Accessibility links

Breaking News

Interview: The 'Shadow Elite,' WikiLeaks, And Living In A 'Dangerous Era'

Janine Wedel: "We're in a new age."
Janine Wedel: "We're in a new age."
Janine Wedel is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the book "Shadow Elite: How The World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, And The Free Market," in which she applies the insights of anthropology to the relationships between government, business, and universities.

RFE/RL's Christopher Schwartz speaks with her about how the whistleblowing web entity WikiLeaks opposes today’s “new powerbrokers” by dangerously mirroring them.

RFE/RL: What exactly are the “shadow elite” and why should the public be concerned about them?

Janine Wedel:
What I argue in "Shadow Elite" is that a new breed of players has arisen in the past several decades...whose maneuverings are beyond the traditional mechanisms of accountability. They, for example, play multiple, overlapping, and not fully disclosed roles. They have their people and work themselves individually [as] government advisers, think tankers, consultants to businesses. They appear in the media. And it’s very difficult for the public to know who exactly they represent. [For example, Wedel uses former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, retired U.S. General Barry McCaffrey, and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers as examples. -- Eds.]

[T]hey have their own agenda, although they are typically working on behalf of [or] they are purporting to work on behalf of an organization or multiple organizations. So they are less transparent and less accountable than powerbrokers of the past, and we are in a much more dangerous era than we have been in the history of the modern state.

RFE/RL: How is this new power arrangement detrimental to society?

What suffers in this story is democracy. Democracy and accountability suffer. So also does the free market because these players are not really interested in the chief mechanism of the free market, which would be competition. They are all about the interdependency between government and business, so the intertwining of state and private power. And they get government benefits to use to the advantage of the market.

RFE/RL: How can we understand the role of WikiLeaks, then, in the light of – or, as the case may be, in the darkness of – the “shadow elite”?

WikiLeaks is a kind of declared combatant in this information warfare, conducted by high-tech good government vigilantes, [and] in that regard it can play a crucial role in the "shadow elite" era because it’s willing to push the envelope in that it stands outside the established power structure.

So, on the one hand, [WikiLeaks] upends traditional process and flouts institutions. On the other hand, while it’s emerged as a counterweight, some of the tactics WikiLeaks takes -- like secrecy and a willingness to bend the rules, and ambiguity -- [come] precisely from this new breed of powerbroker that is the "shadow elite."

So, although it claims and it purports to, and in fact can shine light where traditional investigative reporting and watchdog organizations can’t, because investigative journalism and so on face so many challenges has enormous power itself, and it’s the kind of unaccountable power that its founder decries. I mean, case in point, the founder himself doesn’t even necessarily know where a lot of this so-called information comes from, and that is unaccountability quintessential.

RFE/RL: Is there potential for conflicts of interest in WikiLeaks or an entity like it? And if so, in what form might they take?

[T]here could be all kinds of conflicts of interest, all kinds of forms it could take, but it’s very difficult to answer that question more precisely because we don’t know necessarily where the information comes from.

RFE/RL: How, then, can WikiLeaks be held accountable?

Investigative journalis[ts] can help by providing a counterweight, as can watchdog organizations, by actually doing the kind of investigative journalism they used to do much much more of. But again the problem is that forms like WikiLeaks have emerged precisely because investigative journalism isn’t doing its job. So therein lies the conundrum.

RFE/RL: But if that’s the case, instead of "can it be held accountable," should it be held accountable? Or does journalism and society need them to be beyond accountability?

Well, I’m not sure that it can be, because it is this high-tech model that precisely is outside accountability, and that is a feature of our age.

RFE/RL: What role, then, is technology playing in both the rise of the “shadow elite” and the opposition to them in the form of WikiLeaks?

[T]he advent of new information technologies is a key reason that we’re in this new system of power and influence, again, which puts us outside of the traditional mechanisms [that] a democracy has for monitoring power and influence. So that’s a danger.

We’re in a new age. So much of our world is now much less predictable in large part due to these new ever-complex information and other technologies that develop and that will be developing.

Everyday we wake up and new information technologies are being invented and tried and on the horizon. I would be irresponsible if I sat here and fantasized about precisely what kind of form might emerge. I do think that there may well be some development that will respond to it, to which of course it will respond.