I hope most of you following the Wikileaks story read Aaron Bady’s essay at zunguzungu last week, in which he examines two early essays attributed to Julian Assange and provides his explanation of Assange’s broader theory. It’s a sophisticated read with at last glance 567 comments – the sort of blog post political theorists will (or should) assign to their graduate classes.
I also think Bady makes some mistakes in his interpretation of Assange’s essays – or at least glosses over some of the more disturbing implications in his zeal to paint Assange as smarter and less objectionable than might be assumed by those not familiar with his writings.
Let’s begin with what Robert Baird at 3QD argues is the central insight of Bady’s essay: “the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes ‘information wants to be free’ as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland.”
In Bady’s words:
According to his essay, Julian Assange is trying to do something else. Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.
Baird usefully describes Bady’s argument analytically as follows:
For Assange in 2006, then, the public benefit of leaked information is not the first-order good of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world (free information is its own reward), nor is it the second-order good of the muckrakers* (free information will lead the people to demand change). What Assange asks of leaked information is that it supply a third-order public good: he wants it to demonstrate that secrets cannot be securely held, and he wants it to do this so that the currency of all secrets will be debased. He wants governments-cum-conspiracies to be rendered paranoid by the leaks and therefore be left with little energy to pursue its externally focused aims.
Here are my reactions. First of all both Bady and Baird, who seem in agreement about Assange’s “clearly articulated vision” and offer a very helpful analytical typology to situate his ethics in relation to others like Mark Z, both discount the inconsistencies with which he has articulated that vision. If Assange truly fit the “third-order” mold when he wrote those essays, his thinking today seems to draw on all three discourses to fit his audience and the moment. He has said third-order types of things, but he has also said on the Wikileaks site ”transparency creates a better society for all people” and that “all information should be free” (ala Zuckerberg); he has argued at times that his goal is reform, not revolution; and as Baird acknowledges in a footnote, Assange’s Time interview reflected the second-order position.
If he has a consistent position, I’m not sure even Assange knows what it is. And considering that he is using the nuclear threat of releasing his entire archive (presumably irrespective of any harm minimization tactics the organization would otherwise claim to employ) as a bargaining chip to deal with his legal troubles, I have a hard time agreeing with Bady’s claim that Assange always emphasizes ethics.
But let’s suspend disbelief for a moment about whether Assange’s 2006 essays provide a useful road-map to his current position or political behavior, and simply examine his writings. What surprises me most is that Bady, and to some extent Baird, seem to accept many of Assange’s central claims. Here are several I find very troubling – even moreso if they indeed tell us something about his current agenda.
1) Assange Discounts the Importance of Secrecy For Good Governors, and Overstates the Impact of Leaks on Bad Governors.
In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
I have already spoken to the value of discretion in good governance here, a set of points which I think weighs against Assange’s assertion that if you care about discretion, you must have something to hide.
But even if this weren’t true – even if eliminating the ability for the state to think discreetly were definitely a public good – there is another problem with Assange’s worldview: he believes that leaks will serve this goal.
“We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it… if an authoritarian conspiracy that can not think efficiently, can not act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces…”
“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”
I am actually unconvinced, for what digital leaks do is encourage the state to avoid leaving a digital paper-trail, not to stop communicating entirely. Links can mean many things besides leakable documents. And what we know from studying genuinely authoritarian states is that they can think quite easily and behave quite murderously without a paper trail of any sort. This is in fact what makes it so difficult to prosecute the crime of genocide.
Therefore, I would imagine, in fact, that massive leaks actually do the reverse: make it impossible for those organs of government most willing to document their activities, within certain boundaries of discretion, to function. The true conspiracies to commit atrocious acts will simply go offline. Transparency of the type that would meet Assange’s goals would require a massive reverse panopticon inflicted upon civil servants that could capture their non-written activities and speech acts as well. This doesn’t strike me as a libertarian ideology – any more than the notion that those who value privacy must be hiding something and deserve what they get.
2) Assange’s Uses the Terms “Authoritarian” and “Conspiracy” in a Sweeping and Circular Way. Relatedly, Assange seems not to understand or even acknowledge the difference between authoritarian governments and democratic governments: for him, authoritarian is less a descriptive term and more a pejorative – one in terms identical to those of any powerful agent:
Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.
Note the circular reasoning. I guess my husband and are conspiring as “successful authoritarian powers” when we meet privately to discuss our differences on parenting strategies, because we know that airing those differences in the open will encourage resistance.
If you suppose that I am using the parenting analogy to blithely make a point, consider the examples of “conspiracies” that Assange himself uses in his papers: the Democratic and the Republican parties.
Now, Assange does define “conspiracy” as making “secret plans to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.” (In the second of his two essays, nearly identical to the original, he expands on the paragraph cited above with a modifier “working to the detriment of a population,” which suggests he realizes that it is only bad secrecy that is conspiratorial.)
But he does not define what to what kind of harm or detriment he refers, assuming (I gather) that to his readers it will be obvious. The consequence of this however is that just about anything and everything – families, firms, NGOs he doesn’t like, or entire political parties for example – could be labeled a conspiracy. He is also unable to distinguish the conspiratorial elements of large political groupings like parties or states from those elements attempting to bring about a positive result.
In short there is nothing in his essay that discusses the scope conditions for targeting a particular actor: presumably the fact that they are operating secretly and to someone’s dissatisfaction is enough to prove they are both authoritarian and conspiratorial.
This means Assange can tell us what a conspiracy looks like, but unfortunately he can tell us nothing about how to know something is not a conspiracy. It’s ironic that he uses the image of nails to describe conspiracies (see below), given what we know about people with hammers. Assange’s reasoning leaves anything dangerously open to justification, since anyone he doesn’t like can be a conspirator, and the aim is apparently to exterminate all conspirators:
If all conspirators are assassinated or all the links between them are destroyed, then a conspiracy no longer exists.
This is a far cry from the clearly-articulated ethical vision Bady claims. Rather it smacks of the same sort of circular, paranoid double-speak usedby the Bush administration in the war on terror.
3) Assange’s Supposedly Brilliant “Theory” of Conspiracies is Simply a Rudimentary Theory of Networks, in Which Any Network Counts As A Conspiracy. Fascinatingly enough, Assange draws on counter-terror language and models in developing his theory against the state:
“We extend this understanding of terrorist organizations and turn it on the likes of its paymasters, transforming it into a knife to dissect the conspiracies used to maintain authoritarian power structures.” [Read: all power structures]
Now, if you’ve have a basic course in social network analysis, you will recognize his model of “connected graphs” – which he articulates using a metaphor of nails in a board connected by string – as nothing more than a description of any network – a set of links among nodes.
“[Connected graphs] are easy to visualize. First take some nails (‘conspirators’) and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine (‘communication’) and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link… Information flows from conspirator to conspirator.”
Sure. And this logic also describes any group of individuals who shares any information at all. In other words, just as authoritarianism is described synonymously with all power relations in these essays, “conspiracy” is described synonymously with all social relations.
This notion that opaque connectedness is by definition conspiratorial is dangerous. It could be applied to members of Human Rights Watch as easily as to the State Department. It could be applied to professors who wanted to preserve freedom of discretion among their “friends” on Facebook and limit their connections to students. It could apply to families, who keep most of their dirty laundry private.*
It would certainly apply to Wikileaks itself, an organization that does not disclose its sources nor its methods nor its method nor its location nor its financial records – though this may soon change.
If Wikileaks as an organization meets Assange’s own criteria for being an authoritarian conspiracy, does that mean this is the best terminology with which to understand the organization? Not necessarily, because we don’t have to accept Assange’s description of those terms.
But I’ll tell you what does give me pause in reading these essays (aside from his terrible spelling and grammar): Assange’s blindingly circular thinking, his readiness to engage in guilt by association and demonize all civil servants as members of a conspiracy, his unwillingness to define his terms in a manner that would allow him to refute his own argument, and his radically transformative political views – he wishes to completely overturn the existing system, not simply reform it.
These – along with a righteous belief in his own power to change the world – are traits he shares, incidentally, with many of the worst dictators of the 20th century as well as a number of cult leaders.
Now does this mean everything he’s doing is wrong? Not at all, as I’ve previously said. But what is missing from Assange’s essays, from the Wikileaks mission statement, and from his public statements is a clear set of ethical guidelines to answer the question the Bady claims is the most important:
The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about.
Whereas Bady gives Assange high marks for doing precisely that, I see no evidence in his essays of such thinking. (Baird makes a similar point.) I see a dangerously generalizable yet flawed causal argument based on network structure, but no ethical judgments about consequences even if the causal argument were fully accurate.
I cannot do better in articulating this point than a fellow named Matt in a comment on the 3QD post:
What if, by trying to disrupt a system that unquestionably produces a certain amount of badness, I actually strengthen the resolve of the bad actors? Or allow a still worse system to flourish in the chaos caused by destruction of the first one?
What if I knew for a fact I wasn’t in possession of all the facts I needed to make that kind of analysis in the first place?
This is why a few volunteer, self-appointed regents-in-exile are not better than the devils we know, no matter how sophisticated their philosophical underpinnings. Accepting at face value this pretty charitable analysis of Assange’s motives, he’s as unaccountable and opaque as any of the “conspiracies” he’s tilting at.
Why should I trust him just because he’s convinced he’s figured out a winning plan? The absolute lack of any evidence of doubt or humility is terrifying in and of itself.
I will continue to call for consideration of these broader ethical questions.
*Would the world be safer without such opacity? If families, for example, had a panopticon observing and documenting their behavior, they might scream at each other less, commit adultery less frequently, and battery and incest might all but disappear. Would this be a better world? Maybe. A less authoritarian world? It’s not – at all – clear to me that that follows.
[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]
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