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Who They are and what They do: what the current whereabouts of Julian Assange can tell us about how power works in 2011

In April 2010 David Harvey gave a lecture to promote his most recent book, the Enigma of Capital. Harvey is often painted as a grumpy, unreconstructed Marxist fuddy duddy. He is certainly grumpy; but his analysis of our post GFC woes is far more cogent than most of what passes for ‘analysis’ by most conventional economists. It responds to this question: how did They miss systemic risk? Occupy has demonstrated that it’s dangerous to assemble and even begin formulating a response to this question. But the current whereabouts of Julian Assange tells us even more. Tells us that? Among other things, so many other things, it tells us the following: it tells us that They exist. It tells us that They run things, and They know very well how to shut things, and people, down. But hang on a sec… They!?

Who are They, or Them? Talk of some anonymous group agent is a likely sign of paranoia, surely. We’re surely in Reptilian Conspiracy country here, like a sad old kook from a Jon Ronson book: tragic, pathetic, weird… but mostly very, very, very paranoid.

You would think so, but then again, just the other day, Alan Kohler (who is not a Reptilian) made this assessment, which then went viral, perhaps piggybacking on Alessio Rastani’s monologue about Them (hint: Goldman Sachs) a month or so back. And in a blistering piece for the Guardian on the ‘shocking truth’ of the Occupy crackdown, Naomi Wolf asserted that, “for the DHS to be on a call with mayors, the logic of its chain of command and accountability implies that congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS to authorise mayors to order their police forces… to make war on peaceful citizens.” She alleged further that Occupy is heavily surveilled and infiltrated, and that “the DHS and police informers are aware, before Occupy itself is, what its emerging agenda is going to look like” (italics mine). Those are strong claims, from people far more qualified than me to make them. Together they make me think: so maybe They do exist? If so, then the paranoid thing in 2011 would be believing, against the mounting evidence, that They don’t exist. Maybe it’s time to remember the 90s by way of Kurt Cobain: ‘just because you’re paranoid… doesn’t mean They’re not after you.’ So who are They?

Well, when David Harvey started talking about Them in the ranty latter half of his Enigma of Capital lecture, a smarticulate young gentleman rightly called him on it. He asked: “You use the word They a lot… who really is They (sic), what is They (sic), and how are They able to do what you say they are able to do?” Harvey teed off immediately, as follows.

“I don’t have too much difficulty with that question. It was pretty clear to me from all the evidence I assembled from the 1970s, that They are constituted by organizational forms, like the Business Roundtable, The US Chambers of Commerce, the Political Action Committees, all of which are linked together through a political process, with a political agenda. If you go to the celebrated K Street in Washington, you’ll see who They are. It’s not too hard…. I know who dominates economic decisions in a city like Baltimore, it’s pretty clear who dominates decisions on Wall Street… I know who They are… and – you know – I’m actually a little surprised that you don’t… yeah, I know who They are.”

They are also at the centre of Julian Assange’s theory of power. When I first read Assange’s theory, I thought that, as a social theorist, well… he made a skilled hacker and publicist. They’re clunky, they’re… a bit 90s (though more X Files than Nirvana). And, yes, they read as a bit paranoid. Eg:

“Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial”.

If I read him correctly, Assange’s response to this radical conspiracy is radical transparency: a well-placed information bomb will cut the links that bind conspiracies together, a daisycutter made of pdf files. Assange’s theory is predicated on the idea that conspiracies rely on trust to maintain the flow of information, therefore exposure has the potential to “marginalise a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to, its environment”. It sounds… well, it sounds a bit paranoid, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: this is almost precisely what They have done to Assange. Which not only proves They exist, but that Assange’s theory, clunky as it appears is, as we Australians might say ‘not wrong’.

Let’s think about this with a very schematic potted history of power relations. In societies dominated by the sovereign power of living monarchs, it was necessary to decapitate in order to ensure the success of a revolution or prevent the future leader of one from being born: Charles I, Louis XVI. In societies dominated by disciplined hierarchies, house arrest, exile, or some form of banishment usually suffice: think of Napoleon Bonaparte in St Helena, guarded and spied upon, but otherwise left to his own dank and windswept devices. For the most part though, ours are societies that purport to be governed through governance, which says it is all about heterarchy, consultation, networking – leading to transparency. Which is part of what’s really fascinating about wikileaks, that it hysterically demands from the system that which it purports to value, and in so doing shows very clearly that governance is not really about heterarchy, it is about heteronomy. Think about it this way.

There are networks, sure, but they are not ‘nodal’ at key points, but loop like. The key question is always: are you in the loop? And within each loop that actually counts, there are hierarchies. Secretive hierarchies. Sometimes, as with News Corporation, there is even a de facto monarchy. From Adelaide. There is the ‘ndrangheta, and then there is the Santa (who, in this case, actually have infiltrated the Freemasons). Ah, you thought Santa didn’t exist either…  At the top, there is a committee. There is almost always a committee. Membership, last I checked, is not open to the public, nor is it generally known or knowable. It is anything but transparent. It is decidedly, deliberately, reflexively totally opaque. The people on these decisive committees, which exist all over the world, in all organisations, government and non government, at all levels – that’s one way of thinking about who They are. They know each other’s phone numbers, and the numbers of most of the .01% besides. Well, so, what do They do? How do They exercise power?

Power relations in our world are about profitable circulation (profitable for Them, of course, though if you get your dividend and don’t Occupy or get uppity, you’ll do alright too, market willing); that’s why it’s essential to be in the loop and stay in the loop. Circulation itself is treated as ultimately ungovernable, but it is nonetheless  shaped in certain ways toward certain ends. Decisions are made in this way, on an ad hoc basis, with the only categorical imperative being that circulation must be maintained at all costs. Never forget the day after 9/11. They didn’t say ‘go to your loved ones’. No. They said: go out and shop. That’s the legitimate role they have envisaged for us. Which includes you. But is this a conspiracy, by Assange’s definition?

This isn’t Dr Strangelove, or the Stonecutter Song; in practice, like so many things, it’s much more complex and subtle. In practice, They know what a problem is. And when They know you’re a problem, They tighten up. Less a conspiracy, and more of a constrictive co-operation; They don’t even have to consult as an old-school conspiracy.  When Wikileaks began behaving in a way that appeared to show signs of conspiring (by Assange’s definition), They knew exactly what to do: Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, News Corporation (and most of the media), Google, the governments of the US, UK Australia &c, they all tightened up, just enough. It’s no decapitation, and it ain’t no St Helena, it’s not even quite ‘cutting the link’ in the way Assange cashes it out, though it’s certainly more than a papercut. Talk too loud, too much, assemble too much, and your circulation will be cut off. Not enough to choke you, but just enough to stop you talking. This is why Assange’s circulation has been radically restricted. It’s precisely as he says: “a substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt.”

Now Assange occupies himself an English manor, with an electronic tag on his ankle. Maintained by Serco. Watch. But never mind him, or Them, what about you? Every time you move, you give Them money and information. Remember, your role is to circulate, in order to do two things: indebt yourself, and leave a datatrail. You’re called a consumer, but really you’re a feeder. You’re feeding Them. Being online, you are feeding Them right now, and with Christmas just round the corner, you will be feeding Them overtime. But you don’t even have to care about Christmas. You could even be a grumpy old Marxist fuddy duddy. It doesn’t matter. You fed Them when you clicked through to this site, just as you will when you click away, and click, and click, and click… it’s enough to make you paranoid.

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  • 1
    jeebus
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    You needn’t look much further than the Bilderbergers to understand that there is a tight-knit elite running the world and setting the global agenda across politics, industry, and the media.

    The Bilderbergers are credited with devising the European Union and obviously see themselves as a force for the good of humanity. It’s probably the same deal with the Trilateral Commission, Davos, the Freemasons, and whatever other groups assemble the rich and powerful together in the one place away from public scrutiny.

    From my own perspective, I think it’s a pity that the global elite feel so unable to communicate their ‘greater good’ motivations with the people they rule, choosing instead to hide behind secrecy, lies, and propaganda.

    As Colin Powell said, weapons of mass destruction was the only thing everyone could agree on as the public reason to invade Iraq.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to live in a world of complete political transparency, where in the lead up to the Iraq invasion Bush put his case directly to the American people that war was necessary to secure global energy supplies for the American way of life – and then put that to a referendum.

  • 2
    DodgyKnees
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    This analysis rings true – Brilliant.
    These dispersed closed loops are structurally the same as terrorist cells.
    No wonder They’re difficult to pinpoint.

  • 3
    Scott
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    “They” are just people that aren’t “You”. i.e The other.

    If you are left, they are the right.
    If you are poor, they are the rich.
    If you are catholic, they are the atheist.

    We are all “Them” to someone. Just depends on where you are standing.

    But the whole concept is just about non-responsibility. Much easier to believe that “they” are responsible for your current circumstance isn’t it? That way, you don’t have to blame yourself.

  • 4
    NAJ Taylor
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Pete, entirely unverified conspiracy theories propagated by the highly-reputable British media have suggested Alessio Rastani is actually part of the Yes Men hoax crew. Just saying.

  • 5
    Robin Cameron
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I can’t speak for Peter but I would very much agree with you that ‘We are all They to someone’. This is a nice point and I think a constructive one. Personally in my role as a middle manager I am most definitely They; importantly it doesn’t exclude me from the ethical obligation of also being me.

    Your accusation ‘If you are left, they are the right, If you are poor, they are the rich’ would seem to reflect an inversion of the dialectic you accuse of him.

    Is Peter They to you Scott? :)

  • 6
    Peter Chambers
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    @ Scott: I thank you for raising the question of responsibility, which I think is fundamental.

    Sticking within my They frame for one moment, you’ve put your finger on it perfectly: They don’t exist. Or: least of all when the call for responsibility comes in.

    But at the same time, there is, is there not, a co-operative coherence to the actions against Assange? It works…

    But let’s leave aside the They frame, and consider individual responsibility. This is surely very important. In fact, David Harvey responded to this as follows in the same lecture:

    “One of the most distressing things that comes out of the neoliberal era which has been preaching this gospel of personal responsibility is that the majority of people who’ve been foreclosed upon in the United States do not blame the system at all. They blame themselves. That somehow or other they weren’t personally responsible enough… so getting the idea that there’s a systemic problem behind this that requires systemic politics and a systemic solution is actually very hard…”

    I wonder who gets off the hook here? What it tends to prevent us thinking about…

    Then: what happens if we do subscribe to, let’s say, Margaret Thatcher’s view. She said: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.’

    In practice what this has mostly meant is that only individuals are responsible; group agents (such as corporations, which empirically do exist, never mind what you think about ‘society’) are either less responsible, or not responsible at all. Is the City of London responsible for the political and economic effects of offshore? No. And this is an opportunity, if you can see it, if you can incorporate. That is: the strategic move in a ‘society’ that adopts Thatcher’s paradigm would be to incorporate in order to diminish responsibility. And this is part of how finance has socialized risk while privatizing profit. No accident.

    Or then: what would it really mean if none of us othered anything or anyone? What would it mean to take responsibility absolutely, as a categorical imperative? Well, Naomi Wolf is asserting that Occupy is attempting to do that, that they (They?) have cogent, clear ideas. The following:

    1) get the money out of politics;
    2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation;
    3): draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

    What would it mean for every individual to take personal responsibility for that situation? Occupy responds by taking ‘collective action’ (another form of incorporation); and they get ordered to disperse, and pepper sprayed if they don’t.

  • 7
    Peter Chambers
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    @ NAJ: I heard that too. But my conspiracy friends say it’s not true ;) . Perhaps the point from media is that, like Powell’s speech to the UNSC linking Zarqawi to Iraq – and thus Saddam to Al-Qaeda – it needn’t be true. It circulates very profitably independently of its veracity. And, in another sense, it *is* true… just like Alan Kohler (who is no joke) said…

  • 8
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Don’t They ever sleep? The link for ‘Julian Assange’s theory of power’ is dead.

  • 9
    NAJ Taylor
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    @8 – check now the link now… :-)

  • 10
    Peter Chambers
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Why Wolf is wrong, and why They don’t need to exist:

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/20111129151234836584.html?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews

  • 11
    Paul
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I don’t think ‘They’ are necessarily actual people – the faces are interchangeable. What are consistent are the ideas and values that circulate the upper echelons of power. These ideas or discourse or conceptual frameworks act like a virus, infecting those that step into a position of authority. The initial settling in period of a new ‘They/Them’ involves experts (Department Heads, etc:) inculcating a set of ideas and values that appear to be above contestation. These discursive structures include, for example, a faith in the value of chaos as an organisational tool. A belief in the value of chaos underpins economic theory, environmental philosophy: even education. The free-market is an example of the belief that ‘chaos’ (or lack or governmental control and/or scrutiny) will ensure a stable economic structure. Such a perspective necessarily downgrades or even openly denigrates a moral dimension, such as a critical and systemic policy approach on the issue of child slavery in third world nations. The dominant perspective is that the market will eventually right itself. This leads to the idea that child slavery is an unpleasant, but perhaps necessary function in the elevation of a subsistence economy to that of an industrial economy. Once such a view is accepted, ‘They’ will seek to prevent open discussion about the issue of child slavery, for example, for ‘They’ will perceive it as possibly counter-hegemonic. Once a discussion on an issue such as child slavery is allowed through the swinging gate of the media, it appears as if there exists oligarchic support (if I can term a concept of conspiracy in such a loose manner) for the practice, because of the widespread justifications, denials or silence that are seen to emanate at an institutional level.

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