“It’s been a long time since I’ve read a more interesting, informing and inspiring book than ‘The Leaderless Revolution: how ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21stcentury’.” Bill Moyers
“Ross makes an impassioned case not just against leadership but against any form of representation, even representative democracy, arguing that it hasn’t worked…I found these stories thrilling.” Andrea Ovans, Harvard Business Review
"Puts the ‘We’ back into ‘Yes we can’" - Books of the Year 2011, The Herald, Scotland
‘So bold, so full of incontestable truths and overwhelming convictions, that it should be read by every diplomat, politician and thinking citizen with the courage to pick it up.’ - John le Carré
"A remarkable call to arms" Jon Snow, Channel 4 News
"If everyone read this book, politics might begin to be about trusting each other rather than lobbies, subsidies and cynicism.” Books of the Year 2011, The Daily Telegraph
"Carne Ross takes up where Naomi Klein, Noreena Hertz and others left off. This is an impassioned, idealistic critique of the state of global politics and the deepening rift between those with power and those without." The Guardian
“Idealistic and impassioned, wide-ranging and concise, pragmatic and eloquent…The Leaderless Revolution stands out in its insightful treatment of the nuance-colored, complex, seemingly irrational and inexplicably tumultuous events.” The New York Journal of Books
"[an] important contribution to the new age of thinking that is rapidly emerging as a consequence of the crisis of globalised capitalism" Huffington Post
“Unlike other books of this nature, which readily point out the societal flaws that surround us, Ross actually posits solutions to the hegemonic dominance of liberal democracy… [It’s] as good a time as any to re-evaluate this thought-provoking book, which offers a well timed and extensively researched interpretation on the themes of democracy, stability and anarchy”. PolicyPeriscope
The Daily Telegraph features The Leaderless Revolution as a Book of the Year 2011:
“John Burnside. The surprise hit of 2011, in our house at least, was The Leaderless Revolution (Simon and Schuster, £16.99), an inspiring plea for emergent anarchism from former British WMD and sanctions expert Carne Ross. If everyone read this book, politics might begin to be about trusting each other rather than lobbies, subsidies and cynicism.”
From “Books of the Year, 2011” in Scotland’s Herald (Nov 27):
“…Inspiring to read it alongside Carne Ross’s wonderful account of his journey from British WMD expert at the UN to emergent anarchist, The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Can Take Power And Change Politics In The 21st Century (Simon & Schuster, £16.99). Puts the “We” back into “Yes We Can”.”
"a thinking man’s neo-anarchist whose book outlines both the failures of representative democracy in the era of globalisation and ways in which empowered individuals can succeed in the future",
"[an] important contribution to the new age of thinking that is rapidly emerging as a consequence of the crisis of globalised capitalism"
”…this is a thought-provoking book, enhanced by the often detailed ‘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” Bob Dent,The Budapest Times (full review)
Why wait for politicians to oust foreign tyrants? Every one of us can do our bit
Governments bomb despots, or do nothing. It is time to explore the alternatives. And that’s where you come in …
by Jonathan Freedland
Tuesday 30 August 2011
Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. While western military intervention has worked in Libya, there could be other avenues to explore in toppling the Syrian regime. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP
They may call it political science, but it’s rarely like that. Politics tends to be messy, rather than exact. Yet under way in the Arab world is what might be described as an uncontrolled experiment, testing what has emerged as one of the defining questions of 21st-century international relations: when is armed, foreign intervention necessary to remove a brutal tyrant? On one side of the Middle Eastern laboratory stands Libya which, thanks to the help of Nato firepower, has shaken off all but the last remnants of the vicious Gaddafi regime. And on the other stands Syria, where impossibly courageous people continue to brave bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, as they work to topple the pitiless Assad regime, certain that there will be no British, French or US fighter jets to lend them a hand. The uprising that received foreign help has succeeded. What if the one fated to fight alone fails?
On its face, the Libya case seems to settle definitively a debate that has raged for most of the last decade, reaching its hottest point nearly a decade ago in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Once again the two sides, interventionists and their opponents, have been saddling up and doing familiar battle against each other. Since last week’s fall of Tripoli, it has been the interveners’ chance to crow – taunting the anti-war crowd with the claim that, had they had their way, the colonel would still be riding around in his golf cart, wearing his phoney uniforms, having slaughtered any Libyan who had dared rise up against him. The discovery of farm buildings filled with charred human remainstestifies to the dictator’s cruelty but also to the apparent necessity of foreign military action. Without it, Gaddafi could have gone on killing.
Meanwhile, those who opposed the Nato operation have been left to argue that things could yet go horribly wrong, especially if the western allies decide to hang around, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that it would have been so much better if the Libyan rebels had toppled Gaddafi all by themselves. Of course that would have been the ideal – but all the evidence said it was impossible. If a dictator is as determined as Gaddafi, and as ruthlessly ready to deploy force, then it amounts to a kind of callous indifference to tell the people crying out for help – as the Libyan rebels were – that they are on their own. If Assad continues to murder his own people and clings on to power, then that will prove the point in morbid fashion.
But what if there is a flaw in the experiment, a flaw indeed in the way this long, wearying debate over intervention has run for most of the last 10 years? For what the Libya-Syria comparison assumes is a crude binary choice: either we bomb the hell out of a wicked despot or we do nothing. But that dichotomy might be false. A far fuller range of options might be available.
The thought should be appealing even to those who support military intervention. All but the most gung-ho concede that such action comes at a cost. Greatest, of course, is the loss of human life inevitable in any military deployment. Nato pilots returned unscathed from their Libyan sorties, but those on the ground did not. Perhaps the new masters in Tripoli will say those lives were a price worth paying to remove the tyrant. But not all the grieving families will see it the same way.
What’s more, armed intervention can have a distorting effect once the dictator has gone. By aiding the Benghazi rebels, for example, Nato may have given greater muscle to that particular element of the anti-Gaddafi forces than would have been the case had Libya’s revolution unfolded the way change came to, say, Egypt. And because western armies were its midwife, the new authority is born with a legitimacy problem. So could there be another way to act, one that might have all the efficacy of the Libya intervention but with fewer of the costs?
Enter Carne Ross, a former high-flying British diplomat who resigned after serving as our lead man on Iraq at the UN security council. In a powerful new book – part fiercely self-critical memoir, part idealistic polemic – Ross argues that we have, for too long, expected governments to take care of the world’s problems and that they are no longer up to the job. He calls instead for a Leaderless Revolution – the book’s title – in which people will reclaim control over their own lives and futures, through even the tiniest individual actions. Having served at the diplomatic frontline in several western interventions, Ross has particularly strong views on what outsiders might do when they witness brutality far from their shores.
He is no pacifist; he does not rule out the use of force (and, had he been an MP, would have voted for it in Libya). But he says that all too often we turn to it as a first, not last, resort. In Iraq or Libya there was much that could have been done to oust those hated regimes non-violently long before the west finally acted. Rather than waiting for an uprising to begin, says Ross, outsiders could embark on any combination of these three steps, depending on the circumstances: “Boycott, Isolate, Sabotage.”
So Gaddafi could have been shunned, rather than embraced by Tony Blair while his sons were feted in London. We might have mounted cyber attacks on the colonel’s infrastructure. Ross cites approvingly the Stuxnet computer worm, which has wreaked such havoc with Iran’s nuclear programme. Such methods entailed no violence and yet might have hastened Gaddafi’s downfall – and are applicable to today’s Syria. The target would emphatically not be the Syrian people but the Assad regime, restricting the travel and freezing the bank accounts of the key players, making their lives difficult if not impossible.
But Ross goes further. Yes, there are non-violent routes that governments fail to pursue. But why leave it all to the politicians? “Why do we think that all we can do is write to an MP or sign a petition?” Ross asked when I spoke to him today. “I used to think those were mechanisms of action. I don’t anymore.”
Instead, he suggests individuals can act, especially in concert with others. Such talk sounds fanciful until he recalls the example of the Spanish civil war, when 30,000 foreign volunteers went to fight for the republic. Ross asks the question: “Why do people not do that anymore?” He’s not suggesting a stampede of Brits to Syria – though he says that “when I was 22 I might have done it” – but he is laying down a challenge. Why not boycott companies that trade with Damascus? Or lend your bandwidth to an effort like Access Now, whose “proxy cloud” enables internet users in repressive states to reach blocked sites? Hackers might even want to help the Anonymous effort to launch “distributed denial of service” attacks on Syrian government websites. Just as governments have come to believe their only tool is force, so citizens have come to believe only governments can stand in the path of a foreign tyranny. But they might be wrong.
The white-coated scientist would be tempted to stand back and do nothing for Syria, for the sake of the purity of the experiment – to see whether Syrians can liberate themselves unaided. But this is no cold, academic inquiry. Lives are at stake. Even if there is to be no military help for the people of Syria, that does not mean we have to do nothing. We can act – and we surely must.
The Leaderless Revolution by Carne Ross – review
A former British diplomat issues a refreshing mea culpa and sets out a radical manifesto for people-power
by John Kampfner
Thursday 8 September 2011
People power: anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011. Photograph: Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
The nation state, the construct that has dominated global politics and diplomacy for two centuries, can no longer meet the needs of citizens. This is the stark conclusion of a former high-flying British diplomat who quit the Foreign Office in disgust over Iraq and who has since worked with emerging governments in trying to assert themselves on the world stage.
Carne Ross takes up where Naomi Klein, Noreena Hertz and others left off. This is an impassioned, idealistic critique of the state of global politics and the deepening rift between those with power and those without. One of the book’s strengths is that he seeks solutions, though I wasn’t always persuaded of their effectiveness.
Most of all this is a mea culpa. It is refreshing for a non-fiction author to be so brutal about himself. Ross was one of an elite corps of diplomats, fast-tracked to a high position at a relatively young age. He would probably have received a top ambassadorship – with all the baubles of status and comfort that he admits he found attractive – had he not jumped ship.
As the lead official at Britain’s mission at the United Nations in New York dealing with Iraq, Ross was responsible for implementing policy on weapons of mass destruction and the pre-war sanctions regime. He contends that the Brits and their allies knew pretty much all along that Saddam Hussein did not possess significant WMD. Therefore, in his view, the sanctions were unjustified punishment of a people who suffered widespread privation. Ross cites experts’ estimates of an “excess mortality rate” of over 500,000 children under the age of five. “Though Saddam Hussein doubtless had a hand too, I cannot avoid my own responsibility. This was my work; this is what I did.”
It is when people feel dissociated from the consequence of their actions that harm is done. The author recalls Stanley Milgram’s famous laboratory experiment from the 1960s, which showed how easily humans could obey orders to torture, giving electric shocks to other participants. This, Ross argues, showed not just the pernicious effects of authority upon moral conduct, but something even more revealing: “the fact that the volunteers who administered the electric shocks, crucially, were told that they had no responsibility for the results”.
At the heart of the corrosion of public life is the time-old relationship between politics, power and money. Ross details the pernicious influence of lobbyists, which he argues pervades Whitehall as much as it does Washington DC. While the argument is not new, the details are engaging. From McDonald’s to Pepsi, from Kraft Foods to BP, rules were bent to accommodate corporate interests. I was particularly struck by the exemption granted to Wrigley chewing gum during the imposition of sanctions against Iran. The gum, Ross tells readers, “was classed as ‘humanitarian aid’ and thus exempt from sanctions, permitting millions of dollars of sales”.
Yet, in its desire to cover the gamut of evil-doing, the narrative loses impact. One minute readers are taken to Kosovo, the next they are told about David Cameron’s Big Society. Then from Iraq they are in US healthcare. Still, this is an important contribution to the debate. Ross bravely advocates the term anarchism (a positive absence of distant, top-down leadership), which he differentiates from anarchy, the absence of rules and the onset of chaos. He seeks a new form of engagement which borrows from the right an appeal to individual enterprise and self-expression, and from the left a sense of solidarity and community.
He concludes with a nine-point manifesto for citizens to regain control of the decisions that affect their lives. It includes: work out the priorities that affect you and pursue them; identify “who’s got the money and who’s got the gun” (in other words, where the power resides); do what you can when you can (for example, don’t wait for asylum policy to improve); help an affected family (as his parents did first for a Czechoslovak student escaping the Soviets, and 30 years later for a Zimbabwean fleeing Mugabe).I am not convinced that they add up to a whole, but the individual parts are compelling.
It comes down to on-the-ground change. The most illuminating example Ross cites is the experiment conducted in Porto Alegre. In 1989 the Brazilian city was one of the most unequal in Latin America. It then embarked upon “participatory budgeting”, with citizens encouraged to join debates about local spending priorities. Some 50,000 of its 1.5 million citizens take part. Apparently the number of schools has increased fourfold, while provision of sewerage and water is now comprehensive.
His message to the elite is that if they do not listen and act, they will face the consequences: “The less people have agency – control – over their own affairs, and the less command they feel over their futures and their circumstances, the more inclined they are to take to the street.”
John Kampfner is author of Freedom For Sale and Blair’s Wars
The Leaderless Revolution
Review by John Lloyd, October 7, 2011
Carne Ross, a former high-flying British diplomat, makes a case for a world without rules and regulatory institutions
Carne Ross, a former high-flying British diplomat, would lead us to a leaderless revolution. His experience in the diplomatic service, especially his period as point man for Iraq at the UK delegation to the UN in the early 2000s, disillusioned him profoundly. It led to his resignation in 2004 and pushed him to create Independent Diplomat, an advisory agency for those excluded from the system in which he once served.
Ross believes that states – and not just in the west – are declining in power; and that the order politicians, officials and diplomats try to impose on the world is not only illusory but anti-human, wholly missing the complexity, the “fantastic mélange” of human life and interactions. This is true of democracies and autocracies, of states with a socialist economic order and those with a capitalist one.
He spends a substantial part of The Leaderless Revolution constructing a dystopian catalogue, informed both by observation and wide reading. Governments (or most of them) proclaim global warming as a major threat – and at vast conferences in Cancún and Copenhagen fail to agree on anything to properly address it. Ludicrous wealth jostles with starvation-level poverty – and both get more extreme. Terrorists abound, and not only under the rubric of Islamism.
As his title proclaims, he sees the salvation in us – we, the people, “Imagine,” he urges, “the world without institutions.” He applies this thought experiment to the world of investment, starting with the case of Bernard Madoff – and argues that, paradoxically, we are less wary of such people because we believe a watchdog sleeplessly guards the public interest – or, as he puts it, “if the teacher is present, what is going on in the playground must be, in some way, acceptable”.
On the financial crisis too, he argues that the regulation and legislation that followed did nothing to improve matters – it was “a theatre show, presented for the public’s benefit to reassure them that ‘something was being done’”. Better, then, to cease believing in rules and regulatory institutions – and allow the private, individual watchdogs, empowered by the internet, to both blow the whistle and mete out punishment.
Ross proposes nine principles, the first of which is to ask what makes you angry and, having found out, determine to do something about it. Others include not to assume knowledge of what is good for people but to let them tell you; to negotiate directly with those you wish to influence; and to use boycotts and (non-violent) sabotage.
The book makes it clear why Ross felt so constrained by diplomacy: it is less clear on what basis he sees a leaderless world being constructed. If he means that leaders should be replaced by collective action, however rapidly, then he prepares us too little for the mighty shift in polity this would require. His examples – which tend to be drawn from his own or his family’s experience – are often admirable, such as his parents’ decision to shelter refugees. But they do not make a template for a new, self-governing world.
Ross is right that governance brings hierarchies, corruption, bureaucracy and empty rhetoric, and often, in less fortunate places than most western countries, much worse. But the transition to stable self-government is unimaginable – or at least I cannot imagine it as anything other than bloody. That is especially the case if his first principle, to follow the direction of your anger, is taken literally. For many, the list might indeed include oppression, inequality and hunger; there are also those enraged by other races, or the people next door.
Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, advocated a humble form of rule: an often-quoted saying of his is that “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did it ourselves.’” Lao Tzu was the opposite of an anarchist: leaders should study humility – but they must lead. Only then can people think they did it all themselves.
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor