Slavoj Zizek, "Why Julian Assange is such an unpopular cause"
He compels us to publicly assume the knowledge we prefer to ignorant.
The British High Court ruled n Friday that Julian Assange can be extradited from the UK to the US. The US thus won its appeal against a January UK court ruling that he could not be extradited due to concerns over his mental health.
This latest twist in the endless Assange saga is just the culmination of the long and slow well-orchestrated campaign of character assassination that reached the lowest level imaginable with unverified rumors that Ecuadorians in their London embassy wanted to get rid of him because of his bad smell and dirty clothes.
In the first stage of the attacks on Assange, his ex-friends and collaborators went public with the claims that Wikileaks began well, but then got bogged down in Assange’s political bias (his anti-Hillary obsession, his suspicious ties with Russia…). More direct personal defamations followed: he is paranoid and arrogant, obsessed with power and control… Then we reached the bodily smells and stains. Yet the only thing that really reeks in this saga are some mainstream feminists who refuse any solidarity with Assange under the motto “no help to rapists.”
Is Assange a paranoiac? When you live permanently in an apartment that is bugged from above and below, and are the victim of constant surveillance organized by secret services, who wouldn’t be?
Is Assange a megalomaniac? When the (now former) CIA boss says your arrest is his priority, does not this imply that you are a “big” threat to some, at least?
Did Assange behave like the head of a spy organization? Well, Wikileaks is a spy organization, albeit one that serves the people, keeping them informed on what goes on behind the scenes.
So why is Assange such a trauma for the establishment? From whence does the ridiculously excessive desire for revenge stem from?
Assange and his colleagues like Edward Snowden are often accused of being traitors, but they are actually something much worse in the eyes of the authorities. As I wrote in 2014:
We are dealing with a gesture which questions the very logic, the very status quo, which for quite some time serves as the only foundation of all “Western” (non)politics. With a gesture which as it were risks everything, with no consideration of profit and without its own stakes: it takes the risk because it is based on the conclusion that what is going on is simply wrong.
Assange ironically designated himself a “spy for the people.” “Spying for the people” is not a direct negation of spying (which would rather be acting as a double agent, selling our secrets to the enemy). It undermines the very universal principles of spying and secrecy, since its goal is to make secrets public. But there is a deeper reason Assange causes such unease: he made it clear that the most dangerous threat to freedom does not come from an openly authoritarian power; it comes when our unfreedom itself is experienced as freedom.
How? At first, few things seem more “free” than browsing on the web, searching for the topics we like. But most of our activities — and passivities — are now registered in some digital cloud that permanently evaluates us, tracing not only our acts but our emotional states. The digital network gives new meaning to the old slogan “the personal is political.” And it’s not just control of our intimate lives that is at stake: everything is regulated by some digital network, from transport to health, from electricity to water. That’s why the web is our most important commons, and the struggle for its control is THE struggle of today. The enemy is the combination of corporations such as Google and Facebook and state security agencies such as the NSA.
Let’s take the case of Bill Gates. How did he become one of the richest men in the world? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of what Microsoft is selling — you can even argue that Microsoft is paying its intellectual workers a relatively high salary. Gates’ wealth is not the result of his success in producing good software for lower prices than his competitors, or in more exploitation of his hired intellectual workers.
Why, then, are millions still buying Microsoft? Because Microsoft imposed itself as an almost universal standard, (almost) monopolizing the field. In this, it’s similar to Jeff Bezos and Amazon, Apple, Facebook, etc. In all these cases, the commons themselves are privatized. This puts us, their users, into the position of serfs paying a tithe to the owner of a commons, a feudal master.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently told British MPs that Mark Zuckerberg “has unilateral control over three billion people.” The big achievement of modernity, the public space, is thus disappearing. Days after the Haugen revelations, Zuckerberg announced that his company would change its name from “Facebook” to “Meta,” and outlined his vision of “metaverse” in a speech that is a true neo-feudal manifesto.
As CUNY Queens College’s Douglas Rushkoff puts it:Zuckerberg wants the metaverse to ultimately encompass the rest of our reality — connecting bits of real space here to real space there, while totally subsuming what we think of as the real world. In the virtual and augmented future Facebook has planned for us, it’s not that Zuckerberg’s simulations will rise to the level of reality, it’s that our behaviors and interactions will become so standardized and mechanical that it won’t even matter.The metaverse will act as a virtual space beyond our fractured and hurtful reality, in which we will smoothly interact through our avatars, with elements of augmented reality. It will thus be nothing less than metaphysics actualized, fully subsuming reality, which will be allowed to enter only in fragments and only insofar as they will be overlaid by digital guidelines manipulating our perception and intervention. The catch is that we will get a commons that is privately owned, with a private feudal lord overseeing and regulating our interaction.
But that’s not all: the threat to our freedom disclosed by whistleblowers has even further systemic roots. Assange should be defended not only because his acts annoyed and embarrassed the US secret services. What he revealed is something that not only the US but also all other great (and not so great) powers are doing, to the extent they are technologically able to do it. His acts provided a factual foundation to our premonitions of how much we are all monitored and controlled. Their lesson is global, reaching far beyond the standard America-bashing.
We didn’t really learn from Assange (or Snowden or Manning) anything we didn’t already presume to be true — but it is one thing to know it in general, and another to get concrete proof. It’s a bit like discovering that a spouse you’ve long distrusted is cheating on you. You can accept the abstract knowledge of it, but pain arises when you learn the steamy details, when you get pictures of what they were doing.
The true target of Assange’s revelations is average hypocritical liberals who are aware of what state apparatuses and big companies do discreetly but prefer to ignore it. Publicly, we protest, at least from time to time, but silently we know that somebody must do the dirty job.
Assange blocks this way out. He compels us to publicly assume the knowledge we prefer to ignore. In this sense, he is fighting for us, against our complacency. This complacency explains why there is no large movement in support of Assange, why very few “big names” (like movie stars, writers or journalists) are ready to offer their support, enabling those in power to ignore us.