Sunday, November 22, 2020

Belief in the Global Cabal

 Yuval Noah Harari in the Times:

Conspiracy theories come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most common form is the global cabal theory. A recent survey of 26,000 people in 25 countries asked respondents whether they believe there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.”

Thirty-seven percent of Americans replied that this is “definitely or probably true.” So did 45 percent of Italians, 55 percent of Spaniards and 78 percent of Nigerians.

Global cabal theories are able to attract large followings in part because they offer a single, straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes. Our lives are repeatedly rocked by wars, revolutions, crises and pandemics. But if I believe some kind of global cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything. . . .

The skeleton key of global cabal theory unlocks all the world’s mysteries and offers me entree into an exclusive circle — the group of people who understand. It makes me smarter and wiser than the average person and even elevates me above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. I see what they overlook — or what they try to conceal.

But as Harari says, there is a problem: 

Global cabal theories suffer from the same basic flaw: They assume that history is very simple. The key premise of global cabal theories is that it is relatively easy to manipulate the world. A small group of people can understand, predict and control everything, from wars to technological revolutions to pandemics. . . .

Particularly remarkable is this group’s ability to see 10 moves ahead on the global board game. When they release a virus somewhere, they can predict not only how it will spread through the world, but also how it will affect the global economy a year later. When they unleash a political revolution, they can control its course. When they start a war, they know how it will end.

Consider, he says, the invasion of Iraq, planned by what might be called a cabal within the American leadership to reconfigure politics in the Middle East. What happened?

A complete debacle. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and the country was plunged into chaos. The big winner of the war was actually Iran, which became the dominant power in the region.

So should we conclude that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were actually undercover Iranian moles, executing a devilishly clever Iranian plot? Not at all. Instead, the conclusion is that it is incredibly difficult to predict and control human affairs.


David said...

A related fallacy I've observed in these theories is a tendency to rely on ascribed motive as a way to prove involvement, and to overestimate the role of more or less cleverly- and elaborately-formulated rational self-interest in both the working of individuals and human history generally. There's a tendency to concoct clear-headed-seeming, chesslike strategy for actions that are more often motivated by dumb habit, misplaced fear (LBJ's "if I don't take a stand in Vietnam, the right will eviscerate me"), sheer stupidity ("we can invade Iraq and then in three months leave the country a functioning democracy allied to us!"), over-reliance of the power of boldness and rule-breaking, and simple desperate gambling ("if we start sinking every merchant ship sailing to Britain, maybe, just maybe, the Brits will surrender before the Americans can do anything!"). I wonder if we should ask "cui bono" less often than "cuius stultia?"

David said...

I meant there was a tendency for *observers* to concoct clear-headed-seeming, chesslike strategy *to explain* actions that more often motivated by other, mostly misguided, things.

G. Verloren said...

I've always enjoyed the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's take on things.

There actually is a global (galactic, really) conspiracy where a small cabal of people secretly run everything, but they make all their decisions by talking to a random weirdo who lives alone in a shack on a hidden planet, who every day he has to experimentally rediscover, to his utter delight, what a pencil is and how it works, and who cannot tell if the people he remembers coming to him and asking him question actually exist and actually talked to him, or if he just imagined or dreamed them, or even whether his pet cat or even himself is real - he confesses he might not actually exist, and might merely be an imagining of the cat, who also might not exist.

Basically it's the perfected version of the global cabal theory - it handily explains how you could possibly have a small group of people with absolute power secretly controlling the world, and yet still have the world be so disordered and confused - they determine every course of action based on the whims of a lunatic.

Shadow said...

These strike me as ridiculously high percentages. Wonder what these numbers look like over the last several decades?

With surveys like this, I wonder if the explainer of the poll is even remotely in touch with what respondents are thinking. Is what Harari describes as a cabal resemble what respondents think of as a cabal or a conspiracy? Or are respondents thinking more along the lines of, let's say, the International Monetary Fund meeting in Davos, Switzerland, with international bankers and economists to decide what interest rates and rules countries must comply with to borrow money?

G. Verloren said...


A recent survey of 26,000 people in 25 countries asked respondents whether they believe there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.”

Seems pretty straightforward. "Cabal" is presumably John's own editorialization here, but the actual question posted to respondents is pretty clear cut, and by extension so should be their replies.

Also, it seems odd to me that you'd assume some sort of error in the way the study was conducted before you'd assume that vast percentages of people in the modern world are uneducated, paranoid, and lack critical thinking skills.

I look at the world and see an overaching economic system that fundamentally incentivizes producing dumb, emotional, easily manipulated citizens, because it's easier to sell them things they don't need that way. Smart, rational, independent thinkers aren't as immediately profitable - they are more likely to demand fair wages and working conditions, expect better quality from goods purchased, and make purchase decisions based on carefully weighed needs rather than whims and impulses.

More and more, the average person is a moron, because our policies promote anti-intellectualism and gross consumerism. It's a problem that exists throughout the world, to different extents, but that I feel is particularly bad in America. The system simply doesn't value intelligence as much as compliance and consumption.

karlG said...

Harai's use of the Iraq invasion to show how things go wrong misses a point about conspiracy theories: they always work! Any outcome can be made to seem -- or, rather, be assumed as -- victorious because the conspiracists' true goal might not be what we originally thought.

David said...

"I look at the world and see an overaching economic system that fundamentally incentivizes producing dumb, emotional, easily manipulated citizens"

Wow, that sounds like a conspiracy theory! My experience is that most people simply ARE dumb, emotional, and easily manipulated. I certainly am much of the time.

The song is right, we are "a kind of monkey driving cars."

Shadow said...


My behavior only seems odd to you because we are different. I don't assume, like you do, most people in the world are paranoid or lack critical thinking skills because they are uneducated. And most people in the U.S. and Europe (and other regions) are educated. I do, however, find it interesting that you think the average person is a moron but am left wondering why you assume the survey question is as clear cut to morons as it is to you, an obviously well educated person with excellent critical thinking skills and not a whiff of paranoia?

G. Veloren said...


"Wow, that sounds like a conspiracy theory! My experience is that most people simply ARE dumb, emotional, and easily manipulated. I certainly am much of the time."

It doesn't require a conspiracy, it just requires the basic logic of a capitalist system. When the pursuit of personal profits is your society's primary motivator, above morality, above sustainability, above justice, and above all else, you naturally get the result that people seeking to maximize profits are going to think about ways to do that even beyond the simple making and selling of goods.

Exploitation thrives in systems that don't do enough to prevent it, and our country in particular does very little to prevent it, and quite a lot to elevate and maintain corporate rights over those of actual people.

Just look at our long history of union busting, which continues to this very day; look at the establishment of laws that treat corporations as "people"; look at the absurdity of our copyright laws; look at the banks that are "too big to fail" getting bailed out after recklessly causing the very financial crisis that crippled them; look at all the ways in which our government and our society give free reign to the rich and powerful, and vilify the poor and disenfranchised.

It's not some secret conspiracy - it's simply our openly displayed perverse culture. And that culture remains in place because it is self perpetuating - it produces enough people who believe that greed is good, and gives enough opportunities for elevation to positions of power for said people, that it secures its own survival.


Now, you may be right that "people simply ARE dumb, emotional, and easily manipulated." But they need not be - and we shouldn't be okay with letting them be. We need to be doing so much more to prevent that from being the case. Democracy does not survive without a sufficiently educated, principled, and rational populace.

Shadow said...

I don't believe these percentages because of what they say about the growing lack of rational thought in public discourse. It's too disturbing to accept without first looking for alternative reasons. One alternative is that these conspiracy theories have become political tropes that represent the "believer's" disenchantment with and rejection of the established order, and around which like-minded people can easily unite across class and distance.

As an example, I never believed Trump believed Obama wasn't a citizen. What he recognized was the power of the conspiracy theory political trope to ignite a following of ready-made, like-minded voters. And I don't think the followers who claimed to believe Obama wasn't a citizen truly believed it either. Pretending to believe it was their way of rejecting Obama as the leader of the country without ever having to state their real reasons for rejecting him.

G. Verloren said...


I can understand your desire to find a more comforting explanation. As Dumas put it, "Rogues are preferable to imbeciles, because they sometimes take a rest."

But at the same time, we must never forget Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." We may wish that we're dealing with rogues rather than imbeciles, but in most cases where something stupid is happening, it's not because of nalice but because of stupidity, and we need to not pretend otherwise.

And if you stop and think about it... isn't it actually more optimistic to believe that these huge percentages of our country are just stupid, rather than actively malicious? You can educate people to stop them from being imbeciles, but not rogues. Isn't it a more hopeful situation to be dealing with people who are just dumb?

Shadow said...


"And if you stop and think about it... isn't it actually more optimistic to believe that these huge percentages of our country are just stupid, rather than actively malicious?"

This is what I ask myself. Right now my answer is, no, because I do not see how a society can exist without rational thought. So for now I'll carry on looking for other reasons.

G. Verloren said...


Society existed for thousands of years with very little rational thought - it just didn't exist in quite the form we currently enjoy, that's all.

That said, why would society be any better able to exist as we'd prefer it with such massive proportions of the population being malicious, rather than simply incompetent?

What meaningful difference is there between people deciding to behave stupidly out of malice, and people behaving stupidly because they are genuinely stupid? What does it matter WHY they act the way they do, if both reasons produce the same results?

The only way I can see that the reasoning for their stupid acts matters is in how it related to our ability to get them to stop behaving stupidly. If they're doing it because they're stupid, then we can ostensibly educate them to prevent the stupid behavior. But if they're doing it out of malice, I don't know what can possibly be done to stop them from behaving stupidly, short of some rather drastic measures.