December 06, 2010
What is Julian Assange Up To?
Aaron Bady won the internet last week with his explication of a pair of essays Julian Assange wrote in 2006. Paddling against a vomit-tide of epithets and empty speculations that threatened to bury Assange under a flood of banalities, Bady proposed and executed a fairly shocking procedure: he sat down and read ten pages of what Assange had actually written about the motivations and strategy behind Wikileaks.
The central insight of Bady’s analysis was the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes “information wants to be free” as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland. Noting the “certain vicious amorality about the Mark Zuckerberg-ian philosophy that all transparency is always and everywhere a good thing,” Bady argued that Assange's philosophy is crucially different:
The question for an ethical human being -- and Assange always emphasizes his ethics -- has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.
As Assange told Time: “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society.”
In his essays Assange makes no bones about wanting to “radically shift regime behavior,” and this claim to radicalism marks one difference between Wikileaks and, say, the New York Times. As Bady notes, however, by far the more important distinction lies in the way Assange wants to use transparency to cause change. The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government. In this scheme, freedom of the press, sunshine laws, and journalistic competition are all useful for prizing loose information that government actors don’t want us to see, but none of them are ends in themselves. The information they reveal is ever only propaedeutic: it needs advocacy, elections, armed uprisings, or some other activity to make real political change.
Certainly some of what Assange wants to do with Wikileaks can be explained by this model, but as Bady recognized, the 2006 essays propose a more unusual--and more interesting--reason for leaking. “Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms,” Bady explained, “precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more.” In this sense, the “nothing new to see here” posturing that followed the release of the cables in some quarters was not only something Assange had expected: it was a reaction whose anticipation led him to formulate a strategy that differed even from progressive/radical muckrakers like The Nation and Counterpunch.
Assange’s strategy starts from the premise that authoritarian governments--among which he includes the U.S. and other major and semimajor world powers--are, at root, conspiracies. Diagnosing authoritarian governments as conspiracies allows Assange, ever the hacker, to put secrecy at the heart of his political philosophy. He sees the secret (or “conspiratorial interaction”) not only as the sine qua non of the conspiracy but as the actual source of the conspiracy's power:
Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite not merely for preferment or favor within the regime but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.
From here it is not hard to see how the leak--the anti-secret--fits in. Bady’s summary is better than the texts they paraphrase:
[Assange] decides…that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment…. The idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire.
For Assange in 2006, then, the public benefit of leaked information is not the first-order good of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world (free information is its own reward), nor is it the second-order good of the muckrakers* (free information will lead the people to demand change). 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. In his words, “We can marginalise a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to, its environment.”
As Assange is the first to admit, his strategy has a history. He traces it, with understated irony, to the strategy the U.S. adopted in its fight against terrorist organizations after 9/11. Reading Bady’s piece, I recognized the strategy from a different sphere entirely: poetry.
In their most stringent formulations, the Language poets of the 1970s and 80s set forth a politically charged theory that saw ordinary language as an ally of capitalist oppression. Steve McCaffery argued that “the structural support of both literacy and capitalist economy is reference,” and in “The Dollar Value of Poetry,” Charles Bernstein argued that
the social forces hold sway in all the rules for the ‘clear’ and ‘orderly’ functioning of language and Caesar himself is the patron of our grammar books…. Regardless of what is being said, use of standard patterns of syntax and exposition effectively rebroadcast, often at a subliminal level, the basic constitutive elements of the social structure--they perpetuate them so that by constant reinforcement we are no longer aware that decisions are being made.
Here “the ‘clear’ and ‘orderly’ functioning of language” plays the same part in the Language poets’ political mythology that the clear and orderly functioning of secrecy plays in Assange’s: both are invisible agents of Caesar, up to no good for as long as no one is looking.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Language poets’ prescriptions for remedy share much with Assange’s intended interventions. If, in a favorite Langpo motto, “language control = thought control = reality control,” then it was not only possible but imperative to fight the battle for a just reality at the level of language. Just as Assange wants to debase the currency of diplomatic secrecy, so the Language poets wanted to debase the clear and orderly functioning of language. At minimum, this strategy was supposed to resist capitalistic co-option, at best, the hope was that non-referential uses of language might actively oppose that co-option. Bernstein argued that
[Language] must be decentered, community controlled, taken out of the service of the capitalist project. For now, an image of the antivirus: indigestible, intransigent.
The language of debased currencies and capitalist projects suggests an even more direct analogy to Assange’s third-order strategy. Imagine, for a moment, the whole apparatus of political secrecy redescribed in economic terms: let capital take the place of secrets, banks replace governments, and the free exchange of goods, services, and capital take the place of the normal back-and-forth of diplomatic information. Trust is the essential and vulnerable element in both systems, the critical counter to isolation and inefficiency in both diplomacy and finance. A loss of trust among diplomatic actors leads to the breakdown of backchannels and the hoarding of secrets. A loss of trust among economic actors leads to credit collapses, the paradox of thrift, and money under the mattress.
Push this redescription a step further, and you can see that what Wikileaks is trying to do to international diplomacy is not so different from what the mortgage crisis did to the economy. The cable-dump is the diplomatic equivalent of Goldman Sachs’s famous ABACUS CDO, the one it designed to go bust.
If this sounds like sabotage, well, that’s sort of the point. But it’s important to remember that unlike ABACUS, Assange’s attempted sabotage of the diplomatic economy of secrets was planned with the explicit aim of ushering in a new and better system. His 2006 essays paint him as the opposite of a nihilist, someone with a radical’s distrust of reform. Like those Marxists who hoped they saw in the financial crisis the first stirrings of a new and more just economic age, Assange looks to the diplomatic rubble he’s created for the promise of a new paradigm of government behavior.
That Wikileaks will have real-world effects is indisputable; they’ve already begun to show themselves. The real question, now, is whether those effects will look anything like what Assange hoped for them in 2006.
The financial analogy gives us reason to be skeptical. By rights the mortgage meltdown should have wiped out half of Wall Street. And yet two years after the worst of it, the banks that caused the crisis are enjoying record profits while the rest of the economy foots the bill: 10% unemployment, frozen federal pay, broke state governments, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The lesson of the crisis was unequivocal: power doesn’t have to play by rights. The State Department of the United States, we can be sure, is quite aware of this.
There's a deeper sense, however, in which Assange’s 2006 third-order strategy for Wikileaks has to count as naive. His belief that secrecy is the fundamental source of power is a version of the classic category mistake of the internet age: to imagine that the "world" of information simply is the world, that there is no remainder, nothing left to of the latter to overflow or exceed or resist the former. (The Language poets made a similar mistake in suggesting that a stylistic innovation in poetry was predictably convertible into real-world effects.)
In a recent interview at the Guardian, Assange seems aware of this problem, all but admitting that his earlier emphasis on secrecy doesn’t fit the reigning power structures of the West:
The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be ‘free’ because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free.
This diagnosis strikes me as much closer to the mark than Assange's earlier identification of government as fundamentally conspiratorial. But his earlier account at least had the virtue of justifying the leak of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables. Now the release seems freshly unexplained. After all, how, exactly, are publicized diplomatic cables supposed to affect the “web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on”? I don't know, and I'm beginning to wonder if Julian Assange does either.
* Assange has recently made more room for this second-order good in his philosophy. As he told Time: "If their behavior is revealed to the public, [governments] have one of two choices: one is to reform in such a way that they can be proud of their endeavors, and proud to display them to the public. Or the other is to lock down internally and to balkanize, and as a result, of course, cease to be as efficient as they were. To me, that is a very good outcome, because organizations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient."
Posted by Robert P. Baird at 12:30 AM | Permalink