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.

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.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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  1. A few scattered thoughts.
    No matter how ‘radical’ conspiracism seems, there’s always a conservative kernel, since, almost by definition, conspiracy theories involve a ‘Great Man’ theory of history. That’s why, I think, it’s a mode of understanding that’s so prevalent today — in a world that seems increasingly out of control, it’s perversely reassuring to believe that there’s someone who controls what’s going on, even if they’re evil. You can see this quite clearly in the 9/11 kooks, who, on the one hand, refuse to believe that ‘primitive’ Arabs could have carried out the atrocity (they often say that explicitly) and, on the other, have a touching faith that a revelation of the truth will somehow make everything OK again. That, incidentally, is a key trope in the conspiracy movies that don’t end bleakly: when the secret comes into the open, the good authorities step in to take over from the bad authorities.
    But the other aspect of Wikileaks that I’ve always though was interesting was its relationship to Chomsky, someone who has maintained his progressive politics even though he does tend to rely on conspiracism.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think that’s right.

      There is another type of conspiracism I was thinking about as I wrote this post also — the “elite stratification theory” of the capitalist state that Ralph Miliband deployed in his classic work The State in Capitalist Society. Here the problem is posed that it is not so much that the state is part of capitalist social relations, but that its personnel are tied up with the “economic” ruling class, the private capitalists, who ensure that it continues to function in capitalist interests.

      The implication from Miliband’s work, which is true at one level in that such networks of power and influence manifestly do exist between the statal and private spheres, is that if you repopulated the existing state you could get it to act in radically different ways. Here Miliband is thinking of a radical Left party winning governmental power on the back of mass struggles and turning over the state’s personnel to be “our” people, thus allowing the state to act against the capitalist class.

  2. Fascinating piece here on a NASA scientist who spends his days fielding emails, many of them relating to Maya conspiracy theories.
    This is the takeaway.

    His evidence, he noted, is strictly anecdotal, but over the past four years he’s noticed an uptick in the number of people eager to believe that 1) bad things are going to happen and 2) that the current government will do anything it can to facilitate them.

  3. You are right, Wikileaks is closer to the politics of the Jason Bourne movies than you might think. In fact if it hadn’t been for the criminal behaviour of individuals within the Australian Government, in particular raping and torturing very young children in order to make controllable slaves, Wikileaks would never have been necessary to create.
    I say this as both a victim of this government program when I was very young and subsequently went on to have a very interesting and unconventional military career, and also the person who devised the idea, on request, for Julian Assange that he subsequently carried out and named Wikileaks. I am currently writing my autobiography.
    I had, or may still have, I’m unsure, an ability to come up with immediate workable solutions to problems presented to me by people with an intimate knowledge of their intricacies. People became aware of this and came to me to create ideas for all manner of problems they wanted to work towards addressing. Most were ridiculous yet some were quite challenging. Wikileaks took me 5 minutes to come up with and 25 minutes to describe, during which time it grew further, this is by far the longest time I ever spent devising an idea. This occurred when I was 21, in 1994.
    Prior to having the idea that became Wikileaks, the person requesting this idea informed me about the machinations of the criminal network that had infiltrated our government and the method they use to create controllable slaves who have no idea they have been so manipulated. That is, by raping and torturing very young children in order to create states of disassociation, a ‘blank slate’ that can then be programmed and made accessible and controllable as a ‘separate personality’, by pre-programmed commands or ‘keys’. I was also informed that I was a victim of this government program, this was not the first time I had been told this but I had no recollection of any of it at the time. Therefore I had to put it out of my head and create a new idea out of thin air, which I successfully did. It became Wikileaks but took 12 years to get off the ground.
    Six years later, when Australia was mobilising to help East Timor I joined the Army. I was trained as a communications operator, subsequently did only 1 year in that role before being posted to the Defence Force School of Languages and being trained in an additional role as a Linguist for a year. I was then posted to SAS in Perth where I was trained as a Special Forces Communicator and immediately employed as the personal communicator of the Commanding Officer of SASR, on the Counter Terrorism Team. I believe the CO SASR (SAS) wanted to have his mind controlled slave nice and close where he could access my programming at will.
    After going to psych and informing them, in 2007, that I had started to have memories of my programming occur, I was pensioned off on a most generous pension indeed. I fully intend, and have done already, to fully expose our military and government involvement in the most grotesque forms of child rape and torture imaginable in the hope that I can save future generations from the pain and exploitation that I have been subjected to. I have noticed that some entity seems to be working on shutting down the program and it’s adherents. I hope that my exposures have assisted them in this.
    I still have good ideas from time to time. My latest is on my blog if you want to have a look.

  4. There’s also, obviously, the taste for conspiracy and “paranoia” in recent US fiction (Pynchon, DeLillo, Harlot’s Ghost). Originally, like the Pakula films, it seemed to be a symptom and hangover from the era’s radicalization. (Fredric Jameson, in his analysis of the old conspiracy movies, described them as a partially successful solution to the ‘representational dilemma’ of portraying ‘an economic system on the scale of the globe istelf’.) But unlike with cinema it never really went away. Its presence even in apparently unpolitical novels like Infinite Jest suggests it’s now a kind of generic marker or maybe exists simply to organize (part of) the narrative when plot construction isn’t otherwise a big concern. The reader isn’t actually expected to ponder whether society is in fact controlled by a secret network. Maybe for Hollywood products it’s just a cheap and easy way of coming up with a plot for a “socially critical” action movie?

    On another point, I’m unfamiliar with “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.”

    Must have fabricated the claims? Is there anyone who really has expressed such a view? Haven’t such people merely asserted a high degree of belief (i.e. a numerical credence close to 1) in that proposition, in practice equivalent to certainty, in the way (“it’s obviously a frameup”) people often do when discussing matters of public interest on which almost nobody possesses the evidence necessary to make a definitive inference (e.g. on the high-level strategic motivations behind wars)?

    The article you link to, at that point, describes “the insistence of Assange and his supporters that [the complainants] are definitely lying, that there is no reason to take their accusations seriously.”

    I don’t see why that insistence shouldn’t be epistemically respectable. You can disagree with it but it’s probably just a matter of different priors (“It’s certainly a possibility”, the author concedes), rather than of people engaging in faulty reasoning because they are misogynist rape apologists or conspiracist loons.

    1. Some prominent Wikileaks supporters have indeed gone further than simply cast doubt on the allegations. For example, here’s former British ambassador Craig Murray:

      I actually don’t mean to imply that such people are necessarily either “misogynist rape apologists or conspiracist loons” (although some clearly are!) but the air of slightly less febrile conspiracy politics around Wikileaks I think still lends itself to being coloured by this stuff.

      1. Agree with your final sentence and no doubt that’s the important thing.

        I did acknowledge (awkwardly) that many people have gone further than casting doubt on the allegations. People like Murray say they are obviously false.

        What I meant to say is: I don’t see the glaringly flawed reasoning behind such views that is caused by (inferential failures involved in) a conspiratorial mode of explanation.

        I don’t have the time to defend that opinion as well I’d like to, so I’ll leave it at that.

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