Carne Ross: Participatory Democracy Opens Political Process

Former British diplomat Carne Ross doesn't know why we're spending so much time following the presidential campaigns. "We have been led to believe that one little vote every few years is meaningful when I think intuitively, secretly we know it's meaningless," he says.
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Former British diplomat Carne Ross doesn't know why we're spending so much time following the presidential campaigns. "We have been led to believe that one little vote every few years is meaningful when I think intuitively, secretly we know it's meaningless," he says. "But in fact, in taking on your local circumstances or even global issues through local action is much more satisfying and is ultimately much more powerful." His book on participatory democracy, The Leaderless Revolution, has caught the attention of a diverse set of thinkers, from Bill Moyers to Stephen Colbert. The concept is not unprecedented. There have been movements to promote participatory budgeting in big cities. And two years ago, Newsweek wondered if the presidency is just too big a job for one person. Part of the allure is that Ross, a former government insider, writes and speaks so passionately about the need for alternative ways of making political decisions. Below is an edited sample of a conversation I was fortunate enough to have with him.

David Vognar: In your book, you document how government decision making is letting us down. How do you reflect on your work as a diplomat and the types of decisions you made?

Carne Ross: Well, in a number of paradoxes. I mean I really enjoyed being a diplomat. It's a fantastic job. On the other hand, we were grotesquely detached from the realities we were making decisions about and as a result I think we made very bad and sometimes immoral decisions. I was very closely involved in sanctions policy against Iraq during the Saddam years and I'm very ashamed of that experience because I think we knowingly allowed harm to the Iraqi civilian population. And we allowed that harm partly because it was so distant and abstract to us.

DV: When did you resign as a diplomat?

CR: I didn't resign in a great heroic act of conscience as the war started. I didn't resign until April 2004 when I gave then-secret evidence to an official inquiry in Britain into the use of intelligence on WMD before the war and that was the trigger for my resignation. Because after submitting that evidence, which was very critical of what my government had done, I just felt I could not continue.

DV: I share your view that we essentialize too much, and this prevents us from seeing a more multifaceted picture of others and ourselves. How do politicians and diplomats essentialize in their efforts to lead nations?

CR: I think we inevitably know form our own lives that our preferences, needs and realities are immensely complicated and the trouble with government or with diplomats is that they must grossly oversimplify reality in order to make decisions about it and as a result the decisions are often very arbitrary or inaccurate. And I think the world has grown immensely in complexity just over the last few years thanks to globalization and one of the attributes of complex systems--which is a particular scientific term about a particular set of circumstances which seems to reflect the way the world is today--is it responds very poorly to attempts at top-down management, partly because no authority can possibly know the reality of the state of affairs in a complex system and is therefore very ill-equipped to make good decisions about that reality.

DV: You write that "multilateral or supranational institutions suffer an irredeemable deficit of democratic legitimacy." How do you see this playing out in the Eurozone crisis?

CR: Well, it's particularly acute in the Eurozone crisis...The crisis of the Western democracies, and its not just in the EU, is one of agency. People feel no control over the circumstances that most concern them.

DV: You write that the UN Security Council overwhelmingly deals with non-state actors, despite its mandate to prevent wars between states. How is the world of nation states transforming and how is leadership changing?

CR: I think the nation state system is in terminal if gradual decline. Because actually we're dealing with a globalized system, an increasingly globalized economy and indeed a globalized society where our economic circumstances are dependent on indefinite decisions in Shenzhen as much as they are on central economic policy in Washington and the leaders of nation states don't want to admit this. You see in the presidential campaign the farcical claims from both candidates that they have in their power the ability to make radical differences to the economic circumstances of the US when in truth the causes of the current recession are by and large out of their hands.... And I think intuitively we realize this and this is partly why frustration with politicians is growing because we want to believe that they are capable and they are required to keep claiming that they are capable but I think secretly we know that they're not and I suspect secretly they know that too. Really, I've been with politicians and one of the things I've found striking is these were men and women who've spent their lives devoted to getting into political power and some of them would say to me once they got there the felt they had no real power to effect anything that really mattered to them. And I suspect many politicians feel the same way in Washington but they would never admit it.

DV: Chris Hedges has written that society today "creates a situation where people are excluded." How does the political status quo exclude people and how can we seek to include more people in decision making?

CR: I think any representative system where we elect a small number of people to make decisions for the many is inevitably going to exclude people firstly because inevitably powerful interests will get more influence than the less powerful ... because they will have better ways, including more money, to get to the governing elites than ordinary people will. For instance I'm part of the Occupy Wall Street working group on alternative banking. We have important and legitimate ideas about how to reform banking. We will get no access in Washington to explain these ideas. Jamie Dimon, the head of JP Morgan, who in many ways manifests these problems, gets high level access whenever he wants and that's a classic example. How to make a political system more participatory, more inclusive is very simple: you include people in decision making. You have participatory systems of making decisions. For instance in Porto Alegre, Brazil, they have a process where 50,000 people a year take part in decisions about allocating the city's budget on things like sanitation, schools, healthcare, and it works. It produces more equitable outcomes; more people feel their views are heard, therefore they feel the resulting decision are more legitimate. I think it's very hard to claim in America today or indeed the West generally that people respect the decisions of their government.

DV: How much do you think the activists of 2010 and 2011 are affecting their targeted social structures? Can moves like the effort to modify term limits in the House of Lords in the UK or the push for a Buffett tax be linked back to global activism for more equality?

CR: What I think the activists of the last year or two have very successfully achieved is making inequality a political issue, to the extent that it is now an issue in the presidential campaign and I think without Occupy Wall Street that would not have happened.... But for me the most fundamental thing is that we cannot expect government to produce equality. We have to work for it ourselves by adopting different models of economic organization, in particular different models of the company, to produce a more equitable society, a more inclusive society, from the bottom up. In particular this means cooperatives, employee-owned companies, benefit corporations, which is this new form of company that's now legal. That's a start. And I think these forms of companies can be just as competitive, just as efficient as the for-profit model.

DV: One of my favorite lines from your book is, "If people do not have responsibility, do not expect them to behave responsibly." How much do we have to look to fields that study human behavior, like psychology, as a guide for creating a new type of society where leadership is shared more broadly? Does human nature have to advance for this type of arrangement?

CR: I don't think we necessarily need psychology or science to tell us this. I think we already know it. But there has been quite a lot of social research which suggests when people do not have responsibility for decision making and when for instance you ask them to debate a particular issue, what you tend to get is hostility and greater division. And I think you see that on the Internet where people debate things and in town hall meetings. Because there's nothing really at stake, because their words have no impact, (they) just fight with each other. Experiments with participatory systems show that when you give people real responsibility they tend to behave better. There are no hard-and fast rules about this. And I do think if you're to introduce these type of systems, it will take time to get used to them and it will take time to think about politics and common decision making in a different way.

DV: George Lakey, formerly of the Movement for a New Society, has written, "In the longer run ... consensus can be a conservative influence, stifling the prospects of organizational change." Do you think the consensus-seeking of Occupy Wall Street can work on a larger scale? Are there other possible ways of making decisions democratically in large groups?

CR: Clearly, reaching consensus at scale is all but impossible. And again there's the problem of the tyranny of the majority, that in a group where the majority decides one thing the minority's interest will be ignored. The trouble is we have the tyranny of the majority right now. It's baked into the political system. Our political system today doesn't reach consensus so my starting point is the system is improvable, not that the alternative is impossible. And for me the vision is not a kind of top-down engineering exercise of trying to get everything right, it is a bottom-up process of making participation in decision making part of all of our institutions, whether it's schools, hospitals or the places we work. It's not just about 'government.' You know, for me, politics is in everything we do.

DV: Currently there are efforts underway to make voting or registering to vote harder. How do we counter this? Is online voting, via virtual private networks or a second internet created for the express purpose of voting, a possibility?

CR: I don't place much faith in it. I think the Internet is enormously powerful as a way of sharing information and thus power but it is not a good decision making mechanism above all because it lacks that face-to-face negotiation, that social interaction which is immensely powerful.

DV: What advice to you give to people looking to make the system more democratic? How can they gain more agency?

CR: Well, I think start with themselves. Start realizing that the consequence of everything they do is political, there are ramifications of every decision they make, be conscious of those. Then try to identify one or two things that you really mind about and then try to effect those in very practical, direct ways, not by sending a letter to your congressman or signing an internet petition, but by you personally taking direct action to effect that thing. And through that action, you will find others of the same mind, you will join forces with them, you will be required to negotiate with those who might differ with you but you will make a difference. And through that personal example, you will have an effect both on the problem itself but also on others around you and potentially have the power to inspire them toward fundamental change. These things are possible whereas I think writing a letter or the traditional means of how we consider political change are today all but ineffective.

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