The Other Problem With Conspiracies

One of the first things I saw on my facebook wall this morning was a link to this.

Having woken up sufficiently to tackle heavier fare I turned to Paul Krugman to encounter this: Truly, we live in bizarro world. The stern taskmasters of the IMF are coming to Britain, to demand that the government live it up and spend more; the government, defiantly, will insist on continuing to impose suffering.

What do these things have in common? Well I think a certain analogy can be drawn between the IMF and Severius Snape. Stay with me here.

In the early 90s I took part in various “bust the bank” protests. These were directed primarily against The World Bank, but also included the IMF in their targets. We were protesting not just against specific environmentally and socially harmful World Bank projects, such as dams that displace millions of people from their land, but against the way these institutions force neo-Liberal economic policies on countries in return for loans.

In many ways our core criticisms have stood the test of time. First the Bank, and then the IMF acknowledged (explicitly or implicitly) that much of what they were doing was counter-productive. Now the IMF is a major voice against the sort of austerity policies being pushed by most of the governments of Europe, not to mention the federal opposition  (to the extent they can get a clear line on macroeconomic policy).

Where I and other protesters were wrong was in seeing these institutions as fundamentally evil. We were calling for them to be scrapped, rather than reformed, largely because we thought they were unreformable. I’m sure many of those who stood beside me at those protests would still think that. Mere opposition to austerity policies while in a liquidity trap would not be enough for them, since the Bank and IMF still very much believe in a global capitalist system they’re still part of the dark side.

That’s a debate for another time I think, but what seems to me clear is that the vision of these institutions as fundamentally driven by a desire to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor was wrong. They may well worry too much about the interests of the rich, indeed I think they almost certainly do, but they are at least somewhat concerned about the global majority. They wrongly thought a particular economic model would achieve good outcomes for all. When the evidence started to pile up that this wasn’t working they slowly, painfully changed their minds. Slowly – but compared to the speed adopted by conservative politicians in England and Germany they were as falcons to snails.

Unlike Snape, I do not think the IMF were ever deep undercover agents dedicated to destroying the forces of right-wing politics. What I do think is that they are institutions made up of people, and people tend to be complex, rather than cartoon drawings of all good or bad. One of the best things about Harry Potter is the way it plays with children’s black and white view of the world, steadily exposing them to the fact that people are far more complex than we usually recognise. Snape is the epitome of this. Unfortunately, a lot of people like their politics with the simplicity pre-teen fiction and prefer to imagine that anyone who disagrees with them must be operating from evil motives. As noted, I’ve fallen for this idea before, and may well do so again.

One of the essential features of conspiracy theories is that they rely on the notion of groups of people acting out of malevolent desire to control the world, rather than stumbling round in the dark from a mix of good and bad motives. Sometimes of course one does see groups of people who are almost entirely operating from negative agendas. That’s why conspiracies that only involve a handful of people can easily turn out to be real. But the larger the number of people who would need to be party to the conspiracy, the less likely it is. The idea of the World Bank and IMF, loaded up with thousands of people, could secretly operate with a desire to keep the poor world poor is frankly silly.

Of course ideology can be a very powerful force keeping people doing bad things. Powerful, but not immutable. In the case of Osborne I rather suspect the next election, and a well deserved thrashing at the polls, will come before he wakes up to the stupidity of his policies. Institutions such as the IMF don’t face such events, so its is just as well sometimes they can be transformed by the power of ideas and evidence.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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