The End of Power

How wealth, health, cheap flights, and prepaid phone cards are undermining authority across the globe


Power is shifting—from large, stable armies to loose bands of insurgents, from corporate leviathans to nimble start-ups, from presidential palaces to public squares. It has become harder to wield power and easier to lose it, and the world is becoming less predictable as a result. As people become more prosperous and mobile, they are harder to control and more apt to question authority. 

Insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative start-ups, hackers, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media outlets, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals who seem to have "come from nowhere" are shaking up the old order. These are the micropowers: small, unknown, or once-negligible actors who have found ways to undermine, fence in, or thwart the megaplayers. Navies and police forces, television networks, traditional political parties, large banks—the large bureaucratic organizations that previously controlled their fields—are seeing their authority undermined.

Micropowers should be aberrations. Because they lack scale, coordination, resources, and a pre-existing reputation, they should not even make it into the game, or at least they should be quickly squashed or absorbed by a dominant rival. But the reverse is increasingly true: The micropowers are beating the megaplayers. 

Javier Solana, the former Spanish foreign minister, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and European Union foreign policy chief, once told me: "Over the last quarter-century—a period that included the Balkans and Iraq and negotiations with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian issues and numerous other crises—I saw how multiple new forces and factors constrained even the richest and most technologically advanced powers. They—and by that I mean we—could rarely do any longer what we wanted."

The end of the Cold War and the birth of the Internet helped enable the rise of today's micropowers, but they were by no means the only important factors. We need to look at deeper transformations in how, where, how long, and how well we live. These changes can be usefully imagined in three categories: the More Revolution, the Mobility Revolution, and the Mentality Revolution. The first is swamping the barriers to power, the second is circumventing them, and the third is undercutting them. 

The More Revolution

Ours is an age of profusion. There are more people, countries, cities, political parties, and armies. More goods and services, and more companies selling them; more weapons and more medicines; more students and more computers; more preachers and more criminals. The world's economic output has increased fivefold since 1950. Income per capita is three and a half times greater than it was then. Most important, there are more people—2 billion more than there were just two decades ago. By 2050 the world's population will be four times larger than it was a century before.

The More Revolution has progressed in the face of economic recession, terrorism, earthquakes, repression, civil wars, natural disasters, and environmental threats. Without diminishing the urgency or the human and planetary toll of these crises, we can assert that the first decade of the 21st century was arguably humanity's most successful: As the Center for Global Development scholar Charles Kenny put it, "Best. Decade. Ever."

According to the World Bank, between 2005 and 2008, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and from Asia to Eastern Europe, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (those with incomes under $1.25 a day) plunged. Given that the decade was marked by the onset of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, this progress is even more surprising. The world is expected to reach the Millennium Development Goals on poverty set in 2000 by the United Nations much earlier than originally anticipated. One of the most audacious goals back then was to cut the world's extreme poverty in half by 2015; that impressive feat was achieved five years early, in 2010. 

Despite the global financial crisis, the economies of poorer countries continued to expand and create jobs. That trend began three decades ago; 660 million Chinese have escaped poverty since 1981, for example. The share of Asians living in extreme poverty dropped from 77 percent in the 1980s to 14 percent in 1998. This sort of progress is happening not only in China, India, Brazil, and other successful emerging markets but also in the poorest countries of Africa. 

The economists Maxim Pinkovskiy of MIT and Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University have shown that between 1970 and 2006 poverty in Africa declined much faster than generally recognized. "All classes of countries, including those with disadvantageous geography and history, experienced reductions in poverty," they write in a 2010 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. "In particular, poverty fell for both landlocked as well as coastal countries; for mineral-rich as well as mineral-poor countries; for countries with favorable or with unfavorable agriculture; for countries regardless of colonial origin; and for countries with below- or above-median slave exports per capita during the African slave trade."

Since 2000 child mortality has decreased by more than 17 percent worldwide, and child deaths from measles dropped by 60 percent between 1999 and 2005. In developing countries, the number of people in the "undernourished" category decreased from 34 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2008. The World Bank reckons that since 2006, 28 formerly "low-income countries" have joined the ranks of "middle-income" ones. These new middle classes may not be as prosperous as their counterparts in developed countries, but their members now enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. The Brookings Institution's Homi Kharas, one of the most respected researchers on the subject, told me: "The size of the global middle class has doubled from about 1 billion in 1980 to 2 billion in 2012. This segment of society is still growing very fast and could reach 3 billion by 2020."

The world's socioeconomic landscape has changed drastically during recent decades: 84 percent of the world's population is now literate, compared to 75 percent in 1990. Average scores on intelligence tests all over the world are now higher. Meanwhile, combat deaths are down by more than 40 percent since 2000. Life expectancy in countries hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic is starting to rise again. And we are providing for our agricultural needs better than ever: Since 2000 cereal production in the developing world has increased twice as fast as population. Even "rare earths"—the 17 scarce elements used in the manufacture of cellphones and in fuel refining—are not so rare anymore, as new sources and producers enter the market.

According to the United Nations Human Development Index, which combines health, education, and income indicators to give a global measure of well-being, standards of living have risen everywhere in the world since 1970. Simply put, billions of people who until recently lived with almost nothing now have more food, more opportunities, and longer lives than ever before. 

The overall picture of humanity living longer and healthier lives, with basic needs far better addressed than ever, is crucial to understanding today's shifts and redistributions of power, and to putting into perspective more fashionable explanations of current events. Yes, the Arab Spring and other recent social movements have made spectacular use of modern technologies. But they owe even more to the rapid rise in life expectancy in the Middle East and North Africa since 1980; to the "youth bulge" made up of millions of people under 30 who are educated and healthy, with a long life span ahead of them, yet have no jobs or good prospects; and, of course, to the rise of a politically active middle class. It's no coincidence that the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, the North African country with the best economic performance and the most success in lifting its poor into the middle class.

When people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control. The exercise of power in any realm involves, fundamentally, the ability to impose and retain control over a country, a marketplace, a constituency, a population of adherents, a network of trade routes, and so on. When the people in that territory—whether potential soldiers, voters, customers, workers, competitors, or believers—are more numerous, in fuller possession of their means, and functioning at ever-greater levels of ability, they become more difficult to coordinate and control, let alone dominate. 

The Mobility Revolution

Not only are there more people today, living fuller and healthier lives; they also move around a lot more, making them harder to manage. This trend changes the distribution of power within and among populations, whether through the rise of ethnic, religious, and professional diasporas or through individual vectors of ideas, capital, and faiths that can be either destabilizing or empowering. The United Nations estimates that there are 214 million migrants across the globe, an increase of 37 percent during the last two decades. The number of migrants during that period grew by 41 percent in Europe and 80 percent in North America. 

Immigrants are changing the businesses, religions, and cultures of the countries in which they settle. In the United States, the Hispanic population grew from 22 million in 1990 to 51 million in 2011; one of every six Americans is now Hispanic. In Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters for the Ford Motor Company, 40 percent of the population is Arab-American. Such enclaves are bound to transform coalitions and voting patterns as well as business strategies and even religious competition. Political parties, politicians, businesses, and other institutions increasingly face competitors that have deeper roots and a better understanding of this new population. The same thing is happening in Europe, as governments have proven unable to stem the tide of immigrants from Africa, Asia, or other, less wealthy, European countries. An interesting case in point: In 2007 a Nigerian-born man was elected in Portlaoise, Ireland, a commuter town west of Dublin, as that country's first black mayor. 

Immigrants send billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries every year, promoting economic growth and development. Worldwide, they wired, mailed, or carried home $449 billion in 2010. (In 1980 remittances totaled less than one-fourth of that in inflation-adjusted dollars.) Nowadays, remittances are more than five times larger than the world's total foreign aid and larger than the annual total flow of foreign investment to poor countries. In short, workers who live outside their home country, who are often very poor themselves, send more money to their country than foreign investors and more than rich countries send as financial aid. For many countries, remittances have become the biggest source of hard currency and, in effect, the largest sector of the economy.

Perhaps the most aggressively power-transforming aspect of the Mobility Revolution is urbanization. More people have moved, and continue to move, from farms to cities than ever before, particularly in Asia. In 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. The U.S. National Intelligence Council reckons that "every year 65 million people are added to the world's urban population, equivalent to adding seven cities the size of Chicago or five the size of London annually." Internal migration—especially population shifts from farms to cities—can be as disruptive to power as international migration. 

A newer form of mobility is also reshaping the landscape of power: brain circulation. Poor nations tend to lose many of their skilled and better-educated citizens to richer countries, which attract them with visions of a better life. This well-known "brain drain" deprives nations of nurses, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and other professionals who are expensive to train. In recent years, however, increasing numbers of these professionals have been returning to their countries of origin and upending business as usual in industries, universities, the media, and politics. 

AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that Taiwanese, Indian, Israeli, and Chinese immigrants who worked in California's Silicon Valley often became "angel investors" and "venture capitalists" in their old countries, starting up companies and eventually either moving back or traveling frequently between their old and new countries. In so doing, they transfer the culture, approaches, and techniques they learned in the United States. Inevitably, the dynamic, competitive, and disruptive business culture common in entrepreneurial hubs clashes with the monopolistic and traditional ways of doing business often found in developing countries. 

These migrations are occurring in the context of a vast increase in the movement of goods, services, money, information, and ideas. The trade in goods was barely slowed by the recession that started in 2008. In 1990 the world's total exports and imports amounted to 39 percent of the global economy; by 2010 they had risen to 56 percent. And between 2000 and 2009, the total value of merchandise traded across borders nearly doubled, from $6.5 trillion to $12.5 trillion (in current dollars), according to the United Nations. Total exports of goods and services in that period jumped from $7.9 trillion to $18.7 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

Money also has become more mobile. The stock of foreign direct investment measured as a percentage of the world's economy jumped from 6.5 percent in 1980 to a whopping 30 percent in 2010, while the volume of currency that moved internationally every day grew sevenfold between 1995 and 2010. In the latter year, more than $4 trillion changed hands across international borders each day.

The ability to move information around has expanded even faster. Somalia epitomizes the concept of "failed states," societies in which citizens lack access to basic services that most of us take for granted. Yet even there, 21st-century mobile telephony is widely available. In 1990 across the globe, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people was 0.2. By 2010 it had exploded to more than 78. The International Telecommunications Union reports that in 2012 subscriptions to mobile telephony exceeded 6 billion—equivalent to an astonishing 87 percent of the world's population.

In 1990 the number of Internet users was insignificant—a mere 0.1 percent of the world's population. That number rose to 30 percent by 2010 (and to more than 73 percent in developed countries). By 2013 nine-year-old Facebook had nearly 1 billion users, more than half of whom access the social network via mobile phones and tablets. 

We should consider the impact of another tool that does not get the credit it deserves for changing the world: the prepaid phone card. The growth of calling-card usage leaves the Internet's growth in the dust. Now prepaid calling cards are giving way to prepaid mobile phones. Prepaid cellphones have displaced those that require a long-term subscription and bind the user to a service provider through an elaborate contract. The less-well-off who choose to leave home for opportunities further afield no longer face as stark a choice between staying close to their families and improving their fortunes. 

The two characteristics shared by all of these mobility-enhancing technologies are the speed and extent of the drop in costs of moving goods, money, people, and information. Airline tickets that used to cost thousands of dollars 20 or 30 years ago can now be had at a fraction of the cost. Transporting a ton of cargo today costs one-tenth what it did in the 1950s. Wiring money from California to Mexico in the late 1990s cost about 15 percent of the transferred sum; today the charge is less than 6 percent. Mobile phone platforms through which money can be transferred from one cellphone to another will soon make remittances almost cost-free. 

The Mobility Revolution has had a profound effect. Power needs a captive audience. In situations where citizens, voters, investors, workers, parishioners, or customers have few or no alternatives, they have little choice but to consent to the terms of the institutions they face. But when borders become porous, and the governed—or controlled—population becomes more mobile, entrenched organizations have a harder time retaining their dominance. 

The Mentality Revolution

The More and Mobility Revolutions have created a new, vast, and fast-growing middle class whose members are well aware that others have even more prosperity, freedom, and personal fulfillment than they do. These new members of the global middle class hope and expect to catch up. These expectations, and the discontent they breed among those left behind, are now global. They affect rich and poor countries alike; indeed, the overwhelming majority of the world's population lives in what could now be called rapidly changing societies. The embattled middle classes take to the streets and fight to protect their living standards while the expanding middle classes protest to get more and better goods and services. This is a new mind-set—a change in mentality—that has profound consequences for power. 

The Muslim world is a rich source of examples of how the Mentality Revolution is transforming long-held traditions, from the rise of a fashion industry aimed at hijabi (veiled or covered) women to the spread of no-interest banking in Western countries that have large Muslim immigrant communities. In India, the transformation in attitudes is spreading back from the young generation to their elders. A country where divorce was once considered shameful—and women, in particular, were discouraged from remarrying—now has an increasingly robust matrimonial advertising industry devoted to listings by divorced senior citizens, some in their 80s or even 90s, seeking love late in life and without embarrassment. Mature adults are leaving the arranged marriages into which they were inducted when they were teens or young adults.

Global public opinion surveys provide a clearer picture of the extent and velocity of these attitudinal changes. Since 1990 the World Values Survey (WVS) has been tracking changes in people's attitudes in more than 80 countries, containing 85 percent of the world's population. WVS Director Ronald Inglehart and several of his co-authors have documented profound changes in attitudes concerning gender differences, religion, government, and globalization. One of their key findings is a growing global consensus regarding the importance of individual autonomy and gender equality, along with a corresponding popular intolerance for authoritarianism. 

Globalization, urbanization, changes in family structure, the rise of new industries and opportunities, the spread of English as a global lingua franca—these have had consequences in every sphere of modern life, but their effect has been most important at the level of attitudes. The more contact we have with one another, the greater our aspirations.

One of the best examples of all three revolutions working simultaneously is the Indian outsourcing industry. Young, educated Indians who belong to the country's burgeoning middle class have flocked to work at urban call centers and other business-process outsourcing companies, which in 2011 generated $59 billion in revenue and directly and indirectly employed almost 10 million Indians. Although the jobs pay relatively well, they plunge young Indians into a welter of contradictions and competing aspirations—that is, aspirations to succeed in an Indian social and economic context while sublimating their cultural identities with fake accents and names, and dealing with abuse and exploitation at the hands of affluent customers a continent away. 

For young urban Indian women in particular, the jobs have provided opportunities and economic benefits they might not otherwise have had, leading to lasting behavioral changes that are upending cultural norms. Never mind the lurid newspaper articles about call centers as "a part of India where freedom knows no bounds, love is a favourite pastime, and sex is recreation," as an article in the India Times put it in 2004. Closer to the mark is a recent survey by India's Associated Chambers of Commerce finding that young working married women in Indian cities are increasingly choosing to put off having children in favor of developing their careers.

Revolutionary Consequences

The More, Mobility, and Mentality Revolutions challenge the traditional model of power. In that model, large, centralized, coordinated organizations deploy overwhelming resources and crushing force to obtain and retain power. As the three revolutions continue to progress, organizations that rely on coercion face ever-increasing costs simply to maintain market share and patrol their boundaries. 

The inability of the United States or the European Union to curb illegal immigration or illicit trade is a good example. Walls, fences, border controls, biometric identification documents, detention centers, police raids, asylum hearings, deportations—these are just part of an apparatus of prevention and repression that has thus far proven to be extremely expensive and largely futile. The United States has failed utterly to curb the inflow of drugs from Latin America despite a longstanding and enormously expensive interdiction effort. 

Power exercised through code or moral obligation also faces challenges as the three revolutions advance. Traditions embedded in family or tightly knit communities help people who live short lives marked by disease and poverty to cope, share support, and accept harsh realities. But as their material comforts increase and they gain access to more alternatives, the world's lower classes become less dependent on their inherited belief systems and more open to experimentation. Consider the crisis of the Catholic Church, which is having more and more difficulty recruiting priests who accept the vow of celibacy and competing with small evangelical churches that can tailor their messages to the culture and concrete needs of specific communities. 

Power that operates through persuasion, such as advertising campaigns or political patronage, is also challenged by the three revolutions. Imagine a political candidate or party trying to drum up votes through a combination of messages, advertising, and promises of rewards in the form of constituent services and jobs. The More Revolution is creating better-educated and better-informed pools of constituents who are less likely to passively accept government decisions, more prone to scrutinize authorities' behavior, and more active in seeking change and asserting their rights. The Mobility Revolution is making the demographics of the constituency more diverse, fragmented, and volatile. The Mentality Revolution breeds increasing skepticism of the political system in general. 

By no means is big power dead. The big, established players are fighting back, and in many cases are still prevailing. Dictators, plutocrats, corporate behemoths, and the leaders of the great religions will continue to be the defining factors in the lives of billions of people, even as they slowly lose market share. But these megaplayers are more constrained in what they can do than they used to be, and their hold on power is less secure. 

The More, Mobility, and Mentality Revolutions are attacking the model of organization so persuasively advocated by Max Weber and his followers in sociology, economics, and other fields, and they are attacking it precisely at the points where it once drew strength. Large organizations were more efficient because they operated with lower costs, thanks to economies of scale. Today, however, the costs of maintaining order and control are going up. 

The profound changes in the way power is gained, used, and lost drive many of the trends that are changing the world. Some of these trends are welcome and worthy of celebration: more competition in business, politics, or the sciences, tyrants and tycoons who are now less secure in their dominant position, more meritocracy and opportunity for those with talent, grit, and ambition. But the decay of power drives unwelcome trends as well: the inability to contain carbon emissions, reach a reasonable political deal about the budgetary choices of the American government, the failure to stop the carnage in Syria, and Europe's economic catastrophe. We have entered an era where many players have just enough power to veto, undermine, or dilute the initiatives of others but no single player has enough unconstrained power to push through an agenda. Many democratic countries are overdosing on checks and balances and the resulting gridlock, dilution, and delays in governmental decision-making have become dangerously common. This can and will change. In the next decade or so, the wave of innovation that has revolutionized communications, medicine, and physics will inevitably drastically transform the way we govern ourselves.  

Reprinted from 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. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of the Perseus Book Group. Copyright ©2012.