top of page

Values in an Age of Nihilism

Florian Maiwald

November 18, 2022

June 17, 2022 was indeed a more than tragic day for the Western world. The British government has agreed to extradite Julian Assange to the United States, where he now faces 175 years in prison for journalistic disclosure of war crimes. Background: via the disclosure platform Wikileaks, Assange published, among other things, the video "Collateral Murder," in which the shooting of unarmed Iraqi civilians from a U.S. military helicopter is documented. The consequence: after the Ecuadorian embassy in London no longer granted Assange refuge, he had already been in the London high-security prison Belmarsh, which according to some statements resembles a "British Guantanamo," for months. There Assange stays under inhumane conditions and lives 23 hours a day in complete isolation.

All of this seems all the more paradoxical against the background of the fact that Assange is not even a U.S. citizen - he is Australian - and has committed none of his alleged crimes on U.S. soil. The statements of former CIA director Leon Panetta should make us think even more when he points out that the U.S. is primarily interested in making an example with regard to the Assange case. In concrete terms, this means as much as: every investigative journalist who intends to bring war crimes by the US army to the public's attention must expect a similar punishment in the future. The Assange case makes it absolutely clear that it is not just about the future of Assange in particular, but about the future of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in general, and thus, to some extent, about the future of all of us.

However, the Assange case should not be seen as an isolated individual case. Especially with regard to the current global political situation, which has changed dramatically – not least due to Putin's criminal war of aggression in Ukraine – the Assange case could provide important lessons for the so-called Western world, which always claims to defend its own liberal-democratic values against the worldwide increase in autocratic tendencies. The war of aggression launched by Putin against Ukraine has made us painfully aware that there are forces in the world that perceive liberal democracies as a threat. It is therefore consistent and logical to try to protect ourselves against such external threats in the most expedient way possible.

On Western contradictions

What the Assange case shows, however, is that it is a mistake to assume that the threat to democratic ways of life can only be attributed to external factors (autocracies, etc.). Rather, as the Assange case makes abundantly clear, such a threat - or more concretely, destabilization - of democratic structures can also be caused by democracies themselves. It is Assange's achievement to have relentlessly brought this aspect to our attention.

With his concept of the social character, Erich Fromm described a phenomenon that is supposed to explain to what extent there is a social unconscious in addition to the psychological unconscious in the Freudian sense. Here it is worth citing Fromm:

The social character, which causes people to act and think as the proper functioning of their social life requires, is only one link between social structure and ideas. The other link is the fact that each society determines which thoughts may enter consciousness and which must remain unconscious (Fromm 2005: 98).

While the social character is oriented towards actions and thoughts that lead to a reproduction of the existing social conditions, the social unconscious describes the repression that is necessary in order that this very reproduction of the social conditions not be disturbed. Applying Fromm's thoughts to the case of Assange, the following becomes clear:

Unconsciously, it may have been obvious to us for some time that the narrative of freedom characteristic of the Western world is marked by a certain ambivalence - we rightly condemn Russia's or China's treatment of their own journalists, but doesn't the U.S. do the same thing when it wants to lock up a journalist who brought war crimes to the public's attention? It is precisely those ambivalences that have been brought to light by the Wikileaks revelations and which have led to a disruption of the existing social narrative. Assange has brought to consciousness what we were not allowed to become aware of and is now to be punished for it. He has ensured an end to the world as we previously perceived it (or should have perceived it). Assange has exposed what we currently rightly condemn about Russia's war of aggression: the pointless killing of civilians (which cannot ever be reasonable under any conceivable context) through war crimes.

A global turning point

In order to understand what the Assange case means in concrete terms, one should first realize that we are indeed currently living through a turning point in time - as German Chancellor Scholz rightly affirms over and over again. We are living in an age of multiple crises, which - as Colombia's former Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas rightly points out - cannot be viewed in isolation from one another. Catastrophes such as the increasingly extreme climate crisis, the Covid 19 pandemic as well as the intensifying famines caused by war make it clear that the crises we are facing cannot be solved within a nation-state framework, but can only be managed through new forms of global solidarity in the form of cross-state cooperation. The measures that may have to be employed to solve these problems may seem radical, as they challenge some of the basic premises of the current global capitalist system. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that the crises we are facing on a global scale (and some of which have already hit us!) are also radical, which is why the measures needed to tackle these crises - in line with the etymological origin of the concept of radicality - must go to the root of the problems.

At this point, one may legitimately ask what the Assange case has to do with the lines of thought mentioned here regarding the management of global crises.

A few weeks ago, at the Globesec 2022 Forum in Bratislava, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar responded to the accusation of why India was still buying Russian oil as follows:

Europe has to grow out of the mindset that its problems are the world's problems, but the world's problems are not Europe's problems. [...] There is a lot happening outside Europe. There are so many human and natural disasters in our part of the world, and many countries are asking India for help. The world is changing, and new actors are coming in. The world can no longer be Eurocentric. [...] Tell me that buying Russian gas is not financing the war? It is only Indian money that finances the war, not the gas that flows to Europe.

Jaishankar points out the important aspect that successful management of the global crises that await us in fact requires that we recognize that our perceptions of geopolitical crises cannot be considered representative of the global perceptions of those very crises. The problems that await us can no longer be seen as intra- or extra-European. Already in the Covid pandemic, this problem of a Western (though not necessarily intentional) double standard has become apparent when it came to the globally equitable distribution of vaccines. Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's Global Health Crisis Program, for example, has pointed out the following:

The rich countries have decided to vaccinate the entire adult population first and only then deal with global distribution. And now, booster vaccinations of their own populations are more important to them than the initial vaccinations of the most vulnerable people in poor countries. When that is done, the children will come. Then it will be more important to vaccinate five- to twelve-year-olds than high-risk patients on the other side of the world. So when, in God's name, are we going to have a discussion about equity and the most effective use of this vaccine? It remains a tragedy.

While there has been talk within some societies about the solidarity of getting vaccinated, the global scope of the whole problem has been completely ignored. But it is not only at the level of globally equitable vaccine distribution that this problem becomes apparent. The breakdown in supply chains already caused by the pandemic, and the food shortages that accompany it, will be dramatically intensified by the war, especially in developing countries.

Mohamed A EL-Erian aptly sums up the entire issue when he points out that we are currently dealing with multiple "little fires" that will ruin the already economically destabilized developing countries. We can only put out these fires if we show the same commitment to these global problems that we are showing in the Ukraine war. We must not only show that we can live up to the visions of a peaceful Western world that are driving the flight and resistance of the Ukrainian people in the facticity of our actions. We must also understand that beyond this, our task is to show the world that democracies are the stronger system in the long run than Putin's autocratic regime.

However, we can only succeed in this if we realize that other countries are watching us very closely. If we condemn Putin's war of aggression (rightly!) in the strongest terms, we cannot at the same time lock up those who have brought to light the war crimes committed by the West. We cannot blame other countries like India - which has just gone through a heat wave that has brought the loss of several lives - for perceiving global issues in a different way than we do. Heat waves in India are to be considered our problem in exactly the same way as floods in the Ahr Valley. Famines in developing countries are to be seen as our problem in exactly the same way as the increase in precarious conditions in our own countries. We should condemn the fact that disclosure of war crimes in the Western world is punishable by 175 years in prison in exactly the same way as when dissidents in Russia or China are locked up for opposing the official state ideology. We should condemn the killing of Iraqi civilians, made public by the Wikileaks revelations, in exactly the same way as we condemn the horrific massacres in Butscha. Assange has shown that we can only claim to postulate our values on a global scale if we act in coherent accordance with those very values. Are we ready to defend Assange's emancipatory legacy by finally learning to live up to our own values without contradictions?

bottom of page