Radical media, politics and culture.

Saroj Giri, "Thanks, But No Thanks, WikiLeaks!"

Thanks, But No Thanks, WikiLeaks! Saroj Giri

Is ‘exposing power’ through ‘truth revelations’ set to become the new game in town? Is it a mere coincidence that Bradley Manning becomes no Rosa Parks but a mere conduit for ‘digital anarchism’ and ‘infoliberaton’, with WikiLeaks working in tandem with corporate media houses?

Serious questions have been raised about WikiLeaks’ credibility as an autonomous and independent whistle-blower: dubious funding, Assange-centric organizational structure, and close allies in the corporate media that work in tandem with the US administration. More seriously, questions have been raised about its main goal being exposing "despotic regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia" while it is supposed to be striking deals to cover up for Israel. There are reports that ‘WikiLeaks Struck a Deal with Israel over Diplomatic Cables Leaks’ (http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2010/12/470066.html). New whistleblowers have emerged declaring Wikileaks is a ‘Rothschild/CIA-Mossad-MI6 operation’!

I am not here delving into these charges that may or may not be true. What might be interesting however is to highlight some of the basic presuppositions of the very form and kind of politics and mode of challenging power which WikiLeaks have brought to the fore. I hope this will contribute to formulating strategies of struggle within the left, continuing my argument from an earlier piece with the same objective (‘WikiLeaks beyond WikiLeaks?’, GlobalResearch.ca, Dec 16, 2010).

Prairie of truths

Lets start with US vice-president Joe Biden’s recent statement that “the leaked cables created no substantive damage – only embarrassment”. We know that he might not be honest here at all, as on another occasion he seems to be admitting real damage: “he's (Assange) made it more difficult for us to conduct our business with our allies and our friends.” But what we can be sure of is that ‘the biggest leak in history’, ‘the 9/11 of diplomatic history’ did not in fact give rise to any serious public outrage or civil disobedience in the US or elsewhere. In this sense, the Wikileaks truth revelations did not act as the proverbial spark setting off the prairie fire, even though it surely might have changed the way diplomacy will be conducted or pushed for adoption of leak-proof cyber technology for state secrets.

In any case, it is perhaps safe to say that WikiLeaks and people like Daniel Ellsberg have all too easily assumed that the revelations will lead to public outrage and bring about change – unless of course they never meant what they were publicly stating. What we can be sure of is that people and citizens in whose name the truth is being revealed are getting deluged by truth – and there are more releases, more truth coming, we are told! The question is: how much more details do we need to know about how evil ‘Empire’ or imperialism is? Or are revelations and exposes set to become another game in town? Not a prairie on fire but a prairie of truths, where truth can easily lose its spark and radical charge. From the information explosion to the truth explosion: truth without the subversive potential, truth without event, hence surely no substantive damage, only embarrassment for US power!

Truth losing its power and punch in triggering off civil disobedience or protests is however very empowering for the US administration. We already heard Joe Biden’s confident remark dismissing the leaks as mere embarrassment. Pro-establishment writers like Dana Milbank display a similar confidence, clearly related to the inability of the leaked cables to trigger any public outcry or unrest. Indeed she goes to the extent of calling the revelations of the leaked diplomatic cables ‘phony facts’, ‘without any political import’ (‘Make Julian Assange Irrelevant’, Washington Post, Dec 18, 2010). She writes that any political import the leaks have, derives from Obama administration’s penchant for rampant “over-classification”, “the trademark of totalitarianism”. “The reflexive classifying has, by creating the perception that the government has much to hide, created a market for WikiLeaks.” What in effect is being said here is that the question of the details of our activities (unjust, immoral and violent) becoming public is a state or bureaucratic decision with no ramifications about inviting public anger or unrest, apart from some routine embarrassment.

Compare this to how much WikiLeaks and its supporters give importance to these ‘phony facts’, as carrying a subversive power. WikiLeaks’ website declares that it “relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.” That is, truth is not just ‘overt fact’ but that which at the same time “enables and empowers citizens to…” challenge power – truth which awakens people and inspires people to speak out. Most people on the left rightly felt exuberant and hoped that the revelations are going to have a far more serious effect and will majorly destabilize imperialism. But to what extent has that take place or why did it not take place are questions we need to ask ourselves.

People’s self-activity

So we must point out that there is indeed a problem in this mode and practice of challenging power, which has come to the fore with WikiLeaks today. No doubt, Assange’s ‘scientific journalism’ is impeccable when it comes to evidence and facts, so that people can see for themselves and test the sources of the leaks – the unassailable truth. George Orwell is often quoted: “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”. But we cannot assume people as only passively receiving the end product – the truth being told. This behalfism and indulgent disconnect with the public is evident when Anonymous declares, “we are here for all of you, campaign for all of you”. Against this, let us recall: “The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle”. A handful of elite hackers can reveal the truth but it does not really get embraced and absorbed by ‘ordinary people’ against power, for only their own struggle educates people about the truth. Those incidentally are Lenin’s words about people learning the ‘truth’ about the repressive Czarist regime in Russia in the aftermath of ‘Bloody Sunday’ where scores of protestors were fired upon and killed in St Petersburg in 1905.

It is the activity and experience of the people which reveals the truth to them, a truth which is inseparable from their struggle. Rosa Parks’ defiance is a case in point – it became a symbol of the struggle against racism in the US. However, in the case of Bradley Manning, his act of defiance in leaking the secret documents seems far less important than the contents of what he released. It is true that the contents of those documents were of unprecedented significance, so they would get the enormous attention and coverage which we are witnessing. And yet, a low-ranking gay soldier’s defiance could have as well triggered off civil disobedience within the army or among ordinary people, instead of inspiring only sundry ‘whistle blowers’ or old members of the Veterans for Peace to come out in the streets. It is no mere coincidence that Manning becomes a mere conduit passing the leaks to WikiLeaks and then to the corporate media houses. The fact of the matter is actually that minus Manning’s act of defiance, WikiLeaks revelations seem more like truth abstracted from the struggle of the people and then served back to them with redactions and vetting by the corporate media. It is true that Assange and WikiLeaks are at one level part of the larger struggle of the people for justice, freedom and so on. Reports in fact say that Assange had attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2006 and addressed activists in social movements. But this looks like more than a one-time encounter with social movements rather than any engagement or pro-active association.

‘Scientific journalism’

It is therefore misplaced to make the scientific veracity of the revelations, the primary focus – as though ‘evidence’ about the truth being told is all that takes to convince people to come out against power. Assange goes to great lengths to emphasise on the verifiability of their evidence: “Publishing the original source material behind each of our stories is the way in which we show the public that our story is authentic. Readers don’t have to take our word for it; they can see for themselves.” As though the public is not swinging into civil disobedience only since they do not yet have damning evidence of the system’s corruption, WikiLeaks states that “we want readers to know the truth so they can make up their own minds.” One can even trace an unstated attempt here to abstract individuals from their places of work and living, places where their own struggle teaches them the truth about the system, and render them into abstract individuals who have to form their opinion from ‘revealed truth’ handed down to them, from some secret files and so on.

With such ‘scientific evidence’ at hand, there is this tendency to bask in the revelations as damning, as yet again proving the point about the evil nature of the US and so on. The US is presented as scared of the truth and doing everything to hide it, suppressing free speech and freedom of information and a free and independent internet. It is assumed that a truth revelation will carry its own charge and will ignite public outrage and possibly protests. Thus Daniel Ellsberg in his letter of Dec 8, 2010 from the Institute of Public Accuracy, quotes Bradley Manning writing, “I want people to see the truth … because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public,” adding that he hoped to provoke “worldwide discussion, debates, and reform”. This expectation that the public are going to act upon the truth is constantly declared. Ellsberg himself states that “the American public should be outraged at their government”.

However for once, apart from merely attacking the US government and celebrating the supposed automatic radical effects of truth, there is a sober, slightly reflective moment in the letter. Here Ellsberg talks about what the public will do with the truth, “whether Americans can handle the truth”. He answers yes, “we believe they can. The challenge is to make the truth available to them in a straightforward way so they can draw their own conclusions”. Till date, however, he writes, this question “has been an academic rather than an experience-based one, because Americans have had very little access to the truth. Now, however, with the WikiLeaks disclosures, they do.” So what will happen now? Is there a Wikileaks movement or something, are people getting mobilized, is their a social disobedience movement against the government? Why were there so few people in the recent demonstration outside White House, and it comprised mostly members of the Veterans for Peace? These questions are neither raised nor of course even answered. It is clear therefore that without a public upheaval or movement, the truth revealed has only the status of an ‘overt fact’, without its subversive political charge, without any life. Are we then not confronting an over-accumulation of truth, an stultifying economy and circulation of sting operations, exposes and so on? No discomfort is expressed about this situation where you have a surfeit of the most incisive truths exposing the evil workings of power combined with a passive citizenry, who seem wedded to the system in more ways than one. This situation already existed since some time. WikiLeaks only brought it into the sharpest relief.

The case was no different during the anti-war mobilization in the US where exposing the immoral and corrupt character of the ruling classes and the unjust war did not by themselves mobilize people to action. As Wendy Brown points out, “much of the American public appeared indifferent to the fact that both the Afghan and Iraqi regimes targeted by Bush had previously been supported or even built by earlier U.S. foreign policy. It appeared indifferent as well to the fact that the "liberation" of Afghan women was touted as one of the great immediate achievements of the overthrow of the Taliban while overthrow of the Baath regime has set into motion an immediately more oppressive regime of gender in Iraq” (‘Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy’, Theory & Event, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2003).

One shudders to think that there is going to be an outpouring of another round of diplomatic cables – our saturation with all this truth about the vile machinations of power and ‘Empire’ might produce some serious mass and calamitous disorientation!

The One and the many

And finally how does one make sense of the idea that the leaks is an example of info-liberation, of the vulnerability of state power in the age of the internet and its fluidity. Says Wikileaks in its famous letter to Daniel Ellsberg, dated 16 December 2006: “New technology and cryptographic ideas permit us to not only encourage document leaking, but to facilitate it directly on a mass scale. We intend to place a new star in the political firmament of man.” More crucial is the point typically made in decentred-network activist circles, about conventional state power (or the ‘revolutionary party’) being the One fighting against the many, a reified, ossified structure of power against the multiplying, faceless, rhizomatic swarm.

Thus the faceless swarm of the anonymous many is supposed to be not co-optable. However as the present WikiLeaks episode shows, the anonymous many seem to be bugging and embarrassing power, but they are without any vision of real change. The anonymous many, even in their constant cyber-war with conventional power, can very well end up as the absent basis, as the oppositional ally of the One – not a static relationship but a moving, dynamic equilibrium between ‘power’ and ‘anti-power’, with ‘power’ as the dominant aspect. Is this the way in which we can understand WikiLeaks (anti-power) and its relationship to corporate media and the structures of US power?

Far from such a struggle between the One and the many being really against ‘power’, apart from embarrassing it no end, it might very well have become a constitutive feature and operative principle of power, internal to power and yet always ‘outside’ of power. This dynamic might constantly displace the possibility of any real struggle on the ground and it is this which immediately makes of Bradley Manning a facilitator, a mere conduit for activism in cyber space, rather than a symbol of the actual act of defiance against power. It was however pretty clear that the supposedly non-cooptable many does not have the vision nor the interest in including the majority of the people. This much was clear during the cyber attacks on Amazon and other sites which could have inconvenienced their costumers who are in turn ordinary people. ‘Anonymous’ withdrew its attacks on Amazon soon enough giving the reason that this “would affect people such as consumers in a negative way and make them feel threatened by Anonymous. Simply put, attacking a major online retailer when people are buying presents for their loved ones, would be in bad taste.” No doubt disrupting people’s routine lives would be in bad taste but the larger point is that the disconnect of our hackivists from ‘ordinary people’ became totally clear. The many is not that many at all and not only do they not extend at all to the large majority of the people, such an idea simply does not even exist for the Infoliberators.


What is clear is that a passive citizenry or even a citizenry active on a narrow plank of ‘right to know’ will not suddenly spring to action on the basis of a revelation of truth. On the other hand a mobilized people, in the midst of a movement or prepared through its own struggle, does not need a prairie of truths, thousands of diplomatic cables to be revealed – a single spark of a truth can start a prairie fire. One incident, one defiance, one standing up to repression or power in the midst of a larger struggle, acquires a charge and a replicating force which soon engulfs the masses. … Knowing the truth about power and fighting to abolish it must therefore be a part of the process whereby people organize and discover their own strengths and power. An organization which will mediate between the process of collapse of moribund, immoral and historically obsolete structures of power, and the fight against it by subjective forces of the great majority of people who do not as much ask for reform of this system as its overthrow and supersession.

Isnt this what the philosopher Georg Lukacs meant by the party as the mediator between the immediate given and the totality, between the proletariat and history? This will allow the majority of people to look for a political alternative to the ruling classes and not just strive to fulfill the liberal agenda of making the existing state and power transparent and open. This alternative is built on the people’s own strengths which they can realize through their own struggle: “Only struggle discloses to (the masses) the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.” That’s Lenin again.

Truth as the end product of an anti-conspiracy operation, truth as digital activism of the elite ‘many’, truth which has not emerged through people’s struggle against power, only means that people know the truth but do not realize their own power to topple the present order – this will lead to merely reformist calls for transparency and good or open governance without challenging the basic structures of socio-economic inequalities and state power.

We must then rework the Orwell quote and ask: “in the time of universal exposes and so much of downloadable truth swarming around us, what is the truth which is revolutionary?” What is the truth which is a truth-event?