miércoles, 21 de agosto de 2013

Reading Moises Naim's "The End of Power"

Readers 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 magnificent new book by Moises Naim: “The End of Power”, Basic Books, New York, 2013.

 This book is an intellectual tour de force.  Naim takes the reader in a journey through the immense landscape of power: how it decays, how it works, how 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 which did not even exist a few years or decades ago.

This is not beach summer 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.

 Naim’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. Naim 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.

 Naim has written a textbook on Power. Given his background in academics there is little doubt that this  was one of his main objectives. It will surely become required reading in the class rooms of colleges and universities where sociology and political science are taught, next to the work of Harvard’s elite: Karl Deutsch, Joseph Nye and the master, Samuel Huntington (Naim, by the way, graduated from MIT).   

One concept which is established early concerns the appearance of new actors. Naim 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 of risks since it might lead to chaos and anarchy.

A particularly valuable component of the book is the description of how power works. Naim 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 manners 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 Naim’s book was language, how societies can impose its 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.  

Naim 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 Naim finds multiple variations on the central theme. Power shifts because 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 the U.S. human loss produced by 9/11 was 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 Naim warns us to “get off the elevator”, that obsession with which country is going up and which down. The 21st century, says Naim, 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. Naim 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 industrial nations.
But the fact that power now has multiple dwellings, as documented by Naim, does not necessarily suggest that 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 close system inevitably evolves towards final thermodynamic equilibrium. Is not this or something very similar to this what is 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 Moises Naim next to a few volumes which have accompanied me for many years: Tolkien, Vance, Mann, Fromm, Huntington, Dumas.