Critiquing the Cock-up Theory of History

When people posit Conspiracy Theories they are positing explanations; a Conspiracy Theory is an attempt to explain historical events by positing intentional actions. The leading critique against Conspiracy Theories is the Cock-up Theory of History, of which Carla Binion provides a rather humourous speciation.‘As journalist Michael Parenti has pointed out (Land of Idols, St. Martin’s Press, 1994) politicians and corporate leaders naturally work to further their own monetary and power interests, often in a “conspiratorial” manner. To believe otherwise is to believe in “Coincidence Theory” (the truly nutty idea that the interests of the very wealthy are magically maintained by chance, year after year); or “Aberration Theory” (the blind-to-historical-reality-notion that dirty CIA tricks are atypical departures from the norm); or “Stupidity Theory” (the irrational idea that the very wealthy and their intelligence-agency-protectors stupidly and repeatedly bumble their way into maintaining world domination, never using forethought); or “Somnambulist Theory” (the illogical view that world dominators sleepwalk through life without ever thinking of their vast wealth and how to keep it); or “Idiosyncrasy Theory” (the unthinking theory that “stuff just happens” in a way that furthers the interests of oil companies and other powerful folks—and that somehow it “just happens” the exact same way again and again over a long period of time.)’(Carla Binion, ‘ Conspiracy theories and real reporters’ in the Online Journal, 06-17-02, p. 3)The Cock-up Theory of History argues that most historical events are not the direct result of intended behaviour but rather the combintion of directed behaviour mediated by accident, confluence and general processes. Binion provides reasons to think that at least a certain sub-type of individuals in society have reason to engineer events in their favour, and that these people have the ability to follow through and get their intended results. I like it as a speciation of the Cock-up Theory of History (although, due to the large incidence of the word ‘cock’ in this blog I am going to get a lot of unintended traffic… which is nice). Binion’s speciation is more humorous than definitional but it works. If I conspire to have myself crowned Sun-King of France, well, I really don’t think I’ll get that far. If Rupert Murdoch conspired to do the same then I think he would have a far better chance of achieving that end (although it is another matter entirely to say that he would be able to succeed in that plan). Certain people and organisations have more ‘pull’ in society. The question is, are they actually conspiring against us, especially since most of these people are scrutinised in public far more vigorously than you or I?’Even those who look down their noses at conspiracy theories often laud the conspiratorial activities of their own particular heroes (although not under that description). Plotting and covert action were both required to win World War II. To admire Churchill, therefore, is to admire a successful conspirator.’(Pigden, Charles, ‘Popper Revisited, or What Is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?’ in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 25:1 (1995:Mar.) p.4)


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

One comment:

  1. Addiitonal: Although the Cock-up Theory of History will doubtless appear again and again let me give you the (always slightly dubious) Wikipedia entry on the term, provided to me by me old mate, Darmeus.

    Hanlon\’s Razor

Comments are closed.