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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.