Towards the end of #2, I brought up the criticism that Wikileaks is useless, because no matter how shocking the information it reveals may be (in leaks that have already been released or any that may be in the future), the system can easily withstand these shocks with the ol' in one ear and out the other trick. I also briefly mentioned the "this is nothing new" argument (which is deployed at times in opposition to, and at times in support of, the "it doesn't matter anyway" argument*) against the specific, released leaks themselves. I'd like to expand on that a little.
*By which I am not cattily suggesting that the people who make these arguments are inconsistent. Each use on its own, and even a combination of both at the same time, makes perfect sense to me. Anyway, inconsistency is great. I'm inconsistent, you're inconsistent, we're all inconsistent.
I'm never a fan of the "this is nothing new" attitude. My reasons for this are primarily a combination of my sentiments expressed here and here (and I promise I won't keep linking to myself, because don't you hate that?). Briefly, a) what's old news to one is not necessarily old news to another, and b) those of us who reject the worship of "progress" that capitalism depends upon should not be so quick to dismiss anything just because it's not novel to us. In fact, as I mentioned in the last essay, I'm starting to think that continuous cynicism can only end up being another method by which the system absorbs these shocks: this is no big deal, we say, and in so saying we help make it true.
Regardless, though, this is all micro-level stuff: talking about the impact of just the contents of just one specific leak, rather than the endeavor as a whole.
At this point I doubt there are many people reading this who haven't read the wonderful essay Aaron of zunguzungu wrote a week or so ago examining the aims of Wikileaks as stated in a four-year-old essay written by Julian Assange. If you've somehow missed it, I urge you to read it. I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that I read zunguzungu before it was cool.
A brief, brief, very brief summary would be something like this: because knowledge of its activities creates its own opposition, authoritarianism requires secrecy. It also requires communication between its secretive elements. The more secrecy, the harder it is for those elements to communicate. The more leaks in the secrecy, the more the authoritarians tighten their security, and hence the more difficult it is for them to communicate with one another. The more difficult it is for them to communicate with one another, the more difficult it is to hold on to authority.
In other words, by providing a mechanism by which it is extremely easy for any one member of an authoritarian conspiracy to make secrets public, Wikileaks hopes to change the environment in which those conspiracies work in order to make it more difficult for them to function effectively.
The moment where I have to change my pants is this, from Assange's original essay:
If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.This is what I meant when I said the other day that I'm more excited about Wikileaks than I have been about anything in a good long while. Despite my dislike of cynicism, I've grown accustomed to feeling like there is nothing that anyone can effectively do to fight Power. Any solution I'd ever been able to think of requires such a critical mass of people as to be effectively impossible.
But this? Call me naive, but I can almost believe it has a chance of working.
But before I get carried away with my excitement, allow me to circle back to my opening. We can see now that any objection to Wikileaks based on the actual information content of the leaks--either in specific, as with the "nothing new" argument, or in general, as with the "in one ear" argument--is essentially moot. The content of the leaks is important in some senses, but is irrelevant to the underlying strategy, which is only concerned with the existence of leaks. There is one other major objection I've seen that I considered valid, which goes along the lines of "these releases will just make Power dig in its heels even more--tighter security means we'll know even less of what's going on." When I first saw that objection being thrown around, my perspective was that it was a fair price to pay. Looking at it in light of this whole anti-conspiracy strategy, though, increased secrecy is a win.
I'm far from the smartest person in the world, but I have yet to think of a flaw in the logic. One of the very few counterarguments I've seen that strike me as anything close to damning comes from Doctor Science (another is BDR's, which I actually think is stronger and will try to discuss soon). Doctor Science points out, simply, that we don't have to look far to come across dozens of examples of authoritarian evil that didn't require secrecy at all. And it's true--a great portion of the horrifying things our ruling class does, it does out in the open.
However, it is trivially easy to show at least that the ruling class, in practice, relies very heavily on secrecy--just look at the leaked cables to see the crap they felt the need to classify! Greenwald pointed out that the very banality of a good portion of the cables is in itself a scandal--because what the fuck is a government that claims to be democracy doing making all this trivial nonsense secret? (Note, please, that this behavior does not come as a surprise to people with the perspective that I and most of you bring to things, but note also what I said about how not everything needs to be surprising to be important.)
So, yes, I do take Doctor Science's point, and I will admit that she did manage to temper my excitement slightly by pointing out the obvious (there's that word again) that hadn't occurred to me. But the fact remains that even if the ruling class doesn't actually require all that much secrecy to get away with its fucking of the world, it still currently relies on secrecy as a primary tool. At the very worst, Wikileaks is screwing with their ability to use one of their favorite tools.
And now I'm excited again, so I'm going to return to that quote that got me all hot and bothered. Specifically, to the money shot. Let's see it again, in slow motion:
An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.We know what that means, right?