Leaking and consequences

This weekend, I went on a Twitter rant in which I took the extreme position that Wikileaks had done no good whatsoever, then challenged defenders to prove me wrong. It took a while to get even one concrete example of a change directly attributable to the leaking — namely, the video of U.S. abuses in Iraq that forced the Iraqi government to deny the U.S.’s request of legal immunity for residual troops.

That was a good thing, in my opinion, but it’s small compared to the original vision of Wikileaks. As implied in the name, it was meant to be a distributed network of leakers — rather than the bizarre personality cult it ultimately became. The goal was to restrict the ability of the elites to operate in secrecy by making the cost of secrecy astronomically greater and thus to limit their ability to abuse their power.

There was simply no way this plan was ever going to work. In fact, the U.S. government’s response to the leaks, so seemingly irrational and disproportionate taken in the abstract, can be taken as a direct rebuke to the Wikileaks strategy. The message they’re sending is that they can and will expend essentially limitless resources ensuring secrecy and pursuing those who endanger it. And even leaving that aside, we have the recent historical example of the Cold War, where both sides had to assume they were being spied on constantly — and yet somehow they managed to hold things together. Yes, the Eastern Bloc ultimately fell, but I don’t recall any theories where the Soviet Union’s annual counterintelligence budget led to its dissolution.

Coupled with a severe underestimation of the resources the powers are able to devote to secrecy is a vast overestimation of the power of public opinion. To put it lightly, political elites have considerable autonomy in their decision-making. We have the recent example of the Iraq War, which dragged on long after the American people had turned against it and continued even after the election of the president who was supposed to stop it. There were innumerable abuses widely reported in the mainstream press, most notably Abu Ghraib, and it had seemingly no effect. Further back in history, the Pentagon Papers hugely influenced public opinion on the Vietnam War — which then continued for another four years.

Given that the effectiveness of leaking is ambiguous at best, and given that the consequences are so great, it strikes me as reckless to egg people on to do it. Bradley Manning’s life is essentially destroyed — he will be in jail most likely for the rest of his life, and his abusive treatment has permanently damaged him psychologically. Edward Snowden will certainly never be able to return home again, and he has to live the rest of his life in fear. This is not to say that they were wrong for doing what they chose to do or that the U.S. authorities aren’t morally culpable for what they’ve done. Trying to launch a mass campaign that will predictably expose people to that kind of danger, however, is hugely irresponsible if there isn’t a corresponding ability to protect them or at least provide some kind of formation and training for coping with the inevitable retaliation.

I know someone is inevitably going to ask, “Well, what should we do then?” I have to confess that I don’t know. All I know is that it seems pretty dumb to spend our effort and support on things that most likely will not work — though they will certainly expose individuals to hugely disproportionate reprisals — just because we feel like we need to do something.

32 thoughts on “Leaking and consequences

  1. How about Trotsky’s proto-Wikileaks move in publishing “the secret diplomatic documents from the foreign policy archives of Tsarism and of the bourgeois coalition Governments of the first seven months of the revolution”, which, from what I’ve read, seems to have had some pretty big consequences.

  2. Yes obviously the secretary of state for a revolutionary communist government publishing the secret archives of the former government is different, particularly with respect to the personal safety of the leaker in question, but I think it still speaks to the plausibility of the general principle of the leaker. In other words: maybe the strategy isn’t so bad, but the tactics could be greatly improved?

  3. Okay, let’s think this through further. Trotsky was able to publish everything, whereas under current conditions, you tend to be limited to what some randomly self-selecting person happens to have access to. And that’s usually going to be a pretty low-ranking person — our big recent examples are a private and a civilian contractor. So perhaps the first step toward a more Trotsky-like situation is to cultivate a cadre of infiltrators and wait until the stuff you have access to reaches a critical mass?

  4. Maybe it’s just me, but the national conversion regarding surveillance seems vastly different pre and post Snowden. Polls show broad bipartisan support for his actions (near 70% if I recall), and that’s the sort of thing that could dramatically shake up the House, which is probably the only real shot for political action. I’m not sure what your criteria for having an effect would be if this doesn’t count. I also think your time table for evaluating this may be a little too short.

    Also, Manning is a different case than Snowden. He appears to have been emotionally vulnerable at the time, and was likely exploited by Assange.

    The dramatically simplified version of the argument you were critiquing on Twitter goes something like: Leaking is good, therefore Julian Assange is good. That’s a stupid argument. I’d suggest it’s just as irrational to invert it and allow the fact that Julian Assange is a bad person to color your sense of leaking. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is what you are doing, but there’s circumstantial evidence to that effect.

  5. There’s a difference between passively waiting for critical mass to occur by itself and actively building it up.

    How exactly is this shake-up of the House going to work, given that Obama’s the one overseeing the program and his party supports his policies?

  6. I believe it’s Hobsbawm who writes somewhere that one of the conditions for the events of the early 20th century were the existence of “professional revolutionaries” whose basic function was to perform in ways that invited and frequently provoked horrible personal retaliation. Would Bolshevik organization have been possible without the martyr examples of the Narodniks in the generation before them, for example? In other words, perhaps an ineffective but attention-grabbing act of dissent can have more usefulness than its direct impact on its political target would lead one to believe. But I can see that I’m retrenching on my point; now I’m trying to compare Assange and Snowden to Narodniks rather than Trotsky… I retire my counter-example.

  7. If public sentiment remains as it is, I’d say you’ve got a pretty good shot at making a run at many incumbents by running on an anti domestic spying platform. You may recall that the House participates in making the laws that gives Obama the supposed authority to run these programs.

    I also think that part of “actively building it up” is demonstrating that it can happen. It’s now clear from Snowden that there is a way to do this and pull it off. There are tons of international resources available to support leakers, even if they won’t be able to live in the States anymore. I can only imagine, but how many people “inside” may be enabled by the relative success of Snowden?

    We didn’t spontaneously transition to full communism as a result of these leaks, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is the first time in my memory at least that it appears as though the US government substantially lacks control over a political force. High level officials across the board have been described as in a panic over this. I get how that could lead to unintended negative consequences, but it’s not a morally neutral baseline we are judging it against. There’s an interesting sense in which this is a labor issue. The proletariat may no longer be a political force, but the intelligence apparatus will depend on a huge amount of labor for the foreseeable future, and a couple 100k a year may no longer be sufficient to keep them docile.

  8. That’s an interesting way to look at the problem, and it could be broadened as an increasing percentage of the work being actually done has to do with protecting the privileges of the rich — security, legal protection, etc. I don’t want to be understood as saying that no one should take risks, etc., and it’s clear that Snowden was a much different thing from Assange. It seems like in American activism, though, we haven’t gotten past the martyr stage in a long, long time. People seem to forget that there’s anything else.

  9. That’s true. I think Manning is basically a martyr. You either care about war crimes and the deaths of innocent brown people or you don’t, and watching it on video likely won’t change that. The domestic spying thing is a much riskier overreach by the powers that be, in my opinion, akin to attempting to reinstate the draft to fight the war on terror. Snowden has at least shown that this may be a more effective button to press, and maybe there can be increased traction with other issues as people come to see how they are all linked.

  10. Yes. The single individual who actually acts pales in comparison to the crowd of academic powerhouses here who objectively size up the single individual for his silliness. THIS is world changing blogging at its best.

  11. Analysis and criticism is ALL you can do. 24/7. Possibly better than most. To act requires passion. Possibly faith. If these men acted in faith, then all the analysis in the world will not penetrate. Nor would the results be of consequence to the true believer. But it appears you need numbers on your side. Good luck with that.

  12. I suppose between “acting” and “criticism” the Valiant Anonymous Troll acts by bravely criticizing the critics? Or maybe the faith of the Passionate Man Of Action makes him blind to performative contradictions?

  13. The people following you on twitter are idiots. Just google (I duckduckgo’ed it) “connection wikileaks arab spring”

    You srsly gonna say the arab spring was(is) small ball? If so, I got this school of theory to introduce you too…

  14. Interesting problem. Very Badiouesque, also.
    Seemingly we have here a situation that asks for an active (faithful) subject. But what we come onto time and again is a falsification of event – event that must be deemed to have never happened – that breeds obscure and reactionary subjects: for former the state, for latter, dare I say, analytical responses ala Adam’s.
    Disclaimer: it’s necessary to integrate analytics into active subjectivity as a means of organizing, but to me it’s unclear where Adam’s arguments stand in relation to procedures of leaking – are they denying the importance of them or are they questioning certain aspects of it?
    The argument that ‘there will be blood’ is to quite an extent an argument from status quo, in one way, in another – if ‘there will be blood’, it must be for something. So the question boils down to – can we already make a statement denying/excpliciting the eventfulness under or in process of leaking – the blood was for nothing in the sense that it just reinforces the status quo, or should we be patient and continue, while the blood is still apparently for nothing, but might be of extreme importance in advancing active subjectivity, which comes from a obscene part of situation while transforming it.
    While I agree that state capitalism is very tight situation allowing for very little formation of subjectivity that cannot be subsumed under its predicates, the fact that the overall reaction to leaks is still reactionary instead of obscure, points to a possibility that there might be something brewing in it.
    Of course, it’s easy for me to claim advantages from somebody’s else risk, but count me in as a moderately hopeful.

  15. Now what did Zizek say about activism? Didn’t he say that Marx’s eleventh thesis was incorrect? Isn’t he calling for more thinking and less acting?

  16. This is kind of off-topic, but it seems that anyone who calls into question the smugness and white dude jargon that pervades academic discourse on here and elsewhere is labelled a troll and kicked to the side of any discussion. It is most definitely not the job of any of the academics on here to school activist-ey types about the inefficacy of their activist-ism (they could stand to pick up a fucking book once in a while), but it would maybe be a good idea to take advantage of an encounter that would otherwise not happen between academics and activists and put aside all these smug or passionate dismissals.

    Smug academic dismissal and passionate activist-ist dismissal are just mirror images of each other. Which is real and which is the image? What would Lacan say? Activists are pissed at academics for the seemingly endless topological abstractions of their analyses and academics are pissed at activist-ists for, what, just being stupid and engaging in the fetishist disavowal of their pointless actions? That’s legit, but who’s the “better person” here, who’s going to back down off their defensive strategies to at least make this antagonism a little more interesting and fruitful?

    Contemporary leftist activist-ism IS just group superego masturbation, it’s obvious. But academia effectively OWNS knowledge and despite its professed intentions effectively IS the ongoing, unchallenged perpetuation of the capitalist pyramid scheme of the university. Both sides are implicated in maintaining the status quo. But who’s the more “privileged” (to bring that back into it) party, the one with the most responsibility towards the other?

    Adam, I agree with you, it’s obvious Wikileaks is just Assange’s ego leaking out of his tailored suit, but at least now some people are aware that the US government “will expend essentially limitless resources ensuring secrecy and pursuing those who endanger it” and the potential this knowledge has for future praxis is very important. And the fact that Snowden has ruined his life as a result of his act is one of the things that make it an act and not an action. Would you call it an act or a passage l’acte?

  17. Always enjoying your contributions, sixfootsubwoofer. But a few years reading leftish academic blogs will tell you two things (that you might know already) :

    1) The meta-discussion about computer blogging versus IRL actions/consequences is an endless, insoluble exercise. It’s also sometimes viewed as trolling.

    2) Academic blogs have had no (and are I’d guess constitutively incapable of having any) real-world political/organizational impact outside the passing on of ‘trends’ among peer networks.

    The fact that academics of all people are sought again and again as a possible vanguard in North America is a sure sign that, for the time being, the left remains dormant.

  18. I would add that encounters between academics and activists are far from rare, particularly online. They are so far from rare that the encounters often fall into certain cliched patterns — which includes the activist showing up to boldly speak the truth to power, often in anti-intellectual ways (disparaging “jargon,” etc.). For me, such encounters don’t spur defensiveness so much as boredom and disappointment.

    In addition, it seems like your response is saying, “You have no right to criticize, even though your criticisms are broadly correct.” It’s hard for me to understand how I’m supposed to respond to that. Is there an activism punch-card I need to fill up before I’m entitled to one free criticism?

  19. I must apologize, I meant no offense at all, and I agree mostly with both of these responses. However, there are two points I would like to make:

    1) Academics are not “sought again and again as a possible vanguard in North America”, they have effectively set themselves up as a vanguard. When you have (even slightly) influential academics such as yourselves or Jodi Dean, etc making calls to form a new Communist Party, or your (however humorous) calls for Full Communism, how are non-intellectuals who are actively attempting to bring these things about supposed to take them? Whether academics like to acknowledge it or not, their statements (however seemingly obscure, residing in small, peer-network blogs, etc) DO come from the place of the subject-supposed-to-know. I think radicals and activists of all kinds are not seeking academics that will “lead the way” or some such bullshit, but they would like to know that academics are not just engaging in leftist posturing and that they will be partners (instead of simply being critical Fathers) if called upon to participate in whatever material struggles might ensue (such as we saw in OWS).

    Your criticism of activism and activistism is not only welcome but necessary, and my only problem with it is not its structure but its lack of force; perhaps, along Zizekian lines, your responses to someone like Narcissus (or even myself) should be more actively violent and less dismissive. I rather liked your extreme position on whistleblowers, it was kind of like its own form of whistle blowing, and you should do it louder. You might have started blogging in order to share ideas with your peers, but seeing as how these blogs are some of the only ways that radicals are given an “in” into radical theory in general, your rhetoric could stand to be a little less dismissive ( “othering” people as trolls, etc) and a little more engaging towards those who show up here to lamely “speak truth to power”. Whether you like it or not, these people are by extension students of yours. There are ways out of the cliched patterns of activists’ engagements with academia, it might just take some patience, however boring and disappointing this might be.

    2) ambzone, I think that academic blogs very well COULD have an impact on real world political organizing. I’m seeing a shift within activist circles away from the stupid shit and towards more and better intellectual activity, and people like Jodi Dean have been helping that along both actively and inadvertently.

    Your cynicism towards the efficacy of blogs to influence a non-academic left is very telling; do you think that your work in the classroom does have an effect on political organization in the long run while your claims and statements on blogs do not? If that’s the case, why open up these discussions to the public at all if their purpose is simply to pass on trends among peers. Why not consider ALL committed leftists as peers and not just those who are ensconced within institutions?

    Sorry this is so long, and thanks for giving me a chance to speak. Being regarded by intellectuals as simply WRONG (“and THIS is how!”) is much more fruitful than simply being regarded as tiresome and boring. I think that the antagonism between academia and activism is a good thing. To me it points to a possible awakening of the Left.

Comments are closed.