The struggle to control information
WikiLeaks, the printing press & the Bible
Published Dec 22, 2010 11:21 PM
New forms of technology are inherently destabilizing to the established
This is the whole basis of a materialist understanding of history. But this
reality can sometimes be confirmed in a manner that catches everyone by
surprise. Dominance that was once unchallenged is suddenly contested on all
sides. The struggle for change breaks out in new and unexpected ways.
U.S. imperialism cannot put back into the box or shut down what has been opened
by WikiLeaks. Instead, the struggle to contain WikiLeaks has the potential to
bring millions of people into political consciousness and conflict with the
The effort to suppress the release of information on WikiLeaks by the arrest of
Julian Assange and calls for his assassination or trial on terrorism charges;
the imprisonment of Bradley Manning and the threats against WikiLeaks
activists; along with the cancelation of its services by Amazon, PayPal,
American Express, MasterCard, and U.S. and Swiss banks is radicalizing many
highly skilled youth internationally. Hundreds of thousands of cyber attacks
were organized on the multinational information corporations and banks that
attempted to shut WikiLeaks down.
Every effort to shut it down has only served to spread it further and make it
far more widely available. Thousands of mirror sites were set up within days of
the effort to close WikiLeaks.
Even if the U.S. government succeeds in temporarily shutting down WikiLeaks,
millions of people worldwide know that it is possible to break U.S. government
and corporate secrecy. Many new sites are sure to follow.
The denunciations and attacks on the courageous individuals who have helped to
provide access to government and corporate secret information will inspire many
others who may have access to restricted information on all kinds of criminal
and corporate skullduggery to join in leaking it.
All this undercuts the endlessly polished image of U.S. imperialism as an
invincible power with all the most advanced technology at its disposal.
So much of cyber warfare is dominated by theft of information for profit or
espionage. The impact of many thousands of cyber activists all over the world
working simply for the idea that information and communication should be free
and available — not kept secret or owned for private profit — has
WikiLeaks has exposed government secrets through the cooperation of courageous,
highly skilled individuals who are able to communicate and willing to risk
everything in the name of freedom of information. But those forces alone would
not have had the mass access of the corporate media.
The choice of documents and the steady, well-publicized daily release of
hundreds of documents provided by WikiLeaks on the front pages of newspapers in
Germany, France, Spain and Britain may reflect that the U.S.’s own
imperialist allies are no longer willing to just be pulled in tow by the
U.S.-dominated military alliance known as NATO.
In the past these imperialist countries and their corporate media have been
willing to ignore clear evidence of U.S. crimes and conspiracies. Previously,
these crimes were not even considered newsworthy or relevant.
Now these imperialist countries — long-time thieves and robbers
themselves — can see that today U.S. imperialism is in a long period of
decline and decay. It is unable to prevail in a long ground war in Central Asia
against one of the poorest, least-developed countries in the world:
Afghanistan. It is unable to reverse the global capitalist economic crisis or
solve the growing unemployment faced by millions of workers. Its industrial
capacity is now a mere fraction of global production.
It is hardly a secret that in order to maintain its deteriorating monopoly on
power, U.S. imperialism has used invasions, occupations, coups, bribery and
military dictatorship. To hold in place an archaic, corrupt system of
exploitation, it has openly engaged in the most repressive measures, including
mass raids, disappearances, secret detentions, targeted assassinations,
preventive prosecutions and frame-ups.
Both the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have politically
defended the use of the most brutal forms of torture, including waterboarding,
sensory deprivation, solitary confinement and electric torture. And they have
used and sold weapons of torture around the world, from stun guns to white
phosphorous and anti-personnel grenades.
Much of the information and even some of the pictures, videos and documents now
being released were already known both in some specifics and in general
outline. But concrete information can have radical consequences.
To understand how futile the U.S. efforts to shut down WikiLeaks are, it is
worth looking back to a struggle at the dawn of capitalism against the old
feudal order in Europe.
In the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church was the largest landowner in
feudal Europe, controlling a third of all land. As an institution, it had a
stranglehold on enormous amounts of property, privilege, titles, inheritance
and especially ideas. The privileged clergy had a total monopoly on law,
politics, science and “salvation.”
But new technology, trade and communication were bubbling beneath the surface.
It was the newly invented printing press and its ability to widely disseminate
information that broke the authority not only of the Catholic Church but also
of feudal class relations.
The printing press & indulgences
In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg built the first wooden press, which used movable
metal type. It took another 15 years, until 1455, to develop the rudimentary
technology of movable type, metal molds, a special press and oil-based inks
that together created mass production of the first printed book: 200 copies of
the Bible. By 1499 — less than 50 years later — printing houses had
been established in more than 2,500 cities in Europe. An estimated 15 million
books had been printed of 30,000 titles, including hundreds of political and
religious-political tracts which were distributed far and wide.
This new technology broke the monopoly of information once available only to a
select few who had access to handwritten manuscripts that took years to
individually copy or produce by laboriously inking carved wooden blocks.
The cost of Gutenberg’s first run of a two-volume printed Bible was the
equivalent of approximately three years’ wages for an average clerk. This
was far cheaper than a handwritten Bible, which could take a single monk 20
years to transcribe.(ideafinder.com)
As Gutenberg was developing the technology to print an entire book, he
sustained himself by mass producing for church officials tens of thousands of
printed “indulgences.” These were printed slips of paper sold by
the Catholic Church that promised to remit punishments in the afterlife. These
aggressively marketed notes could only be sold by agents or commissaries, who
bought the rights to sell them from the pope in Rome.
Indulgences quickly became an enormous new source of wealth for Rome — a
commodity that could be bought and sold. It was a new form of extracting
profits: onerous taxation and mass exploitation for all who wished for
salvation. For 50 years it appeared that the wealth and power of Rome was
growing based on indulgences, the currency of the age.
All these enormous changes — a new marketable source of wealth, an
emerging capitalist class, new technology, new communication, a beleaguered
peasantry and growing numbers of poor, urban workers — were brewing when
a monk, Martin Luther, challenged Rome’s absolute authority.
Nailing a declaration of 95 theses to the cathedral doors in Wittenberg in
1517, Luther opposed the buying and selling of indulgences and demanded the
right to interpret the Bible. This bold challenge to papal authority is
credited with unleashing 100 years of revolutionary upheaval known as the
Luther’s translation of the Bible from Church Latin into the vernacular
German spoken by common people had an even more revolutionary impact.
The Peasant War
For hundreds of years historians described the resulting wars that convulsed
Europe as religious wars. The burning issue that moved millions of people to
revolutionary action was the freedom to read the vernacular Bible and the right
to interpret it. It was a break with the absolute power of the Catholic Church
and its privileged clergy.
In the small book, “The Peasant War in Germany,” Fredrick Engels
shed new understanding on this period of upheaval with his explanation of the
class forces emerging that challenged the authority of decaying, corrupt Rome.
Local princes, lower nobility and landlords could quickly grasp the advantage
of breaking with Rome and thereby lessening its enormous taxation and tithes.
It was an opportunity to seize the wealth of church lands and be free of the
burden of buying indulgences.
By 1524 large sections of the besieged German peasantry, who were being
hammered by the tithes and taxations of both the church and the feudal lords,
took the right of each person to interpret the Bible to heart, along with the
right to seize the lands of the church and free themselves from ownership by
lords and abbeys.
A radical challenge to property took root. The idea that all wealth of the
church and the local lords should be held in common led to peasant uprisings
that convulsed Germany for two years.
Thomas Munzer, the leader of the most radical thinkers, merged his biblical
interpretations with the Anabaptist movement, a peasant-based, communist
mobilization with the rainbow flag as its symbol. In this struggle millions of
peasants and plebeians acted for the first time in their own interests, though
following a religious program. They built a revolutionary army and contended
Munzer, the Anabaptists and their movement were militarily defeated within two
years. To make an example to other insurrectionary efforts, the leaders were
horribly tortured and publicly executed. But revolutionary peasant uprisings
continued across Europe.
The upheavals spread to Scandinavia, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the
Netherlands and England. The peasant movements, too disorganized, unskilled and
illiterate to prevail, were again and again defeated by a bloc of the newly
rising capitalist class and frightened princes and landlords.
The Catholic Church used every form of repression to reclaim its authority and
privilege. Inquisitions used secret detention, horrendous forms of torture,
mass campaigns of terror and witch-hunts that consumed thousands in flames.
Whole countries faced papal excommunication — a punishment similar to
Rome financed military campaigns and invasions, such as the Spanish
Armada’s attempt to invade Britain in 1588 in an effort to reverse the
British monarchy’s break with Rome. But no form of threats, terror or
torture could restore the Church’s uncontested position in feudal
Technology cannot be turned back. And the new ideas that arise from a society
changed by technology cannot be stamped out by threats and repression.
No turning back for U.S. imperialism
U.S. imperialism cannot shut down the flow of information or the drive it
ignites for wider access and the end to the impossibly narrow constraints of
private property and ownership of information and communication. The U.S.
military may have originally developed the Internet for its own emergency
military communication in time of war. But the Internet has long since escaped
U.S. corporate power cannot shut down the Internet without totally disrupting
their own businesses, production and marketing. The contradiction is that the
immediate financial interests of the bourgeoisie make the Internet ever more
The much bigger problem for U.S. imperialism is that today, as consciousness
grows and access to communication technology expands to include the whole
world, it is not facing an isolated, illiterate and oppressed peasantry.
It is facing the increasingly educated and skilled multinational working class
whom they created. This class will come to a consciousness of its own interests
in unexpected and uneven ways. But this class is a force that cannot be stopped
by feudal or modern repression and threats.
The rising consciousness of millions of the powerless can be more powerful than
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