Istanbul, Prism, São Paulo: Unearthing chthonic conspiracies
by Sam Kriss
Two events are happening at once. In the year of our Lord 534, it’s a slick, sweaty night in Taksim Square, the kind of night that makes your skin shine and your hair stick to your forehead, the kind of sticky, fecund night that breeds love affairs and revolutions. On this night, although they don’t know it, the citizens of Constantinople are witnessing the last ever Roman Triumph. The great general Belisarius has recaptured Africa for the Eastern Empire: in a few years Justinian I will accuse him of various conspiracies, pull his eyes out, and leave him as a beggar by the gates of Rome, but for now he has his glory. The procession starts. First, the spoils of his conquest. The Temple Menorah, first captured in the sack of Jerusalem and brought to Rome, then seized by the Vandals and brought to Carthage – now restored at last to the Church, its silver gleams as the plebeians crowd round and snap eager photos of the treasure on their smartphones. Then the man himself. Belisarius sits in the cabin of the ceremonial mechanical digger, resplendent in his corona triumphalis, soaking himself wrinkled in the adulations of the crowd. As demanded by tradition, a woman in hijab sits perched on the boom, the long yellow-painted arm wreathed with hydraulic sinews. Hominem te memento, she mouths. Nobody hears her. The crowd waves banners and Turkish flags, they throw flares and garlands of flowers; the riot cops join in the universal celebrations, joyously firing rubber bullets and sending out waves of teargas. The tree-lined street is soon hazy with jubilant smoke. Everything is organised to the finest detail; it’s a spectacle, and the protesters and the police all play their allotted role. Finally, Belisarius’ chariot comes to a halt. A digger knows how to do one thing: it digs. Istanbul is a city built on its own ruins. The Gezi Park demonstrators dig, past Constantinople, past Byzantium, down to the ancient grotto where the Deep State has been managing the affairs of the world for twenty-six centuries. And this excavation has been planned, too; everything is part of the plan.
A few weeks before the London Olympics in 2012, I found myself in small but pleasant company, drinking wine from the bottle in Trafalgar Square, as you do when you’re young and pointless. A man came up to us and asked for a light. We got talking. He was due in court the next day, he told us, he’d been arrested while protesting in support of Julian Assange; he seemed a bit over-earnest but generally quite right-on. Across the square stood an Olympic countdown clock flanked by the two terrifying cyclops-mascots the organising committee had foisted on the world. I must have said something about how I didn’t think it was such a great idea for there to be anti-air missile batteries on residential buildings and carriers on the Thames just to protect a glorified sports day, because he agreed. Plus, he said, if you looked at our hideous logo, the numbers spelled out the word Zion. So did the logo for the 2008 Olympics. And, in the handover ceremony in Beijing, the London delegation had wheeled out a fake double-decker bus in the Bird’s Nest stadium before blowing the roof off to reveal Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis, one day before a real London bus was blown up in Tavistock Square. Unconvinced but not uncurious, I looked into his assertions. Naturally, they were nonsense. To make the Beijing logo read Zion you have to take the whole thing apart seemingly at random. Of course, the 7/7 attacks took place three years before the 2008 Olympics. And if a shadowy Zionist conspiracy was ruling the world behind the scenes, then why would they announce themselves? What on earth would make them leave little clues for us to decode?
Conspiracy theorists aren’t insane, they’re far saner then the rest of us; their delusions are those of sanity pushed to its furthest edge. Where we see a world that doesn’t make sense, they see something logical and precise and – crucially – knowable. Conspiracy theory is the most profound expression of Enlightenment ideology: there is a rational plan behind the phenomena we observe, and it can be uncovered through reason if you study and interpret those phenomena hard enough. In other words, there’s not as much separating dialectical materialism from the Space Lizards theory of western civilisation as good Marxists like myself would like to believe. It doesn’t really help that the world of late capitalism is, to some extent, structured exactly like the wildest fantasies of the conspiracy theorists. There really is a tiny – globally speaking – cabal at the top of the pyramid that run the lives of the billions below. They really do meet, occasionally, in secret summits with no reporters and no minutes taken. They really do pull the strings of our elected politicians. They really do leave clues to their activities; not as coded symbols, but in the newspapers – society’s conspiracy against itself is hidden in plain sight. The Queen really does look quite a bit like a cold-hearted creature from beyond the stars. Conspiracy theory is the nomos of a society in which the lacerations of democratic openness have become themselves a form of occlusion; in form, if not in content, they reflect actual conditions. The only difference is that there’s no singular teleological Plan; the initiates are just as dumb as the rest of us. There are only personal and class interests, bouncing off each other at a million intersecting angles. We’re ruled not by cabals but by structures; conspiracy theory reduces the grand saga of the word to a roman à clef. Althusser describes the hidden conspiracy at the heart of society on the first page of Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: every social formation must reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produces. Reproduce the conditions of production: this is the creed of the Templars, the rite of the Illuminati, and the Wu-Tang Secret.
Take the recent revelations about the NSA’s Prism system. Snowden is undoubtedly a hero, if a politically naïve one, but what he’s told us isn’t really anything new. Everyone understood already, in some vague sense, that Western governments were breaking the law and spying on the internet communications of their citizens, it’s practically axiomatic. The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks told us more of what we already knew: US ambassadors were exasperated with every country they happened to be stationed in, and their hosts were equally bored with the meddling hyperpower. Leaked recordings of a conversation between Obama and Sarkozy revealed that neither of them much liked Israeli President Netenyahu; well, of course not, the man’s an utter twat. It’s not just that Bush and Blair lied about WMD to take us to war with Iraq; they didn’t even bother to make their lies convincing. The really dangerous liars are those who claim to have been convinced by the evidence in 2003. In the 1970s, Nixon and Kissinger went to extraordinary lengths to cover up their secret bombing of Cambodia; now, in 2013, every drone strike gets a short paragraph in the newspapers, described in neutral terms, as if they were natural disasters rather than acts of war. If you want to do evil, it’s far easier to do it out in the open. That way, when you’re called out on it, you can just shrug your shoulders and say: “Yeah. So what?”
What makes the recent Turkish protest movement interesting in this regard is that here it isn’t the protesters entertaining absurd conspiracy theorists; it’s the government. Edrogan has accused the protesters of being part of a global conspiracy against his government, one that takes in the feeble secular opposition, the international finance system, the BBC, the Knights Templar seeking to avenge the fall of Jerusalem, the reptilian aliens hoping to neutralise the threat posed to them by the indomitable Turkish race. So he’s crazy. After all, it’s not like his AK Party hasn’t done plenty of sucking up to finance capital in the past. Except the Turkish deep state, a murderous conspiracy of the anti-democratic and pro-secular powers that be, really did exist, and everyone knew that it existed long before it was officially uncovered. Did the protests seep up from its subterranean chambers? Probably not, but in its context the government response is understandable if not excusable. This is why Edrogan wants to pave over Gezi Park: parks are dangerous, anything can burrow down there; it’s easier to hatch plots beneath the soil than beneath a shopping centre. Conspiracies reach for the cloudless heights of power, but they’re always based underground. Chthonic spaces are hideous, they spawn plots and sacrilege. For all the years that Osama bin Laden was living comfortably in a two-storey house in Abbottabad, it was generally assumed that he was hiding out in a cave somewhere. In Negarestani’s terms, holey spaces subvert the plane of the monotheistic desert; the Inside is the spawning-ground of blasphemies.
The crackdown on the Taksim Square protests is, of course, being compared to the Arab Spring; all the tedious old questions about the compatibility of Islam with liberal democracy are being summoned from out of their graves to shuffle hungrily around newspaper opinion pages. Really, the government’s response should be answering these questions rather than posing them. Thousands were brutally beaten in the co-ordinated crackdown on the Occupy movement in 2011; the previous year riot police in London pulled a student demonstrator from his wheelchair and attacked him with batons. In ignoring demonstrators’ demands and sending in armoured cops against them Erdogan isn’t behaving like the archetypal Islamic dictator; he’s following to the letter the model provided by the Western democracies.
Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia is the inverse of Haussman’s Paris. Its openness neutralises the advantage of police over protesters; in building a home for the state, he abolishes the State as such. His congress building is a stage. It moulds reality into revolutionary art.
The sound of truncheons against skulls echoes across the Atlantic. It’s interesting to note that the protest movement in Brazil is breaking out just under a year before (and is in part sparked by) the 2014 Brazil World Cup, just as the 2011 riots in England broke out just under a year before the 2012 London Olympics. Maybe this marks the beginning of a pattern: the symbolic violence of organised sports must be proceeded by real, political violence. The rioting functions as a prologue, an unofficial opening ceremony, to get everyone in the appropriate mood. Meanwhile the international news media will know to get their crews and commentators on the ground a year early to catch the mayhem. In 2019 a former footballer sits in front of an animated mural of a burning Almudena Cathedral. Outside the studio, the sky glows a demonic red. “A really strong showing from the rioters here in Madrid, Terry,” he says. “They played an great game, they were incredibly passionate, but honestly you have to hand it to the police. Excellent formation, really strong use of tear gas and pepper spray, top form throughout.”
The situations in Turkey and Brazil are, of course, not the same; nonetheless what’s happening in São Paulo might serve as a warning for Taksim. Ominous reports are coming in from Brazilian comrades: what started as a movement against a hike in transport prices spearheaded by working-class anarchist and communist parties is being hijacked by the far right. Red flags are being burned. Leftist demonstrators are being attacked, not by the police, but by the fascists in their midst. There are calls for the reimposition of military dictatorship. One account describes the origin of the situation very powerfully – I’m quoting at length because the author is, unlike me, on the ground in São Paulo; she describes the conditions there far better than I ever could:
The initial wave of protests were organized by the MPL, Movimento Passe-Livre, which is an autonomist anarchist movement, based primarily in public universities. Their main goal is and always was free, public funded transportation. The protests were organized in response to (left-wing, social democrat/liberal PT Worker’s Party) mayor Fernando Haddad’s and (right-wing, conservative, social democrat in name only PSDB governor) Geraldo Alckimin’s hikes in bus and metro fares.
The protests were instantly joined by communist parties PSTU, PSOL and PCB. The MPL, due their anarchist ideology, denounced party participation. This will become important later on.
The media, at first, launched a total offensive against the protests, accusing it of vandalism, and of being made-up by extreme leftists. They justified the actions of the armed Military Police of Brazil (which is a Gendarme), which was, at the time, shooting rubber bullets at people’s faces (which is lethal), beating up primarily women, using lots of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the movement, as well as several intimidation tactics, such as baseless arrests (including the famous arrests for vinegar possession).
The media realized that despite all of their efforts, the movement had a popular agenda and had been garnering support across progressive sections of the population. One very popular ultra-conservative pig-loving anchor attempted to ask the extremely loaded question to his viewers: do you support vandalism in ongoing protests? only to have his primarily reactionary audience humiliate him live by voting yes. The media, realizing they could no longer discredit the movement, and noticing that their most reactionary viewers were ready to take the street, switched strategies.
As I predicted, the raging anti-communist pundit withdrew his previous opinion and started favoring the protests, but also started claiming that the protests were about “much more”, and started to tell his viewers that the protests were about the long running list of anti-leftist complaints that were traditionally presented by the media against the left leaning worker’s party and used electorally by the right-wing PSDB. The rest of the media did exactly the same thing.
The most illuminating detail, however, comes from here:
They tried to hijack our rally, threatened, provoked, harassed us. It was tense. I was fucking scared.
One of the most common slogans people were yelling was “People united don’t need a party.” While yelling, they took the sidewalks and waved their arms in the nazi fashion.
When a protest movement loses its positively articulated ideological character and becomes a vehicle for negatively defined apolitical ‘discontent,’ it then becomes ripe for subversion. The neo-nazis are the ones assaulting people, but they could only do so once a space for fascist infiltration was opened by the well-meaning liberals, those for whom ‘ideology’ has become a dirty word. An absurd scene emerges: anti-partisan platitudes of tolerance emerging from the mouths of fascists as they set about attacking anyone wearing red shirts. In Istanbul, we’re told that there are Kemalists sitting next to Kurds sitting next to Keynesians as if this kind of ideological incoherence was somehow a good thing, rather than a testament to the sad decline of the unified worker’s party. Of course resistance should be as broad and inclusive as possible, but such inclusivity is not a substitute for a strong, organised radical left. As Mao writes, ‘if there is to be a revolution, there must be a revolutionary party.’ If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the resuscitation of the party-form, or the invention of a suitable alternative, is an urgent priority.
Meanwhile, in the sixth century, the mechanical digger digs. It would have been used to tear up the park that the protesters want to save; in fighting Gezi’s destruction, they’ll do the work themselves.