Monday, 1 November 2010

Jonathan Evans #2: Like murderous intrigue? Join MI5!
(Also, conspiracy in ancient Rome)

As part of the recent campaign to project a more touchy-feely image (as opposed to the sneaky-watchy, breaky-entery, even hurty-killy image that has somehow emerged over the years), Jonathan Evans, the latest head of MI5, has been chatting to Martha Kearney:

MI5 boss attracted by 'intrigue' of I, Claudius - The head of MI5 had admitted he was attracted by "the intrigue" of I, Claudius as a boy as he disclosed the details of his classical education background."
(- Telegraph)

Since the Telegraph (and the Today programme, which drew my attention to the story), have emphasised the idea - not so far as I can tell explicitly reflected in the content of the interviews - that Evans was attracted to the Service by a fondness for tales of intrigue and murder in Imperial Rome, I'll happily if flippanty take their sensationalist spin a tiny step further, hence the title of this post.

On coming across this titbit, I was reminded of a book that emphasises the ubiquity of conspiracy in ancient Rome, especially perhaps in the Imperial period: Victoria Emma Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. The book starts well, emphasising for example the peculiar problems that conspiracy poses for historians:

because conspiracy is a hidden, secret event, it resists—defies—exposition. In recording any conspiracy, important facts always remain in the shadows; to tell the tale of a conspiracy is to guess at a very great deal. So how does one reveal something that is deliberately kept secret? How does one speak with any authority on matters about which one knows little or nothing for certain? Of course, all historians face uncertainty and ignorance about their subject matter at some point. For all these reasons, I maintain that a conspiracy is an ideal circumstance in which to observe how a historian confronts the limits of knowledge.

I would agree with this for the most part, though I would go further and suggest that these problems create the need for a distinctive epistemic which deals with the deviant conditions of the conspiratorial realm - 'opposed' or 'adversary' epistemics. This is analogous in some ways to 'non-ideal theory' in political philosophy - that is, theory which, in taking account of the radical complications caused by recalcitrant people who refuse to behave as one's simple, 'ideal' theory would prefer, may well become a very different beast. I'd suggest that forensics will be a useful source here, though I think I mean this in a broader sense than Pagán when she writes: Forensics, ballistics, acoustics, optics: every available scientific method has been applied and reapplied to the evidence. My conception of forensics is not merely as another word for forensic science as seen (so I understand, sniff) in those CSI programmes, but as encompassing the whole theory of what it is that detectives and prosecutors do, or rather what they ought to do, and how they ought to go about doing it.

[UPDATE 4 Nov 2010: Actually, not just detectives and prosecutors but also perhaps courts, though the standard and burden of proof need not be the same. Those are determined largely by pragmatic concerns such as the costs of trying or punishing the innocent.]

Even more encouragingly, the book is quite upfront about the motivational issues involved and the existence of bias toward the idea that the conspiracy iceberg is all tip:

it is around the gaps in the Nixon tapes and the Zapruder film that debates about the details of the conspiracies rage most fiercely. The better a historian is at negotiating these gaps, the more successful he or she is at creating a narrative that is likely to be accepted as the authoritative version, one that leaves little room for the skepticism, opinion, or imagination that can divide and thereby corrode society. A successful conspiracy narrative accounts for all the links in the chain of cause and effect and thereby contains fear and deters citizens from further unrest.

Unfortunately, the further the author gets from actual concrete history, the less convincing the story becomes. Some of the less compelling remainder of the extract (the book has not yet found its way onto the groaning shelves of my 'conspiracy theory theory' library) is repeated more or less verbatim in a follow-up article. In that place, the author observes:

Given the preponderance of conspiracies in ancient Rome, conspiracy theory is a reasonable expectation; however, so self-evident is the impact of conspiracy on the political life of the Romans that they scarcely engaged in a discourse of conspiracy theory that was not embedded in some response to a specific political crisis. As a modern sociological phenomenon, conspiracy theory was not part of the vocabulary of the ancient Romans; they did not attempt a formal definition. Conspiracy demanded action, not theory.

This seems quite right and as it should be, to me. There were lots of conspiracies, and no doubt there were theories about them, but it did not occur to the Romans (so far as we can tell) to develop a like 'conspiracy theory', as though there were something sui generis in the idea of a specifically 'conspiracy'-related theory - or even as though 'theory' were syncategorematic, awaiting the specification of a subject matter before we can give proper sense to it.

The Romans were quite right, and the theorists of 'conspiracy theory' quite wrong. We know what is meant by theory in this context - it is a factual hypothesis, which may be accorded varying degrees of credence, from the merest speculation about what is possible, to the most fervent conviction - and usually, of course, somewhere in between. There is no need for a special category 'conspiracy theory'.

Unfortunately, the author doesn't take this point (it would be a vanishingly short article if she had). Instead, she settles into the task of producing a few thousand words of belles lettres, and I have to say that a taste for the arresting paradox and the diverting turn of phrase have resulted in an article that's distinctly below-par, lacking direction, consistency and cogency. It is preoccupied with etymology and subject to many of the usual biases, often in the same breath as it warns against them. Rather unfairly perhaps, I'd select this passage for criticism:

In addition to its pejorative semantic range, the very term conspiracy theory is problematic because it embodies a certain irony. To operate, a conspiracy must leave no trace of evidence. In a conspiracy, evidence, with its root in the Latin verb videre, “to see,” is invisible. These evidential blind spots stymie the historian, whose etymology is derived from the Greek historia, a learning or knowing by inquiry. In turn, historia is rooted in the Greek verb horao, “I see.” The perfect tense, oida, from which historia derives, thus means “I have seen—and therefore I know.” Evidence of a conspiracy denies and defies visual verification. Yet theory, rooted in the Greek theorema, “the act of looking at,” is a hypothesis confirmed by observation and propounded as accounting for known facts. It starts with a set of assumptions, then makes a statement about a phenomenon that is supported by evidence. Furthermore, if the function of theory is to simplify and to explain, then conspiracy theory complicates and fails to explain. The result is a palpable tension between a theory— intended to clarify, predicated on evidence, and etymologically rooted in the notion of seeing— and a conspiracy— intended to obscure and predicated on the absence of evidence. Inherent in conspiracy theory is a dialectic between the seen and the unseen, the explainable and the inexplicable. With its every use, the term re-creates and renegotiates the disparity, giving conspiracy theory its ability to fascinate— and to frustrate. Conspiracy theory bespeaks the very epistemological rupture it attempts to mend.

The idea that conspiracy theories are driven by the need for explanation is a popular one in superficial academic treatments (most of them are), and is both unfounded as a generalisation and incapable of sustaining the pejorative connotations it's almost always imbued with. Similarly, the old chestnut about a preference for dispositional rather than situational explanations is given a canter out, though why the two shoud be seen as exclusive remains, as ever, obscure. The problem with 'dispositional' explanations is mainly that a suitably anodyne academic vocabulary hasn't been developed in which to couch them (or where it has, as in economics, the anodyne vocab does its job of obscuring the dispositional nature of explanations - terms like 'moral hazard', 'collusion' in oligopoly etc. present ordinary behaviour in a bloodless and formulaic light. This is a double-bind, whereby explicit appeal to conspiracy is dismissed as breathless vulgarism, while a soberly academic description of the same phenomena is treated as not being about conspiracy at all.)

There is also the neat paradox, amounting to little more nuanced than that conspiracy must go undetected, and therefore anything that's discovered - or, er, theorised about - isn't a conspiracy. That may pass muster as armchair aphorism but isn't going withstand any attempt to actually take it seriously as describing real events in all their ambiguity and complexity.

Secrecy does not in the general case have this all-or-nothing character. We may say it is not deterministic, but statistical; not a matter of hermetic sterility but of adequate prophylaxis. It is at least theoretically possible that there might be secrets which are so sensitive that they cannot be allowed to leak out at all, along 'house of cards' lines. They rely on being entirely hidden from view. Even the fact that there is a secret must remain hidden or all is lost. A common criminal may be in this situation - once suspected, he is very likely to find that a case can easily be assembled against him, so he must avoid coming under suspicion as a condition of avoiding detection. The Emperor's New Clothes - a fable which has great relevance to the general topic of conspiracy rhetoric - features a 'secret' like this, one so obvious that once barriers to recognising it are breached, no-one can fail to recognise it. (Of course there are many subtleties in this tale; yet another thing I must get round to writing on..) But very few of the secrets held by the kind of high-falutin conspirators we are concerned with of are likely to be of this kind.

So certainly such conspirators can allow their secrecy to be a somewhat porous affair - here the Emperor's New Clothes comes in again, for in that story there is publicity, and common knowledge of the attitudes of others in the form of observable laughter. Thus a single acknowledgement of the truth triggers universal acceptance. Things are not normally like that. A vast part of the population may be fairly certain of a conspiracy, yet if it remains a secret - or a 'secret' (again the Emperor's story is relevant to the anbiguity between self-deception and conscious suppression of dissent) to an important part of the population, including opinionators, officials, and historians, then the conspirators can sleep easy in their beds. This situation may be expected to be the norm where conspiracies are concerned, and the kind of people likely to be involved in such conspiracies are also likely to understand these mechanisms at least as well as I.

The (I have to say) rather facile and thoughtless points made by the author seem to assume that conspiracy is like a balloon - a single pinprick and all the air rushes out, breaking the thing beyond repair. In reality, conspiracies are more like a bucket - it may be a bit leaky, but a little spillage can be dealt with, and a pinhole can if necessary be repaired easily enough.

Perhaps I've been a bit unfair on Pagán - I should emphasise that if the introductory extract is anything to go by, the book is better (as you might expect) than the article. And as ever, selection bias must be considered - I haven't tried to give a rounded assessment of the article's merits here - I've focused on some specific points with which I take issue. So I'll finish with another extract from the book, and a recommendation to read the whole introduction on the web (linked above, and for convenience, here):

Most readers assume that the author strives to be understood, that he chooses modes of presentation that limit interpretive possibilities. Indeed, I argue that Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Josephus, and Appian all strive to limit interpretive possibilities and thereby contain the phenomenon of conspiracy within a strict code, so as to deter readers from entertaining the notion of conspiring against Rome. Yet the historian's ability to construct such an airtight narrative depends on his own knowledge of events and his ability to present the events — secret, hidden events at that — in a fully plausible way. In other words, the strategy of containment rests upon the historian's ability to construct a continuous narrative.

UPDATE - now Evans has given more interviews - though this charm offensive is a bit short on the charm side of things:

The recession [sic - read recession + brutal cuts] could have a long-term impact on Britain’s national security, making the country more vulnerable to terrorism, espionage and radicalism, he suggested. History had shown that previous worldwide recessions had had worrying repercussions. The security threat would depend on whether the downturn proved to be a “watershed moment”, affecting British society on a much larger scale than was now the case. [it will - again, he politely doesn't explicitly mention the cuts.] Although there was no direct relationship between economic distress and extremism, the security repercussions should the West become less economically dominant had to be kept in mind.

I don't really like the sound of that very much. for the ordering of assassinations, MI5 is emphatic. Whatever happens in Spooks, the MI5 website states categorically that it “does not kill people or arrange their assassination”.

For all I know this may well be correct - I'd be more inclined to think that such assassinations as are deemed necessary are likely to be done by other units, whether in the SIS - conventionally considered less plodding - or in other less formal - or less formally recognised - units. Of course regular military special forces have been used for open assassinations; the question is whether they or irregular units or semi-private organisations interlocked with them via retirees etc. have been (and are) used for covert assassinations (for one of the range of meanings of 'covert'). And the answer to that is likely to be yes, shurely?

[UPDATE 2-Nov-2010 10.45: typos, formatting.]


  1. What a brilliant piece - deserves wider distribution,well readership,and discussion.

  2. P. Simplex.