Something is happening here. But we don’t know what it is.
[Apologies to Bob Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man”.]
As is probably well known to regular readers, I’m quite the admirer of Guy Rundle’s writing and analytical skills.
I know he’s got his detractors, but I’d have thought today’s piece in Crikey would cause them to think again.
Rundle articulates together the upheavals in Europe over the GFC austerity measures and the Wikileaks information wave [previous discussion on LP here] with a tale of the shifting configurations of the state, nations, economy and information, and what all that means for the exercise of power. While, as I’ve previously commented, opinion on the fleeting issues of the daily media cycle is a dime a day now in places like The Drum, what we suffer from in Australia is a dearth of actual analysis, particularly analysis that doesn’t reinforce the insularity we seem to cherish.
Having spent some time in both the US and Europe last year, I think it’s fair to say that things in the non-Antipodean bits of the metropole look very different now. We’re starting to get the ‘feel’ of that here, but the established networks of power and mediation that carve up a stack of stuff into narrow categories like ‘the economy’, ‘diplomacy’ and so on act primarily to keep the broader picture obscured while producing micro-information of use to those with power. This can too easily be combined with a dangerous apathy – so many heads buried in so much sand, even as the beaches erode around us!
It’s the power of Rundle’s analysis that he takes a totalising approach to what’s going on, and in doing so (along with Wikileaks) demonstrates the real power of information…
I’ve taken the liberty (with kind permission) of reproducing Rundle’s piece over the fold.
As the WikiLeaks cablegate (WL-CG) revelations continue to roll out, the mood of defiance grows in Ireland, with calls for “default”, for an immediate election, or for a citizens assembly coming from ever wider quarters. The euro has failed to lift on the market, suggesting that the vicious austerity package, has failed to convince. Down the road in Trafalgar Square, in the first snow of the year, the students are fighting a running battle with the cops, who are trying to kettle them around Nelson’s column. Interpol has issued a warrant for Julian Assange, based on the warrant issued by the Swedish courts on r-pe allegations.
The European Commission is investigating monopoly price fixing practices by Google, showing surprising backbone. The spotlight is on China, after WL-CG revelations that China had expressed the wish that Korea be reunified under Seoul. Now, joining revelations that the Arab world wants a strike on Iran, is confirmation that the US knows of official Saudi funding links to al-Qaeda, and that the US feels that Pakistan is a larger problem than Afghanistan in the propagation of terror.
President Karzai?—?dubbed inept and credulous in cables?—?pardoned five heroin traffickers who were caught with more than 250 kilograms of the stuff en route to the streets of the West. The US began moves to charge Assange under the Espionage Act, and the Australian government is dutifully looking for something to charge him with too.
In the House of Commons, the Lib-Dems are in chaos, preparing to abstain from a vote hiking up tuition fees after pledging to oppose it before the election, with talk of defections from the party. Revelations in the WL-CG cables that PMs Brown and Cameron unsuccessfully attempted to make a deal to avoid the extradition of Garry McKinnon, an autistic kid who hacked into unprotected US security networks, and is facing decades in jail under the one-way extradition treaty signed by Blair.
The revelation has dealt another small but visible blow to the special relationship. And the UK “put in place” measures to shield the US during the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War. According to WL-CG. And Portugal has announced, in the past 15 minutes, that its banks may fail.
Clearly something is under way, a larger shift than can be explained merely by the individual occurrences, substantial as they are. Two massive processes have come into collision?—?the second wave of the global financial crisis, breaking strongly in Europe, hitting WikiLeaks’ rolling wave of information storms, changing the relationship between state and power. The transformation of the relationship between four elements?—?states, nations, information and economy?—?has been categorical, and even if it recedes in the next few days (which it is unlikely to), it will not retreat back to the status quo.
Something has happened, and it is worth trying to work out what, while it is going on.
Taken at the broadest structural level, one could say this?—?a series of crucial shifts going back 30 years have now come together in a manner that has pitched the global power system into a potential crisis of legitimacy. In the early 1980s, global financial transactions?—?hitherto substantially bound within states?—?began to be extended internationally in real time, due to greater use of information technology as “virtual” markets, and then the only arena in which transactions took place.
The Reagan and Thatcher victories detached economy from state politically, deregulating finance. The transition from the EEC to the EC/EU detached state structures from nation, translating them into a European super-state. The spread of the internet in the late ’80s and ’90s changed the relationship of information to state, making it materially impossible to regulate information flows via old means of censorship and control.
With the global financial economy dictating terms to the superstates in the late ’90s?—?Glass-Steagall was repealed at the same time as the euro was launched?—?and using the global net as both its medium, and domain for creation of new assets, the nations, the ethni rallied around increasingly crude expressions of solidarity, increasingly with a religious charge.
The most brutal expression of this was 9/11, and the state responded by trying to regain some of the power it had since given up to information and economy. By now it was too late. The new culture, subjectivity and legitimacy of the cybersphere implicitly undermined the state. WikiLeaks is theorisation and operationalisation of that moment, which is an act of (collective) thought, and a changed material reality.
The autonomous processes of a global economy, operating at the hyperspeed?—?effectively light speed?—?of an autonomous global information system, eventually came apart, and the debris rained down on the nations. The Greeks, the Irish, the Portuguese, maintaining a sense of community separated from the state were initially powerless. The states?—?the EU and the US?—?had a relationship only to the economy, not to the nation, and promptly bailed out the former at the cost of the latter, stealing their life, to pay off debt.
At this point, with the legitimacy of state and economy at historic lows, the three major blows of WikiLeaks have decisively shifted the power relationship between information on the one hand, and state/economy on the other. From the other end, the nations are rebelling. “Peoples of Europe, rise up” the Greek Communist Party’s slogan hung from the Acropolis chimes with WikiLeaks material and categorical challenge to the very fabric of state power, as expressed in the notion of “inviolable diplomatic communication”.
In Europe, oft dismissed as the old dead world, but really the cutting edge of the world-island, it will only take one crucial challenge from the nations?—?a citizens challenge to state power in Ireland, for example?—?to join the two up, in an equally dynamic fashion. Assange’s announcement, in Forbes magazine, that WL may do a Wall Street document dump next effectively closes the circle.
You can feel the change in the air, read it in every report. The more that the fused political-media-administrative elite try to write it off as “entertaining anecdote” while at the same time mobilising state power to destroy the organisation, the more they reveal that something has happened. The old process of leaks?—?a document here and there?—?only served to reinforce the idea that the state had an unquestionable right to control information, and that there could be no other way to organise society or create law.
That legitimacy has had a fatal crack put it in. The whole question of who should know what has been put into play. There will be reversals, but we’re used to those. As I may have mentioned, something is happening.
Update: There’s a new post to which comment should now be directed.