The Fragility of Power: Are Big Powers Losing their Mojo?

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Thinking About Global Political, Economic and Social Trends

Moisés Naím is a Latin American economist, journalist, and scholar, and served as a cabinet minister in pre-Chávez Venezuela. A veteran editor of Foreign Affairs, he now serves as a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. We read his most recent book, The End of Power, with interest. In it he makes a compelling case that the common wisdom about global power—that it is more concentrated among elites than ever—is dead wrong.

Moises Naim
Source: The moisesnaim.com

His is a provocative thesis, and he makes it well. If he’s correct, that has profound implications for the nature of power and stability in the contemporary World—in business, in culture, and in politics. And it might mean that politics is, in some crucial ways, much less relevant than people think.

Naím begins by distilling a definition of power from his reading of political theorists. Power, he says, is “the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups or individuals.” Simply stated, power means the ability to get people to do what you want them to, or to refrain from doing something you don’t want them to. He describes that power taking four general forms: coercion (brute force), obligation (an appeal to ethical codes), persuasion (an appeal to someone’s preferences, or their vanity), and inducement (actually giving them some good in exchange for compliance).

That sounds straightforward. But he borrows a page from economics to give it a unique twist: he says that just as businesses in a given market are protected by “barriers to entry” (costs for participation that might be too high for competitors), power of all kinds hinges on the same restrictions. Economic power, cultural power, and political power are all defended and entrenched by these barriers to entry.

In the world of the 19th and 20th centuries, Naím believes, to be powerful meant above all to be big. Big organizations were able to deploy the new power of bureaucracy to produce efficient, systematic action, and were able to mobilize resources of human and material capital to keep the barriers high and the number of key players low. This bureaucratic revolution is now so much of the air we breathe that we don’t even notice it—although the idea of explicit job duties, precise placement in an organization, delineated structures of responsibility, job-specific training, and so on, are really products of the industrial revolution and the economic organization it created. The civil service bureaucracies that were born in the 20th century followed the same model.

And so the world we’re used to, Naím says, is one where power is most effectively exercised by sovereign nations, by large companies (think of the “Big Three” auto makers, or the old telecom monopolies, or the small cabal of oil majors who once dominated the industry), by established political parties, by churches with deep roots among their people.

But that’s no longer the world we inhabit. For a generation or so, forces have been at work in the world that are now reaching the point of making all that entrenched power far less relevant and effective.

Naím is careful to look deeper than facile appeals to “technology” or “the internet.” The forces he describes are all the result of our unprecedented success as a species. Though the world’s development has been very uneven, fortunes for the vast majority of the world’s people have risen dramatically over the last half-century. People are getting more numerous, more healthy, more educated, and more dissatisfied.

The first force, or “revolution,” he describes as the “more revolution.” There is more of everything—far more people, far longer-lived, far healthier, far more literate, far more educated. Second is the “mobility revolution”—people and goods and information move faster and more easily than ever before. And third is the “mentality revolution”—nothing is taken for granted. Old social and economic powers no longer receive the people’s respect by default. Everything is to be questioned. These revolutions are really nothing more than the globalization of liberal, Enlightenment values and the material affluence they facilitate.

Together, these revolutions are now radically undermining the barriers to entry that have protected big, bureaucratic, capital-intensive entities in all realms—nations, parties, churches, and businesses. It’s not so much that the big players are disappearing, as that they are fragmenting, and being challenged on all sides by upstarts. Their hold on power is more tenuous and more hedged with limitations.

Once dominant parties now are forced to form coalitions to survive. Executives more frequently face governing without a legislature under their own party’s control. Voters aren’t buying the party line, and are splintering off to left and right and into special interest groups, and rejecting incumbents. CEOs of large corporations face an ever-increasing likelihood of being forced from their positions and increasingly brief tenures in power.

Venerable corporations are faced with quick-rising upstarts. Established churches are losing ground to grassroots charismatic movements. Institutions are losing the trust of people increasingly unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt. The first generation of Americans has grown up which has never lived in a situation where a majority of the country thinks government can be trusted. All of these are examples of ways in which the old bureaucratic powers are being challenged, if not rendered obsolete.

In the face of these shifts, Naím observes, pundits can get obsessed with the wrong questions. The more interesting question is what is happening within these venerable old players? How are they disintegrating? How are they being challenged from within by the rising fortunes of a growing global middle class that is increasingly impatient for further improvements in its lot?

Lest we become blindly excited about the “rise of democracy,” Naim believes we are entering into an unknown world, in which there will be fewer and fewer decisive, hegemonic powers, and more and more instability. Old power politics and business-as-usual is rendered increasingly irrelevant by centrifugal cultural and economic forces. The new upstart powers don’t just include the likes of Al Jazeera or Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy—they also include the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico and Somalian pirates.

Is Dr. Naim correct? Time will tell, certainly he is correct thus far about one point. The world is experiencing more political, social, and economic instability.

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Co-Authors: 
Tony Danaher

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