The Wikileaks Revolution

Posted on 10 December 2010 by


[This is the first in a series of three articles that will be devoted to the subject of Wikileaks, secrecy, the state, and transformation. This is intended as a survey of some of the opinions I have found most interesting.]

The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.” — John Perry Barlow

“Formerly, back in the days of Orwell, every power could be conceived of as a Big Brother watching over its subjects’ every move. The Orwellian prophecy came completely true once the powers that be could monitor every phone call made by the citizen, every hotel he stayed in, every toll road he took and so on and so forth. The citizen became the total victim of the watchful eye of the state. But when it transpires, as it has now, that even the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hacker’s grasp, the surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular. The state has its eye on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least every hacker – the citizens’ self-appointed avenger – can pry into the state’s every secret.” — Umberto Eco

We have certainly reached some sort of turning point, a critical crossroads between power, information, and activism, with an uncertain outcome except for one: it is certain that the future will not be merely a seamless extension of the past. Few observers disagree on that, whether speaking of the near-, middle- or long-term. One of the primary actors, Julian Assange, recently stated: “I believe geopolitics will be separated into pre and post cablegate phases.” Carne Ross, a British diplomat, wrote in similar terms: “History may now be dated pre- or post-WikiLeaks.”

But what could be different post-cablegate? One Web analyst asks a series of key questions in this vein: “Will the end result be a more repressive global Internet regime? An Internet kill switch? Online anonymity outlawed? Licensing for journalists? Or will the global political order be remade? It could become more agile, more transparent, more accountable, more distributed, more contemporary, more egalitarian.”

Others interested in international relations have commented that, “the current leaks from Wikileaks represent a reset button in international relations,” and that in rupturing the divide between what governments say and what they do, “the leaks have also established a new baseline for the conduct of international relations.” Carne Ross, in “The End of Diplomacy As We Know It,” is emphatic that “this is an event of historic importance — for all governments….the truth is that something very dramatic in the world of diplomacy has just taken place, and thus indeed in the way that the world runs its business.” What has already changed in Ross’ view? The presumption that government business can or should be secret business. Wikileaks’ disclosures are not, as Hillary Clinton likes to say, an attack on the “international community” (which in practice reduces to the hegemon, and not the “community”), rather, as Ross argues, they are “an attack on the governments that make up the current international system of diplomacy.” What changes, he says, is that “from this day forward, it will be ever more difficult for governments to claim one thing, and do another. For in making such claims, they are making themselves vulnerable to WikiLeaks of their own.” The solution for states is not a simple one—as I argued before, either the state can become so restrictive that documentation is permanently severed from and rendered useless to application, or the state can move to other forms of communication (“word of mouth” is not a viable option for gigantic centralized organizations), or do nothing at all and remain prone to more leaks. Ross argues that in fact there is “one enduring solution to the WikiLeaks problem and this is perhaps the goal of WikiLeaks….governments must close the divide between what they say, and what they do.”

The relationship between governments, media, and citizens is also threatened by Wikileaks. As Politact argues, the media have played,

“an indispensable part in the information and psychological warfare being conducted, often at the cost of authenticity and objectivity. Their audiences are increasingly finding it hard to distinguish between what is being reported to create a certain perception about the reality, and what is closer to the truth.”

What Wikileaks is an attempt to better inform the public about what is actually taking place, and the attempt to bring “public knowledge closer to what the government knows, is also a sign indicating that a significant change in US global posture might be in the offing.”

Yet, what many authors (including some I quote in this piece) often do is to conflate the state with government. Governments come and go, but states are intended as permanent structures, staffed by unelected bureaucrats, with the power to tax, and comprise the military, police, and courts. Tea Partiers—and once more this ignorance is no surprise—say they are against “big government” because they do not comprehend that what they really mean is “big state.” If Wikileaks is a challenge to Obama’s foreign policy, it is just as much if not an even greater challenge to the state. As a columnist for The Economist explained:

“The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.”

Likewise, Tom Hayden in “WikiLeaks versus the Empire” argued that we live in an “Age of Secrecy,” where the “American Way of War,” draws “the curtains over American democracy itself.” It is a secretive state that fights multiple secret wars:

“The wars in Pakistan and Yemen are secret wars. The war in Afghanistan is dominated by secret US Special Operations raids and killings. The CIA has its own secret army in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s entire record in Iraq was classified. The CIA has its own secret army in Afghanistan.”

As Hayden rightly concludes, “this controversy is about the security of the elites, not national security.” The challenge to the state is the challenge to its “prerogative of secrecy…used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents.” Wikileaks, in this view, “may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy.” The alternative to Wikileaks, says Glenn Greenwald, is “the ongoing, essentially unchallenged hegemony of the permanent National Security State, for which secrecy is the first article of faith and prime weapon.”

“Today, in the internet age,” writes Jeff Jarvis, “power shifts from those who hold secrets to those who create openness. That is our emerging reality.” Milton Mueller adds: “The new polarity is here: Internet freedom vs. state power.” It is not even the content of the leaks that matters, or that matters exclusively. As Mueller explains, what we see is,

“a clash of principles, a rupture in the rules of the game that the practitioners of US foreign policy find astonishing and threatening. And it is a rupture only made possible by the scale and transnational scope of internet-enabled communications.”

What Wikileaks has done is to throw a “hand grenade” in the U.S. modus operandi, pulling “the cloak away from this amoral, rule-free world of foreign affairs.” He rightly praises Wikileaks for revealing “the deep contradiction between traditional liberal-democratic values regarding transparent and accountable government, and the existence of a U.S. empire on the other.” Revealing this contradiction, Mueller argues that Wikileaks “seriously undercuts the practice of business as usual in American foreign policy. This is what is so unforgivable.” Wikileaks is “a new countervailing force in the world that the militarists and diplomats don’t know how to control yet.” Moreover, in the abusive reactions of the Obama government and its state power, lauded by the supposedly “anti-big government” Tea Party, which seek to censor what we see, we witness what Mueller says is the fact that, “all too often, those who claim to be defenders of freedom are its worst enemies.”

Adbusters Culturejammer HQ is appropriately euphoric, unwilling to let the counterinsurgency dogma of the state tame its subjectivity into that mangled, repressed creature, where adults are reduced to toddlers whose “safety” must be a concern, a disabled and vulnerable population to whom the state must minister its “care.” Adbusters declares instead: “Welcome to this Revolutionary Moment.” Adbusters states: “Wikileaks is exposing the corruption among the global power elites on a level never seen before. They realize that this is an existential threat to them and are starting to apply the full weight of the CIA, Espionage Act, etc., to nip this thing in the bud.” Clearly, they are right: a wide range of pressure has been brought to bear by the U.S. to suppress Wikileaks and its support network—you do not go to any such extent when something simply does not pose a threat. If Adbusters seems euphoric, they are certainly not alone. Though these are not scientific polls, they are a half-decent gauge of the determination and passion that impel people to respond to the questions—77% of respondents to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation poll say that “Wikilieaks is good for democracy.” “How do you feel about Julian Assange?” is the question of an Australian poll in The Age, with 92% answering, “Benefit to democracy.” In another poll in the same paper, 82% of respondents say “the Australian government betrayed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.”

There may now be wider, long overdue recognition that the real “insurgency” is the one being fought at home. To the state, every defiant citizen is a terrorist, in mind if not in practice. Wikileaks helps us make one thing clear: we will not enter this battle unarmed.