It’s very comforting to believe the government has got things in grip. But if they don’t, what is a more plausible politics? What is a better method of addressing our politics, our problems? And I think actually it’s entirely logical that one should look to self-organized action as the answer.1
—Carne Ross, author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century
Carne Ross, quoted above, is a former British diplomat who worked on issues like the Arab-Israel dispute, terrorism, and the Afghanistan and Iraq incursions, and who resigned after testifying that the British government had exaggerated the case for invading Iraq and ignored the available alternatives to war.
While Ross could be considered an outlier, as we prepared this issue it became clear to us that ideas about leadership—or, more precisely, the ways in which individuals were taking leadership in civil society—have been undergoing radical change, and that we are facing an era-changing moment, when people’s faith in and relationship to the institutions that have dominated society are changing rapidly.
Many people covered in this edition of NPQ have taken leadership as individuals. Often, they are without institutional backing and followers when they act. Some throw themselves into situations where there is risk of public censure, job loss, social marginalization, and even injury or death, and often with the full knowledge that these consequences are not only possible but, in some cases, likely. Others take action in ways that provide them more cover—for instance, they may take a position online, with a collective whole, on an issue of public concern.
But what we find interesting is that these legions of actors are often not following anybody in particular—or, if they are, it is momentary. Tomorrow, they may throw in with another group on another issue. They are, in effect, civil society’s free agents.
This edition also addresses how nonprofits in particularly contested fields are demonstrating leadership—facing their own sets of questions regarding where they fit and how they must remake themselves in this new era. These considerations are not easy ones, often necessitating both openness to working in fluid networks, where power is shared, and a deep sense of savvy.
Finally, there are the leaders hard at work locally, building alternatives to unaccountable institutions—the social entrepreneurs, if you will, creating community banks and barter systems and farm systems. Can all of this remake society in a more equitable and sustainable form? It’s anyone’s guess. But in the meantime, to quote Ross paraphrasing Gandhi, “We must act as if the means were the end.”
- Carne Ross, interview by Bill Moyers, “Gambling with Your Money,” Moyers & Company, American Public Television, April 5, 2012.