical villains’ that came to haunt the cultural imagination as theological structures of good and evil were transferred to the intricate networks of (early) modern life. Fredric Jameson makes a similar claim about a later transformation when he identifies the labyrinth and the conspiracy as the limiting figures of popular culture that mark the inability to comprehend the extent and complexity of global capital flows. At the conference, one delegate showed me a series of images on his phone, from Hungary and Poland, replicating visually the same choice between social breakdown and healthy patriotic order. In each, a native citizen, seen from behind, confronts a Manichean choice. To one side (the left, not accidentally) is a cosmopolitan hellscape of drug abuse, same-sex relationships, rioting, and despair. In one case, George Soros (the exemplary world-historical villain) looks approvingly on the scene. To the right is a social order ‘restored’: the nuclear family embrace in a pastoral setting—a vernal alpine meadow or similar. White ethnicity is universal under the national flag. In ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, the essay that initiated conspiracy studies in 1963, Richard Hofstadter makes the point that the conspiracy theorist always believes that ‘he lives at a turning point’.
The observation seems especially apt right now, given the separation from the EU facing for the United Kingdom (or parts of it if it does not remain intact). The fundamental disagreement concerns the character of the four freedoms that are the EU’s red lines: whether they are insidious or necessary, negotiable or indivisible, and whether a nation state can break free of these ‘freedoms’ and still prosper in the modern world. The tone or rather ‘paranoid style’ of the debate is becoming apparent, and involves the characterisation of former allies as the enemy who are out to stitch us up in revenge for our opposition to their grand plan for a federal super-state. It is becoming more and more difficult to imagine a discussion of options and consequences that does not rely on accusations of conspiracy as we get to the business end of the Brexit process.
The conspiracy theory may be a manner of political analysis, but it is one that arranges its materials in advance into foreground and background, initial appearances and deferred revelation. In this sense, it establishes narrative form. Boltanski likens the unmasking of the conspiracy late in the detective story to a ‘coup de théâtre’, and the stage is the preeminent metaphor for the spatial and linear emplotment of the conspiracy theory, with its staple figures of actors, subterfuge, and off-stage direction. The soliloquy is a type of confession, but more importantly also a presentation to the audience of a private scheme at odds with the speaker’s avowals to the other characters; the divergence and convergence of these two streams of information constitutes the plot’s interest and shape, and the rogue is never so compelling as when he lets the audience in on his plans. Practices of overhearing and soliloquy, within the architecture of the stage, produce calibrated levels of information, distributed unevenly among actors and audience. These conventions apply just as much to the audience watching the public spectacle of Brexit unfold on the political stage, as reported and analysed by a vast, sceptical commentariat. Never, surely, has a political event attracted such sustained analysis. We are all critics now. The insight of the conspiracy theorist is that this theatre has no exits.