There’s been lots of excitement about the Wikileaks revelations, and very earnest journalistic responses underlining the nobility of the endeavour (irrespective of the character of Julian Assange, its editor-in-chief, currently being investigated on sex charges). Simon Jenkins’s piece in the Guardian is typical. Not unrelated was the implication that FIFA officials accept bribes, made by ‘Panorama’ just before the vote to decide the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
One immediate response to these revelations from those in power is to attack the source of the information. Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief are immoral, even treasonous. Mike Huckabee, former US Presidential candidate, suggested that the mole should be executed, an advisor to the Canadian Prime Minister said that Obama should assassinate Assange with drones, and so on. The principle here is of course that Wikileaks has revealed sensitive information that will endanger the lives of civilians and service personnel in the US. The relative availability of these embassy leaks – a few million Americans already had security clearance to see them – is an important defence, but like the criticisms it misses the point.
As many people have noted, the Wikileaks revelations are not news. Some are gossip, some are more substantial, but there is nothing surprising in what has been revealed. What we need to bear in mind here is that we already effectively ‘knew’ all of this information. This fact is much more important than the Wikileaks themselves, the supposed nobility of the press, or any of the absurd right-wing responses to the leaked communications. We know already that the US thinks the British army ballsed up in Afghanistan, that Prince Andrew is an offensively stupid representative of our country, and so on. We also know perfectly well that professional sport is conducted for the profit of a few rich individuals and are not surprised when our Prime Minister and Prince William still put their back into the effort, thankfully fruitless, to secure the World Cup.
What we are seeing on display at the moment is not a game-changing explosion of democracy brought about by the magical new power of the internet and electronic communications. In structural terms, nothing has changed in our public life. We always knew about the venality of people at the top, and of the vacuousness of government interactions, and so on, and the airing of what we already know – through Wikileaks, on ‘Panorama’ – doesn’t make the slightest difference.
Psychologically, what is going on here is fetishistic disavowal, the constant companion of the function of ideology. We know very well that X is the case, yet we behave as if it is not. We know very well that international football is corrupt, yet nevertheless we still like to watch games, buy shirts, bid for and want to win World Cups, etc. We know very well that we’re governed by mentally negligible kleptocrats, yet nevertheless we proclaim our ongoing investment in the democratic system by eulogizing Wikileaks and its founder, and exciting ourselves with the thought that our democratic enfranchisement is growing greater by the day through this step change brought on by technology.
Nothing has been revealed: these open secrets are the lifeblood of ideology. Criticism of the system is sucked right back into it as a sign of its strength. When millions marched in London against the Iraq War, George W. Bush used the criticism as a defence of the war: this is what we’re fighting for, that Iraqis too can have the chance to protest in an open democracy, etc. In a similar way, we should think about why Banksy’s oh-so-liberal opening titles to a recent episode of ‘The Simpsons’, which demonstrate the link between the franchise and child labour in the far East, can be shown on Murdoch’s own Fox channel.
The answer is that it demonstrates that he’s not such a bad guy after all: see, I can take even the most obscene criticism like this on the chin; I might seem like a monstrosity but I’m really just your cuddly uncle Rupert.
Wikileaks and FIFA revelations, like all others, will be accommodated within the normal ideology of our public discourse. They already have been. ‘How lucky we are to live in such times, when Wikileaks and Panorama can exist. This is the best of all possible worlds.’ In such a fantastic state of denial, it seems that all we have to worry about is whether Assange really is a criminal or whether this is a politically motivated attack. We’re deluding ourselves.