Real Media: Former British Diplomat Turned Anarchist

Carne Ross resigned from the UK foreign office over the Iraq war, and has since been on a journey that has led him to believe in anarchism. Here he talks about his journey, the trigger, and the problems with top down society

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Story Transcript

CARNE ROSS: My name is Carne Ross. I’m a former British diplomat. I resigned from the foreign office over the Iraq war and since then I’ve set up an NGO dealing with political causes for democratic countries and movements around the world. But since then I’ve also had a journey where I’ve ended up as a believer in anarchism, which is a rather strange thing for somebody who comes from my background, which is very much government top-down authority, neoliberalism, to believe basically the opposite of that.

The trigger was my resignation from the foreign office or rather the Iraq war itself because I worked on Iraq and WMD and weapon’s inspections and to see my own colleagues, a government I thought was basically good, naïve as that may sound, lie about a war and ignore alternatives to war on something I really knew about. And so I knew exactly how it was lying. That was a real breach that let open the door to the journey that followed. Had that not happened I don’t think what subsequently took place in terms of my own personal transformation would have happened. It might have happened in other ways, I don’t know, but that certainly was the case here.

In the British system, there’s no question that the Prime Minister is by far the most important actor in British government and therefore in British politics. To a remarkable degree, British government is centralized. I worked in the foreign office theoretically responsible for British foreign policy. The foreign secretary, in almost all cases, in almost all important areas of policy, defer to number 10 and was told very explicitly on decision after decision what to do by number 10, and was basically presenting number 10’s policy. In those days, it was Tony Blair, I was also around when John Major was Prime Minister, so I saw both. In Blair, it was actually worse, I mean people in the foreign office said that Blair centralized government more than any predecessor. So there were people who worked on foreign policy, including Alastair Campbell, who was technically their media guy, actually had a huge influence over foreign policy because Labour in those days very much saw the message as the policy. What you were saying about it publicly was really all that mattered.

The idea that a small group of people can know the reality of millions or billions is absurd, and that therefore they can make the right decisions about those millions and billions is equally absurd. I think also you know my own analysis started from a kind of empirical observation about what was going on. You know, problems of epic magnitude, such as climate change and inequality resulting from the economic system that we all seem to have been accepting.

These problems are not getting solved. See look at the outputs from the system and you have to question the system itself. I mean there are various theoretical explanations I could give you of why that’s happened, including complexity theory, which I’m very attached to, which says that top-down authority can neither know the state of the system in any meaningful way and therefore cannot arbitrate it, and that stability can only come from combined bottom-up actions in a complex system. There’s no question that the Earth, the planet today in human society, millions of actors, billions of actors in constant interaction — that is by definition complexity.

The vast majority of political parties across the west continue to support this model of neoliberalism or supposedly representative democracy kind of modulating the worst effects of neoliberalism, whether inequality or environmental destruction, when the evidence is overwhelming that that’s not happening, and yet the vast majority of political parties across the West and indeed to an extent across the world still support that model. So the radical alternative, the better alternative is invisible to a lot of people; that choice is not on the menu for them politically.

In Britain it’s a slightly different story because you do have a more radical political choice in the Labour Party that is offering a fundamentally different vision and I think that’s important and I think that has shaken up the political debate. Here we can talk about the program that the Labour party is proposing, but there is much more of a choice here. What I would like to see is real mainstream comprehensive discussion of ideas like anarchism and the sorts of models of the company, of local democracy, of bottom-up democracy, that is proposes, which are not complicated. They are simple things that actually people can start to implement already, they don’t have to wait for an election to do it.

I know there’s a lot of optimism about the possibility of a Labour government. I don’t dispute that optimism, it would undoubtedly be better, but I don’t necessarily think they’re going to bring about systemic change, which is largely social, actually. It’s in our heads, it’s about how we see each other, how we see society, and this where anarchism I think has a lot to tell us. That if we follow certain principles in our lives and in our forms of organization, including how we govern ourselves, how we organize ourselves economically, those principles, above all being the rejection of coercion, equality of voice, equality of agency, then a different society will emerge. I think that is plausible. I don’t think that’s a crazy idea.

I think anarchism is actually, in a way, certainly is a much more sensible, rational, way of organizing society than the current system which seems to me, when you look at it on the face of it, tinier numbers of people making decisions for this vast number, absolutely crazy. Politics and neoliberalism have created this sense of agency-less, of apathy in sort of impolite way of talking about it, that “We can’t do anything, we have to wait for them to do something.” In fact anarchism, very very clearly says that, you know ,if you’re not prepared to do it yourself and practice these principles, then you’re not changing anything.

Communicating anarchism is complicated because it’s got a history. It’s a word that comes with baggage in lots of societies and interestingly that baggage is different. I’ve lived in the U.S. for a long time and anarchism is definitely seen more negatively than it is in Europe, and that’s partly because anarchist killed their presidents on one or two occasions. And, you know, I think that the left there, the Democrats have got a long way to go in terms of understanding that their mainstream politics is just re-affirming a system.

Whereas in Europe I think there is more openness to the ideas. I think that the way to explain it is just talk about the practicalities of it. Forget the labels. I mean I will call it anarchist, but other people can it communalism, they can call it self-organization, they can call it bottom-up democracy. I’m not at all attached to what people talk about and when you talk about the practical stuff, get away from the theology and the philosophy and the history, you talk about practical things. Like people sharing the enterprises that they work in, people governing themselves, taking decisions about the things that matter for them, whether the future of the local hospital or their local school, everybody gets that. That’s not a complicated idea to understand whether you’re from the right or the left.

Ultimately my hope is that if we do this, we will be able to dispense with political labels altogether because we’ll start to see each other as people not as Tories or Labour, Republicans or Democrats, or whatever — or anarchists or socialists even. I think you know that labeling has been very very divisive in a lot of circumstances. Clearly very divisive in the current political dispensation. I mean there’s a whole host of reasons for that in America and in Europe, but you know ultimately a successful cohesive society where all the vulnerable are taken care of, where everybody has an equal voice, is almost by definition a de-politicized society. It’s one where human values and moral norms in a sense are much more important than policy or political parties. I think where these ideas have been implemented, it’s quite interesting.

For instance, in Brazil, there was a big experiment — not really an experiment, practice of participatory democracy — in a city called Porto Alegre, where millions of people took part in the decisions of how to spend the city budget which was intrinsically better, led to much more equitable outcomes, but also very interestingly led to a decline in party politics because people began to see each as just people, you know, with needs. How do we educate our kids? How do we get treated when we’re sick? Rather than as political enemies, but also then one of the reasons the political system is held up and is supported is perpetuated in Brazil like everywhere, is that it’s a form of small elites dividing up the spoils. There’s always going to be competition between those elites as to who gets their hands on the money. So in every country, you see that contest and often that contest is presented as about ideology or political ideas. In fact, it’s just groups of people arguing over who has access to the moolah.