The Leaderless Revolution – Book Review

The Leaderless Revolution
Author: Carne Ross
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
ISBN-13: 978-1847375346

Review by Jonathan Ingleby.

The sub-title of this book is ‘How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century’ – a bold prediction, if that is what it is. Ross writes from an essentially anarchist point of view, which is the more surprising as he was once a top British diplomat at the UN. He became disillusioned with the system, particularly as a result of the whole Iraq affair, and resigned from the British foreign service. Interestingly, he was also disillusioned with himself, convinced that his own ambition and blindness led him to make decisions that were mistaken and even immoral.

Ross contends that we have spent too long trying to ‘work the system’; what we need to do is to realise that it is the system itself which is the problem. All the familiar aspects of our democracy – representative government, for example – no longer serve. Worse still, we are passive about this.

The most dangerous effect of the system is not that it doesn’t work; it is that we, in whose name it is supposed to function, condone it, pretend to believe it, contrary to all evidence, and permit it to continue. (p.150)

To be clear Ross is saying that we do not need a different form of government, but rather the abolition of government itself, so that we, ordinary people, can start doing the work rather than demanding that others do it for us. In brief: ‘Our way of doing politics, indeed our way of thinking about politics, needs to change, from passivity to action: reclaiming agency’ (p.89). Ross is a serious anarchist. He believes that the anarchist philosophy provides ‘a kind of answer, one which became clearer to me as I read and researched anarchists of the past, and the small bright moments of history when anarchism was tried, when states and their armies had not dominated human affairs’ (p.223).

Ross also knows that this sort of talk will immediately be challenged. The common response to any anarchist proposal is that anarchy leads to chaos, Thomas Hobbes’s ‘war of all against all’. He deals with this in chapter 3, coming up with a splendidly optimistic rebuttal, pointing out with numerous illustrations that in times of trouble people often learn to co-operate and share. His account of the aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina is particularly telling here. In both cases the spontaneous public response was systematically vitiated by government intervention, as the authorities tried to re-assert themselves.  Again, Ross will not accept that classical anarchism – people having the agency instead of it belonging to elected or appointed governments – necessarily leads, via chaos, to authoritarianism. It can do this, of course, but it is only certain to do so if we insist that we cannot look after ourselves and that ‘there is no alternative’. Much of the above –theories of inevitable chaos or authoritarianism, he puts down to media scaremongers and to politicians who need to make us afraid for their own reasons.

As well as fending off the inevitable criticisms Ross has a number of very worthwhile positive suggestions. He wants people to mix more; he feels that globalisation is good if it means that people from a variety of backgrounds are able to do this. He likes the way, for example, that globalisation undermines national loyalties which he thinks are almost wholly bad. He is a also a keen proponent of James Fishkin’s ‘deliberative democracy’ (p.107) which in essence means more discussion among ordinary people, though Ross rightly points out that this only works in the absence of government. A system which consists of ‘you discuss, but we decide’ gets us nowhere. (How many ‘consultations’ have we all been to that are little more than a public relations exercise?) As Ross says, we need a politics which is ‘less about protest or petition and more about action’ (p.160). The action also needs to produce something, however apparently insignificant. This means, among other things, an emphasis on localism, and Ross is rightly scathing of governments which call for local action (the ‘Big Society’!) without giving local people the control over affairs which leads to true responsibility.  He is also a proponent of non-violence, following Gandhi’s ahimsa, of step-by-step action, of subsidiarity, and an audit of the human condition which gives priority to those in the greatest need. Overall there is a touching faith in human nature. Here is a typical passage:

The methods discussed here …imply a different view of mankind. That people can be trusted successfully to manage their own affairs, to negotiate with one another, to regulate their own societies from bottom up – by moral rules rather than coercion and punishment. That there is more available than the ugliness, conflict and emptiness of contemporary society. (p. 210-11)

Occasionally one feels that Ross is over-optimistic. There is a touch of ‘new age’ unreality. Take, for example, the idea of emergence, one of his big ideas.

From the combined actions of many agents, acting according to their own microcosmic preferences and values, a new condition may emerge from the bottom up, almost unconsciously, and certainly without imposition by government, god or anyone else p.158).

In a way this illustrates the weakness of Ross’s approach. He is right in what he denies, but not always so convincing in what he affirms. The whole of chapter six ‘Why chess is an inappropriate metaphor for international relations…etc’ is good on the way that governments and ‘experts’ pretend to know what is going on when they don’t.  The alternatives he offers are sometimes less convincing. Even here, however, he is probably right in saying that this is not the moment for programmes or precise definitions.

The goal cannot be defined neatly, as a concrete system or a state of affairs. It is instead a method, or process, a means – which is itself an end. And by its nature, no one can define where that process may lead’ (p. 231)

What does all this mean for Christians? Ross resolutely resists any overt Christian reference. He movingly describes, in a footnote, the courage of Father Noriberto Cruz in his struggle on behalf of the campesinos in Chiapas, but even when Father Cruz cites Jesus as his example, Ross is careful to say that Cruz ‘uses more religious terms than I would choose’ (pp.227-8n). This is a pity. The life and ministry of Jesus would have provided him with plenty more examples, as some of his heroes such as Gandhi and Tolstoy knew very well. Indeed I can think of no higher compliment to Ross’s excellent book than to say that his outline often sounds close to the Rule of God that Jesus proclaimed.

Back to Issue 39

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