Power is an umbrella term and it’s not that easy to describe what it means, let alone to have any meaningful discussion about the nature and evolution of power. Interestingly, that’s exactly the topic of the book “The End of Power” written by Moisés Naím, who himself was “in power” for quite a while working as a minister and than as an executive director of the World Bank.
What is Power?
There is no agreement on what power is exactly, even among the people who dedicate their lives researching it. Many great thinkers have their own views on the nature of power and on why most of the people seem to pursue it with such a passion. My favorite take on power was made by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan:
The power of a man is his present means, to obtain some future apparent good. ... So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.
This is a nice definition but it’s too abstract to have any meaningful discussion. Moisés Naím assumes a more simple and formal definition of power in order to make things clear:
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.
Power and Technology
One of the main ideas of this book is that power closely follows technology. Centralization was a main theme of the previous century and it made a lot of sense to scale up many of our systems from manufacturing to politics. Everything had an epic and extreme scale: factories, wars, political alliances and so on. We enjoyed many benefits of centralization such as cheaper costs of production but we also suffered from world wars and extreme ideologies that wanted nothing less than to take over the world by any means necessary.
Centralization in Business
The interesting thing is that in the 21st century, scale becomes more of a drawback than a boon. Do we really want to have one point of failure? Let’s take “too big to fail” companies as an example. Are we comfortable with bailing them out in case they make a mistake, just for the sake of stability? It feels unfair for many people because it is unfair but that’s the main outcome of centralization: people become dependent on a monopolist who promises to be “good” but has no interest in keeping that promise.
What About Governments?
In theory, democratic governments reflect the will of the people, but many governments are not democratic which means that billions of people are living under a centralized power which serves someone else interests at their expense. That’s exactly what is happening in Venezuela, where centralized but incompetent government has dragged the whole country into extreme poverty. As you can see, centralization creates dependency and it doesn’t always lead to a better outcome for a society.
Shifts in Power
Luckily for us, the centralized political and business structures of the past are losing power to smaller players or automated tools. People are becoming less dependent on business and government structures and we have an incredible level of self sovereignty but it comes with a price.
Centralization in governance may be effective in order to move the nation forward. Less centralized systems may struggle to reach a consensus and, with no authority to make a decision single-handedly, the whole system could become stuck. One of the recent examples of such a struggle is Brexit, a controversial process where a lot of parties have a right of veto which simply blocks any meaningful progress.
Risks of the New Paradigm
There are many potential threats that come from the diffusion of power but the author puts an extra accent on the following 5 risks:
- Disorder: abolishment of universal rules may bring chaos and anarchy.
- Loss of Knowledge: smaller organizations may lack tradition as well as an incentive to invest into large and expensive R&D projects.
- The Banalization of Social Movements: many of our society’s biggest problems require high-risk and high-scale orchestration and the diffusion of power makes it hard to unite for a common cause or drags people into pointless internal fights.
- Boosting Impatience: everyone is a broadcaster now, which sometimes shifts our attention from working on our long term goals to obsessing with the short term and emotionally charged issues. Short-terminism and emotions are the exact opposite of the Enlightenment values of rationality and the rule of law.
- Alienation: trust is a foundation of any successful society, we cannot achieve any progress without some basic level of trust between each other and the diffusion of power leads to the diffusion of trust. Most of the failed states of our days have a low level of trust between citizens and the most successful countries also score high on the level of mutual trust so the deterioration of trust is a very concerning development.
The End of Power is a great book that summarizes the recent shifts in our society and our relationships with power. In my opinion, those trends won’t stop anytime soon and we will see more radical diffusion of power in the future but it’s still unknown how far it can go. I believe that this process will have a net positive effect on a society but it won’t be easy for us to re-adjust for the new reality and there are still many uncertainties that we have to be concerned about because they may greatly affect our lives.