Review: The Leaderless Revolution, by Carne Ross
For a former diplomat to write a book with “revolution” in the title (leaderless or otherwise) might seem strange indeed. But then Carne Ross is not your average former diplomat. Ross spent many years working for the British government in a variety of countries, including Germany, Afghanistan and the US, where for a long time he was part of the British mission to the UN.
He resigned in September 2004 in connection with the war against Iraq. He had testified (in secret) to the official inquiry into the use of intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, known as the Butler Inquiry. He wrote down all he thought about the war, including the available alternatives, its illegality, as he saw it, and what he regarded as the misrepresentation of what was known about Iraq’s weapons. He then realised he could no longer continue to work for the British government.
That could have been it. Ross might have taken a different turn and started an entirely new career in a different field. Instead he set up an initiative he called Independent Diplomat, with the aim of assisting some “hidden voices” to get a hearing on the international scene.
The powers behind thrones
In the course of his questioning about why some voices are hidden and others are heard loud and clear, Ross’ thinking encountered the issues of who actually holds power in the world and how that power can be challenged. In his latest book he examines those two matters in detail. His analysis is not restricted to political power in the narrow sense but takes in the power of economic might, which is arguably much more important than, say, the voting formalities of what is usually called “democracy”.
We live in hard, crisis-ridden times, economically speaking, and Ross’ catalogue of economic injustice and immorality based on corporate greed, self-interest and the profit motive gone mad will surprise few people who have been following various scandals that have come to light across the world over the past few years. Nevertheless, some of the appalling facts he presents (unfortunately sometimes in a rather scatter-gun fashion) stick out in a mind-boggling fashion. He quotes, for example, the case of Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers who “took home over $22 million the year before he led his bank to bankruptcy”, and who “in the fifteen years prior to the bank’s collapse… had been paid nearly $500 million”.
There’s nothing exceptional in a book dealing with such matters, but what makes Ross’ approach to solutions somewhat different from the norm is that he questions not only well-established economic, financial and business practices, but also political approaches that for a long time have been regarded as “best practice” in terms of democracy. He thinks otherwise.
Ross sees something profoundly wrong with conventional representative democracy where the many elect the few and that rests on an unspoken pact between voters and government whereby “we vote, they act”. The result is that apart from those few seconds in a polling booth most of us spend next to no time practising democracy. “For most of us, politics is a spectator sport – we observe, they do.”
The solution, Ross says, is to change our view of how “politics” (as well as the exercise of power in the economy) ought to work. Now comes the “revolution” of the book’s title, including the “leaderless” bit. Ross has opted to turn for inspiration to one of the most vilified political theories of the past century and a half – anarchism.
It’s easy to understand why anarchism as a political philosophy has been repeatedly denounced. Anarchists themselves, particularly the bomb-throwing, chaos-creating type, have been largely responsible for that (along with a media thirsty for hype and sensation). Yet Ross, while condemning the use of violence, is prepared to look at the essence of anarchism, namely the questioning of power relations in society and how ordinary people might take power themselves, or at least create the conditions in which sooner or later the power of the state and the power of finance will no longer hold sway. It’s a tall order and his nine principles for action, ranging from adopting non-violence to acting as if the means are the end, are arguably only starting points.
Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking book, enhanced by the often detailed personal “confessions” of someone who for a long time worked for a state formation but who now is seeking some entirely different means for improving the world.
Buy the book
The Leaderless Revolution
By Carne Ross
Hardback, 261 pages
Simon & Schuster, 2011