Some time recently, someone sent me a WhatsApp message contrasting the political positions of Julian Assange of Wikileaks and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Underneath photographs of these two gentlemen, respectively, they read as follows:
“Hi, I’m Julian Assange. I give private information on corporations & gov’t to you for free and the media calls me a criminal.”
“Hi, I’m Mark Zuckerberg. I give your private information to corporations & gov’t for money and the media called me man of the year.”
In my estimation, this is an accurate, albeit succinct, statement of the differences between these two individuals. Assange, you may recall, provoked the ire of the governments of the most powerful countries in the world by revealing their behind-the-scenes shenanigans, which contradicted the information routinely made available to the public. And he did NOT SELL the information; he released it freely, as part of the ‘commons’ that we are entitled to when our governments take us for fools. And Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one of the richest individuals in the world, SELLS Facebook users’ information (like product preferences) to corporations, and was recently unmasked as having been in cahoots with the firm, Cambridge Analytica, supplying approximately 87 million users’ data to the latter Trump-affiliated company, possibly with a view to influencing the American presidential election.
You may wonder why I refer to these two people’s ‘political positions’; the reason is simply that everything that has to do with power, particularly asymmetrical power relations, is political, or as Jacques Rancière might put it, with the ‘police’ as symbol of a hierarchical society, such as ours undoubtedly is. What concerns me here is the way in which Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame (or notoriety, if you support the hierarchies of today) is being treated, namely with complete injustice, DESPITE the fact that he is a champion of the people, that is, of all of us who are the victims of authoritarian governments and unscrupulous corporations today – and if you disagree with me, just inform yourself about the current Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. (I rest my case…)
Assange is not the only hero who has stood up to these so-called ‘authorities’ of today; there is also Edward Snowden (on whom I have written here before: http://thoughtleader.co.za/bertolivier/2014/01/14/the-french-philosopher-and-the-american-whistle-blower/), to mention only one. It is imperative that people be seen as supporting Assange today, given his deteriorating position at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been cut off from the internet by Ecuador because of his support for the Catalonian leader recently. As Slavoj Žižek points out (see https://www.rt.com/op-ed/422992-zizek-assange-cambridge-analytica/), Ecuador is probably under immense pressure from western countries such as the UK and the US, to exacerbate Assange’s isolation in a war of attrition that has already lasted for six years.
Such tactics are well-known, of course; together with a strategically orchestrated character assassination it is aimed at subverting Assange’s credibility to the point where, even if he should be apprehended by one of the governments that wants his blood, it would not even matter any longer because no one would believe him anyway. One can only hope that Ecuador – a small country which deserves credit for having offered him diplomatic protection in the first place six years ago – will find renewed resolve to protect Assange against the powers that want him annihilated. These same countries have the nerve to claim that Assange is a fugitive from justice, when in fact he has exposed their flagrant flouting of justice, with which they get away only because of the power they wield internationally.
The worrying thing seems to be that most people fall for this classic shifting of blame by the true perpetrators of injustice to those who have the guts to expose their double-dealing, instead of giving him all the support he can get, as fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has done (see https://www.rt.com/uk/422682-westwood-assange-hero-brilliant/ ). The main philosophical point I want to make here, however, concerns something raised by Žižek in the article referenced above.
Granting that Russia and its allies probably did attempt to influence the presidential election in the US, Žižek reminds one that the US does likewise in other countries under the banner of ‘democracy promotion’, and emphasises that the Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates that we should be more concerned about western data-processing companies serving the interests of political parties. As Žižek phrases it, “But it means the big bad wolf who distorts our democracy is not in the Kremlin, but walking around the West itself – and this is what Assange was claiming all along.”
It may therefore come as a shock to those babes in the woods who believe that we are the ‘free’ citizens of democracies (as opposed to the citizens of ‘authoritarian’ regimes like Russia and China, let alone North Korea), that it is precisely the illusion of freedom that enables the covert connections between mammoth data-mining companies like Facebook and Google, on the one hand, and state security agencies such as the NSA and the CIA, on the other, to continue flourishing unabated.
The philosophical point? In the age of information (overt and covert), political (mis-)rule occurs in supposed democracies through the ‘free’ supply of information to these companies by citizens themselves, only to end up in the hands of the security complex, to be used against them when deemed ‘necessary’ (and what is deemed necessary is not necessarily determined democratically, of course, that is, through an impartial democratic justice system). Hence, democracy is an illusion today. In the article references above Žižek puts this in inimitable fashion (demonstrating why he has been described as the ‘most dangerous philosopher in the West today’):
“We shouldn’t be shocked at China but at ourselves who accept the same regulation [as that to which people in China are subjected] while believing that we retain our full freedom and that media just helps us to realize our goals (while in China people are fully aware that they are regulated). The overall image emerging from it, combined with what we also know about the link between the latest developments in biogenetics (wiring the human brain, etc.), provides an adequate and terrifying image of new forms of social control which make the good old 20th century ‘totalitarianism’ seem a rather primitive and clumsy machine of domination.
“The biggest achievement of the new cognitive-military complex is that direct and obvious oppression is no longer necessary: individuals are much better controlled and ‘nudged’ in the desired direction when they continue to experience themselves as free and autonomous agents of their own lives. And this is another key lesson of WikiLeaks: our lack of freedom is most dangerous when it is experienced as the very manifestation of our freedom. Because what can be more free than the incessant flow of communications which allows every individual to popularize their opinions and forms virtual communities at the user’s own volition? This is why it is absolutely imperative to keep the digital network out of the control of private capital and state power, i.e., to render it totally accessible to public debate. Assange was right in his strangely ignored key book on Google (When Google Met WikiLeaks, 2014) in his understanding of how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom. Meaning, we have to focus on the shadowy relation between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies.”
In the light of the above paradox it should be clear why Assange should be lionised as a hero, instead of falling for official explanations of ramped-up attempts by powerful states to isolate him and diminish his credibility. In the history books of the future this will no doubt be put in perspective, and the covert authoritarianism of our putative democratic governments revealed for what it is. The political tragedy (tragi-comedy?) of our information-saturated time is that people willingly surrender their democratic rights and powers.