Book Review: The End of Power

The End of Power
By Moisés Naím
Basic Books, New York, 2013

Moisés Naím uses a lot of words that start with “d” to describe what’s happening to power these days; dilution, dissipation, disruption, diffusion, and decay. The full title of his book is The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used To Be. Despite the unwieldy title, power is definitely not ending.

Naím has had a varied career. He’s been a journalist and former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy. But it was his experience as Minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela that seems to have inspired much of the book.

I think he does a really good job explaining some important trends and identifying their root causes.  Unfortunately, I found his recommendations for dealing with the consequences disappointing, to put it mildly. I’ll explain why later, but first here’s a brief overview of the book.

In the opening chapters, Naím presents his main idea: power has become easier to get, harder to use, and easier to lose. He starts with this definition of power:

“Power is the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals. Or, put differently, power is what we exercise over others that leads them to behave in ways they would not otherwise have behaved.” p. 16

As I’ll discuss below, I think this definition is inadequate, but let’s accept it for now. Whether it’s your boss asking you to come to the office early for a meeting, a salesperson convincing you to buy something a little outside your budget, or one country invading another, we’re witnessing the exercise of power.

Until recently, Naím says, power has tended to concentrate in large hierarchical organizations; corporations, nation states, armies, churches, universities. In fact size and scale have traditionally been one of the most important ways of maintaining power. They have been essential for controlling and using resources efficiently and they’ve also formed an effective barrier to entry against potential rivals.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the invention of the HTTP protocol by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 kicked off three simultaneous revolutions that are causing the decay of power.

  • The More Revolution: There are more people wanting more things in more parts of the world than ever before. The growth of the middle class in places like India, China, Brazil, and even some parts of Africa, is driving demand for more goods, better government services, and less corruption. At the same time, a more prosperous population is less vulnerable, less dependent and less susceptible to coercion and domination.
  • The Mobility Revolution: People move around a lot more these days, both within countries (urbanization) and between countries (migration). This means people are harder to monitor and control – there’s no such thing as a captive population anymore (North Korea being the exception that proves the rule). And even for those who stay put, information has become mobile. People are more aware of the lifestyles and possibilities available in other places. And they’re more likely to demand similar possibilities at home.
  • The Mentality Revolution: The mentality revolution is all about expectations. Because of the More and Mobility revolutions, people all over the world expect more for themselves than their parents did. They expect more prosperity, more education, more freedom and more equality, and they expect it now, often well ahead of the capacity of their governments and societies to provide it. The result:

“The combination of emerging global values and the increase in aspirational behavior poses the strongest challenge of all to the moral basis of power. It helps spread the idea that things do not need to be as they have always been – that there is always, somewhere and somehow, a better way. It breeds skepticism and mistrust of any authority, and an unwillingness to take any distribution of power for granted.” p. 69

The More, Mobility and Mentality revolutions, combined with new technologies and trade liberalization are knocking down the barriers to power. Size and scale are even becoming handicaps. This creates opportunities for “micropowers,” small, nimble players willing and able to take advantage of local conditions, serve niche markets or focus on single issues. Whether it’s ethnic minorities demanding more rights in many countries, guerillas and insurgents harassing traditional armies, or small, venture-funded startups disrupting established businesses, the barriers to power are falling.

In the middle chapters of the book, Naím surveys the impact of the decay of power in various areas including war, politics, business, religion and education. Let’s look at just one; politics. First, dictators are losing power. In fact the world is running out of dictators. More and more countries are run by democratically elected governments these days. But even in democracies, the power of governments and political parties has been eroded. There are more regional and sub-national bodies, and more power has been handed over to the judiciary. We’ve seen the rise of new political parties and factions within parties. Traditional “big tent” or “brokerage” parties are being challenged by, sometimes displaced by, regional or single-issue parties. More places now allow for referenda and other ballot initiatives. This is all good for democracy. The drawback is that it’s more difficult for societies to come to consensus about how to deal with large, pressing issues when there are more players representing smaller groups and narrower interests.

So, to recap, power is easier to get: the barriers to entry have fallen. It’s harder to use: there are more players, more voices, and more constraints to contend with. And it’s easier to lose: incumbency, whether in politics or business, is no longer a guarantee of future dominance. Just ask General Motors, Kodak or Microsoft.

Naím finishes off the book by outlining some of the consequences of the decay of power and making recommendations for addressing the negative ones. On the plus side, there are many reasons to celebrate: increasing political freedom around the world, greater opportunity, rising prosperity, more choices and lower prices.

But Naím worries we’ve reached a point where the negative consequences of the decay of power outweigh the benefits.

“When overly concentrated, power produces tyranny. At the opposite end, the more fragmented and diluted power becomes, the greater the risk of anarchy – a state in which there is no order.” p. 224

More players, more viewpoints and more interests mean less power concentrated in the hands of leaders, especially in government. This leads to political paralysis and an inability to deal with large scale issues that affect us all such as climate change or arms control.

Our political institutions haven’t kept up with the rapid shift away from highly concentrated power.

“But today’s decay of power has yet to give birth to its own institutional responses: innovations in organizing public life that can allow us to enjoy the fulfillment and personal autonomy that hyper-diffuse power promises while staving off its very real, very dangerous threats.” p. 225

So Naím argues that we need to trust our governments and our leaders more so they have the mandate and the strength to deal with pressing international problems. Recognizing that this is difficult in the current climate where a majority mistrust their governments, Naîm says we must revitalize political parties. He sees political parties as the primary vehicle for inspiring, organizing and mobilizing an active citizenry. He calls for parties to adopt flatter more agile organization structures so they can once again attract motivated activists, especially youth. Only then can they regain the power to govern effectively.

Unsolicited Feedback

The End of Power started off really well. Moisés Naím’s analysis of recent trends affecting the distribution of power is spot on. And while I think the consequences of these trends are overwhelmingly positive for humanity, I agree there are some new problems that need to be addressed. I disagree with his recommendations, which in my opinion amount to turning back the clock about 50 years.

I think Naím gets off on the wrong foot with his definition of power.

“Power is the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals.”

In other words, power is social; it operates within the context of relationships between individuals or groups. It is, as Lenin put it, about who does what to whom. That’s OK as far as it goes, but it fails to include self-empowerment. It’s all about controlling the actions of others and says nothing about individual self-determination. People making their own choices about their own lives are apparently not exercising power under this definition.

I prefer Bertrand Russell’s definition:

Power is the ability to produce intended effects.

It’s broader. It includes the possibility of empowered people directing the current or future action of no one but themselves.

Why is this important? Well, when we talk about power decaying it implies, to me at least, that power is somehow disappearing as if it were rotting fruit or a radioactive isotope. If you could somehow quantify power, then the total amount of power in the world would be declining over time if it were really decaying. And it is declining if you consider only the power of large organizations. But I think power isn’t really decaying at all. I prefer another one of Naím‘s d-words; diffusing.

If you use Russell’s broader definition as the basis for a calculus of power then we might find the total is actually increasing as individuals become more empowered. Naím clearly recognizes the benefits of greater freedom and democracy but he doesn’t examine the phenomenon of individual empowerment in anywhere near the depth that he covers the loss of power by traditional hierarchies. As a result I think he neglects a vital part of the story.

In fact, the tone of the book in some places makes it seem like Naím misses the good old days when the boys (and they were all boys back then) could get together to make deals in back rooms. Everything was so much simpler. You could get stuff done quickly, on a handshake, without any fuss.

So it’s no surprise that he wants us to start trusting governments again and to revitalize political parties. But it’s still disappointing and undermines the credibility of the book. Despite all the abuse, incompetence and corruption we’re supposed to put more trust in government? And political parties, those electoral machines designed for raising money and stifling debate? Seriously?

Naím has identified an important problem: how do we arrive at consensus in an age when power has become diffuse? But turning back the clock won’t help us develop the “innovations in organizing public life” that we need.

It’s quite possible the nation state is not the appropriate unit of power to decide some issues. Maybe we need directly elected supra-national bodies with the jurisdiction to address certain types of international problems. Maybe we need more referenda, even international referenda, leveraging new technologies to enable direct democracy on a massive scale. Perhaps we should have mechanisms to concentrate power for limited periods and limited purposes in order to deal with crisis situations. Similarly, political parties, may not necessarily be the best vehicle for organizing people. Maybe we can think of other ways of doing that along lines that people self-identify. And maybe there are a bunch of things better left to the judgment of empowered individuals.

Perhaps Naím has some other ideas for novel forms of political organization, but if so he doesn’t go into them and this detracts from an otherwise excellent book.

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One Response to Book Review: The End of Power

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The End of Big | Unsolicited Feedback

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