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Networking and signalling do not a conspiracy make
This is the tenth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. The publication schedule for Lorenzo’s essays is available here.
Meanwhile, over at Postcards from Barsoom has some valuable comments on essay nine.
This piece can be adumbrated thusly: just because something looks like a conspiracy doesn’t mean it is; human beings are very good at organising themselves in such a way that no conspiracy is necessary.
Nonetheless, the human love of stories is why conspiracism is so attractive, including in the academy—which is riddled with conspiracy theories taught as fact.
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We Homo sapiens regularly coordinate behaviour. We are a highly imitative species very good at generating and reading social signals—and not necessarily consciously.
That we are so good at coordinating our behaviour—much better than our primate cousins—is why there are billions of us and only thousands of them. It’s why, when we were still foragers, we spread to every continent (apart from Antarctica) and successfully colonised a huge range of habitats.
Cooperating among the unrelated
We Homo sapiens are the best in the biosphere at non-kin cooperation. Western Civilisation came to dominate the planet because it put that gift for non-kin cooperation on steroids.
Medieval Christian civilisation was built on Christianity sanctifying something the Romans had already developed: single-spouse marriage, law as a human creation, no consanguineous marriage, female consent for marriage, and individual wills coupled with testamentary freedom. On the way through, the Latin Church added extras, such as no adoption, greatly expanded incest bars, and anathematising all sex outside marriage, including bastardy.
The combined effect was deadly to kin groups. If kin groups could not control the transmission of assets across generations, could not control women’s wombs, could not adopt-in heirs, it was very hard for them to maintain themselves.
Moreover, single-spouse households are far more likely to be partnership households than are one-husband-multiple-wives households, where wives compete over prospects for their children. Hence single-spouse households are systematically more able to network with other households without relying on kin connections.
That law was human, rather than being grounded in revelation—so unlike Sharia and Brahmin law—meant that political bargains could be entrenched in law. This made them worth doing.
Add in a situation where almost everyone who mattered controlled manors, and so had powerful incentives to block kin-groups from interfering with their management thereof. This meant kin-groups disappeared from almost all of Christian Europe.
The major exceptions were in non-manorial pastoralist fringes and uplands. There, the need for teams of related males to protect animal herds was strong enough that ways of preserving kin-groups were found. Including using patron saints to ritually differentiate kin-groups.
Outside of such pastoralist fringes, much experimentation in non-kin cooperation among competitive jurisdictions developed across European Christendom. The result was effective states and institutions, with a positively Faustian level of curiosity and innovation, and so of scientific, technological, commercial and organisational discovery. Hence, once armed with printing press, compass and gunpowder, European Christendom—the civilisation where non-kin cooperation was most developed—came to dominate the planet.
None of this success was based on conspiracies, given that there is no reason to think Western civilisation was more conspiratorial than other civilisations. Indeed, the evidence is that it was less so, precisely because social and political bargaining was much more open.
Conspiracies do happen. Conspiracy is a crime for a reason. But they happen far less than regularly claimed. Managing the level of coordinated intent required to have a genuine conspiracy is hard. Folk have to have strongly aligned interests, powerful incentives to keep their mouths shut, and the ability to coordinate personally and secretly.
What might look like conspiracy from the outside is often much closer to groupthink, our very strong group-ish and imitative tendencies misfiring. This is particularly so when there are strong status drives operating.
Conspiracies in plain sight
Many complex forager civilisations—as well as horticultural and agricultural societies—have had secret ritual associations. In the case of male-only ritual societies—which can reasonably called men’s cults—these were typically ways of coordinating male teams.
As most foragers practised kin endogamy (marrying out), it was important that women didn’t tell their relatives if military action were being planned. If the society was matrilineal (so males married in), then it was even more important to bind otherwise unrelated males together.
Yes, such men’s cults could be, and were, used to reinforce male authority (i.e., patriarchy). But they operated in small-scale societies with dense connections and strong shared incentives, using ritual as a powerful binding agent.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, where women did most of the farming—so levels of polygyny were very high—paternal investment in individual children was unusually low. This encouraged use of ritual societies to socialise young males. A role later performed, much more pathologically, in US cities by youth gangs.
That Africa is where Homo sapiens evolved, so a whole lot of parasites, pathogens, predators and mega-herbivores co-evolved with us, aggravated things. Low population density—due to all those parasites, pathogen, predators and mega-herbivores—meant labour was more valuable than land, so slavery was endemic. Thus, ritual societies could both protect against being enslaved and help coordinate enslaving.
Children were often dispersed among friends and relatives, because of the levels of risk from pathogens, parasites, predators and slave raids. Indeed, households were unusually fluid. This lowered even further the typical level of paternal investment in individual children, further encouraging use of ritual societies to socialise young males.
It is probably not surprising that African Islam evolved unusually militant Sufi orders. They replicated powerful pre-Islamic local patterns.
Conspiracies against autocracy
In highly autocratic societies, particularly if the polity is both autocratic and bureaucratic, then conspiracy is a favoured means of action, as the alternatives are so thin. Hence, peasant revolts based around secret societies are a persistent theme in Chinese history. Just as Sufi orders have been vehicles for political action in Islam—most famously, in the rise of the Safavid dynasty. All also used rituals as bonding mechanisms.
In Western civilisation, not so much. The closest example is Leninism (which, not coincidentally, arose in highly autocratic Tsarist Russia). But Leninism is very open about its aims and structure. Even if its funding (some of which was explicitly criminal) and terrorist activities were secretive for obvious reasons.
The Jacobin Club of revolutionary France was more a self-selecting political action group.
Leninism represented highly coordinated political action, but was not a conspiracy in any useful sense. It was far too open about its aims, methodology and structure.
Note that all these conspiracies, or quasi-conspiracies, in state societies represented revolts or resistance against authority, not actions within ruling authorities. The latter have much more effective ways of coordinating.
(1) My government is not competent—>Fear.
(2) My government is prioritising outsiders—>Betrayal.
(3) I have no efficacy as a citizen—>Powerlessness.
(4) I cannot make sense of the political, it is opaque to me—>Being lost.
As he notes, the last (4) encourages various forms of magical thinking. Including, of course, conspiracism. A form of heroes-and-villains story-telling that appeals to the human love of stories. In many ways, we build our sense of identity on narratives of ourselves.
The development of the Pravda media model, and consequent disorienting collapse of trust in mainstream media, further encourages conspiratorial thinking.
That conspiracism is so often a form of magical thinking is why the designated villains can be so free-floating, with the villains swapped in and out as congenial. The most notorious example is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Although developed by the Tsarist Okhrana, it was nonetheless a re-working of an 1865 pamphlet against Napoleon III.
If you see people acting in their own interest while making grandiose moral claims; if you see the assertion as facts claims that seem obviously false, even bonkers—and you do not grasp how prone we are to self-deception (including imitative self-deception) or the power of imitative social signals—then conspiracy becomes an easy, even congenial, explanation.
It is, however, almost certainly going to be wrong despite how oh-so-enticing the rhetorical simplicity of a conspiracy story is. A rhetorical simplicity bought about by the added complexity of imputing a high level of intentional, secretive, coordination and duplicity.
Ordinary human mechanisms, such as:
(1) social signalling (whether self-deceptive or otherwise), especially if it’s self-reinforcing through shared norms;
(2) congenial status claims and narratives about oneself;
Provide a much simpler, and far more likely, explanation.
We Homo sapiens have many other forms of social coordination, such as signalling and simple networking, that scale-up far more effectively (and require far less effort) than conspiracy, so are much more useful. And this is social coordination at which Western civilisation is unusually good.
Alas, the development of social media has intensified social coordination in largely pathological ways by narrowing levels of information feedback: online slivers of people interact with other online slivers of people. With alleged attempts to “manage” content being largely captured by the same, disorienting, self-deceptive, status games that have so damaged the standing (and usefulness) of mainstream media.
Online content “management” has been coordinated using patterns of rhetoric and epistemic closure (blocking awkward or contrary information) developed in those breeding houses of grandiose self-deception, the universities. Universities not only generate institutional-capture patterns that facilitate social distrust, and so conspiracism, they have proved open to pseudo-sophisticated conspiracism themselves.
Feminism, for example—when it valorises its own sex and revolts against the constraints of biology—is driven towards conspiratorial thinking. First, because such self-valorisation and revolt against the constraints of biology means it is committed to untruth. Second, as Feminism is functionally the networked social aggression of highly educated/credentialed women, it needs to justify its aggression and delegitimise the targets of its aggression.
Conspiracy theories typically are moralised narratives based on untruth and heroic unmaskings. Hence Feminism is so prone to conspiracism: specifically, conspiracism about patriarchy.
The overwhelming majority of human societies have been, to varying degrees, patriarchal. That is, in most human societies, authority has been presumptively male. How completely this is true in a society determines how patriarchal it is, which in turns depends on levels of social leverage men and women have.
So, the bigger role women provide in subsistence, whether the society is polygynous or not, the more likely the men are to be away, the more likely women are to own assets, the more common armed women are, the ratio of available women to available men—all these factors affect the relative social leverage of men and women.
As—in all human societies—risks are transferred away from childrearing, and resources provided to childrearing. Men have been far more likely to gain status through prestige, from dealing with risks and publicly displaying competence.
Moreover, forming effective male teams to manage such risks, to gain or protect resources, has been central to the functioning of human societies. This is why societies put considerable effort into generating and maintaining effective male teams.
All of which mean that no matriarchal societies have ever been identified. Matriarchal families, yes. Matriarchal societies, no.
Patriarchal societies are very common. Though the degree to which they are patriarchal has varied hugely.
The modern shift towards women having equal rights comes from changes in social leverage due to the evolution of technology and commerce. The biggest emerged via women gaining unilateral control over their own fertility, with untrammelled property rights a close second.
What makes “men oppressing women” conspiracist nonsense is that every step towards female legal equality has come from men voting for each change. In the early stages, only men voted for those changes.
The changes were persuasive because the underlying patterns of risks and opportunities had changed. That is what people responded to.
As constraints and opportunities shifted, the previous social restrictions were no longer reinforced by people’s experiences. On the contrary, it was very clear that new opportunities had opened up and so laws, conventions, and normative expectations shifted accordingly.
The ridiculous conspiracy theory, so beloved among feminists of “men oppressing women”, does not stand up to even cursory historical consideration. It is just an excuse to engage in self-valorisation and substitutes abusive sneering at men instead of the much harder work of wrestling with biological constraints and realities. It substitutes an intellectually lazy, self-valorising, anti-male social aggression in place of genuine—and at time emotionally confronting—intellectual effort.
But versions of this pattern are endemic within the politics of the transformational future. Such politics theologise history. They turn history into a directed sequence where we’re heading away from sin to achieve the imagined future.
Since serving the imagined future is a sign of good intent, failing to do so, worse, actively resisting doing so, becomes malign intent. Categorising that as coordinated malign intent—and then into some endemic, entrenched-in-the-structure-of-things—conspiracy becomes all too easy.
Moreover, all forms of the politics of the transformational future are built around some level of social imperialism, of gaining the power to impose a given vision on society. Networked social aggression is built into the politics.
Hence the particularly powerful appeal of heroic narratives that de-legitimise those who demur. Manichaean views of politics are pervasive. The more folk see politics as warfare, especially good-versus-evil warfare, the more they’re inclined to conspiracist world-views.
We see, again and again in the politics of the transformational future, the standard Hermetic claim of initiates having access to knowledge denied to others. How? By some conspiratorial structure, of course. One that can’t be entirely identified, yet can be discerned by the knowing initiate.
This fits in with the transformational future embracing constraint-as-oppression, so the standard Gnostic claim of folk as oppressed souls suffering under imposed constraints. Imposed how and why? Yet again, by some conspiratorial structure, of course. One that can’t be entirely spelled out in any detail, yet can be discerned by the knowing initiate.
The quintessential Gnostic cosmology is that all material Creation is a conspiracy of the Demiurge. So, material creation is a gigantic mechanism created by a Malign Power to trap our angelic souls within the evil constraints of the material world. Or the evil constraints of capitalism. Or of white supremacy. Or patriarchy. Or whatever the preferred pseudo-sophisticated conspiracy of the moment may be.
That academe has become so rife with such pseudo-sophisticated conspiracism is both alarming and a sign of deep problems. Problems that well predate the rise of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”), although the latter does provide some particularly florid examples of the relevant patterns.
If alleged scholars are so prone to what is, at bottom, conspiracist thinking, what is some alienated voter facing institutions increasingly captured by ideas that make no sense going to think?
That we Homo sapiens are very good at imitative social signalling, at networking, at socially coordinating, is not always a good thing. As, for instance, the entire history of revolutionary Marxism demonstrates.
The power of status; the power of signalling; the limitations of consciousness, of being too conscious of being conscious; the importance of self-deception. Exploring the dynamics and significance of these things expands our understanding of social dynamics. Doing so can insulate us against conspiracism, against conspiratorial thinking. This insulation is a major aim of these essays.
It’s generally not a matter of people intentionally pre-planning events, but rather that people have various mechanisms to respond to events in networked and coordinated ways. Including through mutual signalling.
The next essay considers some complexities in human choice and further failures of Theory.
Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Serif,  2005.
Bryan Hayden, The Power of Ritual in Prehistory: Secret Societies and the Origins of Social Complexity, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Arnold Kling, Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides, Cato Institute,  2017.
Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press,  2014.
Michael Mitterauer, Why Europe?: The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path, (trans.) Gerard Chapple, University of Chicago Press,  2010.
K.W. Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages, Lilliput Press,  2012.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Oxford University Press, 2018.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books,  2013.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts, blogposts …
William Buckner, ‘On secret cults and male dominance,’ Traditions of Conflict blog, January 31, 2018.
William Buckner, ‘Where are the matriarchies?’ Traditions of Conflict blog, March 18, 2018.
Péter Krekó, ‘Populism in Power: The Tribal Challenge,’ Chapter 13 of The Psychology of Populism: The Tribal Challenge to Liberal Democracy, Joseph P. Forgas, William D. Crano, Klaus Fiedler (eds.), Routledge, 2021, 240-257.
Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. "The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation." Science 366, no. 6466 (2019): eaau5141.
M. “Lorenzo” Warby, ‘Why Ritual,’ Lorenzo from Oz Substack, Aug 14 2022.