“From boardrooms to battlefields and churches, to states, why being in charge isn’t what it used to be.”

The theme of this 2013 book by Moisés Naím is that power is weakening because the barriers to power have weakened by the:

  • more revolution” – more people, better standards of living, more literacy and education;
  • mobility revolution” which has sent people, money, ideas etc across the planet; and the
  • mentality revolution” of changes in mindset, aspirations and expectations.

Naím presents an inverted “U graph” (reproduced below), with the Y axis showing political and social stability and economic vitality, and the X axis being the diffuseness or decay of power. The left side of the X axis represents where power is highly concentrated – representing tyranny, the right side where power is almost all dispersed – representing anarchy.

Decay of power

In politics there has been a decay of power because of the drivers of more, mobility, mentality: e.g.

  • More information flow, so more scrutiny
  • More alternatives
  • More micro-powers aggressively pushing ideas and positions.

In many parts of the world where tyranny has prevailed Naím identifies the value arising from a decay in power.

However in well established democracies he identifies the decay as perhaps having gone too far. Naím looks at checks and balances in our democracies (ie upper house vs lower house, senate vs legislature) that were originally created to prevent abuse. He argues that in the leading democracies around the world the decay of centralised power and rise of micro-power means that governments are in many cases stymied because they no longer have majority power. The influence of micro-powers, whether that of the minor parties or of factions within the minor parties, to be able to say no, has created what he describes the “vetocracy”

As a result many if not all major initiative from any of the main political parties or leaders stall. He argues that one of the reasons we aren’t that effective at solving big problems (such as climate change) is because leaders haven’t had the power to act, whether in their own country, or had the mandate to be able to effectively influence and collaborate with other countries.

In other words the decay of power means many well established democracies have moved too far to the right side of the inverted U curve. One of Naím’s proposed solutions is a suggestion that we need political systems which are premised more on trust and which have reduced checks and balances.

To me it appears that to get to this point  of more trust we need a better understanding and appreciation of what it is to be trustworthy, and more value placed on trustworthy behaviour. Perhaps trust is paradoxically both enhanced and depleted by the three revolutions – more, mobility and mentality – that Naím has identified. Trust is enhanced because mobility and more are lifting the shrouds – make a gaffe or worse  – and it can be hard to hide if you are under scrutiny – you are more likely to be found out if you act in a (grossly) untrustworthy way. But trust has reduced also because in an effort to break through the information and messaging overload – created by the more revolution – more of us distort the truth – reverting to exaggeration and hyperbole, presenting the unimportant as important. The production of “spin” is fuel and revenue for our media. Witness the growing tendency for click-bait type online articles even from those old media companies which previously had been held in high esteem, for interest groups to exaggerate their case, for politicians to spin their cause. Listen to a radio or television interview from a reputable source – such as a national broadcaster – of a government minister and very rarely will the interviewer call out the minister for exaggeration, omission, or hyperbole. On the other hand the government minister – or many of us in our workplaces – don’t see anything wrong with exaggeration, omission or hype. The result, as Stephen M. R. Covey  pointed out in “The Speed of Trust” is cynicism… and a distrust of power.

The End of Power is a well researched book with valuable insights, for me it was an eye opener as to what may be contributing to the dis-function of democracies in dealing with big challenges such as climate change.

Notes on “The End of Power” by Moisés Naím, and how this might change how you think about the response to big problems such as climate change

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