On The Wikileaks Manifesto

Ja Charli Carpenter over at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

I hope most of you following the Wikileaks story read Aaron Bady’s essay at zunguzungu last week, in which he examines two early essays attributed to Julian Assange and provides his explanation of Assange’s broader theory. It’s a sophisticated read with at last glance 567 comments – the sort of blog post political theorists will (or should) assign to their graduate classes.

I also think Bady makes some mistakes in his interpretation of Assange’s essays – or at least glosses over some of the more disturbing implications in his zeal to paint Assange as smarter and less objectionable than might be assumed by those not familiar with his writings.

Let’s begin with what Robert Baird at 3QD argues is the central insight of Bady’s essay: “the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes ‘information wants to be free’ as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland.”

In Bady’s words:

According to his essay, Julian Assange is trying to do something else. Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.

Baird usefully describes Bady’s argument analytically as follows:

For Assange in 2006, then, the public benefit of leaked information is not the first-order good of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world (free information is its own reward), nor is it the second-order good of the muckrakers* (free information will lead the people to demand change). What Assange asks of leaked information is that it supply a third-order public good: he wants it to demonstrate that secrets cannot be securely held, and he wants it to do this so that the currency of all secrets will be debased. He wants governments-cum-conspiracies to be rendered paranoid by the leaks and therefore be left with little energy to pursue its externally focused aims.

Here are my reactions. First of all both Bady and Baird, who seem in agreement about Assange’s “clearly articulated vision” and offer a very helpful analytical typology to situate his ethics in relation to others like Mark Z, both discount the inconsistencies with which he has articulated that vision.