Transcript of Interview with Carne Ross on the Leaderless Revolution

by Edward Rad

Interview conducted at Independent Diplomat, New York, New York, June 13, 2012

Interview transcribed from video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeNeWrxRfn4

Today, I am sitting down with Carne Ross, an economist, former high-ranking British diplomat, and founder and director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group. Mr. Ross has been a fervent supporter of Occupy and has recently appeared on shows such as the Colbert Report to discuss his latest book called The Leaderless Revolution.

Mr. Ross, in your book, one figure you don’t quite touch upon, but of whom I am sure you must have thought about while writing this book is Niccolò Machiavelli. On one hand, there is a striking similarity between the both of you. Machiavelli wrote his classic, The Prince, at age 44, after 14 years of influence and prestige as an Italian diplomat. After a change in the regime, he was suspected of plotting against the government and imprisoned for some time. Your history is not dissimilar. After serving 15 years as a top level British diplomat, with all the prestige that accompanies such a position, you resigned and gave evidence in secret about the Iraq war to an official inquiry as you were invited to do. However, these similarities aside, your experience as a diplomat has helped you develop very different political positions than Machiavelli’s. For example, perhaps the most famous of Machiavelli’s statements is “the ends justify the means” In your book, you argue otherwise, that the “means are the ends.” What is your motivation in taking such a position?

Well the means are the ends. The means should be the ends. That’s precisely what I believe. I don’t believe that the means justify the ends. Nor do I believe that the ends justify the means. It’s not my argument. It’s Gandhi’s argument—that the means and the ends should be the same thing. You can’t expect peace by using violent means. Maybe in some circumstances you do but in general you don’t. These are not universal, concrete rules about everything but his view is that in seeking political change you should use means that embody the change you wish to see. So if you wish to see democracy, nonviolence, and inclusiveness then you have got to use those methods. You can’t set up a secret, vanguard committee that is going to use violence to achieve democracy, peace, and inclusiveness for everybody else, which was of course in a sense the theory of change of the Bolsheviks revolutionary communists in 1917. They believed that you could not liberate the proletariat without having a vanguard movement, which was permitted to use violence. They very much did the Machiavellian view of things. So I do differ in that sense. I mean I am flattered by the comparison in all other respects….I think you accurately identify a clear point of difference. And I think it does help explain the difference between a belief in a state based system and a popularly based system—an anarchist system. States take to themselves the moral right to use violence to protect their populations or to pursue the interests of their own populations. We give states this remarkable freedom to use amoral methods to pursue what states are supposed to do—the security and wellbeing of their populations. This to me is a moral permission that we should question.

It’s almost as if “amoral” becomes “immoral”.

I use the word amoral deliberately in the sense that when you work for a state, you are not encouraged to think morally. You are not encouraged to think about moral aspects of policy. It’s almost like a moralist free zone. I think you’re quite right that in the sense that an amoral approach to policy leads to immoral ends. You know the use of violence, the use of torture. In my case, I was involved in a policy that I believed was ultimately immoral, namely sanctions against Iraq, which produced considerable suffering of the Iraqi people. For us that was a means-ends argument. We believed that those painful means justified the end of containing the Saddam regime, which we believed would do much worse things if it was released from sanctions and allowed to rearm. But of course the Iraqi people were not asked that question. They were not consulted in that. And that is one of the fundamental reasons I have come to view that the means do not justify the ends. It is not permissible to harm people for the greater good, because in fact all you’re doing is harming them. The thing you are doing now is the reality; it’s not the future vision that you are hoping to create. The West invaded Iraq in the belief that we would create democracy and stability. We do not have democracy or stability today. But in pursuing those laudable goals, we have perhaps caused the loss of a hundred thousand lives. Those people don’t get asked for their views of means and ends.

Re-invigorating a sense of agency is a big part of your book—to encourage individuals to not only complain about problems—but to also act in specific ways that address them. You also argue that the problem with hierarchies and authority is that they naturally remove a sense of agency. Why do you believe this and in what ways do you believe a lack of agency to be problematic?

Starting with your last question, a lack of agency is problematic in two very important respects. One respect is that actually in terms of your own self-actualization as a person, you are restricting yourself. You should be free to decide all of your circumstances. To decide all of your goals and ambitions and requirements in life and be free to negotiate those directly with other people and to express them fully. That is to me a fundamental definition of freedom is. And anything that constrains that is a constraint on freedom. It is making you less than you could be. In essence, it is making you less than human.

But it is also important in the other respect—anything that limits your sense of agency does also limit your sense of responsibility. We have reached a position in the twenty-first century where whilst we have democracy, a great many people who live in democracies don’t feel responsible for what government does in their name. Whether it’s a war or allowing people to be imprisoned for unconscionably long periods, or neglecting the worst off. This is just something somebody else does—they’re doing it. But in fact it’s us who are doing it. It is society who has chosen these outcomes. And yet people don’t feel responsible for that. Giving people a sense of agency not only frees them but it also re-introduces them necessarily to a sense of direct responsibility for their own affairs. And I believe that those two things together would produce not only a more cohesive society, a happier society, but also a more responsible society, a more grown-up society. I think that government and hierarchy turns us all into children.

My next question deals with reform v. revolution. On January 6, 2012, I interviewed Noam Chomsky and asked him if Occupy should be seen as a precursor to a revolution or if people should by trying to work up to a revolution. He told me “First of all, we are nowhere near the limits of what reform can carry out. People can have the idea of a revolution in the back of their minds if they want. But there are very substantive actions that should be taking place”[1] Eventually, Chomsky argues, if these reforms can change the institutional structure of society, it could amount to a revolution. How would you respond to Chomsky’s assessment, especially since at your recent appearance on the Colbert Report you said that further reform with the system is not possible?

Yes, well that’s what I think. And I don’t think I do agree that substantive reform—which is of course in theory possible—you should be able to produce these reforms—but I do not think they will happen given the circumstances we find ourselves in. You’ve got to take a power analysis to this—who has power and who does not. Power inequality is growing along with wealth inequality. Power means that those with power—with the greatest wealth—have the greatest influence over policy. This is the way that representative democracy is working. This is not the way it should work in theory, but in practice what we have is that people with power and influence—say Jamie Dimon who runs J.P. Morgan—he has much more access and influence over policy than you or I or Noam Chomsky ever will. If you agree with that analysis you can’t believe that reform is actually plausible, because in fact those people—the powerful—will have much more influence over policy than we will. So the system is intrinsically prejudiced against meaningful, positive reform. I would like his theory to be true and I don’t believe that people should not subscribe to it. I think it’s perfectly valid to push for that. And I do also agree that we are not talking about revolution of overthrowing the existing system in some violent or turbulent upheaval. It is a much more gradual, almost cultural change we are talking about.

Picking up on the last point you just mentioned, you state in your book: “The immediate overthrow of government would bring only chaos. But as individuals and groups begin to assert their own agency over decisions and events within their own reach, there will eventually emerge a much wider and more fundamental effect, one that would ultimately amount to a revolution in how we organize our affairs.” Also, delivering a lecture at the London School of Economics, you expressed your worry that if a state is using violence, that somehow violence would become legitimized for everybody. But if the state, which is the most powerful actor at play—a point you just reiterated in the last question—uses violence, then isn’t the only effective counter-action violence as well?

You’ve just described a perfect circle, haven’t you? You know, the state uses violence, the state legitimizes violence for other people, and only the state can respond to that violence. So there you have it: a cultural violence, a permanent violence. I don’t think violence is a natural state. I don’t agree with Thomas Hobbes that the absence of a state will produce a violence of all against all. It’s perhaps no wonder that Hobbes thinks that, given that he was writing The Leviathan during the time of the English civil war, when it was a plausible belief that without a strong central authority you would have a war of all against all. But I don’t assume, as actually representative systems of democracy—people who support state basis—do assume—that the alternative to a strong state is violence. And I do think that a state saying to itself and some saying publicly to others that in some circumstance violence is sometimes justified—that creates a deeper kind of cultural understanding—that there are sometimes justifications for violence. The trouble is our states are now using violence in many, many more circumstances other than pure self-defense. We are elaborating more and more justifications for the use violence to the extent that today we are in a situation where we are in a state of permanent war. We have permanent cyber warfare being waged against our putative but undeclared enemies. We have drone remote control warfare being used in a kind of way I cannot see ending, to eradicate the supposed enemies of the state.

I do think that the Occupy movement has definitely planted a seed of reform – a seed out of which a future polity may emerge from. But it seems to me that so far, in 2012, Occupy does not seem to resonate as loudly with the American polity. Some critics, who initially even supported the Occupy movement, have said that, aside from planting itself into the national discourse, it has not really been able to change the system. For example, Bill Maher, on his June 8th show, said, “Now that summer is upon us, the Occupy Wall Street movement must think of a more effective form of protest than camping…Occupy’s motto is the only solution is world revolution. Okay, but what about setting our sights a little lower like taking back Wisconsin?”[2]

Bill Maher is referring to what happened last week, when the Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, a year after launching a controversial campaign against the state’s public workers, won a historic recall election by a 7 percent margin, pretty much repeating the 2012 election Walker ran against Barrett. He even won 37 percent of union households in the state. So it seems to confirm the idea that those in power will do whatever necessary to keep it or expand it, and often do so very successfully. Is it time for Occupy to employ a new method?

I think Bill Maher has some fundamental misunderstandings of the Occupy movement. I have never heard of that motto of world revolution declared as “the” motto of Occupy. In fact, there is no single motto of Occupy. That’s one of its great virtues and perhaps one might argue is also one of its weaknesses. There isn’t a single message. There is a single concern, which is inequality and the state of the economy and to an extent the political system today. And Occupy is a movement that is trying to address this in many different ways. There is not one way. It is a thing that occupies many things and not one thing. So I think it’s wrong to say Occupy, as if it is a single branch or think about a new single strategy, such as maybe concentrating on Wisconsin rather than the world. Certainly I agree that local action is more powerful than demanding global change, because you actually change things globally by changing things locally. Your actions will spread and they will send a message, particularly in a highly connected world. Things that happen in Zuccotti Park spread around the world very quickly. There has been extraordinary international interest in Zuccotti Park. So in that sense, Maher is correct.

But personally I disagree that changing Wisconsin and unseating the Republican governor is a particularly useful thing to do. As we were discussing earlier, I do not think that reform of the kind of system is particularly plausible. Yes, in the short-run it produces a better outcome—we have a democrat in there. But I think historically, the trends of economic inequality, damage to the climate, some fundamentally dangerous things for the future of humanity are not being addressed either by democrats or republicans. Inequality is increased continually through democratic as well as republican administrations. So, just concentrating on a few local political fights—yes they are valuable in the short run—but in the long run I don’t they quite capture it. And I think Bill Maher misses a very important point, which is that Occupy is an expression of a fundamental dissatisfaction with the economic order. That will take time to change. It is about consciousness raising. It is, as Todd Gitlin has called it, an awakening, in a sense. It may change things in many different ways that we cannot quite know. Talking about it, having to have a single strategy or tactic, is a mistake.

So, you would say that making it easier to recall a candidate would not be substantial. Alternatively, you would have to eventually get rid of representative democracy?

I think replacing it ultimately, over the long run—and I do mean this as a gradual process—with grassroots democracy with people taking part in decision making about their local circumstances, with participatory democracy where the mass make the decisions for the mass; you do not have small elites, whether elected or otherwise, taking decisions for everybody else, because that hierarchical system, where the few are taking decisions for the many, is fundamentally corruptible, and has been corrupted in the U.S. system. It is far more stable, far more viable, and far more uncorrupt, rejecting a partisan politics if you have a participatory democracy where you can have fifty-thousand people taking decisions about the budget for a city, as you have had in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for instance, and it demonstrably produces better outcomes, more equitable distribution of public services—schools and water or health services—and that is because everybody is involved in decision making. It is truly inclusive rather than purely nominally inclusive. So I do think in the long run that a new kind of political order will emerge from the bottom-up that could ultimately replace the structures and hierarchies of what we call democracy today, which I personally do not feel is truly democratic.

Thomas Hobbes, whom you have mentioned earlier, is perfectly willing to make a compromise by sacrificing fundamental innate human capacities that make up individual freedoms such as human reason and creativity for the “good” of security and protection. Do you believe that security and protection cannot be guaranteed by government any longer, or do you believe that it is simply not worth it to sacrifice things like creativity and reason for the sake of security and protection?

That is a very interesting question. I would not necessarily dichotomize them that way. They are not necessarily exclusive concepts. I certainly think that governments are not producing true security. I think that authority is helping lead to a fragmentation of society, an unweaving of the bonds between us. If we were negotiating, for example, the future of NYU together, where you and I were truly making that decision, we would have to find a way of working together. You and I would develop an extraordinary personal relationship in trying to sort that out. We might hate each other, but it would be extraordinary. If that decision is in the hands of a few people you and I don’t even know, we are likely not to feel happy about that decision. We are likely to dispute that decision, and you and I will never get to know each other. So I am suggesting that authority does actually undermine the fundamental bonds of society. That is one way in which our security in society is compromised. But there is another way, which I think is becoming increasingly more evident in the twenty-first century, which is state’s actually using warfare in a way that perpetuates the threat to our security. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, and I think frankly there is a bit of both, the methods that the United States in particular has used, but also other countries including my own, to combat what they call terrorism, will perpetuate that threat. We are now looking at threats of terrorism from individual autonomous groups, groups of British men, Germans, Pakistanis, Moroccans, people from Algeria, and Yemenis—that is not the original Al Qaeda who launched 9/11. That is not those people. That is a different phenomenon. And yet it is a consequence of the methods we have used to fight the original Al Qaeda. We have managed to spread the threat. We have managed to perpetuate it in a way that means we will have that threat for a very long time indeed. Perhaps we will not see the end of it in my lifetime and maybe even not your lifetime, which is an extraordinary situation to find ourselves. We will have this ghastly sort of security presence in our lives, where the flying of an aircraft or the police in the subways, not that I have anything against police, presents this really suffocated sense, this really freighting sense of perpetual threat, which is something that governments, willfully or un-willfully, are perpetuating.

I presented this next question to Chomsky[3], and I am interested to know your response too. The late British philosopher Martin Hollis, who dealt extensively with questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality, claimed that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic. He argued in his book[4] that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good, but history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree. Therefore anarchism is too idealistic. Given your commitment to what you call “cosmopolitan anarchism,” would you mind responding to this objection?

It is a very important objection, the answer to which is that anarchism has never been tried. So it is a presumption that humans are not good enough to make anarchism work. It is not an evidence-based approach. Because actually a truly self-organized society of people managing and negotiating their own affairs has barely happened. It happened briefly during the Spanish Civil War, in the republican areas of Spain, particularly in areas of Northern Catalonia and to an extent was successful. Though, of course it was a very brief experiment in self-organized society because they lost the war. The Franco won and the fascists defeated them, so that system of organized society was not allowed to continue. So, a genuine experiment of anarchism has never taken place. I would suggest that the circumstances of the twenty-first century means that anarchism is more relevant today than it has been in the past, in that we have a highly connected global society where because of the nature of globalization—that our problems our global in their origin and therefore in their solution—that actually states are becoming less effective. They are not dealing with climate change or economic volatility. These things are getting worse. So what would be an alternative approach that might deal with these issues? And paradoxically, you would think that maybe the answer is world government. Indeed, this is the approach, in a sense, that the European Union is taking. In the response to the economic crisis they are facing, they are saying let’s gather power even more closely together and have a banking or fiscal union. That is profoundly undemocratic. Europeans will not be allowed to vote on that. So I think there is a deep contradiction of world government; it’s not democratic and cannot possibly be democratic. This is a profound flaw.

Thus I believe that the way to address these problems, which governments and states are less and less able to address, is in fact, through mass movements, local agents organizing together to address these things directly. It is not looking to other people to solve them. It is addressing them directly in their own local circumstances in their own local way. I think that is a plausible mechanism of change. I do accept that it has not really been tried to its fullest extent, but I do not accept this belief that humans cannot be trusted with their own affairs, that humans have always demonstrated that they are violent and prone to conflict. Well, we are in perpetual conflict now. We have a society that is pretty tense and fractured, where there is a kind of notable, palpable hostility in the public space. I do not think we have stability and peace now. In fact, I think many of the things that the state is doing is deepening the sense of instability. So why not give this alternative a try? We do not have to get rid of everything. We can just start doing this at a local level and see what comes of it. Maybe it will emerge into a broader system, where authority and states are not actually necessary. Personally, I think states are going to disappear. They are going to become ever smaller. You see this trend everywhere of separatism. Scotland, for instance, is likely to become a separate state. This is because people want more control. Globalization is making them feel like they have less and less control. People want to pull down agency and power to a level that is more meaningful to them. It’s only a natural human urge, and actually it might be a plausible way of getting into grips with these problems.

Aside from presenting a new political model, your book opens up possibility for a new economic model. Of course, politics and economics are two sides of the same coin. But tell me about alternative banking. You are involved in a project to set up community style “Occupy Bank.” What has the process been like? Where are you now with it? How will this bank differ from the ones that already exist?

Sure. Good questions, to which I cannot provide very clear answers because we have not yet decided exactly what we want out of the bank we wish to have. Instead, we are actually trying to design a participatory process for all the members of the bank—the people who would use it—to decide what kind of bank it would be. That is not an easy thing to design. It has taken us a lot of discussion to get there. The process is not particularly easy because working with a group of self-selected volunteers, you have got to work hard to find consensus. That is sometimes quite a grueling process. But the fundamental belief of the group is that money is a public good. It is the basic means of exchange between us. It has become appropriate to buy small oligopoly of for-profit banks who cannot be trusted for that responsibility, who have messed up that responsibility, and who have exposed the whole world economy to astonishing risk. The financial crisis caused enormous damage to the world economy, above all to the poorest. That systemic risk will not be removed by Dodd Frank or frankly any other financial regulation that we might see emerge from capitalism, precisely because J.P. Diamond has much more influence there than we in the Occupy working group have. So our view is why not try to build a better form of banking from the bottom up, that would be transparent, democratic, accessible to everybody, that would not use practices like the kind of extremely risky derivatives trading that nobody understands, for instance. Not doing things like that that would expose everybody else to systemic risk. You take those principles and start to envisage what kind of bank that would look like. That’s what we’re working towards. I am not saying we will succeed. Other people should try it too, because it will take minds greater than mine to make this work—and greater than ours in the group to make it work. But I think it is the correct objective. I think that the appropriation of the control of money by a few profit-seeking entities is not a successful way—it does not produce a system which is operating in everybody’s interests.

In your book, you also make the claim that though globalization has created some benefits for society and has made the world smaller on one hand, it has also been responsible for making the world more atomized, fragmented, and inegalitarian. Is there a way to resolve this paradox, to make “globalization” (which seems to be a very heavy and compounded term to begin with) work? Do you see Occupy, which has spread worldwide, as addressing this issue?

That is a very difficult question, partly because as you correctly say, “globalization” is a rather big term, used for a lot of different things.

Is there a way to define “globalization?”

Global phenomena, I suppose—whether it is global trade, global economy, and global environment—these are functions of globalization. We are now looking at global systems rather than systems that can be best understood or best managed at an international or smaller level. That’s my rough and ready definition.

There is a way of making it work, but it is a paradoxical way, which is to go down to a much more grassroots approach to political change. Rather than opening at the United Nations or the European Union, or the nation state itself to be able to produce a global solution to a global problem—perhaps they may be a part of it, but actually we cannot absolve ourselves of that responsibility ourselves because it is not working. To leave it simply to that level of government or international organizational management is not succeeding. It is not working in controlling these very fundamental severe problems like, for instance, climate change. And I think that acceptance that it is not working is terribly important in the first place and it says to us that we have to find better ways, and I think that human ingenuity, its ability for collaboration, has a plausible chance of being able to solve some of these problems. So let’s actually pursue that as a method of change, instead of relying on a very ossified, static model of change, which is what we have been by tradition and history predetermined to do.

I spent my freshman year of college at NYU abroad in Paris. I remember the day when Francois Hollande was elected the next President and when, in his acceptance speech, he told the people of France that the austerity measures would stop. Crowds stormed to the Bastille landmark celebrating his election and the new government, and with it the hope of new economic policies it would bring. It was really a thrilling experience for anyone that was there to witness it. The people in France and elsewhere seem to have realized and they know that austerity measures simply do not work in a time of recession or great economic hardship. Do you think that the European Central Bank is intentionally acting in a way that creates a deeper divide between the rich and the poor?

I don’t know. I do not have much insight into the private thinking of the ECB. I doubt that it is intentionally doing that. I really do doubt it. I am sure the people who are in it are sincerely trying to do what they think is best. Also, the ECB has a very tight constitutional mandate. It can only do certain things, and many people would argue that it is already overstepping its mandate in terms of basically trying to address monetary policy—reflation essentially—through monetary policy by recapitalizing different banks, etc. That is basically what it is being asked to do by politicians, and that is not fundamentally, as I understand it, its original responsibility. So I don’t think necessarily that the ECB is deliberately seeking to do that. I mean the key is not the ECB; it is Germany. They hold the keys to EU wide policy, macro-economic policy, policy to manage the Euro zone, and they have chosen a policy of fiscal restraint, of budgetary-rigor and discipline, as a way out of this crisis. And I think one of the reasons you saw that incredible upsurge for Hollande and the incredible kind of sense of political momentum was because in Europe, at least, it is very clear that it is not working. It is pulling Greece’s economy into an absolute disaster, and at the moment, it is pulling other economies too into disaster. Spain had a very solid budgetary situation. It was not hugely overspending like, for instance, Greece was, and yet it is being pulled down by the requirements of budgetary restraint and there other factors as well, not only austerity. But it is being pulled down into a situation of economic collapse. It is very severe what is happening in Spain, and who knows who is next—perhaps Italy, perhaps Ireland. Austerity also imposes very severe social costs. It is not just a budget line being cut. It’s people losing work. It’s people having less. It’s people suffering. It’s people in privation. Grave psychological distress. There’s a real price for it. And I think the evidence from the EU is that it has not worked and that there has to be a more aggressive reflationary strategy.

You have made it very clear that all systems of hierarchy usually embody oppression and thus should be eliminated. What are your thoughts on the prison industrial complex, a term coined by Angela Davis, who argues that it is essentially an extension of slavery in the United States and elsewhere? Should it be abolished?

It is an extension of slavery, in the sense that, like slavery, it is morally justified by the people who practice it. They think that they have a moral justification for locking up people for very long periods. I do not think they are morally justified. I do not think we have a right to do that to each other. I think the necessary social pressure for people to behave correctly is not best served by punishment. And the more acute aspects of the military industrial complex, which I think is a great term by the way, is that the prison industry now has economic interests of its own in expanding the prison population and certainly keeping it as high as it is now. There has been a massive increase in prison population in America in the last ten-twenty years, and that has been co-incident with the massive increase in the privatization of the prison industry, where you have got now large private companies who are lobbying in Congress who have their own lobbyists for longer prison sentences for more new prisons to be built. This is an extraordinary aspect of the marking interfering with a fundamentally social challenge for society—how to keep order. So I think it is a really grotesque phenomenon that we are witnessing now, and of course there is a deeply racial aspect to it. I do not think it is a coincidence that the war on drugs was declared more or less as the battle of the civil rights that was successful. It was a new way of keeping the minority population down, in a sense. And I think it is very clear that African Americans, Black Americans have been totally disproportionately targeted by prison policy. Everybody knows, for instance, about the distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Everybody knows that African Americans are much more likely to be stopped and searched—something like 40 times more likely than white people. How can that possibly be indicative of anything other than a prejudiced approach to criminal policy?

So when you say that the prison industrial complex has certain economic interests to expand, when you say that there is a certain prejudice involved—and of course the prison industrial complex is part of government—does that suggest a possible intention? I feel that government wants to expand those interests, even if those interests interfere with, obviously, people at the bottom, whose interests are different. That people who want power keep it and intentionally disregard the people with whom their interests are in conflict.

Well having been in government I don’t think that these things are ever clear as intentions inside government. They are just cultural habits inside the institutions. When I worked in a long-standing institution of government, it was very striking that some of the most important things of institutions were not what they were set up to do. It was set up to manage Britain’s foreign relations, but actually the thing that got everybody’s attentions was resources for the ministry—people’s pay. You know, what was our annual budget going to be? People got very agitated about that before they got agitated about the crisis in Iran. I’m not saying that they did not get agitated about the crisis in Iran, but there was a very clear ordering of priorities, and this is what anarchist institutional analysis tells you—institutions develop their own certain set of interests and these are separate from the purposes for which they were established. Having working in the United Nations, it’s very clear to me that the UN has a set of interests, which are different from the UN charter, for which it was established. One of the UN’s undeclared interests is the security and well being of its staff. It’s not an illegitimate interest, but it is not declared, and so I found, you know, for instance—I helped set up a weapons inspection body in Iraq. This was to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, when Iraq was run by Saddam Hussein. I was rather astonished to discover that this thing was still existing five or six years, I think, after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been gotten rid of. I helped set it up, and I never imagined that this thing would outlive the purpose for which it was established. I know of foundations that having spent all of their money—philanthropic foundations—then decided they are so useful that they need themselves to be funded. This is how institutions perpetuate themselves. They develop a set of interests, which are different from the ones that they claim. So, institutions are inherently problematic. Governments are inherently problematic. They have to be constantly checked, they have to be transparent, and above all, ideally, they should be spontaneous. And they should be abolished once the purpose for which they were established is fulfilled.

Moving on with foreign policy, in a June 14, 2011 article by CNN on the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters, you said that the Security Council had failed to act appropriately. It has been almost exactly a year since you said that. What has been the progress, if any?

Pretty much zero, tragically for the Syrian people. There has been an attempt at a peace plan formulated by Kofi Annan, which has failed. Though it’s still in play, I don’t see any plan that it would be adhered to and the fighting would stop. The fighting is intensifying, getting worse. It’s becoming more and more militarized on both sides. And the Security Council is still doing nothing. It has essentially supported the peace plan but that’s it. It has not agreed, for instance, on an arms embargo on Syria, which I think is disgraceful. It is disgraceful that Russia is still shipping significant amounts of weaponry to the Syrian regime. I think that’s despicable. At a minimum that’s what we should be doing—stopping weapons getting into the regime. This regime is killing its own people in large numbers. They should not be armed, and I think they should be targeted with specific measures to make their lives as difficult as possible—to convince them to stop, to come and negotiate with the opposition elements, to form a new dispensation.

When is it okay to interfere militarily? How do we avoid another Iraq?

My views about that have shifted. I did used to think that when circumstances were relatively clear, it was right to intervene. I am now—I think the idea of humanitarian intervention, of intervening for the better interests for the local population, has been sullied by the Iraq intervention. It has therefore become a less legitimate idea internationally. That is not to say, though, that it is not still important in some circumstances. If you talk to a Libyan from Benghazi, as I did recently, they will tell you had it not been for NATO’s intervention, they would be dead today. That is pretty compelling. I find it hard to dismiss that line of argument, and I do not condemn, routinely, all Western military activity just because it’s Western military activity, though I’ve got a great deal of criticism for most of the manifestations for most of the western military strategies today.

My last question: Margaret Thatcher—a very popular Conservative British Prime Minister—

She wasn’t that popular. It’s a complete myth. She was one of the most divisive politicians in British history. She was hated in Britain by a lot of people. So she wasn’t popular. Please do not believe that.

All right. But she is famous for expressing her belief that there is no such thing as society – there is just a collection of individuals. This I think is similar to Ayn Rand’s argument. In your book, you agree with her premise—that society is just a collection of individuals—but you disagree with her ultimate conclusion about the role of government. So I am just wondering: what leads you to agree with the premise but disagree with the conclusion?

It’s partly about the mechanisms that you choose to fulfill social purposes—the necessary purposes of living with other people—the necessary duties of living with other people. I think that it’s not just pure libertarianism—we don’t have an absolute right to pursue our own ends to their fullest, regardless of other people. We have a duty to consult other people, to consider them, and to take care of them—if they are vulnerable, weak, or suffering. So these things do fit together with my vision of the individual at the heart of freedom—the expression of what it is to be human.

Curiously, although now ostensibly libertarian—a bit like the Republicans who claim to support individual freedom—but at the same time they actually support a very authoritarian view of government. A very heavy hand in terms of criminal justice, for instance. A very moralistic view of society and what society’s moral rules should be, imposed from above, not generated indigenously, as I would suggest is much better, much more during, and much more supported by the population itself. So I think there are grave inconsistencies in her philosophy. She believed in a government or society or individuals but ruled with a very firm rod by Margaret Thatcher herself—the schoolteacher—the headmistress in chief.

Mr. Ross, thank you very much.


[1] Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Radzivilovskiy. “After Thirty Years of Class War.” Occupy. Brooklyn: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012. 53-67. Print. Occupied Media Pamphlet Ser.

[3] Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Radzivilovskiy. “After Thirty Years of Class War.” Occupy. Brooklyn: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012. 53-67. Print. Occupied Media Pamphlet Ser.

[4] Hollis, Martin. The Cunning of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.