24 Mar 2011

No Laws, No Secrets: The Anarchist Creed of Julian Assange

by Christopher Ketcham

AP / Akira Suemori

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange reacts behind the heavily tinted window of a police van.

About the only intelligent thing the U.S. government has said to date about Julian Assange is that the man is an “anarchist.” A State Department spokesperson lamented in December that said anarchist is “trying to undermine the collaboration, the cooperation, the system by which we engage with other governments, cooperate with other governments and solve regional challenges.” More precisely, Assange is undermining the system by which we don’t cooperate at all, or pretend to cooperate, or force cooperation by bombing, killing, lying, cheating, smiling and smiling while villainous—all in service of “solving regional challenges,” which is to say in service of the imperial state.

For exposing state secrets unfiltered for all people to read, Assange is also called a terrorist and a destroyer. Perhaps he is—in the anarchist tradition of Mikhail Bakunin, who trusted in the “eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” Also from Bakunin: “Universal peace will be impossible so long as the present centralized states exist. We must desire their destruction in order that, on the ruins of these forced unions ... there may arise free unions organized from below by the free federations of communes into provinces, of provinces into nations. ...”

The centralized state apparatus, wherein the powerful seek to manufacture consent from the irksome citizenry, depends on operational and informational “security,” which we can define as secrecy, non-accountability and freedom from citizen interference—freedom from pesky fellows like Assange. “Leaking is basically an anarchist act,” Assange himself has said. This is because it is an implicit attack on the functioning of the state apparatus. If everyone leaked, there would be no “security” for government, but for my money—literally, since taxes pay for the apparatus—there is a different kind of security in knowing what the government is actually up to. It’s the due diligence any man burdened with a tax on his labor would want for the investment in the public, which is really an investment in his fellow man, the expectation of return (at the very least) being that the common good will get a cash-jolt infusion, roads will be maintained, sewers will keep floating our feces to the sea, the lights will stay on in the streets; and perhaps, too, that some help will come to the weak, the lost, the confused, those without homes, without work, without soundness of body or mind. We want a spreadsheet for our payouts, certainly to know the exact coordinates where the money goes to burn villagers 6,000 miles away and render grown men into screeching creatures with children now legless or burned half to ash.

Barred from this birthright of knowledge as citizens, we are told that the children are burned in our name, the government as proxy though far from our control; while at the same time it is said that we the people are the boss, the ones to whom the predatory government answers. The singalong of by/for/of the people is administered like the usual anesthetic. We are told Julian Assange breaks laws established by government for the protection of the people. We forget the words of our homegrown anarchist Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Good men must not obey the laws too well. ... Wild liberty develops iron conscience.”

Those of iron conscience are of course misfits, crazy, candidates for long years in prison. Thus Bradley Manning, the Army private who allegedly leaked many of the offending documents to Assange. Thus Assange: probably soon to be nailed to a wall not far from Manning, who is currently held in conditions as close to torture as his handlers can manage without revealing themselves as the psychopaths they are.

Assange’s dumping of secrets, in particular without the proper vetting by “experts,” is said to endanger the republic because it threatens security. Yet the experts too often appear in our midst as editorial board members tending the gateway institutions of the mass media, in close conversation with government, under its influence at dinner or over drinks, the wives in the kitchen swapping recipes or pills. Baseball bats to the experts!—let them crow that the “process” of “authoritative review” has been monkey-wrenched. We say: less security in exchange for more liberty—Ben Franklin’s old bargain at the founding.
What commentators on Assange don’t seem to get is that he is channeling Thomas Paine, who declared without bounds his trust in humankind as smart enough, sensible enough, to absorb complexity and hold it up to the light of reason and to make the right judgments—without the dictates and the circumscriptions of government. Paine, in the anarchist tradition, wrote that it was “the natural constitution of man” to organize in society with “order and decorum”—which is to say that man at his best could juggle the myriad pieces of information in society and make something functional out of the surfeit. At the same revolutionary moment in which Paine was writing—when Americans in the 1770s rose up against tyranny—Adam Smith made a comparable point in the realm of classical economics: People naturally wanted to associate, sharing free and open information in the marketplace, shorn of top-down control. And with that shared information, promised Smith, a dynamic society would be built.

The antipodal tradition in which the U.S. government operates, to borrow from the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky, sees mankind as benighted, weak, stupid: Mystery, Magic and Authority will serve to keep the mob in line. The centralized state in collusion with business offers much mystery and much magic, and wars and economic turmoil unfold for reasons offered to the public that have little relation to reality. Man does not want freedom, says the Grand Inquisitor, because freedom implies choice, agency, thoughtfulness, and these are painful burdens. Such burdens are to be borne not by the average man, but by the elect—the implied message of our government. Tom Paine answers: “Notwithstanding the mystery with which the science of government has been enveloped, for the purpose of enslaving, plundering and imposing upon mankind, it is of all things the least mysterious and the most easy to be understood.” He adds: “Nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” is necessary to shatter the mystery.

Assange has offered the facts, plain as day, and only those without common sense can ignore them. In this regard, WikiLeaks is an act of profound optimism, the anarchist optimism that posits human freedom as more important than the sanctity of governments. Under the mandate of the centralized state, such optimism must be crushed.

Christopher Ketcham, a freelance journalist in New York City, writes for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, GQ and many other magazines. Find more of his work at www.christopherketcham.com or contact him at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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