WikiLeaks, Anarchism, and the State
By Elvin Lim
WikiLeaks affirms on its website that “democracy and transparency go hand in hand.” This may be true in the abstract, but in the world in which we live, it is not, because the only democracies we know of operate within the confines of the nation-state, and nation-states are not comfortable with transparency. That is why the campaign by the nation-states of the world to shut the site down is proceeding with such ferocity.
Individuals – at least those who live in states committed to the rule of law – enjoy a presumptive respect for our privacy. There is no reason why anyone or any institution should have access to details of our private life. We do not owe anyone a transparent account of our lives.
WikiLeaks believes that nation-states should not enjoy a similar presumption because it believes that under the cover of secrecy, states are more likely than not to engage in nefarious activity. WikiLeaks rejects the “need-to-know” operational norm of the nation-state because it rejects its monopolization of the legitimate use of force and therefore its monopolization of the legitimate use of information.
And this is the disagreement between anarchists and realists. Realists believe that nation-states are the way to run what would otherwise be an even more anarchic world. If it weren’t the American, German or any other government dealing with each other, it would be multinational corporations, sub-national groups, and transnational organizations (some of which are terrorist groups) determining the agenda and contours of global politics. Realists assume that the disorder between entities other than nation-states would far exceed the disorder between nation-states. Anarchists believe that the disorder between nation-states – most notably, war – is the source of global friction, not its solution.
The anarchism of Julian Assange (WikiLeaks’ public face) is not so far removed from other strands of anti-statism. Assange rejects all nation-states in a plenary fashion. The American Tea Party movement does not challenge the American nation, but it does reject the American state when its focus is directed internally (rather than externally). Like Assange, the movement believes that whereas individuals do not owe to others a duty to be transparent about ourselves, states owe a duty of transparency to those who are burdened by their authority. Osama Bin Laden rejects only Western nation-states and their support of the Jewish nation-state, but he is no anarchist because he wants to create a Palestinian state. Bin Laden believes in transparency too – just not his own. The interesting point that emerges from these comparisons is that whereas the anarchist is universally and without exception against the state (and believes that all nation-states, if they exist, should be transparent in their dealings with each other), both non-state actors like Al Qaeda and sub-state actors, like the Tea Party movement, are only selectively in support of the state and the virtue of transparency when they further their perceived interests but not otherwise.
What the last three examples force is a question that will come under increasing scrutiny in the decades to come: under what conditions do we need the state? Reasonable people can and will disagree, but what is clear is that very few people are completely against the state without reservation or exceptions. Anarchists, like all purists, are a lonely breed. While it is true that we now live in a world where one hacker or one terrorist master-mind can take on a superpower (and indeed Americans like in a country in which a nascent political movement can take on a state that was a century in the making), states will fight back. The enemies of WikiLeaks are powerful entities. They control the issuance of passports, the banking systems, legal systems, and the legitimate use of force. If for centuries, they have commanded the course of global and national politics; their grip on power will not be easily loosened.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each Tuesday.