WikiLeaks: Power and the Network


Wikileaks is everywhere. The fall-out from the recent release of US diplomatic cables is everywhere causing havoc, raising blood pressure, embarrassing petty local upstarts and great powers all at the same time, and emboldening impressive demonstrations of solidarity by hackers, A-list celebrities, representatives of the ‘new class’ everywhere and civil rights lawyers. Julian Assange’s arrest, and the legitimacy of his actions as a member of the media, albeit of a new form, in the face of US threats to silence him by one means or another, do indeed require action: broad support for his mission to bring greater ‘truth’ to dealings between governments and their peoples; and for the rule of law, rather than the lynching mob (Palin) or the Machiavellian ‘conspiracy’ (Clinton), to come into play.

We can expect to see much more of both, however—crude assertions of power and legitimacy and the right to take violent retribution, in which camp so far Julia Gillard sits; and the Machiavellian playing out of strategies to trap and undermine Assange, to which, of course, we will not really be privy, but which in this now heightened atmosphere of conspiracy we will tend to see everywhere. And this is almost certainly where the Powers will ultimately win out. While being collectively alert to the possibility of ‘conspiracy’ may seem politically responsible, which is one of Assange’s aims, it may be this mindset itself that will make it hard, ultimately, to tell truth from lies, reality from fabrication. Assange is giving the public the opportunity to ‘see for themselves’, rather have others interpret for them, what is ‘really going on’ behind closed doors. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories by their nature mire us in more conspiracy, flooding the scene with undecidables.

The leaks themselves are being hailed in various guises, depending on who is doing the talking. As pointed out by Jonathan Holmes, Assange himself knows well enough that many of the leaks show no actual wrong doing, and his interest in revealing them has more to do with his overarching political philosophy (more of which in a moment) than the specific information in them. Needless to say, many of the cables are very substantial indeed in their content and are both politically explosive and revealing of attitudes and actions of profound importance. For Australia, perhaps, the most significant are the cables that reveal US and Australian government anxiety about the rising power of China, and the expression of US interests in maintaining a sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, we not only get to see Australia’s pathetic subservience to the United States in the likes of ALP power broker Mark Arbib (and many others); we must also come to see more clearly just how important Australia is likely to be in this particular strategy, and how integrated into the US military/intelligence complex we may have to become for it to succeed (see Richard Tanter’s article in this issue of Arena Magazine).

But the underlying story in all this is not the content but the form—the form of the vehicle that brings the revelations in this mass (apparently) uninterpreted form, and the claims that are being made of it. As various commentators have pointed out, Assange is no simple whistleblower. Indeed he appears to have an enunciated philosophical/political position, which is basically that through mass breakthroughs of raw information the ‘conspiracies’ that governments routinely enact to protect the interests of a certain few will be undermined. He appears to be acting on the basis of a mathematical formula, worked out by him, whereby the conspiratorial cabals, which he conceives as relating to each other in terms of information exchanges via a pattern of networks, can be chopped up and incapacitated (through breakouts across established links) such that real parity in knowledge and power might, in theory at least, be enacted.

In his recent article in The Australian Assange describes what he is doing as ‘scientific journalism’, or providing readers with the ‘truth’―the raw data―so, as mentioned above, they can make up ‘their own minds’ (though as to what exactly it is not entirely clear). This immediately sounds an awfully naive note, because journalism and truth have never enjoyed a one-to-one relationship. It is not as if they ever could have: journalism―even exposés and investigative reporting―always involves an element of interpretation. It is in the nature of writing and publishing. Even in the contexts into which Wikileaks’ cables have tumbled or been placed (and let’s not forget that there is a strategy here) the cables do not come innocent as a little lamb. There isn’t much in this world that is raw data or unadulterated truth. But the juxtaposition of truth and science here perhaps has little to do with any standard of ‘scientific truth’ which suggests itself in this grab of terms. Perhaps ‘scientific’ means nothing more in Assange’s thinking than journalism empowered by his mathematical estimation of the quantity of ‘real’ information needed to break the conspirators’ system, which in turn is entirely dependent on the power on the techno-scientific, that is, the computer and the internet.

One can completely understand why so many people are beginning to hail Assange as a culture hero: he hates duplicity and is suspicious of power, and in the face of retribution that could only have been anticipated right from the start, he is determined and personally brave. But beyond that the celebration is resonant because he appears to have harnessed the internet in ways that already confirm and compound a culture belief: that the internet offers a break both into a new world and into a better one. We see it offering ‘truth’ and ‘science’ here, for example. It also confirms and compounds a growing political sensibility, or two potentials of the one nihilistic political culture: in the face of an impregnable power not listening to and unaccountable to the population, we face either individualist anarchist actions that promise to pierce that power, or continued deep apathy about politics and the potential for change, which is embedded in our culture’s bleak sense that (oppressive) power is everywhere.

But do all of Assange’s supporters really understand the world they live in through the framework of the network that is his fundamental viewpoint? And just what does this viewpoint bequeath in terms of a vision of society, the person and the moral life? Unless the network is relativised against whole realms of complex social intercourse, it tends to flatten a view of the social and sees politics in the thinnest of terms. Of course some do grasp Assange’s challenge in the way he intends: not just to this political ‘centre’ or to that one, against this ideology or that, but against both a centred society as such, and against interpretative institutions in general. At least this is one promise of the internet: radical transparency and a decentring of society—as it is often celebrated and in some respects is experienced by all of us when we sit down at the computer. There is no question that the internet facilitates new lines of interconnection that bypass old centres of (different kinds of) power: nation-states and universities, for example.

But why the form should be seen as innocent―as providing transparent, ‘scientific’, or necessarily liberatory ‘information’ untainted by culture or ideology is another thing entirely. And why a model of relationships built on information should encompass our understanding of knowledge or of politics is disturbing. For one it says nothing of the larger social complexes that inform contemporary politics; it certainly does not necessarily offer a critique of capitalism or its contemporary techno-scientific variant, and may only issue in bold but highly individuated acts of disobedience. In particular, it cannot offer any insight into its own formation, by which I do not mean its rational construction as a tool and technology (mathematical, engineered), but as a socio-cultural form that has emerged within the techno-scientific university and is itself intimately associated through the work of the intellectually trained with a new kind of hyper-individualist sociality and as switch-key of a super-charged capitalism.

As the world moves into what seems to be a political phase of response to the GFC, where labour parties are de-legitimised as mere clones of neo-liberal conservative parties and conservative parties bring out big guns to rein in spending; where students may again be taking to the streets; and in general where the political, social and environmental prospects for the future are radically unclear―interventions like Wikileaks’ will combine with a growing sentiment that ‘power’ in general must be taken down. The trouble is we need interpretation (rather than mere information) more than ever, indeed to identify exactly what this ‘power’ consists in―which is a question that was answered before being asked by Assange and others who see it through the lens of information and conspiracy.

Alison Caddick

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