What is the nature of elite rule and how can it be challenged? This is the real question behind the political crisis caused by the WikiLeaks revelations. Compared with other leaks, the scale and breadth of the information being released makes it impossible not to reassess how state and citizens interact. Despite the attempts at distraction from the powerful actors most disrupted by the leaks — whether through attacks on the legality of the operation, prosecution of its founder on apparently unrelated charges, or allegations of its potential to cause more harm than good — they have profoundly shaken already waning trust in social institutions.
Suddenly the dissembling and sheer cynicism of politicians, military chiefs, state bureaucrats, diplomats and business leaders is out in the open; emperors stand uncomfortably naked, and statecraft (both internal and external) increasingly looks like the conspiracy against the people it has always been. It should not be surprising that one response from above has been to claim that really nothing surprising has emerged, as if to render their duplicity banal when for years they have assured us of most excellent intentions. “Move along, nothing new to see here,” they might say.
A revolutionary situation?
The impact of WikiLeaks, when combined with the mass movements against austerity rapidly emerging in Europe (yes, even in post-Thatcher, post-Blair Britain), led Guy Rundle to proclaim last week that “something has happened”:
At this point, with the legitimacy of state and economy at historic lows, the three major blows of WikiLeaks have decisively shifted the power relationship between information on the one hand, and state/economy on the other. From the other end, the nations are rebelling. “Peoples of Europe, rise up” the Greek Communist Party’s slogan hung from the Acropolis chimes with WikiLeaks material and categorical challenge to the very fabric of state power, as expressed in the notion of “inviolable diplomatic communication”.
The confluence of moments is important: The collapse of the American Empire’s legitimacy through quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ideological comeuppance for the neoliberal turn represented by the Great Recession, and the secular decline of mechanisms for popular incorporation into state structures (in Australia perhaps most importantly the decline of the trade unions and their exclusion from significant state influence). Despite a prolonged period of defeats and quiescence for the subaltern classes, there is a palpable sense of systemic crisis, the very crisis that neoliberal victories were supposed to reverse.
It is important not to get carried away, to overstate the international conjuncture, which to some extent Rundle does when he says that the state’s legitimacy in controlling information flows “has had a fatal crack put in it”. But it is worth comparing today’s circumstances with Lenin’s famous account of the “three major symptoms” of a revolutionary situation:
(1) When it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.
While developments are uneven globally, it is hard to miss the fact that each of these symptoms is being expressed in a more acute fashion than we could have imagined even 12 months ago, when commentators were making much of how the GFC had produced merely a more pliant population, rather than any significant social disturbance. Much as was the case in the Great Depression, mass resistance to the crisis has taken time to emerge, not least because of the way that the state intervened in the initial financial crisis, stabilised the system, and displace it into a crisis of sovereign debt (hence, pushing its costs downwards through “austerity”). Yet even in Australia — where symptoms (2) and (3) are much less developed than in places like France or Spain — we have seen unprecedented political instability and now a state elite shaken by the barrage of leaks hitting front pages.
The point is not to suggest we are one the verge of social revolution — we are most definitely not. Rather, it is to make clear the significance of the destabilisation we are living through. Antonio Gramsci articulated this process in somewhat different language to Lenin’s:
In every country the process is different, although the content is the same. And the content is the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking, for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of broad masses … or because huge masses … have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution. A “crisis of authority” is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the state. (p. 210)
The fundamental importance of the economic crisis is not its isolation to the economic sphere but its role underpinning a more general crisis of society. In particular, because capitalist rule under neoliberalism emphasised the centrality of the economic in shaping and determining all aspects of social life, the collapse of belief in the economic project serves to undermine trust in wider institutions. Furthermore, the growth of global interconnectedness that was one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism has meant that disruptive processes (whether material or informational) spread much more quickly.
Breaking the ‘cognitive conspiracy’
For anyone concerned to rein in state power, to limit the way that elite interests work closely together to maintain their rule at our expense, the choice to side with WikiLeaks and against the state is straightforward. It is telling that some sections of the liberal and left-leaning media have expressed discomfort at the WikiLeaks project, and suggested that it is problematic because it has because it ignores the usual niceties of journalism — in particular the need to “balance” every challenge to the powerful with their side of the story. Within the Canberra press gallery this speaks in part to the way that journalists have come to see their role as being seduced into the confidence of politicians and bureaucrats, who then selectively leak newsworthy data.
But the problem runs deeper, to a general opposition to “bias” in journalism. John Birmingham comes to a version of this in his recent article in The Monthly, when he compares WikiLeaks unfavourably to an embedded reporter covering the same events in Iraq:
Unlike Julian Assange, [David] Finkel, who published an account of the botched air attack in his book The Good Soldiers, did not gather his information clandestinely or at a vast remove. Having been embedded with the troops in question he understood the world in which they fought and the infeasibility of making moral judgements during combat.
Yet despite his attempt to balance WikiLeaks’ revelations with the other side of the tale, Birmingham is only really exercising his own bias here, one that tries so hard to understand the horrible logic of the US war machine at a micro level that he reflexively sides with it as his zoom lens pulls back. It is as if the moral judgements at ground level are disconnected from the political judgements that gave us the war in the first place.
The recent circulation and analysis of Julian Assange’s theorisation of his own project reveal that the WikiLeaks founder sees his task as fundamentally political — and not journalistic. He describes elite (“unjust” and “authoritarian”) rule as a conspiracy, not in the spy movie sense but in the banal register of a set of cognitive and informational links between those involved. He speculates about the effect of breaking informational links between key players, or even trying to limit the quality of information a conspiratorial system takes in and collectively processes. Importantly, he sees the breakdown of trust between players in a conspiracy, for instance through public exposure of their secret communications, as a way of forcing conspiratorial methods of governance into dysfunction, thereby favouring more open and accountable systems.
The backbiting and finger pointing already provoked by WikiLeaks suggest that our rulers are much more uncomfortable about being in the open than they want to admit. But it is an open question whether this will achieve its ultimate aim, to force more open systems of governance to emerge.
Hegemony beyond hegemony
While it’s early days yet it would be a mistake to assume that the current crisis, driven by exposure of secret information about the inner workings of power, will automatically lead to political and social transformation. The Pentagon Papers were a seismic blow to the US ruling class, but it regrouped and reassumed its ability to pursue imperial foreign policy relatively unmolested by its citizens. Ruling class hegemony (its ability to rule through mechanisms of consent rather than naked force), even when it is deeply wounded, is reimagined and reshaped creatively in response to attack. This was Gramsci’s theoretical contribution to the Marxist understanding of the complex relations of domination and subordination within advanced capitalisms. As Christine Buci-Glucksmann wrote in her seminal study, Gramsci And The State:
… the pivotal point of Gramsci’s analysis [is] the astonishing “resistance of the state apparatus” that is specific to Western societies in developed capitalist countries. So resistant, one might say, that it forced Gramsci to reflect on a new road to socialism in this type of society, where the “organizational reserves” of the dominant classes in periods of crisis are always stronger than one would possibly suspect. (p. 11)
Hegemony, then, is not just about ideologies of consent but sophisticated “fortresses and earthworks” of structures, institutions, traditions and the networks of human relationships that bear them. All of society functions while overdetermined by the ensemble of relations of domination that serves the ruling class. Breaking the links within our rulers’ “cognitive conspiracy” is an important facet of challenging their dominance but is not, by itself, enough.
Gramsci didn’t just argue that subaltern movements must be “counter-hegemonic”, but that they must construct a new, and radically different, form of hegemony. It would be a form whose content is the overcoming of existing relations of domination, akin to Assange’s dream of a better governance, but going much further in democratising society so thoroughly that the systematic use of secrecy would become redundant and irrelevant.
This is not just the hope for a better version of the existing parliamentary arrangement, hollowed of its representative content and enticing even the its most radical participants into the exercise of power behind the backs of the people it allegedly serves. That the Greens are happy to participate in a climate change committee process hidden from public view, or that Bob Brown meets with US diplomats off the record, suggests merely how deeply entrenched and preconscious the current methodology of rule is.
Yet the emergence of radical mass movements against austerity, and their potential to inspire wider resistance in practice as well as theory, points to the beginnings of the kind of project that Gramsci envisioned. Because of the state’s “organisational reserves”, such a project cannot be created overnight and must depend on consciously building its own organisations, its own “hegemonic apparatus”. There is an important lesson to be learned here from the movement against the invasion of Iraq, which was so large and powerful the New York Times famously dubbed it a second superpower. Yet when Bush held his nerve and occupied Iraq (who says our politicians are ruled purely by short-term considerations?) the anti-war movement survived only as fragmentary structures, often mutually hostile, that could organise and fight another day. In short, our side was only in the primitive stages of building its own hegemonic apparatus, one that would be equipped to transcend partial challenges to elite power — single-issue and reformist movements — by integrating them into a national struggle.
Referring again to his “three major symptoms”, Lenin emphasised they were necessary but not sufficient:
It is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over.
Mass action requires levels of openness and democracy not afforded us by the state, but inherent in the process of building radical movements with anti-systemic potential. The system’s “crisis of authority” creates the space for open discussions about what sorts of ideas and practices might replace the existing empire of secrets and lies. WikiLeaks, intentionally or not, has given us that opportunity and it is one we would be derelict in passing up.