Conspiracy theories give us more than we give them credit for.
"What's the difference between a conspiracy theory and false consciousness and ideology, that's coming up with narratives and stories to explain the world that otherwise you can't make sense of with the conceptual vocabulary that you have?” Brendan O’Connor asked, mid-way through our conversation. We were discussing his recent book Blood Red Lines, which looked at the violent “border imperialism” at the heart of U.S. immigration policy. Part of what grants legitimacy to an arbitrary and incredibly brutal system of demarcation between “citizens” and “aliens” is a complex explanatory framework about not only politics but the nature of human societies themselves. It would be easy to suggest that ideas about who should be granted rights and who shouldn’t are purely the result of ideology, but that assumes that ideology is simply a values judgment based on a consensus understanding of the world we inhabit.
"If you are a dyed in the wool white nationalist, you have to be conspiratorially minded about race to make sense of anything,” commented O’Connor, but also pointed out that no one, himself included, has really pinned down exactly what is happening with the explosive rise of conspiracy theories over the past decade. "I still don't really feel like anybody has come up with a cutting analysis of what the fuck is happening."
This may be exactly the question that journalist Mike Rothschild has been trying to answer throughout his career. If conspiracy theories are, simply, a more observable and caustic attempt to explain our own disaffection, then what exactly does our modern conspiracy culture say about us? If we exist in a meritocratic system, and yet our past due bills and underwater mortgage is vastly out of step with our clearly evident hard work, how can we possibly make sense of the incongruence? Rothschild does not attempt to provide the final answer to this question, but instead takes us on a tour of one particular attempt to explain this situation, how that pathway evolved over time, and what its consequences continue to be. In his most recent book, Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories, he pins down one particular set of characters that are particularly important to the West’s culture of conspiracy. Rothschild’s vantage point looks at the entire structure of our society’s unspoken thoughtforms, revealing a clear paradox at the heart of modern politics.
Rothschild (no relation) starts broad before introducing our key set of characters. He takes us through the question of antisemitism’s origins, why it is implicit in almost all modern conspiracy theories, and why antisemitism is so easily used to drive populist anger. Birthed out of the “supercessionist” response Christians eventually took towards Jews, Christians were forced to both explain why Jews still existed if Christians were the “New Israel” and why Jewish religious mitzvot were not simply unnecessary, but actually cosmically regressive. Jewish particularism and ritual were demonized and their apartness was cast through a conspiratorial interpretation of supposed wickedness. Jewish difference eventually became the site of medieval occult conspiracy theories like the Blood Libel (the belief that Jews sacrificed Gentile children for their blood) and these ideas motivated surging pogroms and executions across the centuries.
Just as importantly, some Jews were pushed into money lending and used as an intermediary between the nobility and the peasantry. This has a utility: when righteous anger arose because of unfair economic conditions, it was Jews who commoners had usually dealt with for loans or to pay taxes, thus giving the forces of oppression a seeming Jewish face. Christian rulers drew an outsized image of Jewish usury, lending at interest, and created what scholars like Magda Teter have described as a “thoughtform”: the image of the misery and conspiratorial Jew was lodged in the Western imagination. As modernity brushed away some of these more magical fantasies and Jews were integrated into Western society, urban capitalism eventually began replacing “traditional life.” Many Jews thrived in this new environment because they had engaged in transnational trade since they had been disallowed from other work and many were literate because of Jewish religious education. A new kind of revolt was taking place, one ostensibly against “modernity,” and Jewish prosperity and the “thoughtform” of Jewish money lending sent the message that maybe this vastly unequal and alienating new economic arrangement was, in fact, a Jewish invention. This motivated these mass new movements against Jews, self-styled as “anti-Semites,” and particular wealthy Jews were picked out as uniquely salient examples of the evil pulling the strings of this new world.
And this is where the Rothschilds come into view, a wealthy banking family whose financial success was a rather mundane story as these tales go. But it was with Nathan Rothschild, the third son of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who launched their banking dynasty, where the conspiracy theories were born. Near the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Seventh Coalition summarily defeated the ferocious French Army, who Napoleon had led across Europe. The story goes that Nathan, seeing that the “Battle of Waterloo” (as it would become known) was being lost for Napoleon, ran back to the urban center and made a slew of smart financial bets that would amass spectacular fortunes and ensure the near immortality of the Rothschild line. There was just one problem with this narrative: it was untrue.
But it is the utility of such stories that Rothschild (the journalist not the banker) unpacks, and they grow over the following decades. The story of the Rothschilds, with their alleged malicious character, devious schemes, and starkly unmanly appearance were just too perfect as the archetype of the despotic capitalist. These conspiracies emerged on the left just as on the right, and grew over time to become a centerpiece of almost every outlandish conspiracy tract the West produced.
Rothschild analyzes the mountainous libraries that exist of long-winded conspiracy tomes (so you don’t have to), showing how the ideas they contain change over time as well as the influence they have had. Rothschild conspiracy theories have certainly been a seed for the Nazis, Alex Jones, David Icke, and anyone whose worldview requires that a shadowy cabal exist in an almost inhuman manner, but they have also been foundational for building up many of the key figures of the right. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and the multi-million dollar Christian Broadcasting Company, cites Rothschild conspiracy theories explicitly in his 1991 book New World Order, acting as a critical voice in the move that evangelicals made in the eventual direction of Q-Anon. The John Birch Society repackaged and reforged Rothschilds conspiracy theories for their own strange brand of populist anti-communism, the far-right militia and patriot movement made them a centerpiece on how they understood the global economy (particularly during moments like the farm crisis), and all of this led directly to the MAGA movement, National Conservatives, and the populist far-right, who uses the Rothschild conspiracy theories and similar lines of thinking to explain the vast inequalities devastating their constituencies.
Any conspiracy theory about a particular billionaire that fails to address the system at large serves a particular purpose. This is why conspiracism has become endemic, as economic crisis expands and instability becomes the established political norm: those who refuse to look at the underlying systemic inequalities require a way to explain what is happening. As Moishe Postone wrote about as early as 1986, by exceptionalizing this critique of capitalism, by focusing on the individual capitalist at the cost of the system itself, the overarching structures remain unchallenged. “[The] abstract domination of capital, which—particularly with rapid industrialization—caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry,” writes Postone, then noting that by lodging the cause of immiseration as being caused by its Jewish character rather than from the nature of its system, capitalism remains rather unscathed. This is why, as antisemitism scholar Marcel Stoetzler notes, the ideology of the Nazi Party, pieces of which claimed to offer a sort of critique of finance capitalism, "belongs into the much wider category of nationalist socialisms that affirm the capitalist mode of production but claim to be ‘anticapitalist’ in their rejection of some aspects of capitalist circulation and reproduction – greedy immoral bankers who behave like locust swarms, for example – and seek a solution to ‘the social question’ at the level of the nation." By telling a story about where capitalism went wrong, we then imply that, at least in theory, it also could go right.
Rothschild beliefs have become so ubiquitous that they have escaped the pages of crank pamphlets and into some of the most venerable scholarship in history, often carrying unproven assumptions reproduced as if established fact. For example, in Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, directly after she tells a reasonably compelling history of antisemitism, she places blame on the Rothschilds specifically for the woeful structure of modern economic oppression in Africa and banking malfeasance in Europe. The role of Jewish wealth (and Biblical “chosenness”), and the Rothschilds specifically, is overstated significantly, something that hinders her attempts to analyze the modern systems of power she claims to deconstruct. This is, perhaps, one of the lasting effects of the Rothschild conspiracy theories: they take real economic stratification and recast it through an exceptionalizing narrative misdirection, thus undermining any grasp at coherency.
This is part and parcel of the relationship that O’Connor was getting at, describing how the political Right has found a path to validate very real class antagonisms in a way that keeps the system intact and, thusly, protected. And this is where the intersection of antisemitism continues within the mainline contemporary Right rather than simply the “extremists” like neo-Nazis or Klansman. As Dan Berger wrote in 2016, antisemitism, in the form of these conspiratorial conspiracy theories and populist “critiques” of capitalism, is at the core of the MAGA movement. Trump exists as a kind of commentary on the state of modern political and economic dislocation, and he has simply provided a more thorough psychological infrastructure to redirect the anger that our widening income inequality is cultivating. What is distinct, however, is, as Berger elucidates, the primary targets of these antisemitic conspiracy theories, whether Q-Anon or the Rothschilds, were not Jews. These conspiracy narratives are an essential piece of the recent attack on trans healthcare and queer communities, on immigrants, and antifascist activists, and they are the intellectual scaffolding that is necessary to demonize these groups in nearly apocalyptic terms. So antisemitism is itself, to a degree, indistinguishable from the Right’s conception of social struggle, and the Rothschilds then exist as the perfect stand that they can build their complex of rage around.
The Rothschilds have thus become the best known branding for a longstanding attempt to pin down the phenomenon of working class alienation without naming the system that causes it. This put’s Mike Rothschild in a unique position to tell two histories: one of the fable making that accompanies this famous last name, and the ideological development the Right has made to build its constituency. Each era of the Rothschilds’ conspiracy theories say more about the politics of the period: debates over the “Gold Standard,” the role of “international finance” or military intervention, the potential of covert communists breaking through the Iron Wall, or the growth of massive conglomerates gobbling up mainstreet. The story Rothchild is telling is the story of the American political mythology, how we explain away our suffering while refusing to hold anyone responsible even remotely accountable.
Rothschild (the writer, not the globalist) ends the book by pointing out that the Rothschilds may end up being replaced by other alleged conspirators. A new figure has burst onto the scene, someone who allegedly sold out his co-religionists during the Second World War, funds both antifa and Black Lives Matter, and is behind just about every moment of civil unrest in America, all in an effort to ensure real Americans have placed their knives at each other’s throat. At one “anti-mask” rally I attended I saw one sign that said “He doesn’t want us to think.” I asked who “he” was, and the person rolled their eyes. “You must be on Soros’ payroll,” she answered, annoyed with my ignorance.
George Soros has become a new archetype of the conniving banker, an image that intermixes economic populism with covert types of bigotry. As Postone and others in the Critical Theory field have discussed, the role of someone like Soros is to coordinate different social forces that many people are experiencing as their world hits a point of flux. At the same time as “traditional life” is being displaced by urban capitalism, their sense of traditional values and social hierarchies are also being traded for a cosmopolitan multiculturalism. If both of these social changes are experienced simultaneously, then surely the two are related, and so populists can manipulate their experiences by finding a figure that can personify both changes. Why not a banker who made a killing on the derivatives market, which likely played a role in helping to destabilize the economy for working people, while also holding ostensibly liberal beliefs that many conservatives in rural and Blue Collar areas take offense to?
Whether it is Nathan Rothschild or George Soros, the purpose is always to provide a figurehead to help propel rage all in an effort to firm up a worldview that validates real anger while delivering it to political impotence. If the world is so corrupt that a cabal can run it by capturing 80% of the world’s wealth (which many Rothschild conspiracy theories claim to be true), then what value is organizing your workplace or community? If it is just one particularly bad family, then why try to replace capitalism itself with something more humane? Better to just target these bad apples, surely the system would run fairly without them.
Rothschild’s skill throughout this book, and his earlier volume on Q-Anon, is undeniable: few people would be able to tell such a factually dense tale with such a rich tapestry of characters and political intrigue. The level of research that went into Jewish Space Lasers is astounding, particularly parsing through the arcane primary sources that most conspiracy theorists themselves would have no idea were the source for their more depraved fantasies. What Rothschild accomplishes is not just the feat of research, but in his ability to make it a pleasure to read.
And since this is the political landscape we inherited, we have no choice but to make sense of it. Without that, we will end up repeating the past, letting our anger simmer until someone tells us which familiar name to direct it at.