Our modern-day Prometheus

April 21, 2019

How will the Empire change after Julian Assange’s arrest? Will it seek to update its privacy settings or will it allow access to information that governs its subjects?

Our modern-day Prometheus

Julian Assange is our modern-day Prometheus. We are all familiar with the story of Prometheus. He stole the secret of fire from the gods and shared it with mortal human beings. Outraged by the theft, the gods decided to punish Prometheus for stealing their secret. As a result, Prometheus was tied to a rock and an eagle would dig at his flesh and eat his liver all day. The liver would grow back at night, and in the morning the same eagle would turn up to eat his liver again.

Now our Assange, a Promethean figure, is in the custody of the Empire after seven years of asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. As the Ecuadorian Lenin President Moreno withdrew Assange’s asylum, the British police dragged the pale bearded WikiLeaks founder out of the Ecuadorian embassy.

The Empire is all set to punish Assange for his ‘crime’ of exposing the secrets of the powerful to ordinary citizens.

If everything goes as the USA has planned, Assange is likely to end up in the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility known for 23-hour confinement of its prisoners in small cells. The prison just allows a one-hour daily walk to its prisoners. The same prison also holds al-Qaeda members, Russian spies and notorious lone wolves who carried out bombings and killings in America. The only "superpower" is likely to hold Assange in extended solitary confinement and isolate him for the rest of his life.

In his book, The WikiLeaks File: The World According to US Empire, Assange draws out the evolution of the structure of the Empire. He discusses how the traditional empires codified their laws in stone tablets but enforced them through ancient modes of communication like orality, speeches and the delicate papyrus for distant travelling. However, "in the 1950s the students of these historical empires realised that somehow the communications medium was the empire." As the modern empire began to store, index, and communicate information through computers, it also started to determine who had access to this information.

Assange’s politics and actions make state communications transparent and accessible to the people. In the age of information, the state proclaims to be a liberal democratic institution while expanding its soft-totalitarian power by controlling the flow of information. The right to access the classified data is an essential step towards making the state accountable to the people. Assange extends the same politics towards the Empire -- the power that controls the global knowledge production, cultural production, and economic means -- all of which contribute towards ensuring the hegemony of the Empire.

Assange, after realising the core constituent of the Empire -- the communication medium -- attacked it by leaking thousands of classified documents to the public. He challenged the Empire’s decision to determine who can or cannot access state secrets. He released the information to the public who, he believes, has the right to know about the powers that are pretending to be its representative.

The USA Patriot Act gives the US government the right to collect information about the people but the people cannot access the information collected about them.

The idea of democratising information by making it open to public and making governments answerable is further explored in his book When Google Met Wikileaks, which chronicles the meeting between Eric Schmidt, the tech giant’s CEO, and Assange in Norfolk, a rural dwelling in the outskirts of London. Assange was under house arrest at the time. The book explores the State Department-Google nexus.

Assange is explicit about his disdain for Schmidt, whom he found bereft of any nuanced understanding of politics. Schmidt met him with an important representative of the state department. Both discussed the politics of information sharing. Assange believed that the governing powers should be held accountable, while Schmidt advocated strengthening the Empire to retain law and order and promote liberal and democratic ideals in the world.

About this meeting, Assange writes: "I realised that Eric Schmidt might not have been an emissary of Google alone. The delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment." He further writes that when he "asked Eric Schmidt to leak US government information requests to WikiLeaks, he refused, suddenly nervous, citing the illegality of disclosing Patriot Act requests."

Patriot Act request and information is a controversial resolution which was passed in the United States in 2005 and its section 215 "allows the government to secretly request and obtain library records for large number of individuals without any reason to believe they are involved in illegal activity." The USA Patriot Act gives the US government the right to collect information about the people but the people cannot access the information collected about them.

However, Assange’s politics of transparency came under fire. Robert L. Glass, in his review of Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography, a biography which was published without Assange’s final approval, criticises Assange for calling his unauthorised biography "too personal". Glass found it amusing that someone who has advocated transparency now refuses to become ‘transparent’ about his life. This accusation is based on a misunderstanding of Assange’s politics. Assange understands that the lives of ordinary citizens have already been made transparent through the digital devices they use but the governments are not transparent. According to Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, "visibility is a trap" but governments set this trap only for their citizens and do not want to fall into this trap themselves because citizens’ transparency about their politics and beliefs makes them governable subjects.

However, it is important to bring complexity to the notion of transparency. Transparency should be deployed to resist the governing powers. In his book When Google Met WikiLeaks, Assange writes that "WikiLeaks had always been a guerilla publisher. We would draw surveillance and censorship in one jurisdiction and redeploy in another, moving across borders like ghosts." If Assange would have been transparent about his whereabouts, it would have been impossible to challenge the Empire.

Google provided personal information of its visitors, making the latter vulnerable to state surveillance. Assange, on the other hand, allowed public access to the information that was governing them. Amidst the complex nexus of technological surveillance, neoliberal ideology, and capitalism, it is precisely Assange’s duality and controversial politics that allowed him to challenge the global dominance of the Empire.

But how will the Empire change after Assange’s arrest? Will it seek to update its privacy settings or will it allow access to information that governs its subjects? Will anyone dare to challenge the Empire again or will it become unchallengeable forever? For the meanwhile, the future looks very bleak.

The world is swiftly turning into one big prison where freedom is an illusion, tarnished by the reality of permanent surveillance. Already the Empire has access to every part of the world through digital devices. Facebook has been accused of swaying the US presidential elections in 2016. Twitter played a key role in managing the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2010. The Empire will threaten the world with its indestructible prowess.

However, all is still not lost. According to Slavoj Zizek, people are the only support that Assange has been left with. It is us for whom he challenged the neoliberal empire. It is now our time to return the favour. The people should come out in support of Assange. We are all he has been left with.

Our modern-day Prometheus