Proper Gander: From The UN To Anarchism

In recent years, the BBC has developed an interesting sideline in polemics: broadcasters like Adam Curtis, Dominic Sandbrook and Simon Amstell have appeared on our screens presenting their original interpretations of society’s changing cultural and economic trends. Refreshing as it is to see thoughtful critiques of capitalism on the telly, alternatives are rarely discussed. So, it’s a nice surprise to see an anarchist get an hour of screen time to make his case, in Accidental Anarchist: Life Without Government, part of BBC4’s Storyville strand, as well as in one of Newsnight’s video podcasts.

Why this particular anarchist has been able to get his views on the Beeb is the career path which led to his viewpoint. Carne Ross began work in the government’s Foreign Office in 1989, with the optimism that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Between 1998 and 2002 he was the UK state’s expert on Iraq at the UN Security Council, where he negotiated on issues such as weapons inspections and sanctions, and took pride in being a ‘ferocious negotiator’. Ross says that the effect the economic sanctions on Iraq had on the Iraqi people was just ‘paper suffering’ to the UN because of its distance from those affected. Noticing the divide between governments and the majority led him to doubt the whole system’s effectiveness. His trust in the state was finally lost after the death of Dr David Kelly, the expert on biological warfare and UN weapons inspector who, according to Ross ‘was driven to suicide by the disgraceful campaign of vilification by [Tony] Blair’s officials after he was revealed as the source of a BBC story that the Number Ten ‘dossier’ alleging the threat from Iraq had been considerably exaggerated’ ( Ross resigned his job in the Foreign Office in 2004 after giving then-secret evidence to the inquiry into the Iraq war. He told it that at no time did the government judge that Iraq held ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which posed a threat to the UK, despite what we were told. He says that the public was lied to over the reasons for going to war, and this is ‘the worst thing any government can possibly do’. He now feels ashamed of how he acted in his previous life.

Ross’ journey to anarchism is unexpected because he’s managed to change his mindset away from the acceptance of the system which is encouraged and needed by those working at that level for the state. His role allowed him to see first-hand how governments act, so in a way he was better placed than many to see the system’s faults. Far from being the ‘accidental’ anarchist of the show’s title, he has thought about what he’s experienced and reached a perfectly reasonable interpretation.

Ross tells us that he grew up to believe the economy works like a machine, complicated but understandable, and now believes that society is too complex to fully comprehend, let alone control. He even finds a government minister – Rory Stewart OBE – who admits that politicians don’t have nearly as much power over our economic and political system as most people assume. Because of this, Ross argues, our framework of leadership isn’t tenable. Instead, he says, ‘No-one should have power over another. People should govern themselves’ (

As proof that self-organisation can work better for everyone, Ross gives some examples of where people have worked together in a more equitable and effective way. Members of Occupy New York used their experience in planning and organising to co-ordinate aid for victims of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy more efficiently than the government’s efforts. And in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the community arranged support for survivors quicker than the state. It shouldn’t take a disaster to make people come together, although other attempts at greater co-operation and self-organisation have developed in difficult circumstances. Rojava, an area of northern Syria, is run according to the political ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who was inspired by anarchist Murray Bookchin. While hierarchies still exist there, people living in Rojava are able to directly contribute to decisions affecting their community, and there is more gender equality and less sectarianism than elsewhere in the region.

According to Ross, the peak of anarchism was in 1930s Spain, before it was crushed by Stalin’s forces and Franco’s fascists won the Spanish Civil War. He says that anarchist ideals live on there now, such as in the town of Marinaleda in Andalucia, where the populace occupied land and buildings and established a farming co-operative with many municipal tasks organised together. Of course, these and any other examples have to work within capitalism. Ross doesn’t seem to see this as much of a setback, and cites ‘worker owned co-operatives like John Lewis’ (ibid) and the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre, where the population has had input into funding decisions which improved public services, as examples of where ideals of self-organisation have flourished. While he’s surely overstating how radical John Lewis and the other examples are, he’s more on the ball when he adds wryly that the shabbier a group’s assembly room is, the more democratic it will be.

Ross favours a ‘gentle revolution [which] should begin with direct democracy’ (ibid) in workplaces and the community. This would involve worker-run groups, which could then join up to manage larger-scale projects. He suggests that these groups would be more legitimate than politicians, and therefore would replace them. Whether governments would allow themselves to be shunted out in this way isn’t considered here. As Ross worked within the state, he should realise it won’t just offer to relinquish its power. The same applies to corporations: how realistic is it for co-operatives to out-perform them without adopting more cut-throat strategies to remain competitive? Unfortunately, the programme doesn’t go into detail about how far Ross thinks his examples of self-organisation can go towards replacing capitalism itself. However, they demonstrate that people can work together co-operatively and equally, and this is certainly a step towards revolution.


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