- Power Failure?
Power is an integral part of human experience. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan famously describes as "a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death." And here is a pithy definition of power given to us by political scientist Robert Dahl: "A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do." Indeed, whether by authority, influence, persuasion, or outright coercion, governments, militaries, corporations, churches, and NGOs—not to mention each and every one of us as individuals—are all somehow involved in the exercise of power.
In The End of Power, columnist, former Foreign Policy editor, and onetime Venezuelan trade minister Moisés Naím argues that the gaining and wielding of power are becoming increasingly complex and elusive. Power, he says, is diffusing and decaying. In a nutshell, his thesis is that power is more readily available than ever before: "Micro players" are increasingly in a position to challenge—or at least constrain—"mega players." Moreover, even after power is gained, it is becoming harder to use and to preserve.
Naím starts with chess. It turns out that there are now far more grandmasters—a title first officially awarded by the World Chess Federation in 1950—than ever before, about 1,200 today compared to 88 in 1972. [End Page 166] What is more, today's grandmasters hail from far more diverse backgrounds, include more young people among their ranks, and once on top suffer defeat with ever greater frequency. The digital revolution has been a big driver of this, observes Naím. The Internet opens up opportunities and offers resources (computer games, chess websites) that were simply unimaginable just a few years ago.
But more than new computer technology has been involved. Globalization—and with it affordable travel, poverty amelioration, and the spread of education and literacy—means that the pool of potential grandmasters has been growing rapidly.
Naím is right. The last half-century has brought unprecedented prosperity, as Princeton University economist Angus Deaton shows in The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality (2013). "Since 1960," he informs us, "nearly all countries have become richer and their residents longer lived."
This is a stunning fact, and it is central to Naím's thesis. In The End of Power, he advances the basic idea that size no longer carries the sway that it once did. In military affairs, his message is "great powers beware," for asymmetrical warfare is changing the nature of armed conflict in ways that do not favor large military forces. In business, big, vertically integrated companies are facing a competitive environment that is fiercer and more fluid than ever. Newcomers abound, and come from such unlikely places as Estonia (Skype) and India (Mittal Steel). As a result, the days when amassing power was mainly a matter of getting big (think Red Army, General Motors, IBM, or Catholic Church big) are past.
And if you are "Mister Big," Naím adds, your days at the top are numbered. Being a corporate CEO, for instance, is not what it used to be. Turnover among chief executive officers in the United States was higher in the 1990s than in the two previous decades, and the rate at which these business moguls are finding themselves replaced has kept on rising through the early twenty-first century, not only in the United States but around the world. Even at very high income levels, there is unprecedented volatility. Billionaires, like chess grandmasters, now number more than 1,200 worldwide—a figure that has soared relative to the recent past. And the member of this exclusive club who gained the most wealth between 2007 and 2008, Indian industrialist Anil Ambani, was also the leading loser of wealth in 2009.
How do we sort through these dizzying changes? Naím points to three ongoing "revolutions" in...