In 2008, in the run-up to the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, I went undercover to report on an anarchist training camp. The camp was staged in a bucolic private park not far from the city and I passed a memorable few days trying to blend in with a ragtag collection of young activists, leftover hippies, and wounded runaways intent on revolution.
Working within the system wasn't an option for this bunch. "In order for that to be the case," one of the more credible among them told me, "you have to assume that there's something salvageable on a grand scale with government and politics in this country. And that the system ever worked for the people. And I don't know that it ever did."
Despite my own mainstream political leanings, I sympathized with this view, vaguely. At the very least, I believed that these occasional bubbles of political weirdness can sometimes serve as incubators for ideas that may one day prove interesting or useful. Yet as much as I shared the anarchists' latent distrust of power and antipathy for the GOP, it proved difficult to take them seriously, not least because they seemed to have so little stake in the system they hoped to overthrow. I came to accept, as I think most Americans do, that we are more or less stuck with the government we've got.
In the media frenzy over WikiLeaks, this familiar dialectic has reemerged: On the one hand there's the incrementalism of those like Steven Aftergood, of Secrecy News, who on a recent Democracy Now segment advocated a more restrained approach to revealing corruption, condemning the Wikileaks strategy as "extremely primitive" and "reckless." And on the other, there's the fervor of guys like Salon's Glenn Greenwald, who on the same show echoed the skepticism I once heard from the anarchists, i.e., that it was "incredibly unrealistic" to think that our political system is "somehow on the verge of starting to bring about meaningful increases in transparency" on its own. "WikiLeaks," Greenwald went on, "is really one of the very few, if not the only group, effectively putting fear into the hearts of the world's most powerful and corrupt people, and that's what they deserve."
This, basically, was the same argument for overthrow that I had dismissed two years ago at the anarchist camp. The only difference was that the anarchists hoped to topple the political state, and WikiLeaks aims to topple the information state. Except this time, I find myself siding with the revolutionaries.
The reasons are obvious. First, compared to an actual revolution, fomenting an information revolution presents fewer immediate disincentives. There's little chance of tear gas or clubby encounters with thuggish cops. Instead we get transparent smear tactics and bloodless cyber-assaults. In effect, so long as Julian Assange and his crew are the main targets of these tactics, one gets all the cathartic thrill of insurrection with considerably fewer welts.
But this would mean nothing if there didn't already exist in our culture a palpable frustration at the tendency of information and power to aggregate beyond the reach of democratic critique. As Greenwald pointed out, the relatively benign content of much of the WikiLeaks cables suggests that "the United States government, and all of its permanent national security state institutions, reflexively do virtually everything behind a shield of secrecy. Essentially, the presumption is that whatever the government does in our name is secret, when the presumption is supposed to be the opposite."
That some of the leaked secrets actually seem to support American interests shows how government can become captive to its own insular culture, and lose the wherewithal to shape public debate based on the facts. One might feel better about this if journalists could still convincingly carry out this function. However, journalistic access to official sources has become harder to come by than ever. Between 2006 and 2009, news room budgets were cut by $1.6 billion. Meanwhile, on the government side, between 1996 and 2009, the number of documents and other communications containing information labeled secret has risen 1,000 percent. We are at the mercy of PR, an industry that in the space of a decade has more than doubled.
In fact, the best evidence that traditional journalism may no longer be an effective watchdog is the unprecedented series of front page stories that even this relatively low-level, if voluminous, stash of cables produced: If journalists had the resources and access they needed, they might have broken some of these stories a long time ago. (As Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year, "How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It's disgraceful.")
Of course, the incrementalists have a point too, which is that WikiLeaks' radical tactics will only give rise to more secrecy, and that the establishment will simply slink deeper into the shadows. The already shrinking space in which journalists operate will contract even further, leaving more room for make-believe journalists like Glenn Beck.
Sure enough, less than one week after the most recent WikiLeaks dump, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) proposed legislation making it illegal to publish the names of informants serving the US military or intelligence agencies. For the journalist, the rules of the game are rarely so clearly manifest: Either be content with the crumbs that the political establishment flicks from the table, or be prepared to lose your access entirely. It's the same tension that limits the really disruptive questions in White House press briefings to interloping activists with nothing to lose. Really probing inquiry, ultimately, is about as welcome to the government as an anarchist at a GOP presidential convention.
We usually accept this just as we accept partisan gridlock and corporate lobbying: This is the way the system works. We take it for granted that very little can be done about it. Right up to the moment, that is, when someone plants himself, like the Tianamen Square tank man, squarely before the government juggernaut, and refuses to step aside. Then we're treated to an amazing spectacle: This is what it looks like when power squirms. When the US government warns its employees to steer their eyes away from the WikiLeaks documents even though they're on every front page and news site. When Sweden and Interpol, possibly in response to US pressure, pursue trumped up charges against the WikiLeaks founder. When Mike Huckabee calls for alleged leaker Bradley Manning's execution, Sarah Palin says Assange should be "hunted down," and Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) declares that WikiLeaks should be designated a terrorist organization.
For those of us struggling to interpret these events, the attacks on Assange suddenly shift the debate from the content of the cables to whether it was right for them to be released in the first place. By force of habit we tend to defer to the establishment, simply because there's no point in backing a loser, and so long as the establishment writes the rules of this game, the establishment can't ever lose.
But here's where a final distinction between the anarchist and WikiLeaks revolution reveals itself: Thanks to the internet, where more than 1,200 copies of the WikiLeaks site are currently mirrored, this revolution might actually succeed.
It was precisely this kind of revolution that the internet once promised. In the '90s, we thought it was going to change everything by ushering in a new age of democracy, of equality, of access. Instead, it became just another way to buy shoes. How gratifying, then, to see that promise renewed. And how tempting to finally be able to say: Screw Joe Lieberman.
Such is revolution's allure. When other, more gradual means fail, emotion takes over. Usually, this would seem to be a bad thing. Then again, if WikiLeaks is about to release a trove of documents about the American banking industry, whom among us isn't frustrated enough with Wall Street's hegemony, and the apparent powerlessness of our government to stop it, that we'd object? These days, even moderates may find anarchism tempting.