The decay of power

Spring 2014, Volume VI, No. 2

In this edition, Bill Ryan sj brings you thoughts on two books on power. Moises Naim's book, The End of Power, argues that the new microplayers can widen democracy, but they can also cause political chaos. Gar Alperovitz recognizes this dilemma and tries to find an answer to it in his What Then Must We Do? To welcome the spring, Sheila Watt-Cloutier speaks on The Right To Be Cold!

“We know that power is shifting from West to East and North to South, from presidential palaces to public squares, from once formidable corporate behemoths to nimble start-ups and slowly but surely, from men to women. But power is not merely shifting and dispersing. It is also decaying. Those in power today are more constrained in what they can do with it and more at risk of losing it than ever before.” -The End of Power (Basic Books, 2013) by Moises Naim.

Having been, during his varied career, Venezuela’s Minister of Industry and Trade, editor-in chief of the magazine Foreign Policy, and executive director of the World Bank, Moises Naim has earned a good chunk of credibility on the subject of power. He has gathered data from every corner of the world in his attempt to change the way we think about power and his conclusions ring true to my own limited experience. So let me dip into Naim’s treasure trove of a book, and sample his multilayered critical thinking, just enough for you to consider seriously his crucial thesis.

Naim defines power as the ability to direct or prevent the current or future action of other groups or individuals. Power is not an abstract concept; for better or for worse, its extremely practical function is to organize societies—local communities, nations, marketplaces, the world. The paradox today is that we are perhaps more aware of big issues and forces that threaten us than ever before. But do we have the power to tackle these issues decisively and effectively? Very often, it seems that we don’t. For Naim the basic reason is the decay of power.

Presently, there is a gap between the perception and the reality of power. Experts and media commenters (terrible simplifers Naim calls them) are bewitched by the game of ranking or “up and down – elevator thinking.” When will China be number One? Or when will emerging countries such as India and Brazil overtake Western rich countries? Naim’s thesis is that whoever will be ranked Number One will soon discover the decaying of their power.

Many analysts ascribe today’s rapid pace of global change to the internet, and to instant electronic communications more generally. Naim points out that, however indispensable, all such marvellous gadgets are only tools. To achieve change requires a cause and goals, direction and motivation. These are most likely to be found at the local level, especially when local people are fed up with their living circumstances.

Naim sees all major institutions affected by power decay. Indeed, the subtitle of his book is From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to be. Here are few samples:

In the wars 1950-1998, the weaker side prevailed 55% of the time. Weaker groups have increased ability to inflict casualties at a much lower cost. We need only think of how a small group of foreign terrorists, entering the USA on an insignificant budget, took down the World Trade Centre towers at the cost of many lives and subsequently trillions of dollars. Or the fact that in the Iraq war the use of improvised explosive devices caused two-thirds of Coalition casualties plus billions of dollars in the search for technology to neutralize them.

All but four richer countries are today paralyzed with minority governments. President Obama’s government is in gridlock, largely due to the antics of the small Tea Party. Belgium’s political parties were in deadlock for 541 days before creating a government in December 2012.

Trade unions are in decline everywhere – and CEOs of major transnational corporations now have an average time in office of only 5-6 years.

The Catholic Church has damaged its reputation because of scandals—published world-wide by today’s instant communication—and its ineffectiveness because of over-centralization, Naim considers. Perhaps the cardinals who elected Pope Francis agree with Naim on this last point; the new Pope seems to stand for a decentralization of power by fostering collegiality with and among bishops, and staying locally close to the poor of the world.

So what is happening? Many new smaller players now have better access to information and power. There are as many (maybe more) cell phones in emerging countries as there are in richer countries. For example, China has 1.3 billion citizens with 1.5 billion cell phones; and in Bangladesh there are 98.5 million cell phones for 148 million citizens. (North Korea, Cuba and Ethiopia are the exceptions.)

Naim says it’s a bad time for megaplayers and a dream-time for microplayers – especially for social movements and NGOs of all kinds. With fewer resources and new techniques, microplayers can constrain or paralyze what macroplayers try to do. The Arab Spring may be a case in point. And elsewhere, small movements can decay political and institutional power to act - through techniques like vetoes, foot-dragging, diversions, etc – what Naim calls “vetocracy.”

The widening power of micro-players should mean a strengthening of democracy. But just as easily, their effect on society can be paralyzing. Microplayers can weaken but they cannot replace formal political power. They themselves suffer from decay of power because of internal divisions and lack of trust in leadership, and/or by members with only a weak commitment to the movement. They can also be constrained by goals that are too narrow.

We are watching world power being reborn in fits and starts. Changes are coming from the bottom, not the top of society. However, non-governmental organizations cannot replace political parties. To reinvigorate democracy, trust in political parties and leadership must be rebuilt from scratch. We can no longer live with a political system that has not changed since the 19th century. Government for the people and by the people has long been an ideal. The challenge now is to find new ways to translate that ideal into reality.

Bill Ryan sj