Does WikiLeaks Matter?
La Trobe University’s Ideas and Society Program and ‘Thesis Eleven’ present a special symposium exploring the implications and ramifications of Wikileaks. What does it mean for journalism, for diplomacy, for governance? Chaired by La Trobe University’s Peter Beilharz, with Robert Manne, Peter Vale, Eleanor Townsley and Guy Rundle.
The session’s first speaker is Robert Manne, who discusses WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s cipherpunk origins and the gulf between his hopes for the project and the reality of the site’s emergence and reception. He addresses Assange’s earliest inspirations and aspirations for a model that would inspire a groundswell of public rebellion.
Manne also expands on the organisation’s increasingly fractious relationships with mainstream press institutions. This is due to “clashing egos” and “incompatible ambitions”, atrributable in part to Assange’s belief in what Manne calls “automaticity” in publishing material without context or analysis. Finally, he explains Assange’s shifting and nebulous ideas on legitimate secrecy and privacy.
Following Manne, Eleanor Townsley takes an institutional perspective, focusing on WikiLeaks' collaboration with newspapers - themselves acting together - to break the leaked US State Department cables. Townsley investigates the idea of a global public, and notes that the five outlets WikiLeaks worked with were all European language papers.
Third presenter Peter Vale argues that the WikiLeaks project has “undercut fundamentally” the understanding that America’s secrets are “our” secrets, and sees the organisation’s value in its challenge to the idea that the secretive, American-style modernity is an emancipatory project. Vale also criticises the left’s constant search for a “white man on a white horse to save us”, urging the audience to remember dissidents and activists from non-European origins.
Finally, Guy Rundle turns his attention to the complex, chaotic process behind the whistleblower website. He posits three ways in which WikiLeaks matters: through the issues it’s raised, the revitalisation of the progressive milieu that “suffered a series of tactical defeats and was to a degree confused about how to go forward”, and finally as a more general process reflecting the transformation of politics, the state and human society by the online revolution of the last two decades.
Rundle points out the lack of an active political counterculture as people become “more resigned to large power structures”. He talks about the effects of a leak: changing the ratio of information between those inside and outside the political process, and introducing mistrust within what Assange argues can be viewed as the “conspiratorial” machinations of governance and power.
Returning to his earlier point, Rundle again states that it’s WikiLeaks' resynthesisation of an active and direct political rebellion that makes Assange’s project so compelling - the fact that rather than merely registering dissent and outrage, he’s committed to changing the model. WikiLeaks, he continues, is “one way of doing something in an era in which the whole constellation of power, information and the state is changing as epochally as it did in the 17th century, when the modern state and political systems were born.”
Eleanor Townsley is a scholar in sociology and gender studies from Massachusetts.
Guy Rundle is UK correspondent for Crikey, and a frequent contributor to the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, among many others.
Robert Manne’s many books include Making Trouble and The Words That Made Australia (as co-editor). He is the author of three Quarterly Essays, In Denial, Sending Them Home and Bad News. He is a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at La Trobe University.
Peter Vale is a professor of politics and humanities whose interests lie in social thought in South Africa, critical theory, and the future of the humanities. His recent publications include the co-edited book Re-imagining the Social in South Africa: Critique and Post-Apartheid Knowledge.