Let the People Talk

Carne Ross uses the knowledge and connections he gained as a career diplomat in the UK to help fledgling states make inroads into the top circles of international power. He literally walks them through the halls of the United Nations to help give them a physical presence before the high-ranking diplomats who typically decide on their fates without ever consulting them.

Some of the countries he helps do not have official “state” status or voting rights at the UN, and therefore cannot make their voices heard in meetings that profoundly affect them. Ross has worked to open up these meetings so that the most marginalized countries can speak for themselves.

It is one of many incremental steps he is making to promote greater inclusiveness in international politics through Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit diplomatic advisory group Ross founded after resigning from his post in the UK in 2004.

In his efforts to make diplomacy more transparent, Ross has discovered that large groups of people do not need a charismatic leader to articulate their issues. It is the subject of his new book, The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century, where he argues that we don’t even need government.

“In the ideal world, there would be none,” Ross says. “In the real world, it should be doing everything it can to enable people to make decisions about their own lives. Instead, it does the opposite.”

Ross proposes what he calls a gentle kind of anarchism. That idea can be unsettling for some, especially in the US, where the Constitution was constructed to prevent what the Founders called the “tyranny of the majority.” But Ross notes that Constitutional safeguards put in place over 200 years ago to prevent this perceived danger have been ineffectual, anyway.

“We’ve constructed a system that guarantees that we live permanently in a tyranny of the majority,” he says. “That danger has not been dealt with; in fact, it’s been magnified.”

In general, Ross is not quick to harken back to early modern political philosophy for timeless models of civic perfection. Hobbes may have been an alarmist when he suggested that, without government, we would tear each other apart. Even the experimental democracy set up by American colonists in 1787 cannot possibly correspond to the reality of the United States in 2012.

“The political circumstances in early America were very different from what they are now,” Ross says. “There were smaller groups of people, government was much more local. And yet, we take their prognostications about how government should work as irrefutable and eternal.”

Today, democracy is in a crisis, according to Ross. People are questioning it, becoming more and more frustrated with it. It is not solving their problems, and they are taking a long, skeptical look at the status quo.

“I think national political institutions are in a death spiral,” Ross says. “They will not exist in their present forms in a hundred years. Something is coming which is much more consonant with what we have today.”

And that something may be the leaderless revolution Ross sees on the horizon. Our tendency to celebrate the history of great men who saved humanity is misleading as an historical truth, he says, and has only made people feel disempowered. But when people actively deliberate on their own behalf, they are more committed to resolving problems, less arbitrary in their decision-making.

“It’s always more powerful to meet people and have sincere conversations or negotiations with them,” he explains. “You end up with much more agreement than you actually thought. Detached politics is causing more conflict because people are able to depict the other side as devilish and stupid.”

Removed from the bureaucracy and obfuscation he encountered in British diplomacy, Ross has become convinced that political action is dangerous when it devolves into a distant activity done by others. In reality, every action—or inaction—has political consequences.

“To me, politics is what you do every day,” he says. “But you can’t wait. You have to get on with it.”