Can we distinguish conspiracies from other forms of collective action?
It is not hard to come up with some formal tests that ought to distinguish conspiracies from other forms of collective action. Conspiracies are secret, intentional, malign schemes agreed among a small group of named (or nameable) individuals. A more synoptic test might be that a conspiracy only exists where a secret scheme would unravel if the true (i.e. malicious) intentions of the conspirators were known: that’s why they need to keep it secret.
One problem is that plenty of forms of collective action meet some but not all of these criteria. For instance, secret, intentional schemes that are not malign, e.g. a plan to hold a surprise birthday party. That scheme would unravel if it were known. But do we want to call it a conspiracy? And what about a scheme to inoculate people against a disease without telling them (because they might refuse) – is that malign (on the grounds that it requires overriding people’s preferences) and therefore a conspiracy, or benign (since it is intended for their benefit) and therefore not one? There are also conspiracies that are not secret – joint oaths to supplant a government where the point of the conspiracy is to bind the conspirators together by making their involvement public and so not renounceable (the Tennis Court oath at the outset of the French Revolution is sometimes described in these terms). And there are conspiracies that are not intentional – ‘conspiracies without conspirators’ or ‘standing conspiracies’ as they were known in the eighteenth century, on the assumption that certain schemes co-opt members by default (for the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for instance, the British aristocracy were involved in a standing conspiracy against the freedom of the press not because of what they had agreed but because of who they were). All of these could be called quasi-conspiracies, which blur the line with conspiracies proper.
The lines are further blurred if you consider that most conspiracies proper will be surrounded by a penumbra of quasi-conspiracies: beyond the small group of actual conspirators will be people who are colluding in the results of the scheme without having signed up to it, or who are well-intentioned but find themselves enabling the malign plans of others (useful idiots, etc.), or who simply don’t know how to keep a secret. However, it does not follow that because actual conspiracies produce quasi-conspiracies, so the existence of quasi-conspiracies is evidence of an actual conspiracy. That is the mistake conspiracy theorists often make. There can often be smoke (or the appearance of smoke) without fire. Lots of things that have some of the shape of conspiracies are actually the product of inadvertent or random forces: ‘invisible’ rather than ‘hidden’ hands or the emergent properties of complex systems rather than the results of intentional design. Since there are almost certainly more quasi-conspiracies than actual conspiracies in the world, this is a serious mistake to make. However, since there are actual conspiracies in the world as well as quasi-conspiracies, it’s always tempting to make it.
Another tempting mistake is to assume that conspiracies always point toward an intended outcome rather than simply covering up an existing state of affairs. The intention may simply be not to let people know what has happened i.e. to keep the secret a secret. When the FBI and CIA destroyed their files on Lee Harvey Oswald after the Kennedy assassination, it counted as evidence of a conspiracy but not evidence that there was a conspiracy to assassinate the president. The agencies may simply have not wanted people to know they didn’t know what was going to happen even though Oswald was known to them: it was a cover-up of a cock-up not a cover-up of a conspiracy. But cover-ups of cock-ups produce real conspiracies because those involved have to keep their involvement secret for the scheme to work. Again, these backward-looking conspiracies are almost certainly more common than forward-looking ones, but it’s forward-looking ones that conspiracy theorists are usually looking for, because they want to uncover the people who secretly control things. Conspiracies are more likely to be evidence of the absence of control than of hidden forms of control. But that means it can also be a mistake to discount the existence of actual conspiracies just because no one is in charge: when no one is in charge, conspiracies can flourish, because cock-ups proliferate and cover-ups with them.