The Leaderless Revolution: A New Paradigm of Political Change

The political methods of the 20th century are, it appears, less and less effective for the world of the 21st.
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A new paradigm of political change:

The political methods of the 20th century are, it appears, less and less effective for the world of the 21st.

The nature of globalization is without precedent: accelerating interconnectedness, with billions of people interacting constantly in a massive, dynamic, and barely comprehensible process.

Yet the assumption persists that the political processes and institutions designed in the 20th century, or earlier, remain appropriate and effective in this profoundly different state of affairs. In fact it appears that the ability of national governments and international authorities to manage the severe problems arising from this new dispensation are declining, despite their claims to the contrary.

Take climate change. The annual climate summit has just ended in Durban, after dozens of "preparatory" meetings and thousands of diplomatic discussions. Its output was a decision to agree a treaty in 2015 to introduce emissions limits in 2020. Oddly, many governments (and commentators) are claiming this as some kind of victory.

It is traditional to blame individual states (the US, China) for the failure to agree to more robust measures, and these do bear some responsibility. It is however also apparent that the process itself is the problem, and has been since its inception. The negotiation echoes traditional models of state-based interaction. Governments treat it as a bargaining process, where commitments to curb emissions have to be matched by other countries. The net result is that nothing is done.

The correct measure of Durban is not the declarations of success by the participating governments, which are required to trumpet their own effectiveness and negotiating prowess. The only output that matters is the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. This has grown with unprecedented rapidity by more than 10% since the first such conference, the so-called "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Effects in the real world should be the test of such processes, and indeed of all political methods, including government's. By this measure, efforts to curb financial volatility or terrorism have been similarly ineffective. Experts say that the internationally-agreed Basel III rules to reduce risky banking practice are insufficient, and they are already being watered down by banks' lobbying. Ten years after 9/11, and despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, we find ourselves in a condition of never-ending threat, multiple conflicts and the seemingly permanent embrace of an intrusive and hugely expensive security state.

There is a more pernicious consequence of the repetitive but tenuous claims to effectiveness made by the practitioners of conventional politics and government: everyone else is dulled into stupefied inaction. If "the authorities" claim to be on top of these problems, what does it matter what we do? And here's the rub. We have been pummeled into a kind of dazed apathy, endlessly badgered by politicians that they can fix it, when in fact we are the most potent agents of change.

At home, democracy has been subverted. Corporations donate copiously to both parties to insure their influence. Politicians initiate legislation in order to extract rents from big business. Private prison owners lobby for longer sentences. There are now lobbying organizations representing the interests of lobbyists.

This legal corruption is deeply entrenched in our supposedly democratic political system, resisting all attempts at reform. It is naïve to expect decisions from this system to reflect the interests of ordinary people. And this is what we see: tax regimes that tax incomes of the poor more than the accumulating wealth of the rich; healthcare legislation whose primary beneficiary is the healthcare industry; a comprehensive failure to regulate the banking industry to prevent further violent crises such as the '08 credit crunch.

Cynical despair would be a perfectly understandable response to this dismal picture. But this reaction entirely suits those who profit from the status quo. Instead, this analysis leads to one clear prerogative: there is no choice but to act ourselves. If we are not to stand by while the world's problems deepen, there is only one alternative: action based upon on our convictions, uniting with others for greatest effect. And as we shall see in the next post, such action is in fact far more powerful than any other method of politics in effecting real and lasting change.

A former diplomat, Carne Ross is the author of The Leaderless Revolution: how ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century, published by Blue Rider Press (Penguin), ebook now available, hardcover to be published in January 2012. For further information and videos explaining the book, visit This is the first in a series of four posts.

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