- - Wednesday, February 22, 2012


By Carne Ross
Blue Rider Press, $22.95, 272 pages

Nation-states - those “weary giants of flesh and steel,” as John Perry Barlow called them in his famous 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” - are on their way out. They can’t cope, they can’t keep up, and they’re going to be replaced by something else, something better, more human, more communitylike.

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Carne Ross‘ “The Leaderless Revolution.” I would like it to be true. Unfortunately, the more I read Mr. Ross‘ book, the less persuaded I became. If we are to achieve the leaderless utopia Mr. Ross foretells, we will need a better plan than Mr. Ross provides. We may even need a bit of, dare I say it, leadership.

Mr. Ross is right that the modern nation-state is under considerable strain, though his favorite example - an inability to impose draconian carbon controls designed to prevent “climate change” - seems especially uncompelling. A more convincing example of nation-state incompetence can be found closer to hand, in the national debts that are swelling beyond any chance of repayment all around the globe.

Indeed, those financial problems are tied to the failure of the climate-change regime, which would have been a fertile new source of “carbon tax” revenues that might have postponed the overspenders’ day of reckoning for a decade or two.

The failure to close that particular deal was just a failure to treat the symptoms of big government, but a success there only would have made the scale of the disaster worse - and the defeat of the warmist initiatives was a leaderless revolution in itself, as anti-warmist bloggers and activists (“climate-change deniers” in the parlance of the left) poked enough holes and raised enough doubts to turn the public mind, pretty much worldwide, from credulity to skepticism despite a seemingly endless parade of horribles from media and government officials.

We likewise have seen mass revolts against the Stop Online Piracy Act in America and against the dreadful Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which would ban much free software, in Europe. We’ve also seen the Tea Party movement and the somewhat less impressive Occupy Wall Street movement.

People really are mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore - they’re just not mad about climate change, nor are they willing to pay higher taxes to prevent it. In the Middle East, we’ve seen a lot of popular revolts, though despite Mr. Ross‘ enthusiasm, the outcome doesn’t seem to be pointing toward anything especially humane or individualistic.

Mr. Ross‘ discussion veers between leftist talking points about bankers, climate change and the evils of the war on terrorism on the one hand and a rather unfocused discussion of the need for some sort of collective action to ring in the brave new world. He concludes with a set of recommendations that appear to come from bumper stickers (“Big picture, small deeds,” a rather thin rewrite of “Think globally, act locally”) or from self-help tracts (“Locate your convictions”). Even if you believe, as I do, that ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century, this book fails to live up to its subtitle’s promise of showing how that will be done. Those interested in this topic would be better off reading more sophisticated treatments, such Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom’s “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.”

And yet, for all that, Mr. Ross is basically right. Although the decline of the nation-state has not taken place as rapidly as Mr. Barlow might have expected, the balance of power has shifted, and it is likely to shift further with time. Technology and the ability for rapid horizontal communications among individuals, unmediated by large organizations, is strengthening the hand of the citizenry vis-a-vis the rulers. Although the rulers are trying to change that, they seem to be perennially a day late and a dollar short or, these days, a trillion dollars short.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee. He hosts “InstaVision” on PJTV.com.

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