I have a theory I call the “Idiot Pool” theory that describes how sincere morons are used to promote insidious agendas. I suppose this is somewhat synonymous with the term “useful idiots”, but I see this as really about its specific manifestation in the neoliberal era whereas the term “useful idiots” was a McCarthy-era anticommunist propaganda tool.
There are four basic components to the “Idiot Pool” theory:
- Social Darwinism – In the main, the idiot pool requires, well, a pool. There must initially be a mass of varied and differentiated theories out there, and proponents of those theories available to expound them. A social darwinist “winner-take-all”, market-based logic is then applicable, in the sense that a hierarchy is presumed in the face of this mass of available theories in order to foster the assumption that the theories gaining the most exposure must be “better”, “more accurate”, etc.
- Earnest Belief – The proponents of key theories (i.e., the ones selected, or at least capable of selection) must sincerely believe in their theories. Ideally, the proponent of a given theory should have derived the theory herself or himself, independently. The theory cannot have the appearance of being coerced, dictated by outside forces or actors, or, importantly, being an attempt to pander to the powerful. Key theories must appear to be organically derived in a vacuum, by beautiful souls with good intentions.
- Idiocy – The theory/belief must be stupid, that is, flawed and incorrect in some significant way. Principally, this means it must have a blind spot that removes powerful forces (the curators, as identified below) from view or at least from critical scrutiny, and depoliticizes the interests of the powerful (curators). Idiocy is the purpose behind this endeavor, because, when combined with earnest belief of the proponent of a theory, the proponent is believably unaware of the flaws and blind spots in her or his theory.
- Curation (or Selection) – There must be an entity other than the proponent of a theory to select key theories for mass distribution. This entity basically holds the keys to mass media access. By being a separate entity from the proponent of a theory, there arises plausible deniability as to the idiocy of the theories being promoted. The curating entity may not be visible, and ideally is made invisible through the invocation of a meritocratic view of social darwinism. But the curator may in many situations be prominently visible, and in such cases is usually aware, or at least becomes aware, of the idiocy of the theory selected and promoted — this often manifests as the overt promotion of a theory with a whiff of theoretical plausibility that proves empirically false, or the self-serving promotion of idealistic possibilities in the face of a markedly different reality.
I devised this little theory to try to explain what I read in Astra Taylor‘s book The People’s Platform, in which she described the (right-wing libertarian) actions of Silicon Valley software companies and their owners/executives, who loudly proclaim public benefits that never materialize in the face of rampant exploitation for their own personal/corporate enrichment. I see this theory manifesting itself most prominently in the neoliberal era, and as something more subtle and prone to the “proxy” tactics of such a regime — just as, say, corporations “outsource” tasks to “contractors” in order to sever the links of responsibility and liability for their objectives, while still reaping the benefits. In this context, it just won’t do to rely only on shills. A great example of the cynicism of shills can be found in the Monty Python comedy troupe’s routine “String,” in which a character pitches a series of contradictory marketing campaigns to try to sell a worthless inventory of short bits of string, with hypocritical enthusiasm. Though such shills still play a role too, and, indeed, the use of shills simultaneously with an “idiot pool” has the benefit of drawing attention — and criticism — away from the idiot pool. As an example of idiot pool theory in real-world use, I would point to someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jordan Peterson or Alan Greenspan. See also a discussion of “courting the compatible left” and interpassivity.