Monday, December 6, 2010

You can't leak out a social relationship

Of the recent flood of Wikileaks articles, this one at 3 quarks daily by Robert P. Baird is like catnip to me for its references to langpo (did my three readers know that I think of myself as a poet? probably). But at any rate, it sets out quite well three possible theories of what Wikileaks could be doing:

1. "the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes 'information wants to be free' as its gospel"

2. "The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government."

3. "What Assange asks of leaked information is that it supply a third-order public good: he wants it to demonstrate that secrets cannot be securely held, and he wants it to do this so that the currency of all secrets will be debased. He wants governments-cum-conspiracies to be rendered paranoid by the leaks and therefore be left with little energy to pursue its externally focused aims."

I think I've criticized the first of these two sufficiently already. For the first, I'll just note that Wikileaks has a copy of the hacked CRU Emails. They weren't the ones to release them, as far as I know, so it hardly matters -- but still, when people go on about the benefits of techno-libertopia, I didn't think that they had in mind as one of those benefits that right-wing politicians would generate a storm of lying propaganda whenever a climate scientist used the word "trick" in an Email to another one. Naturally, people who actually have to fight against corporate propaganda in that area take a dim view of this kind of triumphialism. For more, see The Limits of Techno-Politics post here. The release of information is, by itself, apolitical, and doesn't make political content until someone uses it for something.

For the second, it should be obvious to everyone now that information is not power. Everyone knew that e.g. the justification for the Iraq War was a sack of lies. No one could do anything about it. Those levers of democratic power have long since been broken, if they ever existed. This article, for instance, takes Wikileaks to task for interfering with within-the-system public advocacy (before it, amusingly, becomes a press release about FAS's accomplishments), but what has that advocacy really accomplished? It talks about stockpile secrecy, for instance. All right, the size of the American stockpile of nuclear weapons has moved from open secret to acknowledged fact. Does that bring us any closer to getting rid of any of those weapons? No.

But I don't know if I've addressed the third. This is really the theory under which what Wikileaks is doing makes the most sense. As Baird writes: "If this sounds like sabotage, well, that’s sort of the point." Josh Marshall, in a post that reminds me what an establishment reporter he's becoming, writes "this seems more like an attack on the US government itself than an effort to inform American citizens about what their government is doing on their behalf."

At first glance, this seems like a common form of radical activism: "things must first get worse before they can get better." Everyone knows the problems with that: things get worse and stay worse. Or they get much worse than anyone anticipated. Making the American government even more paranoid than it is may not be a good idea. That would be the first line of criticism if you thought that this was likely to be effective in the form proposed.

But will it be effective as sabotage? I don't think so. I don't think that the important secrets of the government really were in the system that the leaked cables came from, which 3 million people reportedly had access to. But more importantly, I don't think that contemporary systems of power really rely on secrecy in any decisive way. Leaks are part of the ecosystem, and often appear as a tactic in attempts to embarrass people within the hierarchy. But no leak has the power to change policy. Power is held through arrangements of financial and military power, not through conspiracy. Sure, people find it comfortable to buy a media apparatus to put some glitter over the bare workings of the machine. But the hallmark of politics in our time is the non-denied truth. Did the last President of the U.S. openly have people tortured? Yeah, sure. He says so in his book. What are you going to do about it?

The title of this post is taken from "You can't blow up a social relationship", a somewhat well-known anarchist tract. In that sense, it's about my belief that it's futile to try this kind of informational sabotage. The government of the U.S. depends on people continuing their habitual social relationships, not on beliefs that can be changed by the revelation of the contents of diplomatic cables. And the government does not depend on protected channels of conspiratorial information in order to achieve competence at reacting to circumstances. It's quite clearly incompetent and is bungling every challenge of the contemporary era already. We will be out of Afghanistan not because our government will conspiratorially decide when that would be best, but because we will be driven out as the rest of our empire implodes.

Does it matter that I think that Wikileaks will be unsuccessful at this form of sabotage? No, not really. There are many recent articles criticizing Wikileaks for being newcomers, amateurs, for not knowing what they are doing. For instance, Greenwald here has a dialogue with a critic of Wikileaks, and Greenwald's defense basically agrees with the charge of amateurism but involves saying that Wikileaks is getting better at redacting the names of informers from its released documents and so on.

Well, of course the people who do Wikileaks don't know what they are doing. No one knows what they're doing! Some people know how to act within the expectations of the system, that is all. And they confuse this with knowing what they are doing. I don't think it's important that Wikileaks may be acting under what I think is an incorrect premise. They are still taking nonviolent action in something that might well turn out to be a right direction. It's better than doing nothing.

Wikileaks is, at least, helping to demolish the more important myth, the myth of American government in general. Look at all of the media and political gasbags calling for Assange to be arrested, killed, jailed for treason, or whatever other violent and stupid fantasy occupies their heads. No one can possibly justify that within the framework that American politics runs on in theory. It's tribal politics. Once people get over their Two Minute Hate, one more little bit of the facade of American exceptionalism will have fallen and shattered. And that's all to the good.

Edited to add: this event around Wikileaks is also revealing the hollowness of the capitalist Internet as enabler of change. Every familiar large company for Internet transactions -- Amazon, Paypal/Ebay, Visa, Mastercard -- has frozen or banned Wikileaks.

Also, oh please:

WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism.

If Assange wasn't currently imprisoned without bail on some trumped-up charge, this would be a "get over yourself" moment. But he is, so he can bloviate about scientific journalism if he likes. No one else can though.


  1. Meanwhile, it will be interesting for me to see if Wikileaks will be able to release the treasure trove of Wall Street bank documents, that they promised they would do, when these current docs are passed.

  2. It's the media and government who, for various reasons, are building up Assange into a Bond villain. As far as I know, Wikileaks is a distributed organization. I don't see why they wouldn't just keep releasing things even if Assange is in jail and even if their Web infrastructure is attacked in various ways.