'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, December 25, 2010

How anarchist is Wikileaks? 

So, I don't know how provocative this might be, and as I mentioned in comments I'm rather disenchanted with the relevance of this idea as I've thought about it harder, but I'm going to go ahead and see what meaning can be perhaps teased out of what I was originally thinking in the process of writing out this post.

Richard posted, here and here, concerning the relevance of Wikileaks to anarchism. Now, it seems fairly obvious that Assange himself does not consider himself an anarchist. The following interview with Assange wherein, properly pointing out the hypocrisy of the use of the term "terrorism," he repeatedly invokes the "rule of law" and wonders about the US; "is it going to descend into a state of anarchy?" seems to to me to suggest that Assange is no anarchist, as that is definitely not how most anarchists would frame those issues, even if sharing the same concerns.

However, I would like to relate Wikileaks to what is most certainly an anarchist idea, which is the idea of "the long memory," terminologically coined by Utah Phillips, as far as I can determine, but certainly with strong roots in both anarchist practice and theory going back far beyond him. Here's what the late Phillips had to say about "the long memory" in an interview with Amy Goodman:
The long memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been taken away from us. Listen, you young people I’m talking to, that long memory has been taken away from you. You haven’t gotten it in your schools. You’re not getting it on your television. You’re not getting it anywhere. You’re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next. You know, you can’t remember what happened last week, because you’re locked into this week’s crisis.
As I've heard Phillips talk about "the long memory" in other contexts, it seems clear that he is most often referring to oral history, the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next within conscious cultures of resistance, and the like. That attitude is certainly epitomized what immediately followed the above:

    No, turn that off. You know, walk away from that. Walk out your front door. Go find your elders. Go find your true elders. Go find your people that lived that life, who knew that life and who know that history. And get your hands down into that deep rich stream of our people’s history. We divided our culture up into a market for youngers, a market for young adults, a market for young marrieds, a market for older people, you know. It’s not that way. And mass media contributed to that by taking the great movements that we’ve been through and trivializing important events. No, our people’s history is like one long river. It flows down from way over there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I have the courage to go out and ask questions. That huge river, you know, it’s like tributaries that flow down into the polluted river and purify it and purify it.

However, immediately before he begins talking about "the long memory" he says:
And no fooling, I think that we’re in the Weimar Republic. And that’s another thing that I would encourage young people to understand, what—that was Germany before the Second World War, the rise of Hitler, the rise of Nazism. Why didn’t people do anything? You know, the big question that young Germans are asking their grandparents: “Why didn’t you do something?” Read about the Weimar, compare the rise of fascism in Germany from the 1920s to what’s happening right here right now.
None of this is necessarily to point to Phillips as a particularly original anarchist thinker, although I would suggest that such an honorific is less important to anarchists who look to traditions of resistance and the maintenance of understandings of how power works as their guides for future action, rather than specific theorists or activist heroes. In fact, I would suggest, that orientation is exactly is what is meant by "the long memory."

The point of "the long memory" that makes it truly anarchist, it seems to me, is that the knowledge of both historical and tactical realities is spread out on as wide a basis as utterly possible. It should not reside in the works of any institutional historian, theorist, or guru, but is instead considered and treated as a public good. The more people have it, the better.

At this point, perhaps the basic trajectory of my argument is already clear, but to make it explicit, I think that even if no-one involved with Wikileaks considers themselves anarchists, their past activities and general strategy should be whole-heartedly supported by anarchists as they can only serve to aid in the production of "the long memory."

This is true firstly in terms of the revelations that have been provided, adding some immediacy to "the long memory." Whereas information of this sort otherwise often takes decades to be revealed, at which point its relevance to current concerns is extremely diluted--think, for example, of the very convincing documentation of CIA interference in the Italian elections of 1948 or of direct White House involvement in the Pinochet coup in Chile, that other September 11th--incidents now well-documented, but not generally considered of current relevance and conveniently dismissed as of the past, in the case of Wikileaks we have very current evidence of (mostly citing Greenwald):

1. The cavalier attitude with which US air gunships are willing to open up on random crowds in urban Iraq.
2. The fact that US forces, as a matter of official policy, ignored torture by Iraqi forces under their tutelage.
3. The US underreporting known civilian deaths resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations (not that I believe the numbers given in the Pentagon documents given to Wikileaks approach the true scale either).
4. SoS Clinton was directly involved in a plot to spy on top UN officials
5. The Obama administration actively worked to undermine any criminal or bureaucratic investigations into Bush administration involvement in torture and war crimes in Spain, Germany, Britain.
6. Secret air bombardment wars in Yemen and Pakistan.
7. The extreme disparity between the attitudes of the autocratic Arab governments that we support politically, militarily, financially, and diplomatically and the views of the peoples of the region (specifically concerning Iran).

Now, none of these revelations seemed very surprising to cynical old me, but with the activities of Wikileaks, we have an ability to say, "Look, this is how your governments are operating now" and that strikes me as valuable for forming the long memory of the current generation, as opposed to, say, decades-later apologies for supporting the coup in Guatemala in the 1950s, even if it does not seem to making the impression that we might hope in the immediate term.

Finally, the other way that the anarchist perspective should view Wikileaks in terms of "the long memory," I would argue, is as a reminder of the way that the state will react to even minor threats to its prerogatives, in this case, the effective monopoly on important information and speech. The fact that there are calls to utilize the Espionage Act to prosecute Wikileaks should invite scrutiny of the way that the Espionage Act has been used in earlier times, notably for throwing Eugene Debs in prison for "obstructing recruiting" through delivering an anti-war speech and other examples of anti-war suppression.

The "long memory," in other words, should seek to incorporate both the information that Wikileaks has outed as well as the way that the state has reacted to the outing of that information and it should do so with an understanding that these are of a temporal continuum wherein the institutions of the state tends to act and react in similar ways. History, as has been said before, may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

[much later edit]:

In response to discussion in the comments section, I realized that I had left out a key portion of my original argument as it existed in my head while formulating the idea for the post and I thought I would bring it up here from the comments section (slightly edited for clarity) where it might be clearer to those not necessarily haunting the comments section: "What I should have discussed in the post and was in my original thinking about it--which I now realize was a major omission on my part, partly caused by a very frustrating Windows blue screen of death in the middle of writing it--was that my anarchist perspective leads me to believe that these revelations serve a long-term purpose beyond any simple instrumentalist uses in the here and now, because they provide some (only some!) of the basis for underpinning the long-term memory of how these systems work amongst the broader masses of people (and yes, there's the digital divide and all that, which is of course problematic, but I don't think it undermines my overall point). And, perhaps, that such an understanding of how Wikileaks' contributions would be considered more valuable to the anarchist perspective that seeks the broadest knowledgeable participation in the reconstruction of the world might contrast to what I would perceive to be more instrumentalist perspectives of electoral leftists and even some revolutionary, but more vanguardist, leftists who seem to me to be primarily concerned with the current purposes to which the Wikileaks revelations can be put."

Post script: sorry for the ugly text formatting, I can't seem to figure out what I'm doing wrong with it. Does anyone know what the default font is here?

Labels: ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?