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 b
Nov 29, 2011
In April 2010 David Harvey gave a lecture to promote his most recent b
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.