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A Milkman Conspiracy is any conspiracy operating from an organization so pathetically uninfluential that it should by all rights barely be able to overcome zoning regulations, yet is somehow able to sink its fangs into vast swathes of the Earth. Named for a level of Psychonauts in which the paranoid fantasies of one of the characters involve being a milkman-spy at the center of a war between an army of secret agents and... a troop of homicidal Girl Scouts.
Anime & Manga
- In Read or Die spinoff Read or Die the TV, the governments of the world are all merely puppets, secretly being controlled by that wretched hive of scum and villainy: The British Library.
- In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, the mastermind behind everything turns out to be Miyo Takano, AKA Droopy-tan, the nurse at the Irie Clinic who looks perpetually stoned.
- The card game Illuminati occasionally displays this. While you typically need to have groups that would logically be powerful, small ones help you out as well; people can win by taking control of the Furries.
- In Hot Fuzz, a vast campaign of murder and intimidation is covered up by a conspiracy of a few village shops, the local pub, and the local Inspector, all for the purposes of ensuring they continue to win the "Village of the Year" award.
- The 1967 film The Presidents Analyst features a plot to enslave all humanity masterminded by TPC (The Phone Company). Arguably, this group, or at least its real-world equivalent, does actually have (or at least used to have) a bit more power and influence than most in this list.
- Hilarious subversion in the film The Stupids. The titular family believe they've uncovered one of these, involving the police, garbage collectors, the New York Times, the local deli, the local Chinese restaurant, and bees (my God) to steal all the world's mail and deliver it to a man called "Sender" (Christopher Lee!) (because the father, who used to be a mailman, got suspicious about all those letters that said "return to sender"). The twist is that, not only does this conspiracy not exist, but in their efforts to thwart it, the Stupids manage to mess up an actually dangerous conspiracy entirely by accident. Oh, and they find Sender, and he turns out to be, not Christopher Lee, but Bob Keeshan!
- The "purely philanthtopic" International Brotherhood for the Assistance of Stateless Persons is actually a front for SPECTRE. MI 6 has Universal Exports, which deals in, well, exports.
- Auric Enterprises, an international jewellers, is engaged in gold smuggling, murder, nuclear terrorism and conspiracy with Red China.
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service. A laboratory in the Swiss Alps for curing allergies is Blofeld's secret bio-weapons facility for developing bacteria designed to cause sterility in plants and animals of his choice, presumably including humanity itself.
- Inverted in Diamonds Are Forever, where the billionaire Willard Whyte's enterprises have been hijacked by Blofeld to engage in diamond smuggling and terrorism... all controlled from a hotel in Vegas.
- The Fillet of Soul Jazz Bars all seem to have secret lairs behind the booths or underground. They are part of a massive heroin ring run by drug baron Mr Big for Caribbean dictator Doctor Kananga who are actually the same person, through which is employed nearly every black person everywhere.
- The Stromberg Shipping Line hijacks nuclear submarines in a bid to start World War Three and restart civilization in an underwater city.
- Drax Industries' Moonraker space shuttle programme wants to wipe out humanity and start over with a race of ubermenschen astronauts.
- The Carver Media Group blackmails the President into signing bills, sells software filled with bugs to force buyers to constantly upgrade, may or may not have run Mad Cow Disease stories out of revenge because the boss was owed money from a British beef baron from a poker game who refused to pay (and then ran the stories for another year because the French paid him to do so), and engages in murder, conspiracy, and a plot to bring the world to the brink of World War Three in a bid to get broadcasting rights in China, for which end it sinks a British navy ship (after sending it off course into Chinese waters), steals a ballistic missile from it, and frames them for shooting down a Chinese fighter jet, before shooting all the survivors with Chinese ammunition in time for the morning edition. Allegedly able "to topple governments with a single broadcast", and appears to engineer disasters regularly for the sake of ratings, which also allows them to be the first to report on events. The bosses' motto is "There's no news like bad news" which is exemplified in this little exchange:
Newsman: Floods in Pakistan, riots in Paris and a plane crash in California.
- Greene Planet, a Greenpeace-style organization, is part of a grander Illuminati-like group and is responsible for setting up dictators and monopolizing Bolivia's water supply, causing massive drought, as well as accusing the government of selling thousands of acres of rainforest to greedy developers to cut down even though they actually sold them to Greene Planet, who then sold them to the developers. Manages to get the CIA involved too.
- In Dr. Strangelove, General Ripper tries to start nuclear war with the Russians over one such conspiracy. While tampering with our water supply would be a good way to deal a lethal blow to major population centers in the United States, Ripper comes to the conclusion that the Russians are doing this because when he tried having sex his "essence" was denied exit from his body. If he had seen people dying or getting sick from drinking water then there would be some validity to Ripper's claim, but as it stands The General brought on nuclear war with Russia just because he couldn't get it up.
- In The Demon Headmaster series, the
headteacherheadmaster of a small comprehensive secondary school attempts to take over the world using (in order): a school, a computer summer camp, a Merchandise-Driven TV show, a small-time lab, a university computer lab and, most amusingly, a nightclub.
- In The Illuminatus! Trilogy, the real Illuminati, the one of which Hagbard Celine is Primus, maintains its control over world affairs by operating through Discordians and anarchists, two groups of people who by their very nature are disorganized and individualistic.
- Tom Holt's books feature a literal milkman conspiracy as imagined by Danny Bennett, a journalist hellbent on proving that the real power behind world governments lies with... the Milk Marketing Board.
- The Crying of Lot 49 features a vast conspiracy which is either a secret postal service masquerading as a swingers' club, or an eccentric dead man's estate masquerading as an secret postal service masquerading as a swingers' club, for a prank. Needless to say, the protagonist's just as confused as you are. Don't expect anything to be explained.
- W.A.S.T.E - We Await Silent Tristero's Empire.
- V.F.D. in A Series of Unfortunate Events sometimes resembles this; many of its members work as teachers, librarians, or taxi drivers (hence, it is strongly implied that such innocuous-seeming people in the reader's own life could be involved), and they often carry out plots in bizarre, inefficient ways.
- And V.F.D. itself stands for Volunteer Fire Department.
- In the book Michaelmas, the benevolent secret ruler of the planet is a respected TV journalist in the Walter Cronkite mode.
- In Catch-22, Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder (magnificent bastard extraordinaire ) is only the head of the mess hall, but manages to become more powerful than any of the generals by organizing a vast international trading company through the mess hall.
- By the same token, ex-PFC (yes, ex-Private First Class) Wintergreen, the mail room clerk, is the most powerful man in the US Army and the de facto European Commander because he handles all significant communications between the brass and every time he sees an order he doesn't like, he chucks it in the trash. At one point it is claimed that he delayed the Normandy invasion until more armor was committed.
- The Dark Heresy novel Scourge the Heretic briefly mentions this when it becomes apparent that a people-smuggling conspiracy has its hideout in a former mining shaft now in use for growing mushrooms (by the Fraternity of Comestibles for the Cultivation of Edible Fungi), though it's immediately noted that they probably just don't have any idea what goes on in their holdings.
- Brandon Sanderson's middle-grade series Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. The librarians secretly control the whole world (or what we Hushlanders know of it, anyway.) Though if you think about it, knowledge IS power...
- Deconstructed in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: Nemo and his crew use the submarine Nautilus as a means to loot lost sunken treasures, which they use to finance insurrections against imperialistic nations, and more directly as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (for its time) against one of those nations. They have severed all contact to the civilized world and get all their resources from the sea, have created their own language, and have reached and claimed the South Pole. The Nautilus is truly a new society with NGO Superpower status composed of... less than sixty persons. Less than four years after its creation, Nemo's existence has been discovered by The Empire, all the Western nations have organized against them and are chasing them implacably. Their numbers are declining because of war casualties and normal accidents, and the leader, charismatic Captain Nemo is not only bitterly aware that their days are numbered (he plans to use a Message in a Bottle when the last of the crew die, so all his sea research would not be lost), but is slowly breaking down as a result of using a Weapon of Mass Destruction to cross the Moral Event Horizon once and again.
- Vaguely implied in Lord Dunsany's short story Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn. The Ancient Company of Milkmen seems to be hiding, or be aware of, some dark secret, but we're never told exactly why it is that the Milkman shudders when he perceives the dawn.
- One of Isaac Asimov's "Black Widowers" mysteries had Black Widower Manny Rubin, a writer, complaining because a story idea about an international conspiracy of locksmiths — no secret is safe from people who can open any lock — was rejected as being unrealistic.
Live Action TV
- British TV show The Avengers featured another literal Milkman Conspiracy in the episode "False Witness", with the added twist that the dairy produced was absolutely central to their scheme. The series also featured, on other occasions, sinister cabals of nannies, window cleaners, hoteliers, romance novelists, secretaries, farmers and retired Vaudeville performers.
- -and don't forget the 'British Fanatics' who killed government ministers by tricking them into getting off trains at disused stations, and then murdering them. Why? Because the trains no longer run on time under the current government...
- Community does this hilariously with the Greendale Air Conditioner Repair School, and one of John Goodman's greatest monologues.
Vice Dean Laybourne: Mr. Barnes, air conditioning repair is an elite, worldwide family dating back to the very beginnings of civilizations. Our predecessors were slaves, fanning the pharohs with palm fronds. Over time, we became expert at making our superiors comfortable. We made it our business. And along the way, we learned to make ourselves comfortable. No more palm fronds, Troy, now we are the pharohs.
- In the Devil Fish episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike and the Bots start making fun of Dolphins, only to find out that Dolphins are a space-faring race that attack the Satellite. Later, Mike gets cocky and starts teasing an electrician, only for him to call in his dolphin buddies to start blasting the Satellite again.
- The Regents in Warehouse 13 have regular day jobs (one of them is a waitress at a diner), despite being in possession of the most dangerous artifacts in the history of the world. Subverted in that they are not evil and have no goals of world domination. In fact, their goal is to protect humanity from dangerous items and has been for thousands of years.
- One episode of Monk featured a secret ring of chambermaids that used confidential information left lying around in hotel rooms to engage in insider trading. When one of their number wants out (or did she want more money? or was she a new girl who stumbled onto their secret? I don't recall), they kill her and use their position and near-invisibility to disappear the body and cover up the crime to the point where Monk looks like (more of) a lunatic for even trying to investigate.
- In the "Secret Service Dentistry" sketch for Monty Python's Flying Circus, the hapless protagonist Lemming finds himself caught in the middle of an elaborate spy game between the British Dental Association and a conspiracy of evil dentists working under the employ of the Big Cheese. And then it turned out that Lemming was himself a member of the BDA
- In Red vs. Blue, a bizarre Milkman Conspiracy is set off when Vic, the obnoxious dispatch operator back at "Blue Army Headquarters," is told, in the past after some time travel, that "Red and Blue are the same thing." Vic takes this literally and it eventually turned out that because of all this, the commander-in-chief of both Red and Blue armies is, in fact, Vic, who has been setting them at war with one another over one offhand comment.
- The conspiracy deepens: Vic manages to do this because he's actually the computer that's running the Capture the Flag game that everyone is playing. At least, that's what the last episode implied.
- It should be noted that in the end, it's not really a Milkman Conspiracy, it only appears to be one. The truth is even more complicated. In short, both the Red Army and the Blue Army are made up of rejects from the regular army on training bases controlled by the Freelancer Project. Scenarios are set up on these bases to train Freelancers, all of whom are aware of the deception while the "simulation troopers" are not. However, simulation troopers who do well enough are apparently shuffled back into the regular army, such as Donut (apparently?) and Tucker.
- The title characters in the Modesty Blaise story "The Head Girls" are spies who are trained as secretaries, then placed with high ranking scientists and government officials, giving them access to their bosses' secrets.
- Tabletop role playing game example: the Mak Attax cabal in Unknown Armies who have infiltrated "the world's largest fast-food chain" in order to spread magic randomly through the population. It is also heavily implied that they saved the world from disaster at least once, by performing a powerful ritual on the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999.
- Another Tabletop RPG, JAGS Wonderland, has the Orange-Peel Men, Whirls who gather together to try to control Chessboard Zero, but only influence it in exceedingly strange ways, such as trying to get people to adhere to Red Shirt Tuesday.
- Killer 7 has the United States government controlled by Japan. This isn't so bad, except their method of control is by hypereducating and brainwashing the students of a single elementary school. In Seattle. Oh, and the principal is Harman Smith. Not to mention the fact that US Presidential Elections are rigged by the Education Ministry, who also have the power to authorize global war against both the US and Japan.
- In Resident Evil 4, los Iluminados, a cult led by Ozmund Saddler, are a bunch of Spanish farmers and zealots... with an island fully equipped and devoted to studying the Plaga parasite and creating many types of monsters. Still, they are only farmers.
- The teams in Team Fortress 2 operate this way. Reliable Excavation and Demolition and the Builders' League United are fronts for two organizations that secretly control every government in the world and are constantly at war with each other. Signs in the game's maps reveal more fronts for these organizations, such as Red Bread and Blu Corn. It's hinted that every major corporation in the world ultimately has ties to one or the other.
- Of course, it reaches a new level when you find out that they're both run by the same handful of people apparently out of misanthropy and spite.
- In season 2 of Sam and Max Freelance Police, the mysterious "Them" that has Bosco living in fear is revealed to be three mariachis (actually, three time-shifted versions of the same mariachi) who travel through time and space so they can perform at every birthday ever.
- There is some truth in that Bosco is also being watched by Flint Paper. He was hired by Mama Bosco to find the one that ruined her store in the 60s. Someone's been spying on poor Bosco since before he was born.
- In season 1, it's revealed the government does spy on Bosco. And keep nukes aimed at his shop! It's not paranoia if you're right!
- Trope Namer: The famous Psychonauts level. Although in this case the conspiracy is all in the head of the one man who knows about it. No, literally; the conspiracy is carried out by constructs within his mind, who represent the mental blocks that prevent his destructively psychotic, hypnotically implanted alter-ego from surfacing until he's been given a code phrase, and challenged by other constructs which represent his attempts to sort out what it is he won't let himself know. Except he suspects himself as much as anyone else, so he fears both sets of constructs equally.
- Narbonic features a vast conspiratorial organization made up solely of guys named Dave. All the guys in the world named Dave. At one point, protagonist Dave Davenport gets kicked out and his name becomes David. The other protagonists don't care and decide to keep calling him Dave anyway.
- In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, a rivalry between raptor-riding banditos and a man so ripped that he grew a fart-fueled jetpack is revealed to have been the result of a sinister plan orchestrated by the local Fox affiliate's 10 o'clock news. The plan is foiled, however, by the weatherman.
- In The Simpsons, a secret colony of super-powerful elves extend their influence... through horse racing.
- Also in The Simpsons, the Freemason-esque "Stonecutters" are shown to have infiltrated the Egg Council, for their own nefarious ends--and also claim to control the British crown, keep the metric system down, and keep Atlantis off the map.
- Also, while under the effects of an ADD drug, Bart discovers the secret machinations of... Major League Baseball.
- Not to mention that every time a book is scanned at your local bookstore, it sends a coded message directly to Al Gore's office.
- Or the cabal who fill flu vaccine with some sort of drug to increase sales during the Christmas shopping season. Curse, I've said too much. Down Rover, Down!
- In The Boondocks, Huey Freeman believes that every white man is in on the conspiracy, and that you can't bribe them with cheese.
- In the Centurions episode "Max Ray... Traitor", Max becomes a Fake Defector to infiltrate a network of spies who disguise themselves as janitors.
- Dexter's Laboratory had a Suck E. Cheese's which was a front for an secret organization which made a We Can Rule Together offer to Dexter.
- Ben 10, at least before the Time Skip. The world's last, best defense against the alien supermenaces (apart from Ben) are "Plumbers", guys who spend most of their time in blue collar jobs such as crossing guards, electricians, school teachers and most likely, actual plumbers. When aliens show up, they drag the battlesuit out from the back of the closet and fire up the laser rays they keep in a false bottom.
- In Teen Titans, Beast Boy discovers that the local burger chain hides a conspiracy of alien cows who are plotting to enslave mankind. The episode is called "Employee of the Month". Intelligent space tofu kidnaps cows to use as fuel while selling a "Meaty Meaty" substitute through a store front managed by an android made of tofu. Better Than It Sounds.
- The villain in the final episode of the first series of Invader Zim masterminded her plan to wreck the earth from a hotdog stand. Which was bigger than an office building.
- Arguably South Park falls into this trope with some of the weird conspiracies it's shown. One involved a club of fourth-grade girls whose leaders forged a vote over boys' cuteness in order to get shoes. It ends with a gunfight on the roof of the school, of course.
- Phase 1: Collect Underpants. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Profit.
- Imagine if Cobra Command was a real-life secret terrorist group as well as the famous fictional organization. This is the case in The Venture Bros, except replace "Cobra Command" with "The Guild of Calamitous Intent".
- The storybook/audio tapes that came with the "Secret Army Supplies" toy line from the late '80s had one of these. The titular military organization is so secret that it officially doesn't exist. It is run from the headquarters of Electronic Export Services, and performs classified missions to kidnap scientists, prevent the Soviets from taking control of the world's oil market and so forth.