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What’s new about WikiLeaks?

We shouldn’t be surprised by the war on WikiLeaks. The elite have always loathed the radical press,

Once, at the time of a major popular upheaval, elites on different sides of the political divide feared the general population more than each other. The rising merchant classes may have opposed the more traditional, aristocratic nobility, but both sides feared the radical publishers who were stirring up the people past a point of no return. As one writer put it:

They have cast all the Mysteries and secrets of Government, both by Kings and Parliaments, before the vulgar (like Pearl before Swine), and have taught both the Souldiery and People to look so far into them as to ravel back all Governments, to the first principles of nature. They have made the People thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.

Although these words could easily describe the situation today in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, they were in fact written in 1661, by a man called Clement Walker, about popular radicalism at the time of the English civil war in the 1640s.

This was a crucial time in the history of publishing - and the history of governments' attempts to control what the people could read. Printing presses, invented two centuries earlier, were becoming more accessible, and the first newspapers were appearing throughout western Europe as a result of the creation of a postal system. Today's maxim, "technology drives dis­tribution", has long antecedents.

During the civil war, the established printers and booksellers were not the only ones who published newspapers: craftsmen from less exalted trades published their own. For four years in the 1640s, a tailor named John Dillingham published the Moderate Intelligencer, reporting on developments in the civil war. (His attempt to report soberly on the conflict soon brought him into conflict with Gilbert Mabbot, official licenser of the press, who tried to replace the Intelligencer with something more overtly supportive of Oliver Cromwell.)

Pamphlets, manuscripts and other smaller newsletters also appeared regularly, all reflecting the concerns of their authors. Little wonder that there was such concern among the elite that the people were becoming, as Walker put it, "so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit".

Today, as a small organisation, WikiLeaks is firmly in the tradition of those radical publishers who tried to lay "all the Mysteries and secrets of Government" before the public. For reasons of realpolitik, we have worked with some of the largest media groups, but we have also broadened our base to more than 50 regional publishers, activist groups and charities, giving them early access to hundreds - or, in some cases, thousands - of documents relevant to their countries or causes.

WikiLeaks also remains true to the ideals of the popular newspapers that flourished in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.In Ruthless Criticism, a well-regarded dissection of the US fourth estate, the historian Jon Bekken finds that there were once "hundreds of newspapers in dozens of languages, ranging from local and regional dailies issued by working-class political organisations and mutual aid societies to national union weeklies and monthlies".

These newspapers not only reported the news but also offered, as Bekken puts it, "a venue where readers could debate political, economic and cultural issues. Readers could follow the activities of working-class institutions in every field and could be mobilised to support efforts to transform economic and political conditions."

While the blogosphere is now rightly seen as reflecting the diversity of popular concerns, the idea of a truly representative media goes back to these labour traditions. For example, in 1920, a number of editors in the United States established the Federated Press, a co-operative news-gathering service that sought to counter the biases of the mainstream press. The service ran until the 1940s, supplying roughly 150 publications.
The labour movement's own press was, in its time, extremely popular; even before the First World War, its newspapers enjoyed a circulation of more than two million copies in the US. The Appeal to Reason, the largest left-wing journal, enjoyed a weekly circulation of three-quarters of a million.

But as conflict in Europe grew closer, there were co-ordinated attempts by the establishment to bring these publications to heel; in the US, the Espionage Act of 1917 made it an offence to argue peacefully against the war effort. One early victim was Eugene Debs, the American Socialist Party and labour leader, who was convicted in 1918 of making a pacifist speech and sentenced to ten years in prison.

The New York Times, true to form, had been calling for his imprisonment for more than two decades, saying in an editorial of 9 July 1894 that Debs was "a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race. There has been quite enough talk about warrants against him and about arresting him".
The paper added: "It is time to cease mouthings and begin. Debs should be jailed, if there are jails in his neighborhood, and the disorder his bad teaching has engendered must be squelched . . . it is well to remember that no friends of the Government of the United States are ever killed by its soldiers - only its enemies."

Seen within this historical perspective, the New York Times's performance in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and its hostile attitude to WikiLeaks today, are not surprising.As well as the hostility of governments, popular grass-roots publishers have had to face the realities of advertising as a source of revenue. According to the analyst James Curran, the Daily Herald, a British newspaper of the early 20th century, had nearly twice the readership of the Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined. It was forced to close in 1964, however, despite being among the 20 largest-circulation dailies in the world, because its largely working-class readers did not constitute a lucrative advertising market.
The liberal News Chronicle was another casualty of advertising shortfalls, closing in 1960 - when it was absorbed into the right-wing Daily Mail - despite having a circulation more than six times larger than the Guardian's.

Of course, WikiLeaks does not have this reliance on advertisers. Rather, we face a dif­ferent financial problem as a publication: how do we deal with an extrajudicial financial blockade by Bank of America, Visa (including Visa Europe, registered in London), MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, the Swiss PostFinance, Moneybookers and other finance companies, all keen to curry favour with Washington?

In the long view of history, WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay "all the mysteries and secrets of government" before the public. We are, in a sense, a pure expres-sion of what the media should be: an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine.

Julian Assange is editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain