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James Denselow

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Understanding the Global Revolution

Posted: 01/17/12 01:50 PM ET

The Leaderless Revolution -- How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (Carne Ross, Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere -- The New Global Revolutions (Paul Mason, Verso, 2012)

Frequently described as a "high-flying former diplomat," Carne Ross resigned from the Foreign Office over the Iraq War. Being so close to mechanisms of power provided him with an understanding which ultimately shook his belief in our national and international systems of government. Indeed the author admits that he does not come up with his arguments 'by way of academic study, or historical research. I know this because I once did it.' Ross' earlier work, Independent Diplomat , was an exorcism of his institutional past while his latest effort is a far more ambitious attempt to outline a better future for global governance.

Ross, now running his own diplomatic consultancy, has transformed into a thinking man's neo-anarchist whose book outlines both the failures of representative democracy in the era of globalisation and ways in which empowered individuals can succeed in the future. The author's central point revolves around the failure of institutions to meet peoples aspirations. While global surveys confirm that while people prefer democracy, as Ross puts it 'they are less and less happy with the practice of democratic government.' The nation-state represents an archaic and ill-fitting answer to multifaceted non-localized issues, brought on by the pressures of globalisation and climate change. From flu-epidemics, to the spread of rioting, he carefully plots the ways in which our interconnectedness has led to problems which require global cooperation to solve. Yet the best efforts at multilateral cooperation have yet to deliver the answers. Ross parallels the enormous rhetoric of the 2005 G8's promise to 'make poverty history' with the reality of its 'utter failure' to do so with a shortfall in pledges of $20 billion.

The spine of his "nine-point manifesto" is the concept of anarchism. Ross traces its political conception to dispel the images of violent and balaclava-clad anarchists who are responsible for a largely false picture of the true movement. Rather than a chaos-filled power vacuum, he envisages a gradual shift towards self-organized systems which he argues are best for the 21st century. Ross argues that 'if people do not have responsibility,' then we should not 'expect them to behave responsibly,' while observing the ultimate paradox of well-meaning government that the more it 'seeks to act to tackle particular problems, the less that individuals are likely to feel responsible for them.' The power of human agency is fundamental to his argument; "do stuff for yourself rather than asking a government or others to do it; address political concerns directly to those in power; use nonviolent methods and always act as if the means are the end; and embody the political principles you're trying to promote." Ross uses the case study of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre to highlight his belief that sustained participatory or deliberative democracy shows that 'better outcomes result when citizens are directly involved in decisions over their own lives.' The author argues that the systems of domestic and international governance will continue to prevail until 'those in whose name they claim to function withdraw their consent.'

The withdrawal of consent from the hegemonic modes of governance would appear to be the ultimate barometer of the success of Ross's Leaderless Revolution. However the author fails to explain how a global consciousness going beyond "what we don't want" to articulate and promote "what we do -- the change we want to see" might actually emerge. Both the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, defining events of 2011, have demonstrated that, in this case, rejecting authoritarian rule and modern capitalism has not in itself resulted in a fundamentally different global dynamic. Ross is correct that if the elites don't address existing imbalances then the people will act; "The less people have agency -- control -- over their own affairs, and the less command they feel over their futures and their circumstances, the more inclined they are to take to the street." Yet the author admits that 'the world is complicated; it requires professionals to sort it out.' Ross makes the excellent point that when Barack Obama promised to 'change politics,' galvanizing millions across America, he meant to change things himself as the president, not the masses, 'government is not about mass collective action, only getting someone elected is.'

Paul Mason's Why It's All Kicking Off Everywhere is an equally ambitious attempt to provide a journalistic account of the underpinnings behind the revolutions and protest movements of the past few years. The book is an extended edition of a blog post that went viral and Mason is far more positive about the role of technology, what he defines as his 'technological-determinist approach' than Ross. Indeed Ross makes the powerful argument that technology can detach people from one another and the more detached they are, 'the more they can cloak themselves in anonymity and be shielded from the consequences of their views, the more violent, hostile and irresponsible they are likely to be.' Mason is far more comfortable with 'social media's power to present unmediated reality.' Indeed his main argument is that modern technology has allowed 'networked individuals' to overcome collective institutions which are unfit for purpose, in essence that 'a network can usually defeat a hierarchy.' These networks of organisation led to security services in Tunisia and Egypt being bypassed by protestors.

Mason agrees with Ross that 'we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the twentieth century.' He sees the ingredients for this revolution as a combination of the 'radicalized, secular-leaning youth; a repressed workers' movement with considerable social power; uncontrollable social media and the restive urban poor.' Although global in nature there are significant differences in its success, in UK for example there has been a 'crisis' of protestors as 'students got wrapped up in exams; the trade unions began negotiations over pensions; the small group of activists behind UK Uncut went into a defensive huddle; and the anarchists engaged in mutual recrimination.'

However, the book poses more questions than it does answers and can be guilty of trying a bit too hard to be in touch with 21st century living in Mason's half-baked attempt to accredit Twitter users and constant reference to iPods and Lady Gaga. Yet beneath this enjoyable journalistic veneer is the critical heart of Mason's argument that while technology has allowed empowered individuals to overthrow authoritarian governments, globalisation itself may fail as the economics of the financial crisis of 2008 continue to unravel, something better explained in his earlier book Meltdown. Both Ross and Mason's accounts are important contributions to the new age of thinking that is rapidly emerging as a consequence of the crisis of globalized capitalism.

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