‘Are you interested in being involved with a courageous project to reform every political system on earth – and through that reform move the world to a more humane state?’
Sometime in December 2006, a former Melbourne University maths student, still hanging around the common room, posted the question to the students’ society network. His rather alarming message explained that the organisers proposed to launch their campaign in two months but were being overwhelmed by a media cascade with more than 51 000 (!) page hits on Google and stories in the Washington Post and so on.
‘Now we have only twenty-two people trying to usher in the start of a world-wide movement,’ the post continued. ‘We need help in every area, admining, coding, sys admining, legal research, analysis.’
The organisation was WikiLeaks; the post’s author was Julian Assange – and, characteristically, the list of tasks included ‘writing, proofing, manning the phone, standing around looking pretty, even making tea’ (italics mine).
Four years later, no-one – whatever criticisms they might make of Assange – could accuse him of boasting idly. Few political interventions have achieved such spectacular effects in so short a time. The WikiLeaks website already feels like it’s been around for ever, even though it’s actually less than five years old. Its early interventions – Trafigura in Ivory Coast, the ‘climategate’ emails, the Icesave documents exposing the Iceland banking scandal – have, in some cases, been obscured by history: many people simply don’t remember that the documents were first circulated by WikiLeaks.
Though WikiLeaks’ Collateral Murder video was a traditional ‘single leak’, the subsequent Afghanistan war logs and, to an even greater degree, the Iraq war logs changed the process substantially. This was leaking on an entirely different scale: tens, and then hundreds of thousands, of documents testifying to every conceivable aspect of the wars, sprawling not only beyond the day-to-day attention of newspaper readers but beyond any immediate interpretive frame whatsoever.
It was not merely that the logs documented brutality, pointlessness, wanton civilian killing, cynical opportunism and casual racism, though they did that in great profusion, but also that the scandalous elements appeared within a release of mundane material: truck requisition forms, empty incident reports and so on. The quantity as much as the quality of the material released functioned as a political act. One did not have to read through the logs in depth – and, in fact, very few did – to understand that they were of an order so different to the traditional leak as to fundamentally reframe the relationship between information, journalism and power. Even more significantly, the result was not a product of happenstance. It arose from a strategy, which in turn arose from a theory – and that makes it worth paying attention to.
WikiLeaks is many things at the moment, but it is most importantly a praxis (remember praxis?). Its specific theory, as opposed to the general theory of internet activism, is contained within a number of scattered documents Assange wrote in the early to mid 2000s. By then, he had already pleaded guilty to more than twenty charges of computer hacking (in the mid 1990s) and worked as a security consultant (and as part of the burgeoning ‘open-source’ movement), while fighting long-running custody battles over his son.
His shift in attention to the broader global political framework coincided with the rise of, in the wake of September 11, a neoconservative world order that drove out even the vestigial globalisation of neoliberalism, while elevating ‘spin’ and elite deception as positive principles. Pseudo-democratisation abroad, a national security state at home: such were the dominant themes of the zeroes.
In that context, Assange began to formulate ideas about challenging the consolidation of power, ideas related specifically to the flow of information facilitated by the remorseless and exponential spread of the internet. The anti-globalisation movement had risen, in part, on the basis of the decentred but coordinated political structures made possible by the Net. But activists had found that these generated ideological and structural difficulties that made further progress impossible. Furthermore, the decentred, fragmentary nature of the anti-globalisation movement only emphasised the apparent monolithic and quasi-totalitarian reach of the Atlantic powers and their junior allies.
Assange’s model was different. In essence, he theorised governments – in particular, repressive governments – not in terms of their monopoly on the means of violence but on the basis of their control of information and their ability to share knowledge between component parts. As Assange argued in his essay ‘Conspiracy as governance’:
Authoritarian regimes create forces which oppose them by pushing against a people’s will to truth, love and self-realisation. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce further resistance. Hence such schemes are concealed by successful authoritarian powers until resistance is futile or outweighed by the efficiencies of naked power. This collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population, is enough to define their behaviour as conspiratorial.
The most important feature of government is, then, its existence as a conspiracy, with a disjuncture of information levels between the inside (the conspirators) and the outside (the people). The government/conspiracy depends on continuous connection between elements:
Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be a bridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy.
The parts of the conspiracy do not need to be directly connected, or even aware of each other’s existence, to be bound up together. Information – and thus coordinated action – flows faster within the conspiracy than outside it, and this allows the conspiracy to achieve results many degrees of magnitude above its numerical strength.
Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out.
Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called ‘the Fox News effect’.
The elements outside the conspiracy – in the case of the West, the disengaged, mediatised public – may be vast but their fundamental disconnection makes them weaker in relation to the conspiracy. In effect, power flows to the exclusively connected.
The conception suggests some strategies are more useful than others in contesting conspiratorial power. Of key importance is the transfer of information from the inside of the conspiracy to the outside – in other words, the ‘leak’.
The use of ‘leak’ in this sense reminds us of the original metaphorical image for illicitly released information. A leak not only presupposes a breach in a hitherto sealed barrier in which there was previously zero transfer between inside and outside, but it also, by definition, changes the ratio of composition in a movement towards equilibrium. A sealed helium-filled balloon in a room has a 0:1 relationship of outside to inside. A leak shifts that ratio ever so slightly. If leaking continues, the balloon eventually empties, with the helium evenly distributing throughout the room. In effect, the balloon ceases to exist. In similar fashion, a conspiracy that is leaking information is, by definition, on the road to extinction.
The exchange between a conspiracy and its outside is not reciprocal. The outside does not leak inside, because it was always present and visible to the conspiracy. In order to maintain its power, the conspiracy must maintain its asymmetrical existence. It must plug the leak and thus curtail the shift towards equilibrium.
We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it.
We can reduce total conspiratorial power via unstructured attacks on links or through throttling and separating.
A conspiracy sufficiently engaged in this manner is no longer able to comprehend its environment and plan robust action.
But preventing loss requires a diversion of resources away from the conspiracy’s relationship to its outside – that is, control – and to the maintenance of its own conspiratorial character. The conspiracy is thus doubly weakened. The relationship with the outside has been changed to the latter’s advantage by the leak itself; plugging the leak expends further resources. By contrast, the outside gains strength, as its relationship with the conspiracy changes.
Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
In plugging the leak, the conspiracy now encounters a third problem – its very interconnected character, with its internally shared information, is the means by which the leak is occurring. Limiting the possibility of ongoing leaks demands a form of triage, whereby information ceases to be fully shared. Effectively, since a conspiracy is information, this means dividing itself. Once this occurs, it has ceased to be a conspiracy with some internal barriers – it has, in fact, become two smaller, weaker conspiracies.
We can marginalise a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to, its environment.
We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links.
Crucial to such a process is the release of a large volume of information, categorically larger than a normal leak (an argument made by Assange in a Counterpunch essay entitled ‘The Road To Hanoi’).
This, then, provided the key strategy of WikiLeaks: the release of documents in such volume that the targeted power could not manage the process.
‘Conspiracy as governance’ had been on the Net for some time before WikiLeaks made its breakthroughs, but the article was only circulated widely after the release of the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. The mix of (fairly simple) technical maths, parable and aphorism made the piece an easy target (‘pseudo-intellectual’, ‘barmy’, etc.) for WikiLeaks’ opponents. Again, predictable – but it should also be noted that the piece generated little interest on the Left as a philosophy of action.
Perhaps this, too, is not surprising. Assange’s writings circulated not only as he was becoming a global media icon – indeed, a generated object (his strange grey hair and moon tan making him seem more pixel than person) – but also as accusations of sexual assault and misconduct were levelled at him in Sweden, where he had been hoping to base his organisation. Assange’s rather erratic mix of global politics, shifting pronouncements on different regimes and quips about what a ‘gentleman’ does or does not do made it politic for supporters of WikiLeaks to steer a little clear of its mercurial leader.
There was also the mathematics, which did make the article look a little crankish. True, favoured thinkers like Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou employed mathematical terms, but then no-one understood them or felt they needed to, whereas Assange’s maths seemed like it might be central to his argument.
Nonetheless, Assange’s essay deserves consideration, not merely as the encapsulation of a strategy, but as a political ontology – or a first sketch of one. Does it offer a model that not only yields strategic success but is also in some sense a true picture of the world – or, at least, a picture less untrue than others?
Assange’s viewpoint has, of course, a long prehistory – and not merely in the focus of political thinkers and commentators on conspiracy and its deformations like Machiavelli and Shakespeare. Since ‘information’ emerged as a separate category (Claude Shannon’s information theory and cybernetics in the 1940s), various attempts have been made, both by critical social analysts and those attempting to create models of social control, to theorise political and social processes in informational terms. When the spread of computers and networking created its own subculture, an ‘informational’ understanding of social life evolved – from early countercultural experiments such as ‘the WELL’ in San Francisco, to the open-source and ‘free information’ movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. Inevitably, the default ideology of the new networking class was non-hierarchical, borderless and non-proprietary – the notion that information flow, abstracted from any physical ‘bearer’, should not be subject to the constraints applied to older forms.
As numerous commentators have noted, a key moment was Bill Gates’ 1975 circular to the California Homebrew Computer Club complaining that people were sharing software for free, thus making impossible the building of a business (the horror!). Gates had more of a point that many people are willing to admit, since software development takes labour time. Nevertheless, the extension of copyright to computer programs effectively relied on an elision between literal physical property, which cannot be reproduced without cost, and metaphorical intellectual property, which is infinitely copiable at a cost that rapidly approaches zero. Software developers began to encounter new barriers as part of their working life, discovering a legal necessity to respect boundaries and fences in software creation, in place of the previously essential flow and exchange that had taken place in the collaborative circles of the new personal computer scene, first as interconnected clubs and later via the burgeoning internet.
As the software behemoths – Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe – developed in the 1980s, so too did the oppositional ‘free software’ movement (eventually kicked into touch by Richard Stallman), the manifesto of which put the implicit idea of informational freedom in general terms. As the internet spread, the rise of hacking (a term previously referring to rough programming) created a ‘bandit’ version of informational politics, in which the laws around computer security and access were traduced as a reaction to their very existence.
Such developments paralleled postmodernism and poststructuralism, two theoretical waves which themselves drew all life into the maw of information – or, in their language, signification. Indeed, in retrospect, the separation between these theoretical discourses and the spread of computers and networks seems curious – all the more so since, by the mid to late 1980s, most theoretical writing was being produced on computers and in networks. The invention of the Web, as a layer of immediacy lying on top of the Net, and the development of Linux brought the whole movement into the mainstream.
By then, an ‘informational’ way of viewing the world, and working within it, had become part of the economy and the education system. As Western countries exported physical production to the developing world while retaining property rights and royalties, symbolic production, marketing and information came to dominate the lives of increasing numbers of people – and, more importantly, the economic and cultural classes. Indeed, throughout the 1980s and the 1990s – until the rise of the anti-globalisation movement foregrounded globalised material production – questions of image and information preoccupied both the Left and mainstream culture. The first major demonstrations of the anti-globalisation movement, such as J18 in London in 1999, were largely convened on the Web, organised in part by European Zapatista solidarity networks forged by early users of the internet. New, networked and flattened ways of organising overcame many of the problems that had previously appeared intractable. It was easy to believe that the extremely closed nature of state and corporate power could be contested with the extremely open anti-globalisation movement. The repeated slogan was that the people constituted the new superpower.
In retrospect, the anti-globalisation movement can be seen as the negating opposite of neoliberal globalisation. The inconclusive impasse that resulted was a prelude to the neoconservative era – and WikiLeaks, in its ‘Assangist’ form, was a strategy developed to respond to the new conditions. As Assange himself noted, the name ‘WikiLeaks’ is something of a misnomer: the original intent was that the site work on a wiki model, with the editing and interpretation of leaked documents performed by a self-organising mass of people. Whether real efforts were ever made to create that movement is unclear: from 2007 onward, the global core of WikiLeaks consisted of a group of Australian, European and US hacktivists who were rather elite in both their skills and their attitudes.
In any case, whatever obeisances had been paid to the wiki model, the insurgent approach had always been the necessary core of the project: a counter-conspiracy based upon a number of encrypted laptops distributed to those identified with the project.
WikiLeaks thus marks a decisive break with the open-source and networked tradition that has dominated activist politics for the past two decades. For WikiLeaks, the process of attacking a conspiracy in the name of eventual openness and transparency requires a counter-conspiracy more simplified and austere than being opposed.
In Assange’s model, the failure of the anti-globalisation movement to challenge the governmental conspiracies that emerged post-September 11 resulted from the very dispersal that they celebrated as a present method rather than a future aspiration. WikiLeaks, in that respect, represents a dialectical development: recognition that a counter-conspiracy, to be effective, must decisively reject openness in favour of an ultra-conspiracy.
There are times in WikiLeaks’ history when that has meant a conspiracy of one – Assange himself, with a few active collaborators. The claims of full-time workers and hundreds of volunteers have involved substantial overstatement.
But that does not alter the principle that what can only be described as a vanguard can substitute, at crucial stages, for a larger movement, if one reasonably concludes that the process by which the mass will be realised cannot occur without some decisive precipitate and catalytic action.
That there is more than a ghost of Leninism about Assange’s practice should not be so surprising. He has cited on numerous occasions his obsession with Cancer Ward, and his former co-writer Suelette Dreyfus mentioned, in a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, his interest in Darkness at Noon. Both Solzhenitsyn and Koestler were, as anti-communists, so bound up with the expression of will contained within Leninism that they could not help but express it in their writings.
The WikiLeaks counter-conspiracy thus takes the principles that guided the open-source and networked movements and uses their key concepts of weightless, freely propagating information to make possible the mass quantitative attack deployed by a small, if geographically dispersed, group. For Assange, such methods have been made necessary by the transformation in Western state power over recent years.
To radically shift regime behaviour we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act.
Contrary to some characterisations, Assange’s expressed politics are not anarchist. ‘Conspiracy as governance’ does not suggest that the process it describes could or should abolish governments, but rather that:
new technology and insights into the psychological motivations of conspirators can give us practical methods for preventing or reducing important communication between authoritarian conspirators, foment strong resistance to authoritarian planning and create powerful incentives for more humane forms of governance.
Such a conception positively supports a counter-conspiracy process over a mass networked one because of the former’s capacity to create exemplary action – a clear, decisive and forceful act that, by both its intent and success, will inspire others to themselves act to transform the world. In that respect, the decentred and effaced process of networked politics is a minus not a plus, as it gives no opportunity for such visible and clarified action to occur but instead disperses energy through an extended open system.
Assange’s strategy has faced two major accusations: hypocrisy and representing an impossibly anarchist conception of power, seeking to dissolve any state or governmental legitimacy. The hypocrisy charges are twofold: firstly, that the very nature of WikiLeaks as a counter-conspiracy runs contrary to Assange’s philosophy; secondly, that Assange’s objection to the airing of his personal details and the accusations against him in respect of alleged sex crimes in Sweden is a flagrant attempt to claim a unilateral right to privacy.
The second of these can be dealt with easily. WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities. Assange is being perfectly consistent in objecting to the immediate leaking of details of a police interview of two women whose statements led to a sex crime investigation. Much of the criticism directed in this instance was cheap and obvious baiting.
The accusation that WikiLeaks runs as a counter-conspiracy while preaching an anarchist doctrine of total openness demands a more complex treatment, not least since much of it comes from ‘inside’ WikiLeaks: primarily from those around the Berlin-based Chaos Computer Club, most notably Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Members of the CCC, a venerable group founded in the early 1980s, had ‘joined’ WikiLeaks, allegedly after meeting Assange at the group’s annual end-of-year ‘C3’ convention. To Assange’s idiosyncratic politics, they brought a more systematic European analysis of countervailing power drawn from the bitter lessons of the German counterculture and its disastrous divisions in the 1970s. We will know more about this when both Assange’s and Domscheit-Berg’s memoirs see the light of day, but for the moment one can suggest that Assange’s ideas reintroduced a degree of vanguardism into a hacktivist politics that had become bogged down in infinite openness as a response to the infinite closedness of neoconservative power.
This alliance came under increasing strain in 2010, as the receipt of the Afghanistan/Iraq/ ‘cablegate’ log material made possible a high-risk strategy of direct contestation of US power. As leaked chat logs of negotiations between Assange and Domscheit-Berg demonstrate, this brought the split between two strategies to a head, with Domscheit-Berg criticising the neglect of the existing archive and new material, in the wake of the exclusive focus on the war logs. Though the trigger for his subsequent departure may have been Assange’s bizarre response – ‘you are suspended for one month’ – the serious differences over what a leaks website should do was at the root of the conflict.
Rop Gonggrijp, another WikiLeaks associate who departed at the time, was more candid, saying that he left because Assange’s determination to take on the US ‘scare[d] the bejesus’ out of him.
The open-source politics – and, further back, the countercultural traditions – from which the European wing of WikiLeaks emerged is implicitly anarchist in its conception of power and the state. But nothing in Assange’s statements suggests that he shares this. His project is specifically oriented to current conditions of shifting regime behaviour.
WikiLeaks’ massive category-shifting leaking is intended not to dissolve governance but to uncouple governance and conspiracy, to make it impossible for governments to fall back on conspiracy as a mode of action. In that sense, Assange, though his actions appear more spectacular, is to some degree to the Right of other leakers and hacktivists on the revolutionary spectrum. Indeed one of the ironies about the vociferous critique of Assange from the Right is that his approach has more than a little in common with – indeed, is influenced by – Karl Popper’s ‘open society’ argument that a closed political regime will ultimately be less effective than an open system because the latter will have a greater capacity to internally communicate true information about the outside environment.
Other remarks – most recently in an interview with Forbes magazine, where he made noises in favour of the market – suggest an orientation to right-wing libertarian perspectives than the post-market ideas of open-source communism. But it would be a mistake to look for a consistent politics in Assange’s on-the-fly statements, rather than in his writings and actions.
The critique one might mount from the ‘Assangist’ perspective of those pursuing a more open-source, networked politics is that steady, unspectacular leaking allows regimes to restabilise themselves. Eventually, the dissident organisation doing the leaking is effectively incorporated into the establishment, and becomes a vital part of its maintenance. A leaking process that has become stabilised is a safety valve, steadily releasing pressure in a version of Marcuse’s ‘repressive tolerance’. One can see how this has occurred with the official dissident media that arose in the 1960s, from Four Corners to Private Eye – the focus on stories of individual transgression, rather than on systemic wrong, serves only to render larger structures of power effectively invisible.
There seems little doubt that the WikiLeaks counter-conspiracy is a reasonable and consistent one. But that does not mean that it escapes all the usual problems that attend vanguard organisations, even those that, like WikiLeaks, are frequently virtual. The most bedevilling is that vanguardism becomes elitism, and the counter-conspirators become drawn into celebrity as official outlaws. Even allowing for the extraordinary circumstances of Assange’s legal troubles in Sweden, it is clear that something of that sort has taken place.
Lacking any substantial connections to larger groups or wider movements, Assange and WikiLeaks – now reconstituted for a third time with a group of UK-based ‘interns’ – have become part of the network around the Frontline Club. This is a foreign correspondents organisation in London founded by Vaughan Smith, the well-born ex-Grenadier Guard who was one among a number of upper-class adventurers drawn to war journalism in the 1990s. Smith’s courage and his commitment to contesting illegitimate power by supporting Assange are not in question – but nor is the integrity of John Pilger, Bianca Jagger, Jemima Khan and the like, who have all been drawn into Assange’s defence.
The result now teeters on the self-parodic. Assange, kitted out in the greens and browns of English country living, appears in Newsweek photo essays, while a parade of journalists troop to his Norfolk door. In a further step towards decadence, WikiLeaks has hired a PR firm to deal with some of the negative publicity from Assange’s somewhat freestyling public comments.
Whether WikiLeaks and Assange can come back from all of this remains to be seen. Their future is inevitably bound up with legal problems stemming from both Sweden and the US. Should WikiLeaks continue, it will need to find a way to connect in a more formal and stable fashion to larger organisations – even if, within that, it retains an internal grouping for purposes of security and decisive action.
For those from the more conventional Left, WikiLeaks functions simultaneously as resource, example – both positive and negative – and historical condition. With WikiLeaks emerging from the hacktivist culture – which many on the Left, this author included, have neither experience of nor aptitude for – it has been easy to dismiss its importance and influence. To a degree, this tendency has been accentuated by the excessive claims made for the WikiLeaks process, its overvaluation of information as a mode of action.
There’s also a certain amount of pique. Assange has succeeded in punching very far above his individual weight in making change, something a lot of us have been trying to do for some time. But like it or not, his work cannot be dismissed as idiot-savantism or a fluke. WikiLeaks has worked precisely to the degree that it has departed from the received ideology of open-source/networking etc. and proceeded to a new political synthesis. Its work has been the product of a theorisation of our current situation and possibilities, and its palpable success demands serious consideration as an expression of material politics.
Guy Rundle is a former editor of Arena magazine, and currently writes for Crikey, the Sunday Age and elsewhere. His chronicle of the 2008 US election Down to the Crossroads won the Age non-fiction book of the year award.
© Guy Rundle
Overland 202-autumn 2011, pp. 6–15