Open the books - end state secrecy

Wikileaks tip of iceberg, writes James Turley

Once again Wikileaks - an internet site dedicated to publicising the suppressed documents of bourgeois society - has propelled itself onto the front pages by publishing an enormous batch of papers (over 90,000) on the war in Afghanistan, drawn from the US military’s own logs of events in the country.

The revelations, such as they are, represent confirmation of facts that anti-war activists at least very strongly suspected - that the extent of civilian casualties is far worse than the Americans are letting on, that Iran and Pakistan are very likely involved in the whole mess, and so forth.

Wikileaks is admirable for its balls, if for nothing else. The Afghan war logs come a few months after its leak of US military video recordings of a massacre of civilians, including two Reuters staffers, in Baghdad in 2007. The Pentagon had hoped to bury the event with an ‘informal’ investigation. Last year, British society was abuzz with the news that the British National Party’s membership list had been leaked - Wikileaks again. It has even managed the honour of provoking an (unsuccessful) lawsuit filed by Carter-Ruck, Britain’s most thuggish libel lawyers - a must for any self-respecting free information crusader, it seems.

This is an investigative journalism project at its core, but it is clearly one that even 15 years ago would have been more or less impossible. This is partly a technological question, of course - the explosion of internet and other communication technology in recent years provides part of the basis. Elsewhere, the use of social media to spread information has received wide prominence - and without shaky mobile phone camera footage, Ian Tomlinson’s death might already be forgotten.

There is also the sedimented history of the battle for control of information, a single front in the war for democracy. One of the most marked tendencies of capitalism is its ever-increasing verbosity. Everything has to be measured and rationalised - from the progress of schoolchildren to the extermination of Jews at Treblinka, all social activity leaves behind it an enormous paper trail.

As a result, there is a huge glut of information, a great deal of it ‘sensitive’, whether for economic (eg, trade secrets) or political (eg, the recent MPs’ expenses row) reasons. Information and ideas are not in and of themselves compatible with commodity exchange. An idea, once it exists, can be copied as many times as there are things to copy it into. In Marxian terms (one could just as easily use ‘neo-classical’ economics here, however), the value embodied in the idea is spread throughout all its instantiations in the world - since in principle there can be infinite copies, the natural value of an idea is near zero. The same goes for memos, design blueprints, musical recordings and everything else that can be cheaply copied.

The only way to ensure ownership of information is through repression - thus the development of a whole other bureaucratic apparatus to control access to this information. In Britain alone, this includes intellectual property laws, libel laws (and, more importantly perhaps, libel lawyers), as well as the government itself (which can still spike any newspaper article by issuing a DA notice - among other things) and many other tentacles besides.

And for good reason: knowledge, a well-worn truism has it, is power, and the transformation of information into property is a major buttress for capitalist production. Just as inevitably, there is ongoing guerrilla resistance to this apparatus by people who wish to break the capitalist state’s grip on information.

The operators of Wikileaks have been paying attention to this struggle. They use every trick in the book - setting up in countries with less repressive laws (Sweden has the honour at present), widespread ‘mirroring’ (that is, creating copies of the website in case it falls foul of a government ruling), strict commitments to the anonymity of sources and skilful use of the mainstream media.

The Afghan war diaries, for instance, were leaked to The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel - three established and well-connected media outlets, all (in the age of the decline of print media) itching for the scoop. The word ‘Wikileaks’, naturally, was plastered all over the resultant press coverage; the topical nature of the revelations ensured that other outlets followed suit, and before long more or less everybody knew that - if they wanted - they could read all this stuff themselves on the internet.

Those who argue that we are looking at a steady transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ media, however, are misguided. Most internet traffic is commanded by ‘traditional’ outlets - in Britain, both The Guardian and the BBC have widely used and influential websites (the BBC’s competitors have occasionally complained that the use of the licence fee to maintain such a quality website amounts to being ‘anti-competitive’).

In this particular case, it is important to emphasise that Wikileaks relied on their chosen media organisations to a considerable extent. Simply putting the material online would have been something, but without the resources of a mainstream publication detailed verification would have been difficult, as would publicising the find. More generally, this is a position of weakness - what if something is leaked that is too sensitive for The Guardian to pick up? It is, after all, funded by advertising subsidies in proportion to the decline of its paper readership, and it cannot afford to scare the horses. No, capitalist society cannot hide all its malfeasances - but it never could, and it still manages to hide most of them sufficiently.

When mundane economic coercion fails, state repression is never far behind. This week, the United Arab Emirates announced the suspension of many services available to the users of Blackberry mobile phones, including an encrypted instant messager, for supposed ‘national security’ reasons - the phone’s manufacturer is also under pressure from the Indian, Saudi and Kuwaiti governments to allow for the monitoring and censorship of the internet and IM features. Ongoing tussles over Google’s cooperation with Chinese state censorship and online copyright infringement should serve as a warning to those who believe the internet is immune to state control.

Most importantly of all, Wikileaks is dependent on ... well, leaks. When some anonymous citizen posts them a video or a sheaf of classified documents, their job begins - but this way of working is necessarily piecemeal, and we will only ever get glimpses behind the curtain. The Afghan diaries are telling, but they are no Pentagon papers, and only the lower levels of US military clearance have been breached - the higher up the chain of command, the less likely any leaks.

In fact, the fight for freedom of information is an eminently political question. It is perhaps best known on the left in its formulation in Trotsky’s Transitional programme - “open the books”:

“Workers no less than capitalists have the right to know the ‘secrets’ of the factory, of the trust, of the whole branch of industry, of the national economy as a whole ... The immediate tasks of workers’ control should be to explain the debits and credits of society, beginning with individual business undertakings; to determine the actual share of the national income appropriated by individual capitalists and by the exploiters as a whole; to expose the behind-the-scenes deals and swindles of banks and trusts; finally, to reveal to all members of society that unconscionable squandering of human labour which is the result of capitalist anarchy and the naked pursuit of profits.”[1]

Absolutely correct; but Trotsky is guilty of a sin of omission. The working class is not only to take control of the economy, but of the state. Just as business secrets are a form of capitalist control over production, state secrets are a form of capitalist control over politics. The central, overriding aim of the revolution is to overthrow that control, and take state power into the hands of the working class, as a prerequisite to the substantial transformation of capitalist into socialist production.

The consequence is unavoidable - Marxists must fight for the state to ‘open the books’ just as much as the individual capitalist firm. Just as the abolition of ‘business secrets’ is a major goal for control of the workplace, the fight against official secrets is an elementary aspect of the struggle for democracy. The ostentatious scoops of Wikileaks make for illuminating reading, to be sure - but the battle remains to be won for the principle that we should be able to monitor the wheeler-dealing of the state.


  1. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm