Power, markets, conspiracies: The limits of WikiLeaks’ politics

by · November 12, 2012

We’re reposting below a piece I wrote for Overland’s site in September, drawing connections between the themes in the most recent Bourne movie and the WikiLeaks project. There is much more to be said about Assange and the politics of WikiLeaks than is covered here. Recently my attention was drawn to an interview with American business magazine Forbes that Assange did in late 2010, in which he outlined some of his market libertarian views:

Would you call yourself a free market proponent?

Absolutely. I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Having lived and worked in many countries, I can see the tremendous vibrancy in, say, the Malaysian telecom sector compared to U.S. sector. In the U.S. everything is vertically integrated and sewn up, so you don’t have a free market. In Malaysia, you have a broad spectrum of players, and you can see the benefits for all as a result.

How do your leaks fit into that?

To put it simply, in order for there to be a market, there has to be information. A perfect market requires perfect information.

There’s the famous lemon example in the used car market. It’s hard for buyers to tell lemons from good cars, and sellers can’t get a good price, even when they have a good car.

By making it easier to see where the problems are inside of companies, we identify the lemons. That means there’s a better market for good companies. For a market to be free, people have to know who they’re dealing with.

You’ve developed a reputation as anti-establishment and anti-institution.

Not at all. Creating a well-run establishment is a difficult thing to do, and I’ve been in countries where institutions are in a state of collapse, so I understand the difficulty of running a company. Institutions don’t come from nowhere.

It’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I’ve learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free.

WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical.

This line of thinking has been subjected to an interesting critique by the Junge Linke website, in a fascinating piece called “WikiLeaks — the state persecutes its idealists”. The essay makes the compelling point that the exercise of corporate and state power does not require a lack of transparency to operate successfully. Indeed, the real issue is that many elite crimes occur in full public view but are perceived as the inevitable way that society works. Thus, the idea that exposure of “the truth” leads in some fairly direct way to resistance is simply mistaken:

Yet, it is not information — facts — as such that gets people to oppose certain policies – but how people interpret these facts. The slaughter of Iraqi civilians by US troops is interpreted by opponents of the war in Iraq as yet another reason to stop the war. Others might take away the message that war had ugly sides yet that those are unfortunately necessary, that the insurgents are to blame since they would hide behind civilians, that those killed should not be out in the streets in a war zone or that those “subhumans” deserve no better. The facts only provide the material for verdicts, they do not determine verdicts.

There is much merit to this position, and to the authors’ insistence on the limits to Wikileaks’ “anarchism”. However, in my view the article misses how for a whole section of the population who once had greater ideological faith in systems of government and rule, the leaked revelations have revealed not just the presence of dirty dealing behind closed doors but the sense that there is in fact a systematic (and hence systemic) aspect to society’s ills. While Assange’s project has not done as much to directly undermine power as some of its defenders claim, it has been a symptom of and then contributed to the breakdown of elite authority at the ideological level.


Bourne, Assange & the politics of conspiracy

Watching The Bourne Legacy, I was struck by how it was the cinematic equivalent of WikiLeaks in more than just the glib sense that some of Julian Assange’s right-wing critics and supporters have suggested.

The film both overlaps with and extends the narrative set up by its three predecessors and, like them, is about how elite networks at the highest levels of US military-intelligence try to re-establish order after the damaging blows dealt to their super-agent program, Treadstone, by Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is the product of a sister program, Operation Outcome, which retired Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to shut down before more black ops secrets leak out, and further imperil state authority.

The first film in the series, The Bourne Identity, focused on Bourne’s struggle for personal liberation from sinister bureaucratic elites, but with each new instalment, the complexity of the conspiracy and its origins in the very heart of the state have come increasingly to the fore. The portrayal of how the elite rules looks strikingly like the picture Assange has painted of the “cognitive conspiracies” that he seeks to challenge through WikiLeaks. That is, informational and interpersonal connections that gives those “in” on the network greater power than the sum of their individual influence. Bourne and Cross disrupt those connections, thereby weakening the conspiracy.

As the core conspirators are forced to involve allies less closely knitted to them, their web increasingly frays. Despite the numerous chase scenes and explosions, what the conspirators fear most is that the truth will get out, just as WikiLeaks seeks to expose secrets as the key to breaking down the rule of the powerful.

The Bourne films are radical in that they portray our rulers as irredeemably self-interested, anti-democratic and callously violent. They are shown as operating at the head of a system that is stacked against ordinary people. Yet at the same time the movies arrive at profoundly limited and pessimistic conclusions regarding what can be done about this stacking. Either the conspirators manage to get their way (the character played by Joan Allen in the earlier films, a state functionary who turns against her bosses, is shown being effortlessly victimised and silenced in this one), or we must look to a lone, almost superhuman hero to shift the balance of forces. Or a mixture of both.

The Parallax View

We’ve been here before. Hollywood tends to incorporate anti-systemic critiques within its idioms in terms of conspiracies. This happened during the last great wave of questioning of the US state in the 1960s and 70s. Back then Hollywood produced a series of paranoia movies that portrayed US politics and society run by shadowy cliques, and which mostly ended pessimistically with the powerful restoring their ability to control and manipulate. Even the most hopeful of these, Alan J Pakula’s depiction of the Watergate scandal All The President’s Men, still relies on uniquely placed, heroic individuals (Washington Post journalists, “Deep Throat”, etc) to expose the conspiracy. The darkest is probably Pakula’s masterpiece The Parallax View, in which – despite the action being staged to occur in full public view, right out in the open – the conspirators can simply restore stability by imposing a narrative that suits their interests on the masses.

Of course, modern capitalism necessarily involves the ruling class engaging in secretive, conspiratorial behaviours in order to maintain its rule. Both WikiLeaks and Hollywood paranoia thrillers stress this aspect of domination over that of the existence of capitalist social relations, of a system of class exploitation driven by competitive accumulation. In doing this they fall back on an essentially liberal worldview. Assange has made clear he is no revolutionary who wants to see an end to capitalism but, rather, someone who wants to see more open and accountable governance. Slavoj Žižek has argued that no matter how ruthless this kind of anti-capitalist critique is, the “goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism – through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations – but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law.”

The ugly aspect of this worldview is its tendency to reduce everyone’s actions to being pawns in a sinister power game. At its most appalling there has been the accusation by some WikiLeaks supporters that the two Swedish women who allege Assange sexually assaulted them must have fabricated the claims to help the US extradite him. But more generally, this attitude both overestimates the coherence of the ruling class and underestimates the possibility of conscious collective action from below.

Perhaps there is one “conspiracy” we can learn from: Babeuf’s “conspiracy of equals”, which (however prematurely) sought to radicalise the French Revolution to create “a society based on economic equality and common ownership of property”. Far from a tiny privileged group, Babeuf’s conspiracy was focused on mass agitation. As the state prosecutor in Babeuf’s trial complained:

Their means were the publication and distribution of anarchistic newspapers, writings and pamphlets … the formation of a multitude of little clubs run by their agents; it was the establishment of organisers and flyposters; it was the corrupting of workshops; it was the infernal art of sowing false rumours and spreading false news, of stirring up the people by blaming the government for all the ills resulting from current circumstances.

This more closely resembles the building that Antonio Gramsci called an “expansive” hegemonic project, one capable of deepening the cognitive and interpersonal connections between different exploited and oppressed groups in order to not just challenge the state but replace it with an entirely different (and deeply democratic) form of societal organisation. It means relying on the mass of ordinary people and not a select, heroic minority to be the producers of such a society.

Filed under: Featured

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Paul RUBNER says:

    Your article raises the question: is there a conspiracy against Julian Assange?

    According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a conspiracy is “a combination of people for an unlawful or a reprehensible purpose,” or “an agreement so to combine, a plot.” Another definition gives the meaning of “to conspire” as to “combine secretly for an unlawful of reprehensible purpose.”

    Now, it’s true that some people think that anyone who talks about conspiracies is a “conspiracy theorist” – as if conspiracies never happen — and there are others who think the concept of “conspiracy” can never apply to governments, only to citizens.

    In this case, do the question is whether you believe there’s been no top level secret communication or planning among a combination or combinations of persons from the governments and security services of the US, UK, Sweden and Australia — initiated and led by the US — on how to extradite Assange to the US to stand trial on charges relating to the activities of WikiLeaks.

    Of course, it could be argued that even if there were such secret plotting by top circles in the above-mentioned countries – that such activities, by virtue of their being carried out by the forces of the State, cannot be unlawful or reprehensible, and hence do not meet the criteria of what it is to be a conspiracy. After all, that’s what states do, and only anarchists would think otherwise!

    To what extent the actions of the State(s) in this case are unlawful remains to be seen, if and when the full picture emerges. As for the criterion of reprehensibility, I for one regard as reprehensible the secret plotting to chase down the leader of an organisation that reveals the dirty secrets of States and Corporations. Do you?

    As regards the Swedish allegations, If you relied less on Hollywood crap, and inaccurate and misleading mainstream media reporting, and did a bit of investigative digging, you might even get the story right and have the basis for an informed interpretation.

    BTW, we all knew Assange was not an anarchist!

    Long live Babeuf!