The State. Secrecy. Security. Censorship. Big Brother. Courts. Police. Corporations. Banks. Espionage. Treason. Assassination. Infowar. Field of battle. Troops. Terrorists. Criminals. Hackers. Activists. Danger. Arrest. Imprisonment. Avenge. Retaliation. Defiance. Subversion. Justice. Freedom. Rights. The People.
These are the keywords of a conflict with revolutionary potential. Most of them could be the keywords of any conflict. They happen to be some of the most frequently recurring words one encounters when following the battle between the Wikileaks movement and the state.
This is a conflict, with publicly announced goals, with actual confrontation, where strategies are at play and power is at stake. This may be obvious, but remembering that this is a political process, and should be analyzed as such, may help to prevent some from carting it off into some obscure, minimal sub domain of specialist discourse, like “cyber activism,” “digital politics,” or even “info war.” (Not to worry though, the “social media and digital activism” industry that has been spawned around State Department sponsorship, with all of its gurus and TED talks, will ensure that this diversion of the discussion will in fact take place. Some will be convinced: this is all just about “the Internet,” not about “the real world.”) But this war is not about information. The war is about what people accept as their relationship to a state that has been ardently expanding its power at our expense. It is a long-term war. The Iron Curtain did not fall in 1989; instead it was simply drawn around the entire globe. In somewhat broader terms, we are continuing and hopefully drawing to a conclusion what Immanuel Wallerstein and others called the World Revolution of 1968 (and some of the actors then, are present and fighting once again now, thank you Daniel Ellsberg). In an even longer time frame, we are battling the fact that the Nazis were not so much defeated after World War II, as much as their politics became the template into which our imperial politics were assimilated (whether in terms of mushrooming state propaganda, the accepted use of torture and scientific experimentation on captives, to using weapons against civilian populations, to massive state surveillance). If people keep calling each other Nazis, so frequently, it is precisely because the Nazis have been so successful. And in much greater temporal depth, we are fighting the effects of the rise of the modern state and its profoundly damaging impacts on human social relationships. This is a still unresolved clash between centralized power, a relative novelty in human history, and more egalitarian social forms that dominated the majority of human history for millennia. Now, the state wishes to reduce all of us to an infantile, vulnerable, dependent population?a bunch of thumb-sucking, head-bobbing, burbling toddlers preoccupied with “safety,” requiring the father state to “protect” us.
It is a conflict, but the political arena in which it is fought out is constantly changing shape, widening to be certain. It is not a “game,” as anthropologist F.G. Bailey liked to say, with agreed upon rules and established judges, and predetermined goals and prizes. This is a conflict where the rules of the game (diplomacy, state secrecy) and the game itself (empire) are being directly challenged, with the intention that such games never be played with people again.
It is now a Wikileaks movement about which we have to speak, and a movement that is being targeted by the imperial American state (explicitly: staffers, supporters, donors), comprising at least half a million people, worldwide, of all walks of life. Just as some were having to admit DDOS (distributed denial of service) to their vocabulary, we now have to admit DPOS (distributed provision of service). At last count Wikileaks mirrors set up by supporters now number almost 1,700. The arrest and imprisonment of Julian Assange has dealt a life blow that made the movement become visible as a movement: Wikileaks’ communication with the public via Twitter has not only continued, there are now several individual Wikileaks accounts; the number of cables being released has increased, and seemingly a greater volume at a greater speed; sites that have blocked, censored, or terminated dealings with Wikileaks have been taken down (including PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Swiss Post, and others), thanks to Operation Avenge Assange led by Anonymous (also connected to Operation Payback and now Operation Leakspin); and, over 500,000 people have demonstrated their support for Wikileaks (you can too). Julian Assange’s role has been critical, but his temporary displacement has not crippled the movement. The movement has flourished. The strategy of the state in trying to silence him has shown the world that what he said all along was true: he is a lightning rod, not the organization.
This is a conflict, Wikileaks is a movement, but what transformation can we expect, and would that transformation be revolutionary? That we have reached a crossroads is clear: never again will the relationship between state power, media, and citizenship be the same. It should be easy enough to agree with Julian Assange who recently stated: “geopolitics will be separated into pre and post cablegate phases;” and Carne Ross, a British diplomat, who wrote: “History may now be dated pre- or post-WikiLeaks.”
Some things can never be the same again. For the state, the over classification of information, and the everyday reliance on secrecy has just been abruptly transformed: it cannot forego documentation; documentation severed from those charged with the application of policy is worthless; word of mouth cannot serve swollen, centralized bureaucracies, especially not the vast U.S. national security apparatus; and, continued engagement in war, undertaking atrocities then kept secret, provokes those with a conscience to leak information. Either the U.S. ceases to use embassies as spy nests, and brings public pronouncements in line with actual actions, or it risks continued leaking and irreparable damage to its “soft power” resources. The state’s excessive monopolization of information has already been damaged beyond repair.
The relationship between states and media will also change dramatically. As Wikileaks blew in through an open window, the whole raison d’?tre of embedding reporters in military units, and of forcing journalists to play extra nice just to get some inside access to what is, after all, a publicly funded military, has just been blown out the front door. Thirty years of increasingly restrictive control over military and diplomatic information, and the cowing of the corporate media, has reached a climax and now we enter the phase of decline. Now either media report honestly and fully on what they know about what the state is doing in the name of citizens, or they will be swept aside as irrelevant and incompetent, or worse: as private organs of the state. Likewise, with direct access to leaked documents, no longer do journalists need to remain locked into a quasi-blackmail dependency relationship with the state. Critical and investigative journalism?in any country?no longer has a reason for not existing. Journalists, who fail to report on what could and should deeply embarrass the state, will now have to explain and apologize for their failures. Should the U.S. crackdown on Wikileaks under the 1917 Espionage Act, or some variation, it will inevitably have to be applied to mainstream media organizations, keeping in mind that Wikileaks has acted as part of a consortium with media?none of them leaked the documents (someone within the U.S. national security system did that), and all of them are equally pushing the documents. Dismissing Wikileaks’ journalism, the way that State Department spokesmen have, simply on the basis that Assange is an actor with an agenda, and has a political point of view, does not solve the problem: the exact same can and has been said, with an over abundance of evidence, about everything from Fox News to the BBC and Al Jazeera. Perhaps the State Department does not recognize anything as “news media” that is not ultimately owned by a defense contractor and weapons manufacturer, such as NBC, CBS, and Le Figaro.
The political economy of the Web, always an arena for struggle, is now approaching a climax where private ownership and state censorship are being frontally assaulted. China and Iran are revealed as being unexceptional. The State Department’s touting of “Internet Freedom” and “Civil Society 2.0” are exposed as cynical and confirmed as manipulative geopolitical tools?for everyone watching, not just for a select clique of critics. All of us have seen more than the leaks; we have seen a battery of private corporations acting as arms of the state, imposing their non-legal interpretations of what is legal, and following the state in applying harsh extra-legal measures. There is certainly a clash over the horizons of what is possible and acceptable, and the fight for The People’s Web has entered a new phase. This is now a different place. It feels like we are using a new Web.
There has been confrontation, conflict, and open defiance. Those who are diffident about speaking in terms of “revolution,” can at least speak of Wikileaks as a rebellion. Both Julian Assange and Wikileaks supporters in general, are being classed as “terrorists” by prominent right wing speakers and politicians. Even the more “moderate” voices call us “criminals.” There are open calls for assassination. We are their insurgents. For many different and even opposed interests, this will get ugly: brace yourselves.
As a rebellion, some stark realities come into open view, realities that many of us knew existed but that others refused to see. The real “war on terror” is in fact a global counterinsurgency program directed at all of us, not just ten guys in some cave. We live in a regime of global occupation, where psychological warfare, assaults on human rights, and increasingly dictatorial state powers are directed against citizens, not just foreign “enemy combatants.” That is what Wikileaks has revealed, and it is a truly revolutionary revelation because we can never go back to the same sort of dependent and submissive relationship with the state. Many people who support Wikileaks have, for the first time in their lives, experienced direct death threats, but from fellow citizens, voiced with such hate-filled anger that was previously reserved only for “jihadists” (as some thought). The real war was always as much at home as abroad, if not more so.
If by revolution some expect the fall of an entire political and economic system, governments overthrown, and the spawning of a new world socialist order?then they are likely to reject the idea that Wikileaks is a revolution. On the other hand, we live in a very uncertain period where lots of outcomes cannot be foreseen, and Wikileaks may prove to be a critical catalyst in realigning our understanding of world politics, which are not defined by an existential fight against some Other, but a fight against us, by states that fear their own citizens. Where Wikileaks is certainly a revolution can be understood in more proximal terms, dealing with the politics and economics of information and communication, relationships of citizens with the state, relationships between states, and heightened expectations for the promise of democracy. That is not little.
MAXIMILIAN FORTE is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where he teaches courses in Political Anthropology, political activism and the Web, and the New Imperialism. He is also a columnist for Al Jazeera (Arabic) and writes regularly at Zero Anthropology (http://zeroanthropology.net). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.