Staff Reviews

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.

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  1. “Pushback against recently revealed government surveillance and highly politicized IRS actions is likely to be intense.”
    Not seeing it from here.

    1. While I’m not sure I do find this premise entirely convincing (I think the expansion in government power hasn’t been fully realized by politicians yet in the actual abuse of that power), I wouldn’t sweat the current slate of scandals taking a while between discovery and action. Watergate itself took two years before Nixon was gone.

      1. Watergate itself took two years before Nixon was gone.

        So how much faster things moved back then?

        1. I dunno, I’ve been thinking about that. Would we move faster now or then? Certainly, one difference between now and then was that people would friggin’ resign when they got busted. Now, they just lie more.

          If I could change nothing else, getting voters to totally repudiate people who have demonstrated ethical or moral lapses and/or have abused power would be a vast improvement over the current situation.

  2. I want to believe Na?m’s thesis, but I have trouble doing so.

    For instance, just taking one small example, my daughter is far more likely to have an interaction with police, and be found guilty of a crime than I was at her age.

    With an array of state regulations regarding zero tolerance, byzantine rules which didn’t exist when I was young, anti-bullying statutes, it’s far more likely for the next generation to find themselves in front of a judge for simply saying something off-color to a fellow student or friend.

    This is just one tiny corner the regulatory map.

    Canadians can now spend up to ten years in prison for wearing a mask during an “unlawful gathering”. Residents of unincorporated King County are not allowed to do anything to sixty percent of their property due to a ‘critical areas oridinance’.

    The fact that I can tweet and facebook about these intrusions into my life doesn’t make me feel more free.

    1. If things are so much less authoritarian now, why can’t I open a foreign bank account now in a reasonably safe country? I know firsthand that it was easy 35 years ago.

  3. Experience shows that this is a pipe dream. After a good effort by the founders, this country is sinking back to the top-down norm, where rulers rule and the people try to fly under the radar.

  4. Technology will certainly make it easier to be freer. The problem is getting people to use that technology.

  5. Every major piece of legislation passed during either the Bush or Obama terms have all been complex steaming piles of shite. The Medicare expansion under Bush, No Child Left Behind, TARP, the stimulus bill, Dodd-Frank, ObamaCare, and soon – immigration “reform”. Is it even possible for them to pass and get signed a simple, meaningful law? I’m sure some would say this is typical horse-trading, but each one is a bitter combination of industry or special interest give-away with ineffective crap follow-through. Possibly, because we’ve got an industrial-age blue social model in the 21st century – they simply cannot act effectively? One can hope.

  6. A good book on the same theme: The End is Near and It’s Going to be Awesome – How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, by Kevin Williamson.

  7. Charter schools – because why shouldn’t the taxpayers pick up the check for your kids to go to an all-white school?

    1. What exactly are you saying here? That charters exist to so that whites can segregate by attending charters? That would be complete bullshit. Most charters serve urban black and Hispanic kids, not whites. And, the districts with the most charters have usually been majority black/Hispanic for years.

  8. marriage equality? for equal access to socialist state benefits?…lol..Reason gets funnier and funnier as time goes on and sadly more pathethic

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  10. As Andy Dufresne said: “Hope is a good thing, perhaps the best of things.”

  11. This one is a close-call. It’s true that movements and groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks are challenging the control and power of some at the top, but it’s also true that it’s virtually impossible to dislodge incumbent politicians. Corporate executives make more money than ever compared with their subordinates, so I’m not sure their power is diminishing. Marijuana is finally becoming legal despite objections of the political establishment – but at a glacial pace (2 of 50 states). Everyone has access to vast information via the Internet now, but you can also be charged with making a terrorist threat if you make an inappropriate joke in an online video game. And so on. It’s a mixed picture at the moment. I’m not sure who’s winning.

  12. I haven’t read his book but I am hopeful that power is becoming more diffuse. I believe that there is an aggitated little fat man standing behind the government curtain and the devil himself standing behind him. That being said, power will be abused whether it is in the hands of the people at large or a specific few. In a “democracy” the tendency is to (1) raid the treasury or legally steal from your neighbor, and (2) create a complex and unmanagable state that does not foster trust or fairness. This could and probably will cause a collapse of the monetary system which could cause incredible chaos. In times of chaos, people revert to a more primitive state and they seek and surrender to guidence from the ambitious few.

    If we do ever reach a state of grace, it will be in fits and starts, some of them horrendous in their scope.

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