Commentary on Bruce Sterling’s “The Blast Shack”, Part II
“Diplomats are people who speak from nation to nation. They personify nations, and nations are brutal, savage, feral entities. Diplomats used to have something in the way of an international community, until the Americans decided to unilaterally abandon that in pursuit of Bradley Manning’s oil war. Now nations are so badly off that they can’t even get it together to coherently tackle heroin, hydrogen bombs, global warming and financial collapse. Not to mention the Internet.
The world has lousy diplomacy now. It’s dysfunctional. The world corps diplomatique are weak, really weak, and the US diplomatic corps, which used to be the senior and best-engineered outfit there, is rattling around bottled-up in blast-proofed bunkers. It’s scary how weak and useless they are.” — Bruce Sterling, “The Blast Shack”
Just as diplomats personify nations, Assange personifies the global internet. In Sterling’s terms, to quote again, “If the Internet was walking around in public, it would look and act a lot like Julian Assange.” Again, if it was possible in older terms “to read someone like a book”, this isn’t possible in regards to Assange. It’s an inept metaphor for, and approach to, what Assange is. Assange is a kind of avatar of the global internet. A linearly encoded perceptual system cannot “read” the non-linear like a book, “literally”, as we say (and that word “literally”, with its bookish tinge, is quite revealing of our notions of truth in itself or what is “literally the case”). For that reason, Sterling’s characterisation of Assange rings true: “He’s just what he is; he’s something we don’t yet have words for.” He doesn’t fit the modern profile. He doesn’t speak the language of Gutenberg Man. He can’t be taken literally, so to speak.
But Sterling himself has at least one word to describe Assange — “post-national”. And, as mentioned previously, the only determinant meaning to lend to the term”post-national” is “global” or “planetary”. Assange isn’t the first “post-national” life-form to emerge in post-modernity, however. As also mentioned earlier, Pico Iyer once wrote a semi-autobiographical account of The Global Soul, although Iyer’s semi-autobiography is also tinged with melancholy, malaise, and a sense of homelessness (which reminds me that I should read it again because I’m feeling all those things today). To suggest, as Sterling does, that Assange is an avatar of the global internet is to suggest that he represents something not just transnational, but also impersonal and archetypal — something like a force of nature and an event that had to occur. Sterling is also correct to conclude that the logic of events has been building inexorably towards just this probability for some time now. If it wasn’t in the form of Julian Assange, it would have been someone or something else.
The modern nation-state system was collapsing long before Assange appeared on the scene, though. The porousness of borders and the erosion of sovereignty was not just a consequence of technology, but also of decisions made by voters and state actors themselves — neo-liberalism and free trade, for example. Long before Assange, the language had already shifted from using sovereign terms like “nations” to speaking of “economies” as the preferred descriptive term for the international system. The nation-state was becoming increasingly irrelevant in the process of globalisation. But where “economies” interact rather than states, it is the transnational corporation that becomes the dominant institution.
The nation-state, as such, has been leaking power and sovereignty for much longer than before Wikileaks appeared on the scene. That leakage has been described in other terms such as “de-industrialisation”, for example, and in the sacrifice of national sovereignty to global finance (until it gets in trouble, then global finance runs to Mommy or the Nanny State). “Money knows no borders”, a director of IBM once candidly stated. The nation-state has been leaking capital, sovereignty, and technical knowledge for much longer than before Assange and Wikileaks appeared. It did this to itself, not because of Assange. This is the weak element in Sterling’s otherwise interesting piece on the matter.
If the nation-state system and the corps diplomatique is now “weak” and “dysfunctional”, this has nothing to do with Assange. As Assange himself has correctly noted, he has simply become a lightning rod and a scapegoat for all that is now weak and dysfunctional about the contemporary nation-state system itself. The erosion of sovereignty and the illusion of consolingly secure borders was a decision made by those very same nation-states and their populations. In that sense, Sterling’s “cake” analogy as it pertains to the global internet is not exactly the full story,
“Unfortunately for the US State Department, they clearly shouldn’t have been messing with computers, either. In setting up their SIPRnet, they were trying to grab the advantages of rapid, silo-free, networked communication while preserving the hierarchical proprieties of official confidentiality. That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working. And that failure has a face now, and that’s Julian Assange.”
The “big modern problem” was actually a self-destruct button that “the international community” inadvertently pressed when it opted for the neo-liberal delusion of free markets and free trade and for shrinking national sovereignty. It was like a case of self-mutilation. Even Adam Smith was aware that this was an impossible contradiction, and in the sense Sterling uses: “trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it”. But it doesn’t have the face of Julian Assange. It has the face of everyone who opted to sacrifice national sovereignty for the sake of getting ever bigger chunks of the cake — the rational pursuit of self-interest become the irrational pursuit of self-destruction. I see it every day. The self-destruct button was clearly marked “Greed”. In a lot of cases, it has the face you see in the mirror every morning.
In other words, we are talking about the karmic law of action and reaction — of blowback, unintended consequence, revenge effect, or perverse outcome. Assange is not cause, but effect. WikiLeaks is much like a wolf following the herd and picking off the decrepit and the diseased as they lag and fall behind. It’s in the ecology of things. The so-called “international community”, however, did this to themselves first. They leaked sovereignty all over the place like someone deliberately slashing their own wrists in a warm bathtub. But now they want to blame someone else for what was only the inevitable consequence and fateful logical outcome of their own decisions and actions.
So, of course Julian Assange and Bradley Manning will be martyred because everyone now needs someone to blame. No one wants to take responsibility for the consequences of decisions they themselves made or for policies they supported or promoted. That’s the essential nature of Late Modern hypocrisy and duplicity.
And, boy, is it rampant and epidemic today.
Right off the scale….