Not too long ago, I read Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia, which covers conspiracy culture in US political history, ranging from colonial fears of Indian insurrection to 9/11 truthers. Where Walker’s book excelled compared to others I’ve read on the subject is his decision to focus on paranoia as opposed to conspiracism, thereby avoiding the pedantic delimiting of the grey area between the two. His thesis, in simple terms, is that a) paranoid thinking has played a non-neglible role in American history since its beginnings and b) that despite claims by other researchers of the subject (especially Hofstadter), this paranoia is not only prevalent on the fringes. Walker makes a point of refuting claims that it is only during extreme cases that paranoia becomes rampant across the political and social spectrum (e.g. the Satanism scares in the 1980s). While he accomplishes this, he does so at the expense of a useful taxonomy of paranoia/conspiracism. Walker defines five types of paranoia that can be mixed and matched, namely the Enemy Within, the Enemy Outside, the Enemy Below, the Enemy Above, and the Benevolent Conspiracy. Walker’s desire to prove that paranoia is not only on the fringes limits the depth of what is otherwise a fantastic overview of the subject. In the aim of furthering his thesis, Walker created a taxonomy in which the only valid distinction is who is the subject of paranoia, but where the degree of paranoia is irrelevant. So within Walker’s taxonomy, a man who has been investigating the banking industry for decades and considers it completely untrustworthy, an economic populist who distrusts centralized banking as part of a broader political view, and a man who believes that all the banks in the world are owned by the Rothschilds to further a Zionist new world order, would all fall into the same category of paranoia. Walker’s categories are insufficient.
But speaking of conspiracy, rather than paranoia in general, how should a taxonomy be devised? The main goal is to identify useful distinctions. I don’t think there’s a significant distinction between someone who believes the CIA killed Kennedy because he was getting in their way and someone who thinks the FBI killed Kennedy because he was getting in their way, although the belief that he was killed because he was going to publicize the existence of reptilian overlords would be significantly different. I have a tentative taxonomy of conspiracy theories that consists of two factors: scope and perpetrators.
Scope can be broken down into only two categories: limited and open-ended. Every real-world conspiracy theory (from the Tuskegee experiments to Iran-Contra) has fallen into the former category. A limited conspiracy is the use of conspiracy for ultimately non-conspiratorial ends. The moon-landing being faked for the propaganda purposes would fall under this category, because “winning the cold war” isn’t conspiratorial. This is not to say that the ends achieved by a limited conspiracy must be legitimate. Some flat-earthers believe that the reason governments keep the earth’s shape a secret is so they can use the space programs as shell companies to shuffle money around off the books. While hiding funds may be conspiratorial in a legal sense, it isn’t anymore conspiratorial than the claim that “the government doesn’t always want us to know what it does with all its money.” If, however, a flat-earther believes that the governments of the world were hiding the shape of the planet so they could funnel money to create a single world government to enslave us all, then this would be an open-ended conspiracy. People who believe that the contrails from planes are actually chemicals designed to affect the public, tend to fall into the open-ended category, as the purpose of the chemtrails is generally part of a larger, more sinister ploy. Notably, most open-ended conspiracies tend to focus on a new world order, often some form of single world government. Whether this is run by the Illuminati, the Jews, the Jesuits, the Reptilians, Satan, etc. depends largely on when and where the conspiracy arises.
The second taxonomy, perpetrators, can be split into three categories, which I call: Mostly Harmless, Partisan, and Cabal. While I’ve named this “perpetrators,” this is more than just a simple cui bono? As indicated by the first category of perpetrator, the supposed victims of the conspiracy are taken into account. In the first category, even according to the conspiracists, there is little actual harm done. At most, it’s the truth that is harmed, and the deception is itself the greatest evil involved. Who benefits is, I believe, of secondary importance in these examples. Those who believe that the moon landing was faked or that evidence of Bigfoot is being systematically hidden would fall into this category. No one is being seriously harmed by the perpetuation of these conspiracies. Children aren’t being pimped out of a pizza parlor, skyscrapers aren’t being blown up, aliens aren’t taking over the earth.
“Partisan” would refer to cases where there is one large group that benefits at the expense of another. While only a small number of people need be aware of the actual conspiracy, it benefits the entire group. Some of those who believe that the Sandy Hook shooting was a ploy to enact gun control laws would fall into this group. Within this conspiracy, only a small number of people would actually be complicit, but all who advocated for gun control in its wake would benefit. Likewise people who thought that the Bush administration was responsible for 9/11 to aid the popularity of Bush and his party, or that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to happen to stymie isolationists. It should be noted that many Partisan conspiracies focus on the same events as “Cabal” conspiracies. The main difference between the two is that in the latter, it is only the conspirators who benefit, not everyone on their side. (e.g. people who believe that Sandy Hook was meant to lead to the confiscation of guns and the enslavement of all Americans, regardless of their position on gun control, would fall into the “Cabal” group).
I think the best example of a Cabal conspiracy is the anti-vaxxers. In their view, the medical industry is intentionally giving kids autism. Most people who are pro-vaccine are not part of the conspiracy, but as opposed to liberals who participate in “the war on Christmas,” those who unwittingly aid the conspirators are themselves harmed. The Cabal can also be clandestine. As opposed to something as visible and publicly debated as anti-vaxxers, this could be a Rothschild secretly tightening control on the banking systems, waiting for the right time to strike.