WikiLeaks Against Empire: On the Right to Create New History

by | 6 Dec 2010


With the release of the Afghan and Iraq War Diaries earlier this year and the current release of 250,000 confidential US Embassy cables, who at the end of 2010 does not know the name of Julian Assange and the associated website WikiLeaks? Officially launched in 2007, WikiLeaks state that its aim is to ‘bring important news and information to the public’ and that its broader principles are based on ‘the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history.’

This statement of principles appears to involve two types of right. The first is the familiar right of free expression. The second is the rather less familiar and slightly ambiguous ‘rights of all people to create new history’. Are they referring to a number of different rights that contribute to the creation of new history or to a generic right of all peoples?  I prefer to think the latter because it is then possible to relate it to what has been called a ‘being in the right’. This is a form of right that arises in symmetrical response to injustice and which is, in turn, associated with the old idea of the right of revolution, resistance or rebellion. At heart, the right of revolution is also a creative act that brings into presence something ‘new’. Both the right to create new history and the right of revolution can therefore be seen as claims to the constituent power to create a world.

While there are some who would view the right of revolution as a byword for chaos and bloody violence, the right to create new history is relatively unencumbered by negative associations. It even has a positive ring to it. ‘Creativity’ is an achievement word, suggestive of production, freedom, renewal, birth or renaissance. The right to create new history might easily appeal to those who would not ordinarily think themselves revolutionary types. Nevertheless, we should be absolutely clear that as a spin on an old idea, it must still operate on a terrain of antagonism. Conservative political forces with a strong sense of self-preservation are naturally hostile to genuine novelty and it is no surprise that Assange is arguably more wanted than Osama bin Laden.

The idea of the right to create new history also dovetails with what appears to be WikiLeaks’ more radical political agenda. This agenda can be inferred from two essays of Assange dated 2006 and entitled ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’ and ‘Conspiracy as Governance’ (original documents and a good overview can be found here).

In these essays, Assange begins with the assertion that ‘to radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed’. To think boldly means for him, ‘to think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not’. He carries on to note that authoritarian regimes, simply in virtue of their oppressive nature, dialectically invoke resistance against them. This is based on the assumption that if we know we are being oppressed, we will try to resist.

According to Assange, authoritarian regimes avoid resistance by concealing the functioning and planning of their oppressive activities. They manage this, he argues, by conspiring secretly amongst themselves in networked channels of communication. By working within a network, their power is much greater than if they worked alone. The result is that we, the victims, can never be sure of precisely what is happening and our ability to hold anybody to account is severely restricted.

This idea of an authoritarian regime operating as a network is strongly reminiscent of the concept of ‘network power’ developed  by Hardt & Negri in their turn of the century, landmark treatise that has been touted as nothing less than the new communist manifesto. To summarize very crudely, Hardt & Negri argue that a network power involving states, supra-national institutions, capitalist corporations and other powers is indicative of a new form of imperial sovereignty they call Empire. As a network power, Empire has no centre and no head, enabling it to effectively oppress the totality of life regardless of geographic and temporal boundaries.

Hardt & Negri suggest that the way to resist network power is via another network comprising a kind of postmodern proletariat they call the ‘multitude’. Working in a similar way to Assange’s conspirators, this other network would facilitate horizontal communication and encounters to enable a kind of conspiracy from below. Examples include: (i) the First Palestinian Intifada, which involved local level leaders and committees as well as input from exiled Palestinian organizations; (ii) the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, which involved, inter alia, student groups and labour unions as well as, for a period of time, a clandestine and exiled ANC; (iii) the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) which uses the Internet and communications technologies to inform the outside world, but also as a structural element inside their organization; (iv) the collaborative decision making and coordinated affinity groups of feminist, gay and lesbian struggles; and (v) the networked structure of various anti-globalization movements that comprise disparate interests united by a common cause.

From these examples one can see that Hardt & Negri’s network resistance has the specific character of being a nodal counter-network of insurgent activity. In other words, resistance is understood as a collision between one network and another within a global network.

While both Assange and Hardt & Negri rely on the generic idea of network power, one of the things that distinguishes them is the manner in which the network is attacked. As has already been noted, Hardt & Negri envisage attacking network power via a confrontational counter-network of the multitude. Assange, by contrast, would proceed by disrupting the links in the conspirational network itself by leaking information to the public. Assange’s aim is to reduce the power of the conspirational network to zero, so that there is no conspiracy. This means that if we were to superimpose the model of Empire onto Assange’s authoritarian regime, we would have a situation in which Empire literally bleeds to death as the hidden channels of communication that keep it alive are ruptured. With nowhere to hide, Empire would dissolve in a sea of transparency, like a vampire exposed to light.

Since its launch 3 years ago, WikiLeaks has accomplished, among other things, the dissolution of two national governments and the reform of two national constitutions. It may be tempting to conclude that we should still wait and see just how much new history they help create. But this conclusion, I think, is too easy and too passive. If the right to create new history is indeed a form of revolutionary right, then it is a right born of inexhaustible political passion, ceaseless endeavour and communal responsibility. It is the right of all peoples or the right of the multitude in an ongoing and collective struggle. For now, the greatest threat to Empire is WikiLeaks while the key to world history remains firmly in our hands.


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