Accidental Anarchist

by Carne Ross

There was something missing.

It was this realisation that led me along a pathway altogether different from the one I had planned or expected of my life. It was this realisation that led me, by strange and unpredicted turns, to anarchism, a journey depicted in the film Accidental Anarchist (recently broadcast on BBC4).

A bourgeois child, I had been educated and indeed brought up to believe that the orthodox system of politics and economics – capitalism and representative democracy, we can call them – formed a complete whole. These social philosophies and the economic and political order they created offered the best and most fulsome method to organise affairs for the benefit of the individual and society. This is what I had been taught and what those around me, my family and my peers, and thus I, believed.

I continued to believe this when I became a diplomat for the British government. Indeed, the diplomat embodies these beliefs. In 1989, when I became a diplomat, the Western model was triumphant; the communist model was vanquished. I was glad to represent these ideals to the world.

But all along I was dimly aware that there was something missing.  I didn’t let this doubt, however, impede my ambition. Nor could I have told you what this missing something was. I found the logic of neo-classical economics and representative democracy impossible to question. The assumptions that undergird these thought-systems are deeply rooted: that individuals seek, above all, to consume; that they will compete rather than cooperate and that, most pernicious of all, that without authority they will fall into a war of all against all; only the state should be permitted the monopoly of violence with which to coerce stability. I believed these nostrums or, at least, I did not have the ability not to believe them.

Nevertheless, I think that deep inside me, as I believe many also sense, I felt that there was something wrong. I was discontented and I could see that discontent in others. At work, I saw coercion and petty conflict. In friendships and love affairs, I saw unhappiness, frustration and longing for something other than what there was. My life, though outwardly successful and fulfilled, was inwardly hollow, my behaviour ever more dissipate; my self-hatred ran deep.
It all came to a head with the Iraq war. I had been Britain’s Iraq and WMD expert at the UN. In the run-up to the war, I saw my government lie about the threat and ignore alternatives to war. I knew about these things because I had worked on them. Eventually, despite much anguish at my lost career, I resigned after giving then-secret evidence to the first official inquiry into the war.

It might strike the reader as facetious or ironic, but I am now grateful that this happened to me. For the collapse of what I had thought would be my life-long career forced me to confront the doubt I had long held but never admitted. I looked around at the political and economic system I had defended and promoted as a diplomat, and I was appalled. This system permitted a supposedly democratic government to lie about war; no one was held accountable. This system created both gross and mounting inequality and was destroying the planet. This system assumed the worst of people, and assumed that this was the paramount truth of human nature. That people are selfish, competitive and antagonistic is just what they’re like; there is no alternative to the current system.

So I began a search for an alternative. I didn’t know what I was looking for or what I would find but in some inexplicable, inchoate way I knew that I had to look. I spent a year reading in a New York library. I tried, and it is hard to do, to look at the facts and from those facts derive the theory, not the other way around (and it is abundantly clear from those facts that the current system is not working). I wanted a theory that accounted for society and the world as it was today – huge, diverse, complex – and for people as they really are: complicated, rich, needy, loving. I was looking for a philosophy that allowed for the world as it really is, and for people as they really are, not the caricatures offered by orthodox theory. Above all a philosophy where people are at the centre, not as subjects but in control.

I ended up in a place I never expected to be. If you want people at the centre of politics, there really is only one philosophy that permits this. It is a philosophy that trusts individuals collectively to work together to govern their own affairs. It is a philosophy that assumes the best of people, not the worst; that in general people choose to cooperate, not compete, that they care as much about others as they do themselves, and that, indeed, they see their own selves in others – that they are not in fact separate at all. A philosophy that assumes that people love.

This, I realised, is anarchism. And the more I read about it, the more I realised that this was the answer I had been searching for, a set of ideas that struck me with great force and, as I have grown older, seen more and read further, are more compelling than ever.

I wrote a book about the contemporary importance of these ideas, which pioneers had elaborated in the 19th century and earlier. A television producer read that book and suggested we make a film. To make the film, we travelled to Spain, New York City, and Syria to explore the history of anarchism and seek out the bright hopeful places where anarchist ideals are today being put into practice. We met people who’d protested together in Occupy Wall Street and went on to organise the most effective community-based relief efforts after New York’s devastating Hurricane Sandy. We met founders of cooperative grocery stores in Brooklyn, and a man who led his village in southern Spain to take over an absent aristocrat’s land and farm it for the benefit of all. When you change reality in one place, he told me, you change it everywhere.

The film ended in northern Syria, where we witnessed the extraordinary attempt at bottom-up self-government in a place the Kurds call Rojava. And it was here I realised that anarchist society, where people govern themselves without hierarchy, authority, or state, is possible. Here, in Syria of all places, is a society where all – women and men, Arab and Kurd – are given equal power. It is not perfect; it is a work in progress in the most difficult of circumstances, wartime. But it was a remarkable and inspiring thing to see.

Had chance proven otherwise, I would still be a British diplomat, still wondering what was missing. Anarchism does not provide all answers, nor does it claim to. It is not a blueprint for a Utopian society, but is a method to organise human affairs free from coercion and control.

Carne Ross is the director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group. He is the author of “The Leaderless Revolution: How ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century” (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and is the subject of the documentary film Accidental Anarchist.

Photography: Tom Medwell. 

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