From Boardroom to Battlefield and Beyond: Why It's Over for Power

Moisés Naím's brilliant new book charts how the little people are winning.


A version of this article ran in Barron's on Saturday, June 29, 2013. Click here to read the original.

With the federal government willing and able to surveil every phone call made in the U.S., pump trillions of dollars into the economy via fiscal stimulus, bail out whole industries, and force all residents to buy health insurance by the start of next year, it sometimes seems that most of us have no real control over our lives. Sure, we can dress like slobs at work and get any number of coffee drinks at even the lousiest freeway rest stop. But when it comes to power, the folks at the top of the figurative pyramid seem to have even more control than when the Pharaohs were forcing us to build actual pyramids.

Such fears are misguided, argues Moisés Naím in The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be, an altogether mind-blowing and happily convincing treatise about how "power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained." That's a good thing to Naím, the former editor of Foreign Policy who now hangs his hat at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Naím defines power as "the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals." Put that way, support for his thesis starts falling from the sky like rain in a tropical forest. Across the planet, governments are less able than ever to keep people within the artificial boundaries of nation-states. Despite the best efforts of protectionists, global trade and economic interdependence proceed apace, meaning that individual states have a tougher time calling the shots even within their own borders.

The year 1977, notes Naím, "was the high-water mark of authoritarian rule, with 90 authoritarian countries," according to Freedom House's count. By 2008, there were only 23 authoritarian nations left. In the corporate world, of the top 100 companies on the 2010 Forbes 500 list, two-thirds were survivors from the 2000 list and one-third hadn't existed in 2000. Between 1998 and 2008, the top five motor-vehicle manufacturers in the world saw their combined market share decline from 54 percent to 48 percent.

The author also shows how traditional, top-down, mega-organizations such as labor unions, school districts, charities, and organized religions are losing ground to smaller, nimbler arrangements ranging from worker co-ops to charter schools to micro-lending. Naím attributes the decay of power to what he calls the "more revolution," the "mobility revolution," and the "mentality revolution," each of which empowers individuals. These revolutions can be thought of as economist Joseph Schumpeter's "creative destruction" on steroids. Capitalism generally decentralizes power by disrespecting status, wealth, and tradition. As Marx and Engels put it memorably in The Communist Manifesto, under capitalism, "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…."

In Naím's triple-M schema, increasing globalization and sharing lead people everywhere—including the very poor—to want more from their lives. The mobility revolution might have started with goods crossing borders but increasingly facilitates the movement of people, which in turn fuels a mentality revolution in which subjugation is not taken for granted. Especially among younger populations in openly repressive parts of the world such as the Middle East, people are more likely than ever "to question authority and challenge power." As important, new forms of communication—cellphones, computers, and the like—allow them to organize more effectively, further fracturing the exercise of power.

While quite optimistic, Naím is no starry-eyed utopian. He identifies serious risks arising from the sputtering end of what passes for the old order. Since the start of the 21st century, for instance, the federal government has doubled its spending in nominal dollars, created two major new entitlements (the Medicare drug-prescription plan and Obamacare), pumped unprecedented amounts of money and regulations into the economy, and entered two major conflicts, with more likely on the way.

Yet despite these rotten developments, it's easy to see how power continues to dissipate, even in contemporary America. Drug legalization and marriage equality are upon us despite revanchist sentiments, and subversive currencies such as Bitcoin are gaining in popularity. The rise of Wikileaks, Anonymous, and similar outlets is undermining state and corporate secrecy. Pushback against recently revealed government surveillance and highly politicized IRS actions is likely to be intense. Meanwhile, real federal spending has flattened after many years of unrestrained increases.

I don't doubt that Naím's thesis is broadly correct. The only thing we have to fear is that the end of power can't come soon enough. 

A version of this article ran in Barron's on Saturday, June 29, 2013. Click here to read the original.