Metro newspaper ran this piece from me on 8 May 2019 as part of its ‘Future of Everything’ series. Here’s the link to the original piece on their site.
The current way of doing politics and our economic life on this Earth is coming to an end.
The climate emergency will require dramatic changes to the wasteful way we consume resources. The grotesquery of the 0.1% cruising in private jets while the rest struggle with rent and debt cannot last.
A peaceful, harmonious society requires that people are fairly treated.
For now, there is no justice, no peace. The breakdown of consensus is painfully visible in the poisonous cloud of abuse and polarisation on mis-named ‘social’ media.
This is not working. So what comes next?
The Far Right, because it trades in bogus certainties and machismo, has the clearest plan.
It is rising in America, Europe and in the UK with its takeover of the Tory party.
It appeals because it pretends to return control to those who feel shut out of the existing political system, though in fact its only strategy is more authoritarianism, justified by whipped-up racism and fear of The Other.
The Left and Greens offer a more sympathetic proposition but no political party can honestly claim to represent ‘the people’ or even ‘the many’.
No single party can claim support from more than about a third of the adult population. One-party government is therefore a recipe for endless political confrontation, with its own polarising dialectic.
When people take to the streets, the political system isn’t working.
In France, the Gilets Jaunes have been demonstrating for seven months against a government indifferent to inequality and deaf to their voices. In Britain, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) has already altered the way we talk about the climate: no longer ‘change’ but an ’emergency’.
But street movements cannot govern and protest alone cannot change the basic model of a capitalist economy governed by an allegedly ‘representative’ democracy.
This fundamental structure, how we govern and indeed our whole way of living together, needs to change.
Scratching a cross in a box every five years does not feel anything like enough nor does showing up for a demo or signing a petition.
Something more is needed.
To create a truly just society, where everyone gets a fair crack, you need a politics where everyone gets that same opportunity.
Representative democracy, where the few govern the many, inherently advantages those who can access the system: the already-privileged, the rich, the corporate.
Its party-dominated culture promotes simplistic and often-infantile debate about complicated problems (let’s not mention Brexit here).
The grown-up MPs are frustrated by it too. Radical change seems totally out of reach.
The answer is anarchism.
It’s not the anarchism of Molotov cocktails and masked demonstrators but something that more resembles true democracy than the current travesty.
Anarchists believe that no one should have power over anyone else (which is also, notably, the only way that love can truly thrive).
To achieve that, political decision-making needs to give an equal say to everyone. It sounds idealistic and is routinely denigrated as impractical by those who know nothing about it but it can work.
In the uncritical history of representative democracy, it’s never mentioned that democracy in ancient Greece meant citizens, not career politicians, taking it in turns to debate and take decisions (as long as you were a man and not a slave).
Porto Alegre, a large city in Brazil, enjoyed 10 years of mass democracy, where thousands of citizens debated budget priorities on things like schools and clinics or sanitation.
The World Bank found that, as a result, the city enjoyed much more equal provision of public services, justice and welfare. Traditional ‘politics’, in the form of the squalid contest of venal officials, disappeared.
A kind of direct, participatory democracy, inspired by anarchist thinking, is now thriving in Syria, of all places. Outside of regime control, in the predominantly Kurdish north-east, local councils make the decisions.
Always co-chaired by women, anyone can attend (and they do, I’ve seen it). Their decisions are then fed into regional assemblies, composed of representatives of the local bodies, when larger-scale policies, like a new road or taxation, need discussion.
But nothing can be decided that isn’t approved in the communal councils. Their decisions are only administered at the larger scale: the very opposite of our top-down ‘elective dictatorship’ (Tory Lord Hailsham’s term, not mine).
Technology can help share information (though we need better ways to verify it) but the Internet, clearly, is not a good place to take complicated decisions. Study evidence shows that people are much more likely to agree when they meet in person – and often.
It makes sense: You may detest that shouty man who attacks teachers on Twitter if you only know him online.
In person, you may feel differently when his eyes fill up over the treatment of his special needs child in the under-funded local school or when the teacher gets to explain her reality. Real-life democracy requires give-and-take, that my concession today may invite yours tomorrow.
We respect and listen to each other more when we see each other as messy, lovable humans rather than reductive political labels.
This is the beating heart of anarchist self-government: the struggle to understand, make decisions and live with one another. But this is the beating heart of a civilised, fair and tolerant – indeed loving – society too.
But how does this happen in a system which feels deeply entrenched, complacent in its self-regard as the mother of democracy’?
XR has already opened talks with Mayor Of London Sadiq Khan and others to demand a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’.
But it shouldn’t be left to the whim of one man to grant ‘the people’ democracy. The necessary change is much wider.
It’s about a whole culture of how we live together and, perhaps, start to love one another. We need to make it happen ourselves.
It’s totally possible to start meetings in the workplace or local neighbourhood. If they include everyone, they will start to gain legitimacy.
It means learning new techniques to listen and give priority to those normally ignored. No one should pretend this would be easy but the decisions of these gatherings could start to feel like the only decisions that matter.
Top-down impositions, by bosses or politicians, will offer a poor contrast. A system can shift, without violence and by consent.
It’s long been presumed (not least by Marx) that the English would never revolt.
I’m no longer sure that holds. When pensioners, school-children and professors block London streets, something is afoot.
There is a sense of possibility, of flux and opportunity, a sense that new ideas can be imagined and brought to life very quickly.
Building a new democracy and society requires us not only to demand it but to do it ourselves.
Carne Ross is a former British diplomat, author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Can Change Politics And Take Power In The 21st Century and subject of the documentary film, “Accidental Anarchist” (BBC4). He is director of Independent Diplomat, a charity that gives diplomatic advice to democratic movements and governments. You can follow him on Twitter at @carneross.