The raw face of the state

In his classic text on social inequality, Gerhard Lenski argues that while elite rule is by force, the elite will employ propaganda in an effort to establish their rule as legitimate.[1] Jürgen Habermas, however, describes an effort by rulers to place their decision-making beyond challenge by denying their subjects information and by denouncing purportedly uninformed discussion, an effort that in the case of the European bourgeois, failed.[2] These goals are paradoxical in that trust is a two-way street; for rulers to gain the trust of the people, they should themselves trust the people. But as Max Weber pointed out, “Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.”[3] He went on to observe “that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”[4]

In the suddenly escalated drama of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s request for asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, it appears we are seeing the elite demand for secrecy manifest in a threat of force. According to the embassy, Britain is arguing

that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy. . . . We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.[5]

Numerous reports on the Twitter microblog service suggest that four police vans have pulled up in front of the embassy. The BBC reports that “a number of police officers are outside the embassy, in Knightsbridge,” and the British Foreign Office has essentially confirmed that it has threatened the embassy, stating, “Throughout this process have we have drawn the Ecuadorians’ attention to relevant provisions of our law, whether, for example, the extensive human rights safeguards in our extradition procedures, or to the legal status of diplomatic premises in the UK.”[6]

One needs to step back, draw a deep breath, and to place this in context. The United Kingdom is threatening to invade an embassy to retrieve a subject who is wanted in Sweden for questioning, but still has yet to be charged, in rape allegations that the purported victims did not want pressed.[7] Sweden has refused an Ecuadorian offer to allow them to question this subject in the Ecuadorian embassy.[8] An AP report finds the threat incredible:

Professor Julio Echeverria of Quito’s FLACSO university said Britain “has a long establish tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions,” which under international law are considered sovereign territory.

A former Ecuadorean ambassador to London, Mauricio Gandara, told The Associated Press “I refuse to believe in this threat because if asylum is granted the British government will not grant safe passage and Mr. Assange could be in the embassy for a long time.”[9]

One of the basic precepts in international law governing the use of force is proportionality. If a neighboring country’s fighter jet strays across your border in a training exercise, you may certainly send your own jets to escort it back out of your airspace. But on such a pretext, you may certainly not launch a full-out nuclear attack, turning that country into a nuclear puddle. The British threat against Assange and the Ecuadorian embassy would seem to lack any sense of proportionality.

And so, what we are seeing is that the British government is apparently abandoning its pretense to legitimacy in a case that lies on the troubled terrain of issues of sexual consent,[10] that in a paradigm of diminished concern for consent, it should only be mildly interested in unless we admit Assange’s speculation that in fact the extradition to Sweden is merely a pretense for his ultimate extradition to the United States, possibly to face espionage charges, possibly to face the death penalty.[11] There can be little doubt that somebody wants Assange badly. But given Sweden’s record on rape prosecution, it is hard to believe it is the Swedes,[12] so while it seems insufficiently explained why such an extradition would happen by way of Sweden,[13] one has to suspect that it is indeed the United States in the shadows behind these extraordinary actions.

Certainly the Obama administration’s interest in secrecy far exceeds the interest they have expressed in prosecuting the Bush administration for war crimes or the financial industry for fraud.[14] Just as surely as Habermas’ kings, Obama has sought to keep the rabble uninformed. And just as certainly, Assange’s WikiLeaks organization has been a force for elite transparency.

So as we view the events at Ecuador’s embassy in London, we should also note that we are viewing an elite that has abandoned its pretense to legitimacy, that just as we saw with the brutality directed against the Occupy Movement, we are seeing the raw face of state power.

  1. [1]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966).
  2. [2]Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991).
  3. [3]Max Weber, “What Is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th. ed., ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114.
  4. [4]Weber, “What is Politics?” 115.
  5. [5]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Julian Assange: UK issues ‘threat’ to arrest Wikileaks founder,” August 15, 2012,
  6. [6]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Julian Assange.”
  7. [7]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Julian Assange;” Nick Davies, “10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange,” Guardian, December 17, 2010,; Eduardo Garcia and Alessandra Prentice, “UPDATE 3-Britain threatens to storm Ecuador embassy to get Assange,” Reuters, August 16, 2012,
  8. [8]Paul Lewis, “Ecuador seeks to stop ‘evil’ of Julian Assange US extradition,” Guardian, July 26, 2012,
  9. [9]Gonzalo Solano, “Ecuador says Britain threatened embassy assault,” Associated Press, August 15, 2012,
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Misconstruing Moore and Amnesty International: The case against Assange,”, December 27, 2010
  11. [11]Philip Dorling, “Revealed: US plans to charge Assange,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 29, 2012,; Tony Eastley, “Pilger says the US wants Assange,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, February 2, 2012,; Lewis, “Ecuador seeks to stop ‘evil’ of Julian Assange US extradition;” Kim Sengupta, “Assange could face espionage trial in US,” Independent, December 8, 2010,
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The Great Feminist Smackdown: Rape Allegations against Julian Assange,”, December 21, 2010,
  13. [13]Common Dreams, “America has No Interest in Wikileaks’ Assange, says US Ambassador to Australia,” June 1, 2012,
  14. [14]Glenn Greenwald, “Obama: I can’t comment on Wall Street prosecutions,” Salon, December 12, 2011,; David Johnston and Charlie Savage, “Obama signals his reluctance to investigate Bush programs,” New York Times, January 2, 2009,; Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures,” New York Times, April 14, 2011,; Scott Shane, “Obama Takes a Hard Line Against Leaks to Press,” New York Times, June 12, 2010,

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