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

Monday, December 06, 2010

Julian Assange, Anarchist? (Part 2) 

In response to my first post on this subject, t from Pink Scare made the following observation:

Isn't it a bit sectarian to claim that such subversion of power is an anarchist act? If not, then what would it mean to say that something was an anarchist act? I'm not sure the post really explains this. To be sure, wiki leaks seaks to exist outside the governing power of nation states... but that's rather thin gruel. The only good that can possibly come of something like wiki-leaks would be if it inspired the masses of ordinary people to directly confront the capitalist states in their respective national arenas. That is, leaks alone (while certainly troublesome and damaging to the powers that be... which is no doubt a good thing) will not bring radical change. Mass movements are the only vehicle- thinking that a small band of covert hackers could liberate us all seems to me a frightening and elitist prospect.

I replied to t in the comments section associated with my original post, but I thought that it would be a good idea to revisit his remarks. In regard to whether Nihilo Zero's characterization of Assange's subversion of power as an anarchist act is sectarian, I don't see it that way. Nihilo Zero wasn't seeking to distinquish anarchism from other forms of socialism through such a characterization. Instead, he was asserting that Assange's release of confidential information that exposed the true activities of the US government globally undermined state authority. Such an act by an non-governmental organization does arguably challenge state authority in a way that the decision of the Bolsheviks to release the record of the Allies relationship with Czarist Russia, as noted by SGuy in the comments to my original post, did not, because the Bolsheviks did so to legitimize their new state at the expense of the old one.

It is important to note, however, what Assange and wikileaks do not do. They do not incorporate their release of confidential materials into a distinct ideological mosaic. They do not cite the governmental malfeasance revealed in the confidential materials as supportive of a challenge to the legitimacy of the nation state itself. Or, to put it differently, they do not consider the misconduct as an inevitable consequence of the delegation of power by individuals to the state through the politics of representation. Nor do they, in a more Marxist, anti-authoritarian sense, connect the misconduct to the rapaciousness of capital and the privatization of nearly all spheres of social life. All of that is left to the people who are enlightened by the wikileaks disclosures to work out on their own. One of Assange's statements on this subject is nebulous, evocative of the language of cyberspace libertarianism. Hence, their activities are most closely analogized to the individualistic anarchist practice of propaganda of the deed of the late 19th Century, wherein the participants hoped to inspire the masses to act through their extreme acts.

Accordingly, my earlier description of the activities of Assange and wikileaks as being devoid of ideology because they are an example of the dissemination of knowledge for knowledge's sake was incorrect. There is clearly an ideological purpose behind their activities, but it is difficult to understand it as anything more than Internet populism. People are supposed to become informed about what corporations and their governments really do, and take action. But, what, exactly? Now, contemporary anarchists do celebrate spontaneity, but not to this extent. Anarchism in practice is centered in an socially egalitarian ethos resistant to social hierarchy, especially economic ones. It emphasizes the importance of collective efforts to create an ideal society. Yet, one can harmonize the activities of Assange and wikileaks with those of libertarians who want to eliminate any collective restraint on their behavior. While the disclosures of wikileaks are praiseworthy, others must promote an alternative social vision that they consider superior to the one in which we live in the present.

Finally, there is the troubling question as to whether Assange and wikileaks are motivating people to question the legitimacy of the US and other nation states. It is admittedly too soon to tell, but early returns are not encouraging. In the US, there is little indication that people are upset with the government. Expressions of hostility by the US government stand in marked contrast to the disinterest of the general public. Around the world, people may be more engaged, but, even here, elites appear to be most engrossed. It is entirely possible that the most immediate impact of the disclosures is taking place in South America and the Middle East. In the Middle East, as noted by As'ad Abukhalil, the obsequiousness of most Arab leaders in their dealings with the US is embarassing when put in writing by US officials, even if most people there were generally aware of it. Meanwhile, in South America, the extent to which the US was actively trying to undermine leftist regimes there will merely reinforce the belief among many there that they must remain wary of the US, regardless of the President.

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