The Wikileaks Theory–Debunked
I want to briefly review a lovely little article that has no empirical connection with Egypt but which resonates with, and links, concepts from two other recent blog posts: first, my reflection on Simon Mabon’s paper about the important of Wikileaks to the Egyptian revolution, and second, my review of Holger Albrecht’s position that the existence of opposition groups actually added structural support for the strength and longevity of the Mubarak regime.
“Wikileaks: From Abbé Barruel to Jeremy Bentham and Beyond (A Short Introduction to the New Theories of Conspiracy and Transparency)” by Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop, basically argues that the many revelations released by Wikileaks failed to fulfill Assange’s revolutionary predictions because his theory about the relationship of transparency and power is fundamentally flawed.
The intent of Wikileaks was to uncover the roots of power abuse by publicly exposing the hidden authoritarian regimes underlying formal democracies. In Egypt, this meant confirming many transgressions against human rights committed by the Mubarak regime through the release of US diplomatic cables, but also revealing the extent to which the US knew that Mubarak was abusing authority, but supported him anyway.
While Simon Mabon plausibly maps out some of the ways the Wikileaks exposes assisted the revolutionary impulse, he acknowledges that they played neither a seminal nor even major supporting role. They were just one arrow in the revolutionary quiver.
The same thing can be said globally. In spite of Assange’s efforts to lay claim to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, among others, the Wikileaks project never achieved the revolutionary effects Assange and his supporters expected (assuming they were telling the truth in their blog posts and interviews).
In this article, Estop suggests that what was wrong with Assange’s prediction was the theory underlying it.
To begin with, the Wikileaks theory as expressed by Assange in multiple venues (described and quoted by Estop), is predicated on a binary opposition between secrecy and transparency. All modern liberal democracies are founded on a fundamental contradiction, in that while espousing to be for, by and of the people, they conduct much of their work in secret and in so doing, wield undue power over the people.
- first, that transparency is possible, and
- second, that transparency, by the mere fact of existing, will be the best guarantee for a democratic power and a free society.
In this article Estop argues that this two-part assumption underlying Wikileaks is wrong, because in modern power, transparency and secrecy are more complementary than contradictory. “This is all the more so when power is conceived of—as Assange himself does—as a reticular structure, a network, or a web,” writes Estop.
On the one hand, argues Estop, when transparency is not opposed to secrecy anymore, it can become a form of secrecy. He quotes the French philosopher and historian of science Alexandre Koyré, who wrote:
Certainly Hitler (as well as the other leaders of totalitarian countries) publicly announced all his program of action. But he did because he knew that the ‘others’ wouldn’t have believed him, that his statements would never been taken seriously by the noninitiated; it is by telling them the truth that he was sure to deceive them and to put to sleep his adversaries [. . .] This is an old machiavellian [sic] technique of lying at a second degree, a most perverse one, in which truth itself becomes a mere tool of deception. It seems clear that this kind of truth has nothing in common with truth
But Estop claims there is an even more interesting way in which power and transparency become mutually implicated, and he turns to the British social reformer Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham was made famous in social science by Michel Foucault who drew attention to his design for prisons, schools, and hospitals called the “panopticon.” In this system, all the inmates of an institution can be continually watched by a single watchman without being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Since the inmates cannot know when they are being watched, and when they are not, they must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly in order to avoid punishment.
Foucault said the Panopticon was a metaphor for modern systems of social control. For example, most of us regulate our speed on the highways most of the time to within a reasonable approximation of the speed limit not because we are being watched but because we might be seen, and ticketed, by a policeman. The growth of surveillance systems is often cited as evidence of the continued expansion of this system for social control.
Estop points out that Bentham believed that complete transparency–the possibility than anyone can see anyone engaged in any practice–was the most powerful force for social control available.
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.
Transparency works, in other words, by stripping away privacy, forces people to live according to the social judgment of their neighbors. A transparent public sphere guarantees not only good governance, but the absolute discipline of all people to social norms under the scrutiny of their fellow citizens. Writes Estop:
It is a freedom that facilitates social self-regulation and contributes to good governance without too much interference by the government. Notwithstanding all this, this utilitarian praise of free press is not Bentham’s last word on the matter of transparency, since transparency is not only from down to the top, from the citizens to the government, or among the citizens themselves, but also from the top to the down, from the governor to the subject. Not only do the citizens control the exercise of power, but power controls the citizens as well.
This reminds me of a story from Chapter Six of Connected In Cairo. I described one way entrepreneur Ahmed Zayat succeeded in moving the former state brewery into profitability. He created a toll-free number through which one could call up and order alcohol. When you call, an unmarked van pulls up to your house, and a guy in street clothes gets out and delivers your beer and wine in plain brown paper bags. Many Egyptians were willing to drink alcohol–or at least have it in the house to serve to foreign or Christian guests–if not for the social stigma. It is the disapproval of your neighbors, who may be watching, that forces you to comport yourself to the religious ban on alcohol to keep your reputation.
By reducing transparency, Zayat made it possible for Egyptians to have greater freedom (albeit only within the narrow range of practices associated with market commodities).
The point is that greater transparency doesn’t always equal more freedom for everyone, and secrecy can have positive uses. It’s complicated (or, to be more anthropological about it, it’s context-specific).
This is even more true now than in Bentham’s time, as the tools of new media become simultaneously among people’s most powerful tools of resistance and, at the same time, are powerful tools for surveillance of those same people. As Zeynep Tufekci said in a recent blog post:
Resistance and surveillance: The design of today’s digital tools makes the two inseparable. And how to think about this is a real challenge.
Estop portrays Assange as an idealist who misunderstands the regime of truth in which he operates. He seeks to get rid of secrecy and promote transparency, but instead of being freed from a “totalitarian regime,” he finds himself “entangled in the dialectics of modern power.”
Bentham, Jeremy. 1834. Deontology or, the science of morality in which the harmony and co-incidence of duty and self-interest, virtue and felicity, prudence and benevolence, are explained and exemplified: From the MSS. of Jeremy Bentham (J. Bowring, Ed.). London, England: Longman, Rees, Orme, Browne, Green, and Longman, William Taft.
Estop, Juan Domingo Sánchez. 2014. 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: 40-49
Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books.
Koyré, Alexandre. 1943. Réflexions sur le mensonge (article) [The Political Function of the Modern Lie]. Renaissance, 1. Retrieved from http://www.engramma.it/eOS/index.php?id_articolo=370