August 03, 2010

On Wikileaks (IV): A World Without Obedience or Authority: Toward a Life of One's Own, and a Real Revolution

Part I

Part II

Part III


If I obey the laws of the land, I actually support its constitution ... there is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters. -- Hannah Arendt

Leaking is inherently an anti-authoritarian act. It is inherently an anarchist act. -- Julian Assange

Wikileaks' Threat to "Order" and Authority

In her essay discussed in the second part of this series, Hannah Arendt argues that what we commonly call obedience cannot, in the political context, properly be regarded as obedience at all. In fact, it is support -- for a country's constitution, its laws, and its panoply of requirements concerning how we act.

By creating Wikileaks and utilizing it in the manner he does, Julian Assange has withdrawn that support, and he has chosen to act in the manner condemned by those who insist on obedience to authority: he acts "irresponsibly" (the term used by critics of those who disobey, as Arendt notes). When obedience means that one supports a system of brutality, oppression, cruelty and death, to act "irresponsibly" is the only way to express one's loyalty to the values of freedom, truth and the sanctity of life.

The power of Wikileaks does not lie in the fact that it challenges a particular authority or only one system of obedience; its power arises from its rejection of authority and systems of obedience as such.

The startling effectiveness of the challenge represented by Wikileaks can be witnessed repeatedly in the reactions of those who condemn Assange and his work with such heated vehemence. I discussed a typical reaction from the conservative side of the political spectrum in the last section of this article. As I noted there, the tone and specific terms of Tunku Varadarajan's violent condemnation reveal someone who is profoundly unnerved by Wikileaks' actions, and by the fact that Wikileaks exists at all. I also pointed out -- and this bears emphasis for purposes of the present analysis -- that what finally undoes Varadarajan utterly is that he sees no way to stop Assange and Wikileaks.

This is further testament to Assange's brilliance -- and it is also testament to what I call "the power of 'No'": finally, the only weapon held by those who insist on obedience to authority is your own willingness to comply. If you refuse to comply, if you say "No," if you act "irresponsibly" and withdraw your support, there is nothing they can do. Those who represent and uphold authority understand this. Many other people do not. Wikileaks may help many people to see finally the enormous power they have, if only they will use it. (On this point, see this essay including the Addendum, and follow this link and this one for some extraordinary historical examples of the power of non-cooperation.)

In the last week, I've read and heard many reactions to the Wikileaks story from a number of people who can be described as rightwing or conservative. They all follow the Varadarajan pattern, and they all exhibit the same element of barely controlled hysteria. I heard one conservative host on a local Los Angeles radio show Sunday evening; she spoke of the "terrified little bastard" sitting in jail (that would be the heroic Bradley Manning), and she reveled in her hope that he would "rot" there. She added that if even one U.S. soldier died as the result of Manning's actions, he fully deserved to be punished as a "terrorist." For her, as for all her conservative compatriots, it is irrelevant that the United States government has sent huge numbers of U.S. soldiers abroad in a series of criminal campaigns of conquest and murder.

This is a thoroughly "good" American, one who has completely internalized the myth of American exceptionalism. The authorities are never to be fundamentally questioned; those authorities include the U.S. government, its military, and all the loyal members of that military. America may make "mistakes," even bad ones, but its inherent goodness and its "good intentions" are never to be doubted. Given this perspective, the incensed denunciations of Assange, Manning and Wikileaks are only to be expected. By its actions, and by many of the particulars in the material it releases, Wikileaks challenges this entire belief system. Therefore, Assange and those who work with him are "traitors" of an especially vicious kind. They should be treated accordingly, swiftly and without mercy.

All of that is easy to understand. The reaction in other quarters holds considerably more interest. There are those who share my view of the American Empire and what I call the American Death State, who condemn America's brutality and murderousness (both abroad and increasingly at home) as passionately as I do. Yet some of these people wonder about the wisdom of certain of Wikileaks' actions, and they particularly question the effect of the release of the Afghanistan documents.

As I hope to demonstrate in what follows, the criticisms from this part of the political spectrum -- from people with whom I agree on many other issues -- ultimately rely in significant part on a view of authority that, in at least one key respect, is not all that far removed from the view held by Wikileaks' conservative critics. As I discussed in detail in Part II, all of us are subjected to the demands of various systems of obedience as we are growing up; none of us escapes this phenomenon altogether. One of the greatest challenges we face as individuals is to recognize the enormous variety in how these patterns of thought find expression. This is especially true when we are faced with a situation which is genuinely new in critical ways, as is true of Wikileaks.

You may find it very surprising, and even objectionable, that I contend that certain critics of Wikileaks, those who criticize Wikileaks from what we can broadly describe as a leftist perspective, also exhibit a deference to authority, although in a very different form from that found on the right. It took me quite a while to make these connections myself. So let's see how I arrived there.

The Journey to Full Individual Autonomy: What a Real Revolution Looks Like

An article by Maximillian Forte is very instructive for my purposes. Forte's article seeks to be very comprehensive, and he succeeds admirably in terms of comprehensiveness alone (that is, apart from an evaluation of the arguments offered in support of his various points). He discusses both what he considers positive and negative aspects relating to the recent Wikileaks release.

In the category of those aspects of the Wikileaks release "that should be celebrated," Forte includes "Support for the anti-war movement," "Empowering citizens," "Imposing limits on the State," and "Counter-surveillance." Among Forte's "reasons for concern" (or: "Why might there be much less to celebrate than we thought?"), he lists "Not much new support for the anti-war movement," "New support for fighting the Taleban," "Support for expanding the war to Pakistan and Iran," and "The incomplete and fragmentary nature of the records." Please see the original for his full discussion; the article is well worth your time, despite the criticisms (sometimes severe) that follow.

You will find many criticisms of the Wikileaks release similar to Forte's in this piece from Chris Floyd. It causes me considerable unhappiness to disagree with Floyd on this subject. Regular readers know that Floyd is among the handful of contemporary writers on politics whom I most deeply admire. But in this case, I think his perspective, at least as reflected in that particular post, is fundamentally mistaken. I mention his article to demonstrate that criticisms of this kind are not uncommon, and certain of his formulations help to clarify some points in this analysis.

I want to discuss several of Forte's (and Floyd's) arguments, but let me begin with one that seems to be especially persuasive. I add that this argument would be very persuasive to me as well, if I agreed with it. I don't. In fact, I view it as an entirely invalid argument, and I think the error in the argument goes to the very nature of Wikileaks itself.

That argument is set forth under Forte's headings: "New support for fighting the Taleban," and "Support for expanding the war to Pakistan and Iran." For example, Forte writes:
[S]ome of the first newspaper reports dedicated themselves to showing that Pakistan’s intelligence services and military cannot be counted upon as a good partner for the U.S. For some, that will mean pushing to have more American covert forces in Pakistan, thus further widening and Americanizing the war, the same way as happened in Vietnam and the region around it.
A connection between Iran and Al Qaeda? Was it not the suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that was used by the Bush administration to successfully capture American public support for the Iraq invasion? And now that the U.S. and the European Union have escalated sanctions against Iran to a point beyond which the next steps can only lead to war, do these records not serve to provide a service to pro-war propagandists?
Floyd summarizes the same argument as follows (emphasis in original):
In fact, I predict the chief "takeaway" from the story will be this:

American forces are doing their best to help the poor Afghans, but the ungrateful natives are too weak and corrupt to be trusted, while America's good intentions are also being thwarted by evil outsiders.

For our many War Machinists across the political spectrum, getting this mythological message out via "critical" stories in "liberal" publications will be much more effective than dishing up another serving of patriotic hokum on Fox news or at a presidential press conference. (And in fact, on Tuesday Obama claimed that the leaks actually supported the need for his two death-dealing, destabilizing, terror-exacerbating, corruption-oozing "surges" in Afghanistan.) The way the narrative is being framed at the outset -- the small selection of stories being offered as the first "face" of the leaks from the mountains of material as yet unmined -- evokes the age-old question: in the end, cui bono?
In terms of the immediate (and perhaps even longer-term) effect of the leaked material, Forte and Floyd may be right in part, possibly even in significant part. Even if they are, I consider this entirely beside the point, both with regard to Wikileaks itself and in connection with the specifics of this material. [Ed.: I should add that it's far from clear that this will be the effect of the released material, or at least the primary effect, a topic I'll discuss in the next installment.]

Why do I say that? Start with the primary reason for my objection to this argument, which goes to the nature of the American Empire and those who seek to justify its actions. Those who defend America's drive to worldwide hegemony, including its endless wars and interventions for the purpose of increasing America's dominance and control across the globe, use everything and nothing to justify U.S. foreign policy. Our ruling class has done this for over a century.

They did it in the Philippines, to justify America's entrance into World War I, in all the interventions following World War II, and in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and in Iran tomorrow. You can follow those links for details concerning the historical examples. Consider several contemporary instances of this behavior.

First, we have the alleged "necessity" of invading Iraq. As any minimally conscious person understands today, this "necessity" was created by an endless series of distortions of the then-current information about Iraq, as well as by inventing claims out of what was literally nothing. One of the most devastating examinations of how the Bush administration led the United States into a criminal war of aggression remains a Jacob Hornberger article from close to four years ago: "They Lied About the Reasons for Going to War." As Hornberger explains, the actions of the Bush administration itself established beyond question that they lied comprehensively and repeatedly.

Today, but still focusing on Iraq, we have the claims that the U.S.'s criminal invasion and occupation have led to "an extraordinary achievement" and a great "success." Again, this is based on a staggering series of lies. Every relevant fact is either twisted beyond recognition or ignored.

Then, consider the fantastic tale of Iran's "evil" concocted by the rulers of the American Empire. I will not revisit here this neverending series of deceptions and lies. I refer you to an article I wrote three years ago, for nothing of significance has changed in the interim: "The Worsening Nightmare." At the end of that essay, you'll find links to many other articles I've written on this subject. In connection with my argument here, I will include one excerpt from an earlier piece, published in April 2006:
Any military attack by the United States on Iran within the foreseeable future -- even an attack using only conventional weapons -- would be profoundly immoral, and eternally unforgivable. Remember the critical facts: all experts agree that Iran is approximately five to ten years away from having a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran is fully entitled to take the actions it does at present, including the enrichment of uranium it announced yesterday. It is entitled to take those actions under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory. While we condemn Iran and maintain that its actions are "intolerable" and "unacceptable" -- even though they are entirely permissible under the relevant agreements, and are only "intolerable" because we say so without any moral, legal or strategic justification for that stance -- we carve out exceptions for a country like India, which is not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty. The position of the United States is an entirely unprincipled one, and one which devolves into incoherence.

These central facts lead to only one conclusion: an attack on Iran would represent a blatant, naked act of aggression against a country that does not threaten us. It would not be an act of self-defense, if that term has any meaning at all: there is nothing at present or in the immediate future to defend ourselves against. Of course, the same was true of Iraq. We refuse to learn any lessons at all.
I should add that I reject the arguments about the alleged "danger" represented by Iran in their totality. Even if Iran did have nuclear weapons (and at present, there still is no evidence whatsoever that Iran even wants them), there is a significant sense in which I don't give a damn. For the details, see: "So Iran Gets Nukes. So What?"

Many examples make up the lesson, and the trail of murder and suffering crosses the globe, from the Philippines, to Southeast Asia, to Africa, to Central and South America, to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan today, to Iran tomorrow. The United States seeks global hegemony. To justify its quest, the United States invents a series of terrifying threats, all of which, in one way or another, are alleged to be "existential" threats to our very survival. With almost no exceptions at all, the leaders of the American Empire concoct these threats out of nothing.


Consider the fact with great care. With this momentous and endlessly horrifying fact in the forefront of your consciousness, ask yourself: What does it signify that those who seek still further war and conquest will use the Wikileaks material to provide more supposed justification for their murderous actions? To ask the question, to ask it with the nature and history of American Empire in mind, is to see how completely irrelevant it is when evaluating Wikileaks and its work.

Of course they'll use the Wikileaks material to justify their policies. That's what they do. They do it with everything -- and they do it with absolutely nothing. I repeat: That is what they do.

If you want to avoid their using the Wikileaks material, or anything else, to justify their policies, there is one course you can follow, and only one. Henceforth, you can say nothing whatsoever. But if you choose to resist the profound evil committed by the U.S. government, evil which it continues to commit today and will commit again tomorrow, you must reject that course.

To drive the point home, let me express it another way. As demonstrated repeatedly by the historical record and by events today, the leaders of American Empire use everything and even nothing to justify their actions and policies. In this sense, the leaders of American Empire are profoundly irrational and endlessly, murderously destructive. Their arguments are self-contradictory, massively inconsistent, and frequently incoherent. Yet today's leaders of American Empire also possess the most frighteningly powerful weaponry and military in all of history. From this perspective, the Empire has all the power.

In comparative terms (and even in absolute terms), Wikileaks has no capabilities or powers at all -- except for one. And that is the ability to make information available to everyone, information which the otherwise all-powerful leaders of Empire seek to keep secret from those they rule, and from those they seek to subjugate in the future. In this context, and especially when we keep in mind the gaping abyss between the powers of Empire and the single power of Wikileaks, to blame Wikileaks (or anyone similarly situated) for the improper use of the material they release is to blame Wikileaks for someone else's irrationality and immense destructiveness. It is to blame Wikileaks for actions over which Wikileaks has no control whatsoever.

Does that make any sense at all? No, it doesn't.

Beyond this, it is critical to appreciate the further implication. In effect, Forte and others who make the same criticism seek a mediating authority: that is, they seek some means to ensure that leaked material is used only for purposes they view as "good." But this represents a failure to understand the nature of the work to which Wikileaks is devoted, just as it represents a failure to escape the reliance on authority itself. Forte (and others) want authority to serve a purpose that is very different from that of the Empire -- but they still want an authority to make their desired outcome more likely.

But the very purpose of Wikileaks is to challenge any and every authority of this kind. For Wikileaks, the only authority that matters -- the only person who is ultimately entitled to all available information and who properly should judge it -- is you. In this sense, which I submit is the highest and best sense of the term, Wikileaks is a genuine "leveller." It seeks to make each and every individual the ultimate judge of the truth, just as it seeks to empower all people to make the determination as to what course of action is indicated, if any. This, dear reader, is what a real revolution looks like.

That the intercession of a mediating authority is what Forte in particular wants becomes clearer when we consider some of his other points. This is long enough for one installment, so I will examine Forte's arguments in further detail next time.