The End of Power
By Moisés Naím
From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to be..
By Moisés Naím
Perseus Books, 2013
Hardback $35, kindle $9, audio $ 35 ( + tax, & shipping)
Amazon 2015 Editors Pick
This is a book for millennials. It is an extensive and possibly seminal work, not a quick or easy read. There are eleven chapters, each consisting of about ten sections. I found it almost impossible to summarize, so will start with some observations that may put it in context:
We live in a time of world wide societal upheaval, arguably brought about by critical developments in technology. Similar radical change has occurred in the past, as when:
- mobile hunter-gathering was replaced by place-bound agriculture, leading ultimately to cities, tribal warring religions, art, architecture, scientific discovery, and monarchic faith backed nation-states;
- The printing press made information or knowledge, formerly tediously recorded in manuscripts and available only to the monastic and wealthy few, available to the many; this lead to many decades of bloody revolution- the Thirty Year War- culminating in the overthrow of monarchic religious states, and the birth of political and individual religious freedom.
- A perfect storm of scientific developments like the chronograph, compass, telescope, and gunpowder, led to the ‘age of discovery’, brutal conquest, and colonial domination.
- A philosophic and political Enlightenment led to the overthrow of colonial power, continuing until after WWII, and including that imposed on the British Colonies in North America.
Today, here we go again. The limitless internet and its consequences make accepted barriers obsolete; old lines are breached: national borders, commercial, religious and political fiefdoms are violated. The powerful -nations, presidents, governments, CEOs, large multinationals, all seem weak and ineffective, causing public disillusionment, and anger. Nowhere is the old order respected, or trusted.
What are we, Millennials who live at the beginning of this century, to do? It appears the most interesting reaction of millennial young people is to try to adapt continuously, like children of miners, diplomats, or warriors who live in alternating realities, and move over and over to into a new town, country, language, and culture.
to adapt to new people, groups, languages, cultures,
to be astute and adept at knowing and learning about the Other,
to embrace, value, and respect one another above Self
to consider the earth, and even the universe, as home
to be family to every age, race sex or condition.
They find that:
personal liberty requires constant shedding the old and taking on the new;
nations and peoples have their own beauty, and truth, but all are transient;
each person has the right to accept, or to ignore, any religious belief or unbelief
that ‘scientific certainty’ can be useful, but is as always, suspect and transient
that doubt is the primal force of both science and religion
every age, race, sex, or condition can be both confining and liberating
Author Moisés Naím finds that those who hold power try to retain it by erecting barriers to keep challengers at bay; but now multiform insurgent forces from every remote area of the earth dismantle those barriers quickly. He calls dispersed collective power micropower. Example: personal diverse acts of both terror and commercial or scientific innovation collectively challenge civilizations.
Micropower defeats megapower in warfare because of plentiful and diverse microweapons, and the rejection of more chivalrous “rules of war” (Isis, Jihad). Yet power, once grasped, fades fast; the new power quickly becomes vulnerable and loses that edge. Maybe the process could be thought of as constructive or creative destruction.
Naím catalogs the general changes as three revolutions:
1) More: people have more and more means to overwhelm or evade control.
2) Mobility: people are not controlled by governments, borders, distance.
3) Mentality: even the most remote people are now aware of possibilities, options, needs, desires, rights.
He notes that in chaos we tend to listen to “Terrible Simplifiers”: people who offer vague, bombastic simple solutions to complex problems. He summarizes the decay of national politics (parentheses mine):
Empires to States.
Despots to Democrats.
Majorities to minorities (as the U.S.)
Parties to factions.
Capitals to regions (Pinks, Blues, rural, ranch, city )
Governments to lawyers (unjust courts, straitjacket laws/regs) Leaders to laymen (NGOs, Buffet-Slim- Gates-Bono).
Hedge funds to “hactivists” (Assange, Snowden, etc).
Chaos results; maybe the process could be thought of as constructive destruction.
Naím ends with suggestions to reorder the national chaos. This is the most disappointing part of the book for me, because I’d prefer a quick fix; of course. Yet that is, de facto, unlikely. The author’s suggestions are rational, but require great and gradual, likely painful, public re-orientation, and a conscious and conscientious media: No quick fix there either. He suggests:
- Forget about who is first or what country is up or down, who we like or fear.
- Reject the Terrible Simplifiers. (You know them!)
- Restore the power of our institutions (Well,Yeah but…)
- Bring back Trust ( Ditto)
- Strengthen political parties (?!)
- Increase political participation ( but maybe non voters are careless quiet patriots!)
Wow! This book is well worth some time, for at least one rational evaluation of what the next few decades could be about.*
* In 1952 Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein wrote a postscript to his series voluminous writing titled Stories Never Written; they were too dark. Reading those comments 62 years later is sobering considering our in world chaos today.
Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile
It is Monday, segunda feira; I want to stay on in the same hotel, so ask to extend. But I’m told the room rate now is 45 % higher; the clerk explains that when the hotel is full that happens. And even though I have been here now for a week they cannot allow me a three hour late check out when I leave three days later; not without another hefty charge. The people are very pleasant, and proper, but the rules are set somewhere in non-personal space; since I don’t want to move, or devote my time to arguing, I accept this abuse as inherent in a non-consumer sensitive society.
Food dystopia is rather new here.The food that Brazilians eat now is more likely than before to be fast, sweet, starchy and fat; but it hasn’t affected most bodies yet as they are active per force, and walk a lot. The old gastronomy requires the work of many to grow, deliver, and prepare fresh tasty food. Perhaps people, partly as a result of changing economics, will learn to eat cheaply and also well everywhere; I hope so. It is evening. I suppose I will go out again into the noise and crush of bodies, to someplace where I can enjoy being lost; and eat a nice lunch.
I spent yesterday with two of Sandi’s friends who are typical millennials. He was at San Francisco University, studied biology, later graduated in Brazil.Then decided he prefers graphic arts, so studied that, and is working for an ad agency. She became a lawyer and practiced in São Paulo, but now wants to become a chef; does pastry in a local bakery and will go to Italy for a 6 month course at a well known school. They live in Liberador, a section of São Paulo that is an Asia town. They plan to get married next year and travel to the United States hoping to visit New York then drive to New Orléans and on to San Francisco. They enjoy Country Western so I suggested they stop in Nashville… They will certainly visit Sandi and I hope they will visit us so I can take them to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.
They do not feel a need to marry; they hope to live with few limits, and very limited restrictions of profession or vocation. Ironically, that freedom requires limiting a subset of needs or wants to the basics, the essentials: They like to do things but don’t seem to care much about having or acquiring things, even though they appreciate them. Their interests are transnational and supranational. They prefer to buy dreams rather than acquisitions. I like that; maybe it is, curiously, almost old-fashioned conservatism, or what a century ago was called liberal.
I was born into a time when life and well-being were what one ate, and how one behaved; the Good Life was created by Family, maintained by individual right and healthy behavior. It still can be; but we seem to believe it is equally well created and maintained by the state, by industry, and in accord with government given rights. Take the significance of food for example: In Brazil people spend a lot of time eating. Food dystopia is still new here.The food that Brazilians eat now is more fast, sweet, starchy and fat, than it used to be; but it hasn’t affected most bodies here yet as they are active per force, and walk a lot. The old gastronomy requires the work of many to grow, deliver, and prepare fresh tasty food. Perhaps people, partly as a result of changing economics, will learn to eat cheaply and also well; I hope so. It is evening. I suppose I will go out again into the noise and crush of bodies, and places where I can enjoy being lost; and eat again.
I have spent the last 15 years reading– mainly dead people’s words– feeling that anything that lasts so long is worth my ever diminishing time. That was reading I didn’t do enough of in med school or as a real working doc. It has been very rewarding to listen to the dead. But I now find the world in the midst of another techno-cultural quake, as significant as the invention and development of speech, language, agriculture, writing, or printing. ‘The End of Power’ is a recent book by Moisés Naím that addresses this change. Clearly there is something happening today in the world that is significant even if it’s only a few years old. I believe the millenial young reflect that fact.
We went to the museu do futebol– the soccer museum. Brazil is, at least nominally, samba, song, and futbol. The museum is much more than a huge monument to maleness, or the sport. It is a cultural resume of history and peoples– because Brazil is a melting pot as is the USA. see http://museudofutebol.org.br/
Brazil has won the world football cup five times. They failed in 2014, such a national disaster that it is not yet included in the displays devoted to each world cup. I doubt it will be there before the next world cup in or three years!
Feb 21, 2015: São Paulo is a huge and labyrinthine metropolis. I travel by metro ( Santiago metro to the fourth power), bus and taxi when necessary. I am often lost. When going with Sandi’s friends from place it is a pleasant surprise that both these paulistanos also must ask directions. They. like I, often get directions from other lost souls, only partly or relatively right, or simply wrong! Ha Ha Ha! Or maybe Ra Ra Ra. Which is, practically, Frog Frog Frog.
There is always the question of safety with respect to foreign travel, In the USA our media is salted with reports of assault, theft, extortion etc. Yet at home we know where and how those things are most likely to happen. On the other hand in a foreign environment that is not so clear. However, I have found the rest of the world little different from my own country in that regard. One can easily be aware of what and where to avoid.
My trip from the airport to downtown São Paulo is an example of what to do and not to do. I live in the mind of a child of the great depression of the thirties: Waste not want not. So after asking at the airport, instead of a cab or transfer van I took a bus directly to the upscale Paulista Section of the city. During the half hour drive the bus attendant asked each passenger what stop they wanted. When asked about hotels, he explained that they are overly expensive near my stop, the last. He suggested a cab to a different nearby sector.
A well dressed woman overheard, and commented: ” Why go someplace else when you are at a good spot already?” Again my retarded inner child from the thirties spoke up in my mind; the attendant seemed credible and attentive; so I followed his advice. He hailed a cab and scribbled a name and address on a card.(Ooops! I noticed he took a commission! My second mistake was to ignore that.) The driver had trouble finding the hotel; when he did, we were in one of the most filthy, run down and fearsome drug toxic inner area of any city I had ever been in before.
When I make that sort of stupid mistake I try to react immediately. Without getting out, or paying the fare, I told the embarrassed driver I’d give him an extra half fare to take me immediately back to where we started; this time, directly. I think we were both pleased to get there; he with his undeserved fares and me with my immediate future.