Assange and Political Thinking

James Butler

Carried out of the Ecuadorian Embassy last Thursday, Julian Assange cut a sad and desperate figure, clutching a book by Gore Vidal and calling for the UK to ‘resist this attempt by the Trump administration’. He is now being held at HMP Belmarsh. His arrest – inevitable since the political shift in Ecuador and the souring relations at the embassy – raises awkward political problems far beyond the person of Julian Assange.

The US is seeking Assange’s extradition on an indictment that regards routine journalistic practices – using encrypted communications, encouraging sources to speak, taking measures to protect their anonymity – as evidence of criminal conspiracy. These activities not only exposed war crimes, but have been a regular part of Wikileaks’ exposure of the banal, quotidian corruption of the political establishment. Trump’s Department of Justice has sought to crack down on leakers and whistleblowers; Trump himself, according to James Comey’s memos, wondered about the possibility of imprisoning journalists. It would be morally and politically wrong for the UK to collude with the US in punishing whistleblowing journalism, but that doesn’t mean it won’t do it. The scope for both judicial and political action is limited: Assange’s extradition case will turn in part on the question of whether he is in fact being prosecuted for a political offence. Political pressure on the judiciary is likely to be intense. The home secretary – historically an enthusiast for co-operation with US prosecutors – is unlikely to trouble himself much should the court green-light the extradition.

At the same time, Assange’s sojourn in the embassy was a way of avoiding extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault and rape. He not only protested his innocence but also said he was afraid of further extraction to the US. It is inarguable that the women’s expectation of justice has been frustrated, and Sweden’s eventual dropping of the investigation in 2017 left the matter unresolved. Assange’s arrest last week was related to his skipping bail here, and the extradition request from the US. The Swedish allegations are dormant.

The internet was ablaze seven years ago with questions of whether Assange’s motives were sincere and his fears legitimate. Partisans cited evidence on either side: Sweden’s refusal to extradite a CIA defector in 1992, on the one hand; its enthusiasm for extraordinary rendition on the other. The paranoid misogyny that accompanied the debate last time around – with the women sometimes described as US ‘honeypots’ – seems mercifully less present this time. It is reasonable to argue that Assange’s extradition to the US should be forcefully resisted; that the Swedish charges, if they are brought again, ought to be faced properly; and that the one cannot be thought of as proxy justice for the other.

Wikileaks was initially set up to be a global clearing-house for leakers against oppressive or corrupt regimes. A product of early internet optimism, Assange was a believer in the power of free information, with an instinctive libertarian streak. In conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2011, he outlined a hazy claim that a ‘third pillar of information’ previously unavailable to the public – ‘how complex human institutions actually behave’ – meant that ‘all existing political theories are bankrupt’. Freeing this information from the shadowy recesses of power would eventually – the middle stages are unclear – emancipate the public and deliver justice.

Assange’s models (he eschews ‘heroes’) are mathematicians and physicists, paragons of rational detachment; he talks about politics as if it were a mood emptied of propositions (he admires the tone of national liberation movements, but not their ideas). But the realisation that the state has secrets, even shameful secrets, is not a new one. Tacitus could tell you about arcana imperii, or that the secret of sustainable autocracy was to have your own man balancing the books. The conviction that unveiling secrets – of man’s private heart or the ‘mysteries of the cabinet’ – will lead to political emancipation is Rousseau in cyberpunk drag.

What is missing from Assange’s political folk theory is the middle term: how a population interprets and then acts on information in order to change the world. Information itself does not make us ‘more intelligent’ or ‘more just’, to use Assange’s terms – these qualities do not simply arise out of information like a fine aroma. Assange’s putative theory is additive and iterative: if this flow of information does not work, try that one; if the change you want is not forthcoming, seek more leaks, more flow. But politics isn’t reducible to information: conflicts over legitimacy, power and values, the possibility of civic trust or legal redress – all of these frame politics, and cannot be detached from it or transcended by simply adding more information.

‘Transparency … does not entail clairvoyance,’ Byung-Chul Han writes in The Transparency Society. ‘The mass of information produces no truth. The more information is set free, the more difficult it proves to survey the world.’ Wikileaks never quite became what Assange had hoped it would be, in part because of his weapons-grade narcissism, and in part because the would-be detached hacker has found himself increasingly drawn into partisan struggles between great powers, affected by the political consequences of leaks himself.

Assange’s initial info-optimism looks fragile in an age newly sensitive to encroachments into the private realm by states and digital corporations, and when set next to his own sloppiness of redaction and politicised publication choices. Han’s aphorism suggests a deeper truth: the problem has never been just that there is a secret body of knowledge reserved to the state, but that our capacity to interpret and act on it is catastrophically limited. Mere facts do not suggest their own solution. Transparency is not an intrinsic good: the disgorgement of secrets may paralyse as much as catalyse. Only one person was prosecuted because of the video that Wikileaks released under the title Collateral Murder: its leaker, Chelsea Manning.

The questions that Wikileaks has thrown up are not those one might have expected at its inception: can evidence of corruption, however extensive, actually produce a crisis of legitimacy in the modern state? How can we build civic trust in an era of pervasive surveillance? Who do we believe? Answers to these questions cannot be found in the transcendence of politics by technological transparency, but only by a return to political thinking.


  • 18 April 2019 at 12:23am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    James Butler does the reader a service by getting us past Assange, a man with a problem, and into deeper social and political territory, where answers and ‘appropriate reactions’ are neither simple nor apparent. The idea that “information will set us (you, me, them) free” was always a bit dodgy – it obviously cloaked extraordinary commercial and entrepreneurial ambitions to create a world answerable only to the owners of the new means of dispensing information and facilitating its exchange between people. All the cleverest little Davids were hoping to become (economically) unassailable Goliaths right from the get-go, whatever their stated intentions to the contrary - Jobs, Zuckerberg and the Google Boys illustrate this to perfection. One can only wish them ill. Assange became one of these colossi, but not really in the in-it-for-profit mode (to make a weak joke about this, he has always operated in the “take me for a prophet” mode). It’s also hard to gauge Assange’s own gifts (he undoubtedly has some), on account of the lack of any real sophistication (or deep knowledge of history) in his understanding of politics around the world and the “category mistakes” that he makes all the time (e.g., equating knowledge with power, though he’s far from the first or foremost to do so). From the point of view of the civil liberties of journalists and their informants it would be a big mistake for the US to proceed against him, but I don’t think either common sense or legal caution will slow down US prosecutors. All kinds of government officials and 'public intellectuals' are up for a public lynching in order to deter encroachments on the prerogatives of the national-security state or to punish the man for embarrassing one of their cherished candidates or office-holders.

  • 18 April 2019 at 6:44am
    SpinningHugo says:
    Very poor on the law of extradition.

    The Assange case will not turn on whether he is "being prosecuted for political offences."

    Nor does this, or any other Home Secretary, have any legal power to block extradition should it be ordered by the court.

    If you want to understand the law, try this

  • 18 April 2019 at 2:43pm
    Martha12345 says:
    The indictment, (it is quite short and an easy read), does not allege that Assange simply encouraged a source and did other routine stuff that reporters do. In contrast, it alleges that Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password which protected the secret data held in military computers. It alleges Manning gave the password to Assange in order that Assange could try and crack that password. Reporters may encourage a whistle blower to leak and will likely not be indicted for so doing. But reporters do far more than “encourage” if they “agree to assist” the whistleblower to pick the lock of the safe containing the data. Such a reporter has crossed a line and should understand, and be prepared to accept, the consequences.

    There are legal arguments that can and will be made in the US to dismiss the indictment should Assange be extradited. Assange will most certainly be assisted by excellent and experienced criminal defence counsel. We shall see if they can fashion a first amendment challenge to the indictment. I have my doubts.

    If it goes all the way to a jury he could nevertheless be acquitted, then again not. In the dark humour of US criminal defence lawyers, going all the way to a jury trial is called throwing the dice.

    Reporter David Leigh asserts in his book that Assange - in reference to the potential lethal harms that could come to Afghanis who assisted the USA- stated that “well, they’re informants. So if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” If true, upon what moral plane would that put Assange? Is it similar to that of the US soldier prepared to murder civilians for his country’s cause?

  • 18 April 2019 at 10:38pm
    apemantus says:

    James Butler: "At the same time, Assange’s sojourn in the embassy was a way of avoiding extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault and rape."

    I wonder on what grounds anyone can seriously continue to make that claim as an indisputable fact?
    Assange's lawyers had said that he would return to Sweden if they would guarantee not to extradite him to the US. Sweden said it could not guarantee that. Indeed, it's apparent Assange would have fallen under the US/Swedish extradition treaty with the US's crafted "non-political" indictment of computer fraud. The UK will also comply, should he survive "Britain’s Guantanamo".

    It was always the contention of many who defended Assange that the 7 year "investigation" which never became charges and was initially dismissed by Sweden's chief prosecutor, only to be reinstated, was a politicized intervention and did not entail justice in any ethical sense.

    Britain's political interference in the purported case was more pro-active. Britain's High Court altered it's long standing definition of "Judicial Authority" which meant, logically, a judge, to now include the Swedish Prosecutor who crafted the allegations for the European Arrest Warrant. This then fulfilled the UK's requirement for an extraditable offense. Additionally, those few emails not destroyed by the Crown Prosecution Service, uncovered by FOI, show the CPS harassing the Swedish prosecution to keep the EAW warrant in place when they felt compelled by Swedish law to drop it.

    It's cold comfort that the predictably enduring meme that Assange was really dodging non-existent sex charges in Sweden is now, less frequently, accompanied by the slurs that those who argued otherwise are "conspiracy theorists.

  • 19 April 2019 at 2:06am
    FoolCount says:
    "It is inarguable that the women’s expectation of justice has been frustrated..."

    Oh, it is very arguable. As is very existence of any such "expectations of justice". What is inarguable is that Assange was completely vindicated in his contention that this whole obscene spectacle had a sole purpose of getting him into the hands of the American security apparatus. I can confidently predict that Sweden will make no attempt to extradite and prosecute him, as it now completely lost its purpose. It is also quite clear now that Assange's accusers were CIA assets tasked with honey trapping him - the redundant duplication was a nice touch, the overseer of this operation must have been an engineer by trade. Also totally ridiculous is May's statement that Assange's arrest somehow proves that "nobody is above the law". It might have had more currency if we were presented with few more examples of alleged rapists so doggedly and relentlessly hunted down across the sate borders on such flimsy and ridiculous charges. This vindictive and expensive manhunt, culminating in a blackmail which a sovereign government of Ecuador was unable to withstand, is all we need to know to make our judgement on the matter. Shameful silence from Australian government and opposition, when their citizen is unlawfully deprived of his freedom for seven years and is now facing indefinite incarceration in US, is just a bonus. It is even more despicable that anyone can take a side of the lying multinational state security apparatus against an individual who sacrificed his personal freedom for our right to know the truth.

    • 19 April 2019 at 6:41am
      Joe Morison says: @ FoolCount
      “It is also quite clear now that Assange's accusers were CIA assets tasked with honey trapping him.” Without the a priori assumption of Assange’s innocence, how is that clear?

    • 21 April 2019 at 11:50pm
      John Cowan says: @ Joe Morison
      Assange is of course entitled to the presumption that he is innocent, like anyone else in the U.S. or the UK. For many crimes, the fact that no one has been punished for them is indeed a frustration of justice for the victims. But part of the issue here is whether there is any crime and therefore whether there are any victims. Certainly the ordinary Swedish prosecutors who were closest to the evidence did not think there was a case for Assange to answer.

  • 21 April 2019 at 1:28am
    frank scott says:
    this sounds like what conversations among the eminent scholars and humanitarians at the geneva convention must have indulged in while composing blueprints of legality for how to commit mass murder correctly, according to gentlemen's rules and mature behaviors..we need information first, before we can apply all the sophistry some of us learned at the university wing of the market, and when assange and manning provided evidence that innocent human beings were being murdered it was the job of the rest of us, especially those who think we/they know so much more than the pitiful human majority unable to attend royal training class, to help spread and if needed help interpret the information..some, obviously, are still clucking over philosophy class lessons about whether reality exists outside of their/our material experience and how to best practice obedience to laws made by those who spend trillions for war, billions for pets, and leave millions of humans in poverty and leave hundreds of thousands in the street.. whatever twisted belief system is forced into our minds, we ought to know enough to pay attention to the world assange was trying to inform us about, and not whether he got laid properly or examined legal texts in enough depth to truly plead a case in her-his-its majesty's court of chaos.

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