eaders of John Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Jack Vance’s Durdane trilogy, or filmgoers who have seen The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars or The Guns of Navarone can readily understand how small groups of creative and dedicated individuals can overcome massive, organized forces. Those books and films deal with the concept of the asymmetry of power, one of the main themes of the new book by Moisés Naím: The End of Power: From Board Rooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be.
This book is an intellectual tour de force. Naím takes the reader on a journey through the immense landscape of power; how it decays, how it works, how it is gained or lost, the ways it is exercised and why it is shifting from traditional enclaves into the hands of new actors, many of whom did not even exist a few years or decades ago.
This is not summer beach reading. For simpler sources of intellectual enjoyment, the reader is referred to Ann Patchett, writing about an adventure set in the Amazon or Snowman, the latest by Scandinavian mystery writer Jo Nesbo or Smokin’ Seventeen, by Janet Evanovich.
Naím’s book is serious stuff, calling for dedicated concentration from the reader since almost every paragraph offers a rich source for reflection and/or presents data which documents the topic at hand. Naím spent about seven years writing it and readers will need some time to properly digest its extraordinary conceptual and informative content.
At the end, the reader will realize that this is not a book to be read and put aside but one to be kept as continuous reference.
Naím has written a textbook on Power. Given his background in academia there is little doubt that this was one of his main objectives. The End of Power will surely become required reading in college and university class rooms where sociology and political science are taught, next to the works of Harvard’s elites, including Karl Deutsch, Joseph Nye and the master, Samuel Huntington. (Naím, by the way, graduated from MIT.)
One concept which is established early concerns the appearance of new actors. Naím tells us that companies from the third world are taking over some of the largest companies in the world, ownership of steel factories shifting to India or beer breweries to Brazil. He illustrates how religious power is also shifting, with Pentecostal churches now including 49 percent of Brazil’s population, a gain made at the expense of the Catholic Church. Power is on the move in every aspect of human life: politics, business, religion, a phenomenon not exempt from risks, since it might lead to chaos and anarchy.
A particularly valuable component of the book is the description of how power works. Naím includes a systematic classification of the paths to power, defined as muscle, code, message and reward. This basic classification serves as a spring board to discuss how power can decay or shift. The three methods in which this can take place are explained as: 1) the More; 2) the Mobility; and, 3) the Mentality revolutions. As actors multiply, as the populations grow and become more mobile across borders, control inevitably diminishes and power decays. As the expectations of the people expand faster than the capacity of any government to satisfy them (Samuel Huntington’s original insight), political and social turmoil leads to the decay of power.
One agent of power shifts I did not see in Naím’s book was language, how societies can impose their culture on others through the offering of a more practical language, allowing for better communication. This was the case of languages based on the alphabet, which relegated cuneiform scripts and hieroglyphics to the past, as well as the more recent case of English as a technical lingua franca.
Naím explains how power has been dispersed throughout the conversion of empires into states, leading to a proliferation of smaller countries with equal voting power to those of bigger, powerful countries. He describes how centers of power shift from capitals to provinces and how national political parties fragment into regional groups, with power becoming ever more diffuse. Military power is no longer all-powerful since it now has to conform to politically correct actions. For example, a dictator like Augusto Pinochet can be brought to justice by means of international legal action.
As the book progresses, Naím finds multiple variations on the central theme. Power shifts due to hyper-competition, to the empowering of individuals or the decay of large armies. The author supplies comparisons related to the asymmetry of power that are dramatic. For example, not only was the U.S. human loss produced by the attacks on 9/11 enormous but the financial damages amounted to some $3.3 trillion, while the cost to Al Qaeda was about half a million dollars. Traditionally, conventional wars were always won by the most powerful. Today this is not necessarily the case. In Chechnya 80,000 well armed Russian soldiers could not defeat 22,000 independence fighters.
Big power is crumbling down, in the U.S., in Europe, in Russia. As the Chinese revel in triumphalism, India already challenges its power. In a wonderful insight Naím warns us to “get off the elevator,” that obsession of which country is going up and which down. The 21st century, says Naím, will be no one’s world; the world will be interdependent and will lack a center of gravity.
What is true of geopolitics is even truer in the corporate world. Naím describes the way the petroleum seven sisters have been replaced by a global industry of a very fragmented nature and how hedge funds have successfully challenged big banks. This chapter on Corporations is full of surprising information. For example, 20 years ago a big corporation had a 20 percent chance of experiencing a “corporate disaster.” Today, the probability of such an event is 82 percent (Exxon Valdez, Toyota recalls, BP disaster, come to mind). Equally fascinating is how brand has become a much more valuable component of the value of a company than its physical and monetary assets and how the south is coming north; this is how the third world is taking over what previously were exclusive territories of the industrialized nations.
But the fact that power now has multiple dwellings, as documented by Naím, does not necessarily suggest that it is disappearing. In more ways than one, societies seem to mimic the physical world. The first law of thermodynamics says that Energy is invariably conserved, although it can change its nature and shift from work to heat and vice versa. In the same manner, the second law of thermodynamics says that a closed system inevitably evolves towards final thermodynamic equilibrium. Is not this or something very similar to this happening to power? There is shifting, yes, but the “amount” of power seems inalterable. There is also entropy, decay, but the end, like the end of the universe, still is nowhere to be seen.
As I finish reading, I place this work by Moisés Naím next to a few volumes, which have accompanied me for many years: Tolkien, Vance, Mann, Fromm, Huntington, Dumas.
Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.