The global financial crisis has provoked a profound and necessary questioning of the prevailing political and economic orthodoxy. So pervasive is this disillusionment with the current order that it is hard to find anyone prepared to defend it. Disorder is the new order; disequilibrium rules, and old assumptions no longer hold.
As Kuhn’s theory might suggest, the rank contradictions of the current political-economic paradigm—gross inequality and massive environmental destruction—are so great that a new paradigm should emerge: a system of thought and method of political action that can address these ills, and indeed offer a better method of organizing and understanding human society.
As a diplomat in the British foreign service, I served deep inside one bastion of conventional politics—the world of international diplomacy. I helped propagate “top-down,” government-dominated politics across the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. I resigned because my government ignored available alternatives to violence and dissembled before the Iraq invasion (I had been Britain’s Iraq expert at the UN Security Council). This breach triggered a deeper questioning of the way things are done. I concluded that top-down management was not working and that conventional political models, including representative democracy, were producing not stability but its opposite, an increasingly fractured society at home and around the globe and a perilously vulnerable environment.
In my former career, I saw how governments attempt to enforce order on a world that resists their methods. But complex systems, such as a world of billions of dynamic connections, cannot be frozen as if on a chessboard, intelligible and susceptible to step-by-step command and control. Indeed, governments by their own admission are less and less able to control the massive, heterogeneous forces now making our world: dramatic economic transformation, mass migration and climatic change.
Worse, and this helps explain the failure, these attempts exclude the people most affected—ordinary people. It has become clear that even in our supposedly iconic democracies, government decisions do not reflect the needs of everyone but rather those who enjoy privileged access: large corporations, the superwealthy, the elites—the 1 percent who benefit from this disorder, like the speculators who play volatile markets, companies that profit from the absence of price on environmental destruction and the cynical politicians who exploit the growing anxiety and disaffection with crude and atavistic certainties.
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A new politics is needed, and in the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street, I saw signs of its emergence. Some would see the Occupy protests as yet more evidence of disorder, not its solution. But to my jaded eye, the beacons pointing to a better method were bright indeed. At the UN Security Council and other diplomatic forums, I had taken part in high-stakes negotiations on everything from Iraqi WMDs to Palestine to the future of the Balkans. But the experience of hundreds of people listening to the voice of one—anyone!—through the “people’s mic” moved me more than any of those worldly negotiations. This was a politics of the many, included at last, at least in the small square of Zuccotti Park, if not in our distant capitals. Here I saw true respect, not the pretend respect of diplomacy. Here I saw involving and passionate debate, not the childish antagonism of Internet debate or the partisan rancor of Washington. The crowd was gripped by an unfamiliar emotion, a shared sentiment that others were listening and that their decisions truly mattered.