Mar. 17, 2013 by Darius
This evening, I saw Moisés Naím speak about his new book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be. Naím’s premise is simple: thanks to changes in the modern world, power is easier to get, harder to use, and easier to lose than it has ever been in the past.
The claim itself is hard to dispute. Mr. Naím used several wide-ranging factual examples. For example, in 1980, if a US corporation was in the top 20% in its industry, there was only a 10% chance that it would fall out of that range within the next five years. Today, there is a 30% chance of falling out of the top 20% range. Most corporate CEOs are actually forced out before their term ends. As Mr. Naím said, “Everything is more slippery at the top now.”
A second example used by Mr. Naím was warfare. Between 1800 and 1949, the “weaker” side (based on numbers, weaponry, funding, etc) in asymmetrical wars won 12% of the time. From 1950 to 1998, the weaker side won an astonishing 55% of the time. This change is largely due to a new kind of conflict, no longer involving nation states. And in many of these wars, the weaker side doesn’t truly win complete victory. It simply denies victory to the stronger side. For a real-life situation, one need look no further than the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Somali pirates, or Syria.
The trend of denying victory goes deeper than just warfare, though. Of the 34 OECD countries, 30 have governments in which the executive and legislative branches are not held by the same party. Mr. Naím uses the term “vetocracy” and argues democracies are “choking on checks and balances.” Vetocracy is becoming a more common approach to governing and in fact in all walks of decision making. Vetocracy occurs when numerous parties have an effective veto power on any collective action, but no one party is sufficiently influential to push through their agenda. As a result, victory is denied to any side.
According to Mr. Naím, there are three main revolutions responsible for the shift in power—the “three Ms”:
1. The more revolution. Almost anywhere we look, there is simply more than there has ever been before. There are more churches, medicines, guns, and, most importantly, people than at any point in history. Specifically, Mr. Naím pointed to a few demographic factors in the human part of the more equation. The world’s population is far younger than at any point in history, and it is, for the first time in history, predominantly urban (it was only in 2007 that a majority of people were officially living in urban areas). Finally, most of the world’s population has more money than at any time in the past. I found Mr. Naím’s statistic stunning: 38,000 workers, on average, have been lifted out of poverty every day for the last decade.
The more revolution is simply overwhelming traditional power structures.
2. The mobility revolution. Technology, people, and ideas are all spreading around the world at incredible speeds and tiny costs.
The mobility revolution makes it harder for power structures to achieve control because it is eliminating captive audiences and markets. In effect, it is circumventing traditional power structures.
3. The mentality revolution. Peoples’ mindsets about the world around them are changing. Mr. Naím offered an example to illustrate this: in India, the divorce rates among the elderly have increased rapidly. Most often, these divorces are initiated by women. Most of these marriages were arranged marriages; the couples have been together for decades. Yet women are increasingly deciding that they have simply had enough.
The mentality revolution is undermining traditional power structures.
Mr. Naím doesn’t consider this decline of power to be a positive thing. Globalization has led to a huge need for governments to work collectively. At the same time, the decline of power has meant that the capacity of the world to act collectively is stagnant or declining. When this happens, according to Mr. Naím, “lots of people die.”
Mr. Naím puts a large share of the decline of power at the government level at the doorstep of weakening political parties and divided governments. Governments cannot coordinate internationally because they don’t have the mandate at home. As Mr. Naím said, “The landslide victory is becoming an endangered species.”
While political parties have suffered over the last few decades, NGOs have flourished. According to Mr. Naím, this is due to the fact that people don’t like to make hard choices. When governing, the real-world choice is often between making a horrible choice and making a very horrible choice. It’s not a world of black and white decision making. Yet black and white decision making is exactly what civil society organizations like to see. “Compromise” has become a bad word. Declining trust in governing institutions, has led to the public limiting the autonomy of these institutions, further decreasing their functionality.
Ironically, Mr. Naím suggested that, to stop the decline of power at the government level, political parties learn from al-Qaeda. No, he did not mean to say that political parties should train young men as fanatical suicide bombers. Rather, he pointed to al-Qaeda’s ability to truly motivate young people to go out and change the world around them as something government institutions need to learn.