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.