“THE PARANOID’S interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will,” Richard Hofstadter, a professor of American history at Columbia University wrote in one of his explorations into the nature of politics. “Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind.”
According to Hofstadter, such an enemy, created by a specific type of politician, makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.
There are politicians who simply love conspiracy theories, and love portraying themselves as the (only) ones who can detect and reveal them, or protect their nation from falling victim to such mega-plots.
In Slovakia, conspiracy rhetoric has a fairly rich tradition: numerous ministers, after losing their jobs, have described their graceless departures as part of a conspiracy by the opposition or media. When leaders see their popularity fading away or when state officials are caught receiving fat envelopes they all have a common explanation at hand: conspiracy.
Perhaps the more complicated an issue becomes – at least in terms of explaining it to the public – the more irresistible the conspiracy theory becomes for politicians.
“The crisis emerging today could have been organised in order to redistribute wealth - and I have no reason not to believe this theory,” Prime Minister Robert Fico announced in early December, speaking to his Smer party congress.
“Redistribution of wealth” is a phrase redolent of an ideology which might have moved the proletarian masses circa 1917 but seems somewhat anachronistic in 2008. That is not to say that in a world where half the population lives in extreme poverty and more than a billion people are forced to subsist on the equivalent of less than $1 a day, wealth could not be better distributed. It is rather that Fico seems to be rejecting rational economic explanations for the crisis and offering a purely speculative and ideological one, which has little value beyond the rhetorical.
What the financial crisis has provided for Fico is an opportunity to redistribute his definitions of friends and enemies. In early December he suggested that the country’s opposition “have not moved a finger during the financial crisis to help Slovakia”.
The prime minister, quoted by the SITA newswire, compared the opposition to “foes who walk behind enemy lines armed with a knife”, and asserted that they have produced proposals that would only deepen the crisis.
Politicians are prone to leap on both ecstatic and traumatising events alike in order to gather votes. Even when they do not, the media speculate that they are trying to. But in return Fico sees conspiracy against his government behind every critical story that appears in the media.
Fico used the Smer congress to reproach banks for being tight-fisted when it comes to providing loans during the financial crisis and noted that he thinks their loans fees are also too high. The prime minister then warned the banks that his party might just produce a law to simply cap their fees.
“Smer must now pose the justified question of whether we are going to tolerate the paradoxical situation in which those who caused this crisis - financiers and bankers, the ones who caused today’s crisis - are with their conservative attitude causing serious problem to the economic sector, which has real difficulty accessing funds,” Fico said, as quoted by the ČTK newswire.
Indeed, the business sector, and specifically real estate developers, have been repeating that a lot now hinges on the willingness of banks to finance certain projects. At the same time, the banks’ caution could weed out speculative projects and streamline the business environment. Either way, Slovakia’s banks, which have several times been declared to be functioning healthily, will still have to find their balance. It is highly questionable whether statements such as the prime minister’s will do much to hasten this process.
But Fico’s voters obviously want to be told who is to blame for the crisis and it is unlikely that they will accept complicated economic theories, or explanations which detail the origins of the sub-prime crisis – itself, in part, a consequence of unaffordable loans being offered to masses of someone else’s voters. Much easier to offer a generous helping of conspiracy with a seasoning of hope.
15. Dec 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová