The Technorevolutionaries

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Some comments I wrote on the Wired State blog, in a discussion of Edward Snowden, Sarah Harrison and WikiLeaks:


… I wonder what it is one might be looking for amid all this intrigue, these wheels within wheels? Back in the Soviet era there was clarity in most of the Kremlin’s strategies: it was a power game, played mainly with the United States, with stocks of real weaponry on both sides, and the real prospect of the game turning nasty – after all, nuclear war was just around the corner in 1962 and 1983. Nowadays, however, one has the sense of watching an almost surreal parody of the old power struggle: the postmodernist propaganda pumped out by RT may be flashy, grotesque and fun to watch, but it has nothing like the sinister and soul-crushing presence of the anti-Western stuff that churned from Moscow in endless volumes across the airwaves during the Cold War.

Looking at Russia and the West in the context of Snowden and the WikiLeaks scandal it’s not clear what we are witnessing: is it just that a generation of young and relatively young folk in the West have developed a strain of nihilism that caused them to turn against their own heritage of relative freedom in the name of a suddenly-conceived dislike of national security? Did some diehard retro Kremlin stooges decide to take advantage of this, out of boredom, resentment and bile? Or are we genuinely seeing a replay and revival of the Cold War in modern dress? What could have induced a nice young American man like Edward Snowden to re-enact the role of Cold War NSA defector, or a nice young Englishwoman like Sarah Harrison to resurrect the somber memories of 1951?

Perhaps there are unresolved questions of education and social psychology at work here, and until these essentially domestic, home-centered issues are examined and analysed, the true political dimension of what appears to be a spontaneous protest hijacked by some ex-KGB pros will remain obscure. The children are acting out a drama based on the political past of their parents and grandparents, but the plot of the drama is confused, and so far the characterization is at best sentimental and shallowly defined.

One difficulty with the “Cold War isn’t over” argument is that it immediately brings anyone trying to promote it into contact with people whose motivations and world view are often far from balanced – all the way from those who push the conspiracies associated with the Mitrokhin Archive to one or two comparatively respectable international commentators and journalists on the right – and sometimes the left – of European and American politics. The real, authentic Cold War had a presence and an atmosphere that was irreversibly fixed in the historical ambience of the twentieth century, with a peculiar, unique quality that can’t be repeated, any more than the unique socio-political ambience of the Soviet Union can be repeated now. Those who say without metaphor, as if it were an established fact, that the Cold War never ended, or the Soviet Union never went away, are talking from a position of unreality which deprives their otherwise often plausible arguments of the support they need. The world has changed, and the political processes and the actors that drive them have changed with it. To deny this is to drift off into a mode of thinking about the past and present of global politics that is unhistorical, and therefore likely to be fruitless.

Where the WikiLeaks scandal and the leadership of Julian Assange are concerned, it’s often noted that both the movement and its leader style themselves as “anarchist”, whereas in fact – as you point out – the techniques and ideas they employ have much more in common with those of Leninism and early Bolshevism than with any recognizably anarchist instruction book. Perhaps it’s not going too far to move the Cold War analogy out of the way and gaze further back into twentieth-century Russian history. In the period immediately preceding and following the October Revolution of 1917 there was a similar blurring of the lines between the different revolutionary movements, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Anarchists and Social Revolutionaries. In looking at the contemporary techno-revolutionary phenomena it may make more sense to view them in an analogy with the era of 1917 – not as an exact copy or a continuation of that era, but as manifestations of the “revolutionary pragmatism” that Lenin advocated: a practical and technical agenda and strategy for radical international social and political upheaval, in which the overthrowers of the established order become the guardians and rulers of the world that is to replace it.

For that is what is really so disturbing about the technolibertarians and technocommunists, the Assanges, Snowdens, Greenwalds, Appelbaums and others who seek to destroy the governmental,security,informational and social structures of the Western state. What they all share is a desire to dominate – on the successful completion of the revolution to fill the empty seats of power themselves, and to impose their own intolerant notions of social and political justice. Given the choices and rejections of those who hold them, those notions appear to derive more from the authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies of countries like Russia, Iran and China than they do from the “distillation of Australian cultural values…[the] distillation of American cultural values” and “the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution” that is claimed by Assange.

And maybe that is what Obama needs to be focusing on right now.

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