Carne Ross, a former high-flying British diplomat, would lead us to a leaderless revolution. His experience in the diplomatic service, especially his period as point man for Iraq at the UK delegation to the UN in the early 2000s, disillusioned him profoundly. It led to his resignation in 2004 and pushed him to create Independent Diplomat, an advisory agency for those excluded from the system in which he once served.

Ross believes that states – and not just in the west – are declining in power; and that the order politicians, officials and diplomats try to impose on the world is not only illusory but anti-human, wholly missing the complexity, the “fantastic mélange” of human life and interactions. This is true of democracies and autocracies, of states with a socialist economic order and those with a capitalist one.

He spends a substantial part of The Leaderless Revolution constructing a dystopian catalogue, informed both by observation and wide reading. Governments (or most of them) proclaim global warming as a major threat – and at vast conferences in Cancún and Copenhagen fail to agree on anything to properly address it. Ludicrous wealth jostles with starvation-level poverty – and both get more extreme. Terrorists abound, and not only under the rubric of Islamism.

As his title proclaims, he sees the salvation in us – we, the people, “Imagine,” he urges, “the world without institutions.” He applies this thought experiment to the world of investment, starting with the case of Bernard Madoff – and argues that, paradoxically, we are less wary of such people because we believe a watchdog sleeplessly guards the public interest – or, as he puts it, “if the teacher is present, what is going on in the playground must be, in some way, acceptable”.

On the financial crisis too, he argues that the regulation and legislation that followed did nothing to improve matters – it was “a theatre show, presented for the public’s benefit to reassure them that ‘something was being done’”. Better, then, to cease believing in rules and regulatory institutions – and allow the private, individual watchdogs, empowered by the internet, to both blow the whistle and mete out punishment.

Ross proposes nine principles, the first of which is to ask what makes you angry and, having found out, determine to do something about it. Others include not to assume knowledge of what is good for people but to let them tell you; to negotiate directly with those you wish to influence; and to use boycotts and (non-violent) sabotage.

The book makes it clear why Ross felt so constrained by diplomacy: it is less clear on what basis he sees a leaderless world being constructed. If he means that leaders should be replaced by collective action, however rapidly, then he prepares us too little for the mighty shift in polity this would require. His examples – which tend to be drawn from his own or his family’s experience – are often admirable, such as his parents’ decision to shelter refugees. But they do not make a template for a new, self-governing world.

Ross is right that governance brings hierarchies, corruption, bureaucracy and empty rhetoric, and often, in less fortunate places than most western countries, much worse. But the transition to stable self-government is unimaginable – or at least I cannot imagine it as anything other than bloody. That is especially the case if his first principle, to follow the direction of your anger, is taken literally. For many, the list might indeed include oppression, inequality and hunger; there are also those enraged by other races, or the people next door.

Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, advocated a humble form of rule: an often-quoted saying of his is that “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did it ourselves.’” Lao Tzu was the opposite of an anarchist: leaders should study humility – but they must lead. Only then can people think they did it all themselves.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century, by Carne Ross, Simon & Schuster, RRP£16.99, 400 pages

Get alerts on Iraq when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article