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Carne Ross - 11 Dec 2018


Anarchism is actually about allowing these things to flourish between us. Instead of being transactional, economic power based, they become human, they become honest, authentic and that is very spiritual

Transcript from my talk at Rye Bakery Frome October 5th, 2018

On revolution

It won’t come from government legislation, or from the EU or leaving the EU. It will come from people setting up co-operatives, to put it simply. That’s a perfectly plausible thing and there are lots and lots of people doing it. People talk about John Lewis as a co-operative model that’s very big. It’s not strictly a co-operative.

Having political agency is the core of my anarchism, having power over the things that concern us, having economic agency, power over our circumstances, the world’s resources, each other, not having hierarchical power relations…

I wouldn’t be the first to observe that the two great examples of anarchism in practice at scale state have happened in war time - of course, the Spanish civil war and the Syrian civil war.

That is of course no coincidence when existing institutions are swept away by civil war. In the case of Rojava, a vacuum is created and allows people to build their own institutions from the bottom up. Obviously, we don’t have that possibility here in Britain, I’m glad to say 

I’m not recommending violent revolution as I think all violence is pretty bad except in certain circumstances.

My own theory of change in Britain which is why being in Frome is so important for me - is evolutionary, is people setting up forums themselves and those gathering legitimacy by participation of people in them. These forums, these places are not being to be decreed from the top down, they’re not going to be legislated for, we have to create them, both in the workplace and also how we decide these things together and that could be at the microcosmic scale, in a school, in a factory or it could be a town, or a county or even a country - all are plausible but they require us to spend the time - you must know that it takes time to build these practices, it’s a political culture we have to learn, to meet people, to listen them in a culture where we’re not used to listening to each other - but that, to me is a theory of change that allows radical fundamental political change that I feel hungry for and I sense and I sense that others are hungry for, but without the use of violence.

On Government

I was very struck by what Rory Stewart, MP, said in my film, that government isn’t doing an awful lot actually politicians don’t have much power. When I met anarchist groups around the country trying to do things - including a big community housing project in Hackney, what they find is what Rory is talking about - incredibly ossified layers of government doing more or less nothing, tweaking at the edges. The idea of radical or significant change coming from government seems to be one that we have largely abandoned. I don’t know what a country where the institutions had collapsed and were suddenly vacant would look like - I’m not necessarily recommending that. I do believe that this is an incremental change where institutions, also behaviourally, anarchism is a way of life. It’s a way of thinking about human beings, rejecting the notion that one human being can have power over another learning to arbitrate our differences in equality and respect - that is a long way from where our political culture is today and god knows, it’s a long way from the situation in the States right now and that will take time to learn.

I worry that a sudden implosion, whether violent or deliberate a sudden vacancy wouldn’t create a problem - on the other hand the example of Hurricane Sandy in New York City has been echoed in other natural disasters elsewhere; Katrina is a big example.

Rebecca Solnit has written a marvelous book about this phenomenon. When authority does collapse, local organic networks emerge to deal with the human needs that arise in these circumstances. I saw this myself with Sandy. I lived in the Lower East Side and we had no electricity and no water for a week - in Manhattan! And the government did nothing about it. There were little old ladies on the floor of our appartment block who were starving, and we fed them, we took food up. This isn’t a big deal, but systems of self-help emerged.

Colin Ward, a British anarchist from 20th century who is no longer with us, said this. He said that these networks of co-operation and mutual aid exist, they’re there, they’re just waiting to be uncovered. I’d like to believe that this optimistic view of society is true.

On women

 An end of hierarchy of course means an end of patriarchy and it means equality between the sexes, it means equality at home as much as in the political institutions - the transformation of all our social relations.

There wasn’t really time to talk about this in Rojava and sometimes I regret that the film focused on the young women fighters. The image has become a slightly caricatured essentialised image of the Rojava young women holding Kalashnikovs…isn’t that exciting, when in fact,  a much deeper project is underway - a social transformation of what is a very, very conservative patriarchal society.

Yet another thing that is not included in the film was a justice process where two families where one had murdered a member of the other were brought together to reconcile and to achieve what the Rojava forum’s governing bodies believe is the goal of such systems - not punishment, not justice, but social peace. The paradox was that it was entirely men having the discussion. There was just one women there, she was the one that was there with me from the PYD, the political party that seeded this revolution in Rojava.

One of the issues with Rojava is that there is a lot of quite rose-tinted reportage there which I contributed to with the film. I think there is a lot of work to be done to really understand the elements of that society and whether it is truly sustainable just as there is in our own society a deep project if we’re to overcome patriarchy.

On security and violence

The basic contract that governments pretend to keep is that they provide security in return for us giving up our liberty. We agree to submit to commit to coercive laws and authority in return for security. 9/11 was grotesque breach of that contract, if you believe in that contract, which I don’t in some ways. I certainly didn’t sign up to it and I’m sure you didn’t either.

But if that’s the basic presumption that underlies governments everywhere, authoritarian and democratic alike, a failure like that is so massive and overt, as was 9/11 from a government standpoint – that it has to respond. It has to reclaim the legitimacy and authority it has lost by that act. It can only do so by the use of force. Max Weber said that government is defined by having a monopoly on the use of force - the use of force is one of the only things that government is allowed to do which we’re not allowed to - and so it had to reassert its legitimacy through an act of violence - even at the time you could sense that it didn’t matter what that violence was, where it was directed, there just had to be a massive use of violence.

What makes me so cross and so moved is that in New York at the time there was a real feeling that that was coming from Washington. I remember being on the phone with a colleague from Washington, he was the first person who used the term 9/11, we were the people who actually experienced it, they gave us that term. This whole movement towards war came from them, you didn’t hear the people from New York talk about revenge. They talked about compassion, they acted compassionately. They gathered in squares, to light candles and sing, they didn’t chant for the death of Bin Laden, that came weeks later when cars with Arab State number plates were driving round with ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ stickers with Osama Bin Laden on.

I’ve never seen more clearly the disjunction between those who had experienced the consequences of violence and those who claim authority to use it who need to assert their own pathetic need to be the ones in control.

On anarchism

It seems incredible that we have allowed ourselves to get into a position to believe that we are incapable of sustaining non-hierarchical models of society and organisation.

I can’t name them but there are early societies that live like that. What for me is fundamental about anarchism is that it’s about a change of our whole values, it’s not just about political institutions. It’s about a society where equality and mutual respect is deeply embedded in our behaviour. I don’t doubt that that that’s a difficult thing to sustain but it seems a particularly depressing and bitterly cynical view of mankind to believe that hierarchy and power relationships are absolutely inevitable. I think there is living proof that that is not inevitable there are little pockets but they don’t get celebrated because we talk we talk about governments and states and politicians and wars, when we should be talking about these little places of equality and community that already exist and could extend to embrace the whole world.

What’s happening here in Frome is an absolute living example of what we’re talking about. Folks here in this room know how to make this real. I think it’s a myth perpetrated by government and people in power that people chat be trusted to run their own affairs. It goes back to Thomas Hobbes saying without authority, without The Leviathon, our lives would be nasty, brutish and short in a war of all against all. He wrote that during the English Civil Wars.

It seems incredible that we should allow that a narrow simplistic view to suffuse all our institutions. Without authority it would all fall apart - why does this have to be true?

There are so many examples of where that doesn’t happen. It seems to me that there is a world of opportunity that would available if only you would abandon that cynicism.

In a sense this is actually happening in Frome. You’re living in one of the few places in Britain where an experiment in self-governance, a very deliberate effort by local to seize control of their affairs has already happened. Getting involved locally is absolutely available.

One of the paradoxes of anarchism is that no true anarchist can paint you a picture of what the future will look like because they shouldn’t. No true anarchist can draw a picture of utopia because to do so is inherently fascistic, to say that this perfect society is available, no true anarchists believe that. They believe that there is society available where people have no power relations between them, they just treat each other with mutual respect.

That can come about very quickly if we just transform our own relationships. It can be very microcosmic. We have this image of political revolution - of the storming of the bastille, or 1917 Russia, it doesn’t and shouldn’t be like that. It is a microcosmic transformation of our everyday relations today and that’s available very quickly.

It has to happen from the ground up. It will only be sustained through our own individual actions of making it happen and through that it’s an existential fulfilment of what it is to be human. I profoundly believe that the model of the human offered to us by orthodox, neo-classical economics - that humans are here to maximise the utility to consume - is a grotesque caricature of what it is to be human. The human is a much richer more and diverse creature, where things without measure - love, compassion, solidarity, society - are the things that matter most to us. Ask the dead on their death beds - they don’t talk about having more money or bigger TVs.

Anarchism is actually about allowing these things to flourish between us. Instead of being transactional, economic power based, they become human, they become honest, authentic and that is very spiritual, liberatory philosophy as much as it is about any design for society.

On new models of organising

I start from the position that the existing institutional structure that makes a lot of sense on an organogram with its geometrically neat circles and lines down trough pyramids is not working.

The idea that we can construct a neat system to take account of the world and problems of scale is a fallacy because it ain’t happening and world isn’t solving its most important problems through its institutions.So we have to figure something else out.

The heart of it is face to face negotiation. A professor at Stanford called Stanley Fishkin did some experiments where he got groups of people who disagree about things to get together to argue their differences and try to come to agreement and he found – surprise, surprise – that they were much more able to do so when they met in person than when they met virtually. In fact, virtual meetings made more antagonism and polarization was the result. It was that human contact that was so essential.

There is a theory of how you can aggregate that up to scale - I was talking about that with Murray Bookchin who I mentioned in the film he wrote about confederalism and Abdullah Öcalan wrote a pamphlet ‘Democratic Confederalism’. You can envisage a system of bottom-up governance where local assemblies take the decisions. They will then appoint representatives who will represent the decisions made at the local level.

We have a system of (allegedly) representative democracy where we elect politicians and legislators to make decisions for us. This is the other way around – the local assemblies make decisions, but they appoint representatives to represent their decisions who are recallable, who are temporary. In that way you can see that the necessary decisions can be aggregated upwards.

The crucial difference between a system like that and what we have today is that decisions are made at the bottom and the ‘top’ is only required for administration of scale. At the moment we have decisions made at the top and administration at the bottom which is the wrong way around. The scale argument is often used to dismiss anarchism as a fantasy but I don’t think it actually stands up.

I think the hunger is there and its moment has come. In the late 90s there was such a sense that the western dispensation of allegedly representative democracy and capitalism modulated by regulation was actually the best, there was no further to go that it was just a question of tinkering with it. There aren’t many people who believe that any more, whether it’s ecological disaster or the disgusting wealth of a few at the expense of the many, people just aren’t getting it any more, they’re not buying it.

Technology does at least enable the sharing of information which is of course a form of power and in a much more distributed fashion, there are other technologies such as energy that are arguably moving in a more distributed bottom-up direction which will also literally be empowering for the base. It is incumbent on us to learn about these possibilities of how to organise these systems

Anarchism is dismissed as just everyone for themselves – this is not Murray Bookchin’s anarchism, his is very much a rational system of institutions where people take decisions and those institutions must satisfy certain criteria which our current institutions do not. They must be participatory, they must be transparent and they must be truly democratic. Once all these criteria are satisfied, you start to create institutions look very different from the ones we told are democratic and legitimate today. But you also start to create an understanding of organization that is totally plausible. Murray Bookchin’s ideas could not be more relevant.

On democracy

Anarchists don’t believe in regulation expect regulation that is constantly consented to and renegotiated between people on the basis of their current circumstances. The notion of a fixed set of rules that are eternal… One of the things bedeviling a country I love right now – the notion of who should interpret the US constitution is an absolute absurdity that a country should govern itself in that way in the 21st century that way.

Any “rules” that we agree should be temporary, they should be contingent and spontaneous and they should be utterly human, they should embody human choice and individuals and weakness in themselves, then it becomes less this dichotomous choice between the law versus the individual and blaming one or the other. Because that reflects who we are.

When I see individuals pilloried for their alleged immorality, I think ‘there but for the grace of god go I’,  when I see a law wrongly drafted, I think well, I’m sure the people who drafted it were probably doing their best – they may not have been – but intrinsically it’s impossible to foresee the circumstance where a law may be relevant or not.

This is why democracy should be a constant discussion about our circumstances because they’re changing all the time.

On institutions

I think the fact that we have to have a national health service to look after the elderly and education curriculums to tell people what children should know is an indication of a sick society.

I feel both children and elderly should be attended to by the community above all and we would find that spontaneous and a lot easier rather than picking politicians to make these decisions for us about institutions we feel are totally unresponsive to what we really want and need.

We’re talking about two of the most important institutions in public life and individuals lives and the frustrations both for the people who work in them and those who are subject to their administrations is immense

I don’t see the answer as more state control or state money or necessarily more money..

For me the answer is the vigourous participation of the people most concerned, most at stake, 

A hospital should be governed by its patients, its doctors, its nurses, its porters, together convened to making decisions about what is best for them.

There’s no reason why anarchism should abolish big pharma or abolish pharmaceutical research, I’m a big believer in pharmaceuticals, I’m not against them. This isn’t a primitivist philosophy of going back to the village. On the contrary. 

There are just better ways of making decisions collectively than by small groups of people making them, I don’t think decisions of how to ration health care are easy and our frustration is partly because those decisions aren’t in our hands. They wouldn’t be easy decisions if they were in our hands because it’s still rationed.

The demand for healthcare is basically insatiable, there is a limit to how much we are how much we are collectively willing to pay for, but that choice should be made by us, looking each other in the eye, at local level rather than made by a minister who we all give ourselves the luxury of hating.

On Labour

It’s very difficult for an anarchist at the moment because many of the things the Labour Party are talking about are right up my street.

John McDonnell has started to talk about worker ownership and they started to think about the philosophies of de-growth, which I think all politicians, and all of us should be thinking about at the moment… they’re beginning to get it though I worry about the residual status mentality in the leadership. 

But of course, there’s something fundamentally wrong, it’s a group of people who are pretending that they can govern top down. That ain’t right and it doesn’t matter who they are.

I know Jeremy Corbyn a little bit. He and I once presented a petition to No10 together about the Western Sahara, a cause I have been involved in for many years and to his great credit he has been involved in for many years it too.  He’s the most dedicated MP in Parliament by far – he’s dedicated himself to this utterly unfashionable but necessary cause around terrible injustice and I respect that. And he’s a nice bloke. But I don’t think he should have power over everyone else.

It’s such a pity that the Labour Party has not seized this moment to say massive devolution, we can transform society through the transformation of the way we make decisions. That is possible,. The hunger, the anger is there. You see it in Momentum and in the other reasons people are talking about Labour.

But to install another group of people to mess it up for the next four and half years until the next lot come in? 

It’s not the right way.

Accidental Anarchist : One man’s remarkable journey: from diplomat to anarchist. British diplomat Carne Ross worked on Iraq and its WMD, and resigned from the government over its lies before the 2003 invasion. His extraordinary personal and political odyssey culminates in a remarkable encounter with new forms of democracy in the midst of war – in Rojava, Syria. A profound examination of the political and economic problems that confront the world.