The End of Power: So What Do We Do?

With the inaugural selection in Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books," Zuckerberg demonstrates that the readings will not be lightweight or fluffy. Moisés Naím's The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What it Used to Be makes significant observations of our changing landscape. Naím, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, earned a Ph.D. from the Sloan School of Business at MIT, served as Minister of Trade and Industry in Venezuela prior to the ascendance of Hugo Chavez, and edited the journal Foreign Policy. Naím deploys his relationships and observations, as well as strong concepts and impressive statistics, to weave together the thesis of The End of Power.

Upon seeing the provocative title, I came at the book with a couple of lenses. First, the use of the word "end" occurred to me as an Aristotelian use, as in "final purpose." I wondered then if Naím would engage in a reflection of the purpose of the power. Less interested in the purpose of power, Naím writes about the "decay" of power, seen everywhere in politics, militaries, international relations, businesses, churches, organized labor, philanthropic foundations, and media. Second, the word "power" has specific meanings for me, rooted in my experiences in community organizing. I find the title of the book very engaging, and, as I would discover, the content was no less attractive.

Naím begins with what seems to be a stroll through the Great Books, citing thinkers such as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Nietzsche. Naím also sees the insights of Max Weber as significant on certain developments of the Industrial Revolution. Then, looking at our more recent events, he sees three significant "revolutions" that have created remarkable change in the exercise of power: the More Revolution, the Mobility Revolution, and the Mentality Revolution. [As an aside, Zuckerberg will take up the concept of revolutions again in his sixth book selection, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.] In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, Naím explains:
The "more revolution" is that we live in a world of more of everything, a world of abundance. There are not just more people, but there are more countries. There are more political parties. There are more foundations and philanthropies, also more criminal cartels. And if there's more of everything, it makes it harder for those in power to control others.

Not only do we have more of everything, but it moves more. So people, money, ideas, goods and services, pandemics and illnesses, ideologies and financial crises all move far more at greater speed and at lower cost. The "mobility revolution" is helping challengers circumvent the barriers. The "mentality revolution" is produced by the two other revolutions creating new ways of thinking, new mindsets, expectations, aspirations, behaviors and values. One interesting example of the mentality revolution is that divorce rates in India among the elderly are soaring, mostly initiated by the women. And that, I think, is related clearly to a change in mentality, but also the effects of the more and mobility revolutions.

So the "more" overwhelms the barriers, the "mobility" helps circumvent them, and "mentality" undermines them.
Naím's thesis is that these three revolutions fundamentally change the dynamics of power. If power is understood as the ability of one party to make another party do, or stop doing, something, then power, in its myriad forms, is decaying because power in all human endeavors is easier to acquire, harder to use, and easier to lose. Power has now become more transient.

(Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Endowment.)
In Naím's argument, those who have power today have less of it than those who had power in the same positions in the past. Consider Tip O'Neill and John Boehner. Both have served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is a pretty easy conclusion to draw that O'Neill had more power than Boehner has today. Or, take the example of where I had worked for more than fifteen years, the life of a parish priest. A pastor in a Catholic parish fifty years ago had greater power than a pastor today. Fifty years ago, the pastor likely had a much longer term in his post than contemporary Catholic pastors. The pastor could command greater obedience from the pulpit then, while now the pastor must use more art and persuasion. Previously, there were few vehicles for the pastor's accountability to the parishioners, and now Canon Law has formalized greater lay collaboration via pastoral councils and finance councils, even though the pastor retains the greater share of power in these bodies. In the parish sphere, these are all wonderful developments, even though they could afford to go further. In the sphere of local politics, looking to Chicago, who had more power: Richard J. Daley or Rahm Emanuel? In education, who had more power at the University of Notre Dame: Fr. Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C. or Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C.? The questions hardly seem fair to ask. I mention these cases simply to illustrate Naím's observation.

With the decay of power, we have an explanation for why we experience such paralysis before important questions that confront us. In U.S. politics, we experience the paralysis of partisanship before vital questions that urgently need resolution. Pick an important issue, and scarce progress has been made in recent years: social security, race relations, immigration, income inequality, climate change, and declining cities.

In this context of decaying power, Naím remains hopeful. He prescribes six steps to create a different conversation. First, Naím proposes to "get off the elevator."So much discourse in the world of electoral campaigns, international trade, business, and university education revolve around rankings and elevator thinking: who is going up and who is going down. The ranking is less important than what is going on inside of the institution, as the elevator henceforth will have so much volatility. Second, Naím proposes to "make life harder for the 'terrible simplifiers.'" In every field, we might imagine who takes the form of these "terrible simplifiers." Both the Left and the Right are guilty. In fact, we in the general population are responsible as we have reduced presidential debates to the humorous zingers launched by one candidate or the other, as observed by Neil Postman some years ago. We need to engage in more serious, nuanced conversation. These observations, of the elevator and the "terrible simplifiers," reduce our politics to cheering for our side and hating the other without engaging in substantive dialog about the issues underneath.

Third, Naím proposes an enormous task: bring trust back. Surveys and opinion polls show us the world over that trust in institutions has suffered tremendous declines in recent decades. Naím urges us to find mechanisms for transparency and accountability, as there are many good reasons not to trust authorities, so that we might give more power to those who govern us to resolve vexing problems that confront the world today. Naím's fourth step is to strengthen political parties. Contemporary political parties, urged by Left and Right movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, win elections less by ideals and ideas than by marketing, media savvy, and money. Political parties in the U.S. suffer from waning membership as the electorate increasingly attaches to the label "independent." Political parties, Naím argues, need "to regain the ability to inspire, energize, and mobilize people" (p. 241) to recover the power needed to govern. Fifth, Naím calls for increased political participation, primarily, through more competitive political parties. For years, we have witnessed a decline in voter turnout. Reversing this trend is but one of many yardsticks for turning around political participation. Sixth, Naím predicts a surge of political innovations. Naím cites how practically every U.S. political institution was "invented" in the eighteenth century with virtually nothing of comparable importance since. He remains convinced that the three revolutions inevitably will bring political innovation.

Frankly, while I agree with these six steps in principal, I am not so certain that I see a roadmap for how to get from here to there. I do find myself convinced that Naím has accurately described where we are in important terms: the decay of power and his three revolutions, but how we proceed practically from where we are to the renewed place that he proposes remains more obscure to me. Nonetheless, the journey that Naím proposes is what it is all about and it is worth fighting for.

This outstanding book provides for a significant starting point in Zuckerberg's "Year of Books." It provides insightful frameworks for understanding our context and helps us to ask new questions about the world within which we find ourselves.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book or on my observations about it. Feel free to post below.