Carne Ross on Being an Agent of Change


BILL MOYERS: You just heard Paul Volcker say that even he thinks the rule named after him is too complicated and could stand a little streamlining as long as it doesn’t pull the teeth from the original law. Other supporters of the Volcker Rule also think the same thing – including Congressman Barney Frank, the co-sponsor of the Dodd-Frank Banking Reform Bill, and Sheila Bair, the outspoken former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. All three see the need for reform but basically believe in the banking system. Others, like my next guest, think it needs to be scrapped and rebuilt as part of a new vision of democracy — one that, much like Occupy Wall Street, calls on each of us to become an agent of political change.

Like Paul Volcker, Carne Ross is an economist, but he’s also a trained diplomat who was on his way to the top of the British Foreign Service. He was the speechwriter for Britain’s foreign secretary, and went on to become that country’s Middle East expert at the UN Security Council. He became disillusioned and distraught by the march to war in Iraq and his own role in selling it. He quit — although not before giving secret testimony to an official inquiry probing how intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was deliberately misused by American and British officials.

Since then, Carne Ross has founded Independent Diplomat, a non-partisan, non-governmental organization that offers advice on negotiating strategy and international law. He’s also working with the Occupy movement to create an alternative banking action group.

His new book couldn’t be more timely. There it is – The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st century. Talk about anticipating the spirit of the moment. This is a call for change everywhere, by everyone convinced that governments are in thrall to the one percent. Carne Ross, welcome.

CARNE ROSS: Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: You’re either very fortunate or very prescient or both to have worked on this book for several years and to have it come out right in the midst of these global uprisings. What did you see happening, at the time, that led you to think something was going on?

CARNE ROSS: The sort of fundamental inspiration for it was something that is occurring to people across the world. And is now kind of manifesting itself in these popular protests, both in the West and in the Middle East.

It’s about disillusionment. A fundamental disillusionment with the nature of government. That government whether autocratic or, indeed, democratic is not working, is not solving some problems that are fundamental, that are really very concerning. Whether it’s inequality, environmental protection, or indeed, economic volatility. Those three things are real problems, functions of the globalized world. And they’re not being sorted out by the current structure.

BILL MOYERS: But is there anything new about that? I mean, the United States was born in a sense of disillusionment with the reign of the crown. I mean, right on down through to our day. This has been happening.

CARNE ROSS: I think it wasn’t true 20 or 10 years ago. I think after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a real sense that liberal democracy, free markets, you know, governed by governments to an extent was the answer. That was the universal answer. That was the end of history. That is clearly not the case. And we have mounting frustration. I think the problems have risen to such a level, and the disillusionment with the system has risen to such a level that we’re almost, at the moment, a paradigm shift to a new form of politics.

We have to accept that government is no longer fixing things for us. Whoever’s in charge, whichever bunch of politicians has taken over government, they will not provide the answer, however well-meaning they may be. We have to instead take on the burden ourselves. That is a fundamental cultural change. And I think it requires a real examination of our own role in our political circumstances.

BILL MOYERS: When we went down to Occupy Wall Street, soon after it broke out, what we discovered is so many reasonable and what we used to say upright citizens, who have lost faith in the ballot, in voting.

CARNE ROSS: Yeah. It’s a very common feeling. I’m very struck in Occupy. It’s very ordinary people. It’s not kind of extremists or radicals. And the pretty common feeling is that government is not the answer. There are some who feel that we need to press government, you know, for better legislation. But there’s an awful lot of people who feel that that is just impossible, given the way that Washington has been co-opted by special interests. It’s basically implausible to expect good legislation to come from Washington.

And having worked in government, you know, very closely, in you know, in government foreign policy, but also in international institutions like the U.N., I simply don’t believe that these mechanisms are competent to solve our global problems, our national problems.

BILL MOYERS: Do you understand the paradox you represent to us? I mean, here’s a man who, if I understand correctly, at 12, you said to your parents, "I want to be a diplomat."


BILL MOYERS: At 29, the British Foreign Office put you in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian section, right? At 32, you were the point man for your government on dealing with Iraq, at the United Nations. This is a long way talking, being part of Occupy Wall Street, talking about grassroots democracy, from the world of diplomacy. What happened?

CARNE ROSS: Well, it’s a hell of a journey. I mean, it’s been a tough ride. And my wife will testify to that. And without her, I could not have done it. But I think, actually, that journey illustrates how I’ve got to this philosophy. You know, I was actually in government. I was writing for my Foreign Secretary. I was writing those claims that we were managing the world. I remember writing them.

You know, we have an answer to the problems of world trade, to the global environment, to poverty in Africa. You know, I’d write these very, very compellingly-written, convincing speeches, explaining how we would do it. And we weren’t. We were wrong. I was wrong. You know? These were — these speeches were written in a vacuum. They were just claims. They weren’t actually proof of output.

And when I got deeper into the system, I began to see why. Because government is fundamentally detached from the reality that it is trying to manage. It cannot manage and predict highly complex events. I saw this in the invasion of Afghanistan, which I was involved in, and of Iraq, where, you know, we make these assumptions about the rest of the world, which are grossly simplistic.

BILL MOYERS: You were the point man for your government in the United Nations on Iraq. That meant you dealt with the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction. Because it was at the U.N., the weapons inspectors were finding evidence contrary to what George W. Bush and Tony Blair were saying. And you were disillusioned by that, right?

CARNE ROSS: I was disillusioned by many things. The claim of a W.M.D. threat was a gross exaggeration of what little we knew. I mean, our internal assessment was that Iraq was not a threat. And then suddenly, our politicians required us to say that it was. And literally black was turned into white.

And the same intelligence assessments that I had worked on, you know, were edited over and over again to tell a completely fallacious story. But my real concern over Iraq was, in fact, not that. It was that we ignored alternatives to war.

You know, I really believe that war is the last alternative that should be taken. And in fact, there were better alternatives to war which were totally ignored. Because government oversimplified things. There were, actually, very technical, complex things that we could have done to the Saddam regime to undermine that regime that were never tried.

BILL MOYERS: One alternative was economic sanctions.

CARNE ROSS: Well, economic sanctions are, as a blunt instrument, and in, you know, what we’re doing to Iran now, I don’t believe are particularly effective tools. I think they harm the wrong people. In Iraq, we harmed the civilian population grotesquely. And Iraq is still suffering from that.

BILL MOYERS: You were greatly repelled by the suffering of innocent people in Iraq?

CARNE ROSS: Well, to my shame, I, you know, I did it, when I was working on sanctions. You know, those were the sanctions that I helped implement. I negotiated those at the U.N. Security Council. I think only afterwards was I really confronted with the reality of what these sanctions had done to ordinary Iraqis.

They damaged the Iraqi population very fundamentally and very severely and in a very widespread way. And whatever, you know, there’s a lot of controversy about particular statistics. But I think there’s no question that we did enormous damage to ordinary people in Iraq.

BILL MOYERS: Thousands of children died as a result in Iraq, as a result of–

CARNE ROSS: Yeah, it’s very, very shocking–

BILL MOYERS: You write about that very powerfully.

CARNE ROSS: Well, because I feel some sense of personal responsibility for it. And I think this —

BILL MOYERS: You’re hard on yourself in here. You’re flagellating yourself.

CARNE ROSS: Well, I think it’s one of the problems of the system. That the officials in it don’t feel responsibility. I mean, a lot of people suffered in Iraq, because of sanctions. Who is responsible for that? Who is accountable for that? And I kind of feel that at least I can say, "Well, I was part of it, therefore I am responsible." I mean, you know, that responsibility doesn’t bring any great price to me, you know? I’ve not been sent to court or pay a fine or anything for it. But at least I can say, "I was directly involved."

And I do think that sense of amorality and irresponsibility in government, of detachment from the consequences of your decisions, is a real problem.

But to go back to hitting Saddam, I don’t — I’m not talking about comprehensive sanctions. I’m talking about very specific, targeted sanctions to undermine individuals in the regime and the specific pillars of the regime, like the Republican Guard. There are lots and lots of things that could have been done, involving freezing his financial assets. These were never attempted. It’s been done elsewhere. And it was never attempted on Iraq. And I still am wondering why that was.

BILL MOYERS: Much of what came to disillusion you about your experience in government, at about the age I was disillusioned, too, inside government in Washington. I didn’t go quite as far as you. I haven’t given up on government. And I keep wanting to believe that it can be made an instrument of "We the People," as our constitution–

CARNE ROSS: Yeah, I want to believe the same thing, believe me.

BILL MOYERS: But I haven’t joined Occupy Wall Street. That is a long journey.

CARNE ROSS: Yeah. Well, as I say, in intellectual and emotional terms, it’s been very logical for me. I mean, you know, the Iraq War was a very big jolt for me. It was a very painful experience to leave the government. And I think before that, I really did believe in the kind of omniscience and the sense and the effectiveness of government led by decent, sensible, rational people.

That experience, but indeed earlier experiences, too, convinced me of the opposite. Now if that is the case, it’s– you know, it’s very painful to abandon that set of beliefs. It’s very comforting to believe the government has got things in grip. But if they don’t, what is a more plausible politics? What is a better method of addressing our politics, our problems? And I think actually it’s entirely logical that one should look to self-organized action as the answer. Ideally, with other people, always consulting, always negotiating, always acting nonviolently. That is precisely the mechanism of political change that I’m proposing in the book. And that is actually the most effective mechanism of political change.

BILL MOYERS: Did I hear you say you’re part of a working group on Occupy Wall Street?

CARNE ROSS: Yes. Quite early on, I set up a working group on alternative banking, which is trying to examine what an ideal bank would be that would be better than the current system. Because one fundamental idea of the book is that rather than accept that the existing system is all we have to work with, we should set up alternative systems.

The bank we want would have many characteristics that we don’t really see in the current banking system. It would be democratic. It would be transparent. It would be owned by its customers as well as its employees. It would employ practices of lending that would minimize, if not remove the systemic risk that the current profit-driven banking sector exposes all of us in the economy to.

BILL MOYERS: And you said this group that’s working on this alternative system is a disparate group? Can you just sort of describe the diversity?

CARNE ROSS: Well, it’s got young people, students. It’s got folks who’ve been sleeping in Zuccotti Park until the eviction. It’s got novices like me, who know nothing about the banking sector. And it’s got real financial experts, writers about finance and economics, as well as real dissidents from inside Wall Street, people who are part of banks, quant traders, derivatives traders. It’s a pretty extraordinary group of people.

BILL MOYERS: Just give me a sense of what’s in your head about an alternative bank.

CARNE ROSS: All the elements of the bank, the ideal bank that we’re talking about, the Occupy Bank, has been done before. They’re present in mutuals, in credit unions, in community banks. But what we’re trying to do is, you know, very boldly, very ambitiously, try to imagine all of these characteristics in one bank. And available to everybody, country wide, which at the moment, credit unions, for instance, are not able to be. You know, we want something that is as plausible, as easy to use, if not better, than the current for-profit banks, on the high street, that people and businesses use today.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about the methods of democracy. How do you– how is that taking place?

CARNE ROSS: In the beginning, very interestingly, when everybody showed up, the lot of people showed up, everybody wanted to give their speech about what was wrong. Me, too. You know, "What’s wrong with the economy? What’s wrong with banking? I’ve got to have my say." But once that people had had their say, we, you know, we got down to work.

We’ve invited real experts from credit unions. People who’d run community banks, professors of finance. We’ve invited them to come and, you know, advise us. And many of them have responded to that invitation.

BILL MOYERS: So where are you now?

CARNE ROSS: Right now, we’re actually putting out a call to say we would like to partner with or even perhaps acquire banks, who would like to work with us to implement this, to set up a national Occupy Bank with the characteristics I’ve described. We know that alone we can’t do it. You know, for instance, we couldn’t get a federal charter. It was take us years to years and years of work.

BILL MOYERS: But wouldn’t you then have to have the very structure that you find so objectionable, which you write about regularly in your book, consistently in your book, hierarchy. You have to have a hierarchy, somebody has to say yes and no.

CARNE ROSS: Well, in a different way. I mean, all– in my view, all hierarchy is humiliating to both the leader and the led. But I think you can design institutions, including banks, that are fundamentally democratic. Where the all the members, all the owners, all the depositors, customers, and employees are consulted on major decisions. They may elect a smaller group to make day to day decisions on the basis of principles that they’ve all agreed.

And this is a really, really important idea of the book, that we’ve lost agency. We feel out of control. We don’t have control over even our workplace.

BILL MOYERS: You mean we individuals have lost our own political agency, our own moral agency?

CARNE ROSS: I think in all kinds of ways we’ve lost it. I think we’ve, we feel absolutely detached from the things that most matter to us. And we feel, we can’t really affect us, that we’re affect them. We’re completely impotent. When, in fact, the truth is the opposite. We are the most powerful agents of change. But we have to take the initiative back ourselves. We actually have to do things rather than voting for others to do them.

BILL MOYERS: You make the point in your book, that people prefer democracy. But they’re less and less happy with the practice of democratic government. Why do you think that’s so?

CARNE ROSS: Well, I think the distinction between democracy and the current form of government is a very important one. I think the current form of representative democracy, where you have a very small group of people taking decisions for a very much larger group of people is fundamentally imperfect, it’s fundamentally vulnerable to corruption, whether legal or illegal. And I think I’m afraid that’s what we’ve seen. You see all too often that legislation reflects the interests of special interests, particularly big corporations, the banks, for instance, rather than the interests of the common man, of the mass .

What I’m talking about instead, what I’m proposing instead is a much more, much lower level democracy, people to people democracy, direct democracy of mass participation in decision making.

BILL MOYERS: In "The Leaderless Revolution," you list nine principles for action. What’s your purpose there?

CARNE ROSS: The book is all about political method. It’s not about a blueprint for where we’re going to go. It’s about doing politics differently. And I suggest nine things that you should bear in mind, nine principles that should govern that action. It doesn’t say what the action should be addressing. But it says "These are the ways that you should go about it."

BILL MOYERS: Number one, "Excavate your convictions."

CARNE ROSS: Without really knowing what you care about, it’s very difficult to find the energy to do anything. And I think actually in contemporary politics, it’s very difficult to know what you really care about. You’re bombarded all the time with politicians telling you what to care about. But what is the thing you really, really care about? And once you’ve identified that, that will give you the strength and the fuel to– for the long journey to try to address that thing.

BILL MOYERS: Number two, "Who’s got the money? Who’s got the gun?"

CARNE ROSS: This is where you need to step back and analyze the situation. Who has the real power over the problem that concerns you? Who’s got the money and who’s got the gun is a pretty good start for your analytical technique.

BILL MOYERS: Number three, "Act as if the means are the end."

CARNE ROSS: This is purely quoted from Gandhi. I didn’t come up with this myself. He was convinced that actually the form of politics that you choose is actually the end. You know, if you just vote for somebody, you’ve not actually done anything. If you use violence to create a particular political end, all you’re doing is promoting violence.

So actually you need to embody the principles that you wish in the goal that you seek, whether it’s equality, transparency, democracy, in the form of change that you are pursuing, in the very method. And this is what the book is about. It’s about a method.

BILL MOYERS: You were quite impressed with Gandhi’s salt march.



CARNE ROSS: Well, he in protest of British colonialism, he organized a 200-mile march, of lots of people, to go to a coastal city in India to make salt. And the reason he did that was because the British charged poor people, ordinary Indians a tax on salt, as a way of keeping them down. And Gandhi felt the salt belongs to all of us, and ordinary people were forbidden from making salt.

So he went and made salt. And this was the perfect political protest, because not only did it draw attention to this great injustice, but it actually physically embodied the change that needed to happen, which was ordinary people making salt. And it was immensely powerful.

BILL MOYERS: Number four, "Refer to the cosmopolitan criterion."

CARNE ROSS: That is the idea that instead of, you know, assuming that we know what others want, like the golden rule does, you know? Which says we should, "Do unto others as we would like them to do unto us." That to me is a very solipsistic moral maxim. Instead you just ask them. I mean, these days, you’re connected on the internet. You can find out what people over there think. And they will tell you very clearly and persuasively. And often very different from what you assume they’re going to say.

BILL MOYERS: Number five, "Address those suffering the most."

CARNE ROSS: This again is not from me. It’s from Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher who gave us the open society. He believed that no government, no authority can decide what, can know what makes people happy. In fact, we don’t even know ourselves often. But the one thing you can measure – happiness is not measurable. You know, it’s not something that’s empirically testable, but suffering is.

Actually, the indices of suffering, starvation, absence of water, mortality. These things are very measurable. And actually addressing suffering is much easier than trying to make ourselves happier. You can do far more. You can actually– to lift a very large number of people from poverty takes very little. And therefore, you would have actually much more effect with your politics. It– there’s also kind of behind a moral imperative. I mean, you know, personally, I think those suffering the most should be our primary concern.

BILL MOYERS: Six, "Consult and negotiate."

CARNE ROSS: Don’t just roll over people. If you take them for granted and try to do your thing without taking account of what they want, you won’t succeed. And I’ve seen this in international negotiations, which exclude people. The agreements that follow from that won’t work. This is what we’re trying to do in Independent Diplomat is get ordinary people’s voices into that process. But that consultation will produce an outcome that might work, because you have included people in its construction.

BILL MOYERS: Seven, "Big picture, little deeds."

CARNE ROSS: Big change, change in the world – saving the global environment, you know, stopping economic volatility– overwhelming goals, overwhelming problems. You know? How the hell can little me do something about that? This idea is simply that you bear that overall strategic goal in mind, but you do something small every day to reach it. And that is a plausible and effective form of political change and will actually solve the problem, if we all do it.

BILL MOYERS: Eight, "Use nonviolence."

CARNE ROSS: In researching the book, I read a lot about nonviolence, which is not doing nothing. It’s not pacifism. It’s actually a series of techniques, which are very powerful and persuasive, and can achieve, you know, extraordinary ends but without relinquishing the moral high ground by using violence.

And you know, all kinds of – the most fundamental and extraordinary political change has come about nonviolently. I think in this country about, you know, the struggle for female emancipation, for civil rights. These were nonviolent movements. If you want to change society, you can’t do it violently.

BILL MOYERS: And yet number nine, "Kill the king."

CARNE ROSS: Yes. You know, a slightly colorful way of saying, "It is really hard to change things." It is really, really hard. And I think this is one of the, you know, the fundamental ideas of the book. You know, somebody promises you that clicking on a petition will change a problem, they are lying. That is simply not true. So to take on any problem, you’ve really got to focus. And in chess, the objective is — there’s one objective, which is, "Take the other guy’s king." And that’s what you’ve got to keep in mind, all the time.

BILL MOYERS: "The Leaderless Revolution" you call it. But can any movement be leaderless, seriously?

CARNE ROSS: I passionately believe that it should be. Not only that it can be, but it should be. Occupy is leaderless and successfully so. It is many things. It is not one thing. It is a lot of people spontaneously acting upon their own convictions. And that is what makes it powerful.

The moment you have one person standing up and saying, "It’s about this agenda," you weaken the movement. And I think this is actually a new form of politics for the 21st Century. I do not think this will be the exception. This will become the rule.

Personally, I feel that now is the time, particularly as we enter the presidential election season, we need to move from words and protests to action, to actually building new systems that embody these values. That is the most powerful form of political change for me.

BILL MOYERS: But, you know, Barack Obama did this splendidly in 2008, using social media to organize, mobilize people for the change that we can believe in. What’s happened since then?

CARNE ROSS: Well, there was a kind of, you know, it was a bit of a slightly misleading the way that he put it. I mean, I don’t want to sound critical of the president, who I respect and admire. But he wasn’t actually calling for mass action to create political change. He was calling for mass action to get him elected, which are two fundamentally different things.

And that is, I think the great disjunction in contemporary representative politics. Is that politicians say, "Get me elected and I, individually, will solve these problems. That is change you can believe in." And actually, it’s not plausible anymore. And, but what was interesting about that campaign was, I think, people really connected to the idea of mass action for change. And that’s what I, you know, my book and others are proposing, that actually that sense of passionate commitment is exactly what we’re missing, of action really meaning something, rather than just this very sterile, inconsequential act of voting.

BILL MOYERS: You ask us in your book to imagine the world without institutions. And with all due respect, that’s very hard to do.

CARNE ROSS: Well, I understand that. I mean, I’m talking about very gradual. I think this is more evolution than revolution. I’m not saying we should overthrow institutions. I think, though, we have to recognize that our current institutional political set up is not working. And indeed, the form of the company and the economy today as a purely profit-seeking entity is not working.

So we have to change all of these things from the ground up. That’s what I’m saying. I’m not particularly against institutions, though I hate hierarchy. I think when institutions and organizations flow from people’s real convictions and are truly democratic, they can be very good things. I wish that our contemporary institutions were more like that.

BILL MOYERS: You’re going to strike a lot of people as either an anarchist or a Saul Alinsky reborn.

CARNE ROSS: I would be flattered to be called a Saul Alinsky reborn.


CARNE ROSS: Because he, you know, inspired a lot of people to do things. And if my book can do that, I would be absolutely honored and thrilled.

BILL MOYERS: You still believe individuals can signify?

CARNE ROSS: I believe they’re the by far, the most important thing, you know? Because actually we are, you know, what embody – we are what the world consists of. There are seven billion of us now. We’re not a system. Actually, we’re just a bunch of individuals. And we comprise reality. Therefore, why don’t we, you know, just realize that. And say, "Crikey, well, I can start from changing something. I can change my own reality. I can, you know, inspire those around me." And thus, we can actually begin to change the whole system. That’s an extraordinary possibility.

BILL MOYERS: The book is The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. Carne Ross, I’ve truly enjoyed our conversation.

CARNE ROSS: Me, too. Thank you very much for having me.