on January 14, 2012
This is a remarkable book which proposes a very radical solution to much of what ails contemporary society. The remedy is delivered in a very quiet and most understated manner. Carne Ross is an ex-diplomat. He was once attached to the United Kingdom's Foreign Office. During his career he was responsible for directing, selling, publicising and, in some guise or another, manipulating Her Majesty's Government's policy towards Iraq, both at the United Nations and in Iraq itself. As a result of his involvement in what he later came to see as the misguided and cynical impositions of sanctions on that country and the entirely fictitious existence of WMD that became the "cause du guerre" which sanctioned the allied invasion, Mr. Ross experienced an epiphany and contemplated resignation from government service. The experience that finally triggered his resignation was the death of his friend and colleague, Dr. David Kelly, in a much-publicised and highly controversial suicide which "happened" amongst, to put it mildly, extremely dubious circumstances.
Ross does not, to be fair, attribute Kelly's death to anything other than suicide. He is silent on the various conspiracy theories, which lay the blame at the door of the government's secret service. Equally, he does not assign sinister motives to governments around the world; he is again no "conspiracy nut". His central premise as to why contemporary governments are powerless to deal with the challenges facing the planet today is simple and attributable to two main causes: venality and irrelevance. The book is largely USA- and UK-centric, but the corruption he describes which exists at the highest levels of government is equally applicable the world over. The powerful business of lobbying as it exists in the USA today as a means of influencing government policy is well set out by Mr. Ross. There are no ground-breaking investigative journalism revelations on this score: indeed, the subject is almost too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. When dealing with the UK however, I feel Carne Ross has added much of value. His description of how the "old boys network" in the United Kingdom translates into lucrative consultancies and company directorships for no-longer-incumbent politicians is the first time I have seen an old suspicion of mine confirmed so clearly.
Central to his thesis is the belief that all governments, irrespective of political persuasion, have become out of touch and irrelevant to the majority of the populace for two reasons. First it is their relative distance from the people whom, supposedly, they represent; secondly it is due to the inability of any group of "leaders" (elected or not) to distil into sound-bites and political policy the vast and chaotic needs of a nation's populace. He puts it nicely: "For most of us, politics is a spectator sport - we observe, they do."
His thesis strikes at the very heart of representative democracy and the concept of the nation state that most of us in the West have come to accept as normal. He sees both institutions as at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to the general welfare of the population. Most surprising of all, Mr. Ross openly acknowledges that large numbers of the diplomats around the world share this view:
"This is difficult to grasp because we have become so accustomed to the state-based system: the international diplomatic forums with their neatly lettered name cards adorning serried rows at the UN General Assembly or European Council. But reflect for a moment and the absurdity becomes clear: how is it a tiny group of people can possibly know what is best for their country of millions? By extension, it is equally implausible to expect that a collection of such tiny groups, meeting at say the UN or G20, can produce meaningful and effective agreements for the whole globe. The disconnection is simply too great. They are required to assume, to guess. They know it, as I knew it. But it is the rest who believe it."
In my own opinion, Ross is far too lenient in his criticisms of those organisations which are supra-national, like the European Commission and the United Nations and he entirely neglects the harmful and insidious roles played by many NGOs around the world.
His remedy is a simple one. He believes people should take back their own "agency"; that is, interest in and control of their own affairs on a day-to-day basis. He uses the word anarchism, with a small "a", to describe the desired "system". He wastes little time on the theory or history of anarchism, cognisant as he is of the "Shock! Horror! Probe!" reaction that such a suggestion will elicit from most people. Mr. Ross' anarchism is of a much gentler kind than most people think of when they first contemplate the idea. His anarchism is much more centred around community, cooperation, engagement and the need for local organisations to take charge of directing their own affairs rather than waiting for some centralised authority to take control of their lives. He mentions civil disobedience in passing as a slightly more aggressive manner in which people might accelerate the process of taking back control of their futures, but he draws short of endorsing it completely.
The book is a profound mea culpa for what he sees as a wasted, hypocritical and ultimately harmful life as a career diplomat. His honesty is to be admired and his frankness should be acknowledged by all who see in contemporary Western diplomacy only cynical, post-colonial and commercial impulses which serve narrow sovereign interests. The diplomatic arena he describes which is the "norm" in most of the world resembles not so much The Great Game as The Goon Show.
His softly-spoken but radical solution is simple. He says "Throw away the chessboard; cut the ground from under those who would pretend humanity is but chessmen. Cease using the outdated nomenclature of a world that is already receding into history; stop naming; stop dividing."
The last two chapters of the book set out the methods by which Ross believes we can regain control of our political and, to a lesser extent, personal lives. He also describes his own ongoing contribution in this the post-diplomatic passport phase of his life. It is not a dramatic call to arms. It is a gentle, almost understated, portrayal of the small, individual steps that the small individual can take to try to influence the course of events around us. Ross is convinced that if we do not make attempts to change our world, then others, less benign towards us and even more out of touch with us, will make those changes on our behalves. And we will all be the worse for it. Read the book: make up your own mind.
on September 1, 2011
Read the book.
If you are ever dealing with a bureaucracy, government, process or system, Carne talks about why system work the way they do, almost as an aside, how to improve what you get out of engaging with them, and, more importantly, how things could be significantly better, and how to get there.
If you're at all interested in any form of process, as a participant, activist, victim, or bystander; or have had opinions on any major international political engagement of the last decade, then this book may be highly informative in ways you weren't expecting.
Read the book.