As we come to the end of another year, I was reflecting on which man has had the most significant impact on society. I think history will show it will be Julian Assange, the slightly eccentric Australian journalist and founder of the web site Wikileaks. He has, of course, hit the world’s headlines recently for publishing secret communications from the US State department and alleging a politically motivated extradition to Sweden on sex offence charges.
Assange’s impact will not be remembered by the legal battle he is currently fighting but by his philosophy of political activism that he espouses. Of course the sensational journalism that reports his legal problems usually fails to draw our attention to this so here it is, albeit in a highly truncated form:
1. The political / economic system undermines the well-being of the majority of people by protecting the interests of a small minority of the elite. Nothing unusual of course in this idea.
2. The elite maintain their power by hiding their motives from the majority of people so they cannot be held up to rational scrutiny. Again, nothing unusual in this idea too.
3. Assange then uses the term ‘conspiracy’ to describe the pattern of secret communications that pass between members of the elite. These aren’t the grand conspiracy theories of 911 or covering up alien abductions, but the small ‘conspiracies’ of keeping the majority naïve to the motives and dealings of the elite.
4. Assange then uses a computational / network inspired view of the combined activity of the ruling elite as behaving like an organism. ‘Conspiracies’ are maintained by the elite through the patterns of communication of the individual members, rather than being ‘led’ by say a particular person. An assassination may knock out a key member of the conspiracy, but the conspiracy, because it is distributed through a network, will remain intact.
5. In order to function effectively, the members of the elite need to communicate freely and in secret. If this ability is compromised, say by leaks of confidential ambassadorial correspondence, the ‘conspiring’ elite will be forced to retrench. Individuals will not be able to communicate as effectively, and mistrust between members of the elite, say between ambassadors and leaders of countries, will grow.
6. A retrenched ‘conspiring’ elite will be unable to gain timely and effective intelligence of the environment in which it is working. Its ability to operate as a conspiracy will consequently be degraded.
7. Repressive, authoritarian regimes need to be the most conspiratorial in order to function effectively, and are therefore the most vulnerable to attack by systematic leaks of confidential material. Benign regimes, however, have the least to fear from transparency.
In a nutshell, Assange aims to bring about benign governance by making it increasingly difficult for repressive regimes to function. The ‘leaks’ that have created headlines around the world, are not meant to cause damage in themselves (although they no doubt will) but to achieve the broader aim of causing the conspiratorial elite to retrench and degrade their effectiveness.
For the state and big business, this is its ‘Napster moment’. Once internet users found a way to share perfect copies of music, the old business model of the record companies was over and there was nothing they could do about it. After Assange, the same is true of the workings of the state. Like the record companies before it, the ruling elite must adapt or die.
Assange offers us an ingenious theory of political progress in the internet age, and right or wrong, I can perfectly understand why he has upset so many powerful people. After Assange, however, the way people conceive of political activism has been changed forever.
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