Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction by Jovan Byford (auth.)

By Jovan Byford (auth.)

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Conspiracy theorists are generally not interested in the multitude of conflicting conspiracies, but in a smaller number of them, which are often reduced to a single overarching plot which supposedly explains everything. The essential tenet of the ‘conspiracy theory of 34 Conspiracy Theories society’ is not that conspiracies happen, but that they are the motive force in history. This assumption gives conspiracy theories an exceedingly comprehensive and all-encompassingg character (Popper, 1966, Lipset and Raab, 1978).

Evidently, the ‘age of conspiracism’ encompasses a longer historical period than is usually acknowledged. 40 Conspiracy Theories The aim of the present chapter is to look at the history of conspiracy theories and consider their origins and trajectory over time. This is an important task if we are to provide an adequate explanation of conspiracism as an evolved tradition of explanation. If conspiracy theory is conceptualised as a set of arguments, narrative themes and rhetorical tropes which are passed on from one generation of conspiracy theorists to the next, and which link accounts from the earlier periods to those in circulation today, then an awareness of the historical development and evolution of conspiracy theories is a necessary prerequisite for any further inquiry into their nature and continuing appeal.

Allegations of conspiracy were also ubiquitous in ancient Rome: the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC endures in popular imagination as the epitome of political betrayal and conspiratorial collusion - the paradigmatic ‘inside job’. Tales of conspiracy also marked the political culture in subsequent centuries, up to the Middle Ages and beyond. In Early Modernity in particular, conspiracies and speculation about them were so common that many commentators drew parallels between the politics of the day and that in ancient Rome, in terms of the regularity of clandestine political manoeuvring (see Swann and Coward, 2004).

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