Carne Ross

by Jonny-Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.10, Summer 2015
by Tabitha Panter

After resigning as a British Diplomat, having given secret evidence to a British inquiry into the Iraq war, Carne Ross founded the nonprofit Independent Diplomat. The organisation works internationally with many marginalised groups such as the indigenous Saharawi people of Western Sahara in their fight for self-determination and those in the Marshall Islands who are being severely affected by climate change.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: With the recent Scottish Referendum for political independence, the idea of sovereignty and autonomy has once again become a political issue. To what extent do you see the world decentralising to more regional self-governance over the next decade? 

Carne Ross: I see the desire for decentralisation and in some cases separation as a very natural and inevitable response to globalisation, where power has not only left people’s hands but also no longer seems to belong to national governments. Just look at Greece. Everyone feels a lack of agency over the circumstances that affect them and that matter to them. That desire to reassert agency and control will be manifested in many different ways. But the paradox is that decentralisation or separation, as in Scotland or Catalonia, will not really recapture economic agency. Only the more fundamental reform of capitalism and democracy itself will do that.

JGF: Even though Independent Diplomat is an NGO, you’re quite openly critically about the limits of diplomacy, mentioning Arundhati Roy’s work on the charitable-industrial complex and the “NGOisation of activism.” While third sector organisations have had a role in social justice over the last few decades, how important is a shift to community and movement building?

CR: Too often NGOs are dependent upon the very system they are trying to improve, or claim to improve. They therefore confuse everyone. They appear to embody change but in fact don’t. In fact, they may merely reinforce the status quo by making it appear reformable. This isn’t however to dismiss the very worthwhile work that a lot of NGOs are doing. But I think we have to be very clear about how real change happens. The very urgent and necessary reform we need will only come through more fundamental change in the nature of democracy and the nature of economic activity, towards more collective (but not statist) forms. Things like climate change and poverty and political exclusion will not ultimately be solved by NGOs, however good they are. These problems require changes in the very structures of economic activity and government. This is a task that cannot be contracted out.

JGF: The Occupy movement was often criticised by mainstream political commentators for not making political demands on governments, instead focusing on creating a new political terrain. Do you think there has been a significant shift from this hope for more progressive governments to, as the Argentinian protesters cried, “They all must go!”? 

CR: I think it’s a mistake to generalise about protest movements, each of which has origins very specific to their local circumstance even if, to some extent, they may take inspiration from one another. Occupy began in the US and helped America at last begin to understand that inequality and economic injustice were real and must be addressed. There were not that many people in Occupy who wanted to replace the whole political order in America, not least because they didn’t have much idea about alternatives. It was much more a protest movement than a movement with specific goals. In Argentina, Spain and elsewhere, mass movements have been focused on getting rid of corrupt political casts and less upon root-and-branch political or economic reform (although there were always elements of that, too). But here again, it’s hard to generalise. Podemos, which to some extent flowed from the 15M movement, is now firmly participating in “conventional politics,” abandoning and to a degree exploiting its roots as a mass movement. It’s remarkable how quickly its leaders have started to sound exactly like typical politicians. A lot of people in 15M or Los Indignados feel very angry that this has happened. All this aside, I do think that now there is a real sense in many countries that is the very structures of contemporary politics and economy that are at fault. This awareness just wasn’t there a few years ago. It’s no wonder. The problems are now so evident.

JGF: Recent natural disasters—Hurricane Sandy and Katrina—have really exposed the unresponsiveness of governments either incapable or unwilling to help, and shown how effectively communities can resolve such issues themselves. What inspiring examples of community resilience and resourcefulness have you encountered through your work?

CR: Rebecca Solnit has written powerfully about how communities cooperate after disaster. My own experience is more limited. I did see cooperation in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, but I also saw very disturbing examples of indifference—some old ladies in our apartment block were basically abandoned by their families. In a sense, we’re caught between two stools. The fact that government is supposed to protect us undermines the sense of responsibility to others—and indeed local organisation and discussion. 

This example will surprise you, but I was tremendously moved by the very powerful sense of solidarity that suffused New York City after the 9/11 attacks. It was very little reported upon at the time and was drowned out by the crazy warmongering hysteria emanating from Washington. And it wasn’t about revenge, it was loving. People looked out for one another in a way I had never seen before in a big city. It was an unforgettable experience, and brings tears to my eyes even now. I was working for government at the time (I was a diplomat at the UN for the UK government) but looking back I think that experience changed me forever. I began to wonder why we couldn’t behave like that the rest of the time. Clearly it is within us. Clearly it was circumstance that elicited that collective solidarity. How could that feeling be recreated, but without horrific disaster to stimulate it? I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

JGF: You’ve worked with the activist Liam Barrington-Bush. His book Anarchism in the Boardroom explores the role of horizontalism and consensus in the workplace. How much do you think hierarchical organisational structures —found not only in traditional institutions but charities and trade unions—prevent us from creating social change? And what changes do you think should be made? 

CR: Liam’s book is important because it shows very practically how organisations can reconnect with their purpose—why people do that work in the first place. Anarchist theory of organisations is very instructive. Unless you are very careful, organisations inevitably become hierarchical and devoted to their own perpetuation, rather than the purpose for which they were founded. I’ve experienced that myself! It takes effort, but also practical techniques, to avoid this danger. Reconnecting with your purpose means you will be happier, but also more effective, getting stuff done. Even in worthy NGOs and charities, there are too many people who feel their lives are mere emails, office politics and bullshit. That doesn’t have to be the case. Read Liam’s book!

Carne Ross was a high-flying British diplomat who worked on many of the world’s toughest issues, including Afghanistan, terrorism, and climate change. After working on Iraqi WMD and sanctions at the UN Security Council, he was one of only two British diplomats to resign over the 2003 Iraq War. That experience forced him to confront the deeper problems of a volatile, globalised world. A frequent commentator on current affairs on CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera, and a contributor to Huffington Post and The Guardian, Ross also founded, and now runs, Independent Diplomat, a non-profit advisory group that assists democratic countries and political groups around the world. He lives in New York City.

Clearly it was circumstance that elicited that collective solidarity. How could that feeling be recreated, but without horrific disaster to stimulate it?

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Published in STIR magazine no.10, Summer 2015