Blocl activism

The Leaderless Revolution (2011)

By Carne Ross

Frustration with conventional politics is rising everywhere, depressing voter turnout and fuelling popular anger. Politicians too can sense the mood, but are unable to offer any prescription except more of the same politics, perhaps spiced with a dangerous and hollow populism.

This new world requires something else beyond more promises, something beyond new theories of interpretation, something that might, just might, make us feel at last that the tools fit the job. This new world requires a new politics.

Recently, the UN Environment Program reported that even if states fulfilled all of their commitments to reduce carbon emissions, including those made at Copenhagen, the world’s temperature would still most likely exceed the 2°C “danger” level. Outside of predictions and commitments, and in the real world of the earth’s atmosphere, where success or failure is truly measured, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has continued to rise unabated.

While globalisation intensifies apace, its rigours and stresses ever more evident, its rewards seem to accrue mostly to a minority: the top one percent of the population in the US takes home nearly twenty-five percent of all income, the highest percentage since 1928.

In 2011, as leading bankers declared that the “years of apology” should be over, one study showed that seven million of the poorest Britons had seen their living standards decline by a massive ten percent over the previous decade.

In some parts of America, life expectancy is actually declining thanks to poverty, though healthcare spending per capita – averaged across the population – is higher here than anywhere on earth.

In India, politicians obsess about headline GDP growth rates, and the richest build billion-dollar skyscraper houses, but hundreds of millions remain in abject poverty and malnourishment – the calorie intake of the poorest has remained stagnant for over a decade and more than half of India’s children under five suffer stunting and poor brain development.

As billions join the global labour force, no job is secure; no industry is stable; no profession may not one-day face destruction. While economic insecurity is on the rise, so too is a more insidious and equally permanent anxiety – political insecurity and violence.

Contrary to the received wisdom that economic underdevelopment is the fount of terrorism, former CIA case officer Marc Sageman found in a study of 172 Al Qaeda terrorists that the majority were middle- to upper-class, well-educated, married with children, and occupied professional or semi-professional positions, often as engineers, architects, scientists and doctors.

The Small Arms Survey now reckons that globally there are nearly 900 million light weapons, some of ever-greater sophistication: sniper rifles deadly at two miles’ range; man-portable missiles that can down airliners; mines that can sink cruise liners.

As if these data were not dismal enough, it seems too that the very ground on which we stand is less firm than before. Once conquered, mankind foolishly believed nature would remain quiescent in our plans. Rising sea levels have already required the evacuation – forever – of several low-lying islands. In Australia and Russia, forest fires rage with a new and terrifying ferocity, consuming whole towns. Even the sceptical notice greater volatility in the weather – everything’s hotter and colder, and wetter and windier than it used to be.

The urban majority now barely encounter what their forebears took for granted: trees, fresh air, birdsong, silence. Lives are lived out in a frantic, noisy hecticness; fulfilment is distant, with peace and escape dreamt of, sometimes purchased, but all too rarely experienced.

The temptation is simply to switch off, tune out, escape.

The answer to both the personal and collective crises is in fact the same. And it is simple. We lack control; we need to take it back.

The incredible and seismic changes of the late 20th and early 21st century have forced dramatic and sometimes revolutionary changes in almost every realm of human activity – finance, technology, culture – save one, politics.

Something else is desperately needed. That necessity has been articulated by many, but none has offered a solution except more of the same, politics-as-usual: futile calls for more “political will” to address this or that problem, or celebrity-endorsed “single issue” campaigns for the public to pressure their representatives to address one particular crisis over others.

People in government are not bad or stupid, on the contrary, but the contract between people and government forces them to claim something which no sensible person should claim, that government can understand and predict the massive complexity of the contemporary world, and manage it on our behalf.

[sadly it required the death of a decent and honest man, my colleague David Kelly, for me to see the light as to how far government would go to protect its own false stories.]

The problem is always someone else’s, never ours, to solve.

In a world where government influence is in inexorable decline, and other transnational forces assert themselves, some beneficent but some malign, there is little choice but to take on the burden of action ourselves. If we do not, others surely will, whether criminal mafias with worldwide reach, global terrorist movements, or multinational companies with no concern but their own profit.

It is comforting to believe that governments can provide for us, and protect us. Governments want us to believe it; and we want to believe them. Unfortunately, it is ever more evident that this comfortable pact between us rests upon weak foundations indeed.

But in truth, the reason is that conventional representative democracy, where the many elect the few, rests on a pact between voters and government: we vote, they act; we get on with our lives, they protect. This is the pact in which the parent must enrol their baby after birth. It endures until death. This pact is rarely examined nor is it anywhere clearly or fully stated; it is rarely admitted to, though its effects are profound.

The pact has several layers. At the most fundamental, the pact implies that government will protect its citizens; it will provide for their security and safety. In return, citizens agree to limit some of their freedom: they accept the rule of law, and with it various restrictions on their behaviour.

Less familiar is the second layer of the pact, one that is less often mentioned than the first, but one with more insidious effect. In addition to protecting the population, government makes a further commitment – to take care of society’s problems, including education, in some states healthcare services, care for the elderly and disabled, to protect the natural environment, including now the globe’s atmosphere, and above all, to provide for growth and employment – to take care of the economy. This commitment – and its consequence – are almost never explicitly stated: government will take care of these problems, so we don't have to.

For most of us, politics is a spectator sport – we observe, they do.

The trouble with the pact is that it is breaking down.

As a result, trust in politicians, never high, is declining.

The disintegration of the pact is exacerbated by a further damaging phenomenon: the deepening chasm between voters and their representatives.

In every national democratic system, individual participation has been reduced to mere occasional voting to choose legislators or the executive.

The competition to become one of the élite is intense and antagonistic, and in some places violent.

In Britain, many politicians have spent their whole professional lives practising nothing but politics, starting as researchers to MPs, then graduating as MPs and sometimes government ministers. David Cameron, elected Britain’s Prime Minister in 2010, has never had any job outside of politics, unless one counts a brief stint working in public relations; the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, likewise.

If this is the reality of the supposedly democratic legislative process, it is unsurprising that popular enthusiasm for conventional politics is waning. Membership of political parties, one measure of popular participation in conventional politics, is in steep decline in all major western societies.

There is no clearer evidence of the separation of governors from voters than the proliferation of the lobbying industry. And despite the promises of politicians to limit this industry and its influence, it has continued to grow.

Professor Lawrence Lessig has argued that the mutual dependency of lobbyists and legislators is now so profound, and corrupt, that legislation is enacted with the sole purpose of extracting rents from corporate interests.

Private companies that run prisons now employ lobbyists to press for legislation requiring judges to impose longer sentences.

In Britain, the corrosive influence of lobbyists is better concealed and less acknowledged in a political class that prefers to sneer at the money politics “across the pond” than examine its own squalid deficits.

After leaving office, Blair himself was awarded a position as “senior adviser” to investment bank JPMorgan for a salary of half a million pounds a year63, a rôle to which he gave rather less publicity than his position as a peace envoy in the Middle East for the so-called “Quartet” group of countries.

One of the most senior British officials involved in the planning (if that’s the right word) and execution of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was recruited upon retirement by oil giant BP, which, it is no surprise to learn, has a considerable interest in Iraq’s massive oil reserves; another, doubtless for the same purpose, by British Gas.

As the popularity of membership of political parties declines, they are forced to depend more and more on rich donors, whose inevitable demands for political favour in return of course reinforces the disconnection between parties and voters.

In Britain, data show all too clearly that the bulk of donations to the major political parties came not from mass members but a much smaller number – just a few hundred – of very large donors.

All the major political parties run, with little fanfare, secretive donor circles where, for a certain fee, contributors are given guaranteed but discreet access to ministers and other senior politicians with sway over policy.

Given the pernicious forces at work in the current political system, it is unsurprising that the decisions produced are often grossly divorced from the needs of electors, or even of the state itself.

In the UK, the government has been convinced by the defence industry to purchase two enormous aircraft carriers, to “maintain Britain’s ability to project force”, even though the carriers offer a far greater capability than Britain has enjoyed for many decades, if not ever.

On another patch of the carpet, the oil giant BP revealed that it had “expressed concern” to the British government about slow progress in diplomatic negotiations between Libya and Britain on the transfer of prisoners, on the grounds that it might negatively affect BP’s oil exploration contracts with the Libyan government. These contracts were worth $900 million. The company claimed that such an expression, and indeed its concern, was nothing to do with the incarceration of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, whom Libya was campaigning to have transferred to Libya from his Scottish prison, where he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people.

Al-Megrahi was transferred, much to the outrage of many of the families of those killed.

The political space is more and more occupied not by citizens, but by big business and the wealthy.

In Britain, recent elections saw the first ever accession to a parliamentary seat – in the European Parliament – of a far-right party, with the victory of the British National Party.

The polarisation of political views, the intercession of business, lobbyists and interest groups between voters and their representatives, the growing number and power of political actors who are neither politicians nor conventional political parties, accountable to no-one but themselves yet nonetheless wielding considerable influence; together these factors suggest a deepening divide between the public and their nominal representatives; they suggest nothing less than a crisis in democracy.

The pact between citizen and government is never explicit. You can spend an entire life paying taxes, obeying laws, without once being asked whether you wish to contract into or out of it. Government insists upon your registration at birth, and to be notified upon your death. At no point does it seek your consent. You never get the chance to contract into the pact: your parents are legally obliged to do so on your behalf whether they like it or not. And there is only one way to contract out.

If government cannot provide for the stability, safety and just arbitration of our common affairs, who can? The answer is both radical and discomforting. For there is only one alternative if government cannot successfully provide: we must do so ourselves,

It is more evolution than revolution, for it is dawning on people across the world that in order to fix our problems, there is no one to look to but ourselves.

But if it’s true that government is less and less able to manage our collective affairs, it seems we have little choice but to take that burden upon our own shoulders. We must learn anew to look to ourselves to produce the effects we desire, to take responsibility for ourselves and for others, and to cooperate and negotiate with each other, instead of leaving that arbitration to an evidently imperfect mechanism. As these habits spread, a new and more durable order may emerge, not – as now – legislated from above but built from the ground up, by people acting upon their beliefs and engaging with each other.