Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be by Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím sees the decline of power across many institutions. He is at times wistful, at times celebratory in his reaction to power’s decay. But he isn’t entirely clear why we should care about the passing of power. The powerful do care; Naím has many powerful friends who lament power’s loss of magic. Popes, pols and pundits just don’t get the respect their predecessors received; their authority is more circumscribed, more readily challenged (the same decline is noted by law professors). But for the greater number of us, who are in more settings objects of the power of others than detainers of power, the end of power is not a self-evident cause for concern.

A decline in social organization is a cause for concern – and to the degree the phenomena described in The End of Power signal a loss of capacity for coordination, Naím’s book is more than an indulgence of ambivalent nostalgia. Naím is careful with his definition of power: power is the ability of some few - the powerful - to direct the actions of others. And, he asserts, there are four means by which power is exerted: muscle (force), code (tradition), pitch (persuasion), and reward (incentive).

Naím is a superachiever who has spent his life at or close to the top. He was a prominent politician in Venezuela – and since has become a heralded writer in the United States. As such, his personal prescription, given toward the end of The End of Power, is quite surprising. Get off the elevator, Naím urges. And by this he calls for an abandonment of mindless ambition and more; elevator thinking is the focus on rank and hierarchy, which promotes power as an end in itself.

Naím’s gives a bottom-up account of the decay of power; it is an Arab Spring kind of story. We – the traditional objects of power – are also the source of power. We permit ourselves to be commanded. And we are not going to take it anymore. Naím outlines three broad socio-cultural phenomena that capture our new restlessness: our increasing material expectations (what he calls “more”), our increased mobility (social and geographical), and perhaps more importantly our new mindset. We are more self-reliant, more independent, and able and willing to exercise more choices. This last point is only somewhat true, of course. Our minds may no longer be commanded by kings or bishops, but our new “mentality” (Naím’s phrase) is vulnerable to social media, demagoguery, and consumerist envy. We are hardly immune to the exercise of influence.

Naím proceeds to describe the decline of power in key settings: politics, the military, diplomacy and business. At times he speaks of power within an institution; at other points, he depicts the waning of the power exercised by the institution itself. A president or a minister, a general or an ambassador, a corporate chieftain - they all face greater difficulty getting their way – that is, authority and discretion is more broadly diffused within a social organization. But social organizations no longer command as before: a terrorist does not fear a large army, an upstart business can challenge and displace a dominant company. Power is no longer entrenched.

So why shouldn’t this be cause for celebration? In a zero-sum calculation, the end of power is matched by increased decisional space. While each of us may be less powerful, as Naím would define it, in that we experience a decreasing ability to exercise our will on others, we enjoy the recompense of greater autonomy. This would seem to be an unambiguous improvement (from a liberal perspective), so long as the resultant society (and its possibilities) are not thereby diminished.

Power is associated with command; it is structured by hierarchy. But command is not the only means for social coordination. The ‘market’ is a well recognized alternative for coordinating disparate social action; here the key structures (contract, the state) facilitate exchange. Power’s analog in markets is wealth: like power, wealth can coordinate social action (using Naím’s categories of means) via muscle, code, pitch and reward. 

Power (command) and wealth (market) may not, however, exhaust the set of institutions by which society is structured. At one end of the scale, family is an entirely distinct and mysterious realm that exerts force at short range. And there may be hardwired mechanisms to be uncovered by behaviorists that keep us socially in check. New social norms may emerge and be widely distributed through the web (e.g. the no-double dipping salsa rule). The end of power need not spell chaos nor poorer, nastier, more brutish and shorter lives.

The End of Power is longlisted for the 2013 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
See my review here of Neil Irwin’s The Alchemists which is also longlisted for the 2013 FT/Goldman Sachs Award.

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