Between now and December 17th, the Center for a Stateless Society will be conducting a virtual symposium on the topic of Statecraft in the Wikileaks Era. We invite you to join the conversation. Publish your responses to the following, and post a link in the comments before the deadline. This page will be updated with links to selected responses. Shorter responses may of course be left on the comments section below.
I’m working out some predictions concerning the political effects of the ongoing WikiLeaks release, to better inform anarchist activity.
It is unlikely that the world can go back to how it was prior to the massive leaks of 2010. Although it might sound cliché to say this, the Megaleaks of 2010-2011 could be a decade-defining event on the scale of the September 11 attacks. Certainly, Cablegate does not present such a visible public spectacle as did the September 11 attacks, but it does have the potential to make headlines for weeks and cause massive shifts in public consciousness.
The state is unlikely to stop the mechanism by which information is used against them. Even if WikiLeaks goes down there will be others to take its place.
So what can governments do? I’ve tried to list and briefly describe some possible short-term responses by government, in the hopes that anarchists will be better prepared to deal with them. The courses of action listed below do not exclude each other.
1) Government could continue operating as they have, but with less trust, and under the threat of occasional leaks. Even if secrets are better safeguarded, the public will have more suspicion that their leaders are up to no good. If whistleblower organizations or websites are attacked, or if people are harmed in “accidents” or supposedly non-related criminal violence, suspicion will be heightened and retaliatory measures may take place.
2) In one version of openness, government could take the iron fist out of the frayed velvet glove. This could manifest in the prevalence of ideologies of open domination and/or serious crackdowns on internet use and speech.
3) In a more pleasant version of openness, governments, knowing they are being watched, will start acting more honestly. This will be done out of concession to the democratized access to information, but may lead to more benevolent and honest leadership. However, pursuing such a course will make the traditional work of governments – accumulating and exercising power according to the interests of the powerful – difficult to implement.
4) Governments could utilize false information to discredit leakers. This will be increasingly difficult in a contest of trust and reputation. The most likely way it could be successful would be to infiltrate whistleblower and media organizations.
5) It is also possible to distract people from the revelations. The promotion of human interest stories can take over for the substance of leaks and popular responses. Criticism can be deflected from the government to the personalities of the leakers. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the two most well-known personas attached to the massive leaks, have been subject to personal attacks. Manning was portrayed as disgruntled and mentally unstable and had his sexual orientation subject to scrutiny. Whether or not the rape allegations against Assange are true (and it is likely that they are not), his alleged sexual deviance can displace other WikiLeaks-related headlines. In addition, long-running investigations and stings can be used to present terrorist plots at opportune times.
6) Government can hold steadfast and neutralize potential uses of information. When the population feels helpless to change things, “outrage fatigue” sets in and dissidence is neutralized as apathy or alienation. Public loss of reputation, career, and freedom faced by people attached to the leaks can send a message to those considering emulating them.
7) Information could be spun in a way that makes government and its programs seem more necessary. American media has already been criticized for not including reports that refute claims that Iran acquired long-range missiles from North Korea. (See Roy Greenslade.)
I would suspect that most governments implicated in WikiLeaks stories will use some combination of the above seven methods. As for the United States government, their response will probably be closest to 1, but will incorporate all options at some time. In any case, the future of statecraft looks like it will be more difficult than before. When popular perceptions of legitimacy diminish, the effectiveness of governance also diminishes. With trust and allegiance on the decline, national leaders must work harder to rally support and show they are needed.
Yes there will still be statist adherents. They will claim that the crimes of government are necessary evils, that they are aberrations, and/or that they show how difficult the important task of governing is, which is why we need such well-funded elites to make decisions.
But this will be difficult. The state will need to take serious action to keep faith strong. Shaken faith in the state presents an opportunity for anarchists to showcase viable alternatives and transform skepticism into opposition.
A related issue is the behavior of corporations. Big business will face similar pressures as government, and might now face a harder time making deals with the government to secure political backing. Denial of service attacks can tip the scales of political calculation, and government will have to give them more concessions or promises to secure their cooperation with unpopular policy. The consequences to capitalism beyond its state backing will be particularly important once the promised leak of large bank misdeeds is made public.
See also my Center for a Stateless Society feature, The News About Leaked Cables.
Also of interest might be the following words of David Remnick found in his extensive work Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.
But now something had changed – changed radically. After some initial hesitation at the beginning of his time in power, Gorbachev had decreed that the time had come to fill in the “black spots” of history… But despite Gorbachev’s hesitation, the return of historical memory would be his most important decision.
Remnick says shortly later,
[N]early everywhere they went, historians, prosecutors, archivists, and journalists discovered that the legacy of Soviet power was at least as tragic as everything they had heard from “forbidden voices” … Now no book, no voice was forbidden…. “Imagine being an adult and nearly all the truth you know about the world around you and outside your own country has to be absorbed in a matter of a year or two or three,” the philosopher Grigori Pomerants told me. “The entire country is still in a state of mass disorientation.”
The men of the Communist Party, the leaders of the KGB and the military and the millions of provincial functionaries who had grown up on a falsified history, could not bear the truth. Not because they didn’t believe it. They knew the facts of the past better than anyone else. But the truth challenged their existence, their comforts and their privileges…
When history was no longer an instrument of the Party, the Party was doomed to failure. For history proved precisely that: the Party was rotten at its core. The ministers, generals, and apparatchiks who organized the August coup of 1991 met secretly at KGB safe houses outside Moscow many times to discuss the ruin of their state. They talked of the need for order, the need, somehow, to reverse the decline of the Party. They were so deluded about their own country that they even believed they could put a halt to the return of history. They would shut it down with a decree and a couple of tank divisions.
The ongoing publishing of secret information by WikiLeaks will cause some kind of change in the international political environment. How much the political environment does change will depend on who takes advantage of the moment when rules are being rewritten and what methods they adopt. We already know that the state is putting a lot of thought into how to address and direct the effects of WikiLeaks. Those interested in achieving a stateless society should be thinking about it too.