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What is a conspiracy?

This entry was posted in Conspiracy and Democracy Project, Conspiracy Theories on 31 May 2013 by

What is a conspiracy?

A conspiracy, according to the dictionary, is a group of two or more people who get together for some criminal or illegal purpose (it is thus different from a plot, which is the plan that the conspirators draw up). It follows that it naturally has to be secret, though this isn’t a central part of the definition. Etymologically it comes from the Latin conspiratio – people agreeing as in one breath on a particular aim or object – applied specifically to people doing this for an illegal purpose. An older, now obsolete synonym would be ‘cabal’, which has its equivalent in some other European languages as well.
In many other languages, however, it has a slightly different slant. The German Verschwoerung implies that the central aspect is the swearing of an oath (similarly the French conjuration) binding the participants to common action. The Italian congiura has a similar implication, as does the Spanish conjura. This may possibly refer back to medieval times, when sealing an agreement with an oath invoking God or one or more of the saints was thought of as the most effective way of binding the conspirators together and ensuring their loyalty. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, swearing an oath reflected perhaps the roots of conspiracy in the rituals of guilds and confraternities; these had an influence for example on the carbonari, the secret societies of artisans who plotted revolution in post-1815 Europe.

Conspirators are in collusion with one another (there’s an Italian translation that has collusione for conspiracy) or, more colloquially, in cahoots with one another. They may be engaged in an intrigue but this isn’t necessarily for criminal or illicit purposes and doesn’t always have to be kept secret, though it usually is. Thus an intrigue or plot within a government, to overthrow the Prime Minister and replace him with another, as happens frequently, though usually unsuccessfully, in the UK, is not a conspiracy because it is usually open (ultimately the plotters have to obtain MPs’ votes), and even if it is not, it sticks to legal procedures (as for example in the overthrow of Mussolini by the Fascist Grand Council in 1943).

As the Latin root suggests, conspiracy has a long history, most famously of course denounced by Cicero in his oration against the Catiline conspiracy, a plot to murder a large number of Roman Senators. Since then, there have been countless numbers of conspiracies stretching through the medieval period to the present day. The key thing they have in common is the fact that they have an illegal or criminal aim. There might be a conspiracy to prepare and stage a coup d’état and illegally overthrow a government, replacing it with another (or, in the case of anarchist conspiracies, none at all); or a conspiracy by a government or a faction within it to subvert the legal rights of the people; or a conspiracy by some group in society, such as banks or cartels, to rob the people, or the government, of its legally earned money. But always the conspiracy has to be secret with the aim of breaking the law in order to achieve its aims. It does not have to be malign in the judgment of posterity, though it will be in the eyes of those at whom it is aimed. And it has to have clear and agreed intent; you can’t have an involuntary conspiracy, or a conspiracy by default.

Our discussions, both of visiting lectures and of our own readings, have begun to traverse the fuzzy borderlines between conspiracy and deception, or between the suppression of freedom by a dictatorship whose internal workings may be secret but whose actual intent is obvious to all, whatever it might publicly declare (the promise ‘to restore democracy as soon as possible’ given by the leaders of military coups seldom deceives anyone). And we have begun to look at different types and sub-variants of conspiracies.