Cover image of "The End of Power," a book about power today

Mark Zuckerberg hit it out of the park with this one, the first selection in his attempt to channel Oprah Winfrey with his own “book club.” The End of Power is a  remarkably insightful inquiry into the limits of power in today’s wired world, when a tiny group of fanatics can upend national policy half a world away. As Naim writes, referring not just to global leadership but to corporate executive suites, established churches, and the military, “the powerful are experiencing increasingly greater limits on their power. . . In the twenty-first century, power is easier to get, harder to use — and easier to lose.”

We often speak of the complexity of the modern world, but we tend to lose sight of just how complex it is. Consider this: in 1941, when I was born, world population stood at roughly 2.3 billion, whereas today we humans number 7.2 billion. Then, there was a total of 61 sovereign states on the planet. Today, there are 193 members of the United Nations, more than three times as many. But the number of players on the world stage today is far greater than that, including a plethora of global and regional organizations and what the media has come to call “non-state players” such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, all of which have come into being in the last seventy years. The upshot is that a US State Department list of treaties currently in force runs to almost five hundred pages!

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be by Moises Naim ★★★★★

Add to these facts the speed and breadth of reach of information technologies and “profound shifts in expectations, values, and social norms,” and the case seems made. “But the more fundamental explanation as to why barriers to power have become more feeble,” Naim writes, “has to do with the transformation in such diverse factors as rapid economic growth in many poor countries, migratory patterns, medicine and healthcare, education, and even attitudes and cultural mores.” In the midst of all this complexity, how could anyone hope to be the master of all he surveys?

Naim analyzes the means by which power is expressed, referring to them as Muscle (coercion), Code (obligation), Pitch (persuasion), and Reward (inducement). He posits three overarching phenomena that give rise to weakening the barriers to power: the More revolution (there’s more of everything now), the Mobility revolution (we and our money, not just communications, move around a lot faster now), and the Mentality revolution (“taking nothing for granted anymore”). 

Terms that ring true

Like any typology, Naim’s are debatable — other thinkers may carve up reality along different lines — but they ring true to my ear. After all, to note what he calls “a cascading diffusion of power,” we have only to look at the gridlock that has overtaken the political process in many nations (not just the US) and the shocking ability of micropowers — those “non-state actors” — to change the course of world history. Even “a core axiom of war has been stood on its head. Once upon a time, superior firepower ultimately prevailed. Now that is no longer true.” There are parallel developments in nearly every realm of human endeavor. For example, “the advantage long considered to be built into corporate scale, scope, and hierarchy has been blunted, or even transformed into a handicap.”

These are not superficial changes or limited to one region of the globe. “[S]ince 2004,” Naim writes, “three-quarters of the world’s economies have made it easier to start a business.” Rising competition, indeed!

Naim sees these developments as fraught with risk. He writes of five significant ones: Disorder (obviously), De-Skilling and Loss of Knowledge (witness Fox News), the Banalization of Social Movements (through social media, “sound bites,” and oversimplified pitches by politicians and NGOs), Boosting Impatience and Shortening Attention Spans (just look around), and Alienation (obviously).

The End of Power is endlessly thought-provoking — a worthy addition to our understanding of the way the world works today.

Moises Naim has an extraordinary resume. Born in Libya, educated at MIT, a former Venezuelan Minister of Trade and Industry and former Executive Director of the World Bank, he was the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine from 1996 to 2010. The End of Power is only the latest of the more than ten books he has written or edited.

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