Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “Cypherpunks” by Julian Assange

Cypherpunks by Julian Assange

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet,
by Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmerman
186 pages,
November 29, 2012, OR Books.

Part III: Rats in the Opera House

Fraudulence, masculinity (the books in this review are almost exclusively male affairs), a redefinition of boundaries and distance (keeping itself as far as possible from threats), a convoluted language, a purposeful opacity, a false sense of superiority – these are some of the salient characteristics of the otherwise protean creature called Empire.

In the period between the Spanish-American war and Woodrow Wilson’s taking the global stage in 1919, America appeared the rightful heir to the British Raj. And in many ways it honored that inheritance. But Empire is its own beast, aloof from the collective wisdom, aloof even from the idea of nationhood. The Harvard historian Niall Fergusen has referred to the US as a “reluctant empire,” citing the country’s inability to replicate its democratic institutions overseas. But since when has Empire ever replicated the things it claims to most cherish? Today the weed, if we must, of Empire is as strongly espaliered around the globe as ever (but forever threatened by its overgrowth), and yet it’s no more rooted in American ideals than the East India Company was to Kipling’s poetry, or to the British burden of chivalry.

American-sprouted, true. American-enabled. American-flavored. But it’s the same familiar invasive creeper of Empire that’s taken root around the globe throughout history; and it looks something like this:

Tendencies to homogenization, universality, the whole of human civilization being turned into one market, mean that you will have normal market factors such as one market leader, one second, a third niche player, and then stragglers that don’t make any difference at all, for every service and product…massive language homogenization, massive cultural homogenization…the transnational surveillance state and endless drone wars are almost upon us.

Remove the words “surveillance state” and “drone wars” from the above quote and it could have been al-Afghani speaking. But here the intellectual freedom-fighter is Julian Assange, doing his best – with his men’s club of fellow intellectuals – to expose the great Mountebank of modernity in his book of dialogues, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.

Mind you, Assange recorded and published these thoughts many months before Edward Snowden released his top-secret documents about the mass surveillance programs conducted by the US and British governments. In other words, Assange has known the true scale of the National Security Agency’s monitoring activity all along, or at least he saw it coming. Now, just a few months later, the idea of a “transnational surveillance state” sounds almost benign, like a sports team, or something a reputation management company (see could use in a jingle: “We’ll keep you sailing straight / in the surveillance state.”

A cypherpunk, according to the world’s only Encyclopaedia remotely capable of defining such things, is “an activist advocating widespread use of strong cryptography as a route to social and political change.” In other words, the cypherpunk fights firewalls with firewalls, countering the Empire’s unintelligible “saltire murrey” with some “nombril points on a dancette indented.” Like the leading anti-imperialist intellectuals of the 19th century, Assange has travelled to the other side, mingled in chat rooms with intellectuals from around the world, learned the language of the oppressor. And as with those minds who remade Asia, the vastness of the territory Assange’s mind has crossed – with its precise, laborious insight – is most easily measured by the reaction against it.

“He looked like a bag lady coming in,” explained Eric Schmitt, security correspondent of the New York Times (not to be confused with Eric Schmidt who is executive chairman of Google, although the two men share, you might say, the same offices of today’s Empire, as we’ll soon see). “Dingy khaki sports coat and cargo pants,” continued Schmitt with the fashion acuity of a cub-reporter from Vogue, “old tennis shoes, socks that were collapsing around his ankles…clearly he hadn’t bathed in several days.” One article in the Times, reminiscent of British ethnocentrism in its rule over India, portrays Assange as someone who doesn’t know how to use a toilet. Clothes, cleanliness, eating habits, sexual behavior – these are timeless indicators of class and caste, allowing cruelty to cloak itself in humanity, to declare itself the defender of civilization from savagery. And thus, with the Empire out-witted and exposed, one of the world’s most respected Indian lawyers was caricatured as a “half-naked fakir in a loincloth” – a guise he cultivated and embraced – when he attended the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931.

Civilization vs. Savagery. New World vs. Old. The lines are drawn, the sides divided. Techies, according to the New Empire, can be smart and clean and faithful; but “hackers” lack hygiene. Non-techies, meanwhile (most of whom, by 1990s standards, would be considered technological wizards), are the innocent village farmers who must take a side, “with us or with the enemy,” or become extinct. Most of these civilians, of course – even the ones whose photos and friendships and once private affairs are feeding the profits of their rulers — will join the ranks of fashionable geekdom. They will praise social media sites like Facebook just as the 19th century Indian sycophant, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, would have done: “The most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen.” The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Perez, could hardly contain himself. “The men that lived in caves didn’t forecast Zuckerberg,” he said in a recent interview with David Samuel. “Karl Max never forecast Zuckerberg. [Zuckerberg] made a revolution with a billion people.”

This, of course, is philistinism. That renowned dissector of philistinism, Vladimir Nabokov, once posited, in his essay on Madame Bovary, that while it appears in every epoch in history, philistinism seems more in evidence during times of revolution.* If so, the Internet revolution has certainly lived up to Nabokov’s expectation, with young entrepreneurs from around the globe gravitating to Silicon Valley in the quest to achieve — not art, not great architecture, not scientific discovery — but the most profitable advertising models ever invented, while, at the same time, “changing the world” and being good people (“Do no evil,” pontificates Google). In other words, these pillars of society are no different than the pompous, ignorant, rank-conscious philistines of Flaubert’s great novel. “When technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals, there’s no smirk or wink,” wrote George Packer in the New Yorker.** One of the entrepreneurs he interviewed spoke of his Silicon Valley colleagues in this way: “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

It’s also Empire. And the irony is that for all their efforts to change things, the behavior of the young world-changers merely replicates the champions of Empire in times past. Arrogance and ignorance. The illusion of a higher calling. An echo-chamber where decisions are made in an unreachable realm. (Among its many achievements, Google will rank as the first major American company in the modern age without published contact information or a customer service phone number). The white-man’s burden of the British Empire has become the IT entrepreneur’s burden today. “Conscious of their burden,” writes Mishra about the white proponents of Empire, “[They] changed the world forever, subjecting its great diversity to their singular outlook and in the process reducing potentially rich encounters with other peoples and countries to monologues about the unassailable superiority of modern Western politics, economy and culture.”

Meanwhile, more phenomenal than Facebook has been Wikipedia; and more rebellious and potentially world-changing has been Wikileaks. Yet trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, running for political office in Australia via a Skype link, Julian Assange, our modern day intellectual exile, reminds us of General Pak, trudging along the railroad tracks, finding it increasingly difficult to participate in the politics of Empire. In Cypherpunks, his conversation about Internet freedom with his fellow revolutionaries, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmerman, is right out of the anti-imperialist days when intellectuals such as al-Afghani, Quichao and Tagore – disenfranchised from Westminster Abbey — discussed global politics in the coffee houses of Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Cairo.

In the last few pages of Cypherpunks, Assange expresses a clear vision of what the new Empire will look like: A gleaming citadel of totalitarianism — “a result of various elites in their own countries lifting up together, off their respective population bases, and merging.” All communications will be recorded, monitored; everything will be tracked, “and alongside this, people are going to be buried under the impossible math of bureaucracy.” This last bit, by the way, this “impossible math of bureaucracy” (like the arcane language of Jim’s escutcheon), will sound eerily familiar to survivors of the British Raj. The British bureaucratic system was the Internet of its day. What started as a brave new enabler of long-distance travel, exploration and trade eventually congealed into a maddening fiasco of forms.

Assange compares the new Empire with a visit he once made to the Sydney Opera House, having “smuggled himself in” to see a production of Faust. During intermission, “there amongst all this lonely palatial refinement,” he noticed a water rat that had somehow crawled out of the harbor and into the Opera House’s interior. The slick and slimy creature was “leaping on the fine linen-covered tables and” — think Templeton at the fairgrounds in Charlotte’s Web – “eating the Opera House Food…having a really great time.” Unclean but clever. Forbidden yet somehow managing to indulge in the same delicacies as the most privileged of theater goers. “It will only be a high-tech rebel elite that is free,” concludes Assange, “these clever rats running around the opera house.”

A telling parable. What the rat can’t indulge in, however – and in this way the rat and the majority of the glamorous opera patrons have much in common – is the beauty of Faust itself.

* “Flaubert,” wrote Nabokov, “considered that his age was the age of philistinism, which he called muflisme. However, this kind of thing is not particular to any special government or regime; if anything, philistinism is more in evidence during revolutions and in police states than under more traditional regimes. The philistine in violent action is always more dangerous than the philistine who quietly sits before his television set.”
** “Change the World,” by George Packer, New Yorker Magazine, May 26, 2013.

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