Christopher Rodrigues
Christopher Rodrigues

Arrows for false gods*: WikiLeaks & ‘the national interest’

One of the better observations made by a local commentator in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures, was offered by Richard Calland, who suggested that the “purely nation-state, Westphalian view of the world” was increasingly in question. Calland wrote of a compelling anarchist narrative informing WikiLeaks’s direct action. He is quite right but the point — anarchism is so poorly understood — needs elaboration.

Let’s begin by considering the bête noire of anti-authoritarianism: the notion of “the national interest” that lies at the core of so many contemporary news stories, from the anti-austerity protests in Europe, to this country’s own “Secrecy Bill”, to WikiLeaks itself.

Writing in the late nineteenth century, the Russian anarchist Mikhael Bakunin rhetorically asked:

“And what do we really see in all of history? The state has always been the patrimony of some privileged class, whether sacerdotal, noble, or bourgeois, and, in the end, when all the other classes have been used up, of a bureaucratic class.”

Globalisation has since made Bakunin’s contention that “it is precisely the solitary interest of this privileged class that we call patriotism” even more clear-cut as capital accumulation overcomes all geographies while, at the same time, the working-majority is exhorted — in the name of “the national interest” — to accept all manner of restraint.

Against this sleight of hand, WikiLeaks has broken not just a barrier of secrets but more, pertinently, the barrier of privilege. In one foul swoop we the public have got (only) a mere glimpse into a world where dictators sit down with the representatives of democracy to discuss new wars, heads of state premeditatedly plan to fake ignorance before their own parliaments, and government investigations of inquiry do no such thing.

And now exposed they all — imperialist and nationalist — cry with one voice: treason!

But to return to Calland:

“If … I reach the conclusion that, in fact, my interests as a member of the working class are better served through solidarity with fellow working class people throughout the world, then the need to secretly defend interests through … ‘diplomatic relations’ dissipates.”

What exactly is “the national interest”, or for that matter “national security”? What interests does someone who has had his or her house repossessed by an Irish bank have in common with a recapitalised banker? What country does someone in South Africa, who buys sugar by the spoonful, share with another resident holding innumerable mining concessions? And whose security is violated — when we read in one of the embassy cables how the Spanish attorney general conspired with American officials to sabotage the legal efforts of the brother of a Spanish photojournalist, killed by American forces in Iraq?

What the WikiLeaks tranche confirms is a great democratic deficit between those cleared to know how Bismarck’s proverbial sausages are made and the rest, who are expected just to swallow. Parliamentary democracy is undoubtedly an improvement on previous forms but it has proven — as anarchists in previous centuries well anticipated — inadequate in holding power to account.

To give but one local example. Take this rather telling selection from William Gumede’s Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC:

“Mbeki, Mandela and Manuel briefed a small and select group of ANC, Cosatu and SACP leaders … a few questions were allowed, but access to the full Gear document was denied on the grounds that it could be leaked.”

Thus the unelected, like the economist Iraj Abedian, who according to Gumede led a team “all sworn to secrecy”, made South Africa’s macroeconomic policy; Nelson Mandela actually admitted, “I confess that even the ANC learned of Gear far too late — when it was almost complete”.

Authoritarianism is, of course, not specific to South Africa. It’s an increasing feature of global politics post 9/11 and the prototypical Patriots Act. It also speaks to the appeasement of China, a totalitarian state that jails more journalists for divulging state secrets than any other country. Central to this authoritarian meme is the redefinition of privacy to be interoperable with security. What once meant privacy from the state has now become privacy for the state and endemic surveillance of its citizens.

The corporate media does little to expose how democracy is being corroded and managed. On the contrary, it is more often than not the bully pulpit of “the national interest” using its editorials to insist on discipline and obedience. They are — to adapt a phrase from John Pilger — corporate and state stenographers. WikiLeaks hasn’t played by those rules and is now under attack by corporations as much by governments, with Amazon, Dynamic Network Services, and PayPal, lining up alongside the axis of patriotism.

On an older website Julian Assange has, as its introductory quote, the following by another nineteenth century anarchist Gustav Landauer:

“The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another … ”

While some might consider the nineteenth century passé, let’s not forget that we in the twenty-first are still ruled by centuries old economic and political models — representations that are manifestly in crisis.

Democracy, equality, liberty — like biology, physics, or any other field of human endeavour — needs to undergo further revolution. Or to dispense with the purple prose: they read our emails, why shouldn’t we read theirs?

* The title is taken from a blog post by Julian Assange.

  • JP

    Thanks for this, there’s been surprisingly little written on WikiLeaks as anarchist direct action, though the press haven’t hesitated to call him one (pejoratively of course).
    Speaking of Mandela’s macroeconomic policy, I enjoyed the leaked cable about how he wanted very much to meet Thatcher in 1990, possibly to assure her that the ANC had no intention of expanding communism.

  • http://lennymaysay.wordpress.com Lenny Appadoo

    Chris, a really sensible observation on the WikiLeaks saga. Thanks. Bravo!!!

    Revenge may be passe’ but oh! so sweet when directed at politicians.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    It’s nice that anarchism is getting a bit of airplay but it should be noted that Assange is anything but – he’s a market libertarian who believes in a bit of government intervention ‘when necessary’.

    In other words, regardless of how ‘anarchist’ they look, Assange’s actions are informed by a set of values that include competitive individualism and a reification of the state form as a legitimate mechanism of social control; as these stand in stark contrast to libertarian socialism – also popularly known as anarchism – the framing as such is highly problematic.

  • Robin Grant

    Thank you for writing this succinct and insightful precis.

  • X Cepting

    Great one Chris Rodriguez. I do not share the depression I see around me. Why? It used to be that tomorrow we start the revolution, that is, the revolution for emancipation from slavery. Now, I see the signs all around me, WikiLeaks just being the most sensational sign to date that the revolution is happening allready. So, while I empower the authoritarian privileged elite by walking endlessly on my treadmill, I am able to dream of escape. A while back I asked the question: “Why do we still need governments? What exactly do they do for us?” and got laughed at for being ridiculous. Perhaps I am not, perhaps the masses are coming of age and seeing that the emperors are indeed naked without the labours of said masses. Viva La Revolution! Throw of the psychological schackles imposed by the system and freedom to be an individual will follow. Viva Wikileaks for exposing the truth and Viva Wikipedia for freeing knowledge.

  • Hugh

    Where can we get a link to the original Rihard Calland text ?

  • Lennon

    I’ve been checking Wikileaks on-and-off over the last few years and I honestly believe that the are doing something that is necessary in today’s world.

    Democracy has become nothing more than a farce in many countries which claim to bestow liberties to their citizens. You are quite right to point out the Patriot Act. Of all the despicable pieces of legislation ever passed, this is one which has not only pulled the wool over the eyes of the average American, but has also left them at the mercy of the US Federal Government. The most sickening thing about this act is that it was passed without a single US senator ever reading it. Not one!

    The trend today is scare the hell out of citizens so that they simply comply with anything that a government wants. That’s how the Patriot Act was passed. The constant “threat” of terrorism has allowed the US government to keep the population in line for fear of another ‘9/11′ and anyone who questions this is deemed anti-American or unpatriotic. Some rather exquisite examples have been shown in the TV show Boston Legal, which was conveniently canned.

    You have less chance of being blown up by terrorists than you do of being hit by a bus in the US, but the neverending warnings issued by the government have kept the average citizen living in fear, not only of terrorists, but of the very government which is meant to serve them.

  • Lennon

    Another shining example is Zimbabwe and their methods, while more direct, are strikingly similar to those used by the US.

    Zimbabwe is ‘ruled’ by a despot (and clearly one who subscribes to a philosophy not far removed from the ‘Divine Right of Kings’). He maintains control through state resources: the army and the police. He also has his own militia or sorts: radical ZANU-PF ‘militants’ who are no different from the SA or ‘Brown Shirts’ employed by a certain midget with the same moustache style as Mr Mugabe. Intimidation is the order of the day. Physical torture and murder have proven to be effective tools. This is not to mention the outright massacres carried out in his name.

    In addition to this, he keeps his own supporters loyal by envoking the constant threat of “imperialism” and the potentially apocalyptic revival of white-only rule. It is this fear which has allowed him to consolidate power. Whether he believes any of his own rhetoric is irrelevant as it has proven to be an effective deterrent to many would-be dissenters.

    He has demonstrated, rather succinctly, that if you continue to repeat the same lies people will eventually believe them just as we have seen in the US.

    It would appear that many politicians have aspired to emulate the notion of ‘The Party’ from George Orwell’s ‘1984’. It also appears that they have succeeded in many ways.

    Again: What Wikileaks is doing is necessary. I sincerely hope that they succeeed.

  • Arelle

    While I think of Assange as a hero, some dissident sites appear to believe Wikileaks is some sort of counter-revolutionary agent, designed to distract and mislead alternative thinkers. It is a pity that there is not much local debate on his. I found some interesting views on the web, eg @ http://empirestrikesblack.com/2010/12/daniel-ellsberg-exposed-along-with-the-real-purpose-of-the-wikileaks-psyop/. I’m interested to hear what ohter locals think.

  • MLH

    I think the timing of the Wikileaks saga is interesting for SA in light of the PIB and the media tribunal. It begs the questions: ‘How much do we really need to know of government’s business?’ and ‘How much of government’s business really needs protection?’
    The things that embarrass our government don’t seem to embarrass the people. Private lives may be headline news but what do we really care, aside from whether the same people are voted in a second time? It has no more than gossip value. Bribery, fraud and corruption in all its colourful forms need ongoing exposure, I am convinced. As does sheer waste of taxpayer’s money, government’s mounting debt, the ongoing abuse of power and abuse of the poor, which is the consequence of bad administration and policing the wrong people for the wrong things. I want to know how the project’s project manager gets away with his appalling management…what was in his performance contract? If only the state realised that the Mugabe comment was no more than a little light relief that actually, in my eyes, lent credibility to an inept regime, perhaps it would begin to understand more about what the people expect of it.

  • Nicola

    Great article! Thanks for putting so much thought into this.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/chrisrodrigues Chris Rodrigues

    @Aragorn: In a recent interview with Forbes, Assange says, “It’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical…camp, because I’ve learnt from many”. While he acknowledges the influences of American & market libertarianism it’s also fair to say – without making him out to be a card carrying anarchist – that the prominence given to Landauer suggests left libetarian influences as well.

    @Hugh: I believe Calland’s article is now up. Just click on the link.

  • X Cepting

    The most worrying leak to emerge is the Sudan scandal. Were I a journalist, I would most certainly have considered a caption like: “Russia and USA in collution to sow misery in Sudan, Kenya aids both” and then go on to point out how the former is supplying weapons to both side and the latter, under the Bush administration, turned a blind eye to the whole deal and the Kenyan govt bust a gut to make it all possible. If it was not for Somali pirates, this would have escaped the world at large. And then people wonder why there are always war in Africa somewhere… Wake Up Africa! Stop Voting for Weapons Manufacturers Outside Africa!

  • http://blogroid.wordpress.com blogroid

    At this point it is hard to say that Wikileaks has revealed anything of any major import: mere gossip, as some have observed. If anything it reveals that those in positions of power and influence seem to be mere mediocrities at best: incompetent idiots at worst.

    Regrettably this impression is confirmed by the present parlous state of the global economy which hovers seemingly on the edge of disaster.

    The real news about Mr Assange is that there is no news, simply another smoke and mirrors game of global marabaraba.

  • Zaharian

    I believe that WikiLeaks is the best global development since the collapse of communism.

    Once governments and ruling parties understand that their every move is being watched by their employers (the taxpayers and the electorate), the sooner they will have no option but to act in our best interests; and not their own interests.

  • Evil Greedy Politician Guy

    I am one of the evil greedy politician guys you are talking about. I work about 70 hours a week, not saving lives and improving the lives of thousands as you might think purely from actual observation as opposed to media speculation, but just routinely denying people freedom and plundering state coffers. The rest of the time I am not on stand by in case some terrible accident or disaster occurs, I am on standby in case I miss an opportunity to further depress my jackboot on the throat of those I am meant to serve but in fact I believe serve me. But seriously, I would be curious to know if there was such a thing as a real-world anarchist. That is, an anarchist theorist who had ever truly had real-world responsibility for the needs of a great mass of people for any real length of time, then went to write about an anarchist model for dealing with it.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @Evil Greedy Politican Guy: Anarchism is fundamentally opposed to the idea of leadership / one person being responsible for many others in some sort of governmental fashion.

    Similarly, and unlike Marxists, anarchists aren’t really into developing blueprints to be imposed on teh masses, believing instead that approaches to living in an anarchist society should be developed from the bottom-up, by said masses. That doesn’t mean many people haven’t described ideal situations though :-)

    So, if you want to learn about real world anarchist*S* – i.e., large numbers of people who have lived and struggled as anarchists – you can start with the Spanish Civil War and go from there: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/spain/pam_ch2.html

    If it’s ‘what would an anarchist world look like’ that you’re after, you can start with: http://www.infoshop.org/page/AnarchistFAQSectionI

    http://dbzer0.com/blog/what-would-an-anarchist-society-look-like

    …and then read some Kropotkin (especially Mutual Aid and The Conquest of Bread), Bakunin, Goldman and perhaps some Bookchin, all available at http://www.theanarchistlibrary.org :-)

    There’s also some nice fiction on the subject:
    Starhawk – The Fifth Sacred Thing
    Ursula Le Guin – The Dispossessed
    Graham Purchase – My Journey With Aristotle to the Anarchist Utopia

    Anarchism is terribly misunderstood. I can’t emphasise enough that a little reading (even if it’s just the Wikipedia entry) is required before people begin prognosticating about it 😉

  • Maria

    Great article, Chris! I believe that the Wikileaks episode(s) demonstrates well the cynicism behind official foreign policy on the part of most of the countries exposed, especially the US. The reason why everyone is ganging up on Assange is simply that he must be, from their point of view, contained at all costs, lest their imperial nakedness become too obvious for anyone to ignore. Every resource of the law will be used to put him away, if not something worse. But the hole in the dyke will just become bigger, in my opinion, no matter how many thumbs are shoved in there, now that the wall has been breached by a courageous individual.