Wikileaks and the Good Society

December 8, 2010

I’m pretty agnostic about whether Julian Assange did commit an unspecified sexual offence against a couple of Swedish girls; all I can really say at this distance is that in interviews he comes across as something of a twat. This is all anyone not directly involved in the case can say at this point, but that hasn’t stopped reams of paper and years of coffee-break time being spent discussing it. As a consequence, it’s an uninteresting topic to blog on. What is interesting, however, is how the advent of Wikileaks – and, more broadly, the somewhat avaricious attitude towards information that a global information-sharing network has spawned – has reinforced the very clear strategic need for nations to advance towards a given vision of the Good Society.

I am here using ‘Good Society’ as shorthand for a society in which everyone taking part therein is aware of the benefit of doing so. Why is this important? What does social reform have to do with information-sharing? The answer is complex, but is partly to do with the most ironic blow for freedom ever struck, 9/11.

Let me explain. You give your consent to the society in which you inhabit by not rebelling against it. Your freedom to give or withhold that consent is partly determined by your capability of successfully rebelling against it. 9/11, in this sense, represented the enhancement of the power of the individual to rebel against society, by demonstrating the increased capability of the motivated individual to damage it as a consequence of modern technology.

In itself, 9/11 represented the inevitable defeat of the Islamist ideal of a global caliphate; such hegemonic power is impossible in the face of this new strength of the individual. Al Qaeda negated itself by its own actions, and demonstrated the ultimate failure of its aims.

Because the current Wikileaks fandango is the result of a single motivated Lady Gaga fan, it can be seen in the same light as 9/11. It has demonstrated the enhanced the power of the individual to damage the State. It is therefore absolutely right to call it a ‘diplomatic 9/11‘, although possibly not for the reasons that the phrase’s originator intended.

There is no reason to suggest that this fetish for information will not eventually lead to secret military plans being published online, allowing opposing forces to take advantage. Transparency is here to stay. I’d like to be slightly poncey and reference Sun Tzu:

‘Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.’

It’s pretty difficult to be mysterious when any pop fan can display all your secrets to the world, and it’s impossible to guard against such breaches entirely. What you can do is limit their scope, by working to ensure that it’s as unlikely as possible that any given individual would want to damage the society they inhabit.

Herein comes the reason why the structure of a society is becoming increasingly important to national security. The more beneficial for its members that a society is, the less likely it is that they’ll work to betray it – even in the cause of information freedom. The option to disseminate secrets will remain, but a sufficiently beneficial society will not be overtly damaged by the level of dissemination it will encounter.

This is why the appropriate response to Wikileaks is not to execute Assange, but to work to ensure that useful secrets are kept by people who are free to not do so. This means building a society that minimises disaffection and maximises the benefits of being part of it. Of course, there are multiple conceptions of such a Good Society, but it’s always important to be clear that its construction is strategically important, as well as all the other reasons why we may seek it.

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6 Responses to “Wikileaks and the Good Society”

  1. Jock said

    Maybe you might have a look at Lysander Spooner’s “No Treason” for an explanation of how consent cannot be presumed just because of an absence of actual rebellion.

    • declineofthelogos said

      I read the first one; it’s fairly standard libertarian nonsense bemoaning the fact that competing using violence is really really hard coupled with some frankly weird mysticism about the American revolution.

      It’s clearly the case that if you rebel you might, well, lose. This doesn’t mean that it’s not the way of withdrawing your consent from the state, in much the same way as setting up your own shop is a way of aiming to counter a monopoly provider like a supermarket. It’s hard, but if it’s doable it’s an option – which I believe is the libertarian argument against the state preventing monopolies developing.

      This is why democracy is so important, and why thinking of it as ‘the rule of the majority’ completely misunderstands the point of it. Coupled with free speech, the opportunity to change the state is given to everyone with the ability to rally others to their cause, in the same way as under capitalism wealth is the reward for everyone with the ability to produce goods other people want. Under democracy, you rebel simply by being a member of the political party that’s not in Government, or campaigning against it.

      I’m sorry to be so frank, but I’ve always found the libertarian attitude towards the form of competition they don’t like as equally hypocritical as the socialist attitude towards a form of competition they don’t like.

      • Jock said

        I’m sorry, to be frank, your comment didn’t make any sense to me.

        So a. you are presumed to consent to a system by not rebelling from it?

        b. Rebelling from it might be as simple as being a member of an opposition party (who, nevertheless, support the system, just not the current managers of the system so it isn’t really rebellion is it).

        You seem to conflate the state, and its government, with society, when in fact they are diametrically opposed.

        What sort of competition are you saying that libertarians don’t like? The monopoly on the use of force to get their way? Well doh – that is why libertarians have the non-aggression principle but states are based on aggression.

  2. A fascinating post. But I’m not sure that al-Qaeda quite managed to “negate itself by its own actions”; surely human history has plenty of examples where technology is harnessed by a minority to suppress a majority? Any kind of “caliphate” ran by Osama bin Laden would necessarily involve a lot of terror against dissidents pour encourager les autres. The assassination campaign in Lebanon that most famously killed Rafiq Hariri might have been an example of this approach: http://www.economist.com/node/17463379

    • declineofthelogos said

      It’s certainly the case that a bin Laden caliphate would be nightmarish. My only point was that 9/11 demonstrated a form of violence against the state that would be open to those dissidents under that caliphate too; a form of violence so significant in its scope that the sort of repression that caliphate would involve would be nearly impossible to maintain in the face of such a determined campaign. If you’re likely to be randomly killed by a suicide bomber, supporting a government that will kill you if you stop that support becomes much less important.

  3. declineofthelogos said

    @Jock:

    (a)Yes – if you’re not rebelling, then clearly the state isn’t oppressing you enough to make it worth your while. Consent is not a dichotomy.
    (b)Yes – it’s possible to change ‘the system’ through democratic means. If it’s not changing enough for your liking, then you’re not persuasive enough.

    I think you’re going to have to justify asserting that the state and society are diametrically opposed. That seems like an odd assertion to make when the executive of the state is elected by that society.

    That’s exactly my point – your non-aggression principle is designed to preclude competition you don’t like, in the same way as socialist bemoaning the immorality of greed is intended to preclude competition they don’t like. Both principles are intended to morally compel others to stop competing in particular ways, and both are equally illiberal as a consequence. If you don’t think people can be compelled by internalised morality, I suggest you read Atlas Shrugged.

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