Which States? Which Secrets? Secrets from Whom?


From the journal of the World Policy Institute comes The Big Question for its Fall issue on Secrecy and Security. I have maintained a research interest in the area of the anthropology of secrecy, and understandings of power in connection with secrecy in both anthropological theory and in the work of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (more to come in print). Among the contributions addressing this question is the one that I provided and which I reproduce below–I recommend reading all of the contributions that precede and follow it:

“Secret From Whom?”

Not all goverments are alike. There are not just differences in ideology, but also in the varying capacities of states which governments rule. Moreover, each is differently situated in terms of power in a global context. Strategies and objectives vis-à-vis citizens and other nation-states thus vary widely. So-called weaker states of the “periphery,” formerly colonized nations, especially those which are the targets of covert war, economic destabilization, and political inference both by more powerful states and by multilateral financial institutions, have historically been the ones with the most to lose from “openness” (whether voluntary, or as in most cases, coerced).

The question of what governments should keep secret also implies a second question: secret from whom? Here questions of legitimacy arise, and legitimacy is differently grounded and constituted across diverse societies. It is already understood that all governments attempt to restrict access to some information so it can be circulated among limited numbers of appointed agents and specialists. Secrecy is not so much about the “unknowable,” as it is about who gets to “tell” to whom, and when. Secrecy is embedded in relations of trust and notions of responsibility, but it can also impede accountability. Power is also the basis of secrecy, and sometimes secrecy is pursued for the sake of it— to entrench or advance that power. Secrecy is thus more about the power to set the rules governing knowledge acquisition than it is about the empirical content of the knowledge itself. Therefore, a catalogue of essentially secret information is not a productive avenue of inquiry either: the answer will not only be highly variable given the diverse power and policies of states worldwide, but it will also be very contingent and in constant flux.

To summarize an already small answer to a big question, my aim here was to get away from essentializing “the state,” as is commonly done by both anarchists and neoliberals in our own society. Presumptions of universality when it comes to “the state” tend to be largely overstated, and often not grounded in some very nasty realities. The intention was to hint at the landscape of very different states, occupying varied positions of power in the world-system, and to move the question away from one of keeping secrets from “the public,” to also keeping secrets from imperial powers with hostile intent (something that Brazilian leaders are learning about, and fiercely reacting against right as we speak). Not too surprising then, given my past critiques of “open access” fetishism in the social sciences. My final point was about the futility of trying to identify the “secrets” that states should keep.

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