Does WikiLeaks mean we’ll now have agency again?

WikiLeaksleak of American diplomatic cables–barely more than one thousand of the quarter-million claimed have been released, so far–is a major news item, perhaps the major global news item, has been for some time. Reactions to it vary hugely, from unqualified dispproval and hatred of Assange to unqualified approval and adoration of Assange. I’ve been trying to think of a coherent opinion on the subject one my own for a while. Over at A Bit More Detail I collected a few of the more interesting links, most of which are written by people who aren’t sure just how this fits into the classical model of journalism, a few suspecting that sensitive dictatorships will be more easily swayed than more pluralistic polities, and agreeing that Assange is definitely trying to destabilize the secrecy that girds governments in the hope of bringing the whole system down.

My co-blogger has written here about WikiLeaks’ utility as a historical source: how good of a source is it? can it be used ethically? Me, I’ve come to think of WikiLeaks’ chief effect as lying in the realm of historiography, specifically in the way that we (and perhaps our successors) see our era and how we (defined as broadly as possible) relate to it.

What made Financial Times journalist and blogger Gideon Rachman decide that WikiLeaks counted was the fact that it confirmed common knowledge to be true, that what people had suspected all along was going on actually was. Arab governments are terrified of a nuclear Iran; the American government does disdain the Russian government and did lean way too far towards Georgia in 2008; the Pope does oppose Turkish membership in the European Union; and so on. There are some surprises, but so far they seem to be marginal. Unless the remaining quarter-million or so diplomatic cables yet to be released contain more surprising news still, authentic surprises–always possible; this post may yet become outdated–the main effect it has had on governments, as Anatoly put it, is to limit their deniability and their freedom of movement.

(The bank cables, now, they can definitely do things.)

Our age is an age of conspiracies, a time when people believe that powerful people have access to information that non-powerful people do not have and that they use this information to dominate the world to their own ends, that the world is arcane and obscure and difficult. What WikiLeaks has done is reveal that, actually, the information that powerful people have access to is pretty much the same information that the informed population has access to, that there isn’t such a big information gap at all. Writer Charlie Stross may be right.

Wikileaks is not attacking the US government; rather, it’s acting to degrade the ability of pressure groups to manipulate the US government to their own ends. Those who benefit the most from their ability to manipulate the State Department are the most angry about this: autocratic middle eastern leaders, authoritarian right-wing politicians, royalty, corporate cartels. Those of us who are scratching our heads and going “huh?” about the significance of Muammar Ghadaffi’s botox habit are missing the point: it’s not about the content, but about the implication that the powerful can no longer count on their ability to lie to the public without being called on it.

I tend to agree, in my non-romantic heart-of-hearts, with 3 Quarks Daily’s Robert Baird that this sort of jamming of the “system” won’t work because it’s far too rugged a system to be brought down by this. (In case you’re wondering, I think the idea that the world is dominated by conspiracies, aside from being impractical and implausible and undisprovable, is fundamentally silly. If I had a dollar every time someone said Princess Diana was ritually sacrificed by the Anglo-Dutch banking conspiracy for refusing to marry Bill Clinton …) But then, WikiLeaks did shift a balance. Umberto Eco put it well.

Formerly, back in the days of Orwell, every power could be conceived of as a Big Brother watching over its subjects’ every move. The Orwellian prophecy came completely true once the powers that be could monitor every phone call made by the citizen, every hotel he stayed in, every toll road he took and so on and so forth. The citizen became the total victim of the watchful eye of the state. But when it transpires, as it has now, that even the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hacker’s grasp, the surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular. The state has its eye on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least every hacker – the citizens’ self-appointed avenger – can pry into the state’s every secret.

How can a power hold up if it can’t even keep its own secrets anymore? It is true, as Georg Simmel once remarked, that a real secret is an empty secret (which can never be unearthed); it is also true that anything known about Berlusconi or Merkel’s character is essentially an empty secret, a secret without a secret, because it’s public domain. But to actually reveal, as WikiLeaks has done, that Hillary Clinton’s secrets were empty secrets amounts to taking away all her power. WikiLeaks didn’t do any harm to Sarkozy or Merkel, but did irreparable damage to Clinton and Obama.

Defectors from WikiLeaks, displeased with Assange’s personalization of the site, are setting up their own site, Openleaks. Are they really going to be alone? Has WikiLeaks managed to convince more people that, as a point of fact, history is something that they can understand and that they can influence?

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