One of the classic throw-downs against modern conspiracism comes from Karl Popper in his book The Open Society and its Enemies, published just after the second World War. Two decades before the phrase “conspiracy theory” rode the wake of JFK’s assassination into public consciousness, Popper framed the concept in a more general sociological sense. The “conspiracy theory of society,” for him, was the idea that complex social phenomena can and should be directly traced to agents — “men or groups of men” — who conspired to bring them about. While acknowledging that history is packed with such cabals, Popper believed that if you turn that insight into an over-arching theory of society, you risk radically misrepresenting a world that is messier — more conflictual, unpredictable, and unintentional in its outcomes — than such puppet master narratives allow.
Popper was a hardcore classic liberal who helped shape the philosophical framework for the postwar order, an order that justifies itself partly through a pluralistic model of historical change that — surprise surprise — resembles democratic norms. Popper was also a “critical rationalist” who took some of his political cues from the scientific method, which he idealized as an open-ended, transparent, and collaborative search for truth.
Conspiracy theories of society were, in his view, not only simplistic, but irrational, evidence of the “secularization of religious superstition.” In the old days, he said, we would turn to the gods to explain the harsh workings of worldly fate. The 20th century, however, presents a barer landscape.
The gods are abandoned. But their place is filled by powerful men or groups — sinister pressure groups whose wickedness is responsible for all the evils we suffer from — such as the Learned Elders of Zion, or the monopolists, or the capitalists, or the imperialists.
Note here that Popper draws his sinister examples from different frequencies on the political spectrum: populism, the anti-Semitic right, Marxism. In so doing, he skates over some pretty jarring differences. There is a conceptual gulf between a hoax like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, crafted to stoke fears about the “hidden hand” of malevolent international Jewry, and the sort of sociological abstractions — “capital,” “imperialism” — that structure leftwing accounts of political economy.
On the other hand, Popper identified a common problem that all these accounts pretend to solve: definitively naming and identifying singular agents of responsibility out of the confusion, complexity, and contingency of social and political struggle. He also recognized something very important: that “religious superstition,” which we should broaden to include the mythopoetic imagination, was woven through these theories, even in secular discourses like Marxism.
One place you can really see religious phantasms rear their feverish heads is in the Manichaean rhetoric of Good and Evil that enflames so many conspiratorial and extreme political views. But I think there is something else going on as well, something that has less to do with demonizing people or positions than with trying to wrap the weird old prophetic imagination around distinctly inhuman features of modern economic reality.
Take the financial conspiracy narratives that charged American Populism in the late 19th century. These narratives emerged from the de-monetization of silver in the Coinage Act of 1873, which benefited Wall Street and other holders of gold at the expense of Southern and Western farmers. Silver advocates began speculating about the hidden agents behind the Act, which came to include British imperialists, “bankers” (often a code word for Jews), and other “secret cabals of the international gold ring.” Particularly unsettling to American nativists was the international quality of these forces. (Such globalization fears would later bloom into popular narratives about the New World Order.) While many Populists believed that the “Money Power” was rooted in Britain, this power also, in one critic’s words, “knows no boundaries except to fix its tentacles wherever the foot of industry treads or the hand of industry toils. There it puts its blood-sucking tentacles, and is putting them the world over.”
An archaeologist of the weird cannot but stumble over this image of tentacles—and blood-sucking ones at that. Coin’s Financial School, the Bible of the silver advocates, included an illustration of “The Great English Devil Fish”: an octopus, representing the Rothschild banking family, who dominated the entire world from its home in England.
One suspects the illustrator was less concerned about the Rothschilds being English than being Jews. Indeed, “blood-sucking” takes on extra resonance in light of a millennia of blood libel claims, which accused Jews of practicing the ritual murder of Christians, whose blood was sometimes supposed to be baked into matzos. The iconographic link between the octopus and Jews continues to be found in many racist illustrations leading up to the Nazi era, and beyond. Octopi litter anti-Israel Internet memes today, while in 2014, a popular German newspaper published a crude caricature of a tentacled Mark Zuckerberg, a cartoon whose just resonance with the monopoly monsters I want to highlight here was ruined by the crass dog whistle of a hook nose.
Here’s the point: while octopi images were used to dehumanize Jews, and later Communists, they also have a long association with monopoly capitalism. Polymorphous, non-mammalian, of the depths, the octopus embodied the dehumanizing reality of financial domination, market manipulation, and pervasive elite corruption that characterized the metastasizing industrial economy of the nineteenth century. But the meme abides: in 2010, Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi memorably described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Financial cephalopods started invading political cartoons in the last decades of the nineteenth century. G.F. Keller’s famous illustration “The Curse of California” was published in the satirical San Francisco magazine The Wasp in 1882, when the bilious and biting Ambrose Bierce was editor. The image rips on the Southern Pacific Railroad magnates Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford, the robber barons who form the creature’s eyeballs, and who dominated the state’s politics and economy for decades, crushing or buying off opponents and rivals, and stirring up muckraking journalists and very angry farmers. In 1880, seven settlers in the San Joaquin Valley were killed in a dispute over land titles with armed Southern Pacific heavies — a depressing tale memorialized in Frank Norris’ great 1901 novel The Octopus, the Moby Dick of California social realism.
While Keller’s illustration drips with the sort of satirical excess you expect from political cartoons, I think something deeper is going on behind this image of monstrous hybridity and ravenous predation. A mere four years after the illustration ran in The Wasp, a suit against Southern Pacific brought by the California county of Santa Clara was argued before the Supreme Court. The case became the occasion for a legal imbroglio that resulted in the stunning and epochal doctrine of “corporate personhood”: the notion that “artificial persons” like corporations should, like flesh and blood citizens, be covered by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Like Victor Frankenstein with his monster, the court had brought animism and agency to something that no-one had ever considered alive before. A new kind of entity was conjured onto the world stage: the corporate person, an egregore of enterprise, a golem of capital, technology, and law.
The incorporeal soul of the new monopoly monster was conjured, like any invocation, with language — through contracts, trust documents, and legal regulations. But its body was (and is) constituted by machines in consort with people. Given the central role that railroads played in the economy of the late nineteenth century, it’s uncanny how much the concrete morphology of rail networks resembles the more abstract reticular nature of industrial monopolies — not to mention the multiple arms and labile boundaries of the cephalopod. In The Octopus, Norris describes a railroad map:
From Coles, in the topmost corner of the map, to Yuma in the lowest, from Reno on one side to San Francisco on the other, ran the plexus of red, a veritable system of blood circulation, complicated, dividing, and reuniting, branching, splitting, extending, throwing out feelers, off-shoots, tap roots, feeders—diminutive little blood suckers that shoot out from the main jugular and went twisting up into some remote county, laying hold upon some forgotten village or town, involving it in one of a myriad branching coils, one of a hundred tentacles, drawing it, as it were, toward that centre from which all this system sprang.
We see another, more specifically urban manifestation of this technoanimist theme in “The Traction Monster” from 1899, an image by Ashcan School artist George Luks. This gritty Populist illustration bodied forth the crude Tammany Hall machinations surrounding the emergence of New York City’s subway “traction lines” at the turn of the century. Roughly a decade before Luks’ image, another cartoon portrait of more or less this same cabal also included the most Cthulhoid image I’ve found in the monopoly monster subgenre, William A. Rogers’ Harper’s illustration “The Forty T____”.
The first organized criminal gang in New York was known as the Forty Thieves, an Irish crew who emerged from the Lower East Side in the 1820s. Later in the century, the name came to drape some of those same corrupt Tammany Hall officials who eventually helped conjure the Traction Monster. In Rogers’ illustration, the Arabian Nights reference congeals into an Orientalist avatar of the city’s monopolistic corruption: a tentacled huckster who looks like he’s marched straight outta Innsmouth up north.
For all his exotic charm, there is something particularly unsettling about this figure. As with the humanoid eyeballs in the “The Curse of California,” we catch a Lovecraftian whiff of some unhallowed and monstrous coupling. Indeed, one of the purposes of the cepholopod allegory in the first place is to imaginatively blend human agency (and responsibility) with a colossal and nohuman network of economic and technological powers, operations, and connections. Exactly how all the trusts pictured in these illustrations fit together lies beyond us, but that’s part of the point: the nightmarish cephalopod resolves these complex intertwinglings into a single posthuman entity whose multitudinous tendrils are animated with the universal ichor of capital.
All the creatures pictured above are named “monopoly,” as if the fault lies with the corporate instrument of the trust rather than with any particular industry. But the final monopoly monster I have for you here appears directly under its corporate name: Standard Oil. John D. Rockefeller’s company was one of the first modern multinational corporations, a global behemoth that pioneered the combination of horizontal and vertical integration. In 1911, seven years after this image appeared in Puck, the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil was an illegal monopoly and broke the company up into the spawn we know today as Chevron, Amaco, Exxon, and Mobil. If the late nineteenth century gave birth to any proto-AI corporate archon devils, Standard Oil was top of the heap.
Here I cannot resist one of those loopy resonances that crop up as one pursues the conspiratorial imaginary. In my weird brain, Puck’s Standard Oil octopus recalls Yog-Sothoth, one of Lovecraft’s Outer Gods, at least as he (or it) is portrayed by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in the Illuminatus! trilogy. In these conspiratorial and comic novels, Yog-Sothoth is depicted as an invisible cosmic horror — a lloigor to be exact — who spends many an ancient day imprisoned in an Atlantean “Pentagon” (and presumably more recent Pentagons as well). Yog-Sothoth demands mass human sacrifice, and occasionally hijacks human vocal chords in order to communicate with his minions. In one early instance, the lloigor’s voice is described as “oily,” and though this might at first suggest another dodgy anti-Semitic stereotype, a later episode proves the adjective to be quite literal.
The voice was like crude petroleum seeping through the gravel, and, like petroleum, it was a fossil thing, the voice of a creature that had arisen on the planet when the South Pole was in the Sahara and the great cephalopods were the highest form of life.
The Lovecraftian implication here is clear: our modern petroleum-based civilization, whose extraordinary metamorphic power depends on the concentrated energy and versatility of oil, appears in the darkside imagination as the result of a sorcerous pact forged with the rotting cosmic monsters of the antediluvian age.
With their portrayal of Yog-Sothoth, Wilson and Shea do more than provide a satirical prophecy of the extraterrestrial phantasms that would come to infect conspiracy theory in our icky David Icke era. More importantly, they also underscore the same funny-but-not-so-funny lesson as the cartoon monopoly monsters pictured above: the phantasmagoria that bubbles up from “religious superstition” and macabre mythopoesis does a suprisingly good job of allegorizing abstract systems of power and economic domination. But perhaps this should not be so surprising, for these tentacled avatars of unseen forces rest on an uncanny fact: global capitalism is alive, and it is alive with an order of inhuman agents — of corporate persons — whose name, here and in later posts, is archon.
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Revelatory typo: "incoporeal" – which I guess reflects how police are the embodiment of authority
Awesome article, Erik. I can't read about the power of the negative octopus image in political art without taking a tour through the peri-natal matrix work of Stanislav Grof. One time when I was working with him on a publishing project, we were standing in a big work space in the art department, talking about the cover for his work. As part of the conversation, he busted out his powerpoint slide deck on this topic (very specifically the use of octopuses as a negative symbol in political art) and began giving an impromptu talk. Eventually, everyone in the art department was crowded around this one screen, totally fascinated.
He related the strange, magnetic power of these images to upset and disgust us (Why do pictures of octopuses seem sinister?) to negative experiences some infants experience in what he calls the third stage of the Basic Perinatal Matrix (BPM III), which include accidental strangulation with the umbilical cord, etc. Grof says that the trauma of such birth experiences is unresolved in people, and some images (such as octopuses) trigger this trauma.
In any case, not saying I buy the theory, but couldn't resist sharing here.