Julian Assange: The Internet threatens civilization
However disappointing, the Wikileaks founder's new book offers a fascinating -- and discomfiting -- thesis
WIKILEAKS FOUNDER JULIAN ASSANGE’S newest book Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet is intended as an urgent warning, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Despite boasting publicity blurbs from a curious medley of public intellectuals — Slavoj Žižek, Naomi Wolf, and Oliver Stone among them — Cypherpunks may just as well have sunk to the bottom of the sea. Although Assange is one of the most vital and polemical activists alive, nobody’s talking about Cypherpunks, and nobody seems to have read it. This is a pity, since the book rings a justifiably strident alarm bell over the erosion of individual privacy rights by an increasingly powerful global surveillance industry.
Though Cypherpunks raises issues of pressing concern, its neglect is not all that mysterious. “This book is not a manifesto,” Assange begins. If only it were! The pretense of writing one — especially when widely rumored to be wanted by the US government and an international cause célèbre — would probably have garnered Assange more attention. A good old-fashioned manifesto would have been more readable, too: Cypherpunks is irritatingly structured as a discussion between Assange and three coauthors, the digital activists Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, and Jérémie Zimmermann. The intention may have been to emphasize the sort of “messy” participatory democracy favored by Occupy, Anonymous, and other emergent political forces loosely affiliated with WikiLeaks and influenced by anarchist political theory. But the “discussion” occasionally slides into pedantic softball-lobs, ego-stroking, and phony-sounding debate that will leave the reader wishing for a more tightly edited and coherent declaration of the trouble Assange thinks we’re in.
Aside from the annoying format, the general disregard of Assange’s book is probably due in no small part to its discomfiting thesis. Cypherpunks would have the reader nakedly confront a truth that even a clear-eyed realist like Al Gore would find inconvenient: the dark steed on which we are “galloping into a new transnational dystopia” is nothing less than our favorite toy, tool, and distraction. “The internet,” Assange states portentously in the introduction, “is a threat to human civilization.” According to Assange, the “Information Superhighway” that Gore championed throughout the 1980s and 1990s ought now be renamed the Highway to Hell. Or at least — to borrow Assange’s terms — the Highway to “Postmodern Surveillance Dystopia.”
Assange’s pessimistic outlook derives from his very personal confrontation with “the enemy,” which is his unsubtle shorthand for the hybrid entity he sees taking shape as the internet continues to “merge” with governments increasingly controlled by multinational corporate interests. Assange describes the emergence of this “invasive parasite” as one predicated on mutual interest in surveillance and control. He believes that, if it remains unopposed, the resulting supranational “surveillance state” will “merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”
“We know the new surveillance state,” Assange says of himself and his coauthors, “because we have plumbed its depths.” They have also met its wrath. WikiLeaks has been the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice investigation ever since the organization rose to prominence in 2010 with the release of video footage of an American helicopter attack on unarmed journalists, publication of classified documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the leak of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables. High-ranking US officials like California senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have called for Assange’s prosecution. Assange, in turn, has cited these American demands of vengeance as his reason for resisting extradition to Sweden, where he faces arrest on charges of sexual misconduct. Sweden, Assange believes, would be the first stop on a longer extradition journey to the US.
Luddites and conspiracy theorists will be as titillated by Assange’s opening salvos on the surveillance state as anarchists and hardcore privacy activists. Indeed, it was the “threat to human civilization” quote that surfaced and then circulated listlessly around the blogosphere at the time of the book’s publication. The bluntness with which Assange damns the current drift of internet-related activity is probably the reason nobody wanted to read Cypherpunks: it’s easier to write Assange off as having jumped the shark. For most Westerners, the internet has made many aspects of daily life so easy and convenient that we dare not imagine its sinister double-edge. We want to retain our endless up-to-the-moment entertainment, on-the-fly driving directions, and breezy one-click payments with home delivery. Internet use has developed in ways that have normalized self-absorption and conspicuous consumption; our society’s feel-good relationship with the internet has anaesthetized the gradual but near total loss of privacy involved in the tradeoff. For most users, thought of the internet as a technology of mass surveillance and control, then, is both uncanny and unwelcome. And yet, Assange and company assure, that is exactly what the internet has become.
But another obvious reason for the book’s vanishing act is its surprisingly proprietary method of distribution. A manifesto could have been Xeroxed and tossed daily from the balcony of the bobby-besieged Ecuadorian embassy in London, where, since August 2012, Assange has been granted asylum. Or it could even have been disseminated on the internet, thus poisoning the bowels of the very beast Assange believes threatens to destroy all our freedoms. Alas, Cypherpunks is only available as a conventional copyrighted text (or e-book) distributed by an independent publisher who has, with due respect for convention and copyright, decreed that “no part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means.” Despite actually discussing proprietary control as one of the clear impediments to the liberating potential of new communication technologies, Cypherpunks does not offer further comment on its own self-imposed limitations beyond its martyr’s performance of self-banishment to the province of the Unread.
Its internal contradictions notwithstanding, Cypherpunks is a pertinent wake-up call. While we’ve been busy chuckling at the subtitled antics of cats, the internet has become increasingly monitored and militarized: all of our web-based communications are now intercepted by military spy organs. The internet, Assange claims, has become an occupied public space, and “we are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned.” This observation is in tune with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s nearly decade-old warning about the encroachment of martial law in their 2004 book Multitude, in which the authors claim that the military and the police are becoming indistinguishable. With the military occupation of cyberspace, Assange argues, control is being insinuated into the most quotidian of activities. Further thickening the aura of shadows and cigar smoke, he asserts, in his introduction, that this threat to our freedom has been cleverly concealed by those in “national security circles” and “the global surveillance industry.”
Assange understands the encroachments of the parasitical surveillance state into private communications as state violence enabled by corporate collaboration. He is not the first to read the writing on the wall. Beginning as early as 1946, thinkers like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have warned of the imbrication of entertainment with disciplinary social control in the form of the “culture industry.” Since then a lineage of theorists influenced by Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), Michel Foucault’s late lectures on biopolitics, and Gilles Deleuze’s 1990 essay on the rise of the “control society” have expanded on these ideas, cautioning against the advent of technocratic governments that will crush opposition and difference through mass-surveillance and data- and statistics-driven managerialism. More recent works bring these theories to bear on the internet. Alexander Galloway’s book Protocol (2004) made explicit the link between the material architecture of the internet and the decentralized management style favored for the administration of such biopolitical control societies.
Nor are the stakes of these discussions purely theoretical. Today, domestic spying is indeed undergoing massive expansion under the banner of “cyber security,” an Orwellian euphemism that most Americans probably find more palatable than “spying” or “data-mining.” “Cyber security” technologies are also now classified as “weapons” in order to divert more defense spending into their development, and the National Security Administration (NSA) has spent the last 10 years expanding its facilities far beyond its Fort Meade, Maryland, base. The crown jewel of these facilities is the Utah Data Center, a sprawling complex scheduled to be operational in September 2013. The $2 billion facility is nestled in the mountain enclave of a polygamist Mormon sect, a valley where Big Love and Big Brother, as NSA expert James Bamford reported in Wired magazine last year, have unexpectedly become neighbors. Facts about the facility are being kept under tight wraps by the NSA, which has deflected FOIA requests by citing the classified status of National Security Presidential Directive 54, the order George W. Bush issued in 2008 that authorized the NSA’s new projects in so-called cyber security. According to Bamford, the facility will contain thousands of servers that will archive and analyze “the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases” and the rest of what he calls “digital pocket litter.” Bamford also believes the data center will host a secret codebreaking unit needed to decrypt all that “secure encrypted” data transmitted over the internet: worldwide credit card transactions, stock and business deals, diplomatic cables, and the like. The energy costs of the facility alone are estimated at $40 million a year.
The Utah center is the centerpiece of a broad expansion in NSA data-mining and storage facilities across the country: bases for the interception of communications from abroad are located in Hawaii, Texas, Colorado, and Georgia. Like Assange, Bamford thinks that strong encryption is the only remaining strategy for resisting the slide into a totalitarian surveillance state. But paired with the NSA server farms is investment in supercomputing capabilities at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the former site of top-secret atomic research and reactors for the Manhattan Project — where the government is developing juggernaut codebreaking machines to keep up with similar computers being unveiled in China and Japan.
It is cold comfort to know that, historically speaking, the NSA has been rather bad at gathering and sorting intelligence. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Bamford reminds us that the agency was caught off guard by the 1998 attacks on two east African embassies, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. Whatever the Agency’s inadequacies, it is regarded fondly by big business: neoliberal trends of outsourcing government activities to the private sector have created a booming surveillance industry in conjunction with domestic spying. By Assange’s count, there are over 1,000 independent contractors working for the NSA, “smearing out the border between what is government and what is the private sector.”
This blurred public–private divide is where privacy rights are being swiftly eroded. Consider, for a moment, one of Google’s newest inventions: Google Glass, a pair of dorky and nearly indestructible eyeglasses that can capture photograph and video, access Google’s search engine and chat functions, and triangulate one’s exact location at all times. For a company whose unofficial “code of conduct” is “don’t be evil,” this is a dubious development: Google Glass will effectively turn its users into a legion of Little Brother informers, as government agencies routinely spy on Google users by gaining access to their account information with secret subpoenas. As with other Google features like Street View and Google Earth, it is impossible to opt out of this surveillance technology. Now imagine Google Glass equipped with facial recognition technology (FRT) — as Facebook already is — and you get a dizzying glimpse into the postmodern dystopia that Assange foresees.
Biometric data gathering, facial recognition technology, domestic drone surveillance, and the strategic interception of all private communication: these are the four horsemen of Assange’s apocalypse. He acknowledges that, even 10 years ago, surveillance on this scale would have seemed like a delusional fantasy. But now even a country like Libya can afford systems like Eagle, a product sold by the French firm Amesys and used by the Gaddafi regime for mass interception of communication. Even poor countries are setting up surveillance systems: as Müller-Maguhn claims, African countries are getting entire spy network infrastructure as a gift from the Chinese, who expect to be paid back “in data, the new currency.”
It should come as no surprise that intrusive and aggressive data collection methods have been getting a test-drive in places under the sway — but not bound by the laws — of American empire. The Afghan government, for instance, is collaborating with US security firms and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to produce a biometric registry for all passengers at Kabul airport and at major border crossings. The FBI is likewise honing its spycraft by assisting with the development of a biometric database of the entire Afghan population, and the Department of Defense has already created a Biometrics Identity Management Agency to coordinate biometric data sharing among these government agencies. In addition to fingerprint collection, already widely practiced, BIMA has been working to expand its facial, iris, palm, and DNA registries.
City police departments are not far behind: the LAPD has equipped officers with mobile biometrics devices since 2005 as part of a crackdown on undocumented workers. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently called the use of domestic drones and FRT in law enforcement “inevitable.” In fact, the NYPD already deploys FRT in investigative police work, and licenses for domestic drone operation have been issued with abandon, including to city governments and police departments. The “inevitable” use of FRT in domestic police work will probably broaden to include devices similar to what the military currently uses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Crossmatch Technologies, the Florida company that developed the SEEK II device that was likely used to identify Osama bin Laden at his Abbottabad compound, has lobbied the government to “document the undocumented” by using biometric technologies. In its efforts to foment wider use of biometric technologies, Crossmatch has even donated some of its rapid mobile identification technologies to the Palm Beach Gardens Police Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization whose “mission is to secure private funding to enhance the safety of the community and the effectiveness of the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department.”
Assange and his colleagues are — tellingly — more concerned about the mass interception of communications than they are about biometric registries. But the general complaint applies to both contexts: there has been a shift from “tactical” data gathering (the kind you associate with a search warrant) to the “strategic” mass interception of all our calls, emails, and internet activity for storage and analysis. The capture of so much private information represents the extension of a domestic spying program the NSA has been conducting since at least 2001. The program began with extralegal wiretapping facilitated by the major telecommunications corporations in direct violation of the Constitution. The “antiterrorism” activities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also includes more conventional spying usually associated with the FBI: recently obtained documents show the DNS engaging in routine spying on peaceful protesters.
Combine government snooping with another of Google’s new ambitions — to become the sole internet service provider of large municipalities like Kansas City, Missouri — and a very worrying picture emerges. Kansas City government was willing to grant the company a nearly regulation-free contract to install citywide fiber-optic service. Not only would this deal allow the internet access of hundreds of thousands of users to be provided by a single company, it would also enable that company to collect deep data — every search, every page visit, every electronic payment — about the entire population of a major American city. The Kansas City project requires Google to make huge investments in city infrastructure, but the venture is not a charitable one. Google expects to reap windfalls with the data. As the scholar and activist Harry Halpin recently wrote in Radical Philosophy:
Massive web platforms such as Apple, Google and Facebook are monopolies increasingly reminiscent of the golden age of capitalism, in which the new form of commodity is personal identity: every interaction with the Internet is recorded for marketing purposes, ideally with a full name and billing address.
The recent travails of Assange’s coauthor Jacob Appelbaum offer an object lesson in the danger of these projects. Appelbaum is one of the central figures in an ongoing legal dispute between Twitter and the Department of Justice, which subpoenaed Twitter for the IP addresses and records of the accounts used by Appelbaum, Dutch citizen Rop Gonggrijp, and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir as part of a grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks. Twitter, the ACLU, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have fought the order, but it represents only a single high-profile case of far broader practice: Google receives tens of thousands of similar requests each year — most of them subpoenas sealed under court order, not search warrants — and complies with 90 percent of them. The interpretation of outdated legislation effectively allows the US government to use Google and Facebook as extensions of its own intelligence-gathering activities. In most cases, sealed subpoenas delivered to Google and social media sites prevent those under investigation from ever becoming aware that their accounts are being reviewed by the government. It is for this reason, Assange and his coauthors argue, that cryptography has become the most vital means of resisting the tightening control of surveillance society.
Although Assange disavows the intention of writing a manifesto on the lofty grounds that “there is no time” for such histrionics, his introduction is nevertheless subtitled “A Call to Cryptographic Arms,” and Cypherpunks is clearly a summons to action. As he and his co-authors argue repeatedly throughout the book, cryptography is our last hope to resist the otherwise inevitable slide into a totalitarian regime of panoptic surveillance and control. As Assange sees it, cryptography is “an embodiment of the laws of physics” that he considers elegant and noble for providing “the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.” Free source activists will already understand the relation between cryptography and the title of Assange’s book, but the table of contents is preceded by a useful definition that informs the lay audience that “cypherpunk” is not only in broad usage in the digital activist community, but was also added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. The term dates to the “crypto-wars” of the early 1990s and was revived during the so-called “internet spring” of 2011, by which the authors presumably mean the simultaneous, and not unrelated, movements connected with the war waged on WikiLeaks and the online activism that flared during the Arab Spring, in which protesters pitted social media, freedom of information, and cryptography against despotic regimes.
Assange’s author bio lists him as a contributor to the original Cypherpunk mailing list, and “one of the most prominent exponents of cypherpunk philosophy”; his organization WikiLeaks is guided by the cypherpunk motto “privacy for the weak, transparency for the powerful.” Assange is also credited as the “author of numerous software projects in line with the cypherpunk philosophy”: computer programs that facilitate privacy through encryption. His discussants are likewise active in cryptographic resistance. Appelbaum is an advocate and developer for the Tor Project, which provides freeware that uses “onion routing,” or layered encryption, to strengthen anonymity for its users; Müller-Maguhn is one of the creators of Cryptophone, a for-profit venture that markets encrypted telephone calls; and Zimmermann is a European legal activist for La Quadrature du Net, which defends online anonymity and campaigns against regulations that limit online freedoms.
Cryptography is also central to the tactics used by Anonymous, an international movement that has acted in support of WikiLeaks by providing documents and declaring war on opponents of transparency. The movement’s participants all remain anonymous, in keeping with precedent established on 4chan and other online forums where the movement originated. In the age of identity capitalism and surveillance society, the determination to remain anonymous is an act of resistance against the knowing gaze of both corporations and the police. The movement’s decentralized and nonhierarchical affiliation of cyber activists is best known for online forms of protest and activism in the form of information leaks, hacking, and website vandalism. One of the group’s most widely used tactics is DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks, in which activists cause a surge in traffic by simultaneously accessing a webpage in massive numbers, thus causing it to crash and go offline. Actions undertaken by Anonymous often employ their famous signoff: “Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”
The link between Assange and Anonymous began in 2008, when the latter supplied secret Scientology handbooks to WikiLeaks for publication. The movement also acted to defend Assange and WikiLeaks from their persecution by the US government. Joe Biden has referred to Assange as a “high-tech terrorist,” and corporate compliance with Joe Lieberman’s call for businesses to cut off transactions with WikiLeaks in the wake of the War Logs and Cablegate prompted an Anonymous-led DDoS attack on Paypal, Visa, and Amazon. Lieberman and others have also called for Assange’s arrest and prosecution under the Espionage Act, a demand that makes little sense given that unlike Private Bradley Manning, who faces charges for allegedly leaking classified military information to WikiLeaks, Assange is not an American citizen and therefore not capable of treason against the United States. While Anonymous remained allied with WikiLeaks throughout the Cablegate fallout, the movement has recently distanced itself from Assange, criticizing his supposed egotism after a highly publicized dinner with Lady Gaga.
Anonymous was also active in the Occupy protests of 2011–12, and continues to take on a diverse range of activism projects. These include continued support for Occupy, defense of gay rights in Africa, attacks on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and government copyright enforcement agencies, and working to expose the identities of alleged rapists in high profile sexual assault cases in Ohio and Nova Scotia. Anonymous also now appears to maintain a consistent interest in responding to Israeli aggressions against Palestinians. Israel airstrikes on Gaza this spring provoked Anonymous’s #OpIsrael retaliation, a coordinated attack on Israeli government websites, bank accounts, and social media accounts. The mass strike defaced or compromised tens of thousands of websites and bank accounts.
Social media and hacktivist groups like Anonymous represent obverse sides of the rise of identity capitalism. The opposition was made strikingly clear in 2011, when Anonymous threatened to “destroy” Facebook for violating user privacy and collaborating with government intelligence agencies. That the US media rushed to celebrate the use of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring uprisings but has consistently maligned the activities of WikiLeaks and Anonymous is thus unsurprising. Having exhausted resources for regime change, cheerleaders for exporting “freedom” now uncritically regard digital communication technologies, especially Twitter, as the bearers of democracy and freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere. As Evgeny Morozov, an outspoken critic of such “internet-centrism,” has sardonically observed, “The Freedom Agenda is out; the Twitter Agenda is in.” Malcolm Gladwell also expressed skepticism in The New Yorker, pointing out that the perceived importance of Twitter and Facebook in the Iranian Green Movement and the Moldovan uprising of 2009 derived less from facts than from the desire to understand these technologies as inherently liberating. Assange likewise notes that the Mubarak regime cut off internet access in Egypt early on in the revolution, and admonishes uncritical celebration of social media for disavowing the use of Facebook by repressive governments to monitor, track, harass, and sometimes kill dissidents.
Acknowledging this double-edge, Assange asserts that “the internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen.” But even here, he indulges in the silicon-plated myth that propels, if not entirely underwrites, this process of accelerating surveillance and control of our management society. Allow me to cast some doubt on Assange’s confident assertion that the internet is “our greatest tool of emancipation”: we did not need to await the arrival of the internet in order to end slavery, grant women the vote, or struggle for civil rights for oppressed racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.
Doubtless the internet now plays an important role in strategies to influence social change. But so did television in the 1950s and ’60s, and no one would have called TV a great tool of emancipation. To do so is to express one’s ignorance regarding corporate control of televised media. Like Galloway, who asserts that protocol is not necessarily “bad,” but rather “dangerous,” Assange explains that technologies are not politically neutral, but can be used for a variety of ends. “Good” or “evil,” if you like. And the fact that the motto of a company trained in his critical crosshairs (“don’t be evil”) could seem so mordantly Orwellian from the perspective of privacy rights is evidence of a Silicon Valley’s bad faith.
Assange gets the last word in the “discussion” with his interlocutors in Cypherpunks. In the final pages, he insists that complaining about the “burgeoning security state” is not enough; we must instead “build the tools of a new democracy.” This would be a vigilant democracy, one that is aware of the political ambiguity of communications technologies and the complicity of big business and corporate media in eliminating legal protections on privacy. Debate surrounding the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) gives an idea of the current situation in America. Although recently shelved by the Senate, which is working out a version more concerned with protecting privacy, the House CISPA would allow companies to share data with each other and with government agencies like the NSA. The House CISPA would, in effect, legalize many of the domestic spying activities that were or are conducted extralegally or in legal gray areas. A lobbying firm representing Google and Yahoo supports the bill, while the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation remain vehemently opposed. Although the House bill has been sidelined in the upper chamber, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee have already expressed concern about perceived failures in information sharing between agencies in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing. Coupled with Americans’ show of eagerness to inform on their fellow citizens by participating in the misguided and frenetic crowdsourcing of police work, the senators’ opportunity to look tough on terror will likely weaken privacy provisions.
With the corporate hijacking of the government and the prioritizing of “security” above all else, Assange and his Cypherpunks discussants seem to see successful resistance to surveillance and control through legislation as unlikely. This leaves privacy defense up to individuals themselves, who must begin to understand the communications technologies they use. In Appelbaum’s words, people need to get “socially used to” coding in order to modify their own software.
This kind of individual responsibility sounds like a good thing. But such a position usually ignores structural inequalities that drastically alter one’s capability of awareness, let alone resistance. Education is one such factor. This is exactly where a class-based analysis of Assange’s ideology finds the impasse between techno-libertarianism and traditional leftist politics. Assange ends his book by fantasizing about the imminent dystopian future. His valedictory reverie begins with a self-romanticizing anecdote about “smuggling” himself into the Sydney Opera House to take in a performance of Faust (Assange’s cultural allusions have never been subtle; his memoir Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography is clumsily littered with them). The heavy-handedness exposes a superiority complex that plays out in Assange’s concluding morality tale: while our lone hero strolls the waterfront after the opera, he spies through the glass panels a rat that has likewise smuggled itself into the Opera House, where it is merrily “scurrying back and forth, leaping on the fine linen-covered tables and eating the Opera House food, jumping on to the counter with all the tickets and having a really great time.”
This droll tableau becomes, in Assange’s hands, a metaphor for “the most probable scenario for the future”:
an extremely confining, homogenized, postmodern transnational totalitarian structure with incredible complexity, absurdities and debasements, and within that incredible complexity a space where only the smart rats can go […] All communications will be surveilled, permanently recorded, permanently tracked, each individual in all their interactions permanently identified as that individual to this new Establishment, from birth to death […] So I think the only people who will be able to keep the freedom that we had, say, twenty years ago — because the surveillance state has already eliminated quite a lot of that, we just don’t realize it yet — are those who are highly educated in the internals of this system. So it will only be a high-tech rebel elite that is free, these clever rats running around the opera house.
This is elitism plain and simple, and it ought to have been purged from the book. It would have been more productive to conclude this non-manifesto with more practical information about how everyday internet users can protect themselves, a nuts-and-bolts tutorial like the one that can be found on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense site.
Moreover, the notion of a “high-tech rebel elite” is embarrassingly redolent of the likes of Ayn Rand, and a form of libertarian neoliberalism that has found so many devotees in Silicon Valley. Assange himself dismissively refers to these “California libertarians,” a strange and contradictory socio-political class that has gained tremendous power and prestige in recent years. The hodgepodge of free-marketeering and wannabe counterculture that characterizes the California libertarians is worthy only of caricature, and the rise of this ideology in the new powerhouse of the US economy was presciently characterized by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in their 1996 essay “The Californian Ideology” (a text that is available for free perusal online).
In Assange’s rodent parable, the rat serves as a stand-in for Assange himself, who seems bizarrely eager to reprise the role of John Galt in Rand’s plodding opus Atlas Shrugged. In that novel, a visionary elite led by Galt abandons a welfare state full of moochers and takes to the hills, leaving the freeloaders — we know them today as the 99% — to go to hell in a handbasket, wondering “Who is John Galt?” Down on the docks, another lone hero wanders. “Who is Julian Assange?” he imagines the future masses wondering. If the effective media blackout surrounding Assange and WikiLeaks continues, we’ll start to hear that question sooner rather than later.
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