Rebel with a Cause: An Interview with Carne Ross
By Shaun RandolSeptember 1, 2013
Photo by: Ahmet Sibdial Sau
FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS, CARNE ROSS served on Britain’s diplomatic frontlines, engaging in numerous international crises in Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq. Before the 2003 Iraq invasion, Ross was the UK’s Iraq expert at the United Nations, charged with maintaining the containment of Saddam Hussein through sanctions and weapons inspections. Ross gave evidence to the Butler Review that said the British government exaggerated intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to indicate a real threat. His evidence also said the government had ignored available alternatives to war. After Ross gave his testimony, he resigned.
Ross then went on to found Independent Diplomat (ID), a nonprofit with eight offices around the world, which specializes in advising countries, governments, and political movements on how to navigate the international diplomatic institutions and advance their views into the diplomatic process. ID’s clients have included the governments of Kosovo and South Sudan and the elected government of Somaliland, among others. Recently, the lead Syrian rebel group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces hired Ross and ID to advise them in international diplomacy and negotiations. Ross’s book, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Cornell, 2007), sketches his diplomatic history, his disillusionment with current diplomatic structures, and the philosophy behind his enterprising nonprofit.
In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement exploded in the United States before spreading across the globe. Centered in Zuccotti Park (Liberty Square), New York City, Ross was an occasional presence. One evening during the three-month occupation, Carne announced the establishment of a working group on alternative banking, which evolved into a small band of dedicated individuals bent on examining alternatives to the current banking and financial system. At the same time, Ross published his second book: The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (Blue Rider Press, 2011). The prescient volume discusses Ross’s experience in the diplomatic corps and his witnessing of the growing disconnection between governments and people, as well as an exploration of anarchism and alternate forms of organizing.
Out of the Occupy Alternative Banking Working Group comes Ross’s latest initiative: the Occupy Money Cooperative (OMC). The OMC’s mission is to offer “low cost, transparent, high quality financial services to everyone.” The group’s first offering is the Occupy Card, a low-cost, pre-paid debit card. As a member-owned organization whose principles are grounded in horizontal decision-making, inclusion, transparency, and equality, the OMC could be the beginning of a revolution in finance.
I sat down with Ross at Pera, a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan one block away from the famed New York Public Library and around the corner from Grand Central Station. Ross and I tucked into a corner with a view of the street. He munched on pita and hummus and sucked down an orange juice before joining me for a glass of red wine. Our conversation ranged wide and deep, touching on Syria, international diplomacy, capitalism, anarchism, gay rights, Gandhi, and John le Carré.
SHAUN RANDOL: In his most recent novel, A Delicate Truth, John le Carré warmly declares, "Most of all I must thank Carne Ross, former British foreign servant and founder and director of the not-for-profit Independent Diplomat, who by his example demonstrated the perils of speaking a delicate truth to power. Without Carne's example before me, and his pithy advice in my ear, this book would have been the poorer." What is your connection to le Carré?
CARNE ROSS: By coincidence, we have the same literary agent, Jonny Geller, who introduced us. When David Cornwell — which is his proper name — told him about how his new novel was going to be about a Foreign Office diplomat, Jonny mentioned me to David and said, “By extraordinary coincidence, I know this guy who might be able to help you.” I met David a few times and talked about my life as a diplomat and what happened to me.
David asked me to review drafts of his book, which was an extraordinary privilege a) because I’ve liked his books since I began reading, b) because watching a writer like that work was an extraordinary education in writing, including seeing his meticulousness and seriousness about preparing the manuscript, and c) I think politically we were very much in sympathy with each other. It was a very rich political experience for me.
It was very nice to be acknowledged like that, but it’s kind of undeserved because the main character is not based on me at all, although it’s about a foreign officer person who blows the whistle on some very dodgy dealings by his government. It’s a very different story from my own. At the end of the day, it’s totally David’s story.
SR: Is there something about his writing process that you learned and will apply to your own?
CR: It was remarkable to see that he writes loads and loads of different drafts and each one was freshly written. To see a writer of his experience do that was a kind of instruction. You realize that’s how to write good books: to write them over and over. Each time the plot got tighter and the observations became sharper. It was good at the first draft; by the very end it was very good.
SR: Does that method apply to your own thinking? Do you come up with a rough draft of an idea and then fine tune?
CR: That’s definitely how I do work, but I can’t claim that I write half as many drafts as David. I write things down and rewrite them over and over again. I try not to rewrite things afresh each time, though. I tend to go over and over the text many times. So that’s my method of writing.
SR: Let’s turn to your writing. At the end of the chapter titled “Kill the King! Nine Principles to Guide Action” in The Leaderless Revolution, you encourage the reader: “What makes you angry? What never fails to irritate you for its stupidity and injustice? That may be the thing you should take up arms against. It was for me, and anger puts fuel in the tank.” So, what made you angry?
CR: When I left government, I was angry about many things, and I still am angry about many things, so it would be hard to put my finger on one. But one in particular was the stupidity of how diplomacy was done, often just completely ignoring the people who had the most to say about and authority over a political situation: namely the people most concerned. This was not only stupid, it was extraordinarily unjust. That was something that made me very angry at the time, and Independent Diplomat has tried — in its small way — to address those problems today.
SR: What makes you angry now?
CR: My target has broadened to be contemporary capitalism and the so-called democratic system, which I think are failing quite dramatically. Certain people are benefiting enormously from these failures, and I think those people are despicable, and they make me very angry. I will do all I can to make it better. That’s what drives me.
While there is a degree of anger, there’s also a degree of despair at the current situation. I feel a certain horror when I look at the way things are now politically, and I feel a lot of dread about the future. When you start feeling that, there is very little alternative but to act.
You can pretend to yourself that things will be okay if you don’t act and other people will take care of it, but having been in one of those groups of people that is supposed to take care of it — namely the government — I absolutely don’t believe they will adequately take care of our problems. If that is the conclusion you reach, then there really is no alternative but to act. It’s not a kind of a great, heroic act of resistance; it just becomes a kind of psychological necessity.
SR: In some instances it’s heroic. Individuals are going up against powerful forces, institutions, and money. It’s daunting. I think it takes a lot of courage to act.
CR: Well, I’m very careful. I don’t do anything that would put me personally at risk or at risk of being jailed. I am not Edward Snowden, who I think has taken an extraordinary risk and who has exhibited great courage in what he’s done. I don’t think I would have ever taken that risk when I quit the Foreign Office. I resigned with great care, after I had given evidence requested from those of us who worked on Iraq. I did it in a very safe way. They could not come after me, and they could not prosecute me. I don’t see what I do as brave at all.
SR: You don’t advocate violence, and you’re risk averse to prison, but is there some cause you’d be willing to put your life on the line for?
CR: I think the question is more or less impossible to answer in the abstract. I suspect in situations of great risk I would be a physical coward, so I can’t claim I would put my life on the line for anything. I would like to think I would for certain just causes, but I’ve been in enough difficult, tense situations to know that the people who you think would be heroic often aren’t, and the people you won’t think are heroic often are. It’s more or less impossible to predict, including of oneself.
SR: In The Leaderless Revolution, you discuss Tolstoy’s interest in highlighting the anonymous figures in history, whom he sees as the real catalysts for change rather than the "great men" figures of history that we put on pedestals.
CR: If you accept the theory of the world as a complex system, which I think is one of the more persuasive (but incomplete) ways of understanding the world today, then it becomes clear what is already true from one’s own experiences: the impact one individual can have on not only their circumstances, but also on those around them. That influence can have an extraordinary knock-on effect in ways that nobody can possibly predict or imagine.
Equally it’s possible that one’s actions will have zero effect, and possibly that’s true of most people's actions. But certainly it’s also true that one or two people's actions in certain circumstances will have a far-reaching effect. And I think that’s what Tolstoy is talking about [in War and Peace]: the absurdity of thinking that a general or a leader can understand all the infinite number of possible consequences of any decision, and the consequences of those consequences, and so on. Governments claim to have this kind of understanding, so now you see the arbitrary nature of top-down authority. It’s impossible for any of us to understand completely our circumstances, what comprises reality, and the way that one action leads to another. It’s not a chaotic world, but it’s much, much more complex than our simplistic way of understanding political decision-making and change.
SR: Do you think Independent Diplomat is a disruptive organization?
CR: To an extent. It’s not disruptive enough to replace the system, but hopefully the system will be improved, at least in the instances where we’re working on it, in such a way that those most affected are given more sway in decision-making.
But I often worry that improving the system is, in a sense, reinforcing it.
SR: You’re clearly disillusioned with the way diplomacy works at the United Nations and between countries, but part of Independent Diplomat’s mission is to put people in contact with the very institutions with which you are disaffected. How do you square this?
CR: At the moment, there’s no real alternative. This is the existing diplomatic system. For instance, the Security Council at the UN is where decisions of great importance are made about, say, the future of Sudan, Palestine, the Western Sahara, or Syria. It’s not the only place where decisions are made, but it is extraordinarily important what goes on there. You have to get to where power is, and that’s where we inevitably have to work.
But in general, the Westphalian state-based system is in slow, terminal decline. It is an inappropriate place to discuss two kinds of problems: global and microcosmic. The state-based system is fundamentally incapable of addressing global problems like climate change, the nature of the global economy, and inequality. The nature of international discussion on these issues clearly illustrates that. Lowest common denominator, multilateral diplomacy is not good enough. It’s not producing the answers the world needs.
At a microcosmic level, the type of conflict that is dealt with at the UN is intrastate conflict, not interstate conflict, which the UN was set up to address. It’s absurd that non-state actors are not allowed to speak formally at the UN, even though by and large they are the dominant groups in conflict today.
SR: Are democracies too slow to act? With debates, elections, referendums, et cetera, maybe democracies — at least on an international relations scale — aren’t quick enough to react to real world events.
CR: I don’t think speed is necessarily the issue. The greater issue is whether they have their competences, in the sense of ability and power, to properly address these issues.
The other problem is that the mechanisms of international cooperation are themselves inadequate. Trying to get a global treaty on climate change where all states agree to adhere to emission standards with some kind of mechanism for what should happen if they don’t adhere to those standards seems a total impossibility. We’re never going to have it. And therefore, the pursuit of it seems to be fundamentally misleading people into believing there is a way of dealing with this problem.
SR: Independent Diplomat is advising Syrian opposition groups. With such an amorphous situation in Syria, how do you know you are dealing with the “right” people?
CR: There’s no cast-iron guarantee. We take the judgment very seriously. We don’t just see it as the “right” or “good” people; we break it down into three specific elements: their commitment to democracy, the protection of human rights, and a [respect for] international law. We regularly test our clients, and if they fail those criteria, we suspend the relationship. We have done that in certain instances in the past.
In the case of Syria, I take the statements of the Syrian Coalition — that they are committed to democracy, and a pluralist, constitutional state — seriously. These commitments have been made loud and clear. I don’t have evidence to disbelieve that. The Syrian Coalition, which is an umbrella group of opposition groups against the Assad regime, clearly disavows terrorism. I take those commitments seriously.
SR: Are you encouraged by progress Independent Diplomat has made?
CR: Absolutely. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. We make a difference for our clients, and I am very proud of that. I didn’t think it would be possible. When we set it up I thought it would be a kind of compass for groups to help them navigate the system, but in fact we can change their impact diplomatically, and that’s very exciting to see.
One example I can talk about is South Sudan, where we were instrumental in helping to get them to speak to the UN Security Council before their independence, which is not unique in the history of the UN, but it’s very unusual that a non-state party would address a formal meeting of the UNSC. Hillary Clinton was there, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Ban Ki-moon. We weren’t the only people responsible for it happening by any means, but that was the first time South Sudan addressed the UN as a government, and before it was a state. We had a lot to do with that and I am very proud of that.
There are other examples, and some very recent ones, but I do not want to detract from our clients’ achievements.
SR: In The Leaderless Revolution, you claim that “[t]he best way, indeed, to invite violent anarchy is to reduce the agency and sense of control that people need to feel over their lives.” This applies to many situations around the world, including the spark that ignited Occupy Wall Street and why you could find so many ordinary people down in Zuccotti Park.
CR: I agree. Occupy flowed from an enormous frustration of people who felt their concerns were not being heard at all in conventional politics. It happened when it did — after the 2008 financial crisis — because it took a while for it to sink in how bad the situation was. There was profound anger and enormous skepticism that did not find an outlet in conventional political means.
One of the things that is a bit striking for a non-American is that it’s quite hard to find somebody who believes in the system of democracy here, or at least believes that it’s ideal. Everybody knows that the system is basically corrupt, that people who have the most money have the most sway. It’s not a cynical view; it’s actually a very realistic view. That’s very refreshing to a British person who comes from an environment where the British still feel, I think naively, that they actually live in a representative democracy and Parliament is a perfect democratic institution that cannot be improved upon. I don’t think Americans feel that, and as a result they are much more open to alternative forms of political action than there might be in Europe.
SR: How can agency be recaptured? If you lose control, how do you get it back?
CR: My answer is very simple: you should start doing what you actually care about. What is the thing you lack agency over? What is the thing that most frustrates you and gets you most angry; go do something about it that is very direct and practical. That will give you a sense that you have at least done something, however small, to address that thing you are concerned about.
I absolutely do not think that appealing to power to give back power is a sensible course of action. I think that’s a waste of time and just going to make you more frustrated. Power doesn’t give it up lightly. The banks are not going to give up their lobbying power because we ask them nicely not to lobby. We have to actually build alternatives to them. We have to build alternative banks to the current financial system. Washington is not going to do that for us. Recapturing agency is about very practically building, constructing viable alternatives that are better.
SR: If you relinquish agency, do you also relinquish responsibility?
CR: Certainly that’s what I saw in Kosovo. You had a group of politicians who actually did not have real political power, where the ultimate sovereign power was the UN. That created a highly irresponsible political culture where the politicians felt free to say very irresponsible things.
If you deny people agency, they feel less of an obligation to behave responsibly. We must have a sense of moral responsibility toward each other. We’ve got to do some highly thoughtful, considerate, deliberate action, because espousing barroom opinions is no way to run things. We’ve got to take each others’ views very seriously, and we have to try to accommodate them if we’re going to get anything done that is durable and sustainable. These duties now apply to us as they once applied to authority.
SR: To quote from early in your book: “It is the actions of other people that have the most impact on what we do.”
CR: It has been empirically proven that what we tend to take the most notice of aren’t governments or disembodied experts telling us what to do — it is the people right next to us, the people we have trust in, the people we look up to, the people whom we measure ourselves against.
We’ve been led to believe that political change flows from us electing a government, that then tells us what to do, and we act accordingly. We are legislated to have policies imposed upon us. In fact, that is the least efficient way of actually creating change. By far a more efficient and direct way is to change our own behavior, and thus change others around you.
SR: There are threads of anarchism that run through The Leaderless Revolution, and you’re open about that, but I imagine you to live a bifurcated life. For half the day you’re working on collective action, and the other half the day you’re reporting to the UN.
CR: It is a bifurcated existence, but there is a common thread, which is a fundamental philosophy that people have a right to be heard about decisions about their own lives. That thinking unites my work with Independent Diplomat and Occupy. It’s exactly the same theme driving it, manifest in different ways. I personally think anarchism has become more relevant in the 21st century than it ever was.
SR: Anarchism is the new Marxism.
CR: Except that Marxism doesn’t give you a prescriptive answer to what to do. Its prescriptions have been shown to fail, at least as manifested in the Soviet system.
SR: And in the Chinese system.
CR: Absolutely. Above all, anarchism is about a practical prescription about what to do. It is much less about comprehensive political theory and much more about practical answers to and how we deal with each other in our life’s affairs. It seems to me demonstrably true that decisions would be better if everyone were included in them. Decisions should be made horizontally and reflect people's spontaneous desires rather than imposed political ideas. People must behave nonviolently toward each other. And people ultimately are free to express what it is that they most passionately feel and find an embodiment of that, politically. Those seem to be unanswerable political principles.
I am very much against armed anarchism. I believe in nonviolence. I do not associate myself with tossing Molotov cocktails about and calling it anarchism. I don’t believe in overthrowing the current system. I actually believe in replacing it with something better. Violence begets violence.
SR: What’s the difference between anarchy and anarchism?
CR: These semantic distinctions are tricky because they do mean different things to different people. One of the reasons I am cautious about using “anarchism” in the US is because it has much more negative baggage here than it does in Europe. I would like to make that word more palatable again for mainstream conversation, because I think it’s absolutely valuable. What anarchism offers is important.
Some people would say that anarchy is a state where anarchist principles have been put into practice. My distinction is that anarchism is a political philosophy. Anarchy is not a system where anarchism has been imposed, but actually a chaotic state of all against all. Therefore the distinction I would make is that I am for anarchism and against anarchy.
I don’t want all against all, any more than anybody else. I’m terrified of chaos. I feel the suppressed violence and anger of the current situation. The coercion necessary to police it and to keep stability is a form of persistent, chronic violence that we have now. I would argue that stability is better maintained by people negotiating relationships directly — horizontally — with one another so that the social fabric carries some substance of negotiating our common business, rather than this empty vessel of us supposedly getting on with each other and authority making the most important decisions for us.
SR: How far can you scale an anarchist form of government? It’s one thing for 10,000 people, but a million? One hundred million?
CR: It has worked. I don’t think people in Porto Alegre, Brazil would call it anarchism, but deliberative democracy is a concept I am extremely supportive of. In Porto Alegre, they have tried this for many years: mass participation in political decision-making over the city budget, and it worked. It led to more equitable outcomes and even a World Bank study. So it can be done at the scale of the city, and I don’t see it being beyond the wit of man to scale systems like that to a higher level.
At the same time, I don’t think the current machinery is scalable either. I don’t think you get better world administration by having a bunch of largely undemocratic and non-representative governments trying to decide things together. And I don’t mean the manifestly non-democratic countries like Saudi Arabia or China, I also mean us. I don’t think our governments are representative of the collective interest of our people.
SR: On one hand, anarchism requires collective action. On the other hand, there is an advocacy for individual action and agency. One has to be wary of collective action stepping on the toes of individual agency and individual agency usurping collective action.
CR: This boils down to how you arbitrate conflicting interests and protecting minorities. These are important problems, and I don’t think anarchists can lightly dismiss them by saying they will be sorted out in the wash.
A corollary of imposing anarchism is to believe in a gradual evolution of political behavior by individuals and groups, and the establishment of collective norms, and respect of pluralism in the richest sense. That, to me, comes about in the development of norms that are not currently visible, or at least are emerging.
SR: Or that are not codified. There are norms of behavior that are not necessarily legislated.
CR: There are also things like gay rights, which were supported by a large majority of Americans before it became law. That to me tells its own story about the importance of social norms and governing behavior — that in many ways government has lagged behind emerging social norms. And if you put norms as the priority and say that our duty is to propagate these social norms and negotiate with each other, they become all the more powerful.
SR: This brings me back to the time-speed-democracy issue. Gay rights is a wonderful example of how the country was ready for it long before legislatures ever were. A state legislature, through its democratic process, takes longer to catch up to what is happening in the streets. If legislators instead prioritize norms, the democratic process catches up quicker to public sentiment.
CR: Yes, but you wouldn’t need legislation. It is ridiculous and absurd that we require government to authorize us to marry. Marriage is a profoundly personal decision that should be yours and yours alone. For government — essentially other people — to accord you legal respect and rights is to me a revolting idea.
SR: You say the ends are the means, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there should be no goals, right?
CR: It’s not for me to tell you what your goals should be. I have respect for your goals. All I am saying is that in assuming your goals, be aware that the way that you pursue them is actually an end and not merely a means. The way you pursue your personal goal is going to have more effect than the end you seek, because that is actually what’s going on now.
In a sense, this plays to your temporal argument: it’s now. It doesn’t matter to a dead person in Iraq that democracy was the goal of the person dropping the bomb; that argument is immaterial to them. What matters is that they’re dead. I suppose this is a way of illustrating what seems to be a profoundly political argument — a moral argument really — that what matters is what you do, not what you say you’re doing.
SR: To bring it back to what you said earlier about demanding power from power: having goals is one thing, but perhaps demands shouldn’t be made, because that acknowledges a power structure?
CR: That’s an interesting point. In the current system we are forced to make demands of others who have power. I think that’s humiliating to us; we shouldn’t have to demand things about how to run our own lives.
The idea of making demands does reinforce a system that I ultimately find objectionable. And to me, making demands, perhaps more insidiously, reinforces our impotence over our own circumstances.
We have been taught a system of perpetual impotence, that only the government can change things and that we can only appeal to government to change things, and I think that has fundamentally destroyed the idea that we are, in fact, the most powerful people to make change. Obviously as individuals we cannot compete with the power of the government, but collectively we have far more power than any government.
One of the things I found remarkable working in government was how powerless politicians felt, how they felt they were being swept along by forces much larger than them that were basically immutable. I don’t believe in immutability. I believe that things can be changed, and can be changed very quickly and dramatically.
SR: Let me switch gears and talk about the Occupy Money Cooperative. Let’s start with the bigger picture: banks, the financial system, financialization, et cetera. Are banks more powerful now, after the recession, than they were before?
CR: I certainly don’t think they have been adequately reined in subsequent to the 2008 crisis, as politicians would have us believe. I think that Dodd-Frank and any of the other combined legal actions on any level are nothing but inadequate. The proposed actions will do nothing to stop banks from behaving irresponsibly or to stop another financial crisis from happening. The essential fragility and vulnerability of the system has been preserved.
The simple things to do to banks to reduce the systemic risk of the global economy have not been done. They’re very simple, and they don’t need 600 pages of legislation like Dodd-Frank to be done. They need two pages of legislation.
SR: Give me one.
CR: Reduce the size of banks. This idea has been obscured by lots of complicated arguments about “too big to fail” and the Volcker Rule, but basically if you didn’t have such big banks, you wouldn’t have such systemic risk because risk would be spread out amongst a far greater set of smaller institutions, which if any one of them collapsed would pose much less risk to the whole system. The problem is that now you have a few megabanks. The US banking market is dominated by a tiny number of huge banks, which if any of them fail would pose an immense risk not only to the American economy but to the world economy.
Another: insist on better capital ratios. For instance, all banks have to do is withhold earnings. It doesn’t mean they have to stop lending. The argument that it’ll make them stop lending is just not true. They just need to withhold their earnings — perhaps their own earnings, heaven forbid.
Third: force bankers to have a personal stake in their own risk-taking. Their own salaries or stockholdings or bonuses should be reduced if their bets fail. They need some skin in the game, because at the moment they don’t have any. They get their rewards whether the risks pay off or not. The taxpayer remains the insurer of last resort. We pay for the risks, but get none of the rewards.
SR: What would the ideal bank look like?
CR: An ideal version of a bank is not that difficult to imagine at all; it’s more or less everything today’s banks are not.
My ideal bank would be a cooperative, it would be community-based, and it would restore a sense of personal relationship between a banker and a customer, which has been completely lost in the maze of internet banking. It would be much more transparent. It would be simple. This is not a particularly radical thesis — analysts have come up with the same conclusions: you just return to simple, boring banking. Make banks smaller, more transparent, make them do less. Just require them to do the basic things that banks do: lend money to people and hold their money.
We would put people back in control of a public good, which is the means of exchange. One of the crises of capitalism is that common goods have come under the control of rapaciously profit-seeking institutions to the detriment of public interest. Those institutions have gone on to corrupt the legislature to protect their own quasi-monopolies. This isn’t free competition; this is something else very ugly.
SR: What is the Occupy Money Cooperative (OMC), and how is it different than a credit union?
CR: Credit unions can do more than we can at the moment. You can have a checking account with a credit union; you can’t have a checking account with the OMC. At the moment we’re only planning to launch one product — an innovative prepaid card — which is one of the services the so-called “unbanked” are forced to use because they can’t have a checking account and are often ripped off by prepaid card providers. We’re proposing to offer a very good value, transparent alternative to them.
One important distinction is that anybody can use our services, whereas a credit union is legally obliged to serve only a defined membership, like, for instance, armed services members or residents of the Lower East Side. Our services, however, will be available to anybody.
One of the ways private banks have hobbled the credit union industry is by preventing them from being universally available. There is no universally available national credit union that anybody can join. There should be, but it’s legally not possible because the banks know full well that it would take away their profits. Because it’s a cooperative, by its nature it could operate at a lower cost than a bank.
You are not allowed to set up a national credit union. There is absolutely no good reason for that. The only reason it is illegal to do so is to protect the profits of the banks.
SR: How do you answer the criticism of working with Visa?
CR: My answer is that we decided not to make the best the enemy of the good. We decided to do what we can; if you want to use a national payment network, then you have to use something like Visa. You have no alternative. In the long run, I hope we will be big and powerful enough to have alternatives and perhaps to establish alternatives ourselves. Our critics have not answered the question: “What would you do instead?” How would you offer a nationally available alternative service without using some of the financial system that is obviously compromising and obviously demands improvement? I share these concerns, and I share the criticism.
As a group we felt it was more important to do something and actually be helpful to the unbanked, who are the most vulnerable members of our society, rather than twiddling our thumbs waiting for something to come along.
SR: What do you mean by “unbanked”?
CR: Banks basically don’t give accounts to low-income people and people who have bad credit histories. In essence, they are excluded from the traditional banking system; they can’t build up credit records without having a bank account. A bank account is a very important way to access credit. If, for example, you’re starting your own business, you have to have access to credit.
Denying people banking services is a way of excluding them from the economic system as a whole, condemning them to live in a world of cash economy, payday lenders, high-interest lenders, and totally inadequate financial services.
SR: What is the cost structure for using the card?
CR: We can’t announce the cost details until we actually launch the card. With a prepaid card or a debit card, the cost structure is quite complicated. You can take money from the consumer in all kinds of different ways. The current card providers tend to do that in a hidden, untransparent way, and that’s why people are racking up charges without realizing it.
One thing we are determined to do is, if we have charges, to be absolutely clear on how to minimize charges. We have every interest in doing this because the most innovative feature of the card is that if you use it, you are a member of the cooperative that runs it. If the card is ripping you off, it’s ripping off itself. We’re not going to rip off our customers because our customers are us.
SR: How does one sign up for the card?
CR: You can sign up to volunteer, and shortly you’ll be able to make donations to help us get our start-up costs, but you can’t yet join because to join you have to get the card. At the moment the thing is run by a small founding board. As soon as we get the membership, they will be involved in the decision-making.
SR: Do you have plans to offer more products?
CR: Absolutely. The card is just a start. This is one of the things our critics have to understand: we have to start with something. We don’t have the capital to launch regular banking services. That will take us many years and will be extraordinarily complicated and difficult to do. But we hope through this initial product to gain momentum to develop new products.
We’ll also be very much open to the ideas of our members about what kinds of products they need and how those can be provided at a minimum cost. We’ll then have a powerful platform for the innovation of good, quality banking services.
We’re also exploring ideas of peer-to-peer banking services to reduce the structural costs of providing services. For instance, there are already peer-to-peer lending services where you can go online to invest and lend to people, but we would like that process to be a much lower cost. At the moment, to do that we have to pay hefty fees.
SR: Theoretically, could OMC buy a bank and change its charter?
CR: Yes. It’s much easier for us to buy a bank than to set one up, because the FDIC licensing system is enormously onerous. As far as I am aware, they haven’t licensed a new bank since 2008. So it’s very, very difficult to get a license; it’s much easier to buy an existing bank. There are lots of little banks out there that you could buy. Obviously it’s a major undertaking to do that, and you can only do so with enormous care and responsibility, but it is a way for us to get into banking.
SR: Now I want to turn to Gandhi. Why are you inspired by the Salt Satyagraha (Salt March)?
CR: I took inspiration from it because it was a classic political action of showing and doing: they did the thing they wanted to see, which was to make salt. Up to that point, British colonialists monopolized salt. Gandhi asserted their right to make salt not by demanding from the government they be allowed to do it, but by actually doing it. That was an extraordinarily powerful example of taking very direct and practical action. Eventually, it worked.
I read a lot about the independence process for India. Obviously it was a complicated story, and one cannot attribute it entirely to Gandhi, but clearly he changed the moral tone of the conversation. It was very striking to read the accounts of British imperial officers at the time who believed, because of Gandhi, that it was not plausible to hold onto the country forever. He made it clear that the colonialists did not have public consent.
SR: Do you think he realized that at the moment? Or, is this something you can only realize in retrospect, because you’re too close to it? For example, with OMC you are shooting something over the bow. It’s a warning shot: there’s an alternative to the banking system. We’re doing it. We’re taking action. I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, but it is possible that something could happen.
So, when you’re in a momentous occasion like that — when you’re not getting off the bus in Birmingham, if you’re marching to the coast, if you’re starting an Occupy Money Cooperative...
CR: I wouldn’t put those on the same par at all.
SR: It’s too soon to tell, so I guess you just answered the question. If you’re in the moment, you can’t see its total impact.
CR: We’re very different in terms of the risk, above all. Gandhi and the Civil Rights marchers took extremely personal, physical risks that I would never take. It’s very important to make that distinction.
The OMC is worth doing in its own right. If it’s just a little thing that helps a few people, then it’s worth doing. I will be glad that I was a part of it. If it helps trigger broader change, then brilliant. If somebody comes up with a better mode of change, a better idea, a better way of fixing a broken financial system, then I’ll be delighted.
I’m of the view that in reforming capitalism, there isn’t one right way. We should try many different ways and see what works. Occupy, in a way, embodies that eclecticism: it allows people to try lots of things driven by a common concern about the state of the economy and above all, about inequality. This is why our critics have it wrong: we’re not saying the OMC is the only way to fix banking. If others have better ideas, then good luck to them. I will be the first to applaud them.
In that sense, it’s rather different than a revolutionary political movement. The distinction between civil rights and ending imperialism in India is that their goals were about one thing. Civil rights was about ending inequality. Ending imperialism was about liberating a people from oppression. Changing capitalism is about many things. Claiming there is one solution is mistaken.
SR: You were and continue to be disillusioned with the way the international, state-centric system works, but you’re not cynical. You’re not pessimistic.
CR: About what?
SR: About the human experiment. You don’t seem willing or able to dismiss this as “that’s life.” There’s a sense of optimism about you.
CR: It’s an optimism driven by despair, because I am despairing about the current situation. But I do believe it is entirely possible there could be something better. I don’t believe in the unfixability of the current system. To be truly cynical is to shrug your shoulders and say, “This is the best we can do,” but I don’t think that’s true. We’ve become frozen in the headlights of a system that desperately requires change and that has outlived its purpose as a political and economic philosophy. Given the acute problems we face, it makes sense to explore alternatives.
When I sit in my Occupy group with a bunch of ordinary people who, before Occupy, were totally unpoliticized, but were galvanized by the emergence of that movement and the possibilities it created, and the inspiration it gave them, I do feel optimistic. My Occupy group makes me feel optimistic. It’s now a small group of people, and they’ve kept going through thick and thin, often discouraged, often facing many obstacles, totally unpaid, totally unrewarded, largely unrecognized, and for the most part they’ve stuck at it. One or two of them have done far more than I have done. I really admire them. They inspire me.
When I started the group, I thought I would be motivated by this goal of reforming banking and rebuilding banking — and to an extent that’s still true — but in the darkest days what kept me going was my loyalty to my fellow group members, that I wouldn’t let them down. We kept going for each other.
SR: How do you start a leaderless revolution?
CR: It’s entirely possible for people to construct better things. You don’t need permission. Just go and do it.
Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Books Critics Circle.
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