Yesterday was the day when the trials of Julian Assange, and possibly WikiLeaks, became something of a circus.
It’s a pretty dark circus, and it doesn’t mean that WikiLeaks’s historic role is over. Far from it. But amidst the klieg lights and celebs at Westminster Court today, the Serco security vans backing in, the phalanxes of lawyers piling through, it was clear that something unfortunate was happening: WikiLeaks in its personage of Julian Assange, was by force of circumstance, and then of desire, fusing with a clubby celebrity culture, breeding a new counter-elite.
Hard to say when one first noticed it. Was it the two dozen crews setting up in the 7am dark, the stepladders and tripods sprouting from the pavements, shining beneath the sodium lights? Was it the blood-under-the-fingernails fight to get a place in the queue by journalists — the Anglo-Americans standing around looking diffident, the east Europeans lying and bribing the guards with tins of meat paste?
Was it the hush when Christine Assange, tall, sun kissed, tousled hair and aquiline features, made her way through the crowd with her minders and disappeared into the court? Or when Geoffrey Robertson strode through the crowd, all ebullient smile, to enter the court, met with a locked door and thumped at it with a sheaf of papers in his hand, a pinstripe Luther, revelling in the wry humour?
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God knows. But the project that maths student Julian Assange started in the Melb Uni maths students common room five years ago has become a phenomenon drawing the London lefterati into its orbit. You’d no sooner noted John Pilger talking to Thai television next to the vending machine than Bianca Jagger swept by. Black-haired, shrunken, dark-glassed eyes, looking more like Yoko Ono every day, she swept past. God she was a beauty once. She rode a horse into Club 54. Naked? Can’t remember. Christine Assange rode a horse naked down the streets of Townsville to protest the Vietnam War. Christine looks like Julian’s older sister. Bianca looks like Mick’s grandmother. I don’t make the rules.
As Assange notes in a recent documentary on SVT, you’re unlikely to see it on ABC because it assumes the viewer can watch a documentary without having a “single character” “going on a journey” to identify with — the genuinely early WikiLeaks was in the wiki mode: that documents could be leaked, circulated and mass distributed for analysis as a way of crowdsourcing alternative interpretation. That didn’t happen, so he/they tried mode two: mass document dumps, led out to professional interpreters such as The Guardian and New York Times, and led back to the mass archive.
That moved away from the WikiLeaks idea — one that had, by 2007-8, drawn in a global network of people, including Germany’s Chaos Computer Club, original social hackers — towards an increasingly central and organised model. There’s nothing contradictory about this: Assange had argued that the WikiLeaks idea was that the mass release of documents would force a change in power relations in corrupted conspiracies; it was not an argument against organisation, boundaries, hierarchies per se.
The move to a more central model has had abundant success. It was the return to a centralised organisation, and a focused intervention that took the disparate strands of the left, anti-capitalist movement etc beyond the impasse of decentralised organisation which had run into the sand. I’m currently having a debate of sorts with someone who is trying to shoehorn the WikiLeaks phenomenon into the early, hippie stage of the internet.
“Forget Aristotle, think Bateson,” he chides me, when talking about modes of organisation.
This flies in the face of all evidence — WikiLeaks in its current iteration is not only the most Aristotelian project of recent times, it’s practically Leninist. It is the return of the best — and probably the worst — of old party structures, which enable a small group of people working together to make an impact far above their actual numbers. The “multisourced crowd cloud post-cause” thingy are the new old, silently being passed by. Send In The Clouds.
Assange’s favourite book is Cancer Ward, which he first read while fighting against “The Family” cult to get his half-brother back. Cancer Ward is an epic about the degeneration of a revolutionary era, but it only works because it contains its opposite — it is also a manual of how to make Leninism work, of how to make it pure. It’s the shadow text of the work, which is why Solzhenitsyn went from being a fervent Communist, via the gulag, to being a lunatic orthodox anti-Semite theocrat. WHERE THE FUCK WAS I?
When you set up that sort of structure, whether from clear reasons or ego-need or both, you’ve got to have a lot of reflexivity to remind yourself what it is all about, what it is all for. You will be surprised to learn that the hackers that constitute the WikiLeaks shadow world are not wholly possessed of that sense. Look across the WikiLeaks terrain and you’ll find a mixture of dynamic effectiveness and a bipolar halo effect, in which online activism will immediately solve all the problems we have grappled with since the beginning of agriculture since the rise of the city-state.
When this group met lawyers, well it was all fucked really. The WikiLeaks III iteration (the ultra conspiratorial model that eventually persuaded its collaborators to jump out and start the new site Openleaks) plugged into the whole celeb thing in a way familiar to any activist who has been briefly seduced by sudden fame. Today, that’s part of the training. You get through it and over it, and get effective once again.
aWikiLeaks is lucky that it has Kristinn Hrafnnson, a 50-year-old Icelandic artist who has an air of calm good judgement about him. The rest are enjoying the swish of fame. Swish, we’re getting out of the taxi. Swish we’re going into court. If WikiLeaks isn’t careful it will finally ascend to the status of Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
That is all the more so when you consider Assange’s bail conditions — wearing an electronic bracelet, living at Vaughan Smith’s Georgian mansion Ellingham Hall, traipsing around amid the servants and the portraits. This isn’t politics. This is Tommy, and let me tell you Christine makes a good Anne Margaret. And if Assange is now ascending into some blurzarre suffolkfornication, well the end of the trial was like the last scene of O Lucky Man!
If you think this job is fun try standing in front of Hanif Kureishi with a pad taking notes as that third rate Hampstead miniaturist dictates tells you “at last you’ve got an Australian that’s done something” (yes, and The Slap — for all its faults — is the novel you never had the energy to write). He did however give a good quote “the moral of this story is if you’re going to Sweden don’t have swx”. Like all Kureishi it was good but not that good.
Kureishi, Pilger, Jemima Khan arrggghhh — no-one in the WikiLeaks core has reached out a hand to the many people who would actually like to politically support this project and the result is a decadent establishment clusterfuck — which continues to be hugely effective as an intervention. The most genuinely popular WikiLeaks support movement is in Oz because it’s furthest away from Assange’s effect. Here, its truthers — and not very well organised ones either — are glad handing outside court one.
Maybe WikiLeaks can be saved from the temptations of the Swiss. I hope so. But it will need some of the original collective and mass spirit to temper the predilections of its singular and unquestionably brilliant founder.