The Multiple Meanings of “Wikileaks”
We are living in a profound historical moment. Julian Assange often seems megalomaniacal and millennial, and by now an utterance like “I believe geopolitics will be divided between pre- and post-Cablegate” is easily overlooked. But it is increasingly clear that he is right. The word and the concept Wikileaks have now become overloaded with layers of meaning. “Wikileaks” as a word and a concept can refer to any of the following:
1. the Wikileaks organization itself
2. a release of information from Wikileaks, directly or indirectly
3. the general idea of whistle-blowing through an intermediary like Wikileaks
4. any of the specific sets of information released from Wikileaks, especially the diplomatic cables also referred to as Cablegate
5. the direct consequences, conjectured or real, of Cablegate and other releases
6. the illegal attacks on the organization’s ability to run its website (the denial of service against EveryDNS)
7. the corporate attacks on the organization’s ability to run its website (Amazon and EveryDNS cutting off service)
8. the corporate attacks on the organization’s ability to receive donations (Mastercard, Visa, Paypal, and Postfinance cutting off service)
9. the rhetorical attacks calling for the prosecution, execution, or outright assassination of Assange from, among others, US politicians
10. the question of how much the US government was behind #6, #7, and #8
11. the shocking realization of how US diplomacy is really conducted (or having one’s suspicions confirmed)
12. the shocking realization of the meaning of #6, #7, and #8 for the future of an open, free internet and for free speech more generally
13. the shocking realization, both to those in positions of state power and those outside, of how drastically the internet and organizations like Wikileaks change the balance of power and the nature of interactions between states, subjects, corporations, and other non-state actors
14. the counterattacks against various websites (including Mastercard and Visa) by Anonymous in solidarity with Wikileaks (Operation Payback)
15. the realization of how the counterattacks also vividly demonstrate #13
16. the street protests on behalf of Wikileaks and Assange
17. the realization of what the US power structure’s reaction to all of the above implies about the true nature and future of liberal democracy
I’m just getting started, and I haven’t even touched upon Assange’s legal predicament and how interwoven that has become with the larger story of the different meanings of “Wikileaks” above. In common usage, the word is used to refer to some large set of meanings, or all of them. As time goes on and the story builds, many more things, including the huge forthcoming battles over free speech and due process, will also become wrapped up in this enormous Katamari.
Wikileaks has thus become a sort of Rorschach Test about the way in which the speaker thinks about the world. There are two broad reactions; two sets of people and organizations in particular feel a deep impact from recent events: those who feel an affinity for the values of internet culture, and the establishment. As John Naughton points out, the reactions to Cablegate “[represent] the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”
The Internet Side
To those who swim freely in the waters of internet, it seems in many ways a free speech and communications paradise. The corporate censorship of Wikileaks comes as a rude surprise, and a reminder that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”. Allowing a website to be viewed by a reader relies on a complex set of technologies, many of which have physical or virtual gates. Almost all of these are under the ownership of corporations, in some cases oligopolies of a few large companies. Sending money across the internet can be gated by a tri-oply: Mastercard and Visa for direct credit card payments, and Paypal for their own system. All three are currently blocking users from donating money to Wikileaks. It is striking that neither Mastercard nor Visa has, as of December 13th, 2010, issued a press release to explain to the world their actions. Paypal is part of a large, conservative company (eBay, whose former CEO recently ran as Republican candidate for governor of California), but as part of the internet culture maintains a blog and felt an obligation to communicate an explanation to its users. Its original statement, however, was quite uninformative, leading to an update that admitted “We understand that PayPal’s decision has become part of a broader story involving political, legal and free speech debates surrounding WikiLeaks’ activities.”
It is notable that Twitter and Facebook, more purely “internet companies”, whose employees and executives are much more immersed in internet culture, and whose businesses are very much linked in the public mind to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, have not cut off service to Wikileaks, although both took down accounts linked to Operation Payback.
An exemplar of the anarchic extreme of internet culture is Anonymous. Originating in the juvenile message boards of 4chan, Anonymous became a moniker for members of the site when coordinating pranks upon other sites. A couple years ago, they organized a large-scale and remarkably effective campaign against the “Church” of Scientology that included some large street protests. (The campaign got started after a leak of an internal Scientology video, BTW.) I recommend Gabriella Coleman’s fascinating examination of geek culture versus Scientology for background on Anonymous. She describes how Anonymous’s discourse is based on a largely unconscious liberal ideology, part of a history of very strong free-speech activism on the net since the early 1990s.
Anonymous‘s distributed denial-of-service attacks against the websites of Mastercard and Visa made only a small disruption to financial processing, but they certainly made the news. For many, they were a welcome sign of resistance. More remarkably, the counter-attackers are a diverse, world-wide group, presumably of mostly teenagers, united in the cause of defending Wikileaks. We see an emergence of a cultural delineation between “those who support internet freedom” and “those who oppose it”. Jay Rosen in his fertile rumination on Wikileaks termed it the first “stateless news organization”, by which he means one not rooted in the culture and laws of a particular region and state. In the same way, Anonymous (or rather subsets like WhyWeProtest) is a “stateless activist group” uniting denizens of varied nations against all the forces arrayed against Wikileaks.
Whereas Anonymous attacked Scientology partly for the lulz and partly out of a pronounced cultural aversion, its solidarity with Wikileaks is more genuine – and sincerity is in short supply in that culture. Like any revolution, the internet must defend itself, and Anonymous understands this instinctively.
The Reaction of the Establishment
Wikileaks is not an amazing technical achievement, the internet has not recently changed, and the balance of power between states and others has not suddenly shifted. Cablegate and the reactions to it have been technically possible for several years. What’s new is the simultaneous awareness across various sectors not only of how different things are now, but the recognition that the balance of power shifted several years ago and we were all unaware of it. What other surprises lurk out there? The internet has been a fantastic facilitator of the disruption of previously taken-for-granted economic structures and practices. This is really the first major disruption of the structures of political power, with Assange and his colleagues as political entrepreneurs – some, perhaps, unwitting of the revolutionary implications, but not Assange himself.
It is in this context of their sudden discovery of this vulnerability of the state, and the uncertainty around the degree of vulnerability, that we must view the extreme, emotional reactions of US politicians across the political spectrum. If ever there were a time for the establishment to go apeshit, this is it. For Cablegate/Wikileaks does not threaten merely the US state, it in fact threatens the state as an abstract entity, and by extension the entire Westphalian system of nation-states. The United States is most affected in the short-term because it is US cables that were leaked. In the medium-term it is most affected because a) it is still a hegemon and therefore it and its corporations gain the most from a powerful system of nation-states, and b) as a liberal democracy, its power rests mainly on the deception rather than the repression of its citizens and it is this deception that Cablegate undermines.
Wikileaks and Transparency are Threats to the Status Quo
Wikileaks threatens the very concept of the state? This is an astonishingly strong claim. But Assange is definitely a revolutionary, and one of the most effective in recent times. It pays to re-read War is the Health of the State with an eye to current developments. Randolph Bourne (emphasis added):
[T]he more farseeing democrats in the democracies of the Alliance [of World War One] [demanded] … democratic control of foreign policy…. Even if the country had been swung into war by steps taken secretly and announced to the public only after they had been consummated, it was felt that the attitude of the American State toward foreign policy was only a relic of the bad old days and must be superseded in the new order. The American President himself [Wilson], the liberal hope of the world, had demanded, in the eyes of the world, open diplomacy, agreements freely and openly arrived at. Did this mean a genuine transference of power in this most crucial of State functions from Government to people? Not at all. When the question recently came to a challenge in Congress, and the implications of open discussion were somewhat specifically discussed, and the desirabilities frankly commended, the President let his disapproval be known in no uncertain way. No one ever accused Mr. Wilson of not being a State idealist, and whenever democratic aspirations swung ideals too far out of the State orbit, he could be counted on to react vigorously. Here was a clear case of conflict between democratic idealism and the very crux of the concept of the State. However unthinkingly he might have been led on to encourage open diplomacy in his liberalizing program, when its implication was made vivid to him, he betrayed how mere a tool the idea had been in his mind to accentuate America’s redeeming role. Not in any sense as a serious pragmatic technique had he thought of a genuinely open diplomacy. And how could he? For the last stronghold of State power is foreign policy. It is in foreign policy that the State acts most concentratedly as the organized herd, acts with fullest sense of aggressive-power, acts with freest arbitrariness. In foreign policy, the State is most itself.… A diplomacy that was the agency of popular democratic forces in their non-State manifestations would be no diplomacy at all….
Democratic control of foreign policy is therefore a contradiction in terms.
In a nutshell: Diplomacy is war by other means.
We accept in theory but rarely in practice that the decision to go to war and to some extent its conduct should be under democratic control. Some of the releases of Wikileaks prior to Cablegate were aimed at educating citizens of the ways in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were being conducted. These had a historical parallel in the Pentagon Papers, which are by now part of the culture and lore of US law and media – the understanding is that the leaks helped a moral citizenry put an amoral state in check. The extension of this transparency to diplomacy is unprecedented. Aaron Bady dissects this double standard in “Two-handed engine”: Wikileaks, the Defense of Diplomatic Secrecy, and East Timor.
If Cablegate is effective, US foreign policy won’t be, for a state that is constrained to act morally is no state at all.
If this weren’t enough of a blow to the popular conception of liberal democracy, the aforementioned apeshit reaction to Cablegate should be. Ideals of due process are completely tossed out the window in the rush to maintain the state’s power and enact revenge against that rarity, an effective opponent of the United States. The calls for extralegal and illegal action against Assange and Wikileaks, and the high likelihood that the US government was behind corporations’ cutting off service to Wikileaks, show that underneath the façade of liberal democracy lies raw power politics – the same raw power politics exposed in the diplomatic cables.
So we are at a crossroads. Wikileaks smashed a hole in the wall of “reality”.
As Naughton says, “Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behavior; or they shut down the internet.” Liberal democracy cannot continue as we have known it. Whether we will have a fundamentally different political system or whether we will regress to something like China’s present system is up to both Western elites and Western publics.
5 thoughts on “The Wikileaks Katamari”
Good read, and a lot of interesting thoughts in here! I'm curious about a couple things:
1) What do you mean by liberal democracy? My understanding of the terms – in a theoretical context, at least – is that would be a reference to social democracy. If anything we seem to be a country politically fixated on reactionary, conservative democracy, since about 1980 or so. My education here is loose and entirely informal, though, so I may be making assumptions I don't fully understand.
2) Somebody famous and historical, I don't remember who (Thomas Jefferson?), once said something to the effect of freedom being something you have to constantly fight for. Vigilance, or something to that effect. It's a good reminder for me.
3) In light of that, Anonymous and Visa/MC/Paypal are playing rather historical roles in this exchange.
Funny thing, that. When you get to talking about this battle that way (discussing the “roles” they are playing), you end up really close to that sort of creepy post-modern abstraction that lets us feel like spectators who have faith that the directors behind the camera will figure out a way to pull off a happy ending. There's a follow-up to Soylent Green/1984/every Philip K Dick novel ever in that visual somewhere.
Anyway, I think it's that spectator mentality that's responsible for the difference between our reaction to Wikileaks' recent flurry of leaks and the 1970s' reaction to the Pentagon Papers. Every narrative we've ever borne witness to has been done by someone fulfilling a role on television, on the movie screen, even on the radio before that, or on a stage. All stories must have actors, and as we get older we have internalized this idea to the detriment of our ability to process things that happen In Real Life (I imagine that the mere existence of that term is somehow evidence of the point I'm making).
Anyway, I see that abstraction and the reality-averse thinking it encourages as the biggest problem we have right now.
Interestingly enough, because Youtube has allowed people to be their own characters and their own storytellers, and to put their own real stories on the internet, I think that we have rediscovered a certain style of genuine narrative that future generations (if they get to enjoy it) will see as the first breath of fresh air in decades. Granted, videos of kittens, drugged up kids coming home from their dentist appointments, and young teen girls practicing their booty dances isn't the fuel that drives revolutionary change, but ask Oscar Grant's family how much different their lives would be if uploading videos to Youtube was something that took special social status or technical knowledge to do.
Anyway, that turned into a lot more text than I expected, and I don't know if I recommended this to you at any point in the past, but I highly recommend David Foster Wallace's essay E Unibus Pluram about the effect television has had on the way we think in America: http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf
Thanks for the thought-provoking post, I hope to see more of them in the future!
My use of the term liberal in the phrases “liberal democracy” and “liberal ideology” refer to classically liberal in the political science sense. Classical liberals include what we usually think of as liberals, conservatives, and variants like libertarians. It’s a bedrock ideology of the West.
I’ll have more to say about the spectator mentality in another post.
Maximilian Forte says much the same thing, but more clearly over at CounterPunch.
…I'm not so sure. You have a great many more insights in this article, I think. The way you began brought up another recent memory–of something catastrophic–and that was “Hurricane Katrina.” Like the many meanings of Wikileaks, do you remember the many ways people used “Katrina”? I still recall school children saying “we're raising money to help Katrina” (which on the face of it, makes no sense at all).
Many thanks for this link, I will keep an eye out for a new posts on Wikileaks here.
Pat, thanks for the ref to E Unibus Pluram. There’s so much insight packed into that essay (44 pages). I particularly like his critique of irony. I think after 3 or 4 decades of irony, we are ready for sincerity and earnestness again. After all, we have building to do.
Interesting comment too on the internet (though he didn’t know it as that): that we’re hooked on the fantasies and the images, not the specific technology. Some people are addicted to computer games the way many are to TV, but one of the primary uses of the internet is to facilitate being social in the real world, so I think he’s wrong on that one.