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WikiLeaks: From Abbé Barruel to Jeremy Bentham and Beyond (a Short Introduction to the New Theories of Conspiracy and Transparency)


DOI: 10.1177/1532708613507888

Sánchez Estop, J D. “WikiLeaks: From Abbé Barruel to Jeremy Bentham and Beyond (a Short Introduction to the New Theories of Conspiracy and Transparency).” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 14.1 (2014): 40–49. Web.

p.41: Wikileaks can safely be considered a revealing experience in testing the limits of power. Julian Assange’s intent is to uncover the roots of power abuse, publicly exposing what is supposed to be the fabric of a hidden authoritarian regime underlying formal democracies. Despite the many—-though generally unsurprising—-Wikileaks revelations, the whole operation did not have the enormous effects Assange and his supporters anticipated, suggesting that perhaps something was wrong with Assange’s prediction, and the theory underlying it. To be sure, the opposition secrecy vs. transparency was presented in Wikileaks’ founding texts as a contradiction. Wikileaks assumes, first, that one could reach transparency, and second, that transparency, by the mere fact of existing, will be the best guarantee for a democratic power and a free society. This article argues that the main assumption underlying Wikileaks is wrong, since in modern power, transparency and secrecy are much more complementary than contradictory, all the more so when power is conceived of—-as Assange himself does—-as a reticular structure, a network, or a web. When transparency is not opposed to secrecy anymore, it can become the most refined form of secrecy. In such a regime of truth, whoever tries to get rid of secrecy and promotes transparency, instead of being freed of a “totalitarian regime,” gets entirely entangled in the dialectics of modern power. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.41: In this article, I argue that Assange’s prediction did not come about, because the theory underlying it was erroneous. In Wikileaks’ founding texts, secrecy and transparency were presented as a contradiction: When transparency prevails, there is no secret, and when secret prevails, no transparency; it suffices to unveil the main secrets of power to dismantle its illegitimate, authoritarian working. What is here assumed is, first, that one could reach transparency, and second, that transparency, by the mere fact of existing, will be the best guarantee for a democratic power and a free society. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.42: If transparency can be equated to truth, and secrecy to a kind of lie, it should be noted that, whatever the apparent paradox, power can perfectly lie and manipulate people using precisely truth and transparency as its main tool. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.42: As Hobbes (1979) stated in Leviathan, “Reputation of power is power; because it draweth with it the adherence of those that need protection” (p. 150). The fame of power is power: That means that there is no “beyond appearance” in power since the appearances of power, just like the “fictions” of law—-as distinct from the appearances of perception—-become “real.” This is all the more true as today’s governments can produce what Hannah Arendt (1972) calls a “perfect lie,” one that destroys through media and image manipulation every evidence supporting the factual truth. When transparency is not opposed to secrecy anymore, it can become the most refined form of secrecy. In such a regime of truth, whoever tries to get rid of secrecy and promotes transparency, instead of freeing himself or herself of a “totalitarian regime” gets entirely entangled in the dialectics of really existing power. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.42: The manifestos we discuss here are not an essential part of Wikileaks’ corporate image. They are hardly more than drafts containing some reflections never really developed into a consistent theory. Nevertheless, they help us to understand the ideological background behind the whole project. Written in November and December 2006 at the very beginning of the Wikileaks project, what we could call the Wikileaks’ manifestos-—State and Terrorist Conspiracies and Conspiracy as Governance—-shed some light on the theory inspiring the organization’s activities. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.43: The “connected graphs” model is epistemologically ambitious as it pretends to be more than a formalization of terrorism or other conspiracies. It aims at describing new forms of power in general. Assange’s intent is “to use connected graphs as a way to apply our spatial reasoning abilities to political relationships.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.44: Wikileaks’ goal is not only to understand how conspiracies work, but also to disrupt them. Disrupting a conspiracy is, according to the earlier explanation, acting on the network in such a way that the special links connecting the members of the conspiracy are broken. Once the links are destroyed, the conspiracy splits in various sectors and loses much of its “conspirative power” or even disintegrates. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.44: One can easily recognize in Assange’s texts on conspirative networks that the analytical tools are almost identical (including the mathematical model of “connected graphs”) to those used in the antiterrorist security agencies and in the U.S. Army. Netwar theory as developed by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy tries to redefine war and more generally conflict (including crime) in terms of this new pattern of social relations -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.44: Conspiracy according to Wikileaks or netwar according to Arquilla and Ronfeldt (2001) is formally built as a system of networks organized around some major communication nodes that need some amount of secrecy, and also some amount of smooth communication to exist and to work: “The network design may depend on having an infrastructure for the dense communication of functional information. This does not mean that all nodes must be in constant communication; that may not make sense for a secretive, conspiratorial actor. But when communication is needed, the network’s members must be able to disseminate information promptly and as broadly as desired within the network and to outside audiences” (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 2001, p. 10). -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.44-45: Even within secrecy and conspiracy, some level of transparency is a vital need, which means that no secret can be absolute. Secrecy has in common with deception the fact that in both of them the actors do not reveal the real motives or conditions of their acting. When acting with other people, deception and secrecy can disrupt any real cooperation, since they create distrust among the interacting individuals. At a political level, transparency is needed by both government and people: by government to ensure a minimal efficiency in the common action it governs, and by the general public to keep some amount of freedom and avoid utter manipulation by power. The ratio of secrecy/transparency changes with the degree of freedom and actual political participation by the citizens: the more secrecy, the less both freedom and participation. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.45: Assange’s method for disrupting conspiracies is also closely related to the one developed by John Boyd, the American strategist, in his scheme of the “observation–orientation–decision–action (OODA) loop” (Abbot, 2008, p. 1), which was subsequently applied by Arquilla and Ronfeldt in their theory of netwar or “network war.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.45: Its main assumption is that fight proper must be avoided in favor of a longer term preemptive strategy combining diplomacy, politics, psyops, logistics, and so forth. The enemy is never an isolated army, but always an army inside a territory and among a civil population, in other terms, inside a network. For Boyle and Sun Tzu, preparation for combat is as vital for victory as combat proper. Therefore, it is essential to cut the enemy’s network to deprive him or her of powers of observation (depriving him or her of data sources), orientation (disturbing the interpretation of the data), decision (interrupting the chains of command), and action. Assange (2006b), true to this theory, though intending to use it against the very power that developed it, states that, once the constitutive network of a conspiracy is disrupted, “An authoritarian conspiracy can not [sic] think effectively, can not [sic] act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces. When we look at a conspiracy as an organic whole, we can see a system of interacting organs, a body with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed till it falls, unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment” (p. 4). -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.45: They omit entirely the political and ideological dimension of sovereignty, considered useless for a real analysis of the social reality. The idea of a secret plot has, instead, a fundamental role to play in Assange’s theory, since only through maintaining the secrecy dimension can both the appearance of sovereignty (the State secret) be preserved and the program of the liberal opposition to increase transparency in public life be justified. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.46: Those who promote transparency and want to expose power as “authoritarian” think that they can bring this secret to light, that one can know the whole truth about power. What if that secret simply did never exist? If the intimacy of power manifested in secrecy showed itself as indistinguishable from its complete exteriority, as what Jacques Lacan called a dimension of “extimacy” (extimité; cf. Miller, 2008)? Conversely, even if power is made transparent, its display cannot but leave a residue, a dimension which is not symbolized, and constitutes the irrepresentable core of power. Obedience to the sovereign, the “voluntary serfdom” La Boétie (1993) recognized as the key to modern power, can only work through belief in the exceptional nature of the sovereign, in the fact that he possesses something that others do not. Unfortunately, for the people looking for the secret of power in the power of secrets, this something is no definite thing, but the real dark cause of the desire to obey. Thus, both for the sovereign power and its liberal opposition in which Assange militates, the belief in the state secret is a tenet of faith. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.46: Umberto Eco wrote a funny book on conspiracies, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is worth rereading today. The structure of all these “theories” is always the same: There are more or less numerous groups of people (a religion, a sect, a race, a secret society) constantly plotting to seize global power and, ignoring moral scruples, secretly manipulating the levers of legitimate and official power to this end. Proponents of these “theories” often claim that they know the “secrets” and that “they are not duped.” -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.46: Conspiracy theories, with their alleged “discoveries” or “revelations,” conceal however something essential. In the end, those who believe that power is based on secret conspiracies compete in ingenuity and optimism with those who believe that power is legitimate, moral, or legal. Both sides ultimately share the same problem: They think that power in a class society could be fair and lawful, were it not manipulated by evil conspirators, and that simply uncovering and defeating the conspiracy would restore an order based on legality and rights. The utopia of the rule of law is the ultimate horizon of both positions. Thanks to this utopia, class society and its constitutive antagonism is hidden under the guise of a moral and legal “injustice” or “abuse.” What both positions ignore or even reject is a conception of power, not as a visible or hidden “thing” or “substance,” but as a relation, that is, a power that must always face a resistance, and is constituted against and by this resistance. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.47: Sovereign is not just the one who makes the law and orderly submits to it, but also, according to Carl Schmitt (2005), the one who in virtue of his or her sovereign right can legitimately and even legally suspend the laws, putting himself or herself outside of the law, according to the law itself. Such is the paradox of emergency powers. Secrecy, as a requirement of government practice, is acknowledged and even enshrined in the law and allows to articulate the requirement of legal legitimacy with the government’s need for action outside the law. Secrecy is thus a necessary device of the sovereign exception, since powers of exception allow the sovereign to act and decide under no public scrutiny. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.47: Believing in the State’s secret, accepting its necessity, is tantamount to closing your eyes to the historical violence of power. This belief is a necessary illusion, since only if one mystifies and de-historicizes the violence of power making of it something hidden and arcane, is it possible to believe in a power with a legitimate basis and in a self-founding rule of law. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.48: The same image of the thread or twine is recurrent in both: In Assange’s text, it fulfills even a didactical task in explaining the functioning of the connected graphs as the basic structure of the conspiracies. Contemporary Wikileaks coincides with Barruel’s traditional views, in that they consider power as something mysterious, something in the hands of people who “pull the threads.” Thus both the abbot and the hacker ignore the force correlations constitutive of actual power and so contribute to reinforce the mystification about its nature and origin. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.48: Wikileaks’ short-term goal is to disrupt the opacity of authoritarian governments: in the longer term, to establish governance based on transparency quite comparable with the market governance described by The Cluetrain Manifesto. Assange himself explains it plainly in an interview with Forbes magazine:

Forbes: Would you call yourself a free market proponent?

Absolutely. I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Having lived and worked in many countries, I can see the tremendous vibrancy in, say, the Malaysian telecom sector compared to U.S. sector. In the U.S. everything is vertically integrated and sewn up, so you don’t have a free market. In Malaysia, you have a broad spectrum of players, and you can see the benefits for all as a result.

Forbes: How do your leaks fit into that?

To put it simply, in order for there to be a market, there has to be information. A perfect market requires perfect information. There’s the famous lemon example in the used car market. It is hard for buyers to tell lemons from good cars, and sellers can’t get a good price, even when they have a good car. By making it easier to see where the problems are inside of companies, we identify the lemons. That means there’s a better market for good companies. For a market to be free, people have to know who they’re dealing with. (Greenberg, 2010)

-- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.48: In the search for this utopian transparency, Wikileaks reveals itself as the progressive reverse of such projects as the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA; Poindexter, 2002), a plan for total awareness and control of all the information globally available on people and their activities. This initiative was proposed to the American military and security sector by admiral Poindexter in the wake of 9/11 and until now has only partially been put into practice. Like so many attempts at total security against terrorism or any other kind of threats, TIA looks more inspired by the seemingly omnipotence of a science fiction scenario—like Philip Dick’s Minority Report—than by a properly rational analysis. TIA’s impossible task was to prevent the existence of any kind of secret, through the direct or indirect interception of any kind of communications. The main problem with such a project is that, on the one hand, it is impossible to define what information is in general and, even more, what “total information” can be, not to mention what “awareness” or knowledge of this “total information” can ever be. This impossibility is not anything contingent, but a structural feature of human knowledge, since logic (Gödel) and psychoanalysis (Lacan) both demonstrate that no knowledge can pretend to be “total.” Poindexter proposed a project aiming at making all the citizens and any other person transparent in the name of security, while Wikileaks aspires to making power entirely transparent in the name of freedom. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.48: In fact, there is no actual contradiction between both transparencies: the transparency of power for the citizens and of the citizens for power. Jeremy Bentham, considered by Karl Marx as the paramount representative of market freedoms (and of petty bourgeois short-sighted egoism), defended with the uttermost energy both transparencies, considering them not only consistent with each other but also complementary. Bentham is not only the designer of the well-known formal model for prisons, schools, or hospitals called the “panopticon,” but is also the visionary utopist of a transparent society in which every public action should be performed as if anybody could see it and every private or even intimate act would be observed by a transparent and benevolent power. Thus, in two memorable paragraphs of his Deontology (Bentham, 1834), deserving to be read in their entirety, he will set the ground for both press freedom and control society:

The more men live in public, the more amenable they are to the moral sanction. The greater dependence men are in to the public, that is, the more equality there is among them, the clearer the evidence comes out, the more it has of certainty in its results. The liberty of the press throws all men in to the public presence. The liberty of the press is the greater coadjutor of the moral sanction. (p. 100)

-- Highlighted apr 19, 2014

p.49: Manipulation can operate in this context not through open lies, but through utter transparency; since complete transparency can never be achieved, there’s room inside the very impossibility of full transparency to host the myth of state secrets and “arcana imperii” and the associated theologicopolitical mystifications on the actual functioning of power. -- Highlighted apr 19, 2014