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Conspiracy as Governance

This entry was posted in Current conspiracy theories on 28 August 2013 by

I recently came across a 2006 essay by Julian Assange titled “Conspiracy as Governance” (extract here, fuller version here) and I thought it might be worth at least a brief comment as well as a link.

He writes that in authoritarian regimes conspiracy – or conspiratorial interaction among the political elite – is the primary way of maintaining state power. He uses examples from American politics, so he includes established democracies in this category.

He suggests (among other things) that communications technologies enable larger conspiratorial networks, “empower[ing] conspirators with new means to conspire, increasing the speed of accuracy of the their interactions and thereby the maximum size a conspiracy may achieve before it breaks down.”

This is interesting because it reverses the common assumption that in a networked world real conspiracies are harder to maintain, while conspiracy theories spread with greater speed.

There’s more of interest here – such as his comment on conspiracies as “cognitive devices” – but what caught my eye was that he seeks a way of thinking that is “strong enough to carry us through the mire of competing political moralities and into a position of clarity”.

In the search for “a position of clarity” and an escape from the “mire of competing political moralities”, he seems to want in effect to escape politics altogether. In this sentiment Assange exemplifies what Max Weber called an “ethic of conviction” with respect to transparency. Weber contrasted an “ethic of conviction” or “ethic of ultimate ends” to an “ethic of responsibility”, and writes of the ‘abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends – that is, in religious terms, “The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord” – and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action’ (Weber 1991: 120).

Against the absolute ethic of transparency we might contrast a blog post John passed on to me earlier today that discusses the role of journalism and argues for a responsible transparency.

“If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, they won’t succeed by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge.” And by greater legitimacy, they mean precisely the exercise of judgment in a way that echoes Weber (albeit faintly, for Weber was writing about statesmen and leaders, not newspaper editors). “Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential.”

When it comes to the role of journalism in the surveillance scandal: “Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique. It’s not enough that your story be right on the facts. Your thinking has to be right on the money.”

That is, not all secrecy is bad, and concepts of transparency won’t be much use if they are unable to give some plausible account of the difference.