Last week I raised the topic of institutional failure: Why is institutional trust and trustworthiness failing more-or-less across the board? Corporations, political parties, the various layers and branches of government, churches, academia, the banking system, the media — none provides a solid base to stand on while we reform the others.
Two leaps. Then I made a leap you might not agree with: Even though each institution has its own failure story, I decided to look for some common cause, which I called a UFT (Unified Fuck-up Theory). I chose a tongue-in-cheek label because I realize I’m getting uncomfortably close to conspiracy-theory territory. (In Valis, Philip Dick wrote, “It certainly constitutes bad news if the people who agree with you are buggier than batshit.”) But the alternative is big-coincidence territory, and I’m not comfortable there either.
I followed that leap with another, which I’ve since come to call the Agatha Christie Hypothesis: If the clues don’t add up, it means that the culprit never made it onto your suspect list. So the common cause is likely to be something we instinctively don’t question.
Chris Hayes went down that path in Twilight of the Elites and pointed his finger at meritocracy. The certainly satisfies the ACH: Literally nobody had been saying “Our problem is that talented, hard-working people get ahead.”
As I laid out in more detail last week, Hayes argues that meritocracy justifies a level of inequality that has created a new ruling class, i.e., the elite have enough power to game the system that there is no longer anything like the level playing field meritocratic theory assumes. As a result, our institutions are run by an entrenched, hyper-competitive, self-serving elite that feels entitled to whatever it can grab. We have re-created the noblesse without the oblige.
Sheep and Shepherds. The basic idea of representative democracy is that a world of sheep and shepherds is fine, as long as sheep get to elect their shepherds. Presumably, the sheep will choose good shepherds, who will stay good because the sheep could replace them.
Ross criticizes this model from both sides: First, the options offered to the people are too limited and too easily manipulated by those with money and power. My favorite expression of this situation comes from the Cake song “Comfort Eagle”
Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke.
More prosaically, Benjamin Barber wrote:
We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, [but] the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.
In November, for example, the American people will elect either Romney or Obama. How many important issues does that choice take off the table?
Second, the job of “good shepherd” is impossible in such a complex, diverse, inter-connected world. Even with the best intentions, no one can “represent” a nation like the United States or the United Kingdom. The very attempt (as Ross knows from personal experience) leads you to adopt grossly oversimplified worldviews that create more problems than they solve.
Representing the UK at the UN. The stories from Ross’ diplomatic career are worthwhile whether you end up agreeing with his conclusions or not.
The British Foreign Office is an elite Chris Hayes would recognize. A hyper-competitive process selects Ross and a few others out of thousands of applicants.
We were a chosen elite, given to expect that in due course we would become ambassadors and undersecretaries, the most senior exponents of our country’s wishes. I was elated to join this exclusive club and happy to undergo the many compromises membership in this group entailed.
Then the recruits are indoctrinated into the groupthink of the Foreign Office, which affirms the diplomats’ superiority: Only they know the classified information. Only they have unfettered access to the real experts — each other.
Eventually, Ross becomes head of the Middle East section of the British mission to the UN, where he and his American allies design and maintain the trade sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — sanctions that were not only based on false assumptions about Iraq’s WMDs, but whose burden fell mainly on the Iraqi poor. Ross now accepts demographers’ calculations that the sanctions caused an “excess mortality rate” of half a million Iraqi children.
In other words, half a million children died. Though Saddam Hussein doubtless had a hand too, I cannot avoid my own responsibility. This was my work; this was what I did.
In what way, Ross now wonders, did he “represent” the people of the United Kingdom? Given the information and responsibility he had, how many of Ross’ sheep would have let hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children die in exchange for a small theoretical increase in their own safety? Might they instead have shown some compassion and courage? And if ordinary citizens of both countries had met in the same room, might they have come up with completely different options?
Rather than a series of gates through which information and power flow, representative democracy has become a series of walls: The people are cut off from their diplomats, and the diplomats in turn are cut off from the foreign peoples their actions affect.
Similar stories could be told in every country, about every aspect of government policy.
Renouncing the pact. So Ross is attacking government from a different side than conservative libertarians do. Libertarian rhetoric focuses on the tyranny of governments interfering with sovereign individuals, and minimizes any collective or social responsibility. “Society” is just a myth that justifies the few ruling the many.
Ross is saying almost the exact opposite: Not only do we have collective responsibilities to do things like take care of the planet, help each other, establish justice, and live together in peace, but those responsibilities are too important to hand off to leaders. He wants us to renounce what he calls “the pact”:
We vote, they act; we get on with our lives, they protect. … For most of us, politics is a spectator sport.
He cites the 2008 Obama campaign. Obama called for and got unprecedented participation from individual citizens. But
The political end of his campaign was not change itself, but for him to be elected to deliver change — a subtle but crucial distinction, and the disjunction at the heart of representative democracy.
Grey anarchy. Ross uses the word anarchy in a positive sense, but he means something subtle by it. Usually we talk about anarchy in a black-or-white way. We have a government or we don’t; anarchy is achieved by overthrowing government and not replacing it.
Ross’ anarchy has more grey in it. Government isn’t evil, just hopelessly inadequate. We need to figure out how to work around government — rather than through it — in order to fulfill our social responsibilities.
If government cannot provide for the stability, safety and just arbitration of our common affairs, who can? The answer is both radical and discomforting. For there is only one alternative if government cannot successfully provide: We must do so ourselves. Self-organized government is one term; another, rather more loaded term, is anarchism.
His model is more the everybody-pitch-in model of Wikipedia than the every-man-for-himself model of conservative libertarianism. Rather than electing the next savior, activists should focus on creating new arenas of interaction and trust where creative self-organization becomes possible.
The goal is to make the leaders become the followers: Rather than change society through politics, directly create social change that the politicians will have to react to.
Methods, not programs. Predictably, Ross’ prescriptions are on the vague side, and are more about methods than programs. (If he said, “Pass my program” he’d be back in the representative democracy model, offering himself as a leader.) He ends with nine principles for action, but unfortunately they take more space to unpack than I have. So I’ll have to do my own summary.
The ideal anarchic action, from Ross’ point of view, is something that will start a wave: It tackles the problem in some small but direct way, other people will see it, and they will be inspired to imitate. It is nonviolent and builds new trustworthy relationships. It will achieve something even if it doesn’t totally catch on. It focuses on those who are suffering most, and asks what they want rather than imposing a solution on them.
Gandhi’s salt march, Rosa Parks not giving up her seat — these are both cited as good examples.
Or maybe we could look at Ross’ current project, which he describes in this interview on the Colbert Report: He’s working an Occupy Wall Street bank.