Why do the results achieved by a conspiracy as a rule differ widely from the results aimed at? Because this is what usually happens in social life, conspiracy or no conspiracy. And this remark gives us an opportunity to formulate the main task of the theoretical social sciences. It is to trace the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions. I may give a simple example. If a man wishes urgently to buy a house in a certain district, we can safely assume that he does not wish to raise the market price of houses in that district. But the very fact that he appears on the market as a buyer will tend to raise market prices. And analogous remarks hold for the seller. Or to take an example from a very different field, if a man decides to insure his life, he is unlikely to have the intention of encouraging other people to invest their money in insurance shares. But he will do so nevertheless.
We see here clearly that not all consequences of our actions are intended consequences; and accordingly, that the conspiracy theory of society cannot be true because it amounts to the assertion that all events, even those which at first sight do not seem to be intended by anybody, are the intended results of the actions of people who are interested in these results.
It should be mentioned in this connection that Karl Marx himself was one of the first to emphasize the importance, for the social sciences, of these unintended consequences. In his more mature utterances, he says that we are all caught in the net of the social system. The capitalist is not a demoniac conspirator, but a man who is forced by circumstances to act as he does; he is no more responsible for the state of affairs than is the proletarian.
This view of Marx’s has been abandoned – perhaps for propagandist reasons, perhaps because people did not understand it – and a Vulgar Marxist Conspiracy theory has very largely replaced it. It is a come-down – the come-down from Marx to Goebbels. But it is clear that the adoption of the conspiracy theory can hardly be avoided by those who believe that they know how to make heaven on earth. The only explanation for their failure to produce this heaven is the malevolence of the devil who has a vested interest in hell.
First published in the Library of the10th International Congress of Philosophy, 1948. From Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge 1989