How should we understand ‘violence’ in a cyberworld?

It is easy to stress the differences between societies in which significant proportions of the public support violent insurrection against the state, and societies where the mainstream supports police brutality and the largest attack on civil rights in Canadian history because they saw a police car burning on TV. But, perhaps this way of conceptualizing violence – as people beaten with sticks, windows smashing, and cars burning, conceals a new way in which people are willing to support attacks on powerful social institutions.

What I’m talking about is the cyberwar against and in defence of wikileaks. A lot if going on here – above the cyberlevel there are the withdrawal of services to wikileaks by Amazon, paypal and mastercard. These services have in turn been attacked by hackers, slowing down or even crashing their websites. Personally I would have supported a boycott against firms which act concientiously to marginalize wikileaks, but these direct cyber attacks probably have a much greater effect, and if they are supported by the general public, might suggest what kind of broad based support for informational attacks against power structures exists in our current day.

I don’t hardly even have to mention the many attacks on the wikileaks servers themselves, presumably made both by loyalist hackers and employees of embarrassed governments – perhaps with some cooperation, I don’t know. Also, websites which merely publish or report on wikileaks’ leaked cables have been attacked by hackers, including the website of the swedish government. Again, these are all interesting phenomena in themselves, but what’s more interesting to me is how people stand in solidarity with wikileaks, and to some extent the hackers, against those forces which would shut information down.

Should we take this opportunity to radically re-conceive how we think of insurrectionist violence? Many activists who support diversity-of-tactics stress that violence against property should not be confused with violence against persons – that the police commit violence against persons, and the black bloc only attacks property – and these are not the same things. The problem with this argument is that while it may be convincing at a meeting of differently minded dissidents, it does not work with the general public’s intuitive sense of violence. However, the general public appears much more likely to see the difference between physical attacks on people’s persons and cyber attacks on capitalist and state institutions. No individual person appears to be harmed in a cyberwar, although I’m sure we will soon be seeing television advertisements portraying the lowly Mastercard employees who lost their jobs and are waiting in unemployment lines because Mastercard was attacked by hackers.

What is key here is the dynamics of several values – one value is transparency, and this is the instrumental value taken up by wikileaks. To the general public, transparency does not immediately appear to be a bad thing – we’ve always been taught to, in general, tell the truth – and it is not a stretch to believe people have an average cut desire for our states to act transparently. Transparency is an instrumental value, not a goal, for wikileaks – their goal is “justice”, and that’s an easy sell. If wikileaks has trouble convincing people it is because they do not grasp the link between transparency and justice – and hopefully when we get some polling data on these questions we can see the extent to which people do in fact see these values as inherently linked. (Wikileaks, incidentally, does not see them as inherently linked in a simple way – their primary fidelity is to informers and to the bringing about of justice; if in a particular case transparency does not serve those goals they will not pursue transparency).

To the state and private firms, on the other hand, the absence of transparency is perhaps the highest value, because it is only through secrecy and concealment that current power structures can continue to function without disruption. We could say the highest value was the maintenance of power and profit, but because tyrannies always require concealment to maintain that value, we can see the wikileaks attack as an attack on the central values of power.

These are the principle values, and it would be easy to think the analysis of the wikileaks phenomenon circulates purely on the level of the release of information and attempts by the state and firms to discredit wikileaks, or perhaps try them for criminal offenses. But support on this level for wikileaks is not surprising, or particularly ground breaking. What’s more interesting is the underground level, where the war is being fought by hackers on both sides – if there is significant public support for this level of violence against the state and against firms, then we can say very clearly that there is significant public support for forms of insurrectionist violence, so long as we know where to look.

Perhaps the more important question, however, is how could this public support be mobilized in such a way to become effective? You can start by joining the movement to Free Bradley Manning, but this isn’t exactly what I’m talking about – we should definitely support anyone accused of leaking information against the state, but the values are not the same as the ones relevant to support for cyber warfare. If hackers accused of attacks which are part of the current wikileaks conflict are imprisoned, however, this will afford a direct oppertunity to build public support for “non-violent” campaigns of violence against repressive state institutions. The days are still early – it’s up to those on the side of justice to work against the state’s attempts to criminalize and marginalize those fighting against the values of concealment and corruption with “non-violent”, yet catastrophically effective means.

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