Thomas Jefferson famously once said, ‘If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.’ Which is to say that the free flow of information is the lifeblood of democratic policy-making, and that when it disappears or is controlled by self-interested governance, then democracy vanishes with it. Few people understand this faceoff between government and the free flow of information better than Julian Assange and his arch-enemies at Google, CEO Erich Schmidt and Google Ideas head, Jared Cohen. All three realise that the Internet represents a ‘no state’ that is a challenge to control. It’s also an opportunity to transform the world, for better or worse.
The textual delirium that Schmidt and Cohen released last year, The New Digital Age, is a blueprint for a future that is more-of-the-same, albeit even more highly fetishised. The original name for the Schmidt-Cohen tome was Empire of the Mind, a far more fitting title. Google, the good Star Ship Entrepreneur, knows all too well that the final frontier is the space between our ears. It’s a happy digi-stim heaven where we ride together in a driverless car: a world of luxury gadgets, conspicuous consumerism, and, most importantly, an information flow that is tightly and centrally controlled in a totalitarian ‘no state’ in which you’ll be forced to participate from birth, where democracy is a digital presence and free speech is moderated like the comments section of the Guardian (psst: never criticize Israel).
What is the role of muckraking in such an environment? Keeping in mind that in a No State environment, with governance as distant as laughter from invisible gods, investigative journalism, except for when dealing with the most banal subjects has no place, no point. Muckraking is only valid as a watchdog in a democratic-republican system greased by informed consent. As Dylan once sang, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. And that’s where Julian Assange comes in.
Wikileaks notwithstanding, strictly speaking, Assange is not a journalist (let alone a muckraker) but a ‘hacktivist’, a kind of burglar for truth, bustin’ in to sociopath vaults to retrieve the purloined People’s Jewels. While the Edward Snowden revelations have proved astonishing and invaluable, their power point presentation style tends to abstract their implications (albeit others may disagree with this perceived limitation). By contrast, the closed and open documents released by Assange and Steven Aftergood (the operator of the Secrecy News blog, which regularly publishes, with brief commentary, the trove of crucial public interest documents the US government quietly puts into the public domain) provide clear and concrete paper trails of policy. Following them makes for a profound introduction into the often shadowy workings of government.
It is important to understand that, like it or not, we are in the middle of a Jeffersonian struggle over the future of the state.
The notion of nation states did not develop out of any ideal of ‘the natural rights of Man’, but rather arose out of the Westphalia peace treaty of 1648, which followed the brutal 30 Years War that tore old Europe apart. Essentially, the treaty established for the first time amongst these ever-warring factions a recognition of territorial sovereignty. The follow-on principle of nationhood, so superficially significant today, is also a largely arbitrary, state-originated conception. As Debora MacKenzie points out, the concept began with the American and French revolutions, but
France, for example, was not the natural expression of a pre-existing French nation. At the revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French. In 1860, when Italy unified, only 2.5 per cent of residents regularly spoke standard Italian.
This model continued to take hold and develop through the Industrial Revolution, and then, just as it seemed to be the entrenched basis for regulating inter-State diplomacy and commerce, the First World War erupted and the idea of the nation-state began to implode, beginning with demise of the Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian empires. As Uri Avnery recently wrote in CounterPunch, though it may not be obvious at first glance, what Scotland and ISIS have in common is a rejection of artificially-assigned nation-state relationships.
We can see examples of the nation state fracturing everywhere, including in places of long-established stability. The recent northern California referendum to secede from the state is one example. Closer to home, one could argue that if Western Australia had its druthers the state would be autonomous from the Commonwealth. After all, Perth, ‘the world’s most isolated city’, with thousands of kilometres of desert separating it from the nearest major city of Adelaide, could probably make a case that it is already an autonomous city state.
A New York Times
op-ed last year described this emerging phenomenon of breakaways as a ‘devolution’ from nation-statehood. Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the non-partisan New America Foundation, describes a 2013 report by the United States National Intelligence Council, which contains various global scenarios for 2030, based on forecasting of current trends. Khanna argues that one projected scenario, ‘Nonstate World,’ already rings true. This scenario
imagined a planet in which urbanization, technology and capital accumulation had brought about a landscape where governments
had given up on real reforms and had subcontracted many responsibilities to outside parties, which then set up enclaves operating under their own laws … though most of us might not realize it, ‘nonstate world’ describes much of how global society already operates.
A parsing of policies of current global nation-states would suggest that austerity budgets everywhere might just be harbingers of the coming Atlas Shrugged indifference to progressive reforms and a universal re-embracing of small government virtues.
Governments everywhere in the ‘democratic’ world, from America to France to Australia, are subverting their own constitutional principles to make room for the neoliberal transnational treaties. In the most recent New Scientist, Hal Hodson has a piece titled ‘E-citizens unite: Estonia opens its digital borders,’ which details how anyone anywhere is now free to open up a bank account and start a business in Estonia and become an e-citizen of the country (though not an actual citizen). Could this be the start of a larger movement? MIT researcher John Clippinger thinks so. ‘This is the beginning of the erosion of the classic nation state hegemony,’ he writes. ‘It’s going to get whittled away from the margins.’ Perhaps more haltingly, Hodson adds,
Such e-residency, as it is known, is a step towards a world where a person’s online identity matters just as much as their offline identity; where the location of data, rather than documents, is more important.
Coincidentally enough, Ukraine has a similar plan afoot.
We are entering a world where there is government but no newspapers; where the free-flow of information is not only suppressed but, in many cases, outlawed. It is a battle with existential ramifications. Merely being a passive consumer of hand-me-down news – trusting the MSM to tell us what we need to know to be truly informed consenters – is no longer a fantasy in which citizens can afford to luxuriate. As the madcap Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman once said, ‘Democracy is not something you believe; it is something you do, and if you stop doing it, then democracy dies.’
It is axiomatic that somewhere along the line the crass pleasures of consumerism got all mixed up with the solemn duties of democracy, so that mindless voting, largely employing ‘brand’ principles, has become a bland exercise in ritual.
If we can’t trust those we elect to fulfil their sworn and sacred oaths to preserve and protect their own constitution, which forms the basis of our common consent, and if the media have abrogated their duty to fully inform the public on crucial policy matters, then there is only thing to do: muckrake and leak and withhold consent. That’s the beauty of Wikileaks (and the like) – the citizen activist can skip the MSM middle man (and most of the time it will be a man) – and read the primary documents online herself, without filters and spoon-fed interpretations. This kind of unspun access scares the poop out of the pollies. In fact, muckraking, in the context of informed citizenry, means refusing to accept the surface features of policy: dig some on your own. So muckraking is essentially an act of honing consciousness. This is not particularly radical or new. Just do it.
The recent cynical stoush created by the Australian‘s media editor Sharri Markson after she went ‘undercover’ to tape some ‘biased’ journalism lectures at two Sydney universities, is stupid and self-serving for any number of reasons, including the fact that the Oz had praised journo lecturers at UTS and UWS. The incident seems part of the general conservative realignment of Australian curricula and a move to expel the vital critical acumen academia provides. That Markson employed a pseudo-muckraking tactic to ‘expose’ and tweak the lefties offers just one more example of how Leftist values in general have been co-opted by the nastiest factions of the Right. As one student of the Sydney programs in question responded in Crikey,
The problem with Markson’s dig is it fails to acknowledge the critical environment that universities foster, and the intellectual capacities of the people who study there. Universities foster extremes because they allow ideological debate to expand beyond the narrow remits of public discussion, and far beyond the often honed agendas on display at papers like the Oz.
But, of course, conservatives don’t want ideological debate (and never have); they want obeisance and suppressed dissent. The surveillance state represents Happy Days.
The days of dismissive conspiracy theory-bashing are over: the shit’s here. We need to become more like the ‘productively paranoid’ Assange (as one writer trenchantly refers to him in a take-down review of The New Digital Age), and push aside the reactionary massage of his alleged and distracting personal issues to take note of his crucial message: It’s time to fight, to push back, or else prepare for some alternate way to survive a grim-looking future. Academics and humanitarians have been pushing for the cross-curricular development of critical thinking skills, and they never have been more urgently needed.
Becoming a citizen-activist-muckraker is not an excruciating process; it doesn’t require oodles of training, as Markson and her mates suggest. It does, however, require passion for civil rights and a commitment to getting a message out to others.
One good place to start muckraking and getting all activist about is the coming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) legislation, which represents a clear and present danger not only to free expression on the internet, but in its sovereignty-overriding deregulatory policies. It’s scheduled for review in the US soon, and whatever happens there with the bill will probably get rubber-stamped here in Australia. Frankly, if the TPP fails to stir the stones in your soup, probably not much will.
In Assange’s latest book, When Google Met Wikileaks, he briefly raises constructive ways around the growing totalitarian state – such as the use of mobile peer-to-peer or mesh networks that bypass a telcos. Every mobile phone comes with this built-in capacity because it communicates by radio frequency, but telcos lock the frequencies to force users to go through them. They can, however, be unlocked. Similarly, using comprehensive encryption (on files and communication) is a good idea. It’s also wise to employ a non-persistent operating systems on a USB stick or, better, a DVD (non-rewritable), such as TAILs – while, of course, limiting your use of Google services.
The irrepressible and not-so-radical-seeming-now John Pilger sums up the stakes and requirements best in his eloquent closing statement to his film Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror:
We need not accept any of this, if we recognize now that there are two superpowers: one is the regime in Washington, the other is public opinion – now stirring all over the world stirring, perhaps as never before. Make no mistake, it’s an epic struggle. The alternative is not just the conquest of far away countries, but the conquest of us, of our minds, our humanity and our self-respect. If we remain silent, victory over us is assured.
This piece first appeared in Overland on November 13, 2014.
And in a variant form in the Prague Post on November 20, 2014.