Review: Conspiracist Manifesto

Conspiracist Manifesto / Anonymous (Translated by Robert Hurley) / Semiotext(e), June 13, 2023 – $17 (Paperback)

Valentina Desidiri and Stefano Harney start their essay “A Conspiracy Without A Plot” with a hell of a provocation: “Today it is not possible to live except by way of a conspiracy. But equally, it is impossible to live today by way of a plot.” Their 2013 essay is intensely interested in those terms, plot and conspiracy. But those terms don’t conjure up images of shady government deals and men in sunglasses, not 4chan message boards nor thinly veiled antisemitism. Instead, their interested in some less common understandings of conspiracy, such as its etymological meaning (to breath [“spirare”] with [“con-“] in Latin) or its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary entry: a “combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purposes.” Illicit, harmonious, the conspiracy is a way of interacting with others. Desideri and Harney find the plotlesness of a conspiracy, its refusal to value its members based on their usefulness (e.g. in relationship to worth of plots of land) or to predetermine the arc (or plot) of their lives. The conspiracy becomes a romantic, desirable social form in its refusal to make sense of its members at all (to plot them). Material reality has a nasty habit of interfering with those romantic visions, of course. Our economic and governmental systems require people to be put to work and useful, structures how the arc of one’s life must unfold, and arranges and benefits from the neat groupings of populations, demographics and identities. The conspiracy, with its “constant invention of the form of sociality,” is illegal, then, because it disrupts the regular functioning of the law and of economy. And yet, this conspiracy is everywhere and all the time: in baristas wastefully gossiping while they wait for a customer to serve, in punk shows performed without permits in public, in the hand keeping open the emergency door of the subway to all.

10 years later, the feeling that conspiracies are more common and necessary than ever. The conspiracy theories of the 2010’s, that the president had a fake birth certificate, that jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams, or the forms of life that supported the Occupy movement – small potatoes. Today’s conspiracies are leading the Republican primary, are setting up autonomous zones in major cities across the US, are infecting our colleges, our children, our beer, our bloodstreams. The question of conspiracy is near avoidable: What is a conspiracy? What kinds of conspiracies are available to us? And why are Republicans the only ones who do it with any frequency? It’s this matrix of questions that animates The Conspiracist Manifesto, published anonymously in French last year and translated by Robert Hurely into English in June. 

            The Manifesto is an exhaustive meditation on the relationship between leftist politics, conspiracy theories, and the pandemic. Written with a general audience in mind, the punchy and politically energizing prose of the book slots in nicely into the tradition of anonymously published, ultra-left French polemics. Like Tiqqun’s The Cybernetic Hypothesis and The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee, the Manifesto is written to inspire, keeping heady concepts and references to dead philosophers to a minimum. All the more remarkable for the density of its subject matter: the history of American psychology, sociology, and behavioral science and its synonymity with the history of American political suppression, counterterrorism, and pandemic preparedness.

            The jewel of the book is made up of chapters 3 and 4. These chapters weave a tight argument, directly relating military exercises playing out scenarios of bio-terrorist attacks in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War to pandemic preparedness scenarios of the 2000’s and 2010’s. One, in 2019 and involving the heads of the American and Chinses CDC’s alongside pharmaceutical and marketing execs, simulated the spread of a flu-like disease from China. Such scenarios came in handy, according to the author, as global wave of leftist organizing and resistance spread across the globe in 2019, from Hong Kong to Lebanon, Yellow Vests in France and general strikers in Colombia, only ended by a rather convenient pandemic. It’s an argument that is bound to raise a fair number of eyebrows, but it serves as the bedrock of the book’s overarching argument. For the author, global pandemic response was determined primarily through re-establishing the authority of various state governments and only incidentally about containing or eradicating the pandemic, an argument made all the more persuasive by the new waves of covid rising this Fall. Perhaps the most interesting piece of evidence of this argument is about the origins of the pandemic itself: “the request for financing addressed in 2018 to DARPA by EcoHealth Alliance [an American NGO primarily financed by the NIH] to conduct at the Wuhan BSL-4 laboratory a gain-of-function experiment consisting in inserting on the spike protein of a SARS-type coronavirus a furin-cleavage site making it possible to considerably augment its contagiousness in humans – the same cleavage site that has so intrigued researchers since they started studying SARS-CoV-2.” How’s that for a conspiracy theory!

            Now, I can’t defend the veracity of that claim. What interests me is the possibility that arises from their stance. A posture that starts with an eye towards the unexpected and often times classified research interests of the American and Chinese governments, especially in behavioral psychology and bio-technology. A posture that starts with the assumption the disaster response of the government is primarily a quest to shore up the authority and stability of the state and only secondarily about helping people. A posture that starts, not with conspiracy, but with the plot. Unlike Desideri and Harnery, the Manifesto is almost entirely unconcerned with social forms and relationships. Instead, it is focused on what is revealed, what can be gleaned, from applying the language of conspiracy to governments and assuming they have a plot as obvious as it is taboo: to ensure that the political and economic systems that put the leaders of the globe in power stay put.

            But in searching for the plot of the state, the Manifesto loses its own narrative thread. That is, it never quite gets around to answering the questions it raises about the pandemic or even conspiracies. By chalking up the cause of the pandemic to American and Chinese authoritarian collaboration, the author snuffs out any consideration what should have been done in the face of the pandemic. Perhaps the deployment of sophisticated tracking methods and the policing of citizens’ private appearances through mask mandates were needlessly cruel; perhaps they were brazen expansions of state power dressed as benevolent pandemic response. Perhaps the lockdown was an equally clear-cut means of concentrating risk within the poorest and most “essential” class of workers. But in the face of consistent summer and winter surges of COVID, it is not enough to move past the theoretical “should’ve.” We must consider what to do with the COVID pandemic still unfolding. For all its thorough and historically grounded condemnations of pandemic response measures, The Conspiracist Manifesto is not capable of providing a meaningful alternative to currently dominant strategies of pandemic response.

            So the Manfiesto falls amongst a growing number of works valiantly, if unsuccessfully, attempting to grapple with pandemic from a radical viewpoint. Its condemnation of the lockdowns are much more thorough, persuasive, and historically grounded than Giorgio Agamben (the immensely influential leftist Italian philosopher)’s  “L’invenzione di un’epidemia,” which infamously dismissed the pandemic as a complete fabrication summoned by the state to authorize an expansion of its reach. Its manifesto tone and energizing language makes its descriptions feel much more useful than Judith Butler (another extremely influential philosopher)’s What World Is This, which argues that the defining feature of the pandemic was the loss of the ability to freely share breath. Although intensely interesting, each of these project ends where they begins: with description. A description of the kind of paranoia that accrued during and after the pandemic. A description of the feeling of watching one’s breath. A description that provides little tools to surmount the problems at hand. Just like the Manifesto, Butler leaves us with a hostile world, one filled with forceful structures of power, diffuse and toxic relationships, and the gnawing suspicion that everything we know is deeply, deeply wrong. And all three texts leave the path forward, the question of an alternative, up in the air.

            We thus arrive at my third and final set of questions: how do we share our breath? How do we take the reality of the pandemic, whether it was intentionally started or mishandled, to re-form the relationships to those around us? How do we enter into a conspiracy? The stakes of these questions could not be higher. In a world increasingly buckling under the beginnings of catastrophic climate change, of increasing polarization of wealth and inequality, of proliferating (trans)misogynist legislation and the expansion of the prison industrial complex, the necessity of effective means of resistance and not mere mitigation is clear. And as the events of January 6th dramatically illustrated, the conspiracy, as both an organization and way of thinking, is capable of mobilizing many folks in potentially powerful and/or devastating ways. In an era of politics defined by half-truths, out-right lies, and misrepresented data, conspiratorial thinking seems like a double-edged blade, as likely to hurt the credibility and effectiveness of leftist political mobilization as it is to help. The Conspiracist Manifesto provides the most compelling and pragmatic attempt to wield that weapon to date. But it is not enough, precisely because it is a risky weapon, one limited to realm of ideas and excluded from the realm of bread and butter. Instead, it is as Desideri and Harney argued: “Today it is impossible to live except by way of conspiracy. But equally, it is impossible to live today by way of a plot.”

— Mira Mason