A post from By Strategy detailing the neoliberal politics of Julian Assange, and how they may relate to the wider Wikileaks project.
This week has been an especially depressing time to be on the left. I do not wish to spill any more bytes on the question of Assange and rape and the terrible reaction of the wider left to this where others have made the point so well. What I do want to question a fundamental assumption made by many of the left that Assange’s personal philosophy which animates his involvement in the Wikileaks project is “of the left” and that it should be therefore be embraced. This seems to be the guiding impression one takes from many of the pro-Wikileaks writings or speeches, particularly from prominent leftist celebrities like John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn and Noam Chomsky. That Assange is “of the left” partly by virtue of him being nebulously “anti-imperialist” seems to be one of the reasons for trenchent support of him and the belief that since he is “of the left” it is difficult to imagine him so morally compromised. However, I think it is clear that Assange’s politics are not recognisably leftist.
It is important to remember that Assange’s opinions on what Wikileaks is and his person and politics do not exhaust everything Wikileaks is about.1 Indeed, the internal political beliefs of figures involved with Wikileaks other than Assange are opaque considering his own comparitive public prominence. This also leaves open the question of the political effect of Wikileaks, quite apart from its co-founders vision. Additionally, on a wider view, hacker culture and the free and open source movements often associated with it from which Wikileaks draws some of its animus are themselves highly politically ambigious. Hacker culture leans both in the direction of pure market libertarianism2 and communism, sometimes doing the latter when it believes it is doing the former. Yet, the recognition that Assange’s personal politics and vision for Wikileaks are not recognisably leftist and tend rather towards endorsement of a utopian vision of the status quo, rather than an opposition to it, is an important fact to bear in mind. Assange’s politics are neoliberalism’s ideal image of itself, entirely consistent with its politics to the extent that it radicalises them. Yet, for the preceding reasons, in the following Wikileaks should be considered to stand in for “Julian Assange’s interpretation of Wikileaks”. However, it should be noted that since Assange’s problems with Swedish authorities began, the stance which seperates him from the organisation to which be belongs is something that has become more and more difficult to maintain.
Assange’s most lengthy articulation of his own politics comes in a lengthy interview with Forbes. Asked “Would you call yourself a free market proponent?”, Assange replies “Absolutely. I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets”. The stance that is ambigious to capitalism, but in favour of markets represents the more extreme variants of neoliberalism, whereby capitalism (while it actually exists) plays second fiddle to an idealied vision of how markets function avaliable on a minor scale within currently existing capitalism. Assange continues: “To put it simply, in order for there to be a market, there has to be information. A perfect market requires perfect information…For a market to be free, people have to know who they’re dealing with”. How does Wikileaks fit into this scenario? For Assange, through the act of leaking information, Wikileaks is providing better information in order for the market of international politics to work better. The question of informational asymmetry is a complex one in neoliberal circles, with a long history. Whereas neoliberalism in the variant of the Chicago School of Economics tends towards a model of equillibrium where actors have perfect information about the market, the Austrian school of Economics, favoured by the more radical anarcho-capitalist believe that information is unevenly distributed throughout a market system, and that to increase overall information enables better price setting thus improving the efficency of the market.
Assange’s philosophy here blends Austrian and Chicago School approaches. Accepting the Austrian approach of informational assymetry as the current situation, but believing that increased distribution of knowledge as a result of leaking would tend towards the Chicago assumption of perfect information. In the situation of perfect information3 , so runs the theory demonstrated mathematically by Keith Arrow and Gérard Debreu, then market transactions will tend towards a Pareto optimal state, where no actor can be made better off without making another worse off - a state that is a mathematical formalisation of Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand”. Hence “WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical”. “It’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I’ve learned from many”, says Assange. “But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free”. One could say a deal about the various mutations of neoliberal theory on monopoly here and their rejection in certain schools of neoliberalism of the notion of a tendency toward monopoly. However, Assange comments that setting up institutions is required. One could perhaps read this in a modern social democractic manner, that the market is a powerful force that requires taming for the good of the majority of society. However, Assange’s stance is essentially neoliberal - that institutions primarily exist to provide the frameworks for efficient market transaction. To continue to break monopolies and ensure the market is able to work efficently, as it is the perfect information processing system and therefore resource allocation mechanism.4
Assange’s background prior to Wikileaks included his heavy involvement with emerging cypherpunk groups, whose major interest was the philosophical, political and sociological impact of strong cryptography. Though with some political diversity, the major cypher punk e-mail lists lent heavily towards libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, particular towards crypto-anarchy, their own coinage, a species of market anarchism that uses heavy cryptography to avoid survilence of the state and conduct market transactions, the most recent articulation of which being Bitcoin. Tim May’s cypher-punk FAQ states that he believes the output of strong cryptography sociographically ‘will be a form of anarcho-capitalist market system I call “cryptoanarchy”’. Cryptography essentially means market capitalism where the state cannot concievably intervene, since its operatation are totally obscure to it. Tim May writes that “the ‘anarchy’ here is not the anarchy of popular conception: lawlessness, disorder, chaos, and “anarchy.” Nor is it the bomb-throwing anarchy of the 19th century “black” anarchists, usually associated with Russia and labor movements. Nor is it the “black flag” anarchy of anarcho-syndicalism and writers such as Proudhon. Rather, the anarchy being spoken of here is the anarchy of “absence of government” (literally, “an arch,” without a chief or head)…This is the same sense of anarchy used in “anarchocapitalism,” the libertarian free market ideology which promotes voluntary, uncoerced economic transactions”. Though he no longer wishes to call himself a hacker, Assange’s politics are soaked in this paradigm.
Apart from Assange’s personal politics, this concern for neoliberal informational politics bleeds into problematic nature of Wikileaks as a project in Assange’s articulation. Here, the vital source is Kittens’ critique of Wikileaks entitled ‘WikiLeaks - the state persecutes its idealists’. Rather, I wish to suggest that it is neoliberalism is the economic and political philosophy whose politics Wikileaks’ most clearly resemble.
The centre of the critique is that, for Kittens, Wikileaks subscribes to two false ideas. The first that if something is successfully exposed, then something will be done about it, that exposure promotes resistance to the current state of affairs. But the fact remains that Wikileaks only exposed what was already well known about the war on terror. That potentially millions of people have died as the result of Western imperialist excursions particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Wikileaks did nothing more than add more evidence to the substantial pile that the global ruling class is tightly knit and does not play by its own self-presented rules in the field of finance. That American foreign policy is conducted in the nation’s self interest and that its view of other nation states is rather less than one might summise from its official communications. And so on, simply put, “most of the data that reached the public through WikiLeaks only confirmed what everybody knew already”. This is a common tactic outside of Wikileaks, indeed, Assange’s defenders on the Left such as Noam Chomsky also subscribe to this vision - successful exposure of the facts about the situation of global capitalism will, among other things, lead somehow to its defeat. In this instance, Kittens correctly highlights that, pace Zizek’s critique of Chomsky, that facts are not self-interpreting, but read through ideology. A right winger could happily accept the slaughter in Iraq but say this was the lamentable consequences of a neccessary war, indeed, this was the reaction of many right wingers to Wikileaks’ ‘revelations’. Certainly there is a value in exposing the contradictions in ruling class ideology, but exposing contradictions remains at the level of ideology itself, rather than the battleground of material class struggle. Moreover, the greatest and most obvious of crimes often occur openly, sometimes without even a gloss of ideology, and yet do not cause dissent. Whistleblowing traditionally refers to highlighting a unknown problem in a supposedly smoothly running system - Wikileaks for the most part brought no especially new information into circulation.
What Kittens do not do is link this desire for transparency, openess and avoidance of corruption to their basis in free market ideology. Rather, Kittens note that Wikileaks’ aims towards transpency are entirely consistent with the idea of the modern American-style democractic state - openess, checks and balances, the avoidance of corruption - and that “WikiLeaks’ fight against corruption indicates support in principle for those organisations once they are free of corruption”. The US and other democratic states are “running a campaign against people who have the highest admiration for its principles”. To which I add: Kittens have misinterpreted Wikileaks as a project in line with the classical self-presentation of the liberal democractic state founded on the balance of powers and so on. In Assange’s reading of his own organisation, this openess is not animated by a care for the classical principles of liberal democracy, but rather for the neoliberal principles of free information on open markets.
- 1The following does not even exhaust even all of Assange’s beliefs regarding Wikileaks - in particular his beliefs on conspiracy and leaks as preventing this (though often for the same informational reasons - the reasoning here could doubtless be extended). For a comprehensive take on this, see Finn Bruton’s analysis Keyspace: Wikileaks and the Assange Papers. Peter Ludlow’s summary The Political Philosophy of Julian Assange is also useful. Reference can also be made directly to original papers by Assange himself, which are mostly relatively short, Conspiracy As Governence, State and Terrorist Conspiracies, The Road To Hanoi and his blogpost The non-linear effects of leaks on unjust systems of governance.
- 2Of course, Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia is a libertarian and very much a fan of Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek’s theses on information.
- 3There are of course other factors required for Pareto optimality: no externalities to markets and no transaction costs and markets are at full equilibrium.
- 4It is interesting that groups so squarely critical of certain approaches from the autonomist Marxist tradition for their technological positivity, mainly Trotskyite parties, should give Assange’s philosophy a mostly free pass. Whereas autonomist Marxists such as Hardt and Negri and Paolo Virno theorise the possibilities of antagonism in the reformed proletariat as a result of the recomposition of capital in post-Fordism, Assange openly celebrates post-Fordist capitalism as the primary vector of human freedom if properly improved by becoming more marketised.