The Leaderless Revolution

Former British diplomat Carne Ross has attracted a great deal of attention over his latest book, The Leaderless Revolution. Last night he spoke at the LSE, at an event which was so popular that they had to open an overflow room where the talk was broadcast via video link. The interest in the book is hardly surprising. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the public appetite for leaderless revolutions has rarely been so high.

Ross was introduced by Charlie Beckett, director of the LSE’s media think-tank, POLIS. He began by asking whether a “new kind of politics” is emerging. More specifically, he questioned whether governments are adequately equipped to address the problems we now face, or whether this has become the domain of “citizen activists and journalists.” Carne Ross would answer this latter question emphatically in the affirmative.

He began his talk by showing a picture of Piero della Francesca’s Ideal City. In the painter’s ideal city, Ross pointed out, there were no people. He used this as a starting point to ask the audience: “What would your vision be?” He made various suggestions which might be common to all our utopias: that the city would be “peaceful, crime free, uncorrupt and cosmopolitan”, and that there would be a “sense of community”.

He also suggested that our ideal cities might be “egalitarian” and contrasted this with the situation in Mumbai. This raised one shortcoming of Ross’ discussion, which was that he spoke of “egalitarianism” (as opposed to equality of treatment or opportunity) as if it were, per se, a universally accepted good. Nonetheless, having identified these desiderata, Ross went on to remark that it “says something about our political culture that it seems ridiculous to declare these aspirations”.

Throughout his talk, he was very critical of contemporary political systems. He claimed that there is “growing evidence” that governments and other decision-making institutions are “less and less capable of administering problems” including “climate change, economic volatility and terrorism”. The public is correspondingly “more and more sceptical about the claims governments make”, and there is “increasing disenchantment with politics”. Referring to US election campaigns, he remarked that “it is now political necessity to say that you hate the political system.”

This disenchantment, he claimed, has led to “increasing alienation from politics, and perhaps from each other and our authentic selves.” He expanded on this by saying that we “seem detached from each other, and certainly from the decisions being made”. The crux of the issue, as Ross sees it, is that we have “lost agency”, which he posits as an “essential component of life”. As such, his argument continues, “we have to take it back.”

He explained that his thesis comprises four key ideas. The first was that, “in an increasingly interconnected system” (globalisation), a change can be implemented by one person and quickly move to be adopted by small and then larger groups. He cited suicide bombing as an example, explaining that it started inSri Lankaand spread to the Middle East, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa before extending to Europe and the US.  States, he said, do not operate as a series of “discrete, independent players” but that “we live in an order which resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.”

His second idea was that it is action, rather than words, which convinces people to change. He contrasted the public response to the Spanish Civil War and to the killing in Darfur. In the former example, thousands fought and died to overcome fascism; in the latter, thousands signed petitions and “the killing continues with impunity.” In the late twentieth century, Ross claims, “we have shifted from action to inaction”, which is why effecting change has been more difficult.

The third idea focused on responsibility. This was one of the most illuminating parts of the talk, as he talked about his experiences in Kosovo, where he worked as Strategy Coordinator to the UN in 2004. He reminded us that at the time Kosovo was not an independent state, and said that you “could sense the political tension in the street”, which then “boiled over into violence.” From the way Carne Ross spoke, it was obvious that what he had encountered in Kosovo had moved him profoundly. “Violence engulfed the whole country,” he said, “and the peacekeepers had completely lost control.”

Ross explained that one cause of this violent disorder was the “political disenfranchisement of Kosovans from the decisions made about their future.”  He highlighted the importance of responsibility by pointing out that “if you don’t give people responsibility for their affairs you cannot expect them to behave responsibly”.

He advocated a departure from the “Golden Rule” that “we should treat others as we would like to be treated” on the grounds that this is ultimately solipsistic. A better maxim, he suggested, would be that we should “ask people what it is they want” and cultivate a system of collective decision-making. The internet has made it much easier to voice and hear such opinions.

Carne Ross’ fourth and final idea was central to his whole thesis – that there should be mass participation in decision-making, which, he alleged, “leads to better outcomes than elite decision-making”. Reasons he gave for this included the increased respect people would have for each other and for “science and facts”, and that the outcome would be “more equality and more egalitarianism”. He gave the example of Porto Alegre, a town in Brazil where there is “mass participatory decision-making over how the local government is spent”. Ross claimed that this initiative has led to resources being more equally distributed in what was previously a “very unequal” town.

Another advantage of including people in decision making is that “people are likely to be more committed to the outcome”. Ross illustrated his point by talking about the plans to rebuild New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He explained that the attempted online negotiations had been unsuccessful because of the “internet deficit” which made them unrepresentative. However, when they organised meetings they managed to secure an egregious 80% acceptance for their decisions since “everyone felt consulted and included.”

He explained how his theory worked in the corporate context by looking at the example of John Lewis, where all workers are partners and “enjoy agency”. They are “consulted over strategic decisions” and the Board is elected. Ross suggested that “this method of politics could fit under the generic root of the word “anarchism”.” He was quick to emphasise that he was not talking about violence, and that the association between anarchism and violence was a false one.

He moved on to condemn the current system whereby there can be state legitimisation of violence, quoting Max Weber who said that “the State has a monopoly on violence.” When asked aboutLibyahe opined that, whilst he had supported the  British government’s decision, “it should not have been necessary to get to the point where military intervention was necessary to protect civilians”. He thought that we “should have been isolating the regime and trying to sabotage them” through the non-violent options available. Indeed, he said that the Arab Spring and Libya had shown that our policy towards the Middle East has been “precisely wrong” and that rather than “collaborating with oppressive regimes to create order” we should have been encouraging “democratisation by the countries’ own people.”

On the subject of the Arab Spring, Ross revealed that he had “felt envy” because those involved in the uprising aspired to a “better” system of democracy, a desire he believes that we in the West have lost. He views this as folly, because now that “governments are losing the power to arbitrate about the things which most affect us”, we have “no other choice but to take it on ourselves to solve the problems”.

He acknowledged that this would be a “messy” process, and that there would not be a “geometric Ideal City”. He finished by asserting that the “greatest obstacle to this kind of political change” would not be the complexity of the task, or the unwillingness of the current dispensation to “welcome this change”. The greatest obstacle, he claimed, stems from ourselves. He blamed our “fear of change and ridicule” and, most importantly, our “fear of our own power to transcend the limits of the current models of what human beings are capable of: our own power to do something which is actually extraordinary.”

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One Response to The Leaderless Revolution

  1. Carne Ross says:

    Thanks for giving such a clear exposition of my talk. And thanks for coming! Carne

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