The Politics of Some One?

9 January 2014, 2322 EST

PPSEver since Wikileaks hit the headlines with the release of its Collateral Murder video I’ve been thinking (and sometimes blogging) about what kind of actor it is, what kind of politics it represents, what this means for global governance. But I could never for the life of me figure out how to really tackle these questions using IR theory.

So I was thrilled to see Wendy Wong‘s and Peter Brown’s piece in a major polisci journal, Perspectives on Politics, exploring these questions in the context of what the discipline has to say about transnationalism. Kudos to Jeffrey Isaac for publishing this article as this issue’s cover piece. I expect it will get a lot of attention.

In the article, “E-Bandits in Global Activism,” Wong and Brown discuss not just Wikileaks but also Anonymous as exemplars of a new sort of non-state actor on the global scene: “extraordinary bandits” who “engage the politics of no one via anonymizing Internet technologies.” According to Wong and Brown, e-bandits use theft instead of lobbying as a tactic, the internet as a field of protest instead of a mechanism for organizing protest as previously understood, and are unprecedentedly open in terms of who participates.

Examining e-bandits both for what they do and what they tell us about our notions of transnationalism, Wong and Brown argue they are neither NGOs (lacking organizational missions, bureaucratic structures or legal standing), nor social movements (lacking specific policy proposals for change), nor international criminal networks (though they use extra-legal means they do so not for pecuniary profit but rather for ideological goals, primarily stealing (data) from the powerful on behalf of the disempowered. In aiming to find a new framework for understanding these actors, Wong and Brown focus on “the politics of no-one” and particularly the politicization of anonymity to facilitate whistle-blowing and cyber-theft. They argue “e-bandits show us that technology changes resistance.”

I love this piece and hope to see more like it. That said it left me with some questions. Two stand out:

Is a separate framework to describe these groups necessary? Or are they simply a hybrid of other forms of transnationalism already theorized? It seems to me that as described in this paper these groups share some characteristics of criminal networks, NGOs, and social movements though fitting neatly into none of these categories. They also share characteristics (though not neatly) with the media as a set of global institutions – a form of transnationalism not considered in this paper. I wonder if it is necessary to throw off old theories entirely or simply to adapt them to thinking about this new form of contentious politics. And how might this new layer of global civil society interface with / yoke between other layers?

The second question is whether Anonymous and Wikileaks are really the same kind of actor at all – in other words, can a single framework encompass both, in contra-distinction to other types of politics. The most important attributes they share are the political ideology of information anarchy and a “noble bandit” ethic, robbing from the information-wealthy to enrich the information-poor. Beyond that they strike me as structurally distinct both internally, and in relation to their audiences.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the framework these authors offer: while I can easily see how the “politics of no one” applies to Anonymous, Wikileaks seems like a different bird insofar as the group originated as a rather cult-like organization based largely on the leadership, personality and embodiment of its founder Julian Assange who (certainly according to this book written by a Wikileaks insider) made decisions about who to target and how to disseminate as much for reasons of personal aggrandizement or organizational survival as for ideological ones – not so different from some critiques of NGOs. While Wikileaks engages a “politics of no one” through its anonymous drop-box interface with whistle-blowers, the organization as a whole strikes me as very a much a politics of a Very Specific Someone. As such, Wikileaks (if not Anonymous) may also have analogues to another form of transnational sector: celebrities.

At any rate, the article is a brilliant first stab at trying to make sense of some of these political dynamics that do indeed fall, if not outside IR frameworks, then certainly across them in ways that challenge us to think more nimbly about what is going on in the digital era and what this means for Westphalianism. Kudos to Wong and Brown for kicking off this conversation. Check out the article and share your thoughts in the thread.