Greatness is insignificant but leadership will be the catalyst of change

by Jonathan Todd

“Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”

Carne Ross cites these words from War and Peace in the conclusion to his The Leadership Revolution, How Ordinary People will take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century.

Prince Andrew thinks these things as he looks upon Napoleon, the “great man” that he had once so admired. In coming to doubt the capacity of such man, rather than the foot soldiers that they nominally control, to shape events, the experiences and views of Prince Andrew reflect the anarchist views of Tolstoy, according to Ross.

Such views are now propounded by Ross, who, after a 15 year career as a British diplomat, has come to doubt the capacities of our supposed leaders as completely as Prince Andrew. He writes:

“The revolution is as profound as it is simple. Evidence and research are now suggesting that the most important agent of change is us ourselves. At a stroke, the prevailing notion that the individual is impotent in the face of the world’s complex and manifold problems is turned on its head. Instead, the individual is revealed as a powerful motor of change, offering the prospect of immense consequences for politics and the world, and, no less, for themselves.”

The ideas of active equality and pro-social behaviour are not based upon any such prevailing notion. They may even have been inspired by the same evidence and research that Ross appeals to. In other words, some of the ideas that I see as most exciting and vital to Labour’s continued revival see the individual as Ross sees the individual, as a powerful motor of change.

But Labour, of course, is not an anarchist party. We have challenged unjustified privilege throughout our history. Nonetheless, we accept some forms of hierarchy as necessary, at least in mass societies, and the legitimacy of states. As I understand it, neither of these things is accepted by anarchists – with the venal hypocrisy of Julian Assange testament to where this lack of acceptance can lead.

What should matter to Labour is whether the hierarchies, including the offices and structures of the state itself, are organised on principles of equality and justice. While we accept that all cannot be generals, we should want those who are to have fairly and squarely ascended to these stations.

Honest and realistic assessment of the capacities of the state should also be important to Labour. These capacities are not as degraded as Ross argues. But he is right that the individual is invariably a more powerful agent than is often thought. Through intelligent implementation of concepts like active equality and pro-social behaviour Labour should harness and catalyse this agency.

However, some problems are truly global, limiting the capacity both of states acting in isolation and individuals in unison to correct them. What is required is the kind of revolution that another former diplomat, Mark Malloch-Brown, has called for in his The Unfinished Global Revolution: The Limits of Nations and the Pursuit of a New Politics:

“I argue for strengthening international institutions because the world needs to have rules in place that allow for peaceful adjustments between states. I imagine that violent showdown, the historical preferred means of change management between states can be replaced by negotiation … Another reason global government may begin to form is that we all now live in an underregulated hell where deteriorating earth, rivers, oceans, and climate go unchecked … We share the impact globally, but the solutions remain blocked at the national level.”

History shows that the emergence of new global powers, particularly when valued resources are particularly scarce, has usually resulted in catastrophic conflict. The rise of the rest, especially China, humanity’s rapid consumption of non-renewables and the inadequacy of global institutions should spell trouble in two senses: a heightened risk of future conflict and on-going environmental calamity.

International institutions are best able to manage these risks. The best leaders of nation-states should push power upwards to create such institutions and downwards to individuals and communities, both of which are possessed of new agency and better understanding of what their localities require.

Perhaps I am as hopelessly naive as an anarchist to believe that leaders of states will ascend to these positions only to parcel power out to institutions above and below them. Where the anarchist rejects states entirely, I hope and argue for behaviour from state actors that many would see as incompatible with their power hoarding and self-aggrandising manners.

It is not the greatness of particular individuals that sustains me in my views. That is indeed largely insignificant. But the increasingly stark necessity of the power shifts, upwards and downwards, that I argue for. Either leaders will respond to this necessity or they will wither, fail and disappoint.

Next I give some thoughts on the relevance of global institutions to Labour’s views on matters of war and peace.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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